Sign stealing

Everybody Needs Somebody, Even in the Center Field Bleachers: Victor Martinez, Chris Sale is Looking at You


We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Stealing an opponent’s signs from the basepaths won’t exactly be met with a smile and warm handshake, but neither will it elicit too many bad feelings—especially if the thief knocks it off once the jig is up.

Nipping them from beyond the field of play via spyglass or binoculars, however …well, that’ll get ’em every time.

On Wednesday it sure did. Chicago’s Chris Sale appeared in every way to be convinced that something was happening beyond the center field wall at Comerica Park. During the course of the game he pointed toward center field in anger and he pantomimed binoculars from the bench and, most notably to the would-be beneficiary of allegedly stolen signs, he drilled Victor Martinez to fully express his dissatisfaction with the situation. (Watch it here.)

In the cases of hitters being drilled for perceived slights (“I don’t like how you flipped your bat after that home run”), critics of such old-school retaliation are standing on solid ground. This, though, is different. If Sale was correct, Martinez and his team were benefitting at Sale’s expense via shady and illegal practices that would otherwise be beyond discipline. Sale wasn’t talking afterward, but a well-placed fastball is the time-tested and very effective behavior-correction method of choice.

Some pertinent details: Martinez is hitting .517 with three homers in 29 career at-bats against Sale (including a .647 mark in 17 at-bats in 2013). Nobody who has faced the left-hander that much has done better. But those numbers are home and road both, and it’s a safe assumption that Martinez is not getting signs from the stands on the road, at least on a regular basis. (Oh, what a story it would be if he was.) Still, when the pitcher at the wrong end of those numbers is a perennial Cy Young contender, it’s easy to see how he might think something is up.

The thing is, Sale went 1-0 with a 1.88 ERA in two starts at Comerica Park last season, and this year struck out 10 while giving up one run in six innings in his only start there. So it’s clearly not a team-wide thing that has the guy riled. And, frankly, team-wide things are pretty much all that’s on the public record when it comes to this kind of activity.

In May, the Braves all but accused the Marlins of signaling hitters via their scoreboard. In 2011, the Yankees said that the Blue Jays were doing it from the Rogers Centre … and so did the Red Sox … and the Orioles. Whatever came of it? Not a whole lot. Even with damning evidence, when Phillies coach Mick Billmeyer was caught training binoculars on Rockies catchers in 2010, it elicited nothing more than a light warning from MLB’s home office.

And so Sale took action on his own. By the looks of it, the rest of his team was keyed to the moment, as well. From an report:

In the first inning Wednesday, with Ian Kinsler on second and two outs, Ventura made a rare early visit to the mound. Sale threw two pitches outside of the zone and then intentionally walked Martinez.

Martinez stepped to the plate in the third with runners on first and second and two outs, and struck out swinging. On the last fastball to Martinez, catcher Tyler Flowers set up inside but the deciding pitch landed high and away. That pitch sequence followed two visits to the mound by Flowers and Sale taking a couple of looks back toward center. After the strikeout, Sale turned toward right-center field and tipped his cap. That was followed by a wave in the same general direction.

During the argument in the sixth, Sale appeared to reference Martinez’s “guy out there,” and Martinez said after the game that White Sox right fielder Avisail Garcia told his one-time teammate during the scrum that the White Sox suspected sign stealing. Sale claimed postgame Wednesday that his hat tip was to a fan who was wearing him out during his pregame bullpen session, but Sale was unavailable for comment prior to Thursday’s contest. The left-hander was excused by the team for the game for personal reasons.

Perhaps one day he’ll talk about what was tipping him off, and the possibility exists that it was all just an elaborate ruse to throw at Martinez simply because the hitter’s protracted success against him finally got under his skin. Either way, evidence suggests merely that Martinez is just a very good hitter who likes the kind of stuff Sale throws.

Hell, he’s hitting .556 in 18 career at-bats against Colby Lewis, and Lewis hasn’t even bothered to drill him once.


Gamesmanship, Oakland A's

1972: Bucking Wood’s Knuckler

Wilbur WoodResearch for my next book, about the OaklandA’s dynasty of the 1970s, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015, has turned up boundless examples of unwritten rules from that bygone era. The latest is from July 4, 1972, in which a future Hall of Famer discusses some possible gamesmanship in Chicago. From the Oakland Tribune:

After his two-hitter against California, Catfish Hunter made some allegations against the White Sox. In his previous start, in Chicago, Hunter was beaten, 4-0, by White Sox knuckleballer Wilbur wood.

