The Baseball Codes

RIP Stan Williams

Stan Williams passed away over the weekend at age 84. I became fully aware of his career while researching the Intimidation chapter of The Baseball Codes, after ex-players of a certain vintage kept talking about the scariest guy they’d ever faced: an enormous Dodgers right-hander who somehow wasn’t Don Drysdale. That was when I began to compile a dossier on Williams, and began to consider him as a vital interview for the book.

As it happened, connecting with the guy was easy. Williams was scouting for the Devil Rays at the time, and came to San Francisco on assignment. He was more than happy to chat.

By that point, the person who scared the bejeezus out of a generation of big league hitters was no longer evident. Instead, I found a jovial baseball lifer who embraced his reputation with levity. He described his approach to me as “tongue-in-cheek intimidation.”

“What really inspired me to throw at a batter was if he came up to home plate with a bat in his hand,” he grinned. “I never threw at anybody that wasn’t in my zone. All I wanted was one yard on each side of the plate. You get in my zone, you’re fair game.”

That was a joke, but it was also a learned trait, taught to Williams when he turned pro.

“It was pretty well known among the Dodgers that if you didn’t knock the hitters on their butts, you wouldn’t be around very long,” he said. “When I came out of high school, I didn’t know what a knockdown pitch was. I dropped a few people, but it was because I was wild. Finally, I learned the hard way. They told me that every time I went two strikes and no balls on a hitter, I had to throw high and inside. I guided the first two or three in there, and they got tattooed for home runs or long doubles. I got fed up with that, so I started throwing as hard as I could, right at their chin. And that became a very good knockdown pitch.”

As his reputation grew, Williams took to throwing breaking balls that started at hitters’ shoulders, and yelling “Watch out!” as the pitch left his hand. “The guy would lean back and the pitch would break over the plate,” he said.

It was a different era.

Williams left such an impression that I wrote an entire passage about him in the first draft of The Baseball Codes, only a small portion of which made it into the final copy. Today it seems appropriate day to share the whole thing. Rest in peace, Mr. Williams.

***

The Los Angeles Dodgers of the 1960s employed one of the most intimidating pitching staffs in major-league history. Batters feared Sandy Koufax because he was better than them. They feared Don Drysdale because he was better than them, and he might also plant a fastball into their ribs.

But the guy they really feared was Stan Williams.

Williams was not nearly the equal of Koufax or Drysdale, although he had decent success over a 14-year, injury-marred big league career, winning as many as 15 games and making an All-Star team. That was not why hitters feared him.

They feared him because he was scary.

At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Williams was not only willing to throw baseballs at batters, but seemed to enjoy it. The right-hander was intimidating because he was big, he was intimidating because he threw extremely hard, and he was intimidating because, as far as hitters were concerned, he may well have been crazy.

“You try to get them out legitimately the first time around, and if that doesn’t work, then you drill them in the ribs and start over again,” Williams said, describing his pitching philosophy. “You try everything at your disposal first, and if a guy just keeps wearing you out—well, it’s either him or me, and I’m going to do my share to make it him. That’s what it was all about.”

Williams was wild when he first came up, itself an intimidating characteristic in a pitcher who threw as hard as he did. He was so wild, in fact, that the Dodgers tied his bonus money to walks allowed, giving him financial incentive to issue fewer free passes. The team’s mistake, at least according to hitters around the league, was failing to draft a similar clause for hit batsmen. His Dodgers teammate, Ron Fairly, described the situation like this: “Keep in mind, Stan Williams could throw the ball as hard as Sandy Koufax. Well, Stan would find himself in a particular game with a 3-0 count, we’re up by five runs, the pitcher’s coming up next. Whack—right in the ribs.”

Fairly said that he once saw Williams tack up a photo of Hank Aaron in the back of his locker and set to firing baseballs at it. When asked what he was doing, Williams’ answer was concise: “Practicing.”

Even after his playing career, the pitcher made little effort to alter his reputation, plying his unique brand of intimidation as pitching coach for the Red Sox, Yankees, White Sox and Reds over a dozen seasons. He never felt much need to adjust people’s preconceptions about him.

Williams recalled a time while coaching with New York in 1979, when he was approached before batting practice by Yankees catcher Cliff Johnson—himself 6-foot-4 and 225 lbs., and known as an intimidator in his own right. By way of conversation, Johnson mentioned that, had their career paths intersected, a knockdown from Williams would have resulted in a less-than-friendly visit to the pitcher’s mound.

“Let me tell you two things,” Williams said. “Number one, you wouldn’t have made it to the mound because I’d have met you halfway. And number two, number one isn’t going to change number two.”

This stopped Johnson cold, mainly because he had no idea what Williams was talking about. He asked what “number two” was.

“It didn’t matter whether you kicked my ass or I kicked yours,” Williams said. “The next time you came up, I’d have hit you right in the neck.”

The sentiment was partly bravado—although Williams hit 71 batters over the course of his career, he never once led his league in the category—but there was more to it than that. Williams threw batting practice that day, and when Johnson stepped into the cage, he found himself facing a succession of inside fastballs that eventually backed him up into the screen. It was good-natured intimidation between members of the same team, but it was intimidation nonetheless.

Williams’ most lasting legacy, however, might be the List.

The List was compiled in a small notebook that Williams carried with him everywhere, on and off the field. Inside was written the name of anyone who had ever offended Williams’ baseball sensibilities, through action or ability. Guys who hit him hard were noted next to those who showed him up. Accompanying the names were stars, added for ensuing transgressions. Should a player collect three stars, Williams explained, he effectively became a dental patient—due for a drilling.

There are countless List-inspired stories. The most interesting of them concerns the last man on it. His name was Barry Latman, and his name was inscribed into the book early in 1961.

At that point, Williams was 24 years old and a three-year vet, and was pitching for Los Angeles against Cleveland in a spring exhibition game in Las Vegas. Williams started, but because it was spring training, and because it was Las Vegas, and because he had stayed up until dawn, and because the first pitch was scheduled before noon, he wasn’t exactly in mid-season form. This is where his reputation proved to be counter-productive.

Williams ended up bouncing a pitch off the helmet of Cleveland’s Bubba Phillips, which might have pleased the pitcher greatly had that been his goal. As it was, not only was it a mistake, but Williams was throwing so softly, he said, that “I wouldn’t have hurt him if I’d hit him in the neck.”

Nonetheless, teammates are expected to protect each other, and the next time Williams stepped to the plate he was drilled in the ribs by Cleveland pitcher Barry Latman.

“Stan never moved,” said Fairly. “He didn’t even try to get out of the way of it. Didn’t flinch. The ball hit him and he stood there for three or four seconds.” Before Williams started toward first, he glared toward the mound and offered a concise warning: “Hey Barry, now it’s my turn.”

Dodgers manager Walter Alston, wanting to avoid needless escalation in a meaningless game, promptly pulled Williams. “Stan was going to hit every batter that came up there,” recalled Fairly. “You don’t fool around with a guy like that.”

Denied immediate revenge, Williams added Latman’s name to the List. The problem was, the only time they faced each other over the coming years—in 1963, when Williams was pitching for the Yankees—the score was too close to exact revenge.

Things changed in 1965. Battling injuries, Williams found himself with the Triple-A Seattle Angels, where he shared a clubhouse with another veteran struggling to make it back to the big leagues: Barry Latman. When Williams realized who he’d be teaming with, he laughed out loud. The two talked, sharing war stories as the old men in a clubhouse full of kids, and quickly developed a tight bond.

One day, Williams was assigned to pitch batting practice, and didn’t offer a moment of hesitation when his old foe stepped in against him. The surprised Latman quickly found himself in the way of a fastball.

“That’s for Vegas!” Williams yelled toward the plate. “If you don’t like it, come on out.”

