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January 18, 2013

Pebble Hunting

Baseball's Greatest Hoax

by Sam Miller

Mark Reynolds, the stories said, was born to play baseball. He could hit 40-plus home runs in a season, or he could steal 20-plus bags in a season, or he could even do both simultaneously. He was a Big Bat who could help almost any fan’s team.

"He could be a good player for the Rays to sign," wrote Bleacher Report. "Reynolds will be the only player that could bring that sort of offensive production to the third base position for (the Cubs)," wrote Bleacher Report. Then Bleacher Report added: "If the Yankees were to prefer to add some power to their lineup, Reynolds has that in spades." And, according to Bleacher Report, "There seem to be significant reasons why Boston wouldn't want Reynolds, but his value becomes more apparent upon closer inspection." Finally, writing about the Phillies, the sports web site Bleacher Report wrote that "he hits home runs." 

Those reports are all a bit different in the details. The discrepancies in the details are hardly worth getting hung up on, as the theme is the same: Reynolds is physically capable of playing baseball at a high level. Ultimately, the story was resolved, and Bleacher Report got the scoop: “Reynolds will make Indians fans happy.” 

Did you enjoy the story, the tale of a man who hit dingers and made himself attractive to teams in need of dingers? If so, stop reading.

***

Mark Reynolds does hit dingers. There’s no taking those dingers away from him, not the 44 he hit in 2009, or the 37 he hit in 2011, or even the 23 he hit in 2012. No matter what you read in the paragraphs to come, don’t forget that Mark Reynolds has played baseball at a high level, he has done it well, and he has hit dingers. He really, truly has done those things.

Which just makes the story more incredible.

There was more to Mark Reynolds than most writers cared to dig up. For years, hints of it appeared online, in places that a mainstream writer might consider disreputable. The writers just didn’t notice it. Maybe they weren’t looking. Maybe they just couldn’t see.

Starting in 2009, when OSUFan_88 hinted at it:

Reynolds is going to have a long year. Bad eye

A year later, CircleChange11 was more explicit: 

Batters often talk about a ‘blind spot’ just in front of the plate where they lose the ball for a ‘small amount of time.’ It makes me wonder if Reynolds blind spot is larger than other hitters

Finally, after Reynolds was traded to Baltimore, the rumors began to be discussed openly, by such internet pundits as Ol’ Bruz:

I really have to wonder if he has an undiagnosed or at least un-remedied vision problem.

It's not clear how much Ol’ Bruz knew. Was he passing along idle gossip, or did Ol' Bruz know somebody involved in the conspiracy, somebody who had tipped him off to a story so unimaginable that you might, even after reading the mountains of evidence we will produce, disregard the entire article as a cruel joke. It's not a cruel joke. It's the biggest hoax in the history of Major League Baseball, a hoax so startling that it will make you rethink everything you know about the sport itself. If this hoax can be pulled off—and it was, for six years, at the sport's highest level and in full view of us all—what else are we not seeing? Or, rather, what else is Mark Reynolds not seeing. Because here's the truth:

Mark Reynolds is totally blind.

***

It's been nearly a year since we first heard the rumor. It seemed far-fetched. Reynolds had just received a raise from the Orioles and was being paid $7.5 million to do things that require full vision: Hit baseballs, and catch baseballs, and get to the team bus on time without the assistance of a dog. Like most tips we receive, like the time we heard Tom Herr had a tail and the time we heard that baseballs are made of soap, we had a laugh and tried to ignore it. Until we saw this play in July. 

As a pop-up lands at the edge of the infield dirt, he walks directly away from it, with his head down, toward the dugout. Then, as if dazed, he turns and walks back to where his teammates are. It is undoubtedly a challenge to pass as a person with sight, a challenge that requires nearly constant focus and attention to the other senses. In this small moment, Reynolds likely becomes disoriented by the fans screaming increasingly loudly at the fielders attempting to catch the pop-up, and his focus lapses. Struggling to locate his position in the cacophony, he loses his direction. Once the catch is made, the crowd quiets and he again hears his teammates' chatter, and he turns to join them. 

