If you feel the contact play should never be on, or that it only should be a rarely used tactic like the suicide squeeze, I would encourage you to rethink that position. I am a fan of the play in selected situations, and the purpose of this article is to identify them. You may still despise the play after reading it, but hopefully the article will generate some solid discussion.
For many fans, innings that include a failed contact play are like a bad relationship – they are remembered as being better than they actually were. A common reaction is, "That inning was really promising until our idiot manager put on the contact play!" But one should examine what would have happened in the inning if the contact play had NOT been called, rather than dwelling on how great the inning looked in the early going, as the scoring threat was taking shape.
In this respect, it is critical to remember that the contact play didn’t create the swing or cause the ball to be put into play. Unlike a bunt or hit-and-run, the batter isn’t obligated to swing just because the contact play is on. (In fact, I would not even tell a hitter when the contact play is on.) He should be taking a normal at-bat and not thinking about whether or not the runner will be going on contact. So in other words, don’t blame the weak ground ball or the comebacker to the mound on the contact play – that’s completely on the batter. And quite often the ball that was put in play when a failed contact play was on was likely to be a rally killer, whether the contact play had been called or not.
When establishing parameters for when to use the contact play, the number of outs is obviously a key factor. With two outs, everyone’s going on contact so there is no such thing as a two-out contact play. With no outs, I’m not calling a contact play because I don’t believe in making the first out of an inning at home plate. (Okay, maybe on a terrific throw from the outfield, I could live with making the first out at home. But with no outs, I’m not getting a runner thrown out at home by an infielder – no way.)
So this narrows the use of the contact play to one-out situations only. But, how should we narrow it further? For me, the key factor here is whether or not there is a trail runner on first or second. If the runner on third is my only baserunner, I would not call a contact play because that runner is just too valuable. With one out, he represents my only realistic opportunity to score this inning. So except for very unusual circumstances – such as the pitcher being on deck, for example – I’m not calling a contact play when no runners are aboard other than the man at third.
Conversely, I am extremely likely to call the contact play if there is a trail runner on either first or second. If that runner is on first, putting the contact play on might keep me out of an inning-ending double play – which is even worse than having one runner thrown out at home. If the trail runner is at second, I can get a runner thrown out at home and still have runners at the corners with two outs. That’s not quite as good as having runners at second and third with two outs (which is the likely result if I don’t use the contact play, and the batter is retired), but it’s a difference I can live with if I have a chance to steal a run.
Is the speed of the runner a factor? On the extremes, yes. I would be much more likely, for example, to put the contact play on with Eric Young at third base as opposed to Todd Helton. But for most near-average baserunners, it would not be a big consideration. If the ball is hit to the wrong spot, the runner is a dead duck anyway. That couple of steps difference between, say, Jordan Pacheco and Chris Nelson, is not going to determine whether or not to have them break on contact. It’s really a situational decision, with the speed of the runner being a secondary factor.
So that’s my manifesto on the contact play – which I know doesn’t really answer the question of whether or not the Rockies have been using it properly. I suspect Jim Tracy used many of these same principles in deciding whether or not to use the contact play, but he just seemed to have a knack for calling it just before one of his hitters bounced a Sunday hopper right to the opposing third baseman. Or perhaps when Tracy traded his soul for that magical turnaround of the 2009 team, a lifetime of failed contact plays was one of the Devil’s terms.
After reading this, you may still think the contact play is awful and should never be used. And if so, that’s fine. But I feel the contact play is often misunderstood, and wanted to offer some discussion of the rationale behind using it in selected situations.