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.

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C.J. Wilson, No-Hitter Etiquette

Wilson ‘Bummed’ by CarGo’s Bunt

Just a few days back, Dee Gordon tried to bunt for what would have been his team’s first hit against the Mariners.

Because it was only the fourth inning, and because speed is such an integral part to Gordon’s game, and because Seattle led only 1-0, none of the Mariners gave it much thought.

The same couldn’t be said regarding Carlos Gonzalez, who last Friday—the same day as Gordon’s effort—bunted for Colorado’s first hit against the Angels. The circumstances were remarkably similar: It was the fourth inning, it was a tack he regularly uses (he’d already had one bunt single this year, and tallied six last season), and his team trailed only 2-0.

The primary difference: The attitude of the pitcher he was facing.

“Anytime a guy like him drops a bunt down, it’s a little shocking,” said Angels starter C.J. Wilson in an MLB.com report. “I was bummed about that from a competitive standpoint. I guess he just wanted to get on base.”

Sure, Gonzalez is known for his power more than his speed, which in turn causes third basemen to play deeper than they might for somebody like Gordon. Ultimately, however, if there’s a defensive hole to exploit, one can hardly fault a hitter for trying.

“He was throwing nasty pitches, so why would you take that away from me?” Gonzalez said. “That’s part of my game. . . . We were only down by two runs. Maybe in a different situation, I would try to swing the bat because I know how hard it is for pitchers to give up the first hit with a bunt. But I wanted to get my team going and he was dominating.”

The Angels won, 7-2, and there was no retaliation against Gonzalez. Using Wilson’s own vernacular, “bummed” doesn’t necessarily mean “angry,” which may have had to do with the fact that Gonzalez didn’t exactly break up a game for the ages—CarGo’s was one of five hits Wilson gave up on the day.

Then again, the pitcher did see fit to address the matter after the game, even while he should have been basking in an outstanding (one run over eight innings) performance.

Seems there’s just no pleasing some people.

Chipper Jones, Jamie Moyer, Sign stealing

Hey Baby, What’s Your Sign? Chipper Doesn’t Take Kindly to Accusations

In The Baseball Codes, longtime Tigers catcher Bill Freehan had some advice for players looking to respond to a perceived indignity with overt action.

“You don’t want to light a guy up,” he said. “Just let a sleeping dog lie.”

At age 49, Jamie Moyer should by now have learned this commonsense maxim, which is espoused in every big league clubhouse.

Saturday night, however, he went out and, in Freehan’s terminology, lit a guy up—and it cost him. In the fifth inning of a game Moyer’s Rockies led 6-2 against Atlanta, he thought that Chipper Jones, at second base, was relaying signs to the hitter, Brian McCann. What spurred his suspicion is unclear, but Moyer responded by turning around and tellilng the Atlanta superstar to knock it off. (Watch it here.)

Jones did not receive it well.

“He accused me of relaying a sign down 6-2 with a 3-0 count to Brian McCann,” he said after the game, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, referencing the fact that McCann would likely taking the next pitch, no matter what it was, thus nullifying the need to tip him off. “I have never relayed a sign to anyone while I’m on second base.”

That’s certainly possible—some players abhor the practice, for a variety of reasons—but Jones’ tenor makes it sound as if sign relaying is something done primarily by lowlifes and scoundrels. In fact, it’s so common that most pitchers won’t even retaliate should they see it happening—they’ll just have the catcher change the signs. In slightly more extreme circumstances, they’ll ask the baserunner to knock it off. (It’s not even the first time the issue has been raised this season.)

Moyer opted for the latter tack, telling Jones, “I see what you’re doing.” Unfortunately for the pitcher, circumstances do not seem to corroborate his suspicion. Jones said he was having a conversation with Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki at the time—a claim that Tulowitzki confirmed, adding that Jones “wasn’t doing anything”—and was befuddled by the accusation. Actually, he was outraged. The third baseman went to some length after the game to explain precisely how neither he nor anybody on his team does anything like that—with enough specifics to make it very believable.

