Clint Hurdle, Dusty Baker, Gamesmanship, Jim Tracy, Kevin Towers, Tony La Russa

Lights, Rain and Radar: How to Get into your Opponent’s Head, an Introductory Course in Gamesmanship

When the lights go down in St. Louis . . .

When the lights went out in St. Louis last night, there were two outs in the 11th inning and San Francisco’s Brian Wilson was on the verge of closing out a 7-5 victory.

Instead, the teams sat for 16 minutes while the sound guy at Busch Stadium played Journey’s “Lights” and somebody tried to deal with the electrical system.

The chatter after Wilson finally returned to record the game’s final out had to do with the possibility of malfeasance on the part of Tony La Russa. Did the Cards’ manager manipulate the power grid in an effort to cool down the opposing closer?

Of course he didn’t. Or at least he probably didn’t. Still, the coincidental timing was enough for Bruce Bochy to quip afterward that it was “pretty good gamesmanship” on La Russa’s part.

The Giants’ skipper was joking, but there’s a reason La Russa’s name comes up during moments like this.

Earlier this year, for example, he was accused of selectively distributing weather information when the Cardinals were hosting Cincinnati, then pitching reliever Miguel Batista instead his scheduled starter, Kyle McClellan. Batista threw all of six pitches before rain halted the game for more than two hours.

Afterward, McClellan, fresh, took his rightful place on the mound.

Dusty Baker, meanwhile, claiming an information inequity between the teams, had his starter, Edinson Volquez, warm up from the get-go. The right-hander never got a chance to pitch, however; when play resumed, Baker had to turn to Matt Maloney rather than risk having Volquez get hot twice.

“It’s really a tough start,” Baker said in an report. “The information that we received was probably not the same information they received, or else we wouldn’t have started [Volquez] in the first place. We were told there was going to be a window of opportunity there. That window lasted about three minutes.”

Maloney gave up three runs in three innings, and the Cardinals won, 4-2.

La Russa, of course, is hardly alone when it comes to gamesmanship. In April, Livan Hernandez accused the Pirates of doing much the same thing.

Weather reports, however, are far less interesting than the other tally on Pittsburgh’s gamesmanship scorecard. That came when Clint Hurdle appeared to dupe Rockies skipper Jim Tracy with two outs in the 14th inning of a tie game. With a runner on first, Andrew McCutchen stepped into the on-deck circle as Jose Tabata batted.

That had been McCutcheon’s spot in the order earlier in the game, but the outfielder was removed as part of a double-switch. The guy actually scheduled to hit next was relief pitcher Garrett Olson, whose last plate appearance had come in 2009, and who has collected all of one hit in his five-year career.

Had Tracy been paying better attention, he might have realized that the Pirates’ bench was empty, leaving Olson to fend for himself at the plate.

It never came to that. Seeing McCutchen, Tracy had reliever Franklin Morales pitch to Tabata—who promptly lashed a game-winning double. (Watch it here.)

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Asked if the move was a decoy to get the Rockies to think McCutchen was up next … ‘No, come on, why would we do that,’ Hurdle said with a sly chuckle.”

* * *

Rain delays and decoys are one way for a home team to gain an advantage. Radar guns are another.

Earlier this season, Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers admitted to the Arizona Republic that when he held the same post with San Diego, the Padres took to manipulating their ballpark’s radar gun to get into the heads of opposing pitchers.

“I know for a fact that every time Brad Penny pitched for the Dodgers in San Diego it was probably the lowest velocities he ever had,” he said. “He liked velocity. He’d stare at the board. He was throwing 95-96, but we’d have it at 91 and he’d get pissed off and throw harder and harder and start elevating.”

Hardball Talk’s Aaron Gleeman checked, and—lo and behold—Penny is 1-5 with a 6.47 ERA in 10 career games pitched in San Diego.

(The subject was initially raised when fireballing Aroldis Chapman, after topping out at 106 mph earlier in the season, dropped nearly 15 mph off his fastball in San Diego, then magically regained his velocity during Cincinnati’s next series. Towers’ comments could themselves have been a form of gamesmanship, as his new club uses the non-manipulatable Pitch-f/x system, and the Padres—and all their secrets—are now the enemy.)

