How to Appreciate Baseball for my Foreign Friends, Part 3: Some Exceptions and Strategy for the Offense

My previous two posts about this topic were oriented on understanding the basic rules, the basic tension and drama of the game, and the things that you might see happen most commonly if you watch a game. In this post, I’m going to focus on the offense to explain a few exceptions to the rules and some of the strategy that goes into scoring runs.

Batting strategy

I said in the last post, the batter’s primary objective is to get on base by putting the ball in play or taking four balls. Batters’ objective are actually a bit more sophisticated.

Elevating Pitch Count

A primary concern for the starting lineup is tiring out the pitcher. Good starting pitchers have the energy to pitch 7 to 9 innings at 10 to 15 pitches per inning. After a lot of pitches (say, more than 80-90), the pitcher’s performance typically starts to sag. They have less ability to throw the ball hard and accurately, and are more likely to make a mental mistake and pitch into a batter’s strengths.

Accordingly, batters do their best early in the game to hit a lot of foul balls, keeping themselves from striking out, but extending their turn to bat. This in turn causes the pitcher to have to throw more pitches, which will a) make the pitcher easier to hit later in the game, or b) will force managers to put in a (less capable) substitute pitcher. Every pitcher dreams of getting a batter out with a single pitch; they dread batters who hit foul ball after foul ball, and a really good at-bat may require the pitcher to throw 9-10 pitches to get the batter out.

Swing Adjustments

Very good baseball players can change their swing based on the situation. They can start their swing far behind their body as soon as the pitch leaves the pitcher’s hand in order to accelerate their bat to the maximum speed possible when the bat makes contact with the ball. This “long swing” is harder to control and make contact with the ball (and thus more likely to result in a swinging strike), but when it does the ball is much more likely to go far.

Alternatively, the batter can start his swing more in front of his body and a split second later, which gives him more time to recognize the pitch and put the bat in the right place, but in a short swing, the bat’s speed is much slower and more likely for the ball to travel a shorter distance.

Advancing the Runners

The other objective for a batter is to advance the runners already on base, even if he is likely to get out through a sacrifice bunt or sacrifice fly (more on both later.)

A hit-and-run is a coordinated play where a batter and runner coordinate using hand signals. The runner is going to start running to steal the base, which will draw the defense out of position, while the batter employs a short, contact-type swing to put the ball in play in a space left vacated by the defense. This in turn means the runner may have an improved chance of scoring when the ball is put in play. The risk, however, is that the batter will swing and miss, meaning that the catcher can throw the runner out (see ‘caught stealing’).

Speaking of defensive positioning, most players have strong tendencies to hit the ball to certain locations. Left handed batters in particular tend to hit the ball in the gap between first and second base. Defenses, especially recently, will drastically move players around in the field to cover the batters’ most common hitting direction and distance. In this case, batters will try to adjust to hit at the weaknesses of the defense–the very best players can actually control the direction they hit!

Bunting

Sometimes, instead of swinging the bat at the ball, the batter will hold the bat out in front and let the ball hit the bat. This results in the ball being put slowly in play right in front of the plate. If the bunter misses the ball, it is counted as a strike. If the bunted ball rolls into foul territory, it is a strike even if it is the third strike.

This play can happen for several reasons:

  • The player at bat is the batting team’s pitcher, and there is a runner on first base. The defending pitcher or catcher usually field a bunted ball, and only have enough time to record an out at first base because the baserunner had a good lead. This is a sacrifice bunt because you sacrifice an out to advance a baserunner to 2nd base. This is a good option for the pitcher because he is usually a terrible hitter, and bunting is much easier than regular batting.
  • The player at bat is very fast, and the bunt comes during an unusual time and is thus a surprise bunt. Because the catcher or pitcher can usually reach the bunted ball quickly, only the very fastest players have a chance of reaching first base in time.
  • There is a fast player at third base and the game is very close in the late innings. The batter bunts the ball in coordination with the baserunner hustling to reach home plate and score a run. This is called a squeeze play and is a very exciting and risky play but not very common.

Lefty-Righty Matchups

Another surprising aspect of batting strategy is the handedness of the pitcher and batter, and managers make decisions about substitutions around this phenomenon. Left-handed pitchers are more likely to strike out left-handed batters than right-handed ones; for right-handed pitchers the opposite is true. Some players are skilled enough to bat left- or right-handed, depending on the pitcher–these are called switch hitters.

Hit by Pitch

If the pitcher hits the batter’s body anywhere but on the hands, and the batter hasn’t swung the bat, the batter is awarded a free base just as if he had taken four balls.

Baserunning

Leading Off

Baserunners usually leave their base before a pitch is thrown and take 2-3 step in the direction of the next base. This gives them a head start when the batter puts the ball in play. In this case, the pitcher can only get the player out if he can throw the ball to a nearby defender to tag the baserunner before he can get back to the base.

Stealing

A baserunner is allowed to attempt to advance to an empty base before the batter has put the ball in play. If he does, usually the pitcher or catcher try to throw the ball to a nearby defender to tag the baserunner out. If the baserunner successfully makes it to the next base, he is said to have stolen the base. If he is tagged out, he has been caught stealing. The best base stealers tend to be exceptionally fast runners.

Tagging Up

If a batter hits the ball in the air (a fly ball), the baserunner cannot safely leave his current base until the ball is caught. If he has left the base, he has to return to touch it before he can advance to the next base. This is called tagging up and the rule is in place to prevent scoring on fly balls that go very high in the air. The defense can get a player out by either tagging him with the ball or holding the ball and touching the base the runner has left prematurely. This rule does not apply if the ball touches the ground first. If a player hits a fly ball, where a baserunner tags up and scores a run, it is called a sacrifice fly.

Substitutions

First of all, an important rule to know is that baseball teams have a limited number of players (25) that are allowed to play in a game. There are only 9 players in the game at any given time, called the lineup (with a slight exception, in a second). The decisions the manager (coach) makes to substitute players into the game are critically important because once a player in the lineup leaves the game, he cannot return to the lineup for the rest of the game.

Managers will typically start the lineup with players that represent the optimal balance between offensive and defensive ability. As the game goes on, normally in the 7th inning and beyond, he may substitute stronger defensive players into the lineup if protecting a lead, or stronger offensive players in when the score is close, there are runners on base, and one of his reserve batters can hit well facing the current pitcher. The manager may substitute for a player that has reached base; for example, if the substitute is a much faster runner, he will have a better chance of rounding the bases and reaching home plate when the ball is in play. A player that substitutes for another while batting is called a pinch hitter, while one who substitutes for a player on base is called a pinch runner.

There is an important distinction here for Major League Baseball: half of the teams, the ones designated National League, play exactly as I’ve described. The other half of the teams, the American League, allow teams to designate a player to bat in the place of the pitcher (pitchers are notoriously poor hitters). This has the effect of boosting the number of runs scored in the American League as compared to the National League, but also simplifies the strategy of substitution (which I’ll talk about more in the next post when discussing pitching substitution).

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