Monday, August 18, 2014

How Underrated Are These Baseball Plays?

Earlier in the week, a rabbit hole of baseball articles led me to one written by Mike Fast in 2011 about the value of the hit-and-run. It got me thinking about the many underrated plays we see in the course of a baseball game. These plays are ones that make me say "You just don't get it" when people call baseball boring.

We all love a good home run robbery, bare-handed catch-and-throw, or inside-the-park homer. But I want to focus on subtler plays that elicit "Did-I-really-just-see-that?" murmurs from spectators at the ballpark. The utility and wonder of these plays usually cannot be quantified by statistics. Rather, they reflect baseball's creative, artistic side. In no particular order, here are seven of my favorite underrated baseball plays...

The Intentional Bounce Throw
This play consists of an infielder intentionally coming up short on a throw to first base. The bounce throw can be employed by a shortstop running up the middle, a third baseman firing from behind bag, or any off-balance gloveman muscling a throw to first. Importantly, the intentional bounce throw should make life easy for the first baseman, and therefore should not end in a short-hop. Instead, the thrower should intentionally bounce it into the first baseman's waist-high glove.

The Momentum-Switch Flip Throw
A defender who can't complete a throw will sometimes flip the ball to a better-positioned teammate. This nifty play is usually employed by an infielder speeding away from first base or, on rare occasions, by a heads-up outfielder. The key here is that the flip is used because the player who initially fields the ball has no chance to make the throw himself. Whenever a scorecard requires three position designations (e.g. 4-6-3) for a play that doesn't result in two outs, it's often because of some sort of mid-play flip throw. The momentum-switch flip is so cool because it takes true teamwork, unlike most other action in a baseball game.

The "Butcher Boy" 
The "Butcher Boy" play requires a hitter to show bunt until the last possible nanosecond, force infielders to charge, then lace a line drive through the moving defense or at the face of a defender. Also called the "slash" bunt, this play poses considerable danger for the third baseman, so much so that it is often outlawed in Little League. I once read that Brooks Robinson caught a slash bunt liner from just 10 yards away, but I couldn't find many Robinson highlights since was relatively new when he played.

The Infield Pop-up Tag-up
A runner can sometimes advance on a ball caught on the fly by an infielder if the defender's momentum is taking him away from home plate.

This play frequently requires the runner to possess track star speed (although a high baseball IQ is more necessary). One of the many legends about Cool Papa Bell holds that he scored standing up on a pop-up to second base.

The Shift-Beater
This play is especially useful in today's climate of frenzied shifting, but few hitters have attempted it. Robinson Cano's Cobbian double is the most famous example.

The Outfielder Flip-and-Throw
Here, we're talking about the "flip" in more of a Greg Louganis way than an Andrelton Simmons way. But I love it when an outfielder tries to get so much on his throw that he literally goes head over heels. Chad Curtis mastered this play for the mid-'90s Yankees.

The Catcher Throw-from-the-Knees
I'm pretty sure this is fundamentally improper, but it's fun to watch. Benito Santiago was legendary for catching runners stealing without leaving his crouch.

Very few guys have the arm-strength to throw out big league base-stealers from their knees. "Very few," as in "three or four ever."


Baseball is such a rich, unique game that there are certainly some underrated plays that I flat-out omitted. (I guess those plays are especially underrated by me.) Others -- like the Outfielder Kick, the Superfluous Cut-off, and the Wall-Scale -- are probably too uncommon to be repeated. But all of the plays that I named contribute to the magic of baseball. With the countless metrics being developed to quantify the game, those plays will remain underrated but well-appreciated.

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