Bat flips, Toronto Blue Jays

On the Benefits of Embracing the Moment, or: Not All Bat Flips Are Created Equal

Bautista goes yard II

Jose Bautista’s bat flip yesterday was so powerful as to obscure the wildest game many of us have ever seen. It has drawn endless opinions, many of which consisted of little more than the notion, “Wow, wasn’t that something?”—the hallmark of any sporting act powerful enough to draw the attention of the non-sporting public. Pure, visceral response to a pure, visceral moment.

It was something. And it was magnificent.

It was an all-world player at the peak of his powers, unleashing as violent a swing as you will see from a man entirely under control, against a fastball approaching 100 mph, in an inning that had already yielded so much drama as to leave fans emotionally drained, in a game upon which the season hinged, for a team that had not played for anything so meaningful in nearly a quarter-century.

It was all that. It was more.

There are those who feel that such displays—a hitter staring at his handiwork until after the ball has settled into the seats, then tossing his lumber with intensity approaching that of his swing—are beneath the sanctity of the game. They claim it shows up an opponent, that it offers disrespect, that in a world where self-aggrandizement has taken over the sporting landscape, humility is a necessary attribute for our heroes. Yesterday, many of those voices resided in the Rangers’ postgame clubhouse.

They’re not entirely wrong. But they’re not entirely right, either.

The moment would have carried no less gravity had Bautista simply laid down his bat and trotted around the bases. The hit would have been no less important. But the moment Bautista gave us was enduring, as physical a manifestation of pure emotion as will ever be seen on a baseball diamond. It was in every way a gift.

Sports fandom, at its essence, is about embracing the weightiest moments, win or lose. About being fully invested in the outcome of a given play, able to devote one’s emotional energy toward joy or despair, depending upon whether things break your way. Those who criticize things like bat flipping and chest pounding and hand-signs to the dugout after hitting innocuous doubles, who decry them for subjugating key moments at the expense of stoking egos, are correct. Let the moments breathe. A player’s initial actions are inevitably more powerful than his ensuing reactions.

Most of the time.

Sometimes, however, someone transcends it all. Bautista’s display didn’t distract from the moment, or even highlight it—it was the moment, part of it, anyway, as inexorably intertwined with our collective memory as the pitch or the swing or the baserunners or the fans. More so, in many ways. What do we remember of the last greatest Blue Jays moment? Was it the swing Joe Carter put on that ball in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series? Or was it his joyous reaction as he literally leaped around the bases? Do we recall Dennis Eckersley’s backdoor slider, or Kirk Gibson’s fist pump after he deposited it in the bleachers? Would Carlton Fisk’s homer in 1975 mean half of what it does today had he simply rounded the bases instead of physically willing it fair?

This wasn’t some preplanned shtick in some minor moment, no pulling Sharpie from sock following a midseason touchdown. This was one of the game’s great players coming through as profoundly as possible in literally the biggest moment of his career, and responding as such. It was so powerful that Adrian Beltre simply could not keep his feet, taking a seat on the turf as Bautista rounded the bases.

Bautista deserved it. We deserved it. Save the indignation for the .220 hitter who tosses his bat some Tuesday in July. I may well join you. For now, though, I’m going to savor this for as long as I can.

Baltimore Orioles, Retaliation, Toronto Blue Jays

Baseball Order of the Day: Have a Long Memory and Skip to My Lou

There is something beautiful about the mind of a ballplayer. For all the flak they might get for being dumb jocks, these guys occasionally flash steel traps the likes of which would make an elephant proud.

Case in point: Jose Bautista. On Sunday, not only did he recall years-old bad blood with Orioles pitcher Darren O’Day, but he remembered exactly what happened and how it played out.

On June 21, 2013, O’Day struck out Bautista to end an inning, then skipped his way toward the dugout.

On Sunday, Bautista homered off of O’Day, then skipped his way toward first base. (It didn’t hurt that O’Day threw a pitch behind him earlier in the game.)