Latman stayed put. Mission finally accomplished, Williams retired the List on the spot.

Web Help

On Trying To Work Smarter

After a decade spent blogging about baseball’s unwritten rules, I was at a bit of a crossroads. My book, The Baseball Codes, was long since a bestseller and continues to move copies at a reasonable pace. Still, I was only at 1,500 Twitter followers and driving less traffic on my website than I felt my efforts deserved. I’m confident in the quality of the writing, and the topics are timely. That much I know. What I don’t know is what else I can be doing.

Enter Dan Blewett.

Actually, I knew him first as Coach Dan, former minor league pitcher and purveyor of some of the finest baseball instruction I’ve found on the Internet. That’s how I found him. I’m a youth baseball coach, my 12-year-old son is a pitcher, and I have turned to dozens of Dan’s YouTube clips for all sorts of insight about the form and function of baseball.

A comment on one of his tweets led to an email exchange, which led me to guest on his podcast, which led to an offline discussion about how Dan is undergoing a career transition into the web-optimization realm. He still makes coaching videos—you better believe he’ll hear it from me if he ever stops—but now he’s also in the business of helping people get the most out of their online presence.

When I suggested to Dan that I would be a willing subject and will gladly document every step of our process, he took right to it. Now we’re partners. Over the coming months, Dan is going to help me position myself online in ways that I could scarcely have imagined, and we’ll catalog the results. More web traffic will be terrific, as will more Twitter followers.

The metric that means the most to me, of course, is book sales, and we’re hoping that increases in the former will, with some strategic thinking, lead to the latter.

There are many steps along the way. Dan has already assessed my blog and my Twitter feed and is making assorted upgrade recommendations. (I’ll detail those as they develop.) He also insisted that the primo forum for developing a baseball-based community is Facebook. Unfortunately for this sensibility, I iced my Facebook account a couple of years ago, unable to stomach what I felt were toxic corporate stances, which have only grown worse over time. I include that detail less to bash Facebook (deserving as it may be) than to offer a full accounting of what we’ve been discussing, in case anybody is looking for tips.

***

Over the coming weeks I will write about processes and collaboration and organization and numerous other items that crop up, but let’s start with Google. Because if your website appears at the top of a given Google search—or anyplace close—that’s as good as gold.

One of Dan’s first tasks was to figure out which topics from baseballcodes.com ranked well, and then help me improve them. The one on which he settled was “pitch tipping.”

That subject, he told me, could be leveraged with a minimum of effort. I have written about it numerous times over the years, each post tied to a news peg. If I could combine them, Dan said, their cumulative links have a chance to rank near the top of a Google search for the term.

His instruction: Write a compendium of my previous posts, with an introduction and a conclusion. Call it Guide to Pitch Tipping.

Because the phrase “tipping pitches” has four times the search volume of “pitch tipping,” he said, utilizing each term roughly half of the time throughout the piece will maximize reach.

Here are the basics he gave me. Really, it’s Web Optimization 101. I offer it up here in case anyone out there is in a boat similar to my own.

Dan says that every article in this format should include:

  • Three to four common questions answered: Ask the question as a heading and answer it succinctly but thoroughly. Google is searching for the most common answers for every subject, and it looks through your article for the question and the answer. So make Google’s job easy.
  • Break up the article with headings wherever you can—this helps readability, and longer read times improve ranking. It’s also important to put keywords in headings. In this case, make one heading with “Pitch Tipping” in it, and another with “Tipping Pitches.”
  • Chop up long paragraphs for the same reason above. People start skimming when they see big blocks of text. Blog posts are fundamentally different than books or longform journalism. Break into a new paragraph every three to six lines, if you can.
  • Add two photos and be sure to add keywords in the alt-text attribute. “Pitcher tipping pitches” would be a great alt text, as would “tipping pitches in baseball” or “MLB pitcher tipping his pitches.” Every photo should have a slightly different alt text that still includes some keyphrase related to the article.
  • Include external media whenever it’s relevant. YouTube embeds work well. Twitter, too. Embedded media in general is helpful to a ranking.
  • If updating an old post, be sure to change the date to today’s date when you republish the update.
  • Link to anything you can. Links tell Google that the article has lots of helpful information, and linking over keywords (like “tipping pitches” hyperlinked to an external piece of content) tells Google that those are important. Internal links to your own content is also very helpful.
  • Always link to your books. If you mention The Baseball Codes. Link to it.

Those are my marching orders. Next up: Pitch Tipping. I’ll check back in with results, once results are there to be had.

The Baseball Codes

The Complete Guide To Tipping Pitches In Baseball

Although sign stealing has dominated headlines over recent years, just as prevalent for hitters—and far less discussed—is the concept of pitch tipping. What does it mean when a pitcher is tipping pitches? Simply put, it’s when a pitcher unknowingly telegraphs information about the type of pitch he’s about to deliver.

Nothing can send a pitcher fleeing toward the video room quicker than the specter of tipping pitches, and nothing raises that specter faster than making quality pitches, and watching those pitches get hammered all over the yard.

Pitch tipping is distinct from sign stealing in that no espionage is necessary, no teammates or coaches required to decode a catcher’s signals and subsequently relay them to the hitter.

The pitcher handles that part all by himself.

Tipping pitches is entirely a function of a pitcher getting careless, and doing something in his delivery for one type of pitch that he does not do for others. It could involve flaring a glove when gripping a changeup (this is common, as the hand must wrap around the ball in ways it does not do for a fastball or curveball, which can necessitate extra space in the pocket), or coming set with elbows wide for one type of pitch but against the body for another type of pitch.

If there is a tell to be found on a big league mound, hitters will find it—and news spreads quickly across the league. Until the pitcher adjusts, things will not be comfortable for him.

This happens more frequently than one might assume. The Baseball Codes blog has documented numerous instances of pitch tipping across Major League Baseball over recent years. In this Guide, we’ll answer some common questions and then go through seven specific examples in which tipped pitches played a major role in the outcome of an MLB game.

Tipping Pitches: Frequently Asked Questions

Below you’ll find some of the most common questions about pitch tipping.

What are the most common ways pitchers tip pitches?

Any behavior that distinguishes one type of pitch from another qualifies. It can be as simple as positioning one’s hands at the belt when coming set for one type of pitch, and at the chest for another. Numerous examples are discussed below.

Does picking up tipped pitches break any written or unwritten rules?

No. Successful ballplayers are observant of their surroundings, and this is an outreach of that. They are neither stealing nor relaying signs, or even looking anyplace that they should not. If a hitter (or, more likely, a team full of hitters) is found to be taking advantage of a pitcher’s tell, the pitcher’s only proper response is to correct whatever it is he’s doing.

Who typically discovers that a pitcher is tipping his pitches?

Until hitters start taking advantage of them, tells usually go unnoticed. Once a pitcher starts taking a hit to his ERA despite making quality pitches, however, he begins looking for explanations. Frequently, video review will pinpoint the problem.

When a team picks up a pitcher’s “tell,” do hitters want to be told what’s coming?

This is the same dilemma faced by hitters on teams proficient in sign stealing. While knowing what type of pitch is coming is a boon to many hitters, this is not universally true. Some hitters feel more comfortable reacting to pitches rather than anticipating them, and feel that advance knowledge hinders that process.

In the case of Nellie Fox, the slap-hitting Hall of Fame second baseman for the White Sox in the 1950s and early ’60s, he steadfastly did not want to know what was coming, despite the elaborate sign-stealing system in his team’s home ballpark. Fox, all of 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, feared that being signaled would inspire him to muscle up … and lead to a spate of warning-track flyballs.

