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August 21, 2014

Pebble Hunting

You Lie!

by Sam Miller


There was a time, back in the 1950s and before, when you would go on a long drive with your parents, eat pre-packed lunches in the car, and when you were finished you’d roll down the window and toss all the trash out. This wasn’t considered a bad thing to do. Your mom (my grandma) would even do it, and she never did anything wrong on purpose. There’s no real mystery why we don’t do that anymore. Trash used to be simple (bread crusts, banana peels, a paper bag) but now every Goldfish cracker has its own wrapper and every wrapper takes 24 million years to decompose. The environment became more precious to us (theoretically), and population density made a just-chuck-it-out-the-window system unsustainable. It’s good that we don’t do this, and yet something in the permissibility of that little sin recollects the joy of a simpler time. If you’re trying to explain to somebody why the olden days were better, and you’re hung up on all the outrages of the time, you can always fall back on the simplicity. “Shoot, man, you could just throw your trash out the window, no harm to nobody, that’s how easy life went.”

There was a time, back in 2013 and before, when baseball players created elaborate stageshows to try to deceive umpires. They would claim to catch baseballs that they hadn’t caught. If a ball rolled away from them but their bodies blocked the view from the infield, they would deny the drop (clear to the world, but not to the four umpires) and hold it up as though nothing had gone awry. Once in a while, they would literally pretend to catch a ball in the stands and jog back to the dugout with no baseball at all, and they would get away with this. This wasn’t considered a bad thing to do. Derek Jeter (my grandma) would even do it:

This was not taking what the umpire gave him. This was an ensemble picture, hair-and-makeup and special effects and everything, a whole lot of effort to break the ninth commandment, and the key thing here is that Derek Jeter knows that we can see him lying. He is not ashamed of this act. Therefore, it is moral, according to the natural order of laws:

4. Man’s laws

3. Baseball’s laws

2. God’s laws

1. Unwritten rules

The unwritten rules deemed this acceptable. It was acceptable.

To the point of this piece: One law outranks even unwritten rules, a law that holds no prejudice and sees no morality but only fact and truth: Technocratic laws. Any technology will have unintended consequences for our behavior, and one consequence of instant replay is that it effectively eliminates the opportunity, or the incentive, for a ballplayer to deceive the umpire.

OR DOES IT?

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Oh, you’re… oh, okay, you’re waiting for an answer. Fair enough. I don’t know.

So let’s look at the 2014 season in lying. There are approximately 900 instances of umpire review this year. I watched about half of them this week. I looked for instances of player deception before the review was initiated. I wanted to know (a) if lying still exists, (b) lol why brah? and (c) what it means. A brief tour:

The 1/2 Pinocchios

This is the least that one can possibly do to try to mislead the umpire. Young is so unconcerned about selling this hit by pitch that, even when the call is made, he essentially just powers down: He releases the bat like a cord has been cut in his hands, and instead of removing his batting gloves (as one would if the at-bat had truly ended) he tugs them tighter, and then instead of actually jogging to first he simply lays down and takes a nap. (The GIF cuts this off just as he goes into nap mode.) He is very, very aware that he is not going to be standing on first base three minutes from now. And, because he’s Chris Young, .205/.283/.346 hitter, he is very, very aware that he’s not going to be standing on first base four, five, six or seven minutes from now, either. He gets a half Pinocchio because he doesn’t correct the umpire, and leaves poor Buster Posey out there fighting tyranny all by himself. You gotta put feet on the street to make a difference, Young. Your cutting hashtag doesn’t make you a revolutionary.

The One Pinocchios

Pence gets a Pinocchio for perpetuating an untruth with great vigor (he argues quite enthusiastically in the moments after this GIF), but it seems probable that he genuinely believes he caught this baseball. In fact, considering that this is Hunter Pence, who hits baseballs by connecting with them thrice, maybe he did catch this baseball. It hit the ground first, sure, but maybe that’s how Hunter Pence catches baseballs—it’s a little awkward, but shoot, it gets the job done, right? There’s more than one way to catch a baseball, right? No? Only one? Straight out of the air? Okay, well we’re learning as we go.

Ackley doesn’t do much here to sell this, pretty much just collecting the ball as quickly as possible (as he would regardless) and then getting up to see where the throw should be (as he would regardless). He does basically keep a straight face when the call is made (out), which, again, it’s a pretty high standard to expect him to run in and correct the umpires on his own. Let it play out, that’s fine. The Pinocchio is more for the crowd.

One guy makes the out sign, one raises his arms in victory, one nods his head, and a whole bunch clap and cheer. You’re liars, Seattle. You’re lying. That’s why you have to sit in the corner up there by yourself. Timeout, Seattle.

Like Pence, you might give Schierholtz the benefit of the doubt and assume he really believed he caught it. Evidence of this: A month earlier, Schierholtz reverse-acted an actual catch, behaving almost as though he had dropped a ball that he hadn’t. (It had to be overturned by a replay.) From this precedent, we conclude that Schierholtz has faith in the replay system, that he doesn’t seek ill-gotten gains, or that he’s just genuinely not sure what to do in baseball.

Evidence against him: This play wasn’t as close to a catch as it appeared from this angle, and, as Cubs announcers pointed out, “It’s a great bit of acting and histrionics by Schierholtz.”

