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September 16, 2014

Prospectus Review

'That Foul Tip Had Better Have Hit Your Testicles'

by Miles Wray

In case you couldn’t tell from his 15 famously hard-nosed years of big-league catching, Jason Kendall’s default way of moving through the world is: confrontationally. For instance, despite spending his entire adult life in baseball, Kendall doesn’t believe in pitch framing. As in: he doesn’t believe that pitch framing exists. At all. But Kendall can't just leave it at that. He writes, in his 2014 book Throwback: A Big-League Catcher Tells How the Game Is Really Played: “There’s no such thing as framing; anybody who says there is can go screw himself.” So, ahem, I suppose I must now go screw myself—and probably you must do so as well, dear reader.

And so it is the opposite of surprising to learn that there is a pretty extensive list of habits that baseball players partake in that really get on Kendall’s nerves. Players who wear wristbands, or who keep their batting gloves in their back pocket while playing defense, are members of the “Dig-Me Tribe” and are an affront to the game of baseball. Catchers who remove their masks when they visit the mound are also vainly angling for more TV time, and are not to be trusted. The same goes for catchers who might make a “rah-rah” fist of encouragement for their pitcher before a big pitch. Umpires who must spend time walking it off after having a foul tip ricochet off of them are soft—unless the foul tip ricocheted off their testicles, in which case they are allowed a moment. The same testicle-ricochet rule applies to hitters as well. Hitters who would clear the dirt in the batter’s box, sending clods back into the dirt of Kendall’s catcher’s box, were liable to have that dirt thrown back at them. The unnamed, young Royals teammate who called him “Mr. Kendall” during the final year of his career really should not have done that. Players who point heavenward after their successes are beyond the pale.

Throwback’s zest for confrontation even rubs off on ghostwriter Lee Judge. In the book’s introduction, Judge sets up Kendall’s analysis by saying: “This is not what a columnist, a mathematician, or a guy with a website thinks about the game. [...] This is real baseball.” In which case, being a guy with a website, what follows is either fake analysis and/or about fake baseball.

As can probably be predicted for a player who so loudly self-identifies as “old-school,” Kendall puts a lot of emphasis on playing the game the right way. The term “right” here doesn’t have anything to do with a legal approach to the game. Stealing signs is briefly discussed and is accepted as both universal and mostly inconsequential; the only performance-enhancing substance that is mentioned is Bud Light. Of course, when Kendall says “right,” it is a non-negotiable declaration about a player’s social conduct within the rules of the game.

Since Throwback’s best and primary source about baseball right-ness is Kendall’s own career, and since even the most noble individual among us is still a profoundly flawed mortal, its right-ness logic has a tendency to turn in on itself. For instance: Kendall’s definition of right-ness is big enough to say that, if the player turning the double-play pivot is somebody that you don’t like, it’s okay to go in with spikes up. Rookies who have the audacity to argue balls and strikes instead of shutting up and learning their place are of course a scourge of softness upon the game. Ah, yes, this used to be a much better game when everybody would try to cheaply gouge one another with their foot-thorns. As long as they already didn’t like each other.

On the one hand it’s actually sort of incredible that—through the filter of a ghostwriter, and through the often-clunky vessel of the sports memoir—you can palpably sense that Kendall is angry/disappointed/annoyed with you. It’s incredible, and also annoying. It feels like there is poignant opportunity for a book-length rebuttal from Sean Casey, or Tim Salmon, or Bernie Williams, or any of the other friendlier faces of baseball in the nineties: a treatise on how proper, winning baseball can be played without constantly scanning the field for a reason to deck somebody.

But I will forgive Kendall for his aggression (and Judge for allowing it to simmer through) because Throwback is the rare sports book that delivers exactly what it promises to deliver.

Usually, a subtitle like “Tells How the Game is Really Played” is thin code for “Hot, Salacious Gossip Within.” Personally I was reminded of Jim Bouton’s tenacious attempts to do everything possible to not watch the game at hand in the revelatory Ball Four. I find Kendall’s book admirable in that it strays away from the playing field on only a handful of occasions. And one of those occasions was: When Kendall was a Pirate, then-hitting coach Dale Sveum drank beers with Kendall in the locker room until the sun rose so that Kendall’s mind might be lifted from his slump. Kendall got three hits in the day game that followed mere hours later.