Do the people around Reynolds know about his handicap? The motion by the umpire, Adrian Johnson, suggests that any conspiracy that might exist doesn't extend to the umpires. "Over there," he tells Reynolds, with a point. If he knew that Reynolds can't see, Johnson probably wouldn't have pointed.  

Unless that's just part of the deception. 

Unless Adrian Johnson is in on it by appearing to be not in on it. 

***

Pop-ups like that one provide a particular challenge for the blind baseball player, but they also provide advantages. 

The downside for Reynolds is that the entire play is visible in a relatively static camera shot. Once that shot is established, the players involved in the play are shown positioning themselves, tracking the ball, and ultimately making a catch. The play lasts upwards of seven uneventful seconds, and if the blind baseball player can't convincingly act like he is prepared to catch the baseball, the viewer has a clear and unobstructed view of the blind baseball player's disorientation. 

But there is also oral communication at the field level that is extremely helpful to a player who can't see. Fans, for starters, make a particular noise when a ball is popped up; an sort of awed sound, but not the joyful (or mournful) awed sound that accompanies a home run. More like a trombone than a trumpet, if you will. The baserunner gives some indication of how likely the ball is to be caught, as does the base coach. (If the ball is in foul territory, the runner will retreat all the way to the bag, but if it's fair he will give himself a few extra steps in case the ball is dropped.) Once the ball is in the air, the blind player's teammates will shout direction. If the ball is popped up to the other side of the field, or to the outfield, Reynolds knows that he is off camera and under no pressure to act. If the ball is in his vicinity, he will hear his name shouted, or that of the second baseman. Rarely is the direction of a batted ball so specifically indicated for him. 

Here we see both factors interact. The ball is popped up, and the chatter among the teammates has begun: 

By this point Reynolds knows that the ball is on his side of the field and in fair territory. He calls for the ball and positions himself to catch it. But, ultimately, the second baseman will call him off and make the catch. Typical baseball, and nothing memorable about it, other than the fact that Mark Reynolds is clearly only pretending to know where the baseball is. Look at his position on the field when he stations himself and calls for the ball, and the position on the field where the ball ultimately lands.

To put that in perspective, here is our original full view of the infield. The letter O signifies where Reynolds runs and calls for the ball. The letter X shows where it is actually caught. 

Why would a blind first baseman call for the ball that he can't see? As any middle-school student knows, if you don't know the answer in class, sometimes the best strategy is to raise your hand with apparent certainty. The teacher is trying to figure out who knows the answer and who doesn't, and will probably call on somebody who looks unsure. Raise your hand confidently and you've already proven you know the answer. Con, after all, is short for confidence.

Alas, sometimes nobody is around to bail Reynolds out. 

***

Like pop-ups, baserunning comes with challenges and advantages. When Reynolds is on base, he has coaches to guide him, like seeing-eye dogs but with more sophisticated larynxes. On the other hand, his opponent will behave more unpredictably, and with more deception, than in any other situation. The implicit deception gives Reynolds some cover—everybody gets picked off, after all; that's part of the point of pickoff throws—but Reynolds is simply unable to show evidence that he uses as many senses as his peers. 

***

And what even to do about the umpires, who sometimes change locations with every pitch? He could memorize all of those locations based on circumstance, but as Bruce Weber wrote in As They See 'Em, the mental energy and training involved in memorizing umpire stationing would tax the cleverest con man:

For umpires, every play involves coordination and teamwork, its own explicit choreography. Our drills concentrated on one situation at a time: an extra-base hit with the bases empty; a force play at second; a single to the outfield with a man on first; a steal of second, etc. 

For the next couple weeks, complications were added daily. I can't pinpoint the exact moment I got overwhelmed, but I equated the experience with my long-ago college days, when I briefly thought I was going to be a mathematician. I made the leap from trigonometry to calculus well enough, but when the degree of difficulty ratcheted up again, and the calculus morphed into abstract algebra, I got left behind.