These two have history:

  • After O’Day struck out Bautista in 2013, the two exchanged words on their ways off the field. (Examine the video here.)
  • That same series, Bautista went deep against O’Day, then shouted at him as he rounded the bases.
  • Last year O’Day drilled Bautista, ostensibly as retaliation for an earlier incident in which Marcus Stroman threw a ball over the head of Caleb Joseph.

“Emotion, the moment, there’s history there,” Bautista said in an report. “He’s hit me a few times, he’s thrown behind me a few times and I’ve gotten him a few times.”

It’s merely the latest in a litany of stories involving long ballplayer memories, from Billy North decking Doug Bird in response to being beaned by the guy several years earlier in the minor leagues, to Bob Gibson drilling Pete LaCock in an old-timers’ game because he never got the chance to do it when he was still active. Today, however, we look at an incident from the playing career of Chuck Tanner.

It started in 1955, when Tanner was a rookie outfielder with the Braves. He was on first base against the Phillies one day when Philadelphia second baseman Granny Hamner low-bridged him—throwing a relay to first base at the runner’s chin level, forcing him to the ground before he reached the base—in the course of turning a double play. As Tanner lay in the dirt, Hamner walked past. “Hey kid, this is the big leagues,” he said dismissively.

Fast forward a couple seasons. Tanner is traded to the Cubs. Again he finds himself on first base against Philadelphia. A double-play ball is hit to Phillies shortstop Chico Fernandez, who feeds Hamner for the relay. This time, however, the second baseman bobbles the ball, giving Tanner all the opening he needs. Tanner hits him high even as he throws his spikes into Hamner’s knee, knocking him backward toward center field.

That night, Tanner was out to eat when Hamner approached and offered to buy him a beer. “You know, Chuck, when you hit me I remembered what I said to you when you were a rookie,” he said.

Two years later, Tanner was sold to Cleveland—whose utility infielder was a guy named Granny Hamner. Tanner takes it from here himself:

“I go in the clubhouse. We had Granny, Johnny Temple, Billy Martin, Vic Power, Jimmy Piersall—a bunch of tough guys. I walk in the door, he sees me and I said, ‘Hi, Granny.’ He said to the guys, ‘Hey, be nice to that guy. He never forgets.’ They all laughed when he told them what happened. It took me a couple of years, but I never forgot it.

“That’s the game. That’s the way the game is.”

[Gif via Deadspin]

Sign stealing, Toronto Blue Jays

Somebody Else Has Accused the Blue Jays of Stealing Signs from the Rogers Centre

Another year, another pitcher making veiled accusations that the Blue Jays are stealing signs from the far reaches of the Rogers Centre.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Some of the accusations aren’t veiled at all.

The latest came from Orioles starter Jason Hammel, who gave up nine hits and four runs over 6.2 innings Wednesday in a 4-1 loss at Toronto. He entered the game with a 6-1 record and 2.78 ERA, having allowed three home runs all season. Wednesday, he gave up four.

“They’re a very potent offense and if you don’t make your pitches down they’re going to get them out,” Hammel said in a Baltimore Sun report. “They were taking some pretty big hacks on my breaking stuff too, which leads me to believe it was something else. It is what it is. I need to keep the ball down.”

Last August, ESPN ran a fairly extensive piece detailing a man in a white shirt who would signal upcoming pitches to the plate from the stands. The Yankees also had some things to say about possible shenanigans north of the border.

The rule here is simple: If a team is stealing your signs from within the field of play, it means mostly that you need better signs. (The Orioles were themselves accused of this somewhat recently.) But if the theft is being done via spyglasses or TV monitors (which is against the actual rules, not just the unwritten ones), it’s game on.

A quick look at the stats doesn’t helpToronto’s cause.

As a team, the Blue Jays are hitting .262 with a .471 slugging percentage and .803 OPS at home, where they’ve hit 42 homers in 828 at-bats. On the road, those numbers are .231/.369/.660, with 30 homers in 937 at-bats. Edwin Encarnacion has 12 homers and a .311 batting average in 25 home games, but is batting .243 with 5 homers in 26 games on the road. Last year the Blue Jays hit 10 points higher at home than on the road, with 20 more homers.