“I literally am standing on second base and I’m talking to [Tulowitzki], and I turn around and [Moyer] is coming set,” he said in the AJC. “So I get ready and take my lead, and [Moyer] goes, ‘I see you.’ And I go, what the [bleep] do you see? What the [bleep] are you talking about?’ I go, ‘I was [bleeping] talking to your shortstop. And he said something else with his back turned, like he yelled but didn’t face me. I go, that’s [bleeping] B.S. And I turned around to Tulo and Tulo’s like [holds hands up].”

Jones also said that the only sign stealers during his time with the Braves were Jeff Blauser and Mark Lemke—both of whom last played with the club in 1997—and that since then, “nobody’s ever done it.”

Moyer compounded matters in the bottom half of the inning, when he came to bat and informed Atlanta catcher McCann that things like sign stealing are “how people get hurt.” Jones took notice, as did several other members of the Braves. They responded in the most painful way possible: at the plate.

Colorado’s lead had extended to 8-3 by the time Moyer spoke to McCann. Atlanta’s first two hitters the following inning, Matt Diaz and Jason Heyward, then hit long home runs, followed by a single from Tyler Pastornicky. That ended Moyer’s night.

Three batters later, Jones singled off reliever Esmil Rogers to drive in two (Pastornicky’s run was charged to Moyer), and two batters after that the game was tied. Atlanta went on to win, 13-9.

“That was all on Jamie Moyer,” Jones said. “He woke a sleeping giant tonight. . . . I don’t know why he’s so paranoid. But to be honest with you, every pitch he throws is 78 [mph]. So it’s not like we really have to relay signs.”

Moyer declined to comment after the game beyond saying in the Denver Post that “whatever happens on the field stays on the field.” Unfortunately for him, that’s not the case—and the facts don’t appear to support him.

“Jamie’s been known to be a little paranoid before,” said Diaz. It’s just one of those things where it made absolutely no sense in the situation.”

(Diaz also said that he’s been trying to get the Braves to relay more signs—like, any signs—from second base, because it was practiced on the other three teams for which he’s played, but has gotten no traction. “Chip’s the reason we don’t,” he said. “He’ll say, ‘No, we don’t do that.’ So it’s funny that he got called out on it. Ironic even.”

Ultimately, Moyer’s response would have been entirely appropriate had Jones actually been stealing signs. But like the mugger who tries to roll a plainclothes policeman, it appears that in Jones, Moyer simply picked the wrong target. The facts don’t suggest that signs were being stolen, and the vehemence of the accused lends credence to his claims.

What Moyer saw to raise his hackles, we still don’t know, but it helped spur an outburst of offense against him. Next time, he should probably be certain.

Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Tulo or Ubaldo? Jimenez Out to Prove the Rockies Made the Right Decision

Anybody wondering why the Colorado Rockies never considered Ubaldo Jimenez to be in the same stratosphere as Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez got their answer today.

Turns out the guy is hot-headed, and possibly a touch delusional.

Jimenez, who publicly steamed last week about the lack of respect shown him by the Rockies when they traded him to Cleveland rather than sign him long term, got his first chance to face his former team on Sunday. Before long, he had sent Tulowitzki to the hospital.

The right-hander’s first move was to drill Colorado’s All-Star shortstop in the elbow (test results came back negative). His second was to race toward the plate, daring an enraged Tulowitzki to come at him. After at first refusing to speak to the media after the game, Jimenez said that his post HBP histrionics were merely a reaction to Tulowitzki’s anger. “He was calling me out,” he said in a Denver Post report. “I mean, I’m a man. If somebody calls me out, I have to go.”

Tulowitzki’s drilling follows a time-tested tradition of players being punished for their teammates’ actions, be it the next hitter in the lineup dodging fastballs following a home run, or a slugger going down as part of a pitcher protesting a big inning.

Those tactics, however, are long outdated, and Jimenez knows it. Tulowitzki might have worn it because he’s the face of theRockies—not to mention the guy who got a big contract when Jimenez did not. (Tulowitzki and Gonzalez both signed monster deals after the 2010 season, the former for $134 million, the latter for $80 million, both over seven years. Jimenez signed for $10 million over four years prior to the 2009 campaign.)

Or he might have worn it for the statement he made in response to Jimenez’s initial cries of disrespect. “(Jimenez) had signed his deal and had years left on it,” the shortstop said. “Why would we give him something new when we didn’t see anything out of him?”

