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.