Other than that, Kendall stays incredibly focused on what happens on the field, while the game is ongoing. Reading Throwback during the dog days of the season, baseball suddenly felt like a very new game. This book serves to remind that each game crackles with furtive moves, counter-moves, and sly inch-gaining advantages sought even between the pitches, and even if that game is a 9-3 finish between two fifth-place squads. And, having been on the post-Barry Bonds, pre-Andrew McCutchen Pirates for nine of his 15 MLB seasons, Kendall has certainly been involved in a lot of those.

A sampling of Kendall’s coy strategies that, even as a lifelong watcher of the game, I’ve never thought to look for. Maybe I’m the only one who hasn’t noticed these small tricks of the trade, but I don’t think so:

  • After a pitcher’s final warm-up pitch, baseball dictates that the catcher fire the ball back to second base, which is almost always half-hearted practice but it’s baseball and that’s just what you do. With a veteran pitcher on the mound and an inattentive umpire, Kendall would intentionally one-hop that throw to the second baseman, so that his pitcher may have a scuffed ball to start the inning.
  • While catching in a 2-0 count, Kendall would shake his head while laying down the signs, which was a cue for his pitcher to shake off the sign. The goal is for the hitter, who only sees the pitcher shake off, to think that the pitcher is shaking off fastball and then coming in with an off-speed pitch. Kendall’s true sign, then, is a fastball.
  • As a hitter, Kendall would even be thinking about the advance scouts in the stands as he dug in at the box:

    "Advance scouts are everywhere and they see everything. So I’d do it right at the end of a series: I’d tell myself that tonight I was going to go to the plate and swing at two first-pitch fastballs—at least. The scouting report says Jason Kendall does not swing at the first pitch—at all. Scouts see you go after the first pitch and go back to their team and say, 'Well, he’s swinging at the first pitch now.' Some pitcher would listen to that and—in the next series—start me off with first-pitch curveballs. I wouldn’t swing at them and the pitcher would fall behind in the count to start my at-bats."

If that seems like a bit of a moot point -- dropping yourself to 0-1 in one game just so that you may be up 1-0 in the next —consider that Kendall, as a catcher, was a lifetime .288/.366/.378 hitter. (And that includes some average-draining years at the end where he was clearly employed for defensive purposes only.)

Actually, all of these quiet maneuvers are going to fizzle into non-productivity as often as not. Surely there were dozens of times throughout Kendall’s career when, having successfully earned his pitcher a scuffed ball with the throw-to-second trick, that ball was suddenly deposited in the outfield seats on the first pitch of the inning. That’s not the point. The point is, every rare once-in-a-while the pitcher did get a scuffed ball thanks to Kendall and he did strike out the first batter of the inning with three pitches that danced an impossible dance. Add up enough of these moves, learned one by one along the apprenticeship from minor leaguer to rookie to veteran, and suddenly you’ve got a career going.

What’s even more incredible is, as Kendall is doing all of these things, he’s playing against individuals who have been exhaustively scouted and/or are dudes he knows personally, whether friend or foe. Throwback usually speaks in generalities without mentioning specific names—because if it did, the page count would surely escalate into the thousands.

The cumulative weight of all these tidbits is a realization that might not seem like a discovery but, in truth, it is: baseball is a team game.

Statistically speaking, baseball has been the most deeply explored sport probably in the world because baseball can be comfortably distilled to a series of individual actions, with that individual’s influence being relatively easy to separate from the team’s. The new pasttime of prospecting removes the team from the equation of baseball as thoroughly as possible.

But I have been watching baseball with new eyes, looking for all of the ways that the dynamics of the team serve to shape the outcome of the game. For instance, Kendall points out that, if a team has a sluggardly thumper defending first base, other infielders will be just a smidge less faithful that their throw will be caught. With a fast runner screaming down the line, the ball is more readily put in the infielder's pocket instead, which will have the effect, around the field, of increasing somebody’s TAv, decreasing somebody’s UZR, increasing a couple BABIPs, and nudging WPA in all sorts of directions—all because of a first baseman who does not touch the ball on the play.

And what if that play comes with two outs? Or what if it transpires with an inexperienced catcher behind the plate—a catcher who then worries too much about the runner on first and then selfishly does order all fastballs? Suddenly it’s easy to see that so many games hinge on cumulative team effort and performance, not just because the guy on the mound has a really good/bad FIP. If Jason Kendall can find new ways to grow and expand his knowledge by watching and observing every pitch in the doldrums of another 70-win Pirates season, then there are unexplored oceans for me, equipped with HD access to anything and everything going on across the majors right now.

As for the whole confrontational bit? Well, really, that probably serves as a piece of added realism as to what the major leagues are indeed actually like.

Related Content:  Pittsburgh Pirates,  Book Review

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