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There are runners on first and second with one out. The batter hits a grounder to third, which is fielded by the pitcher. The pitcher throws to first and gets the out. The runners on first and second advance. On the next at-bat, the batter singles and two runs score.

My question is why did the pitcher throw to first instead of third? Throwing to third would have been a force out (if I'm wrong about this, then of course that answers it). Furthermore, the pitcher was right next to third base when he fielded the ball, so it seems like the safer throw. Finally, getting the out at third would have prevented at least one of the runs scoring on the next at-bat. It seems like a better play all around. But the commentators never even mentioned this possibility, and in general I almost never see force outs at third. Can someone explain to me why this is?

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There are a couple reasons, but the primary one is thinking about the location of the runners by the time the ball is picked up.

There are a few things you're correct about:

  1. There is a force out at third.
  2. Throwing to a closer base is generally safer.
  3. Getting an out at third would probably have prevented at least one run from scoring.

But, it's important to consider these factss:

  1. The runner on second had a lead, and likely started running the moment contact was made (perhaps started running earlier, if the hit and run was on).
  2. The batter has to pivot before he starts moving towards first, and doesn't get a lead.
  3. The position of the other infielders matters. The third baseman may not have been in position while the first baseman was.

The first two points above combine to mean that when the pitcher gets the ball, the runner on second is much closer to third than the batter is to first. Thus, if he throws to third the runner may be safe anyway. Throwing to first is almost a guaranteed out - although the risk of a wild throw is higher, it's still pretty low for most infielders and pitchers. They practice this a lot. You'd also need a very fast runner to beat out a throw to first in most infield grounder situations.

For the third issue, if the third baseman was also charging the ball, then he would not have been in position to receive the throw at third and thus get the out. The first baseman would have been moving towards first as soon as the ball was hit and he recognized it wasn't coming his way, so he is going to be there, ready for the ball. The pitcher should check third if he has time, but if there's a fast runner or the ball was a slow roller, he may be concerned about missing both outs if the third baseman isn't there.

Of course, without seeing the play, it's hard to know just how close the pitcher and third baseman were to third, but these would be the most obvious reasons I can think of for the play happening the way you describe.

  • Two other factors worth mentioning: 1) Pitchers are concentrating on executing the pitch, not on what to do with the ball should they field it. "Get the sure out at first" is almost certainly the default reaction drilled into them, unless it is immediately obvious that a better option exists. 2) Pitchers sometimes have trouble throwing to a base, since the motion is much different than the their usual pitching motion. Ever wonder why even the routine throws to first base look so deliberate? They trying very hard not to fire a 90mph fastball at the first baseman. – chepner May 17 '17 at 21:08
  • I think its worth mentioning that if 3rd charges the ball the left fielder is supposed to cover 3rd, but they have a much longer way to run than the runner at second. – Voromir Kadien Feb 12 '18 at 7:22
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Without seeing the play it is difficult to access. I agree with comments but would also note the pitcher is probably unlikely to know where the runners on base (first and or second) are when he/she has the ball. My opinion, is the catcher will communicate to the pitcher which base to throw to. It could be third, possible second or first. Throwing to third or even second if feasible provides for a double play opportunity. If throwing to third or second is not a good call the catcher would communicate to throw to first.

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Another contributing factor ... if the pitcher was right handed and had to reach across his body to field the ball with his left/glove hand he is then in a much better position to - plant his right foot - and throw to first. From that same fielding position, in order to throw to third he would have to pivot/spin nearly 180 degrees to his right in order make the throw to third. That would consume valuable time which may cost him the out.

I must add that I too have always wondered why there aren’t more force outs at third. True the runner at second takes a lead and I could see that such a play mite be difficult to make from the right side of the infield … but I don't see why more shortstops don't attempt the play.

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