Where Is the Wheel Play?
Hey Willie, where is the wheel?
We’re not talking wagon wheel nor Big Wheels nor Stealer’s Wheel. Rather, we’re talking about the “wheel play” — an aggressive defensive maneuver against the sacrifice bunt.
Willie Randolph uses one defensive strategy and one only against the bunt with a man on second — the standard. In this standard or “straight” defense, the third baseman charges but is supposed to retreat to third if the pitcher fields the ball, as there is no one else covering the 3B bag. It’s a dumb play, for two reasons. First, because it can be a very tough read for the third baseman to make. Second, if you watch play from behind the plate you’ll see shortstop Jose Reyes standing around in no-man’s land with nothing to do but pick his nose.
Another way to defend a bunt with a man on second is to run the “wheel play”, which you’ve likely heard from Keith Hernandez a thousand times but haven’t seen executed in Willie Randolph’s tenure as manager.
It’s a fairly simple play: the third baseman and first baseman charge, the shortstop covers third and the second baseman covers first. It’s called the “wheel play” because the shortstop and third baseman look like they’re circling (sort of). The only times you don’t use the wheel play are: 1) you don’t have an athletic shortstop who can beat the runner to third; 2) if you believe the batter might be swinging; 3) you want to play it really safe and are conceding the runner’s advancement to third because you don’t think it’s going to be a one-run game.
In yesterday’s game, the Braves had a runner on second with none out and bunted, but the Mets — as usual — played the standard and safe defense. David Wright mis-read the bunt and didn’t cover third, which was too bad because Johan Santana jumped on the bunt immediately and could have thrown out Mark Kotsay going to third. But you can’t blame David for the mis-read, as the play is designed to get the batter and allow the lead runner to take third base. As it turned out, Yunel Escobar hit a double to score Kotsay with the first run of the game. At the time, it was a scoreless game, and the Mets bats were clearly asleep against Braves ace John Smoltz. In other words, it was an ideal situation to be more aggressive about getting the lead runner.
There’s another issue with not using the wheel play, and I’m amazed no one has taken advantage of it yet. The bunting team can fake the bunt to draw the third baseman in, and then have the runner on second steal third easily, as the base will be unoccupied. Look for the Braves to pull that one on the Mets later in the season.
I’m not saying the Mets should always run the wheel play on a bunt with a man on second, but I am saying it’s something that should be considered at least once in a while. The Mets have the athleticism and intelligence to pull it off, so there’s every reason to “get it in the mix”, as Willie likes to say.