Intimidation, Umpires Knowing the Code

Homer, Homer, Homer, Plunk: What Else can an Ump Assume?

Hamels homer collageSometimes, intent doesn’t matter.

When Orioles starter Jason Hammel drilled Detroit’s Matt Tuiasosopo on Saturday, nobody on either team felt strongly that he did it on purpose. The fact that there is no such thing as an 82-mph purpose pitch—which is where Hammel’s fateful offering clocked in—did not dissuade plate ump Hunter Wendelstedt from ejecting the right-hander on the spot.

It being the first pitch after back-to-back-to-back home runs, not to mention its location up near the batter’s head, will put a ballpark in that kind of mindframe. After all, the reasoning goes, even if Hammel didn’t mean to drill Tuiasosopo, perhaps he should have—especially after Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila just went deep. When one’s strategy as a pitcher isn’t working out quite as one had hoped—and make no mistake, three straight bombs under any circumstance will make a pitcher question his strategy—the only prudent plan is to change things up.

Put another way: If a team is getting far too comfortable at the plate, make them less comfortable. Starting immediately. (Watch the drilling here. Watch the homers here.)

So when Hammel’s actions followed the script—even if, in retrospect, his intention appears to have been elsewhere—an umpire can hardly be faulted for ignoring the finer points of the situation. After all, there is plenty of historical precedent on which to build. A small sampling, culled from a long-ago post detailing four straight homers hit by the Diamondbacks (which focused more on the outdated unwritten rule of restraint from swinging at the first pitch after back-to-back—or more—home runs):

  • In 1944 Cardinals Walker Cooper, Whitey Kurowski and Marty Marion hit consecutive homers against Reds pitcher Clyde Shoun. The next hitter, Marty Marion, was knocked down.
  • In 1991,Angels pitcher Scott Bailes hit Randy Velarde of the Yankees after giving up consecutive home runs.
  • In 1996, after the Red Sox connected for three home runs against the Angels, reliever Shawn Boskie threw a pitch behind Jose Canseco’s back.
  • In 2003, Astros pitcher Shane Reynolds gave up three home runs to the Pirates, then put a pitch under the chin of Brian Giles.
  • Mike Hegan, addressing the mindframe if not the actual scenario: “In April of 1974, I hit behind Graig Nettles the whole month. Graig hit 11 home runs, and I was on my back 11 times. That’s the kind of thing that happened.”

Former reliever and longtime pitching coach Bob McClure put it this way, in an interview for The Baseball Codes:

We were in Yankee Stadium one time, and I gave up back-to-back home runs to two left-handers. I’d given up back-to-back home runs before, but not to two lefties. Dave Kingman was up next, and I remember [catcher] Charlie Moore calling for a fastball away. He knew better—he was just going through them all. He called fastball away. No. Curveball. No. Changeup. No. Fastball in. No. And then he goes [flip sign—thumb swiped upward across index finger, indicating a knockdown] and I nod. So I threw it and it was one of those real good ones—it went right underneath him and almost flipped him.

He was all dusty and his helmet was over here and his bat was over there and he grabbed them and got right back in there. I threw him a changeup and he popped up to first base. And as he made the out, he rounds first and is coming toward the mound, and I’m trying to get my glove off because I’m figuring to myself, if I’m going to die, I’m getting the first punch in. [Kingman, one of the game’s premier power hitters, stood 6-foot-6, 210 pounds. McClure was 5-foot-10, 170.]

He came right up to the dirt, then went around it, pointed at me and said, “There’ll be another day, young man.” And he just kept on going. I saw him about 10 or 12 years later and asked him if he remembered that incident. He looked me right in the eye and said, no. Just like that.

All of which is a long way of saying that back then, we were taught the 0-2 up and in. Home run, next guy: boom! Knock him down.

All of which goes toward the near certainty that Wendelstedt knew what he was going to do with Hammels in the case of a hit batter before the ball even left the pitcher’s hand.

“[Hammel] had probably 10 to 12 balls slip out of his hand today,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, defending his pitcher in the Baltimore Sun. [With a] breaking ball, it’s tough on umpires trying to judge intent, but they get a lot of pressure from the major league offices. … I understand what the umpire’s trying to do, but it’s very tough for them to judge intent.”

“They claim there was no intent,” responded crew chief Jerry Layne. “Three home runs and a guy gets hit. You’re an umpire, what do you do?”

In many ways, the Code is not nearly as prevalent as it once was. But there are times when people—sometimes even against their better intentions—make sure that it stays at the forefront of people’s minds. Welcome to the milieu, Jason Hammels, even if you didn’t mean to be here.

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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.