Pitch-Tipping Over Time, From the Annals of The Baseball Codes

Below you’ll find some of my work over the years – examples of MLB hurlers tipping their pitches even at the highest level of baseball. If you’re new here and interested in the unwritten rules of baseball, be sure to check out my first book, The Baseball Codes, with tons of stories about pitch tipping, sign stealing, bean balls and more.

The unwritten rules of America’s pastime continue to evolve, so stay tuned for more articles from me whenever new violations occur.

Houston Astros Discover Tyler Glasnow’s Tell (and Tee Off)
Oct. 11, 2019

The Astros are moving on to the ALCS, and a lot of people are pinning at least some of their success Thursday on the way Rays starter Tyler Glasnow held his glove upon coming set. Above the letters, Houston hitters seemed to figure out, meant that a fastball was on the way; somewhat lower indicated curveball. This might be how a pitcher who topped 98 mph against every hitter he faced, and supplemented his heater with one of the sport’s better curveballs, nonetheless managed to serve up four first-inning runs.

The 15-mph differential between Glasnow’s fastball and his breaking pitches should have been more than enough to throw off the timing of Houston’s hitters. For most of that first inning, he didn’t come close.

Sure enough, various Astros were seen prepping each other for what was to come, with Alex Bregman going so far as to inform Carlos Correa that “if it’s down, it’s a curveball; if it’s up, it’s a fastball.”

Judge for yourself, courtesy of @Jomboy_:

In the postgame studio, Alex Rodriguez, breaking down film, posited that he was “99 percent” sure the pitcher displayed a tell.

Whatever advantage the Astros got from Glasnow’s miscues, their tactics were not only legal, but are a goal in every clubhouse across the land. Houston has recent history with this sort of strategy, winning the 2017 World Series after Carlos Beltran noticed that when Dodgers starter Yu Darvish re-gripped the ball while bringing it to his glove, he gave away whether he was about to throw a fastball or a breaking pitch. Darvish faced the Astros twice in the Series, throwing a total of 48 sliders and cutters, against which Houston batted .556. He didn’t make it out of the second inning either time, giving up five runs over 1.2 innings in the deciding Game 7. [Since this was first published, we have learned that some other stuff happened that was detrimental to Darvish’s performance in the 2017 World Series.]

The Baseball Codes explored the history about the phenomenon. One particularly potent passage, which was edited out of the final copy, lends further detail to the phenomenon:

Although Hall of Fame spitball pitcher Burleigh Grimes shielded the ball with his glove to keep hitters from knowing whether or not he was preparing for a spitter, members of the Phillies realized that his hat brim—visible above the top of his glove—would rise when he opened his mouth to spit, then laid off the ensuing pitches. It worked beautifully, at least until the pitcher wised up and got a bigger cap.

Picking up tells can be a veritable art form, with master practitioners noticing things about a player that escape even the most astute observer. Bob Turley, for example, in addition to being a great sign thief, could also pick up tells better than almost anybody in the game.

“When (Connie Johnson) starts his windup, he’ll move his foot to the other end of the rubber if he’s going to throw his screwball,” he once told Mickey Mantle, as reported in Baseball Digest. “Billy Pierce always wore a long, heavy sweatshirt, no matter how hot it was. When he went into his glove to grip a fastball, you would see the back of his wrist. When he was going to throw a curve, he would get deeper in there and you would not see his wrist. Early Wynn, when he pitched from the stretch, where were his hands before he threw? If he was going to throw a knuckleball, they were at his belt. For a fastball, he’d come up under his chin. Slider, around his nose. Curve, up at his forehead. Jim Bunning altered his windup a little depending on what he was going to throw.”

As for Glasnow, he himself admitted that “it was pretty obvious, as far as the tips go.” That was more than the Astros would say, possibly out of professional courtesy, and possibly out of the understanding that the less they give away, the more likely that they’ll be able to continue taking advantage again next season.

Glasnow seemed to correct course, maybe as soon as mid-inning. He struck out Correa and Josh Reddick to end the first, then set down the next five straight hitters before being removed in the third.

By then, of course, it was far too late. The Astros won, 6-1, to secure their spot against the Yankees in the ALCS. They get to figure out if Severino is still tipping, while Glasnow has the winter to work this particular kink out of his delivery.

***

Luis Severino Struggles in ALDS; Yankees Wonder If Pitch Tipping Was To Blame
Oct. 12, 2018

They’re saying now that Luis Severino’s dismal start against the Red Sox in Game 3 of the ALCS—you know, the one that Boston ended up winning, 16-1—may have been compromised by tipped pitches.

According to Fancred’s John Heyman, various Yankees heard “chatter” about it from folks around the Red Sox. (Important to note that Heyman used the word “people,” not “players.”) The possibility was noted on the Red Sox broadcast by Lou Merloni, and Jackie Bradley Jr. was caught on camera, in the dugout, calling for a fastball moments before Severino delivered one.

The idea is that Severino did something in his pre-pitch setup, or even during the course of his delivery, that gave Red Sox hitters advance notice of what he was about to throw. If this is true, it gave the Red Sox a huge advantage, allowing them to lay off as Severino’s devastating slider sailed outside the strike zone.

On one hand, this is supported by fact: According to CBS Sports, Boston hitters offered at only six of the pitcher’s 15 sliders on the day, a 40-percent rate that’s lower than the 47.2-percent rate he posted during the regular season. On the other hand, if one Red Sox hitter had swung just once more at any one of those pitches, the offer rate against him would have been effectively the same as it had all season.

Still, Severino virtually abandoned the pitch toward the end of his outing, throwing only two sliders across the final nine hitters he faced. That left him with only a fastball and a changeup, and as we’ve long since learned, fastball pitchers—no matter how potent the fastball—have a difficult time surviving in the big leagues without a potent breaking pitch to accompany it.

Whether the right-hander was actually tipping is up for debate. Severino’s splendid first half of the season—a 2.10 ERA with 132 strikeouts against only 26 walks, and six homers allowed with a 15-2 record over 17 starts in the season’s first three months—contrasts starkly with his final three months: 5.20 ERA, 88 whiffs and 20 walks, 13 homers over 15 starts, a 9-6 record.

But here’s the thing: Hitters were waving at his slider at almost exactly the same rate all season. By this metric, anyway, Severino’s late-season failures had nothing to do with him fooling them less. The fact that he lost nearly a mile-per-hour off his fastball between his June peak and October might have more to do with it, or that his slider’s movement across the strike zone steadily decreased as the season wore on.

The Yankees, of course, aren’t talking. Neither are the Red Sox. Trade secrets like this are valuable commodities, after all. One thing to be certain of is that if Severino was tipping, the Yankees will be all over it this off-season, and come spring training the righty will have something to work on in addition to his regular regimen.

***

Hard-Lesson on Tipping Pitches From the Cactus League: Tip Your Waitstaff, Not Your Pitches
March 24, 2016

John Danks wasn’t much good for the White Sox last year … or in 2014 … or in 2013, for that matter. His new catcher thinks he knows why.

Early in spring training, Dioner Navarro told the lefthander that he’d been holding his glove in different positions during his delivery, depending upon whether he was throwing a fastball or a breaking ball, according to a report from CBS Chicago. Hitters noticed. “We fixed it,” Danks said, “and it has not been an issue since.”

Prior to this season, when Navarro was a member of the Rays, Cubs and Blue Jays, he was 11-for-26 against Danks, including three home runs. Seems like he’s noticed something in the southpaw’s delivery for a while.

Pitch-tipping, of course, is a fairly common occurrence. Should a player notice a hitch in a pitcher’s delivery, word quickly spreads around the league. Navarro was hardly the only hitter to benefit from Danks’ mistakes.

Should Danks continues to improve, it’ll be nothing but good for the White Sox and his career. He’ll always have to ask himself, however, why nobody said anything to him sooner.

