During Sunday night's Nationals-Giants game, Ryan Vogelsong was a bit upset with home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi's strike zone. As pitchers in such a situation are wont to do, Vogelsong voiced his displeasure to Cuzzi. And as umpires in such a situation involving a pitcher in such a situation are wont to do, Cuzzi ejected Vogelsong. He also ejected Giants manager Bruce Bochy. This turn of events left Giants bench coach Ron Wotus in charge of Bochy's duties.
Those duties, of course, involve making pitching changes, which Wotus wanted to do after Josh Osich had thrown 1 1/3 innings in relief of Vogelsong. Osich got Clint Robinson to pop out and Wotus emerged from the dugout, motioning to the bullpen for a lefty along the way.
Except that, oops, there was no lefty warming up. Just George Kontos, who throws with the arm that's not his left. Wotus clarifies by tapping that arm. A righty, he says. Yeah, that one. The one that was warming up. Uh huh, not a guy that hasn't thrown a pitch all day.
Thankfully, Wotus' intentions weren't misinterpreted, because he quickly corrected himself and because Kontos was the only guy warming up. That last part was particularly lucky. If he had, say, Javier Lopez up there, Lopez might have seen Wotus' left arm, put his head down and jogged out to the field. From there, chaos would have ensued. Would Lopez have been the new pitcher, even though Wotus didn't want him? Could Wotus wave him back and bring Kontos out instead, and if he did, would Lopez be eligible to throw later?
It would have been a mess, but it wouldn't have been anything new. In an age when so much of baseball has been studied, deconstructed, tuned and optimized, pitching changes, uh, haven't.
We can start with probably the most famous bullpen miscommunication in history, from the eighth inning of Game Five of the 2011 World Series, in Arlington, Texas. Octavio Dotel started the inning for the Cardinals. He gave up a leadoff double to Michael Young, struck out Adrian Beltre, and then walked Nelson Cruz to set up a lefty-lefty matchup with Marc Rzepczynski, pictured here warming up all by his lonesome.
A fair question to ask would be why Dotel pitched to Beltre, but then walked Cruz, because he was effectively putting a batter on base to set up a pitching change. But, whatever, it happened, and Tony La Russa is no longer around to inflict bullpen havoc on innocent minds.
Rzepczynski came in and allowed a single to David Murphy, bringing up the right-handed Mike Napoli. This wasn't a great matchup for Rzepczynski, who had a heavy platoon split that year—.748 OPS vs. righties and .478 OPS vs. lefties—but he stayed in and gave up a two-RBI double to put the Rangers ahead.
And while La Russa maintained after the game that he felt okay with that matchup, it mostly likely wouldn't be Rzepczynski pitching to Napoli had Derek Lilliquist been able to hear the bullpen phone, because La Russa wanted Jason Motte warming up alongside Rzepczynski, and when La Russa didn't see that when he went to switch out Dotel, he called the bullpen again to get Motte up. But instead of that, he got this guy.
Motte never did get in the game, which the Cardinals lost 4–2. It might have been due to the bullpen mixup, or it might have been inevitable. Either way, the Cardinals looked mighty stupid.
Relief for some came at the 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show, when T-Mobile and MLB announced a partnership that would upgrade the bullpen phones, providing better equipment and special cell towers specifically for the phones. That article mentions an important point, however: The new phones wouldn't be implemented all at once, with some parks getting them a year or more after others.
Orioles Park at Camden Yards is apparently one of those places behind the curve, because when the Phillies were getting blown out on June 16th and had to have Jeff Francoeur pitch, they couldn't yank him because the bullpen phone was off the hook, effectively cutting off all communication between it and the dugout.
Now, to answer the question I posed during the anecdote about Wotus and the Giants: That sort of thing actually happened last season, in the Brewers' 5–4 loss to the Braves on May 22th. Milwaukee was leading 4–2 heading into the seventh inning. Matt Garza was on the mound. He gave up leadoff singles to Chris Johnson and Dan Uggla, and Ron Roenicke brought right-hander Brandon Kintzler out of the pen.
After Kintzler gave up an RBI double to Gerald Laird, Roenicke decided he wanted Will Smith, a lefty, who he anticipated was warming up alongside Kintzler. Not so, as Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recounts in more detail here. A double miscommunication between Roenicke, Martin Maldonado, and the Brewers' bullpen personnel—which was absent bullpen coach Lee Tunnell, who was attending his child's graduation—resulted in no lefty getting loose at all.
To make the double-switch, as the rules dictate, Roenicke first went to home plate ump Fieldin Culbreth to communicate changes in the batting order and then motioned to the bullpen. "Signaling or motioning to the bullpen is to be considered an official substitution for the new pitcher," says the comment to rule 5.10 (3.06) (b).
Then Roenicke headed out to the mound, motioned with his left arm, as seen below…
And out came the lefty.
That's…um…not Will Smith. It's Zach Duke, who figured he'd be the guy to come in. But no, Roenicke wanted Smith, and so Duke went back to the pen and Smith had to get loose in just eight warm-up pitches. Roenicke petitioned for more, and Culbreth actually got in touch with the crew in New York to ask if there was an exception to the rule, but Smith had to stick with eight, and the Braves kept close track.
The game's box score does not record Duke officially entering the game, so we can deduce that he was still eligible to pitch that night, just as Javier Lopez would have been if he had run out when Wotus accidentally signaled for a lefty. The Brewers never did use Duke, as Rob Wooten was the one to replace Smith when the Braves took a 5–4 lead.
There are many more examples of pitching changes gone wrong. The current system is a weird little anachronism in a game full of them. One path to a fix is improved technology, which is already in progress with the T-Mobile partnership. But wouldn't it be best to just take the human (er, mechanical) element away altogether? Could the entire pitching staff hang out in the dugout during the game, and then go warm up by the batting cages when called upon? Communication could be as simple as a ten-foot walk down the hall, plus an important barrier between the relievers and the rest of the team could be eliminated.
Furthermore, two of the above examples had an arguable, if not direct, effect on the outcome of the game. Tradition and the zaniness involved therein can be fun, but when it becomes a barrier, rather than a quirk, somebody should step in.
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