"Get a good lead and go on contact!" (AP Photo)The contact play is where the runner on third base breaks towards home as soon as he sees the ball come off the bat and head towards the ground. It doesn’t matter where the ball is hit. The purpose of the contact play is to have the runner take off immediately so if the ball is not hit directly at a fielder, the defense will have a tough time getting to the ball, fielding it, and then making an accurate throw home before the runner gets there. It could also be a case where the runner on third can fly and the coach knows that the infielders just are not good enough to make that play in time to get the runner even if it is hit right at someone.
Earlier I mentioned that a runner goes when the batted ball “heads towards the ground.” Notice I didn’t say “when the ball hits the ground.” Runners who are good at the contact play get a little bit more of a head start by watching for two things. 1) They watch the flight of the pitch. They do this with the knowledge that balls thrown lower in the strike zone are more likely to be hit on the ground and balls up in the zone tend to be hit in the air. If a runner sees the pitch coming in low, he can lean a bit more towards home in anticipation of a ground ball and get a slightly better jump. 2) They also carefully watch the ball off the bat. It seems somewhat illogical because it all happens so fast but some runners can actually start or at least know they are going before the ball touches the ground. They can do this because of their ability to recognize a little sooner a ball that has a downward angle to it immediately after contact. On a play at home plate, every fraction of a second means a lot.Depending on the ability of the infielders, how fast the runner at third is, and things like the score, inning, and number of outs, the contact play can be put on at any time. Probably the best time to put it on, though, is when there are runners at second and third with no outs. For some coaches, the contact play is automatic in this situation no matter who is running or how good the fielders are. Here’s why. If a runner at third in that situation stays put on a ground ball, the fielder looks him back and makes the throw to first base for the out. The result … one throw, one out, and runners are still on 2nd and 3rd. However, even if the runner goes at contact and will be a dead out at the plate, the runner just stops and gets in a rundown. Let’s say it takes 4 throws to finally get the runner out. The result … one out on 4 throws with runners ending up at 2nd and 3rd – the runner on 2nd moved up to 3rd and the batter went all the way to 2nd on the rundown. The point is, if the runner is safe at home you get a run. If the runner is ultimately out in the rundown, the offense likely ends up with the same situation all over again. However, the defense had to make more than one throw to get the out. More throws = more chances for errors. There really is nothing to lose by sending the runner on contact in that situation.To make sure the runner at third does what he needs to do, here are two tips for him:Keep your eyes on the ball. As the runner sprints towards home at contact, his eyes need to be on the ball in order to see the fielder make the play. If he sees it fielded cleanly and recognizes that he probably will be a dead out at home, he stops and gets in a rundown. If he sees the fielder dive for it, bobble it, etc. he may be able to continue home to score. The runner has to see all this for himself. He cannot rely on the coach at third to give him directions.
“45 and decide.” I heard this saying somewhere and now use it with my players. The runner at third is instructed to take off on a contact play and watch the play develop as described above. By the 45 foot mark (half way between third and home), he must decide to continue sprinting and score or stop and get in a rundown. This, of course, takes some practice in order to give the players the ability to develop better judgment on this play.
The "contact play" has its risks but it can be very effective in the right situation. The key for coaches and players is to practice the play often so that both the offense and the defense get some experience in what to do.