***

Big Tipper: Rays Worry About Matt Moore Tipping Pitches & Giving Away Too Much Information
April 20, 2012

In Tampa, hopes are high for pitcher Matt Moore. The 22-year-old is one of the top prospects in all of baseball, and a rotation anchor—they hope—for years to come.

Which is why, when things started to go wrong for him early this season—especially after Sunday’s 6-4 loss to Boston, in which Moore gave up six runs and eight hits in 6.1 innings—alarm bells started to ring. Even as that game unfolded, team brass tried to figure out what was happening.

Their first thought: Tipping. As in, Moore was telegraphing the type of pitch he was about to throw, just before he threw it. From the Tampa Bay Times:

In acknowledging how “locked-in” [the Red Sox] were, Rays manager Joe Maddon mentioned, open-endedly, that “it’s like they know what’s coming almost.” He noted how “they’re on everything right now,” no matter what type of pitch it was, and how they were “spitting on”—taking—certain borderline pitches.

What raised the specific pitch-tipping concerns about Moore were the aggressive swings the Red Sox were taking, particularly unexpected given their limited previous exposure to him. By the fifth inning, pitching coach Jim Hickey was meeting with Moore and catcher Chris Gimenez to try to figure things out. Gimenez said they thought that Moore might be “tapping his glove on his fastball.”

To guard against the possibility that it was something else, like Boston hitters peeking at signs, Gimenez began setting up as late as possible, just before Moore was ready to pitch.

Boston’s concerns were assuaged after reviewing video of the game, which showed that the hammered pitches were all out over the plate—hittable because they were bad, not tipped. Moore seemed all too relieved to eliminate tipping as a cause of his woes.

“Maybe [I tipped some pitches] years ago when I was in rookie ball or something like that,” he said in the Times. “But not as far as I can remember.”

The thing is, such frailties can manifest even in veteran pitchers with no such history. In the last couple of seasons alone, we’ve seen similar issues with Tim Lincecum (who quickly corrected things), Johan Santana and Ben Sheets

From The Baseball Codes:

Tells can be as simple as a pitcher keeping his glove snapped tight when throwing a fastball but flaring it out for a breaking ball, or coming set with his glove at his belt for one type of pitch but at his chest for another. Matt Morris, for example, was lit up by the Braves during his rookie season in St. Louis after they noticed that the exposed index finger on his glove hand pointed upward whenever he threw a fastball, but lay flat for curves. Once he pinpointed the trouble, Morris quickly fixed it by attaching a flap to his glove that covered the finger.

Examples like this litter the game’s history. When Babe Ruth first came to the American League as a pitcher with the Red Sox, he curled his tongue in the corner of his mouth whenever he threw a curveball—a habit he was forced to break once enough hitters became aware of it. Kansas City’s Mark Gubicza was cured of his tendency to stick out his tongue when throwing a breaking ball under similar circumstances. Ty Cobb reg­ularly stole bases against Cy Young, abetted, said the outfielder, by the fact that Young’s arms drifted away from his body when he came set before throwing to first; when he was preparing to pitch, he pulled his arms in.

Pitcher Todd Jones dished similar dirt on several competitors in an article he wrote for Sporting News in 2004: “When Andy Benes pitched, he always would grind his teeth when throwing a slider. In Hideo Nomo’s first stint inL.A., he’d grip his split-finger fastball differently than his fastball. Randy Johnson would angle his glove differently on his slider than on his fastball. I’ve been guilty of looking at the third-base coach as I come set when gripping my curveball. When hitters see this, word gets around the league. In fact, my old teammate Larry Walker was the one who told me what I was doing. He said he could call my pitches from the outfield.”

We’ll see tonight if all this deliberation has made a difference, when Moore makes his first start since Boston, against the Twins.

***

Are Johan Santana’s Struggles Due to Tipped Pitches? It’s a Moot Point, Now
July 8, 2010

It seems so obvious for pitchers: Don’t telegraph what type of pitch you’re about to throw, or hitters will jump all over it. (Matt Morris, for example, once had the habit of pointing the exposed index finger on his glove hand straight up when delivering fastballs, which allowed the opposition to pounce . . . until he affixed a flap to cover the finger.)

This week, another tale of a tell has surfaced, this time with Johan Santana. According to Bob Klapich in the Bergen Record, the Mets’ ace was unknowingly tipping his devastating changeup, which cost him dearly against the Twins, who elicited 41 first-inning pitches while swinging and missing at exactly one pitch. They scored five runs in six innings against him.

Writes Klapich: “Turns out the giveaway was the action of Santana’s glove as he began his windup: the fingers would flare as Santana dug into the leather to grip the change, which required him to make an A-OK configuration with his hand. The glove, however, remained still as Santana prepared to throw the fastball.”

Once they caught on, the Mets instructed Santana to lower his glove to belt level, which better hid his pre-pitch mechanics.

The results: In Santana’s most recent start he threw a complete-game, three-hit shutout against the powerful Reds, and has given up only one run given up over his last 16 innings.

Pitchers don’t generally like to talk about (or admit to) any tells they might suffer, but even though Santana’s silence, it’s incredible how much difference one small adjustment can make.

***

Pitch Tipping, Real or Imagined, No Longer Plaguing Sheets
June 9, 2010

In the current issue of ESPN the Magazine, Buster Olney has a terrific column about tipping pitches—the mannerisms a pitcher unknowingly exhibits that show the hitter exactly what type of pitch is about to be delivered.

For example, explains Olney, a splayed glove on a right-handed pitcher can be a giveaway for a changeup, because a pitcher usually has to dig his hand into the glove to get a proper grip on the ball. Similarly, some pitchers come set with their glove farther away from their bodies when preparing to throw a curve, to better articulate the proper wrist angle.

The problem with Olney’s article is that it’s centered on A’s pitcher Ben Sheets, who at the end of a strong April encountered consecutive rocky starts—eight earned runs in four innings against Tampa Bay on April 27, and nine earned runs in three-and-a-third against Toronto on May 2.

Speculation at the time said that Sheets was tipping his pitches, something Olney corroborates both circumstantially—Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston is a master at pitch-tip recognition—and actually—unnamed members of the “Oakland staff” determined via video that Sheets was tipping his curve by holding it differently than his fastball.

All of which sounds great, and might be true. Only Olney didn’t talk to Sheets (or if he did, he didn’t reference the conversation in his story).

When the rumors surfaced a few weeks ago, I asked Sheets if there was anything to them. He insisted that his pitching problems had far more to do with faulty mechanics than with any sort of tipping problem.

“I wish I could blame it on something that easy, but I don’t believe that was the reason I got hammered in two starts, by any means,” he said. “What I corrected wasn’t that. That was the big theory, but I made some mechanical adjustments that I think helped me get more outs than worrying whether I was tipping or not.” (He declined to provide specifics for his issues, or the adjustments he made.)

This could be a smokescreen, except for the fact that there’s not much need for one. By the time I spoke to Sheets, the problem—be it mechanical or tipping—had already been corrected, and the right-hander didn’t have much (if anything) to lose by copping to tipping, were that the case. (He faced Tampa Bay again on May 8, and held them to four hits over six-and-a-third innings.)

“Trust me, there was a lot more than tipping going on with my stuff,” he said. “It was just not good pitching. I wasn’t throwing the ball well. It had nothing to do with the hitter—it had to do with making a good pitch.”

Interestingly, Sheets did admit to having suffered from tipping problems in the past, although he wouldn’t specifically identify his tells, or when they happened.

Either way, he’s recovered at least part of his mojo. Since his disastrous outing on May 2, he’s thrown at least six innings in each of his seven starts, with a 3.56 ERA. During that time he’s lowered his overall ERA from 7.12 to 4.96.

Pitchers across the league suffer from any variety of tells, but this facet of the game is infrequently brought to the public’s attention. Sheets’ problem appears to have been fixed; all that’s left is to enjoy the discussion.