The point is that umpires are the wild card. If you want to find blind baseball players in the majors, watch for players running into umpires. 

***

Not being able to see can be very unsafe for a baseball player. Reynolds, for instance, hasn't been hit by as many pitches as some of his peers, but when he has, those pitches have tended to be quite damaging:  He was struck in the head by a pitch and had to leave the game; he dealt with hand and bicep injuries on separate HBPs, according to reports; and he batted .136/.208/.136 in the postseason after getting hit in the hand by Yu Darvish in his first postseason at-bat of 2012. The reason is obvious: Reynolds, unable to see, can't block, turn, or otherwise defend himself against pitches in his space. Most players recognize that a pitch might hit them when the pitch is midway to them. Reynolds realizes it when the pain receptors in his body send a report to his brain. 

Obviously, Reynolds wouldn't be able to succeed as a major-league hitter without some strategy for identifying the presence of a pitch. While we don't know what that strategy is, it is clear that it is insufficient and puts him at a severe disadvantage regarding the avoidance of pain. Here he is letting a pitch hit him in the stomach, Cannonball Homer style. 

The danger this presents to Reynolds puts his famously wild swing tendencies in perspective. Reynolds wants to encourage pitchers to throw him lots of offspeed pitches outside, where they will not collide with his stomach. So, for years, he has deliberately and cleverly written his own scouting report, by making it clear to all scouts that he will take a mighty and misguided swing at any outside slider, anytime, no questions asked. Which leads us to the most obvious indication of Reynolds' blindness. 

***

The elephant in the room is a number: 223. That's the record for the most strikeouts in a season, and it was set by Reynolds in 2009. That number is so high that it is hard to explain, until you figure out the one detail about Reynolds that makes it extremely easy to explain. 

Even Reynolds has noted, many times, that his many, many whiffs are "borderline embarrassing." But his strikeout totals are incredibly low, and incredibly impressive, when you consider that he is totally and completely blind.

***

The only question remains who is complicit in this hoax. It seems that we can probably rule out his manager and coaches, or at least we can say they didn't know about it while they were managing and coaching him. Reynolds related this anecdote about an in-game encounter with Buck Showalter and trainer Richie Bancells: 

“They were just asking me if I was seeing the ball OK,” he said.

Obviously, they wouldn't have bothered if they had known the truth. Similarly, the Associated Press appears to have been fooled, blaming Reynolds' strikeouts on a hitch in his swing "that gives him less time to see the ball." And most Orioles fans believed wholeheartedly that Reynolds had the ability to see physical objects: 

Reynolds is officially seeing the ball well.

and

Seeing the ball well, Reynolds has been banging it hard...

and

He is seeing the ball well of late...

Reynolds, for his part, is either unaware of his handicap or he has been openly lying to the public. As he went on the disabled list with an oblique injury in May, he said this

It seemed like I was swinging it well, seeing the ball well and then this happens.

(Reynolds did not respond to requests for comment in this story. (Because no requests for comment were made.)) 

***

Could a baseball player really succeed at the highest levels for years without being able to see a thing? No, of course not. But could he? Yes, maybe.

A French adult (true story) named Frederic Bourdain pretended to be a child, but not just any child: an actual American child who had recently been kidnapped. Bourdain lived with the boy's family for months.

I had a close friend (true story) who was a tremendous news reporter in Southern California. She once got a tip about a woman who had been blind but, thanks to a medical procedure and many prayers, regained her vision. This reporter planned to write a piece about how she was adjusting to seeing again. It was only after spending multiple days with the woman that the reporter realized that the woman was actually still completely blind. She was, for some disturbing reason, only pretending not to be blind. 

Long cons always rely on an implicit trust we feel toward each other. Yes, we know there are scams and there are predators. But if we believed that the most obvious facts before us were all susceptible to fraud, we would be paralyzed; every action and interaction would be obstructed by layer upon layer of distrust and anxiety. It's simply too disruptive to believe that somebody would lie so brazenly. But sometimes you think you see something, 

but you didn't actually see anything of the sort. 

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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