In the bottom of the seventh inning in Wednesday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the score was tied 1-1. There was one out, Alex Rios was on first base, Omar Infante was on third, and Jarrod Dyson was at the plate. The situation was right for a squeeze play and here’s why:
First, you have to have a runner on third and the Royals had one. Then the squeeze is usually done with one out; you can’t do it with two because the defense will just pick up the bunt and get the third out at first base and most of the time you don’t do it with nobody out because you have three shots at getting the run in by swinging the bat.
Another factor is the pitcher: if you’re slapping him all over the yard, why play for one? If he’s dealing — and the Pirates Charlie Morton had only given up one run after 6 1/3 third innings — you might be happy to get a single run. And the run needs to matter: if you’re down by six you don’t play for one. It’s nice to have some speed on third and the guy at the plate needs to be someone who can get down a bunt.
OK, so you look at everything going on and say the time is right for a squeeze play — but which squeeze play?
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The suicide squeeze is an all-or-nothing tactic — that’s why the word suicide is in there. The runner breaks for home as soon as the pitcher’s front foot comes down. Break for home earlier than that and the pitcher will have a chance to adjust and pitch out if there’s a lefty at the plate or throw at the batter’s head if he’s a righty. A right-handed batter with a ball zooming toward his melon will hit the deck; the catcher will receive the pitch and have an easy tag of the runner coming home.
And that’s not the only thing that can go wrong on a suicide: the batter can pop up and that’s a double play, the batter can miss the pitch and that’s an easy out on the runner — a blown suicide squeeze looks awful.
Now let’s look at the safety squeeze.
In this play, there’s a lot more pressure on the players; if you run a suicide and the batter gets the bunt down anywhere on the field, the runner is probably going to be safe. If you run a safety squeeze the batter has to get the ball down on the first base side of the pitcher’s mound. The bunt has to draw the pitcher away from the third base line because that’s where the runner will be. The runner waits to break for home until he sees the pitcher’s numbers; that tells him the pitcher is going toward first base and away from the third base line.
After watching five years of Ned Yost managing, I can tell you he prefers the safety squeeze. I don’t know exactly why Ned prefers the safety squeeze, but I can tell you it’s a play that covers a manager’s butt.
Call a suicide that backfires and the manager catches hell for doing something so dumb — even if it wasn’t. Call a safety squeeze that backfires and the manager can fault player execution; the runner broke at the wrong time or the bunt wasn’t good enough. And that’s probably why the word “safety” is part of the name.
Green lights; another way to protect yourself
The other big offensive moment in Wednesday night game was Mike Moustakas’ three-run homer later in the same inning. Mike’s shot into the right-field bullpen came on a 3-0 pitch; Moose had the green light.
Since we’re already on the subject of managing, let’s talk about green lights and how they protect a manager from criticism.
If I tell you to steal on the next pitch and you’re thrown out, it’s on me: I picked a bad pitch for you to run on. But if I tell you that you’ve got a green light and you can run whenever you feel like it and then you get thrown out, it’s on you: you picked a bad pitch to run on. And some players with a green light won’t run for just that reason: they don’t want the blame if they get thrown out.
Giving players green lights to steal, bunt, hit and run or swing at 3-0 pitches protects a manager; he has someone to blame if things go wrong. If Moose had popped that pitch up, you could say he swung at a bad pitch.
Fortunately the safety squeeze and the 3-0 green light worked and the Royals beat the Pirates and nobody had to blame anybody; there was plenty of credit to go around. Even so, it can be enlightening for baseball fans to think about why certain plays were used.
And it makes the game a lot more interesting.
Another way to look at it
So certain plays protect a manager from criticism, but only because we usually fail to ask the next logical question: if a player is making bad decisions on when to bunt or steal or swing at 3-0 pitches, why does he have the green light?
Take this next bit with a grain of salt because I’ve known Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle for 25 years and we’re good friends; there’s no doubt I’m prejudiced in his favor. Even so, his attitude about taking responsibility is revealing and here it is:
Before one of the games against the Royals he talked about playing a team he hadn’t seen much; Clint has a pretty good idea of what a divisional opponent does, he sees them all the time.
But going into this series against the Royals he said he’d rely heavily on the work done by his advance scouts. I asked if once the games started he had to adjust on the fly and Clint gave an interesting reason for sticking with the scouting report.
He held up a binder full of information about the Royals and said a scout watches 20 games and makes recommendations; how would that scout feel if Clint watched three innings and threw the binder away?
That would be telling the scout his work was useless and Clint didn’t respect it. But if Clint uses the scout’s information and it works, the scout feels empowered; he just helped his team win and the scout will continue to bust his rear end because he knows his information matters.
If Clint doesn’t follow the scouting reports the scout’s not going to work as hard the next time he advance scouts a team; if Hurdle doesn’t use his information, why should he?
Knowing how managers sometimes cover their rear ends, I asked Clint if following the scouting reports also gave him a scapegoat: blame the information if it doesn’t work. Clint gave the right answer and it’s one we should all remember:
No, you don’t get to blame the scout; the manager is responsible for every decision. If a manager chooses to follow the information a scout provides, that’s the manager’s decision and he needs to stand behind it.
So next time you see a safety squeeze or a 3-0 green light, remember: whatever the outcome — good or bad — it was still a manager’s decision that led to the results. And if that’s the way we’re going to look at it, give him credit; Wednesday night Ned Yost’s decisions led to a 5-1 victory.