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September 19, 2013

Painting the Black

The Things You See

by R.J. Anderson

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The regular season is nearing its end, but the past few days have given us some interesting sequences in games with playoff implications. Let's go blow-by-blow, Will Woods style, and break a few down.

***

Up first is a brouhaha in Saturday's Athletics-Rangers game. The bustle started when Josh Donaldson worked a full count against Yu Darvish in the first inning. After setting his feet like normal while the Rangers negotiated the payoff pitch, Donaldson shuffled toward the mound. The relocation was noticeable from the broadcast angle:

Catcher Geovany Soto, who had a better view behind the plate, alerted Darvish by impersonating Norman Bates using his pinky finger and right thigh. Soto wanted a pitch on the outside corner, presumably a fastball. Why a fastball? Two reasons: 1) Darvish threw a fastball—duh—and 2) it makes sense to challenge a hitter who moved north in the box with the hard stuff. Whatever the call, Darvish yanked a fastball down and away and walked Donaldson. During another encounter later in the game, Darvish yelled "fastball" at Donaldson before throwing a curveball; an act of gamesmanship that rankled Coco Crisp and continued an odd feud.

The result and juicy background story obscure an important fact: Donaldson's move helped Darvish. A few years ago, former big-league catcher (and current minor-league manager) Josh Paul recalled using Edgar Martinez and Cal Ripken Jr.'s physical tells against them; Soto did the same when he motioned for Darvish to throw a different pitch, but Darvish failed to execute. Donaldson reduced his window to react to and hit a good fastball when he stepped forward—and he might have paid for it had Darvish remained calm; instead, he scored the game's only run a few pitches later.

***

Sticking with the Rangers, let's turn our attention to Ian Kinsler's two baserunning gaffes from Monday night in St. Petersburg.

Mistake number one occurred in the fourth inning, after Kinsler had doubled and advanced to third base on a sacrifice bunt. With Kinser in plain sight, Alex Cobb employed his slow windup, complete with a high leg kick that crosses his body. Kinsler noticed and engaged Cobb in a cat and mouse game, forcing the pitcher to focus more on him and less on the batter, Alex Rios. On the decisive pitch, Kinsler tested Cobb's limits by darting for home. Unfortunately, for Kinsler and the Rangers, Rios grounded to third baseman Evan Longoria and the Rays retired Kinsler before he scored.

Kinsler's decision to run puzzles for reasons beyond the outcome. Rios was engaged in a two-strike count at the time, leaving him in no position to take a pitch or push a bunt down the line; without Rios' agreement not to swing, Kinsler was putting himself in harm's way by running—particularly in a count where Cobb may have thrown a changeup. Ignoring the safety issues, Kinsler erred by being caught between gears; he didn't go all the way home, nor did he retreat to the bag: he braked about halfway, bounced toward third a few times, then paused again.

Had Kinsler continued toward the plate and everything else played out the same, then he scores on the groundout. Likewise, if he had caused a balk or a mistake pitch, then his exploits would be praised. As it is, he looked indecisive, and that's often a bad thing on the basepaths.

An inning later, Kinsler attempted another do-or-dumb play. This time he was at second base representing the go-ahead run with two outs. As Cobb turned his head and lifted his leg, Kinsler departed for third. Cobb aborted his delivery, maneuvering into a pseudo inside move, and one footrace later, Kinsler had run into his second out on the basepaths in as many innings.

***

For a case where a baserunner's pre-pitch aggressiveness paid off, consider Emilio Bonifacio's gambit against the Indians on Tuesday night.

Bonifacio had scored once in the game already when he reached base in the third. That meant he knew Corey Kluber's delivery and times to the plate, putting him in position to swipe second early in the count. Kluber realized this, too, and threw over before focusing on Eric Hosmer. But, while Kluber conferred with catcher Yan Gomes on the pitch, Bonifacio accelerated toward second base. By the time Gomes raised his arms, notifying Kluber, Bonifacio was nearing the midpoint:

Once Kluber found Bonifacio he made a decent throw, but the ball clanked off Asdrubal Cabrera's glove and allowed Bonifacio to slide in safely. The Indians then employed every lead-erasing trick known to man: fake inside moves, fake daylight plays (Cabrera bounced back into position without a throw or step off), fake footsteps, and so on. Their efforts failed, however, and Bonifacio scored on a sac fly.

***

Later in the inning, with David Lough at bat, Gomes did something unusual behind the plate. In an 0-2 count, with a curveball coming, Gomes placed his mitt face-down on the ground, then flipped it over before widening his stance and setting a higher target.

There are a few possible explanations here. Perhaps Gomes instructed Kluber to bury his curve (he didn't) or reminded him to turn the pitch over. It's also possible he was trying to deceive the baserunners, in case they were relaying location. What appears certain is Gomes did not channel his inner Erik Kratz; not once did he drum the ground or punch his mitt to make Lough feel him.

***

There was one other catcher act worth noting in the Indians-Royals game.

The idea of a rookie pitcher leaning on his veteran backstop was tested when the Royals paired the debuting 22-year-old Yordano Ventura with 23-year-old Salvador Perez. Perez proved wiser than his years when he orchestrated a careful second-inning exchange. As he signaled for a fastball away to start the at-bat, Perez shook his head "no" twice—a motion Ventura mimicked. The hard-throwing right-hander then reared back and fired a fastball past Asdrubal Cabrera's bat for a strike.

The excellent Adam Sobsey covered the art of the fake nod last week, with some help from Chris Gimenez and J.D. Martin. As the Durham Bulls battery explained:

Gimenez: If you get in the box and nobody’s shaking, you get into these patterns. Suppose you mix in a shake. The hitter thinks: “Maybe he’s not throwing that cutter.” “Maybe he’s not throwing the fastball.” “Maybe he’s throwing something else.” Then, boom, you throw it.

Martin: I especially like starting an inning off that way. I’ll come into the dugout and say to you: “Hey, let’s go fake-shake, fastball.”

Gimenez: Because with a shake, the hitter is never thinking fastball.

Did Cabrera fall for the gimmickry? He had reason not to: 16 of Ventura's 22 pitches to that point were fastballs, including all five first-pitch offerings. But maybe the nods slowed Cabrera's bat just enough to allow the ball to pass by unscathed—or maybe that's the luxury of 99 mph heat: it makes everything else look hesitant.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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