“The baseballs are bigger in Chicago when you pitch against Wood,” Catfish charged. “You can tell that when you get the ball in your hand. When you pitch 200 to 220 innings a year, you can tell by just holding one. The seams are a lot higher. I talked to [Angels left-hander] Clyde Wright before the game, and and he said he noticed the same thing pitching against Wood in Chicago. He said he threw six baseballs back and couldn’t find one the right size. All they’ve got to do is wet them and then dry them out. That makes them bigger.”

Larger seams on the baseball would add flutter to Wood’s knuckler.

Wood won 24 games for the White Sox that year, pitching a modern-era record 376.2 innings and finishing second in the Cy Young Award voting.

Deke Appropriately

Now You See it, Now You Don’t: The Weekend of Phantom Tags

ChiSox dekeWe’ve discussed the concept of deking in this space for some time, under the auspices that improper execution by middle infielders can be dangerous. (A last-minute phantom tag, for example, delivered when a baserunner doesn’t expect it, can lead to late and awkward slides.)

Rarely, however, do we see two perfectly executed dekes in the same weekend that both lead to game-ending double plays.

On Saturday, Michael Cuddyer, representing the tying run for the Rockies, was on first base with one out in the ninth inning, and took off running. The hitter, Nolan Arenado, popped the pitch into short center field, but all Cuddyer saw was Padres second baseman Jed Gyorko acting like he was fielding a throw from the catcher. When center fielder Alexi Amarista made the catch, it took only an easy throw to double Cuddyer off first. (Watch it here.)

On Sunday in Baltimore, the Orioles had runners at the corners with one out in the ninth, down 4-2 to the White Sox. Chris Dickerson, inserted as a pinch-runner at first base, ran on an 0-2 pitch that batter Brian Roberts popped up behind first, in foul territory. Chicago shortstop Alexi Ramirez lit to the bag as if to field a throw, spurring Dickerson into a head-first slide. Second baseman Leury Garcia made the catch while Dickerson was still at second; though he probably had time to run it over himself, he flipped the ball to first baseman Jeff Keppinger for the game’s final out. (Watch it here.)

The similarity on both plays: Neither runner looked in to see where the baseball was going.

”I didn’t peek and it ended up in the one place where you’re not going to get that awareness reaction from the infielders,” Dickerson said in an AP report. ”Especially Ramirez with the deke. That pretty much got me. I assumed there was a ground ball hit behind me, and he was going to first because I was already there.”

Catchers will occasionally deke runners into easing up by acting as if no throw is coming before fielding the ball and making an unexpected tag. Outfielders have been known to act as if they have a bead on a ball that ends up landing nowhere near them, in order to keep a runner near his base. In 1958, members of the Cubs bullpen went so far as to deke Giants outfielder Leon Washington by collectively acting as if a ball hit by Tony Taylor had rolled under their bench, while it was actually some 45 feet away, in a rain gutter. (By the time Wagner realized what was happening, Taylor had circled the bases.)

Infielders, however, hold nearly absolute dominion over the tactic. (For an extended rundown on the idea, focusing primarily on Lonnie Smith’s basepath adventure in the 1991 World Series, see chapter 9 of The Baseball Codes.) Rarely, however—if ever—have we seen such wildly successful execution delivered so definitively in such a short amount of time.

A.J. Pierzynski, Addison Reed, Retaliation

Pierzynski Drilled, Indignant and Just Maybe Scheming for Future Benefit

AJP (1)It didn’t take long—one at-bat, as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning Wednesday—for the A.J. Pierzynski roadshow, Texas Rangers edition, to roar to life.

After eight seasons with the White Sox, Pierzynski signed with Texas during the off-season, and in facing his old team for the first time was plunked on the right elbow by ex-teammate Addison Reed. Pierzynski didn’t much try to avoid it (indeed, he threw his elbow into it), and was saved from significant discomfort by the pad he was wearing. Reed appeared upset with himself from the moment it became apparent that pitch would connect with batter.

None of it mattered. The catcher started barking toward the mound as he trotted to first, clearly upset with the development. (Watch it here.)

“I was mad,” Piezynski said in a Chicago Tribune account. “(Reed) threw it up and in and shoulder high. It’s fine if you’re going to pitch me in, but don’t come up and in, shoulder high.” (Reed, White Sox manager Robin Ventura and catcher Tyler Flowers all offered standard denials of intent.)