The Two Pinocchios

All five of these are about the same level of deception: The ballplayers act as though something happened that did not happen, but they don’t overact it. They are most definitely lying, though, which is something you might have an opinion about. Elian Herrera’s sin (after the "hit by pitch") is elevated by the fake grimace he has when he turns toward first base, which (to me) suggests a man who doesn’t just lie because he might benefit, but a man who lies because he likes to. Rajai Davis congratulates himself on getting away with his lie,

forgetting for the moment that nobody gets away with anything anymore, not in this world or the next Rajai.

Romero lies, of course, by saying he caught the ball (it wasn’t even close) and then further deceives by displaying the ball in his bare hand. There’s no obvious reason to display the ball in his bare hand—it’s not like there was any controversy about where the baseball was in space and time at that moment—so we conclude that he’s using a subtle trick of selective truthtelling. “Did you catch that?” “I have the ball here, as you can plainly see.”

Here is Billy Hamilton watching his lie exposed, a little optimism, a little fear, with a coda of sad detachment:

The Three Pinocchios

These guys are such liars.

There is no scenario where Josh Harrison thinks he caught that ball, and there is no scenario (other than implying he caught the ball) that would lead to him holding the ball up in the air. This is a classic, old-school lie. It was called an out (then overturned).

Gordon Beckham’s lie is especially notable because there is nothing instinctual about it. He stands there, not acting like he was hit at all, then, seeing everybody around him distracted, decides to simply sneak off toward the base. I can accept that there are people out there who are professional thieves. They’ve got a craft, they work hard at it, they get up every day and put on a uniform just like a banker or a gardener would—the only difference is that their work is evil, but heck, it’s still work. “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” —guy in the Bible.

But Beckham’s not working/stealing out of some craving for dignity. He’s just a shitheel who saw something exposed and thought, I want that. (After the GIF, he spends considerable time talking the umpire into calling a HBP, and the ump eventually concedes.) He’s the reason you have to ask two strangers at Starbucks to watch your stuff while you run to your car for a cell phone charger. He’s the reason you can’t leave your bike helmet looped over the handlebars while you run inside the library to check out your books. He’s the reason you’re always a little nervous in public, why you can’t ever really relax among strangers. Hate Gordon Beckham so much right now.

Brandon Phillips and Victor Martinez, then, are more the professional thief guys. Phillips thinks that by kicking his foot up he’s going to win a free base. You know who else kicked his foot up at the exact same moment? David Price. Think he should go to first base? No, he shouldn’t. He’s the pitcher. Kicking your foot up and then going to first base is not a rule anymore. Try last year.

Martinez. Man, what do you do with a guy like Martinez. Now, granted, he doesn’t call the trainer out and he doesn’t act like maybe he’ll have to leave the game, none of that. But he keeps talking, keeps the lie going.

Ump: Look me in the eyes.
Victor:
Ump: I’m going to know if you’re lying.
Victor:
Ump: I just want to hear you tell me the truth. Tell me the truth. Can you tell me the truth?
Victor:
Ump: Okay, if you tell me the truth, I’ll believe you. I promise, I’ll believe you. Did that ball hit you?
Victor: Yeah.
Ump: Why are you lying!

Here’s the incredible thing about Martinez and Phillips: They actually made their managers use a review to challenge the non-HBPs. They weren’t hit. They had to know they weren’t hit. Their managers, having been signalled by a guy who was talking to a guy who watched the replays, probably knew they hadn’t been hit. But the plays were challenged, because Brandon Phillips and Victor Martinez are old and sure as heck aren’t going to learn new rules now.

So, those are the liars. None of them got away with it. None of them would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddling kids, because there were like 90 cameras all over the darned place, and cameras are even better than meddling kids. RIP, lying.

But wait! There’s a twist. I think that the elaborate, saline eyedrops kind of lying is probably done. We used to see trainers coming out to tend to non-hit batsmen all the time. Players are clearly a bit self-conscious about doing something so unnecessarily dishonest (and time-consuming). The unwritten rules that made this sort of acting permissible seem to have adjusted pretty quickly to the new technology. But replay doesn’t actually eliminate the incentive to lie.

As it is now, winning the call on the field does have value. The replay has to provide “conclusive” evidence that the call was wrong. That designation has applied to nearly half of reviewed plays (though, presumably, umpires are more likely to apply that term to a play they think was correct than one that leans incorrect, simply because there’s no cost to using the “inconclusive” term on a play you want to uphold anyway). So some portion of incorrect calls are going to be upheld by “inconclusive” standards, while no correct calls should be overturned. There’s incentive to get an incorrect call on the field.

See, for instance, this situation with Zack Cozart. The pitch comes in on Cozart, who is attempting to bunt; it hits his bat, then hits his fingers.

Cozart reacts as though he was hit by the pitch.

Now, in this case it’s honest pain, no acting involved. But this is a similar situation to one where a batter might try acting. Cozart, who fouled the ball off, got the call on the field. It was challenged, and then—despite what appears to be pretty conclusive evidence that it was a foul ball—the call was upheld. Cozart went to first.

So while it might seem natural to tsktsk Phillips and Martinez for gratuitous lying, a Pirates fan might just as easily complain about Tony Sanchez on this play:

The call on the field went his way (to his utter confusion), and the replay umps ruled that there was conclusive evidence to overturn it. But, strictly speaking, Sanchez probably should have acted a little, hammed it up, tried to convince the four umps on the field that he had been hit and he had been hurt. No, tricking those guys doesn’t matter nearly as much anymore, but it matters a little bit. Baseball players have put a lot more energy into things with a much smaller payoff.

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

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