Judging the Royals

Cheslor Cuthbert and the contact play

Kansas City Royals third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert was tagged out at home in Sunday’s game.
Kansas City Royals third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert was tagged out at home in Sunday’s game. The Associated Press

If you watched Sunday’s Royals game and saw Cheslor Cuthbert cut down at the plate in the seventh inning, you also heard the term “contact play” several times. Since I can’t write about a Royals win (they lost 5-4 to the Indians) I figured I’d explain what the heck a contact play is and how it’s supposed to be run.

Here’s the short version: with a runner on third base and the contact play on, that runner breaks for home when and if the hitter makes contact. (And if you thought: “Gee, that seems pretty simple” brace yourself — we’re just getting started.)

Let’s go back and set the scene; going into the seventh inning the Royals were down by two runs. Salvador Perez led off with a double and Cuthbert singled, but it was an infield single so Perez couldn’t advance. With runners on first and second base, Christian Colon doubled, Perez scored and since there was nobody out, Cuthbert stopped at third base.

With nobody out you get very cautious about sending a runner home; after all, you have three chances to score the runner from third base and the first two guys don’t even need to get a hit to make that happen.

So far, so good.

There can always be extenuating circumstances that would change what I’m about to write, but this thing is going to be long enough without factoring those in, so … most of the time you put the contact play on with one down or with nobody out if the double play is in order.

Now here’s the thought process.

With one down you’re running out of chances to get the run home ,so you gamble a bit; the runner is going to break for home on contact.

If the double play is in order, you run the contact play even if there’s nobody out. Why stand at third base and watch the defense turn two? Make them choose between getting two outs or preventing a run from scoring. If they prevent the run from scoring you still have a runner at second base with one down.

OK, that’s why, here’s how:

The runner on third looks for “down angle” off the bat; if it’s a line drive or “up angle” the runner starts back to third base. He doesn’t want to get doubled up on a caught line drive and if the ball gets through the infield, the runner will score anyway. If it’s a fly ball, the runner wants to tag up.

If the runner sees the ball come down off the bat he breaks for home and hopes the ball is not hit back to the pitcher’s mound. If it is, the runner’s going to be out and you lost the gamble.

The runner’s primary lead is the one he takes before the pitcher throws the ball and he can get about as far off third base as the third baseman is; if the third baseman is way off the bag, the runner is way off the bag.

As the pitcher delivers the ball to home plate the runner takes a few shuffle steps toward the next base and that’s known as the secondary lead. If the runner plans to go on contact, that secondary lead needs to be very aggressive.

Now let’s get specific.

When you watch a game on TV all you can see is what they choose to show you, but here’s what appeared to go wrong:

The Indians were playing their middle infielders back, so third base coach Mike Jirschele told Cuthbert to break for home on a ground ball up the middle. The Indians’ third baseman (Juan Uribe) appeared to be in on the grass in case the hitter (Jarrod Dyson) tried to bunt. It also appeared that Cuthbert didn’t have as good a primary lead as he could have taken and his secondary lead didn’t appear to be all that aggressive.

Then to compound his problems, Cuthbert didn’t break on contact; he waited to see the ball get past the mound before breaking home and that’s what gave Francisco Lindor, the Indians shortstop, time to throw Cuthbert out at the plate.

Now if you hung in there during this somewhat tedious explanation, thank you. There’s a point to all this and though I’ve taken my own sweet time getting to it, here it is:

There are no small things in baseball.

I just took 720 words to explain one play from a game that lasted two hours and 57 minutes. It wasn’t the only play that mattered, but we can learn something by breaking it down.

Attention to detail is important; the Royals lost on Sunday in part because a runner did not take an aggressive primary or secondary lead and broke for home at the wrong time. The Royals coaches will get this cleaned up, but if they miss the playoffs by one game the Royals will be kicking themselves about all the little things that weren’t done correctly during the 162-game regular season.

Like I said, there are no small things in baseball and if we pay attention we can appreciate that.