Meanwhile, Toronto’s team ERA is more than a quarter-run better at home than on the road—3.98 to 4.26—so it’s not like visiting teams are experiencing that same type of success inToronto.

Then again, Jose Bautista is playing significantly better away from the Rogers Centre. Either he’s an indicator that nothing is amiss, or he doesn’t like to receive stolen signs.

“When you’re locating your fastball, you’re going to give up some home runs there, but the swings they were taking on he breaking stuff, it was pretty amazing to me,” Hammel said. “I don’t think you can take swings like that not knowing they’re coming. I don’t know. That’s all I can say.”

In Toronto’s defense, all four of their homers Wednesday came on fastballs.

ESPN’s man in white is apparently no longer anyplace to be seen, but the methods a team can use to pilfer and relay signs via in-stadium technology is virtually limitless. From The Baseball Codes:  Indicators range from the digital clock at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium (“You know the two vertical dots which separate the hour from the minutes?” asked groundskeeper George Toma. “One dot for a fastball, two for a curve”) to dummy TV cameras reportedly placed in center-field wells at places like Candlestick Park and Dodger Stadium that would signal hitters with phony “on air” lights.

So it’s not like teams haven’t done this before. The difference is, the others all stopped—or at least the accusations against them did. That hasn’t been the case in Toronto, and we’re left wondering how far the organization is willing to go to win a baseball game.

Sign stealing, Toronto Blue Jays

Accusations Against the Blue Jays Explode: Sign Stealing at the Rogers Centre?

Back in July, when Joe Girardi intimated that the Blue Jays might be employing some beyond-the-field methods of acquiring other teams’ signs at the Rogers Centre, people didn’t pay much attention.

When Hardball Talk suggested that the Red Sox felt similarly, based on the fact that catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was putting down complex signs for Clay Buchholz in Toronto, even with nobody on base, it made barely a ripple. Jorge Posada did something similar when the Yankees came to town, but still, not much was said.

Now that has given us more than 2,000 words on the topic, however, featuring an anonymous reliever threatening to hit Jose Bautista “in the fucking head” if the Blue Jays don’t knock off their sign stealing, eyes are starting to settle on happenings north of the border.

In the piece, by Amy Nelson, four unnamed relievers from the same team offered details: The guy doing the relaying was wearing a white shirt, for better visibility from the plate; he was positioned in the center field stands, just beyond the pitcher, to be easily seen by the batter without being detected; he put his arms over his head for any offering but a fastball; and he was stationed only 25 yards from the bullpen, which is how the relievers came to see him so clearly.

Some of the pitchers recalled seeing the guy doing something similar at the tail end of the 2009 season. They quickly called the dugout and had their catcher start mixing up his signs. An inning later the man in white departed.

Bautista confirmed the confrontation, but denied that A) it had been about sign stealing, and B) the Blue Jays do anything of the sort, highlighted by the phrase, “We do not cheat.” Later in the story, Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos offers a similar denial.

So how to reconcile these viewpoints? The Blue Jays’ home record doesn’t reflect any improprieties—they’re 28-27 at home, 30-30 on the road—but other statistics appear to be damning. See the ESPN story for a full rundown, but here’s a smattering of examples:

  • Toronto’s home run rate on contact at home last season was 5.4 percent, about 50 percent higher than on the road, yet their opponents hit fewer homers in Toronto than at a neutral ballpark.
  • From 2005-09, the Rogers Centre saw .002 more home runs for every ball put in play than average. In 2010, that number shot up to .011—but only for the Blue Jays.
  • In 2010, the Blue Jays had the highest isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) of any team since 1954—most of which came at home. (The 150 homers they hit in Toronto were three shy of the all-time home record set by the Rangers in 2005.)
  • Seven Blue Jays regulars had an OPS at least 50 points higher at home than on the road; six of them were more than 100 points higher; three were 200 points higher.

This season, the Blue Jays have hit 71 homers at home and 57 on the road, despite having fewer than half their plate appearances at the Rogers Centre. They also have wide home/road splits for batting average (.261/.249), slugging percentage (.444/.389) and OPS (.770/.701). (All numbers are through Tuesday’s games.)

