What is a force play in baseball or softball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a force play in baseball or softball? I’m new to watching and it seems like force is an important concept but I’ve yet to here a good explanation. Can you help?


Dear Caroline,

The force play is one of the most integral concepts in baseball and softball. Without an understanding of it, not much in the game will make sense. Unfortunately, because most baseball broadcasts assume that all of their viewers grew up playing or watching baseball or softball, there aren’t commonly explanations of what a force play is or what its implications are. A force play is a kind of short-hand; a convenience that the defense or fielding team gets to use against the team that’s trying to score.  In some situations, instead of having to tag the opposing player with the ball to make an out, a defensive player with the ball can step on a base and immediately create an out. The reason for this convenience is predicated on a single concept – two base runners can never occupy the same base at the same time.

How do we make the leap from two players not being able to be on the same base at the same time to being able to get someone out just by stepping on a base? Let’s run through a scenario where there is no force play available to the defense. Imagine that there is a base runner on second base but not first or third. When the player that is batting hits the ball into the field, he has to run to first. The player on second can either stay on second base or run to third. He starts running and then sees that the opposing team has a chance to throw the ball to third before he can get there. If he keeps running, he’s likely to get tagged by the player with the ball before he can make it safely to third. So, he turns around and runs back to second base. If he can make it back there without being tagged, he’s safe. He has options – second or third base. Either one is a safe haven. There is no possible force out.

Now we’ll take a similar scenario but add in a force play. Imagine everything were the same except that instead of having only a runner on second base, there was also a runner on first base when the batter hit the ball. The batter still has to run to first base. But wait! There’s a runner already there. If he stays put, there will be two runners on first base — and we know that’s not allowed. So, the runner on first base has to run to second. Now our runner on second base faces the same dilemma. He has to run to third or else he and his teammate who started the play on first base will both be occupying the same base. So, he starts running to third. The fielding team makes the same play and throws the ball to the defender on third base. The guy running from second to third sees that he’s in trouble but unlike in our first scenario, he can’t turn around and run back to second base. He has teammates already on first and second base, so he can’t run backwards. He has to run forward.

In an imaginary baseball world without the force play rule, the defender standing on third base with the baseball would wait for the runner to get to him and then step forward to tag him with the ball. This would work close to 100% of the time because the runner has no options other than to run straight into the defender. In effect, the outcome of the play is set by the time the defender gets the ball on third base. The out is fait accompli. Instead of waiting for the inevitable, baseball created the force out rule. If a runner has no option but to run forward to a base, and a defender can get to that base with the ball before the runner does, it’s immediately an out.

This seemingly small convenience has widespread tactical consequences. The double-play, one of the most exciting plays in baseball, when the defense records two outs on a single hit, would be drastically less possible without the force out. The most common double play, one where there is a runner on first when the batter hits the ball and the defense is able to get the ball to second base, step on it, and then throw the ball to first base before the guy who hit the ball can get there, relies entirely on force plays or outs. If the defense had to wait for the runner on first to get to second before being able to get him out, they’d never have enough time to throw the ball to first before the batter got there.

Here are the two scenarios we described above:

Scenario 1: Home plate [•] First base [ ] Second base [•] Third base [ ]

Scenario 2: Home plate [•] First base [•] Second base [•] Third base [ ]

Can you figure out where the force plays are in these other scenarios?

Scenario 3: Home plate [•] First base [ ] Second base [ ] Third base [•]

Scenario 4: Home plate [•] First base [•] Second base [ ] Third base [•]

Scenario 5: Home plate [•] First base [•] Second base [•] Third base [•]

If you answered – first base for scenario three, third base for scenario four, and first, second, and third base and home plate for scenario five, you’re well on your way to being a baseball and softball force play expert! Here are two bonus facts you might also have picked up on. First base is always a force out. It’s not intuitive because there are no runners moving behind the batter, but nonetheless, once he hits the ball, he has to move to first base. He cannot simply stay at home plate and try again next time. The other bonus fact is a pretty advanced tactical one. In terms of force outs, it’s sometimes better defensively to have more players on base. Referring again to our first two scenarios, the defense may not have been able to get anyone out in the first one, but definitely would have been able to in the second. This goes against what seems to be the normal logic of playing defense in baseball — you want fewer people on base not more. In some situations, teams will intentionally walk a batter to get more runners on base so that they create more force play opportunities during the next at bat.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

How does stealing bases work in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan

How does stealing bases work in baseball? I know that a stolen base is when a player runs from first to second or second to third base without there being a hit but I’m not sure when base runners can steal and what situations they do it in. Can you help?


