September 23, 2014

The Most Exciting Play in Baseball

May 19, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

Hitting a triple or stealing home?

In a rare treat for baseball fans, no fewer than three players have stolen home plate in the last few weeks. The first was Jacoby Ellsbury, on April 26 against the Yankees. With a 2-1 lead and the bases loaded in the fifth inning, Ellsbury took advantage of lefty Andy Pettitte’s slow delivery and made it home safely on a straight steal. The Red Sox went on to win, 4-1. Ellsbury’s steal was probably the most exciting among the three: it came in a close game between heated rivals, and it came on the pitch.

Next was Jayson Werth, who did the deed on May 12 against the Dodgers. It came in the seventh inning, when Werth had already recorded three steals, including two that inning. Leading off third, he noticed that catcher Russell Martin was being particularly lackadaisical in returning the ball to reliever Ronald Belisario. On one such lob, he established a gaping secondary lead, then darted down the basepath before Belisario could return the ball, giving Philadelphia a 5-2 lead that they would hold on to for the victory. Werth’s steal was the most daring of the three. Like Ellsbury’s, it required exquisite timing, but also depended on catcher Martin not spotting Werth halfway down the basepath before returning the ball. As it turned out, he did not.

The third steal of home was perpetrated two days later against Colorado by Houston’s Michael Bourn. In the first inning, Bourn was on third when Carlos Lee took off from first with two outs. Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba hurled the ball down to second—a smart play, considering there were two outs and Lee is by no means a premier baserunner—but Lee got under the tag, and Bourn scampered home without a throw. Of the three, this steal was the least exciting, but perhaps the most predictable, as Bourn is regularly mentioned as one of the fastest men in baseball. In a straw poll of players most likely to swipe home, Bourn would get more than a few votes.

All of which raises the question: is an attempted steal of home the most exciting play that can happen in a baseball game? The other widely nominated event is a triple, and with due respect to the suicide squeeze, other plays at the plate, and the fly ball at the wall, these are the two most likely contenders.

One big point in favor of stealing home is its infrequency. Even this season, with the relative explosion of steals of home, as many players have hit for a cycle (three), more have stolen four bases in a game (four, including Werth), and more pitchers have homered (five). Any game event that the majority of fans in the stadium have never witnessed live—be it stealing home, a no-hitter, a walk-off homer, or a brawl—is inherently exciting.

Another factor is the built-in importance. Attempting to steal home is the only way by which a player can willfully score a run, and at a time of his own choosing. Hitting a home run or otherwise driving runs in requires the tricky intermediate step of hitting the ball; to steal home, all you have to do is run.  As such, it is by definition a play of extremely high leverage. If successful, it results in a run—and so far in 2009, 146 games have been decided by a single run. If unsuccessful, it removes a runner from third without putting the ball into play. That will nearly always kill a rally, and is likely to push a gray hair or two up from the manager’s skull, especially if he is aware that, in 2008, major league teams scored an average of .52 runs per plate appearance with a runner on third base. The high risk, high reward nature of stealing home is perhaps its most exciting aspect.

Last, a steal of home is the fastest thing that can happen in a baseball game. In other words, no other play, besides a ball or strike call, is determined as quickly. That, in fact, is the key to doing it—getting home before the pitcher and catcher know you’re on your way. By compressing the crucial question of a run or an out into two seconds or less, a baserunner stealing home singlehandedly creates a tremendous amount of excitement.

This is in contrast to the triple, which is one of the lengthiest plays in the game. In a sense, this is an advantage over the ultra-quick steal of home. A triple unfolds; a steal of home explodes.

Compare the experience of watching the two. First of all, a hit to the outfield is a resolution of the pitcher-batter conflict, the central issue of baseball, in a way that a stolen base is not. Pitch selection, sequencing and location all come into play. On a triple, the fan is alerted by the crack of the bat and, in most cases, can anticipate the play before the ball even hits the ground. If the ball is in the air long enough, and depending on who is playing in the outfield, there may be a question as to whether or not the ball will be caught in the air.

This tantalizing prelude settled, a potential triple offers several focal points all over the diamond. The ball itself, which may land near or on the foul line, or come close to leaving the park; the outfielder(s), the route he takes to the ball and the throw to the infield; the relay man, who may have to decide where to send the ball; the runner, who likely will have decided whether or not to try for third shortly after rounding first; the third base coach, who will be sending previous runners home and directing the runner’s approach into the base, or even around it; the middle infielders and third baseman, variously attempting to deke the runner and preparing for his arrival, along with that of the throw.

All of these things unfold simultaneously and in concert with one another, and what they lack in lightning speed, they more than make up for in suspense. Stealing home, on the other hand, involves only three players, and no moving parts. Often, the batter himself is not aware that the steal is on until he sees his teammate rushing down the line, and by the time the other fielders realize it, it’s too late for them to help.

Further consider the fan, watching either live or on television. At the stadium, only the most attentive fans will notice the pitcher (or catcher)’s vulnerability to a steal of home, and plenty will have their eyes elsewhere in the instant the play takes to unfold. Worse, on television, 80% of a steal of home takes place off camera, and replays can’t reproduce the drama of the moment.

A batter who hits a triple does not account for a run in as straight-forward a manner as a runner who steals home.  There are, on the other hand, two things that he may do that the runner cannot. First, a triple can drive in up to three existing runners, while a steal of home accounts for only one run. Second, a triple leaves the team in excellent position to score again, with a runner on third and no fewer outs to use. On the other hand, even a successful steal of home reduces the number of baserunners, and with it, the potential for a larger rally. Of course, a bird in hand is better than two in the bush. When ‘measuring’ pure excitement, the possibility of more to come is always an important consideration.

In other words: if there is a runner on third, and he steals home, the leverage of the following pitches will be lowered, because there will be fewer runners on base, and probably none on third. On the other hand, after a triple, the leverage of the next at-bat will be high, since any hit should lead to a run.

Given the choice between a triple or steal of home, most fans, players and managers would smartly answer, “yes, please.” Between the two, though, and despite the recent rash of home plate dashes, it’s the triple that stands as the most exciting play in the game. Not only that, but under the right circumstances, perhaps the most exciting ten seconds in sports.

Comments

3 Responses to “The Most Exciting Play in Baseball”
  1. Ron says:

    Good article, but wouldn’t an inside-the-park homerun be a combination of both, and therefore, the most exciting?

  2. Justin Murphy says:

    I think of an ITPHR as an extended triple, either by a very fast runner or with a mistake in the field. I would take an ITPHR over a triple only if it’s hit by a very fast runner and there are no miscues defensively. It seems like the majority of them come off of a misplay, like a dive-and-miss in the outfield. For instance, Prince Fielder’s ITPHR a few years ago. In that situation, I’d prefer a clean triple. Part of the excitement of a triple is seeing if the defense can retrieve the ball and get it back in perfectly- it’s mostly the botched balls that end up as ITPHRs. It’s true, though, I should have mentioned that.

  3. Ron says:

    Fair point. I guess triples happen a lot quicker also, which makes a difference.

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