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Of all the major team sports, baseball keeps records and statistics the most carefully, and new fans are bound to be baffled when an announcer says something like “a 4-6-3 double play!” Most know what a double play is, but what exactly do they mean by the seemingly random numbers?
A 4-6-3 double play refers to how a type of single play, resulting in 2 putouts, is recorded in a baseball scorebook. In this example, it’s a play started by the fielding of the 2nd baseman, who tossed the ball to the keystone for a force out there by the shortstop, who then relayed to the 1st baseman to also put out the batter for 2 outs on a single play.
The numbers are among the 9 assigned to each defensive position on a baseball field, to help ease the job of the scorekeeper. The whole list is below, but the 2nd baseman is always 4, the shortstop 6, and the 1st baseman 3.
The 4-6-3 is among the most common types of double plays, because runners more often occupy 1st base to set up the situations, and also because most double plays are the result of ground balls struck to the middle of the infield. The shortstop and 2nd baseman patrol the infield’s center area.
The 4-6-3 notation is not a math problem. The answer is not -5. (In fact, some will argue the answer is 2; see Common Questions at bottom). A 4-6-3 is used in baseball scorebooks to record what happened on a particular play.
A long time ago, someone applied a number to each defensive position on a baseball field, as in:
1 = P (Pitcher)
2 = C (Catcher)
3 = 1B (1st Baseman)
4 = 2B (2nd Baseman)
5 = 3B (3rd Baseman)
6 = SS (Shortstop)
7 = LF (Left-Fielder)
8 = CF (Center-Fielder)
9 = RF (Right-Fielder)
The numbers begin with the pitcher and end with the right-fielder, as in, 1 denotes the pitcher, 9 means the right-fielder. If tracked in order by connecting dots, the list snakes around the field, to create a big S.
Baseball scorebooks are filled with small squares, into which a considerable amount of information must be logged during game play. So much, in fact, that scorekeepers don’t have the time ~ nor the space ~ to write out what happened.
Try fitting into a 1-centimeter by 1-centimeter square, “Ground ball to the 2nd baseman, who threw to the shortstop covering 2nd, who caught it and stepped on the base for an out, and then he threw to the 1st baseman who caught the ball with his foot on the bag for another out.”
Baseball needed a very fast and easy way to log action, and shorthand like 4-6-3 was invented. Fly balls caught in the air for outs are simply a capital F followed by who caught it, as in F9 when the right fielder made the catch.
Strikeouts swinging are a capital K, while a batter striking out looking gets a backward K. There’s a little diamond inside all those little squares, where scorekeepers can draw where runners moved, and once they score they fill in the entire diamond to indicate a run scored.
This works out well to quickly count runs scored by just glancing at a page to see the darkly filled diamonds. If there are none or few, it’s a very low-scoring affair.
For the players, the 4-6-3 double play is more difficult to execute than the 6-4-3 version, mainly because the 2nd baseman must turn way more to his right to throw to the shortstop. This action eats up valuable micro-seconds needed to force out advancing runners.
Another reason is that before pitches, shortstops tend to play further away from 2nd base, because their “glove side” is in that direction. Since their glove is (almost always) on their left hand, they can play further to the right since it’s easier to simply reach out for a grounder rather than back-handing it.
Because of this, it might take a shortstop just a little longer to actually get to 2nd base to complete the catch-and-throw. In fact, most pitchers and 2nd baseman practice throwing “to the bag,” that is, throw the ball straight over the base even if no one is there to receive, with anticipation that the shortstop will get there by the time the ball arrives.
This “leading throw” play is actually more difficult than it appears, as a number of things can go wrong. The leading throws have to be close enough to be reachable; the shortstop must catch the ball while also being cognizant of his feet so he can step on 2nd base; and timing is crucial. Throw a little too late or too early and the shortstop might not have a chance.
Watch other infielders closely when there is a runner on 1st base. They play in different spots, and act differently on balls not struck to them. A lot of infielding, in fact, is knowing where to be when the ball is not hit to you.
