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Those who just discovered baseball might be intrigued by terms like “hit-and-run” ~ not necessarily because it’s complicated, but due to its seeming disappearance from the game. New fans may naturally wonder, What is a hit and run in baseball? And perhaps, Why haven’t we seen it?
It is known as the hit-and-run play, a pre-planned action by an offense in baseball for a single pitch, to get base runners in the act of stealing bases, while simultaneously having the batter swing and put the ball in play.
The intent is to disrupt the normalcy of the situation, and perhaps catch fielders out of position, or even cause confusion or anxiety among the defenders. Ultimately the goal is to help improve the ability to score runs, the primary purpose of baseball offenses.
The hoped-for result is a base hit, and significant advancement by base runners since they had a running start.
The hit-and-run play is known as a high-risk, high-reward play, because it can be perilous for the offensive team. Depending on the batter’s execution, there is great potential for the defense to turn a double play on the action, or at least catch the lead runner on the stolen base attempt. (Explained further below).
While it can be a very exciting play to watch, it’s not something Major League Baseball managers call much nowadays. It’s mainly due to the de-emphasis on aggressive base-running in recent years, in favor of avoiding risks that could result in outs. (A strategy called sabermetrics, or “Moneyball” like the movie).
For a long time, this was not the case. There are a lot of nuances with the hit-and-run, which dates back to 1894 and the old Baltimore Orioles of Ned Hanlon. While today the play may seem dated, at its inception the invention caused quite a shake-up. It was part of a late 19th-century movement called Insider Baseball.
In reality, the play should be called the “run and hit,” because that’s the sequence you see in action. A base runner (or runners) take off as soon as the pitcher makes a motion to pitch, and then the batter is called upon to swing, put the ball in play, and hopefully advance the runners to forward bases or even to score a run.
To explain, here is a real-life situation, taken from a high school baseball game in late spring 1984 in Southern California:
- In the last inning of a tie game, the leadoff batter for the home team singles to left.
- The manager then gave the “hit and run sign “ to both the new runner on first base, and the second batter of the inning.
- When the pitcher moved to pitch toward home plate, the base runner took off in an attempt to steal base.
- In response, on the defending team, the 2nd baseman rushed to 2nd base to receive the throw from the catcher to tag out the base-stealer.
- However: instead of the catcher securing the ball and trying to throw out the runner, the batter swung at the pitch and connected.
- He hit a hard ground-ball to where the 2nd baseman normally would be playing. But he is not there. Why? He was running to 2nd base ~ leaving the gaping hole between 1st and 2nd base that the batter perfectly took advantage of.
- While the ball rolled through that hole, the leadoff runner rounded second and raced to 3rd base. Then it was base runners on 1st and 3rd with no outs, and the team’s best hitter at bat with an opportunity to knock in the winning run.
Which is exactly what happened.
There are several elements that managers wish to exploit with this play, including:
- Open a hole in the infield defense, to (hopefully) increase the chance for a base hit and score runs.
- Get a head start for the runner or runners on the play, where the offense hopes for a ground ball by the batter, making it easier for runners to take advance bases (and reduce the potential for ground ball double plays).
- Cause confusion among the defenders, who might get “crossed up” by witnessing something out of the ordinary.
- Set up a scoring opportunity on the next play. If successful the hit and run will get a runner to at least 3rd base, where the odds of scoring a run are significantly higher. (There are 11 ways to score from 3rd base).
- Rattle the defense, the pitcher, and maybe the entire other team. The hit and run play is a very aggressive offensive move in baseball, where a team is showing confidence not only in the skills of its baserunners, but also with the guy at bat.
- Make a statement. Some managers or teams will call such aggressive plays to show the opposition that they are fearless, or unafraid to take chances, therefore maybe putting extra pressure on defenders to execute well.
Note above that we used the term “high risk.” That’s because the hit and run play has great potential to backfire. It is not an easy play to execute properly. In fact, some managers call the play just to “make things happen,” or to “shake things up” from regular (what some may consider boring) baseball play.
Here is a list of bad things that can happen to the offensive team should things not go as planned on a hit-and-run play:
- The batter misses the swing, leaving the base runners vulnerable to be put out by a throw from the catcher. This is why most teams insist that the batter swing on the pitch, to at least foul it away, and “protect the runner.”
- The batter hits a line-drive to an infielder, leaving the runners out to dry for a line-out catch and toss to the base the runner had vacated for a double play.
- The batter pops the ball up into the air, whether in the infield or outfield, forcing the runners to stop from a dead sprint and scramble back to the bases whence they came.
- If called with less than 2 outs and 2 strikes on the batter, there can be a strike out-throw-out double play if the batter swings and misses, or a third strike is called.
Above, we mentioned that a more proper way to explain the hit and run play would be to call it the run-and-hit play, because that’s the sequence of events that occur on the play. But it’s not.
However, there is a run-and-hit play, which is similar in concept, yet quite different in terms of the hitter. On the run-and-hit, the batter is given the option to swing ~ instead of being ordered to swing no matter what.
Basically, the runners go with the pitch, then the batter decides whether he can do something with the pitch. Keen batters might use their peripheral vision to notice which infielder is running to cover 2nd base on the steal, and try to punch the ball through the hole left behind.
Or maybe the batter notices that the runner got a tremendous jump on the pitch and probably will steal the base safely, and decides not to swing to cancel the steal by fouling off the pitch.
A pitfall of the hit and run play is if a terrible pitch occurs, whether by accident or on purpose. Say, for example, that the pitch is way too high or wide for the hitter to put a bat on the ball ~ but still catchable by the catcher.
In that instance the runners are not “protected,” and the catcher may be in a very good position to make a solid unobstructed throw to put out the runner. Sometimes on hit and run plays you might wonder what a batter was swinging at, like when a pitch is very high or low in the dirt. If a runner was moving, it probably was a hit-and-run play and the batter was ordered to swing.
The hit and run play in baseball is designed for an offense to create scoring opportunities by forcing defenders to quickly move from their regular positioning on the field. It’s primarily about how infielders cover bases for throws on stolen base attempts.
If a baserunner is attempting to steal a base, someone in the infield has to leave their regular positioning to cover the base for the catcher’s throw.
This involves either the shortstop or the 2nd baseman. One of them has to leave the normal spot on the infield to run to 2nd base. Creating that single gaping hole in the infield defense is the main purpose of the hit-and-run play.
Question: What is “inside baseball”?
Answer: It’s a term that first surfaced in the last decade of the 1800s, and referred to a distinct new style of playing the game at the time. This style focused on singles, walks, bunts, and stolen bases, and eschewed hitting for power. Eventually, the term began to be used commonly to refer to very specialized knowledge about baseball.
Q.: Are there times when managers feel a need to “automatically” call a hit-and-run play?
A.: Not really. However, there is a situation where all runners are told to “take off on the pitch,” with expectation that the batter will either walk, strike a run-scoring hit, or end an inning by being put out: whenever there is a full count and 2 outs. On that final, decisive pitch, all runners can safely leave their base on the pitch because there is no fear of being doubled up or thrown out on a steal attempt.