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August 19, 2014

Notes About Baseball

Rain Delay Theater: Backflips, Whiffleballers and a Wookiee Surprise

by Rocco DeMaro


In The Room

Rain delays are The Worst.

Fans don't like them, stadium personnel hate them, media members... I'm not sure "despise" is strong enough.

Having spent four seasons as the Pirates pregame and postgame radio guy, I've personally grown to regard rain delays as manifestations of evil. I can't prove this, of course; might be a sample size issue? I'm not sure when evil normalizes.

What I can say for certain is that rain delays rob us of our most precious resource—time—and that makes them real jerks.

Baseball players loathe delays, too, and, unburying the lede, that's where we're headed with this week's piece. But our angle isn't players' disapproval of having their hours on earth wasted by weather, it's what they do with that down time.

Players are in a unique situation during a delay compared to the rest of us. They've got to come out of the delay at 100 percent mental focus and athletic power, whereas fans, stadium personnel and media members can just kind of sit there. So what keeps baseball players sharp during rain delays, which, in extreme cases, can last four, five, even seven hours plus(!)? What do they do?

"During my junior year at Vanderbilt we had a delay. All the pitchers went down to cover up the bullpen (with a tarp). And that's when I learned how to do a backflip," said a proud David Price.

"I was bored, I figured I was athletic enough to do it. First couple times didn't go too well, and I'm sure if Coach (Tom) Corbin would've seen it, he would not have approved. But after a few more tries, I was able to do it and I was happy about it."

The visual of a 6-foot-6 David Price doing a standing backflip is kind of ridiculous, an observation I relayed to the Tigers starter.

"Actually, not a standing backflip. I guess it was more of a back handspring..."

The truth comes out!

"But it was still cool."

Given the Cy Young winner's earning power here in his age-28 season, I asked whether he was still doing backfli...er...back handsprings these days.

"I don't think I've done it since. I think I got a little older, maybe a little wiser."

Among the more routine rain delay practices during his time with the Rays, Price said he and his teammates played a lot of cards, which most respondents offered as a pastime as well.

"We also played a lot of video games."

EA's NHL franchise was the title of choice during Price's time in Tampa.

"We would take our Xboxes on the road (the Rays can't get rained out at home, of course). Fast-paced games, a lot of action, so we did that quite a bit."

Transitioning from one four-time All-Star to another, let's see what Andrew McCutchen does to keep busy during delays.

"I eat a lot."

Not exactly a backflip anecdote. Unsatisfied, I pressed the reigning NL MVP for more.

"I remember last year we were playing wiffleball. In the clubhouse. That was a lot of fun."

I asked about the standouts on the wiffleball field, but some are no longer with the Pirates, so 'Cutch didn't want to drop names. He did confirm, however, that he was involved, as was Josh Harrison.

Was McCutchen, owner of a league-leading .359 TAv this season, a hitter in the game, as we'd expect? Was he a pitcher?

"Pitching's way more fun than hitting, because you've got all that movement (on the ball)."

Agreed. Wiffleball pitching is kind of fantastic. McCutchen and the rest of the Pirates rotated, by the way, so everyone got to hit and everyone got to pitch.

Pirates reliever Jared Hughes with a bit more here.

"There were some pretty good pitches being thrown; those wiffleballs can move quite a bit. And, yeah, it was a little dangerous. If you were just sitting in your locker and you weren't playing, you'd better have an eye out, because the ball was flying everywhere. Some guys were taking some big hacks."

I was curious how that would work. The Pirates clubhouse is certainly spacious (sorry—best pics I could find), but I wouldn't think it was that spacious, to house a proper wiffleball game.

"I think we kind of pushed everything to the side (of the clubhouse)," Hughes remembered, "so we had a space of, I dunno, 60 feet or so with 20 feet on each side where you able to take a swing. I don't really remember how the scoring went. A home run might've been if it got by everyone? But hey, at least we were still focusing on baseball. Kind of."

Other favorite rain delay memories from Hughes included competitive "dance-offs" in college and the minors...

"It's where both teams go out in front of their dugouts and start dancing. Not really my thing but other guys seemed to enjoy it."

... and something called "Upside Down Man."

