What does "the play is to" 1st, 2nd, or 3rd base mean in baseball?

Force play 2

Dear Sports Fan,

What does it mean for “the play to be to” first, second, or third base in baseball?

Thanks,
Lora


Dear Lora,

One of the most important rules in baseball is the force play. I wrote a post explaining how it works a few days ago which would be a good post to read before this one. To summarize, a force play is when the defending team can get a runner out by the touching the base he is running to (usually with a foot) while holding the ball (usually in a hand). This ability is predicated on a rule that states that no two players may occupy a base at the same time. Whenever the batter hits the ball, she must run to first base. This forces anyone on first to run to second, which pushes a player on second to third, and so on. When someone says “the play is to” first, second, or third base, or even home plate, they are identifying the most forward force play available to be made. To run us through each of the most common force plays, I asked my friend Al Murray to help explain.

The play is to first base

Assume that there are no base runners. As always, the batter must try to reach first base. A ball hit in the infield or short outfield that isn’t caught in the air (hits the ground) must be picked up “fielded” and thrown to the first baseman. The first baseman does not have to tag the runner, simply stepping on the base while demonstrating command of the ball will record the runner as out. If the runner reaches the base first, or the ball is thrown away from the first baseman (throwing error), or the first baseman (even in female sports the position makes seem to be x-baseman) drops the ball (catching error) then the runner is safe.

The play is to second base

Assume that our runner gets to first base safely. We now have a runner on first who is obligated to run to second base if the next batter hits the ball. There is some complexity here that’s worth exploring in another post but, at least if the ball is hit onto the ground, there is no choice for the runner on first. Let’s assume a ground ball. The batter becomes a runner and has to go to first base. This pushes the runner on first to run for second. All other things being equal, the defensive team would prefer to start pitching to the next batter with a runner on first than a runner on second. So, even though there are force plays at first and second, the ideal play is to throw the ball to second base.

If there is enough time, the player that just tagged second base will try to throw to first base and force that batter turned runner out there as well. If successful this is called turning a double play. The runner thrown out at second has some opportunities and a tactical goal to prevent the second part of the double play and will try to impede the throw to first, sometimes by sliding into the baseman or by obstructing the line of throw. In the modern game, there are limits as to what the thrown out runner may do, due mostly to rules created for player safety. In the “golden age” games a hard, ‘spikes-high’ slide would sometimes dissuade the thrower from attempting the double play in favor of survival. Nothing quite like the prospect of a 180 pound person sliding into you at 15-20 MPH with 1/2” spikes set to slice open your body to make you reconsider trying to turn a double play.

The play is to third base

Assume that both runners reach successfully and that both 1st and 2nd base are occupied. Now the lead runner must try for 3rd, the runner on first must go to second, and the batter has to run to first. There is a force play on first, second, or third base for the defense, since every runner is obligated to move forward, but the best scenario (aside from a double or triple play) is to get the out at third base because that’s the player who will score first if things go wrong.

The play is to home plate

When there is a runner on every base, then ever runner is obligated to move forward when the batter hits the ball. This is called having the bases loaded. When the bases are loaded, the leading runner will score by running from third to home if the defense does not stop her. So, the ideal play for the defense is to throw the ball home and get the force play there. This is not always easy — home plate is usually the farthest from wherever a fielder corrals the ball — but it’s always the best move if it can be done successfully.

What’s the pattern or general rule?

Whether the play is to first, second, or third base or home plate, the strategy is the same. The defense wants tag the base  the lead runner forced off his base by a following runner is headed to. If they’re able to catch the ball and tag the base before the runner gets there, the defense will register an out and prevent the offense from advancing around the base path.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer and Al Murray

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