***

Will Tipping Pitches Continue to be a Problem for Pitchers in the MLB?

Until baseball transitions to robotic pitchers, pitch tipping will continue to exist. In one sense, it might be more of a problem than ever; as intensive video review becomes the norm, details about pitchers habits and mannerisms will drift ever closer to common knowledge. Then again, as baseball shifts toward rosters filled with fireballing relievers, tipping pitches might becomes less relevant. After all, it doesn’t take a detective to know when a fastball is coming, if that’s pretty much all a guy throws.

If you want to learn more about baseball’s unwritten rules, check out my book, The Baseball Codes. It’s available on audiobook, Kindle and paperback from your favorite bookseller. Grab a copy, and check out my other baseball titles, by clicking below. Thanks for reading!

– Jason

jason turbow books

The Baseball Codes

RIP Hank Aaron

“The best thing I could have done is play with Hank Aaron, and be with Hank every day.”
—Dusty Baker

The first person I thought of when I heard that Hank Aaron died was Dusty Baker. I never met Aaron, but I’ve spent significant time around Dusty, and it was obvious from the beginning how much reverence Baker holds for the man.

Here’s the thing about that. Dusty is among the most charismatic figures I’ve ever interviewed, a man who commands the attention of a room simply by being in it. He would drop life lessons as a matter of course during his pregame press conferences while managing the Giants. I found myself in a constant state of wonder around him.

So to see a man like that in such obvious awe of somebody else—even a peer, which is what Aaron was to Baker, in addition to being a mentor—speaks volumes about the nature of Hank Aaron’s character. The sheer number of times that Dusty refers to lessons that Aaron taught him can be overwhelming.

Going through interviews I did with Baker for They Bled Blue and The Baseball Codes, a pattern quickly emerges:

  • “Hank Aaron always used to tell me to go out in the elements get used to them …”
  • “Hank told us no matter what you do, stay together …”
  • “Hank told me don’t bunt on Drysdale, don’t showboat, don’t dig in against him …” 
  • “Hank taught us not to clown or showboat …”
  • “Hank told me and Ralph Garr to work out during the strike …”
  • “Hank taught us to walk behind the umpire on your way to the plate …”
  • “Hank used to tell me Don Newcombe didn’t like you hitting the ball up the middle on him …” 
  • “Hank would to tell us all the time to keep the umpire in the equation.  If he was a shorter umpire, he was gonna be a low-ball umpire.  A taller guy would be a high-strike umpire …”
  • “I came from the Hank Aaron school, where you just run around the bases …”

See a pattern?

I’ve long harbored a deep admiration of Aaron, aided Baker’s unyielding appreciation. Baseball lost one of its brightest lights, now or ever, today.

I’ll close with something Dusty told me one spring training many years ago:

“I say ‘Hank Aaron taught me this,’ or ‘Hank Aaron taught me that,’ because it’s not right for me to say I thought something up when I didn’t.  People are always saying, ‘Dusty, what do you know on your own? You’re always using other people’s names.’  Well, I can’t act like the genius expert who invented all this stuff.  There’s not a whole lot of new knowledge—there’s just a lot of old stuff that people are trying to make new.”

Aaron had the good stuff, and Dusty knew it. He’s spent a lot of years making sure that we know it, too.

Rest in peace, Hammer.

The Baseball Codes

RIP Don Sutton

Don Sutton, who passed away yesterday at age 75, has a unique place in each of my three books. In Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, he faced the A’s as a member of the Dodgers. In They Bled Blue, he faced the Dodgers as a member of the Astros. And in The Baseball Codes, he appeared as a ball scuffer par excellence.

Sutton spent 16 of his 23 big league seasons with the Dodgers—his first 15 and his last one—and his time in LA came not only to define him as a pitcher, but to materially influence the players he left upon his departure, who would win the World Series the following season.

LA is where Sutton enjoyed the six-year stretch from 1972 to 1977 that opened the doors to the Hall of Fame to him. During those seasons, the right-hander made his only four All-Star teams and posted five top-5 Cy Young finishes (one third, one fourth and three fifths).

“If I had to pitch one guy in a game seven, it would be Don Sutton,” Tommy Lasorda wrote in his autobiography, I Live for This. “I loved him. But sometimes I was one of the only ones.”

Sure enough, Sutton was not known for cozy relationships with his teammates, a detail noteworthy in his 1978 clubhouse fistfight with Steve Garvey. He frequently extend a similar mindframe to his manager. Sutton was the rare star on those late-1970s Dodgers to not have played for Lasorda in the minor leagues, a detail that helps explain why the two were frequently at odds. After 11 years playing for the staid Walter Alston in Los Angeles, Sutton bristled when Lasorda was installed.

“With Walt, there wasn’t a whole lot of rah-rah,” the pitcher explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1981. “I wasn’t mentally equipped to make the adjustment.” (Sutton once told a reporter who was furiously scribbling to keep up with one of Lasorda’s Great Dodger in the Sky monologues: “You know what you can do with those notes you’re making? Shred ’em and put ’em around your shrubbery at home and watch it grow.”)

From They Bled Blue:

When the Astros snatched Sutton up [in December 1980] with a four-year, $3.1 million offer, it was impossible for Lasorda not to take it personally. The right-hander had been an Alston man, publicly lobbying for coach Jeff Torborg to replace the storied manager in 1976, even when Lasorda was all but a lock for the position. “I just don’t believe that I could play for a manager who’s a headline grabber, who isn’t honest,” Sutton said at the time, later refusing to become “one of [Lasorda’s] bobos.” Things grew so heated that Lasorda challenged Sutton to settle their differences with fists. The pitcher declined. Their differences remained.

Sure enough, Sutton never garnered a single Cy Young vote in four years under Lasorda during his prime, though the two reached enough of a détente for Sutton to return to LA for his final season, in 1988.

More than that—during that—was a fascinating aspect of Sutton’s success: an ability to scuff baseballs that lent his pitches the type of movement that few of his peers possessed. He was said to adhere a piece of sandpaper on a finger of his glove hand, which he would use to mar the ball to wondrous effect.

No less than Nolan Ryan confirmed as much after hitting a home run off of Sutton during the first week of the 1980 season. It was the first of Ryan’s career, and he managed to get the ball returned to him … at which point, he said later, “that thing was all scuffed up.”

When Sutton joined the Astros, a chorus of opinions held that Lasorda, who knew all of his secrets, would have him all but undressed on the mound. Sutton’s pitch-perfect response was to question the source. What else would Lasorda say he wondered in the Los Angeles Times: “Those other years I lied?” (Lasorda never did have him checked.)

From They Bled Blue:

During the 1981 season, Sutton agreed to secretly film an instructional video for NBC-TV about how to cheat in baseball, wearing a ski mask to protect his identity, with the film reversed to make him look like a southpaw. (He ended up scrapping the project when a newspaper reporter and photographer showed up at the shoot.) “I keep telling you guys, I don’t use sandpaper,” he informed reporters before the season opener in Los Angeles. “Sandpaper gets wet and crumbles. [I use a] sanding wheel. I already checked to see if there was an outlet there on the mound, but they removed it.” Once, when an umpire searched Sutton for abrasive surfaces, he instead found a note reading, “It’s not here, but you’re getting warm.”

I recounted my favorite story about Sutton’s scuffing in The Baseball Codes. It involves a game from 1987, in which Sutton, by that point pitching for the Angels, was carving up the Yankees:

George Steinbrenner was watching the game on television, and was shocked when the camera zoomed in to show close-ups of what appeared to be a small patch, or even a bandage, on the palm of Sutton’s left hand. The WPIX broadcasters brought it up whenever the pitcher appeared to grind the ball into his palm between pitches. It was, they said, probably why Sutton’s pitches possessed such extraordinary movement that day. He was in all likelihood scuffing the baseball.