Jimenez said that his pitch was unintentional (it “got away,” he said), but that’s clearly not the case. Rockies pitcher Jeremy Guthrie—in his first season with Colorado—said he knew what was coming based on where the catcher was setting up.

The umps, clueless, did not issue an ejection.

Two things worth noting:

  • Jimenez was 6-9 with a 4.46 ERA when the Rockies traded him last season.
  • Jimenez is 1-4 with a 7.43 this spring.

The guy gave the Rockies scant reason to lock him up last season, let alone rework his contract long before it was set to expire. He currently appears to be working his way out of the Cleveland rotation altogether. He should focus on things other than misplaced anger directed at guys who don’t deserve it.

Colorado and Cleveland don’t face each other this season, so the two won’t meet again short of the World Series. Should Jimenez face his old mates next year, however, it’s pretty certain that today’s activities will be revisited, with vigor.

– Jason

Update: Rockies skipper Jim Tracy didn’t much care for Jimenez’ act, calling him “gutless” and calling for his suspension.

Update 2 (4-02): MLB didn’t much care for Jimenez’ act, either.

Update 3 (4-02): Watch it here.

Update 4 (4-03): Jimenez isn’t exactly reticent about the whole thing.

Update 5 (4-03): How not reticent? He’s appealing his suspension.

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 MLB.com 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

Cheating, Humidor, Tim Lincecum

Rocky Mountain Hijinx

Q: Are the Rockies cheating? Does it matter? Should they stop?

A: Don’t know, not really and, if applicable, yes.

The rumors took root nationally in July, when Giants broadcaster Jon Miller asserted that whispers around the league said the Rockies selectively delivered baseballs to the umpires at Coors Field—balls from the humidor when the opposition was hitting, dry balls when the Rockies were at the plate.

(The team took to storing game balls in a humidor several years back to help them retain moisture. As is evidenced by the early years of baseball in the altitude of Denver, dry baseballs travel a very, very long way when hit.)

The story got new legs over the weekend, when Tim Lincecum, on the mound in the opener of a crucial three-game set between the Giants and the Rockies, got a new ball from plate umpire Laz Diaz, rubbed it up, then tossed it back while uttering a phrase that could clearly be seen on the TV broadcast: “Fucking juiced balls. It’s bullshit.”

If that’s what the Rockies are doing, it’s just baseball.

It’s the same theory behind select home bullpens being much nicer than their counterparts on the visitors’ side, with perfectly sloped mounds as opposed to misshapen inclines that hinder the preparation process.

It’s why a grounds crew will occasionally manicure a field to suit the home team’s strength, be it speed (bake the ground in front of the plate to facilitate high chops), lack of speed (water the basepaths into mush, to slow down the opposition), bunting ability (Ashburn’s Ridge in Philadelphia sloped the baseline slightly inward, to help Richie Ashburn’s offerings stay fair) or preference of the starting pitcher (mounds can be slightly raised or lowered, depending on the stature of the guys using them).

Heck, just a few years back, the story broke about the Twins manipulating the air conditioning at the Metrodome to blow in when opponents batted, and out when Minnesota was up.

If the Rockies are, indeed, cheating, they wouldn’t even be the first team to use a humidor to its benefit—although the 1967 Chicago White Sox did the reverse of what the Rockies are accused of. Because they had good pitching and an awful offense (they scored almost 200 runs fewer the league-leading Boston), the White Sox took to storing game balls in a humidified room, adding as much as a half ounce of water weight to each one. This hindered visiting hitters, but didn’t much affect the White Sox, who couldn’t hit, anyway.

There’s no reason to condemn Colorado for trying, but if they are cheating, there’s plenty of reason to put a stop to it—which is precisely what MLB did, ordering umpires to intervene in the process that delivers balls from the humidor to the field. (Up until now, it was handled entirely by Rockies employees.)

Which pretty much settles the score. Most cheating in baseball is fine, but if you get caught, you have to stop. Based on the 10-9 score the day after Lincecum’s “juiced balls” performance, it would appear that they have.

Which is all anybody could ask. Now play ball.

– Jason