With the bases loaded and one out, Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras lofts a fly ball into shallow right field. If the ball is caught, it might be just deep enough to score a run as a sacrifice fly. If it drops, it might drive in not just one runner but two. In either case, a close play at the plate is possible, maybe even likely.
This is that fly ball, which I have watched on a loop no fewer than 100 times and shown to a variety of major league players, managers, coaches and beat writers, because of an obsession with one small detail that might not mean anything at all:
The detail is his bat. Normally Contreras drops his bat directly behind him in the batter's box, but as he starts toward first base, he pulls it into fair territory and lets it go right where the dirt around the plate meets the grass of the infield. He leaves it directly in line with where a throw home would travel, close to the spot where a one-hop throw would hit the ground, and perpendicular to the foul line so that it provides the widest possible obstacle. The perfect position to disrupt a throw.
Twelve seconds later, after a series of baseball happenings, a throw really did arrive home at just about the same time Addison Russell did. Russell was out. The bat didn't end up affecting the play, but there it was, hanging out quietly, like the tired old giving tree, still hoping it might somehow be helpful.
When romantics and poets talk about what makes baseball unique, they talk about its lack of a clock, or that the defense has the ball, or that it is a daily ritual, or that failure is such a disproportionate part of it. I'm neither a romantic nor a poet, and I think what makes baseball unique is its litter.
Anytime the batter makes contact with the ball, he drops his bat, and for as long as that ball is in play the bat stays there, literal deadwood, a three-pound piece of trash cluttering up the area around the plate. Like most litter, the bat is usually passive pollution. It gets flung off into the periphery by the batter, and it sits there until a bat boy comes to sweep it up. Sometimes it's left to be a nuisance, knocking around the catcher's feet until he or the umpire kicks it out of the road. Very occasionally it gets turned into art, as in the case of a beautiful bat flip.
In this analogy, what Contreras did (purposefully or by accidental luck) would be the equivalent of recycling -- of turning this trash into something not just benign but useful. The bat is part of the ground. If a thrown ball hits it, the play is live, and runners can advance as they're able. There is no rule against a batter leaving his bat in fair territory, whether purposefully or accidentally, which means the bat alone is able to do what the runner himself is explicitly prevented from doing:
Contreras gave the bat a possible second chance to help the Cubs score a run.
Other sports must deal with occasional litter -- a mouthguard that falls out or a piece of padding that gets tugged loose. But baseball produces this trash on every single batted ball. It is, like spent lotto scratch-offs and flat blackened gum wads and bottles of urine tossed out on interstates, omnipresent and all but worthless, until somehow it's not.
To understand Contreras' bat drop, we have to know where a bat usually lands.
Jay is a left-handed batter, and he will typically finish his swing, recoil somewhat as he begins running to first, and drop his bat to his right after a few steps toward first. Now here are the locations of every bat dropped during that May 27 game, superimposed onto one picture:
We tracked 32 bat drops in this game -- none of which came in a situation where a play at the plate was likely -- and only one ended up in fair territory. It was dropped by a left-handed batter who recoiled as he turned to run to first, then dropped the bat right on the chalk line; the bat rolled a foot or so fair after landing. As you can see, it is the norm that batters throw their trash away from play.
But now consider this hit, by Guillermo Heredia of the Seattle Mariners. With a runner on second, he singles to center field. He finishes his swing, then holds the bat taut in his left hand and begins running to first. As he leaves the batter's box, he actually flings the bat about 10 feet in front of the plate, onto the infield grass. The throw home, which is too late and a bit off target, lands just a few feet from the bat:
Had the throw been on target, the bat would have been almost perfectly in its path.
Here's Kyle Seager, also laying the bat down in the Contreras spot on a single to right field:
If ballplayers are secretly using the Contreras method to recycle their trash, we should see more bats in the field of play when it might pay off. So we watched 50 sacrifice-fly situations to see where batters leave their bats. It was more challenging than tracking bats live, because cameras don't always show where the bat is. But our best estimate was that four of these sacrifice fliers left their bats in fair territory, including one by Mike Trout:
And another by George Springer:
None of this is remotely conclusive. Trout and Heredia are right-handed recoilers who sometimes (but don't always) leave the bat in front of the plate even when there are no baserunners. Springer, like Contreras, might plausibly have left the bat there not by design but because his reaching swing pulled him across the plate, and because he was tentatively following the ball to see whether it was going to land fair or foul. Crucially, too, we found plenty of instances where all of these players didn't leave their trash in fair territory even though the situation might have called for it, and even though the swing would have allowed for it.
So we have to go to the experts.
"You're really writing about this?"
Steve Yeager, longtime major league catcher and the Dodgers' catching instructor, has just watched the Contreras play on my phone. He says "this" like he can barely suppress a snort.