Outraged, Steinbrenner called the visitors’ dugout at Anaheim Sta­dium and lit into Yankees manager Lou Piniella. Was he aware, asked the owner, that Sutton was cheating? “Our television announcers are aware of it,” yelled Steinbrenner. “I’m sure the Angels are aware of it. You’re prob­ably the only guy there who doesn’t know it. Now, I want you to go out there and make the umpires check Don Sutton!”

“George,” Piniella responded, “do you know who taught him how to cheat?”

Steinbrenner confessed that, in fact, he did not.

“The guy who taught Don Sutton everything he knows about cheating is the guy pitch­ing for us tonight,” Piniella said. “Do you want me to go out there and get Tommy John thrown out, too?”

Don Sutton pitched 23 seasons and won 324 games while striking out 3,574 batters, seventh all-time. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998. He passed away less than two weeks after his former manager, Lasorda, in much less expected fashion, another Hall of Famer felled in a string that has seen too many pass too soon.

Cheating, Pine Tar

Pine-Tar-In-The-Clubhouse Lawsuit Means That We Might Get To Hear Some Juicy Secrets Soon

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Pitchers and catchers are still a month away from reporting (assuming that spring training comes off as planned), and we’re already talking about pine tar and other banned substances in meaningful ways.

For that we can thank Brian Harkins, the former visiting clubhouse manager for the Los Angeles Angels, who’d been on the job since 1990 but was fired back on March 3 for providing pine tar and other sordid material to opposing pitchers, “as a courtesy,” he said. Now, he’s suing.

This is just starting to unroll, and already it’s juicy. Harkins is claiming to have been scapegoated in violation of labor laws, and that the substances he provided have been tacitly approved by Major League Baseball inasmuch as there has never been a focused crackdown on their usage. There is something to the idea that team employees should know better than to help the opposition in that kind of way, but on Harkins’ latter point he is unequivocally correct. Pine tar can be found in every dugout in the league, and unless a pitcher has blatantly ignored the simple courtesy of trying to be subtle about using it, the commissioner’s office hasn’t done a damn thing about it, pretty much ever.

When MLB moved to dismiss the suit, Harkins ratcheted up the heat, claiming that a veritable All-Star roster of pitchers—including Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber and Justin Verlander—use the type of stuff he was canned for providing. Harkins said that he was taught to mix rosin and pine tar into a potent concoction back in 2005 by a pitcher believed to be Troy Percival. The smoking-gun piece of evidence he provided for his larger claims was a text from Gerrit Cole in 2019 in which the then-Astro asked about getting hooked up:

“Hey Bubba, it’s Gerrit Cole, I was wondering if you could help me out with this sticky situation. We don’t see you until May, but we have some road games in April that are in cold weather places. The stuff I had last year seizes up when it gets cold.”

Harkins’ point is the same one that I made in The Baseball Codes back in 2010, which was true long before I wrote it and which has been true ever since: tacky substances like pine tar help pitchers grip the ball in cold or wet conditions, which is essential in their line of work. As guys like Trevor Bauer have recently pointed out, pine tar also helps spin rate, which helps movement, which helps pitchers succeed.

And they will do it with or without the likes of Brian Harkins.

The real story here is the timing, which leads to an easy conclusion of hypocrisy. Last spring, in the wake of the Astros sign-stealing scandal, MLB announced that it would be strictly enforcing (maybe for the first time) rule 8.02, prohibiting pitchers from loading up baseballs with any kind of foreign substance. Sign stealing had been going on for decades, but it took the Astros breaking the system for the league to crack down on it. Apparently cheating is cheating, and substances are banned, and MLB has an image to maintain.

One week after that announcement, Harkins was fired. Now he’s in court, demanding a jury trial.

It is clearly in MLB’s best interest to settle this thing (something the Angels should have considered, perhaps, before firing the guy), because if it does go to court we’ll get to see how much more of the iceberg is submerged beneath Harkins’ claims.

RIP

RIP Tommy Lasorda, Baseball Institution

Tommy Lasorda’s passing wasn’t much of a surprise—he’s been in failing health for years now—but it was nonetheless shocking. Knowing that the baseball world is without one of its longstanding, premiere personalities will do that. Lasorda died Friday at age 93.

Lasorda was a gigantic figure, in bulk and presence alike. He reveled in his rotundity, to the point that his pasta-borne figure seemed almost necessary to constrain the force of his personality—that if he’d somehow been a slender man, he might have exploded from the pressure of his own id.

It’s not overstatement to say that Tommy Lasorda was the most important figure in the Dodgers organization since the time of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson and the heyday of Walter O’Malley. He gave his life to that team, spoke endlessly about bleeding Dodger blue and talking to the Big Dodger in the Sky. He wanted to live no place but LA, work for no team but the one for which he worked.  

So significant was Lasorda that when I set out to write a book about the Dodgers’ 1981 championship season—They Bled Blue was published in 2019—I came to realize that no part of the story could be told without a full understanding of the man. That’s why Chapter 1 is titled The Manager, and why it tells Lasorda’s story starting from the moment he joined the franchise as a 21-year-old left-handed pitcher in 1949. The man set the tone for everything to come, especially once he gained some power, and demanded requisite attention. There was simply no other way for me to approach this story. It had to be Lasorda.

The chapter begins like this:

Tommy Lasorda was always a shill. Long before he became a fount of managerial enthusiasm and brand fealty, he was a shill. Back when he was a career minor league pitcher, and then a scout, and then off to manage in remote minor league outposts like Pocatello and Ogden, in the employ of the Dodgers nearly every step of the way, even then he was a shill. The guy loved his team and wasn’t shy about letting the world know it.

I have heard from some people who take offense to the word “shill” in this context, who view it as a pejorative. Not me, not here. To me, the word shill is a complete sentiment, describing somebody wholly given to whatever he may be selling, and Tommy Lasorda never stopped selling the Dodgers. I could think of no more apt term to describe the genuine fervor behind Lasorda’s love for his ballclub, which came to define him in so many ways.

Lasorda is remembered for being a rotund ball of energy whose embrace of LA’s celebrity culture brought new levels of glitz to the Dodgers’ clubhouse. This is fine, but it also helps obscure the fact that he won two World Series and four National League pennants and two Manager of the Year Awards and helmed four All-Star teams. More even than that, to me, was the depth with which he cared about the players in his charge. This passage, from They Bled Blue, describes a period during the 1976 off-season, shortly after Lasorda was hired to manage the team:

To make sure his players knew precisely where he stood, Lasorda wrote each of them a letter explaining the privilege he felt in having a team like the Dodgers under his direction. The players had never seen anything like it. He followed the letters with phone calls to discuss his expectations for the season. He spoke to Bill Russell about stealing more bases. He told Garvey that he wanted to see more power. He suggested to Davey Lopes that an uptick in walks could make him the game’s best leadoff hitter. He informed Dusty Baker that a poor 1976 season—Baker’s first with the Dodgers, in which, hampered by a knee injury, he batted only .242 with four homers—had no bearing on 1977, and that the left field job would be his for the duration. He even telephoned reserve players, reminding them that any club with championship aspirations needed contributions from across the roster, and that players without starting roles had to become the best backups they could be. The guy long known for surface enthusiasm showed just how deep he could run. Lasorda wanted to reach his players at gut level, and this was an effective first step.