The 6-4-3 double play is the classic 2-banger, immortalized early in the 20th century with a poem about Tinkers to Evers to Chance ~ the infielders for the Chicago Cubs who at the time built a reputation for “turning 2.”
In terms of frequency, the 4-6-3 is behind that classic, followed not far behind by the 5-4-3, which is the “around-the-horn” double play started with a ground ball to the 3rd baseman.
Any of the 9 players on the field can be involved with double plays, though it’s much more common for the guys who play “on the dirt,” or the infielders, pitcher, and catcher. They just handle a lot more balls that provide opportunities for double plays than outfielders.
Among the most unusual ~ and exciting to see ~ is the 1-2-3. For this to happen the bases must be loaded and less than 2 outs, which means a situation where the batting team is bound to score.
So when the batter taps a grounder to the pitcher, who throws home so the catcher can force out the lead runner by stepping on home plate, and then the backstop throws to 1st base to nab the hitter, it’s rather rare ~ and quite deflating to the offensive team.
In baseball lexicon, there are many nicknames for the double play, including the Pitcher’s Best Friend, and the Twin Killing. There are many different types of double plays, some more exciting than others.
Not all double plays are the result of ground balls. Many occur due to hard-hit line drives in the infield, which are surprisingly snared in the air by an infielder so fast that the base runners don’t have time to return to their base.
Line-out double plays involve just a single throw, and are scored as such: F6-3, for fly out to the shortstop, who threw to the 1st baseman to double up the runner. Line-out double plays are almost always very exciting as they are very sudden and surprising.
Base runners can try to advance on balls caught by defenders, including on fly balls to an outfielder. However, if the runner is thrown out on the attempt, it’s a double play. This play is called a fly-out double play. Most often this occurs at home plate, where runners try to tag and score for a sacrifice fly.
This type of double play is different because it does not involve a bat striking the ball. Here, the batter first strikes out either looking or swinging. On the same pitch, if a runner took off on an attempted steal, and is thrown out by the catcher, it’s a strike out-throw out double play.
Of the list of plays that happen the least in baseball, the double play that occurs least often is an incident called by an umpire, for base runner interference.
This is when the runner going from 1st to 2nd base does not slide close enough to the keystone, and the umpire rules the act interfered with the ability of a middle infielder to complete the double play.
In these instances, if the double play still gets turned, regular outs are called by the umpire. But in the rare double play, the hitter going to 1st base arrives before the thrown ball, but in the umpire’s judgment the throw would have arrived earlier if not for the illegal slide.
So the umpire throws his hands up and calls time out, points to the actions in question (optional), and calls the hitter out due to runner interference.
Besides that rare play, the unassisted double play is pretty rare, too. In fact, the unassisted triple play is the rarest play in baseball.
Unassisted means no other player helped, that a single player recorded a putout without throwing the ball or having it thrown to him (or her). These most often occur on line drives that are struck near a base, like straight at the 1st baseman after the runner had taken a lead.
The defender catches the ball so quickly that it’s then just a race to step on the bag to “double off” the runner by beating him there and stepping on the base.
Question: What does 6+4+3=2 mean in baseball?
Answer: Same thing as noted above, grounder to the shortstop, toss to the 2nd baseman, relay to 1st base for the double play. Add it all together and … it equals 2 outs!
Q.: Why are more ground balls hit up the middle, compared with down the lines?
A.: A couple of reasons. First, most of the time it’s just more difficult to hard-pull pitches down the lines, or just away from the middle of the infield. Hitters have to be mighty quick on the pitch. Second, most down-the-lines are on pitches inside, that is, closer to the batter as he or she swings. Hitters just see a lot more pitches from the middle-out than they do the total number of inside pitches. (Plus, a lot of too-inside pitches are fouled off). Combined, these reasons explain why so many ground balls are hit to the shortstop or 2nd baseman.