Ultimately it made no difference, coming as it did with two outs in the ninth. Pierzynski did not score, and Chicago won, 5-2. The real reason any of this is of interest is that it’s A.J. Pierzynski, the man about whom his former White Sox manager, Ozzie Guillen, famously said, “If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less.”

In honor of A.J. being A.J., I offer a selection from the original draft of The Baseball Codes, which did not make it into the final edit. It involves Pierzynski, some of the reasons why opposing players hate him, and another pitcher named Reed.

When Pierzynski was catching for San Francisco in 2004, the Giants built a 9-2 lead in the eighth inning of a game at Colorado. With the bases loaded and two out, Pierzynski poked his elbow pad into the path of a Steve Reed fastball, taking a dubious hit-by-pitch and driving in what would be the first of six runs in the inning that turned a Giants romp into a full-fledged blowout. Reed was incensed, saying later that the pitch would have been a strike had the Giants catcher not gotten in its way. There was even some debate as to whether it hit Pierzynski at all, with Reed and Rockies catcher Charles Johnson denying there was contact, and Pierzynski himself going so far as to say he never felt it hit him.

But the only opinion that mattered was that of plate umpire Bruce Dreckman, and when Dreckman sent Pierzynski to first, Reed exploded. He was thrown out of the game during the ensuing argument.

Pierzynski knew he had done wrong—willingly getting hit by a pitch that should not have hit him, in a game in which an extra run did not matter—and that Reed had been ejected as a result. He also knew that there would be a price to pay down the road.

With the game well in hand, Giants manager Felipe Alou offered to pull Pierzynski and save him from imminent retaliatory damage. The catcher, however, understood that if he didn’t get it that day, he’d be waiting—uncomfortably—until the time that the Rockies had a chance to even the score. So he demurred, opting get it over with quickly.

Trouble was, when Pierzynski came to bat in the ninth inning, it was against right-hander Allan Simpson, pitching in just his eighth major league game. With a 7.36 ERA, Simpson was far less worried about sticking up for his teammates than he was about simply getting out of the inning with a minimum of damage. (With Reed in the clubhouse, Simpson  may not even have been briefed about Pierzynski’s lack of propriety, or the appropriate response.)

Seeing a pitch to hit, Pierzynski doubled in the Giants’ 16th and final run of the game.

The catcher didn’t start the next day, the final game of the series, and by the time he made a ninth-inning appearance as a pinch-hitter, the 7-5 score was too close for Rockies pitcher Marc Kroon to take any action. (Also, because Pierzynski hadn’t been scheduled to hit, Rockies management may not have given advance notice to Kroon about what they’d like him to do.)

When the teams faced each other a month later, however, Rockies starter Aaron Cook wasted no time. When Pierzynski stepped to the plate for his first at bat, Colorado already held a 6-0 lead, and with little potential downside to allowing an extra baserunner, Cook hit Pierzynski in the leg with his second pitch.

Pierzynski may be insufferable, but he is also among the game’s wiliest players. He knew what was happening and why in 1992, and he likely knew it again on Wednesday. He may also be the only man in baseball to feign annoyance at an incidental action on the chance that such a precedent could help him or his team in the future.

Unless Pierzynski or somebody on the White Sox cares to discuss Wednesday’s events, of course, we’ll never know. The next time he faces Addison Reed, however, it seems likely that Wednesday’s events will be somewhere in the pitcher’s mind.

Don't Steal with a Big Lead, Retaliation

Lack of Respect in the Windy City? De Aza Pays for Rios’ Mistake

Alejandro De Aza contemplates just having been hit with a pitch.

There is a persistent debate about the point at which a team should stop playing aggressively—the lead size that constitutes a blowout, and when it begins to matter.

According the Cubs, those numbers are six runs and the seventh inning, respectively—at least if Alajandro De Aza is to be believed.

De Aza, the White Sox center fielder, was drilled by the first pitch from Cubs reliever Manny Corpas leading off the eighth inning on Wednesday. It wasn’t that he and Corpas had any beef—to the contrary, said De Aza in a CBS Chicago report, “we’re cool, we’re friends, I’ve known him for a long time.”

The inspiration for the pitch—which De Aza felt was intentional (it certainly looked that way; watch it here)—was likely White Sox right fielder Alex Rios’ decision, after he led off the seventh inning with a single, to take off for second while his club led, 6-0.

Rios never made it, getting forced out on A.J. Pierzynski’s grounder, but the action was unmistakable—as was the response. De Aza said he thought Corpas was told simply “to hit the first guy.” (Watch some of his comments here.)

After the game, Cubs manager Dale Sveum played coy. “I don’t know,” he said in an report. “He hit him. It happens sometimes.”