The tactic works both ways. During the 2002 postseason, when Robb Nen was throwing pus with a shredded shoulder during what would be the final innings of his career, the folks at AT&T Park shut off the radar gun altogether when the Giants’ closer entered the game. It might not have fooled anyone on the opposing team, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

– Jason

Francisco Liriano, Gamesmanship, No-Hitter Etiquette, Ron Gardenhire

Liriano’s No-Hitter Rife with Unwritten Rules

As you may have heard, Franciso Liriano threw a no-hitter this week. And of course, the Code was involved—because the Code is always involved in no-hitters.

Like many of his no-hit-pitching brethren, the Twins left-hander insisted that he wasn’t even aware that he hadn’t allowed a hit until late in the game. It was only when he became a dugout pariah in the eighth inning, he said, his teammates avoiding him at any cost, that he grokked what was going on.

“When everybody was walking away from me and nobody was talking to me, I was like ‘What’s going on?’ ” he said in USA Today.

(When told that Liriano said he didn’t realize he had a no-hit bid until the eighth inning, Twins catcher Drew Butera said, in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “He’s lying. I think they all realize it.”)

* * *

Elsewhere on the field, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire stuck to the unwritten rule mandating ultimate respect for a feat like Liriano’s. Despite the fact the right-hander’s pitch count was at 116 with one out to go, and despite the fact Liriano hadn’t thrown more than 97 pitches in a game this season, and despite the fact that he had never thrown a complete game in more than 200 professional starts, and most of all despite the fact that the winning run was at the plate in a 1-0 game and Liriano was clearly tiring, Gardenhire left him in.

“I wasn’t walking out there to the mound, I’ll tell you that,” he said in the Star Tribune. “He looked like he was doing fine. It was cool night. It was his ballgame the whole way.”

Asked if he was prepared to stick with Liriano all the way, Gardenhire said: “How far is all the way? He can only load the bases and then probably something’s gotta happen.”

Gardenhire didn’t show nearly that much restraint last season, when he pulled Kevin Slowey from a game in which he had similarly given up no hits. The difference: Slowey was battling an elbow so sore that he had missed his previous start, and after seven innings had already thrown more than Garendhire was comfortable seeing. Eight days later, Rangers manager Ron Washington did something similar with Rich Harden.

Also last year, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that he was ready to pull C.C. Sabathia from his early-season start even before he gave up his first hit of the game, in the eighth inning.

The standard-keeper for yanking pitchers from the midst of perfection is Preston Gomez, who did it twice, with two different teams. If nothing else, the guy was clearly a man of conviction.

* * *

One more Code-based moment occurred during Liriano’s gem, when umpire Paul Emmel ruled that Minnesota first baseman Justin Morneau tagged Chicago’s Gordon Beckham as the White Sox second baseman raced by him in an effort to beat out a double-play grounder.

Had Morneau tagged him? Of course not. Did he sell it as if he had? Of course he did. That’s what ballplayers do. If the game is willing to tolerate the great lengths to which players will go to gain an advantage—bat corking and ball scuffing and sign stealing and etc.—it’d be a tall order to expect a player to give up a free out granted him by an unsuspecting umpire.

It’s why diving outfielders act as if they’ve caught balls that they know they trapped, why hitters facing three-ball counts will sometimes lean toward first after the next pitch, trying to influence ball four even if they felt it was a strike.

It’s all part of baseball. Now enjoy that no-hitter.

– Jason

Gamesmanship, Jorge Posada

Posada Enrolled in Classes at Derek Jeter Acting Academy

Maybe he was just trying to take some heat off his captain. More likely, this kind of thing happens more often than we think, but we’re paying attention now.

Either way, Jorge Posada took first base last night after not being hit by a pitch.

Sound familiar?

Of course, the sum of Posada’s histrionics involved taking off his shin guard and offering a slight grimace, not hopping around and wincing to the point that medical intervention was necessary. (Watch it here.)