Dear Andres,

The steal is one of the most exciting plays in baseball. A player on base tries to run to the next base without the assistance of a teammate’s hit. If he gets there before the opposing team can throw the ball to the base and tag him, he’s safe. If not, he’s out. It’s got speed, deception, timing, and coordination — everything you could want in a sport. A successful stolen base can propel a team to victory. An unsuccessful one can break a team’s momentum and destroy its chance of winning. So how does a steal work?

A player on base — that means they got to first, second, or third base through hitting the ball, being hit with the ball, or being walked — can try to run to the next base basically whenever they want. The only time they are not allowed to run is if a timeout has been called. Timeouts are not as obvious in baseball as they are in other sports, probably because they are unlimited, but they usually happen when a batter steps out of the batting box and holds up his hand or when a catcher wants to speak to his pitcher or visa-versa. If you’re at a game or if you have your television volume way, way up, you might be able to hear the ump screaming, “TIME” when someone gestures for a timeout and “PLAY” when the timeout is over. In some recreational baseball or softball leagues, a timeout is called by default whenever the pitcher has the ball. Not so in a professional setting.

The fact that base runners can try to steal virtually whenever they want doesn’t explain much about when players actually attempt to steal. Professional baseball players throw so accurately and strongly that unless a runner caught them completely off-guard, stealing in the normal course of play would be a miserable and ineffective gambit. No, what makes stealing possible is a rule that forces pitchers to throw the ball to home plate once they’ve committed to the motion of throwing in that direction. A pitcher who is guilty of starting to throw to home plate and changing his or her mind in mid-pitch is guilty of what’s called a “balk” and any players already on base get a free trip to the next base. The impact of this rule is that it allows sharp eyed, speedy players on base to watch the pitcher and start running to the next base as soon as the pitcher commits to a pitching motion.

Once a player decides to steal a base, she begins sprinting to the next base. She only has a few seconds to make it there. In that time, the pitcher will pitch the ball over home plate, the catcher will grab it, rise to his feet, and throw to the player covering the base the runner is trying to get to in one motion. The whole thing – running from one base to the next as well as the pitcher and catcher combining to try to throw that player out – takes right around 3.5 seconds. In a Smithsonian Magazine piece, Brad Balukjian describes an analysis of the process that suggested the most important factor in a successful stolen base is the top speed a runner reaches in his attempt.

By far the most common base players try to steal is second base. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Singles are by far the most common hit. Therefore being on first base is more common than being on any other base. From first, the only place to go is second.
  • While there are more lefties in professional baseball than in the general population, there are still more right-handed pitchers than left-handed ones. When a righty sets up to pitch, his back is turned to first base. This gives the base runner an advantage stealing from first to second but a disadvantage going from second to third.
  • As we covered in out article explaining why there are so few triples any more, there simply isn’t that big of a difference between being on second or third. Runners on either base are expected to be able to score on a ball hit out of the infield and not on one that stays in close. Stealing third isn’t often worth the risk. The difference between being on first or second, on the other hand, is a big deal and worth a greater risk.

While the rules about how and when a player can steal a base are fairly simple the rules about when their act is deemed to be an official steal by scorekeepers is much more complex. While it may not seem important (no matter how it happened, what matters to who is going to win is that the player made it from first to second or second to third) baseball players, managers, and true fans give statistical designations like this a lot of importance. Just one example of these distinctions is that a player who makes it safely to a base because the catcher threw the ball wildly in her attempt to catch the runner stealing is credited with a steal while a player who safely gets to the next base because the opposing player who was trying to catch the ball and tag him out messed it up, he is not credited with a steal. 