There’s also the case of Vernon Wells, as detailed by Hardball Talk. The slugger featured relatively equitable home-road OPS splits while playing for the Blue Jays—until last season, when he hit .991 at home, and .708 road. This number gathers momentum when combined with his .622 OPS this season with the Angels.

None of it, of course, is conclusive. Wells is in a new environment, has had his share of struggles as of late, and could simply be aging. The Blue Jays might simply be that much better at home than everybody else. For what it’s worth, J.P. Arencibia has denied everything, with some colorful language, on Twitter.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: Rare is the ballplayer or manager who sees sign stealing from the basepaths as anything more than an indication that it’s time to get better signs. When things move beyond the field of play, however, tempers can get testy, quickly.

(Wild home-road splits are a common indicator that something shady is going on. Though nothing was ever proved, the fact that the Rangers performed much better at home than on the road in recent years made them prime suspects around the American League.)

The Baseball Codes details the travails of pitcher Al Worthington, who in 1960 was traded to the White Sox—in part because he didn’t approve of the sign stealing done by his former team, the Giants. When he arrived in Chicago, however, he found an elaborate system in place in Comisky Park.

When the team played at home, Chicago’s pitching instructor and former Tigers standout, Dizzy Trout, watched the oppos­ing catcher from inside the recently installed Comiskey Park “exploding” scoreboard—a pyrotechnic exhibition unlike any seen in baseball up to that time. Trout then triggered a light hidden amid many others in the center-field display, that signaled hitters to the type of pitch about to be thrown—blinking meant breaking ball, solid meant fastball. It could be seen from both the plate and the White Sox dugout along the third-base line, but not from the visitors’ dugout near first. The scheme was incredi­bly effective, helping the Sox build a 51-26 record (.662) at home that year, even as they struggled to a 36-41 mark (.468) on the road.

Worthington complained to manager Al Lopez, who insisted that the system was morally acceptable. Said the pitcher: “I thought later, Well, if it’s okay to do it, why don’t they tell everyone?”

Toronto’s methods (if the allegations are true) are not nearly that complex, and aren’t even original. Former Tigers catcher Bill Freehan talked about similar situations during his own playing days:

You’d have a buddy on Oakland, and he’d tell you hey, we’ve got a guy out there in the background, so we aren’t looking at the pitcher, we’re looking over his head and somebody’s putting his right hand up for a fastball. As a catcher—especially when your team’s getting lit up—you start to think, “Uh-oh, have they got them here?” There would be guys in the wall at Fenway, and sometimes you had to make changes every inning.

So: Fenway, Oakland, Texas, San Francisco, Chicago. In the 1940s the Indians pinched signs with a military-grade gun sight brought back from WWII by Bob Feller. The New York Giants did something similar during the fabled 1951 season of The Shot Heard ‘Round the World. (Visiting teams, for that matter, were known to steal signs from the center field clubhouses of the Polo Grounds.) The Cubs spent much of the 1960s signaling hitters from the Wrigley Field scoreboard.

It’s safe to say that this kind of thing happens more than outsiders (or even insiders) care to imagine. The one commonality between all these accusations: Once they’re caught, the allegedly guilty parties are expected to stop.

So even though the league office has yet to field a complaint about the Blue Jays, expect extra vigilance from visitors to the Rogers Centre and an almost certain disappearance of the man in the white shirt. Should anybody see something suspicious, things have now reached the point at which hitting somebody “in the fucking head” (or, more appropriately, in the fucking hip), is a real possibility.

Update (8/11): Bautista says the team making accusations is the White Sox. (This was actually sussed out earlier by the Steal of Home blog, which not only fingered Chicago, but provided some screen caps of the possible man in white.)

Updated 2 (8/11): In Toronto to face the Blue Jays, A’s reliever Grant Balfour told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was aware of the rumors about the man in the white shirt, but has seen no evidence to support it. “If you’re [stealing signs like that], you’re going to wear it,” he said. “That’s the way it goes. Be prepared to get worn out. Go ahead, but know that that’s the unwritten rule.”

– Jason