"I don't think it's intentional," he continues. "Who can think that fast? Guys don't know where they drop the bat. They don't know. It's just one of those things."
And the dagger:
"I don't think they're that smart."
For the most part, this is a unanimous response from clubhouses. Austin Barnes, a Dodgers catcher, says he has never thought to do it and he's never suspected a batter of trying to do it. Brett Eibner, a Dodgers outfielder, says that in the split seconds after hitting a ball into play, his brain blacks out. "I'm just trying to get to first base as fast as I can." He briefly considers the unwritten rules of such a move -- "that's not the way I play the game" -- but then concludes, "if it works, that's good by him."
"I think on a sacrifice fly is more likely than that," says veteran Angels infielder Cliff Pennington, after watching Contreras' single. "You see how Albert Pujols finishes up high on every fly ball? It'd be easy for him to drop the bat out in front instead of behind. But I'm probably not even computing until the second or third step.
"I'll think about it next time," he continues. "But I think it'll be in the on-deck circle, and then when I'm done with the play I'll be like, 'Oh crap, I should have tried it!'"
Another major league catcher, who wanted anonymity to discuss shenanigans, said he sometimes uses the bat's litter quality strategically -- but on defense, not offense. "I'm hoping they'll leave the bat there," this major leaguer said. "Because then I can kick it into the baseline and they won't be able to slide into the plate." As a hitter, on the other hand, "I've never thought of it. There's a lot of details on your mind already."
But we already knew from our sac-fly survey that using the bat for obstruction isn't a universal strategy. We knew it was, at best, a trick that some players had perhaps discovered and kept as a secret. So we cast a wider net, and we finally found some confirmation that this tactic exists intentionally.
John Baker, who caught for seven years in the majors, says he saw batters place the bat in play on purpose -- and he even did it himself.
"Anything I could do for a mini advantage, I'd try," he said. "I would drop the bat in front of home plate. I even thought throwing my bat after grounders might distract someone. Competition turns us into psychos."
And Andrew Parker, who caught briefly in the Braves organization -- and who is one of the smartest on-field players I've ever known -- agreed that it's a real phenomenon. "Sometimes you would do it on a sac fly because you have time to think about it. I can't remember if I was directly told [by a coach] to do it, but it's something you think of. It's another thing as a catcher you have to deal with. I've had it be in the way and it's distracting."
Then why, I asked him, don't all hitters do it? "Not everyone is cerebral when they play, lol," he wrote. "That's the short answer."
The other short answer is that it's about a million-to-one that it'll ever matter. Searching through three decades of news accounts, we can be certain of only two times that a ball thrown home hit a bat in a major league game: In 2006, when Randy Winn's throw home hit the bat left on the ground by Bill Hall. Gabe Gross scored and Hall advanced to second base on what was charged to Winn as a throwing error. (A contemporary account of the play begins, "Here's a little trivia for you: When is it okay for your bat to hit the ball twice?")
And in August 1992, "The strangest error of the day belonged to Dodgers second baseman Eric Young. With the score 2-0 and Cardinals runners at first and third and no outs in the eighth, Young fielded Geronimo Pena's grounder and threw home to cut down the lead runner. His throw hit the bat lying in front of the plate and bounced away, allowing Milt Thompson to score. 'I've never seen that before,' Thompson said."
Most batted balls don't lead to plays at the plate. Most plays at the plate don't lead to outs. The overwhelming majority of throws wouldn't hit the bat. Even if they did, and an extra run scored, most runs aren't the difference between winning and losing a game. And most games aren't the difference between making and missing the playoffs. For good measure, you'd have to do it without the catcher or umpire noticing and tossing the bat out of play, which sometimes happens (though, from what we could tell, not usually if the bat is more than a couple of feet in front of the plate). Everything would have to line up just right for this to pay off.
That, though, is intrinsic in what we call "hustle." Baseball players run hard for clear and predictable rewards in all sorts of unambiguous situations, and we don't laud them for it. It becomes hustle only when the effort is unlikely to matter -- but it might. Hustle is running hard on 500 routine groundouts because 1 in 1,000 times it leads to an extra base. A whole career might pass without it ever paying off, but if it does, it'll be more than worth it. The rewards for hustle are unpredictable, uncertain, but often disproportionate to the effort required.
There was one other time we found that a thrown ball hit a bat, though the situation was different: Carl Everett was batting when the pitch got away from the catcher. The runner started to advance, the catcher retrieved the ball, and Everett stood perfectly still with his bat upright. The catcher's throw to second hit Everett's bat and bounced into left field; the runner came all the way around to score.
"I've caught, I knew what was happening," Everett said. He knew, even though Rangers manager Buck Showalter came out to protest, the ploy was good. "As long as I'm in the batter's box and not jumping around trying to get in the way, I'm in play."
A million-to-one play.
Everett's Mariners still lost.