Aside from stealing second from first and third from second, there are three other forms of stealing that are much more rare. A player on third base can attempt to steal home. This sounds insane, since to catch the player, the defensive team only needs to do half or one third of the stuff they normally have to do to catch a stealing attempt. Instead of the pitcher throwing it to the catcher who throws it to a player covering second or third base, the pitcher just needs to get the ball to the catcher who can stand there and tag the runner out. Only the fastest and most audacious players ever dream of attempting this. Jackie Robinson did it successfully in the 1955 World Series. A double steal is a play where two runners on different bases both try to steal the base ahead of them simultaneously. This can involve players on first and second running to second on third but it can also be used to disguise an attempt to steal home. The last form of rare stolen base is not allowed any more. In the early days of baseball, when entertainment and high-spirited hijinks were as important drivers of behavior as winning, base runners would sometimes steal backwards. This behavior is now prohibited by MLB rules and somewhat sassily too: if a player “runs the bases in reverse order for the purpose of confusing the defense or making a travesty of the game. The umpire shall immediately call “Time” and declare the runner out.”

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

What is the triangle offense in basketball?

One of the great things about watching sports is that they are multi-layered entertainment. The most casual fan can turn on a game and immediately enjoy the beauty of watching incredibly fit people do insanely graceful things with their bodies. Someone who doesn’t know anything about a sport but loves competition will find it easy to get engaged in a close game. A moderate fan starts to learn some of the characters in the drama – the players and coaches whose personalities influence the outcome of the game and how fans feel about it. An intermediate fan will learn about the many technicalities of the game, from rules to basic tactics. A serious fan of a sport or team will become an expert in history, know the background and personalities of all the players, and has a deep intellectual and instinctual understanding of how the game works from tactics to rules to strategies. Each sport has its own ladder of learning, something which we try to unravel on Dear Sports Fan. No matter how long you’re involved with a sport, however, there always seems to be another layer of the onion to peel; something else that remains unknown – something else to learn. In basketball, the very pinnacle of understanding, the single thing which remains unknowable to virtually all fans and even most players and coaches is the triangle offense.

Although it’s much less obvious, basketball teams, like football teams, have distinct offensive plays and strategies which vary from team to team. Although most offenses share similar concepts, like the pick and roll, each one is its own unique animal. In this animal kingdom of offensive strategies, the triangle offense is the panther – complex, mysterious, and totally dominant. The most winning teams of the past 20+ years of basketball history, the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s (six championships) and the Los Angeles Lakers of the 2000s (five championships) have used the triangle offense. Despite all that notoriety, the offense has remained literally invisible to casual fans and totally inscrutable to virtually everyone else. Without being able to understand how it works, people have taken to debating its existence. Is the triangle offense really what drove those teams to their success or is it a “MacGuffin” — a meaningless sleight of hand created by Phil Jackson, coach of both teams, to distract competitors and commentators from whatever his true strategy was?

In a truly brilliant New York Times article, “The Obtuse Triangle,” Nicholas Dawidoff, set out to discover, once and for all, the essential nature of the triangle offense, the unorthodox thinker, Tex Winter, who created it, and the enigmatic coach, Phil Jackson, who used it to such success. Here are some of my favorite selections from the story, but you should read it all. It’s bright and accessible to even the most casual basketball fan.

Dawidoff discovers that, as opposed to other offenses that are an accumulation of set plays, the triangle offense is a philosophy of interpretation that must be shared by all five players on the court inorder to be effective:

Winter empowers his players to read the defense and make situational decisions within the flow of the game, so the tricky part is that everyone must recognize the same opportunity and choose the same response. In effect, Winter wants five basketball Peyton Mannings on the floor, scanning the defense, deciphering its intentions, flashing around the court in well-spaced concert, exploiting vulnerability.

Part of Dawidoff’s investigative process was reading a book Winter wrote and published which detailed the triangle offense for all to read. Offenses are usually tightly guarded secrets, but as you’ll see in a minute, Winter felt comfortable sharing his for one very good reason:

When a Baltimore Bullets scout named Jerry Krause visited Kansas State, Winter gave Krause his book to read. Krause complimented the book, and Winter mentioned that he had sent copies to his rival coaches in the Big 8 Conference.