It was an 0-2 pitch from Tampa Bay’s James Shields that skipped on the ground in front of Posada’s feet. He hopped back, never indicating that the pitch did anything but hit him. The relative lack of outcry compared to the recent Derek Jeter incident could have also had to do with the fact that there were already two outs, Posada never scored, and the Yankees won handily anyway, 8-3.

Still, it’s a reminder to all those who bandied about the phrase “Derek Cheater” this week that this is something heady ballplayers do.

– Jason

Derek Jeter, Gamesmanship

Jeter Just Doing What Ballplayers Do

The sports world is absolutely fascinated with Derek Jeter right now, the golden-boy Yankees captain-cum-cheater who acted gravely wounded by a ball that didn’t hit him during a game last night against Tampa Bay. (Watch it here, complete with commentary from each team’s broadcast crew.)

I don’t get the criticism. This is what ballplayers do.

Sure, they’re not often caught en flagrante to the degree that Jeter was, but at heart, they’re all the same in this regard. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single example in the history of the game in which a player willfully informed an umpire that a call had been incorrect in favor of the opposition. It doesn’t happen on balls or strikes or plays at the bases. It doesn’t happen on difficult fair-foul calls.

And it certainly doesn’t happen on hit-by-pitches.

Sure, Jeter went overboard with his Shakespearian dramatics. If you want to make a distinction between benefitting from an umpire’s bad call and influencing an umpire into making a bad call, that’s fair. But the underlying tenets are the same: in baseball, every advantage counts; you get ’em where you can.

“He told me to go to first base. I’m not going to tell him I’m not going to first, you know,” said Jeter, afterward. “It’s part of the game. My job is to get on base. Fortunately for us it paid off at the time, but I’m sure it would have been a bigger story if we would have won that game.”

Nobody ever called out an outfielder for acting as if he caught a ball he actually trapped.

“Play it off—that’s not cheating if the umpire lets you get away with it,” said longtime outfielder Von Joshua. “Any means you can to win a baseball game. . . . Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t. That’s just part of the game.”

Even Rays manager Joe Maddon was impressed by Jeter’s effort. “I thought Derek did a great job, and I applaud it,” he said in an report, “because I wish our guys would do the same thing.”

Heck, is it really so different than A.J. Pierzynski sticking his elbow into the path of a pitched ball in order to get on base? Neither are admirable, but both are accepted. (Of course, when Pierzynski did it with the bases loaded and a 9-2, eighth-inning lead in 2004, he insured himself a future drilling.)

HardballTalk points out similar displays from Yunel Escobar and Pierzynski, again.  It’s pure gamesmanship.

Jeter even has precedent on his own team. In a 1928 game between the Yankees and Browns, with two outs and Lou Gehrig the baserunner at first, second-base umpire George Hildenbrand turned to watch the play on the lead runner when Bob Meusel hit a ground ball to shortstop Red Kress.

Except that Kress threw to first, and Hildenbrand was caught with his back to the play.

Meusel had been thrown out cleanly, but Hildenbrand hadn’t seen it. Instead, he appealed to Meusel’s honesty.

“Everybody knows you’re out, Bob. Everybody saw it . . .” he said, according to the Baseball Hall of Shame, Vol. IV. “Be a sport and call yourself out.”

Meusel’s response: “George, you’ve been getting nine thousand bucks a year for a long time as an umpire. Now’s a good time to start earning it.”

Hildenbrand had no choice. The runner was safe, and Browns pitcher Al Crowder had to seek his fourth out of the inning.

So wnough with the calls of “Derek Cheater.” The guy was just doing what big leaguers do.

Update (9-22-10): Jorge Posada did kinda sorta the same thing.

– Jason

Gamesmanship, Josh Beckett

Beckett Got Back

Gamesmanship is always fun. When it happens between the Yankees and the Red Sox, it can get downright giddy.

Last night, Josh Beckett gave Boston his latest in a string of terrible starts. When Robinson Cano smoked a two-run double to make the score 5-0 in the fifth, Beckett was removed. The reason: tightness in his back.