As a chapter, The Manager runs more than 6,000 words, far too long to excerpt here, so I will instead offer select passages, many of them taken from footnotes, that illustrate Tommy Lasorda in an economy of words:

  • During his playing days, when Lasorda protested the decision to send him to the minors, GM Buzzy Bavasi asked who should be cut instead. In what would become one of the manager’s favorite stories, Lasorda named a fellow rookie. “If I was in charge,” he proclaimed, “I’d cut that Sandy Koufax kid.”
  • As a player, Lasorda fought so much that in 1956 he received a telegram from American Association president Ed Doherty, reading: “Dear Tom, the exhibition you put on last night was a disgrace to baseball. You’re hereby fined $100 and, furthermore, my advice to you is, if you want to fight, join the International Boxing Congress.”

The brawls sparked by Lasorda’s relentless hail of knockdown pitches raised such cumulative furor within the Dodgers organization that in 1960, Bavasi effectively excommunicated the pitcher, kicking him off the Montreal roster with instructions to never return. Lasorda was devastated. Entirely unprepared to do anything else with his life, he pled for another chance. He could reform, he said. He would pitch nicely, toe the company line, do whatever it took. It wasn’t enough. When Bavasi refuted his entreaties cold, the almost-ex-pitcher fired the lone arrow remaining in his quiver and urged his boss to read a letter he’d sent to then-scout Al Campanis years earlier in which he proclaimed undying loyalty to the organization, long before such loyalty was a prerequisite for sustained employment. The GM may have been exasperated, but he knew a good thing when he saw it. Bavasi still wasn’t prepared to tolerate any more of Lasorda’s shenanigans as a pitcher, but he was sufficiently swayed to hire him on as a scout. At age 33, Lasorda’s pitching career was finished.

  • There really was no end to Lasorda’s shtick. He taught Bill Russell’s infant daughter Amy her first word: “Dodgers.” After a physical examination, Lasorda mentioned that doctors thought they found a spot on his heart, but soon realized it was actually a Dodgers logo. Sample ramble from the manager: “You’ve heard about the ‘Blue Fever,’ ‘Great Dodger in the Sky,’ ‘Dodger Blue,’ and how Dodger Stadium is Blue Heaven? Well, when nine people died in LA last year, their last words were, ‘Did the Dodgers win?’” Lasorda then labeled the fact that the Dodgers had in fact won “a great Blue coincidence.”
  • When Lasorda was a coach under Walter Alston, the Expos made him a lucrative offer to become their manager. He turned them down, saying, “I just couldn’t see myself telling people about the big Expo in the sky.” When Alston finally retired, Lasorda signed a one-year pact for $50,000, called it “the greatest day of my life,” and noted that the Dodgers had botched the negotiations. “If you’d have waited just a little longer,” he told Walter O’Malley, “I would have paid you to let me manage.”
  • When Lasorda finally became manager in LA, someone noted that he had already received more ink than Alston had in 23 years on the job.

I’ll close with a quote from longtime Dodgers trainer Herb Vike, who worked with Lasorda in Spokane and Albuquerque before joining him in Los Angeles. “Tommy believed,” Vike told me. “He believed all the time. He went around the clubhouse and all over the field, saying, ‘I believe, and you gotta believe.’ Everything was Dodger blue. He said his blood was Dodger blue. He would preach to the ballplayers and he would preach to the crowd. He had everybody believing in the Dodgers.”

He most certainly did. Here’s to Lasorda getting to see one last championship before he departed.

RIP

Mourning The Departed Era Of Black Superstars

In the wake of Dick Allen’s death yesterday, it seems worth noting that recent months have seen the passing of an undue number of his African American contemporaries. Joe Morgan, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock have all died since September, not to mention the passings this year of Horace Clark, Lou Johnson, Bob Oliver, Bob Watson and Jimmy Wynn. As these men have departed, so too has their era.

Baseball in the 1960s and ’70s is impossible to consider without those guys, plus Mays and McCovey and Robinson and Aaron and Stargell and Parker and Carew and Vida and Dusty and Reggie (J.) and Reggie (S.). We can ask ourselves where such players might fit within the current structure of baseball, and the answer is more likely than at any time since the mid-1950s that they wouldn’t. Sort of.

The above players would make a major league roster in any era that allowed it. Today, though, given the lack of infrastructure to shepherd minority kids—particularly urban American minority kids—through baseball’s ranks, they might opt to do something else instead.

More difficult for me than the luminaries are players who fell somewhere between bench guy and superstar, men who scrapped their way onto rosters and forged admirable careers. Guys like Tommy Agee, Cleon Jones, Jim Bibby, Oscar Gamble, Johnny Jeter, Dave Nelson, Thad Bosley, Willie Horton, Dave Cash, Horace Clark, Larry Hisle, Chet Lemon, Tommie Reynolds and Ken Singleton. End-of-bench roles went to white players in overwhelming numbers back then, so the Black men who seized those positions showed particular resolve.

These aren’t original thoughts. Baseball has long been reckoning with its athletes going off to the NBA or the NFL or careers outside of sports. Initiatives like MLB’s RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program exist, and are fantastic. In researching They Bled Blue, I met Ken Landreaux at the MLB-sponsored Compton Youth Academy—one of eight such academies across the country—which offers amazing facilities, training and opportunities for a host of kids that would not otherwise have access to that level of attention. These places are vital.

But there’s no getting around the fact that while U.S. cities were once a source of low-cost prospect acquisition—a place where unknown and underserved talent could be signed for a song—that designation has shifted to Central America and the Caribbean. Exploitation of desperate prospects is a subject for another day, but it does show just how much MLB has lagged in filling the domestic void, to its own detriment.

As of last opening day, the Diamondbacks, Royals and Rays didn’t have a Black player between them. Nearly half of major league teams had two Black players or fewer. According to SABR, in 1984, more than 18 percent of all MLB players were African American. Last year that number was around 7 percent.

This isn’t about minority representation, which has blossomed thanks to increased Latino participation. This is about the loss of Black players (especially, as pertains to recent obituaries, Black stars), and how it reflects a profound loss within the sport.

Just one more thing to grieve.

Mound Conference Etiquette

After Campaign From Catcher, Dusty Defers, Says Greinke’s His Guy

Notable from yesterday’s ALCS game was Dusty Baker’s mound visit to Zack Greinke. It was the sixth inning, runners were on first and second with one out, and Randy Arozarena—about the hottest hitter in baseball over the past month, including a homer against Greinke earlier in the game—was coming to the plate as the tying run. Astros closer Ryan Pressly was in the bullpen, warmed up and ready to go.

What happened at that point was not what people expected. Catcher Martin Maldonado told Baker that Greinke still looked good and that he thought the right-hander could get out of the jam. It worked. Baker left Greinke in.

“Maldy was adamant about, ‘He can get this guy,’ ” said the manager afterwawrd, in an MLB.com report. “I said ‘OK, you got it then.’ This is the ballgame right here. It was more old school, doing the right thing that I thought was right. And we came out ahead.”

This is unusual in the modern game, where most managers have their minds made up—have already signaled to the bullpen—before they reach the mound. It brings up the underappreciated topic of mound conference etiquette, to which a chapter is devoted in The Baseball Codes.

Much of the topic concerns respect between pitcher and manager, which can be in short supply when a hot-headed hurler disagrees with the decision to remove him from the game. Balls are flipped into the air rather than handed off, threats are leveled and feelings get scuffed. We’ve covered that kind of thing in this space before. That’s the opposite of what happened with the Astros yesterday.

More akin, though not quite specific, given that Greinke remained silent while Maldonado lobbied on his behalf, is the idea that when a manager asks how a pitcher feels, the pitcher lies. This is less true than ever in the modern era of bullpenning, but not so long ago, rare was the pitcher who failed to lobby about staying in the game. From The Baseball Codes (which, it should be noted, came out in 2010):

Even if the pitcher is clearly spent, his shoulder, elbow, or hip shooting pain with every pitch, he’ll insist to his last breath that he can still get the job done. “They’re starting pitchers,” said Tony La Russa. “They need to be heroes.”

