Deke Appropriately, Johnny Damon, Nelson Cruz

Damon Deked; Rangers Win

Baseball’s unwritten rules have an entire section on the propriety of deking, or making phantom (or decoy) plays to confuse baserunners into thinking the ball is somewhere it’s not.

At issue: an infielder who puts down a late tag can cause an unsuspecting runner into a late and awkward slide, which can lead to injury. We covered this a couple weeks ago when discussing Robinson Cano’s deke of David Wright in the All-Star Game.

(Not only did Cano do nothing wrong, he executed the play to perfection. His goal was not to get Wright to slide—Wright was in the process of doing that, anyway—but to delay his realization that the ball had actually been thrown into center field.)

When it comes to outfielders, however, pretty much anything goes. There’s nothing they can do, after all, to put a baserunner in any sort of peril.

Like Nelson Cruz, for example, who last week in Detroit acted as if he was about to catch a ball that landed well in front of him. It wasn’t a particularly graceful deke—little more than a quick stab skyward with his glove—but it was enough to keep Johnny Damon, who otherwise should have scored easily, at third base. (Watch it here.)

It’s hardly a new concept. From The Baseball Codes:

Jim Rice made a habit of treating many balls hit over his head at Fenway Park as if they would end up clearing the Green Monster by a mile, gazing up with detachment as the hitter started into his home-run trot . . . before racing to the carom and firing the ball in to second. “You could make a great video of all the shocked faces of baserunners who were cut down at second because they fell for this trick,” said outfielder Doug Glanville.

Ironically, one of the most noteworthy instances of an outfield deke involved Rice’s Red Sox—with Boston cast as the victim. It happened in 1978, during the one-game playoff between the Red Sox and the Yankees to determine who went to the American League Championship Series. Boston, trailing 5–4 in the bottom of the ninth at Fenway Park, had a runner, Jerry Remy, on first base with one out. Things appeared promising when Rick Burleson hit a fly ball that Yankees right fielder Lou Piniella lost almost immediately in a patch of sunlight. But Piniella never hesitated, casually acting from the outset as if he were going to make the catch. Remy, who should have made it to third base without issue, was forced to stay near first until he saw that the ball wouldn’t be caught, at which point he could advance no farther than second. When Rice followed with a deep fly ball that would have easily scored the tying run from third, the Red Sox sensed an incredible opportunity wasted. Boston’s final batter, Carl Yastrzemski, popped out to end the game.

Like Remy, Damon saw only a flash of what he thought was a developing play. It didn’t stop him entirely, but in a sport where runners are safe or out based on fractions of a second, it was enough to keep the run off the board. Considering that the Tigers and Rangers were tied 6-6 in the 11th inning, and a run would have ended it on the spot, it was a game-saver.

Cruz upped his performance even more in the 14th, hitting a home run that won it for Texas, 8-6.

Behold, the power of the deke.

– Jason

David Wright, Deke Appropriately, George Brett, Robinson Cano

All-Star Deke

It wasn’t much heralded during the All-Star Game broadcast, but Robinson Cano pulled off a potentially instrumental play in the fifth inning. With nobody out and David Wright taking off from first base on a steal attempt, Twins catcher Joe Mauer threw the ball well over Cano’s head, and into center field.

Cano, however, even in mid-leap, managed to put his glove down in an effort to throw Wright off the scent of what had really taken place.

It worked. By the time Wright located the baseball, it was far too late for him to take third. Sure enough, Wright failed to score in the inning. (Watch it here. The play happens at the :37 mark.)

The deke (short for “decoy”) is an integral part of infield play. Fielders act as if the ball is somewhere it’s not, and runners grow confused. The most famous deke in history was Chuck Knoblauch‘s fake-out of Lonnie Smith in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, which kept Smith from going to third and likely saved a run (and the game, and series) for the Twins.

Lesser-known examples happen all the time. A few years ago, White Sox shortstop Juan Uribe acted as if a base hit was actually a foul ball, and was so convincing that the base runner returned to first base—and was thrown out.

“It’s a gentleman’s game at times, but if you don’t have your head on your shoulders, things can happen,” said Frank Thomas, who made the tag at first for Chicago.

There is a potential downside. Had Wright gone into a late slide because of Cano’s machinations (not a real possibility in this instance, since he was going to slide anyway), he could have injured himself. Take an example from The Baseball Codes:

A number of players have been injured by ill-timed or unnecessary dekes, which leads to an unwritten rule about when it is and isn’t appropriate to use the maneuver. Infielders throwing down phantom tags at the last possible moment can cause awkward slides, and the potential for damage is very real. “If a guy is stealing, you don’t pretend the throw is coming,” said second baseman Craig Grebeck. “If he’s coming in standing up and you all of a sudden look like the catcher is throwing the ball, a late slide can tear up an ankle or a knee.”

That’s exactly what happened to Gene Clines in 1973. Clines, a fourth-year outfielder with the Pirates, was on first base in a game against San Diego; with a full count on the hitter, he took off for second. The pitch was taken for ball four, but instead of simply strolling to second, Clines— who never peeked homeward to assess the situation—proceeded full speed ahead. Padres shortstop Derrell Thomas waited until Clines was nearly atop the base, then inexplicably threw his glove down as if a late throw were about to arrive. Clines, flustered, went into a hurried slide and badly injured his ankle. “That play right there cost me a lot of time,” he said, still angry at the thought more than three decades later. “I never fully recovered for the rest of that year.” Clines, batting .291 going into the game, missed three weeks, and hit just .227 in the two months thereafter.

All in all, a well-timed—and well-executed—deke is an under-appreciated thing of beauty.

There’s more than one reason, after all, that Robinson Cano is an All-Star.

– Jason