“I said, ‘Why are you giving away your secrets?’ ” Krause said. “He said: ‘I’m not. It’ll only confuse them.’ ”

Triangle deniers often point out that Jackson’s championship teams had first Michael Jordan and then Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neill on them. That’s three of the top ten players in the past 40 years. A big part of the article grapples with this question. The eventual conclusion seems to be that while no offense can succeed without great players, great players also can’t succeed (at least as consistently and frequently as Jordan, O’Neill, and Bryant did) without a great system.

Jackson and Winter’s thinking was that if they built more offensive options around him, Jordan would have greater reserves of energy at the end of playoff games. They told Jordan that for 20 seconds, the team would stay in the offense. If no clear scoring opportunities emerged, then he should create one. Jordan was skeptical; he called the triangle “a white man’s offense.”

Jordan’s teammate Horace Grant describes the give-and-take between crediting the offense and the star players:

“It was a smooth operating machine. Baryshnikov in action! Picasso painting! A beautiful thing! Having Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen helped, too. Shot clock’s at four, it all breaks down, then Jordan time.”

Enjoy the whole article here.

One thing to watch: Corner Kicks in the Women's World Cup

Have you been watching the women’s World Cup? I have. And so far, the tournament has been extremely entertaining. Going into the tournament, some feared that this would not be the case during the Group Stage of the tournament. They feared that the expansion of the tournament from 16 to 24 teams would bring back the 10+ goal drubbings that were a feature of the first few women’s World Cups. Additionally, the 24 team setup whereby four of six third place teams qualify for the Knockout stage could easily rob the Group stage of some of its drama. So far, they have been wrong. Except for a couple games, the new additions to the tournament have held their own against more established teams, and the extra qualification slots so far have given more teams more motivation, not less. Play has been fast, wide open, and, frankly, wildly exciting at times. One tactic has jumped out at me during the first week of competition. It’s something to watch for as the tournament goes on.

A corner kick is a type of set piece that is given to an attacking team when the ball goes over the goal line of the goal they are trying to score on and it was touched by the defending team last. When this happens, play stops, the ball is placed at the corner of the field, and the attacking team gets to do whatever they like with the ball. Generally, teams use corner kicks to cross the ball, in the air, into the area in front of the goal while attacking players try to get free from their defenders, leap to meet the ball, and head it into the net. The biggest defensive threat to a corner kick is the goalie, who can come out, and thanks to her ability to use her hands, way up high on the ends of her arms, should be able to out leap even the strongest attacker. For this reason, a perfect corner kick is traditionally one that’s placed just too far away from the goalie for him to be able to get to. If you can imagine this perfect location as a shallow semi-circle around eight to ten yards away from the center of the goal, you’ll get a sense of where most corner kicks are aimed. Attacking players set up in a loose clump a few yards outside of the target area so that they can sprint quickly and erratically to a spot on that semi-circle in an attempt to get away from the defender marking them.

The goal that Thailand scores on a play that starts 10 seconds into this highlight reel is a good example of a traditional corner kick attempt that was sent marginally too close to the goalie. Thailand scores anyway, but it’s a good example nonetheless.

In several games during the Women’s World Cup, I’ve noticed an entirely different tactic on corner kicks. Instead of having players set up so they can run to a position on that mythical perfect arc, teams are choosing to clump them all right around the goal mouth instead. Once they are set up, the player taking the corner kick swings the ball in a curve towards the goal, trying to either score directly from the corner kick or in any chaos that results. Scoring directly from a corner kick is not unheard of, but it’s very rare and players who do it often admit later that it was unintentional. U.S. National Team member Megan Rapinoe said as much about the goal she scored this way in the 2012 Olympics. I’ve seen teams assign one offensive player to stand right in front of the goalie on a corner in an attempt to slow him down (I loved being that player when I played soccer) but to focus the entire corner around the idea is new to me.