“If you don’t say the right thing it’s perceived as a lack of heart,” said pitcher David Cone, who admitted to deceiving manager Joe Torre about his condition during a mound conference in the sixth inning of Game 3 of the 1996 World Series. (Cone insisted he was fine, stayed in the game, and, despite increasing fatigue, willed his way out of a jam.) “All guys worth their salt do it,” he said. “That’s why it’s hard for a manager to go out there. They know that in the heat of battle it’s hard to get straight answers from a pitcher.”

“When [Cone] lied to me, he had to make it the truth,” said Torre. “He just had to find a way to get it done, and that’s what separates those guys. That’s what matters.”

It’s the same section of the Code that prevents players from missing games for all but the most serious injuries. Anything less than an unflinch­ing desire to compete—or at least the appearance of such—is perceived as weakness of character. It’s a fine line walked by athletes, and especially star players; even though staying in a game at limited capacity might hurt one’s team, asking out when it counts is tantamount to surrender. Few in baseball want to see perceived cowardice in action from their teammates, even if it’s ultimately for the collective good.

Beyond pitcher removal, a primary function of mound visits involves the manager or coach offering a pep talk or bit of strategy. This only goes so far. Even a century ago, pitchers bristled at the thought. Take it from Rube Bressler, a pitcher from 1914 to 1920 (and an outfielder/first baseman for a dozen years thereafter), who discussed the idea in The Glory of Their Times:

“Those conferences out there on the mound really get me. The pitcher knows he’s in a jam. What can they say to him? They just remind him of it, that’s all. Having pitched and played first base both, I know what they do. The catcher and the infielders run over to you and pick up your rosin bag, like they never saw one in their life before, and all they say is, ‘Bear down, buddy, you’ll get out of this. Just bear down and work hard. You can do it.’ Then they give you a quick pat on the rear end and run back as far as they can get out of the line of fire.

“Now just what do you learn from that? You already had a vague feeling that things weren’t going just right. To tell the truth, you knew darned well that you were in a heck of a jam. And you’ve been bearing down, and you’ve been working hard. All it does is make you even more worried than you already were, which was plenty. There are mighty few pitchers who can survive those conferences on the mound, take it from me.”

A more contemporary account comes from 1993 AL Cy Young winner Jack McDowell, who in the very first interview I did for The Baseball Codes explained a mound encounter he once had with a coach.

I had walked the first two guys on something like eight pitches, and [pitching coach Don Rowe] comes out and says, ‘Now, the pitching plan …’ ” he said. “They had an actual pitching plan with the White Sox that year, and it was to throw two of the first three pitches for strikes. I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m trying to fucking throw one pitch for a strike, one, tell me how to throw one for a strike, Don. I know I’m supposed to throw two of the first three for strikes.’ Jesus.”

So did it help?

“Hell, no, it didn’t help. I’ll call time out and go back and read my 50-page manual on how to pitch. Shit.”

When it comes to the Astros, Maldonado’s lobbying yesterday may ultimately have been helpful for nobody more than Greinke himself. “I thought it was nice having some guys have confidence in you,” the pitcher said after the game. That was good.”

After Baker’s visit, the right-hander struck out Arozarena and, after an infield hit loaded the bases, Mike Brosseau to escape the jam.

Confidence can be everything.

RIP

RIP Joe Morgan

A stunning autumn of terrible baseball news, lowlighted by the passing of Hall of Famers Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Whitey Ford, just got worse. Joe Morgan has died at age 77.

Morgan is best remembered as the sparkplug for Cincinnati’s unstoppable Big Red Machine, which won back-to-back championships in 1975 and 1976 behind Morgan’s back-to-back National League MVP Awards. He was small (5-foot-7, 160 pounds) but strong, hitting 289 homers while stealing 689 bases over a 22-year career. Remarkably, Morgan’s reputation was cemented prior to the time when on-base percentage was truly appreciated, even though that was a key part of his offensive game. Morgan batted better than .300 only twice in his career, but topped 100 walks eight times and led the league in OBP four times. To judge by Baseball Reference’s WAR statistic, Morgan’s 1975 season was among the 20 best campaigns of any player ever, at any position.

Speaking personally, growing up as a Giants fan in the early 1980s, I got to see up close what a guy like Morgan could do for a foundering ballclub. The Giants of the late 1970s, when I achieved baseball consciousness, were more or less terrible until Morgan joined the team as a free agent in 1981. This was awesome for 11-year-old me; I’d been imitating his back-arm batting-stance flap for years, and was excited to see it in orange and black.

In 1982, his second season in San Francisco, Morgan kept the Giants in contention until the schedule’s final week. They wouldn’t win, of course, because back then the Giants never won. For me, Morgan’s lasting impact came on the season’s final day. I wrote about the moment just last week for the Pandemic Baseball Book Club.  

The Giants-Dodgers rivalry is among the best in sports, but from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s it was a decidedly one-sided affair. The Dodgers were a much better team, frequently in the playoffs and occasionally winning it all, while the Giants seemed to be perpetually in fifth place.

Really, all we Giants fans had was beating the Dodgers, and even that did not go well. In 1980, The Sporting News ran an entire feature about the Giants having won only 15 of 60 against LA to that point since Tommy Lasorda took over as Dodgers manager in 1977. Willie McCovey once said that he’d rather lose to a college team than to the Dodgers. One can only imagine his particular anguish.

Then came ’82. Even after the Giants dropped out of the race, they were in prime position to affect the outcome. The Dodgers, battling Atlanta for the division title, closed their season with three games at Candlestick Park. We Giants fans were ready to play spoiler.

So what happened? The Dodgers roared into town and won the first two games by a combined score of 19-2. That put everything into play for the season’s final day, when, with the Braves losing to San Diego, the Dodgers needed one more victory to force a divisional tie.  

I was 12 years old, at the stadium with my father, sitting in the grandstand along the left field line. I remember how packed Candlestick was—a rare occurrence for a stadium used to hosting fewer than 10,000 fans at a time—and how the energy was downright palpable. It was my first real taste of meaningful baseball, even though, win or lose, San Francisco’s season would end that day.

Giants starter Bill Laskey, wrapping up his rookie campaign, gamely matched Fernando Valenzuela into the sixth, each pitcher giving up a pair of runs. (Even then, the teams’ methods of scoring seemed to represent the franchises as a whole, the Dodgers scoring on a two-run homer by Ron Cey while the Giants leveraged a bases-loaded walk and a double-play grounder.)

This is where the magic happened. This is where Joe Morgan happened.

The seventh inning started hopefully, with Bob Brenly singling and Champ Summers doubling him to third with nobody out. On the broadcast, Vin Scully called Candlestick Park “a chamber of horrors.”

Then Greg Minton, the Giants closer who was for some reason already pitching in the seventh inning, was allowed to hit for himself. He struck out. Of course he struck out. Then Jim Wholford also struck out. It was turning into a very Giants inning in every imaginable way … until Morgan stepped to the plate.

Reliever Terry Forster worked the count to 1-2, and then hung a slider that Morgan pummeled over the right field fence for a three-run homer. We fans at Candlestick lost our damn minds. The seemingly insane move of letting Minton bat with the winning run at third paid off when Moon Man held LA to two hits over the final two innings, cementing a 5-3 win and ending the Dodgers’ season.  

That home run—Morgan’s home run—is my first meaningful baseball memory, an event for which I can firmly place the date and situation. It is what I recall first when thinking about prime baseball moments early in my life. It showed me what a truly great player, even one at the end of his career, can bring to a ballclub.

Joe Morgan was only a Giant for two years, but those years were utterly influential in cementing me as a baseball fan, and for that I am grateful.

Rest in peace.

Morgan’s homer at 2:27:35.