Especially when somebody is paying scant attention to the score. Rios has stolen 171 bases across his nine-year career, so he should have a pretty good idea of what’s appropriate in that regard. It’s also possible that the order came from the bench, probably as a hedge against the double-play more than as a straight steal. If that’s the case, it’s less likely that Robin Ventura simply lost track of the score than that he was insufficiently comfortable with a six-run lead at that point in the game. (Why he would feel that way when facing a Cubs offense that ranks in the bottom five of the National League in hits, runs, doubles, homers, OBP, OPS and slugging is another question.)

Either way, it was the final meeting of the season for the Chicago clubs, so we won’t see a response any time soon. And if De Aza and Corpas meet up during the off-season—you know, like friends do—they’ll hopefully come to the conclusion that the incident was strictly the business of the unwritten rules.

A.J. Pierzynski, Ben Zobrist, Retaliation

Tit-for-Tat . . . for Tit Makes for Interesting Headline, Describes That Which Shouldn’t Have Upset Ken Harrelson Quite so Much as it Did

Robin Ventura and Mark Wegner discuss current events at the Trop.

What’s being talked about is the spectacle. What the spectacle entails is raw, flashing emotion, unconstrained by things like logic or reason. The emotion’s place of origin was the mouth of Ken Harrelson, White Sox broadcaster. Yesterday, it absolutely captivated the baseball-viewing public.

What are you doing? He threw him out of the ballgame? You’ve got to be bleeping me. What in the hell are you doing? What are you doing, Wegner?

Yes, he actually said, “bleeping.” Hear the Hawk rock the rant, everyone. Good times for all.

The money shot involves Harrelson’s homer-centric howls, directed at plate ump Mark Wegner in response to White Sox starter Jose Quintana’s fourth-inning ejection, after the left-hander threw a pitch behind Tampa Bay’s Ben Zobrist. Like many money shots, of course, it feels kind of empty without some relevant prelude to bring it alive.

Why, for instance was Hawk so riled up?

The answer is somewhat involved, and begins in the sixth inning of Tuesday’s game, also between the White Sox and Rays. A.J. Pierzynski, at first base with one out, was forced at second on a ground ball by Dayan Viciedo. It’s standard procedure for runners in that situation to go in hard at second, trying to prevent a double play. Pierzynski, however, went in late and spikes high, spearing second baseman Zobrist well behind the bag.

“There was no chance for a throw to first base, and he came way over the bag to try and get me,” said Zobrist. “I don’t know what his motivation was in doing that.”

The two shared some choice sentiments after the play, but each eventually went peaceably on his way, and the issue appeared to die there. Pierzynski batted three more times in the game, once with nobody on and two out, another time as the leadoff hitter while his team held a 6-2 lead, and wasn’t so much as brushed back.

You gotta be kiddin’ me. That is so bad. That is absolutely brutal. That is unbelievable. I’ll tell you what—they have got to start making guys be accountable.

Given an evening to think it over, however, the Rays apparently decided that they wanted a piece of Pierzynski after all. In the third inning Wednesday, with one out and first base open, Rays starter Alex Cobb drilled the catcher in the right shoulder blade. According to the Code, Pierzynski offered cause, Cobb retorted with effect, and things should have ended right there.

Except that they didn’t. The next time Zobrist came to the plate—six batters after Pierzynski was hit—Quintana threw his first pitch so far behind him that Zobrist didn’t even have to move his feet to avoid it. This is where Wegner delivered ejections—one each for Quintana and manager Robin Ventura—and Harrelson temporarily lost control of his senses. (Watch it here.)

That is totally absurd! That just tells you—here’s an umpire in the American League that knows nothing about the game of baseball. That’s unbelievable.

When it comes to bloviation such as Harrelson’s, details matter. And in this case, the details validate Wegner. Quintana was making just his second career start, and by appearances had been coached in his actions. Prior to the pitch, Pierzynski set up almost mindlessly over the middle of the plate, and as the fastball sailed wildly inside, the catcher didn’t so much as make a stab at it—almost as if he knew in advance where it was headed. Pitchers usually miss by inches; Quintana’s shot was close to four feet from Pierzynski’s target. Zobrist called it “painfully obvious” in a Tampa Bay Times account.

Ventura expressed shock at the ejection, less for the causality than the lack of warning from Wegner. Quintana offered some odd detail about Pierzynski having changed signs on him and not wanting to mix things up. Pierzynski said he had set up away, but Quintana threw it in. Difficult as it is to believe them, at least it’s the type of thing they’re supposed to say.