Sweden relied on this tactic in their first game against Nigeria. They scored two goals early in the game off of corners. The second, at around the 30 second mark, is the best example of what I’m describing:

So, what’s this all about, will Sweden try this against the United States, and will it become a trend throughout soccer? My guess is that this tactic is one tiny symptom of the relative youth of women’s soccer as an international sport. Teams that know their opponent has a shaky goaltender may try this tactic a few times to see if it works. Any truly top-flight goalie is willing and able to shove people out of their way to get to the ball. Goalies tend to be determined crazy people (written affectionately as a former goalie) who will not be denied. A goalie like Hope Solo, long thought to be the best in the world, will stop teams from trying this tactic simply by stepping on the field. I do not think we’ll see Sweden or any other team try this against the United States. Nor do I think this will become a trend. Relying, as the tactic does, on the relative inequality in talent and skill available to different national teams, it will rapidly disappear. As the tournament goes on, only the best teams will remain and they all have good goalies. As the years go by and women’s soccer continues to grow throughout the world, the talent, skill, and resource gaps between countries will get smaller and smaller, making this tactic less and less effective.

Why did the NHL get rid of the two line pass rule?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why is the two line pass rule gone in the NHL?

Jordan on Fancred

Dear Jordan,

The other day, I wrote a post about the history of rule changes in the National Football League. In football, the majority of rule changes have been intended to keep football players safe from injury. The National Hockey League (NHL) has been more split in its motive for changing rules. In hockey, some rule changes are intended to increase the safety of hockey players and some are motivated by a desire to increase goal scoring. I would say the rule changes are split pretty evenly between those two reasons. In 2005, following a year-long lockout that resulted in the loss of the 2004-2005 season, the NHL introduced a set of rules aimed at increasing the number of goals scored. The removal of the two line pass rule was one of these changes.

The two line pass rule, in place from 1943 to 2005, prohibited teams from passing the puck from their own defensive end of the rink to a teammate who was already on the other team’s side of the rink. It was actually very much like an offside rule. In our post on offside rules from sport to sport, we reduce offside rules to a simple trio: a line, an event, and an order. This works remarkably well. The two line pass rule stated that a player could not receive a pass from a teammate in their team’s defensive zone if he was over the halfway line before the puck crossed the line. Like the current offside rule in hockey or in some ways the icing rule, the two line pass rule was intended to prevent a team from cherry picking by leaving one player near the goal the team is trying to score on. Hockey is a team sport, the rules seem to be saying, you must move the puck up and down the rink as a team.

The problem was that defenses learned to use this rule to their advantage. They knew a team was not allowed within the rules to pass from behind the blue line that separates their defensive zone from the middle third of the rink called the neutral zone to the other side of the red halfway line. To stymie their opponents, teams would clutter up the area between those lines with as many players as possible to prevent passing. They didn’t have to worry about anyone getting behind them and skating easily for an easy chance on net because passing to a player in that position would be illegal. This tactic was called the neutral zone trap and it was both highly effective and passionately hated for creating low-scoring, boring hockey games.

By eliminating the two line pass rule, the NHL felt it was encouraging longer passes, more dynamic offensive plays, and eliminating a defensive strategy that made its sport less fun to watch. The jury is still out on whether it worked. There are three arguments against the rule change. First, scoring has not increased. After a short bump following the rule changes, the goals per game average fell back down to where it had been before the two line pass rule was eliminated. So far this year, an average of 2.76 goals are scored per game, which is right in line with the averages in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The second argument against the removal of the two line pass is that it goes against the other key motivator for rule changes. Getting rid of the two line pass rule has made the game more dangerous for its players by allowing for faster play that takes place over a larger area of the rink. As we know well from football, a faster moving, more free flowing game is exactly what causes brain injuries and concussions to be such a problem. Some have called for the NHL to bring back the rule to slow the game down and make it safer. Last, it’s also possible that getting rid of the two line pass has made the game less interesting to watch. Oh, sure, it seems crazy given that those neutral zone trapping teams were famously boring, but the alternative is not great either. Passing through the neutral zone is still a dicey proposition fraught with the dangers of having an opponent steal the puck, so teams have adopted a tactic where they send a player up to their opponent’s blue line, rifle a hard pass up to him, and have him simply deflect the puck into the opponent’s zone and then chase it. It’s safe and legal but it doesn’t have the artistry that was required when the two line pass rule was in effect.