"It's where someone puts their shirt on their lower body and their pants on their upper body and they walk around like they're upside down. I've seen that quite a few times in college, occasionally in the minors, not in the majors. In pro ball it's more like a job, so we try to keep things professional. Sometimes."

Joe Nathan's been a pro for 16 years now, so we'll let him introduce us to that classic rain delay staple—the tarp slide.

"I've seen at least two dozen, but I've never done one; I always seemed to be on teams where, once the rain starts, the managers would be clear to say—'be careful with the tarp slides.' So I don't want to be that guy who goes out there, gets injured doing a tarp slide and get yelled at on top of it.

"But I've seen some guys do it. Looks fun. I think that if we get do another (rain delay) I should try it. I'm coming toward the back end of my career, so I'd better do it now."

Given his veteran status and the accrued baseballing knowledge that comes with it, I asked Nathan for some tips on a successful tarp slide.

"It's all about speed, because some guys that don't have it, it's just a flop."

But you'd think they'd have more mass. Isn't this just a physics problem? The interplay between mass and velocity?

"Yeah, that's the problem. So you need mass, but you also need speed—tough combo to find. But there have been some pretty good athletes of some pretty good size that have managed to travel quite a bit across these tarps."

Jared Hughes with a bit more tarp slide analysis.

"The tarp covers the mound, which basically makes a ramp. So people slide and go off the ramp and get airborne. But then when you land on the infield it's really hard, so you try to avoid the mound."

Avoiding the mound on a tarp slide is the new inefficiency.

We'll circle back to McCutchen as we end our look into rain delay knowledge and behavior among ballplayers, as he had one more story to share.

"We had a Chewbacca outfit in here last year. People used to walk around in it."

Who would don the Chewy costume?!?

"Everybody! Anybody. It wasn't just one person. There's actually a good story. Bryan Morris had it on, and wore the costume hung up. Like, as if it was just hanging up on the rack with no one in it. We sent A.J. (Burnett) go over there to try it on and Morris, out of nowhere, gives an 'ARRRRGGGHHHHH'. Scared the mess out of him."

Outliers

Reminder: I'm soliciting reader-based selections for inclusion in Outliers, so if there's a guy that's notable at... something... and you think he deserves a spot in the column, hit me up on the Twitter.

Having profiled Jose Altuve last week, and in the interests of narrative symmetry, I felt we should take a look at Chris Young of the Mariners this week.

Mr. Young stands 6-foot-10, making him roughly a foot and a half closer to the sun than Altuve at any given moment. He is the Goliath to Altuve's David, the Star Destroyer to his X-Wing, the Ent to his Hobbit.

But the starkness of this contrast doesn't end with height.

Whereas Altuve (24) is young and spry, Young is old (35) and oft-injured (he's spent over 500 days on the DL throughout his career and, before this year, hadn't pitched in the bigs since 2012 following surgery for a re-torn anterior capsule and frayed rotator cuff).

Whereas Altuve gets the absolute most out of his frame (.447 SLG), Young gets just 85.3 mph out his fastball... at 6-foot-10(!)... and his velocity this season is the hardest he's thrown since 2009.

Whereas Altuve was signed as a 17-year-old out of Venezuela and has done little but play baseball since, Young starred on the Princeton basketball team, had an illustrious collegiate career as a two-sport athlete, and earned his degree in political science in 2002.

But they do have at least one thing in common, and that's excellence on the baseball field in 2014.

Young has posted a 3.07 ERA in 146.2 innings to this point, helping guide the Mariners into playoff contention. His peripherals mostly shout regression—a 4.62 FIP and a 5.03 FRA largely built on a .224 BABIP—but he induces a lot of contact to a defense that's the best in baseball at turning balls in play into outs. He also plays half of his games at Safeco Field, which has one and three-year park factors of 97 and 96, respectively (over 100 favors hitters, under 100 favors pitchers), and that helps a lot, too.

So while he's likely to come back to earth a bit down the stretch, he's actually a pretty efficient fit for Seattle, especially considering the Mariners are getting his services for just $1.25 million.

Chris Young is a 6-foot-10 Ivy League-educated behemoth who throws 85 mph, and he's somehow helped his team into playoff contention after not pitching in the majors since 2012. Who the hell saw this coming?

He might be the definition of an Outlier. And for that reason, we adore him.

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

Related Content:  Andrew Mccutchen,  David Price,  Rain Delays

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