Sign stealing

Fed Up With Complex Signs, Jansen Turns To Little-Used Tactic: The Intentional Balk

In the ninth inning on Friday, with Jason Heyward on second base and the Dodgers holding a 5-3 lead over Chicago, Kenley Jason had had enough. With catcher Russell Martin putting down the type of advanced sequencing used to prevent runners in Heyward’s position from easily reading signs and relaying them to the hitter, LA’s closer grew confused. With one out, he called Martin out for a conversation about his 0-2 selection against David Bote. Then Jensen struck out Bote with a cutter.

That presented options. With a two-run lead and little concern for Heyward, Jansen took the easiest path toward returning to simple signs: He intentionally balked the runner to third — where Heyward’s view toward Martin’s signals would be impeded — making sure to shout his plan to second base ump D.J. Reyburn in advance, to make sure that nothing was missed.  

Jimmy O’Brien, a Yankees-centric blogger who goes by the handle Jomboy, offered an expert and entertaining breakdown:

Believe it or not, this kind of thing has happened before. It’s right there in The Baseball Codes. From the chapter on sign stealing:

Trying to hold a 4–2, ninth-inning lead over Minnesota in 2005, Indians closer Bob Wickman came upon an uncomfortable realization: Michael Cuddyer had been at second base for two consecutive batters, which to the pitcher was an eternity. About two weeks earlier, Wickman had blown a save in Anaheim when Garrett Anderson hit a low outside pitch for a bloop single to drive in Darrin Erstad from second. The stout right­hander was convinced that the only reason Anderson made contact was that the pitch had been tipped by the baserunner. (When faced with Wickman’s accusation, Erstad just smiled. “I guess we’ll never know, huh?” he said.)

Wickman had no inside knowledge that Cuddyer or the Twins had done anything untoward, but he wasn’t about to be burned twice by the same tactic. Rather than take a chance, the pitcher opted for an unortho­dox approach. If Cuddyer was on third base, reasoned Wickman, his view to the catcher would be significantly hampered. So Wickman invented the intentional balk. Before his first pitch to the inning’s fourth hitter, Shan­non Stewart, the right-hander lifted his left leg as he wound up, then froze. After a long beat, he returned to his starting position. “As I did it, I’m thinking to myself, ‘There it is, dude, call it,’ ” said Wickman. Plate umpire Rick Reed did just that, and sent Cuddyer to third. Wickman’s decision was based on perverse logic—given Cleveland’s two-run lead, Cuddyer’s run didn’t matter, but Stewart’s did. Stewart, said Wickman, was “a semi–power hitter, and he possibly could have hit one out on me if he knew what pitch was coming.” It was the first balk of Wickman’s thirteen-year career.

Of course, the pitcher nearly shot himself in the ERA by subsequently walking Stewart, who promptly stole second, giving him the same vantage point from which Wickman had just balked Cuddyer. The pitcher, how­ever, managed to strike out Matt LeCroy on a full count to earn his sixth save of the season. “Some guys couldn’t believe it, but to me as the closer my job is to finish the game without giving up the lead,” Wickman said. “There are so many things that come into play. I’d have no problem doing it again if a guy’s standing there too long.”

I spoke to Wickman about it a couple of years after the fact, and he remained remarkably serious about it all. “When it’s a two-run lead and there’s absolutely zero chance that a shortstop or second baseman is holding the runner on, and you call an inside pitch and see the guy at second going back toward the base, you ask yourself, ‘Why the hell is he going back to second?’ ” he said. “The middle infielders aren’t anywhere near him. He just tipped off where the pitch is going to be.” The pitcher was less worried about stolen signs than stolen location, he told me

“Some guys couldn’t believe it,” he added, “but to me, as the closer, my job is to finish the game without giving up the lead, no matter what the situation.”

Same for Jansen, apparently, who struck out Victor Caratini to end it. All’s well that ends well for inventive closers.

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