This was important, because had Beckett been pulled for reasons of ineffectiveness, reliever Manny Delcarmen would have had to come into the game cold. Following an injury, however, relievers are afforded all the warm-up time they need.

Was the injury real? To be fair, Beckett missed his previous start because of back spasms, and it was a cold, wet night in New York. Still, say skeptics, he did not appear to be injured before that point, and himself said later that the injury wasn’t serious.

On one hand, it could be gamesmanship by the Red Sox, using the system to their advantage.

On the other hand, Yankees manager Joe Girardi did what he had to do, playing the game under protest following the umpire’s decision to allow Delcarmen unlimited warm-up tosses.

“To me, he shouldn’t get all his pitches there,” Girardi said in an report. “In my eyes it was not done in the right way. Anytime a guy is in trouble, you signal to the bullpen and say, ‘Oh, he’s hurt.’ That’s a huge advantage.”

It’s all covered under the Code. Get away with whatever you can.

Update (May 20): Either the Red Sox are heavy into subterfuge, or Beckett was legitimately injured.

Update (May 21): New York’s protest was denied.

– Jason


Deking Propriety

The deke (short for “decoy”), while infrequently used, is an infield staple. It involves a fielder acting as if he has the ball when it’s somewhere else on the field, in an effort to confuse baserunners into awkward hesitation.

Think Chuck Knoblauch, the Twins second baseman who, during Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, acted as if he was fielding a ball that had actually been driven into an outfield gap. His goal was to confuse Braves runner Lonnie Smith, who had been on first base. It worked; Smith was delayed enough to force him to hold at third on a double, and the Twins won, 1-0, in 10 innings.

There are, however, downsides to this ploy. The Code states unequivocally that infielders are never to put down late tags in instances in which they don’t actually have the ball. I explained it in my recent Q&A with the New York Times:

As an infielder, there’s a rule against throwing down delayed phantom tags (dekes in baseball parlance, short for “decoys”), which can cause runners into late, awkward slides with a significant potential for injury. Padres infielder Derrel Thomas did just that to Gene Clines in 1973, throwing his glove down at the last moment as Clines steamed in from first on a stolen-base attempt. The fact that the pitch had been ball four, giving Clines the right to the bag anyway, made the play patently ridiculous. Clines tore ankle tendons as the result of a hasty slide, and never fully recovered. Clines said that Thomas “did have a reputation for doing some things on the field that weren’t the way you were supposed to play the game.”

When it’s done well, however, it’s a thing of beauty. Edgar Renteria utilized a phenomenal deke in the Giants’ game against the Phillies Tuesday, that was the polar opposite of Thomas’ play on Clines.

Ryan Howard had doubled into the corner, and was taking his time loping into second—not noticing that right fielder Nate Schierholtz was hustling to the ball. Renteria could see all of this from his position, but chose to simply stand near the base, arms at his sides. His body language told Howard that no play was imminent.

When the throw arrived, however, Renteria sprung to get it, and slapped a tag on Howard’s backside. (Watch it here.)

Howard later called it a “mental lapse,” but the success of the play owed just as much to Renteria’s heads-up deke.

– Jason


The Art of the Outfield Trap

Nate McLouth

It took all of six innings into the Braves-Cubs season opener for the unwritten rules to crop up.

In the top of the frame, Chicago’s Aramis Ramirez, on first base, saw Braves center fielder Nate McLouth clearly trap a fly ball hit by Marlon Byrd, and trotted to second. According to the umpires, however, McLouth made the catch, and the Braves doubled up Ramirez at first. Instead of two on and nobody out, the Cubs inexplicably had nobody on and two outs. (See the video here.)

While McLouth wasn’t guilty of the hey-I-caught-it gesture of displaying ball in glove for the world to see, typical among outfield trappers, neither did he make any effort to correct the record with the umpires.

Nor should he have.

Trapping the ball falls into the Code’s category of “gamesmanship,” with the understanding that while honesty might be the best policy in society, doing what it takes to win a game is the best policy in big-league baseball. It’s a pantomime act that is not only accepted by other ballplayers, but expected.

– Jason