Thanks for asking,
Ezra Fischer


What is a corner three in basketball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a corner three in basketball? I hear announcers talking about it and I get that it’s some special kind of three point shot but I don’t know what makes it so special.



Dear Lora,

This is going to sound a little like a definition by repetition but a corner three is a three point shot in basketball taken from the corner of a basketball court. If you picture a basketball court, the three point line is the largest curve that arcs from the baseline on one side of the basket up towards the center of the court before curving back to the baseline on the other side of the basket. It is not one half of a circle, it’s a part of an ellipse. What this means is that the distance from any point on the three point line to the basket varies depending on its position. If you draw a line from the basket straight up the court, (perpendicular to the baseline), it will hit the three point line at its farthest from the basket. In the National Basketball Association (NBA), that distance is 23.75 feet. If you follow the baseline towards the corner of the court, you will hit the three point line at its closest to the basket. In the NBA, that distance is 22 feet. The corner three is the shortest shot a basketball player can take to earn their team three points if it goes in. Based just on this mundane 1.75 foot distinction, the corner three has become a cultural and tactical lodestone in the NBA.

The three point line was introduced to the NBA in 1979 and it had an instant impact on the game. Before the three point shot, basketball was dominated by big men like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. If all shots were worth the same amount, why wouldn’t the game be dominated by the players who could make the closest shots most easily? For the first twenty five years of its existence the three point line gave a measure of equality to smaller players who could shoot three-point shots with some consistency but it didn’t materially change the nature of the game. The most dominant players in basketball were still giants like Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neill or guys half a foot shorter like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant who used their ferocious athleticism to drive to the hoop and convert lay-ups, dunks, or get fouled. Sure, championship teams often had a player or two who specialized in lurking at the three point line, ready to catch a pass and shoot a quick three pointer, and yes, these guys frequently preferred the shorter corner three to the longer threes on the court (and yes, they were stereotypically less athletic and white) but this was a side-show to the main attraction.

In the past five years, this has started to change, and all signs point to us being at the front edge of a basketball revolution sparked by the corner three. When Michael Lewis published his book, Moneyball, in 2003, he didn’t just popularize the statistical revolution in baseball, he also helped legitimize the use of statistics in other sports as well. Basketball has found more success in using statistics than football or hockey, perhaps because its relatively small number of players and high number of scores and scoring attempts create simpler and better data sets than other sports. The relatively clear conclusion of a statistical analysis of basketball shots tells teams that shots from very close to the basket and three point shots from the corner are by far the most effective and efficient tactics in the game. Teams and players have acted on this knowledge and by 2015 probably 26 or 27 of the 30 NBA teams use offenses designed to maximize the team’s chances of ending possessions with either a lay-up, dunk, or corner three. Today, it’s not just the stereotypical unathletic white guy who lurks in the corner and jacks three pointers, now it’s the best players in the league who do that.

No combination of team and player represent this new way of playing better than the Houston Rockets and James Harden. Kirk Goldsberry wrote a wonderful article about this for Grantland. If you want to learn more about how the corner three is changing basketball, I suggest you go read his article! Here’s a short excerpt that summarizes the emotional and perceptual issue that basketball fans over the age of 30 are having with watching this new style.

For those of us who grew up watching Bird, Magic, and Jordan, there’s an increasing dissonance between what we perceive to be dominant basketball and what actually is dominant basketball. Sometimes the two are aligned, but they seem to be increasingly divergent — and perhaps the most tragic analytical realization is that the league’s rapidly growing 3-point economy has inherently downgraded some of the sport’s most aesthetically beautiful skill sets.

Like everything in sports, the corner three is subject to change. Whether it’s a rule change or simply a strategic adjustment, something will come along that threatens the dominance of today’s ascendant basketball shot. Until that time though, watch out for the open player in the corner!

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

Why do baseball managers use so many pitchers?