Ultimately, the White Sox had taken an extra, unnecessary shot, and a warning from Wegner at that point would have validated their strategy, giving them a freebie by stifling the Rays.

They have got to do something about this, I’ll tell you. They have got some guys in this league who have no business umpiring. They have no business umpiring because they don’t know what the baseball is about. And he is one of them. . . . He ought to be suspended and if they want to keep him as an umpire, send him back to school and teach him what this game is about.

Even as Harrelson ranted, Zobrist simply stood in the batter’s box, a slight smile tracing his lips. It could have been relief at avoiding what might otherwise have been a painful message. Or perhaps he was delighting in the fact that Chicago would be going to its bullpen earlier than expected. Maybe it was simply that justice had been served, and he knew it.

It’s certainly more than one could say for the Hawk at that moment.

This article also appeared, in slightly different form and with an actual photo of Pierzynski’s questionable slide, at Sports


Who to Target, and Why: Showdown at Wrigley Serves as Interleague Primer

For a vast majority of baseball’s history, much was made of the difference between the National and American leagues. AL: Based on the three-run homer. NL: Prefers to sacrifice. Recently, however, decades after the adoption of the designated hitter amplified these stereotypes, uniformity slowly began to settle across baseball.

The positions of league president were discontinued after the 1999 season. League-specific umpiring crews were consolidated into a single unit, and interleague schedules devised. When Mike Scioscia led the Angels to a championship in 2002, much was made of his bringing a National League style of play to the Junior Circuit. Today, such a distinction is barely noticed.

Usually. Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular Field are located on opposite sides of Chicago, about 10 miles apart, but they may as well be on different coasts. At Wrigley on Friday, the clearest difference between the leagues was on full display, after a Jeff Samardzija fastball ricocheted off of Paul Konerko’s face, near his left eye, in the third inning. (Watch it here.)

Even though it came under suspicious circumstances—Konerko had homered in his previous at-bat—the pitch was a split-finger fastball that didn’t break, Samardzija claimed repeatedly that it was unintentional, and the White Sox believed him.

Nonetheless, there were reparations to be collected. Sox pitcher Jake Peavy put it succinctly in the Chicago Sun Times:

When our man gets hit, gets hit in the face, there’s something to be said about that. I know this is a sensitive subject with baseball, and I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but if your big guy is going down, intentional or unintentional, there’s got to be something done about it.

Something was done, and it perfectly illustrated the difference in mindset between the leagues. Samardzija expected to be targeted for retaliation, but drilling the opposing pitcher was not what Sox starter Philip Humber had in mind.

The reason is obvious. Because pitchers don’t hit in the AL, retaliatory strikes must be directed at the opposing club’s big hitters. Sure enough, the first pitch of the fourth inning sailed behind the Cubs’ biggest threat, Bryan LaHair. It was clearly intentional, and plate ump Tim Timmons quickly issued warnings to both benches. (Watch it here.)

Even if Humber intentionally missed LaHair, his choice of target was peculiar, because Samardzija had been the next Cubs batter in the bottom of the inning after Konerko went down. Not only wasn’t he targeted, but he reached base on an error by shortstop Alexei Ramirez.

Perhaps Humber failed to consider retaliation in that moment, and was reminded between frames that it might be a good idea. Or maybe he had his sights set on a bigger bat, but with a runner, Samardzija, on first and nobody out, he opted against putting anyone else on base, waiting a frame to go after LaHair.

Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune talked to Robin Ventura about the situation:

I asked the White Sox manager if there was a purpose to the 91-mph fastball that sailed behind LaHair’s head on its way to the Wrigley Field screen.

“No,” said Ventura, who then turned his brown eyes on me for what seemed a long time, not blinking.

I asked him if the pitch was one that just got away from Humber.

“Yeah,” he said.

Rogers also reported that Ventura said the White Sox would have hit Samardzija directly if they thought his pitch to Konerko had been intentional.

Either way, Peavy and A.J. Pierzynski were caught on camera after the fourth inning having an animated discussion in the dugout—possibly over retaliatory protocol. Peavy, of course, spent the bulk of his career in the National League; Pierzynski has spent 14 of his 15 big league seasons in the AL, and Humber has been an AL guy almost exclusively .

Did the discussion highlight differences of opinion and experience? Nobody’s talking of course, but the fact remained that at least one guy was expecting something a bit more severe.

“I was ready for it,’’ said Samardzija in the Sun Times. “No worries. Sometimes you deserve it.’’