From just before the break: The Blue Jays join Pedro Florimon in the 2018 pantheon of faking guys out of their damn socks.
In Pittsburgh on Sunday, Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang saw Bryce Harper motoring toward third with a clean triple, even as the throw from right fielder Josh Bell soared above two relay men and wide of the base. Faced with the possibility of Harper scoring on the overthrow, Kang did what he thought necessary—he applied a phantom tag.
Such a play, known as a deke (short for “decoy”), has long been a staple of major league baseball. In it, a fielder acts as if a play he has no chance of making is in front of him, so as to slow or stop a runner who might otherwise advance to the next base. The most prominent deke ever came during Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, when Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch helped prevent Atlanta’s Lonnie Smith, at first base, from scoring on a double into the gap by pretending the blast never left the infield. Such a ploy can only work if the runner has no idea where the ball actually is, of course, but in that instance Smith did not. The run he failed to score cost his team dearly in a 1-0 loss. (The incident is discussed in depth in The Baseball Codes.)
The play was totally legit, and was likely the difference in Minnesota’s victory. However, it is not the type of deke we’re discussing today.
There is a difference between Knoblauch’s deke—and the panoply of plays like it that are seen around baseball all the time—and what Kang did to Harper. Smith paid no price outside of tarnished pride and a run off the scoreboard. Harper, however, was not so lucky. That’s because Kang’s decision to throw his glove down came so late in the play that the runner had no choice but to force himself into an ill-timed and awkward slide. (Watch it here.)
Such a play was described in The Baseball Codes:
A number of players have been injured by ill-timed or unnecessary dekes, which leads to an unwritten rule about when it is and isn’t appropriate to use the maneuver. Inﬁelders throwing down phantom tags at the last possible moment can cause awkward slides, and the potential for damage is very real. “If a guy is stealing, you don’t pretend the throw is coming,” said second baseman Craig Grebeck. “If he’s coming in standing up and you all of a sudden look like the catcher is throwing the ball, a late slide can tear up an ankle or a knee.”
That’s exactly what happened to Gene Clines in 1973. Clines, a fourth-year outﬁelder with the Pirates, was on ﬁrst base in a game against San Diego; with a full count on the hitter, he took off for second. The pitch was taken for ball four, but instead of simply strolling to second, Clines— who never peeked homeward to assess the situation—proceeded full speed ahead. Padres shortstop Derrel Thomas waited until Clines was nearly atop the base, then inexplicably threw his glove down as if a late throw were about to arrive. Clines, ﬂustered, went into a hurried slide and badly injured his ankle. “That play right there cost me a lot of time,” he said, still angry at the thought more than three decades later. “I never fully recovered for the rest of that year.” Clines, batting .291 going into the game, missed three weeks, and hit just .227 in the two months thereafter.
Sure enough, Harper jammed his thumb on the play, and left the game shortly thereafter.
Pertinent point: Gene Clines was a coach under Dusty Baker for six years in San Francisco and another four in Chicago. Now Baker manages the Nationals, and through his close friend knows all too well the dangers of a poorly thrown deke.
Washington pitcher A.J. Cole responded during Kang’s next at-bat by throwing a pitch well behind the hitter at shoulder-blade level. (Whether Baker ordered it is highly doubtful, based on his track record.)
Because Kang ducked as the pitch flew behind him, the pitch looked like it came in head-high. The Pirates took great and understandable exception to Cole’s message, and benches quickly emptied. (Watch it here.)
The dustup served to distract from the far more interesting discussion about the grey area of infield decoys. The clear difference between Kang’s tag and that of Derrel Thomas decades earlier is that there was clear benefit to Kang’s strategy—holding Harper at third. If he could have put down his deke in a timely fashion, giving Harper enough space to undertake a regular slide, it would have been fine.
Kang appeared to have had time to have done this, even after identifying the overthrow. Barring that, however, he still had another option:
Don’t do anything at all. Which is exactly what he should have done.
Update (9-27): Deking is wrong, but drilling is punishable. Cole just drew a five-gamer.
We’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.
As a method of last resort, dekes can be an infielder’s best friend. They’re most frequently enacted in an attempt to slow a baserunner’s progress by making him think that the ball is somewhere on the diamond other than where it actually is–and can end up saving runs .
They are deceptive by nature, but, done right, are entirely by the book. (They’re especially by-the-book if the fielder plays no part in deking a baserunner who has clearly just been deked.)
Some explanation: In WBC action on Monday in Japan, Chinese baserunner Fujia Chu swiped second base following Cuban catcher Eriel Sanchez’s botched transfer of the ball to his throwing hand. Chu pulled into second as Sanchez was trotting toward the backstop to corral the ball, then, near the end of the play, inexplicably started jogging back toward first. (Watch it here.)
The initial impression: One of the Cubans told him it was a foul ball.
The more likely scenario, especially given the language barrier: Chu caught a glimpse of the ball in foul territory and made the assumption all on his own.
These are the kinds of things that happen to an inexperienced squad. (China was mercy-ruled, 12-0, in this game. Say no more.) The reason one never sees this happen in the big leagues is that runners are trained to look in to the catcher mid-stride to see the result of the play. Had he been aware of his surroundings, Chu might even have tried for third.