Dear Sports Fan,

I was watching the World Series last night and the San Francisco Giants used so many pitchers in that one inning. I didn’t know they were allowed to do that? What were they thinking? It obviously didn’t work.

Just wondering,

Dear Garrett,

You’re right that the San Francisco Giants use of relief pitchers in the bottom of the sixth inning was unusual. They tied the record for most pitchers used in a single inning at five. That’s an unusual number of pitchers but what they did was not illegal and their reasons for doing it were pretty normal as well. Like you said, it didn’t work — the Kansas City Royals scored as many runs in that inning (five) as the Giants used pitchers.

Baseball teams in the post-season are allowed to have 25 players on their roster. There aren’t any rules about how many of these can be pitchers. In fact, the Kansas City Royals chose to carry one fewer pitcher than the San Francisco Giants for this World Series. The Giants have 12, the Royals 11. Of those pitchers, each team has four that are expected to start the up to seven games in the series. That leaves eight pitchers for the Giants and seven for the Royals. Each team has a designated closer who pitches the ninth inning if their team has the lead. The remaining six or seven pitchers are miscellaneous relief pitchers that their managers can choose to use however and whenever they want in a game. The Royals manager, Ned Yost has chosen to use two of his relief pitchers, Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis almost exclusively for the seventh and eighth innings, but all of this, even the starter/closer/relief pitcher distinctions are just tactics, not rules. The only real rule regarding pitching substitutions is that once a pitcher starts pitching to a batter, he’s got to finish that batter unless he gets hurt.

So, fine, teams have a lot of pitchers and they can pretty much use them however they want. Why would the Giants manager, Bruce Bochy, want to use so many of them in the sixth inning last night? Aside from the first pitcher, each of the next four was determined in part by a simple concept: “when a pitcher and a hitter pitch or bat with the same hand, the pitcher typically has the advantage.” Let’s see how it played out:

Pitcher 1: To start the inning, he went with the starting pitcher, Jake Peavy. Peavy had pitched well in the game up to that point, letting up only 2 runs, and had only thrown 57 pitches. Starting pitchers can usually throw close to a hundred pitches before really breaking down, so, although he’s doubtless being second-guessed today, I don’t see anything controversial about starting the inning with Peavy. That said, Peavy did not start the inning well. He let up a single and then walked the next batter to put two men on base.

Pitcher 2: Seeing that Peavy was in trouble, Bochy decided to take him out of the game and put in a relief pitcher. The next batter up was Billy Butler. Butler is right-handed and hits much better against left-handed pitchers or southpaws than he does against righties. In terms of batting average, a flawed but well-known statistic, he goes from being a .321 hitter against lefties to a .255 hitter when facing a righty. So, Bochy brought in right-handed pitcher, Jean Machi. Butler outfoxed him and hit a single to the outfield which allowed the two men on base to score.

Pitcher 3: The next batter up was Alex Gordon, who bats lefty. Again, Bochy chose to change pitchers because of handedness, so he brought in Javier Lopez, a lefty. This time it works — Lopez gets Gordon to hit a fly ball to the outfield for an out. No runners advance.

Pitcher 4: Next up for the Royals was their catcher, Salvador Perez, who is… you guessed it, a righty! Off Bochy goes again to the mound to remove his pitcher. This time he brings in Hunter Strickland, who is, you guessed it again, a righty. Things go really off the rails for Strickland. He gives up a double to Perez and then a home run to Omar Infante. Why did he get to face two batters? Because Infante, like Perez, and Strickland for that matter, are both righties.

Pitcher 5: Up comes Mike Moustakas, a lefty, and off goes Strickland to be replaced by Jeremy Affeldt who throws with his left. Moustakas singles. The next batter is Alcides Escobar. He bats righty, but Bochy, perhaps thinking he’s made enough of a mess of things, doesn’t bother replacing Affeldt with a righty. It works out for them when Escobar hits into a double play to end the inning.

So, there you go — most of the mysterious comings and goings of the Giants pitchers last night can be attributed to the simple desire of the Giants manager to have right-handed pitchers face right-handed batters and left-handed pitchers face left-handed batters.

Thanks for the question, enjoy the rest of the World Series,
Ezra Fischer