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The wheel play is a baseball strategy designed to defend against a sacrifice bunt (or tap hit) in a close game in situations in which the offense has a runner on second (or sometimes runners on first and second) and there are no outs (or occasionally with one out). This circumstance can make it imperative for the defense to get the lead runner out because the offense can score without a hit if there is a man at third base with less than two outs. The play's name derives from the wheel-like rotation of the infielders.
The wheel play is a unique bunt defense in that the play is designed to get the lead runner out at third. Most bunt defense strategies give the priority to making sure the team gets one out at first. The play begins with the shortstop breaking to cover third base. As the pitch is thrown, the third and first basemen rush toward home plate to be able to field the bunted ball as quickly as possible while the second basemen runs to cover first base. Additionally, the pitcher moves to back up the fielder on the side his pitching momentum carries him towards.
Ideally for the defense, if the ball is bunted, it goes directly to one of the charging fielders only a few feet past home plate. If it is bunted right at a fielder, the play is to throw to the shortstop (covering third base) for the tag or force out if permitted by the existence of a trail runner.
The offense may try to defeat the wheel play in one of several ways.
If the offense suspects the defense will put on the wheel play, and if sees the shortstop break for third too early or too late, it may send the runner(s) on a straight steal. If the shortstop leaves early, the runner on second will take a "walking lead" off the second base bag, and can be most or all of the way to third when the catcher takes the pitch. If the shortstop leaves too late, the man on second runs with the expectation that the shortstop cannot acquire position to take the throw on the steal. Either way, the effort by the catcher to throw to a moving target in the shortstop opens the possibility of an error permitting additional advance on the bases. Additionally, a man on first takes second without contest, as it will be uncovered. But if the shortstop has the play timed right, the runner from second will be caught stealing, generally with ease.
Alternately, the offense can send the runners towards the next base while instructing the hitter to use a "butcher boy" swing—show a bunting stance as the pitcher begins his delivery, but twist back and swing in full as the pitch arrives. The objective is to put a batted ball into the vacated middle of the field and produce a multiple base advance by the runners. However, because the hitter is moving so much, and since hitters called upon to bunt are often amongst the weakest hitters on the team, it is unusual for the "butcher boy" swing to yield the requisite batted ball, and more common for it to result in a swinging or fouled strike. That event subsequently limits a hitter's options as the at-bat proceeds, especially if he now has two strikes, which often nullifies a bunting strategy.
Defenses generally do not rely on the wheel play in bunt situations where the bunter is deemed a good enough hitter to be able to execute the "butcher boy" swing. Instead, the third baseman and shortstop will hold their positions, and the defense will rely on the pitcher to field the ball, and concede an advance to third if the bunt is well executed.
One of the earliest recorded instances of the wheel play being used in the major leagues was when it was executed by the Pittsburgh Pirates against the St. Louis Cardinals on August 14, 1960, resulting, as reported by The Pittsburgh Press, in "an electrifying double play [...] that had the 36,775 fans screaming." Several Pirate players and coaches said they had never seen the play before, but the Pirate players who executed the play attributed the original idea to former Cubs manager Charlie Grimm, who they thought used it in 1950.
- Ripken, Cal and Billy. "How to: The Wheel Play". Retrieved 13 April 2013.
- "Sacrifice Bunt Wheel Play ~ When Getting The Out At Third Base Is Essential!". Retrieved 13 April 2013.
- Biederman, Les. "Pirates Soar to 'Biggest' Lead". The Pittsburgh Press. August 15, 1960. Retrieved 22 February 2015.
- Cushing, Rick (August 15, 2010). "The Next Page: The August weekend that made the 1960s Pirates". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved April 23, 2013.