As it was, Cuba gets credited for a heads-up baseball play it likely had nothing to do with.
Starlin Castro has for the duration of his career been criticized for an ongoing failure to pay requisite attention during the course of a baseball game. From forgetting the number of outs in an inning (which kept him from attempting to turn what would have been an inning-ending double-play against the Giants), to failing to slide into second on a stolen-base attempt, to facing the wrong way as his pitcher was delivering the baseball, the guy’s career has been a laundry list of mental lapses that temper an exceptional skill set.
The latest came on Friday—though to be fair, this time the All-Star had some help in botching things up.
That assistance came courtesy of Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. Castro, at first base, took off on a stolen-base attempt—itself a questionable move, what with the Cubs down five runs—as Josh Vitters singled to right. Phillips acted as if he were about to receive a throw from the shortstop for a play at second; despite Castro having the entire left side of the field in his direct line of sight, he somehow fell for it. (Watch here, at the 1:16 mark.)
Castro was deked into a full stop, and by the time he figured out what was happening and tried to motor to third, it was far too late. Xavier Paul threw the ball in to Phillips, who relayed it to third baseman Wilson Valdez, who tagged Castro for an easy out.
After the game, Alfonso Soriano said in an ESPN Chicago report that Castro “needs to concentrate more on the game.” This is undoubtedly true, but it also helps to understand the basics of Phillips’ misdirection.
“You know not to trust middle infielders—it’s their job to deke,” said longtime middle infielder Bip Roberts.
If Castro (a middle infielder himself) lost track of the ball between the plate and the spot in right field where it eventually landed, he always had third base coach Pat Listach (a former middle infielder) to clue him in. Then again, if a guy can’t be reliably counted on to face the game when fielding his position, it’s probably too much to ask that he pay attention to coaches when running the bases.
“A ball is hit, and I’m supposed to know where that ball falls at all times,” said Rangers manager Ron Washington. “If I run blind and get deked out, whose fault is that? Is that the infielder who deked me out, or is that my fault for not knowing what’s going on?”
Lonnie Smith, of course, was deked by Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch in the seventh game of the 1991 World Series—a play that likely cost Atlanta a vital run in a game they ended up losing, 1-0, in 10 innings. Smith, however, was 35 years old, a 14-year veteran and on the game’s biggest stage. Castro is only 22, and, one would hope, is still at the early end of his learning curve.
Still, said Cubs manager Dale Sveum after the game, according to MLB.com, “If you’re going to steal a base five runs down, you better [darn] well know where the ball’s hit.”
When Jimmy Rollins held up his hand toward Mets baserunner Josh Thole last week, it meant by every indication that the ball was no longer in play–in this case, a bunt gone foul. Thole, who had steamed into second base on R.A. Dickey‘s sacrifice attempt, started jogging back to first.
The problem, at least as far as Thole was concerned, was that Dickey’s ball was still live, having been laid down perfectly inside the line. Cliff Lee threw the ball to Rollins, who relayed it to first baseman Jim Thome just ahead of a desperately diving baserunner. (Watch it here.)
“Jimmy put his hands up, like ‘Come in easy. You can come in easy,’ ” said Thole after the game in the Newark Star-Ledger. He later continued: “I looked at the umpire, and got a weird stare from him, and then I looked back and the ball was on his way to first. I didn’t know what else to do. I just kept running.”
If Rollins’ gesture was intentional (and with the shortstop failing to address the issue after the game, there is little reason to think that it wasn’t; see a screen grab at Philly.com), he added an entry to a sizeable section of Code dealing with gamesmanship. At its core: Get every advantage you can, in any way possible. Such plays are known as dekes (short for “decoy”), and although Rollins’ example wasn’t typical of the genre, it wasn’t quite original, either. From TheBaseball Codes:
In a 1972 game between the Giants and Padres, Johnny Jeter stole a base so easily that there was no throw. He dived headﬁrst into the base anyway, a clear sign that he hadn’t looked in to follow the action. Seeing this, San Francisco shortstop Chris Speier pounced. “Hold up, hold up—foul ball,” he said nonchalantly. Astonishingly, the ploy worked. Jeter started back to ﬁrst base, Giants catcher Dave Rader ﬁred the ball to second, and Jeter was tagged out. “Oh shit, was he pissed,” said Speier, grinning at the thought more than three decades later.
This gets to the heart of the issue. Had Jeter—or Thole, 40 years later—been paying attention, neither would have gotten snookered.
“I don’t think any baserunner should fall for a deke,” said Rangers manager Ron Washington. “There are things I’m supposed to be doing when a ball is put in play, so how can you deke me? A ball is hit, and I’m supposed to know where that ball is at all times. And if I run blind and get deked out, whose fault is that? Is that the inﬁelder who deked me out, or is that my fault for not knowing what’s going on?”
The problem for Thole was that he had been paying attention.
“I knew the ball was fair,” he said in the Star-Ledger. “I even looked down. You can go watch the video. I checked in. The ball was on the floor. I just took off running back to first. I’ve got no other explanation . . . I don’t know what I was thinking.”