Judging the Royals

Lee Judge breaks down the Royals, game by game.

Four ways to spot a ballplayer who isn’t paying attention

05/12/2014 6:30 PM

05/13/2014 9:07 AM

Baseball—like Life—is just about as boring or interesting as you choose to make it. If the only thing that excites you is a home run and nobody’s hit one in a while, baseball can be pretty boring. But if you’re paying attention and you notice that the umpire refused to call that borderline 1-1 pitch a strike and now the count’s 2-1 instead of 1-2 and you know 2-1 is a fastball count and a good time to put on the hit and run and the guy on first and the guy at the plate are a good hit and run combination—if you pay attention like that

, baseball can be pretty interesting.

But sustaining that level of attention pitch after pitch after pitch can be tough—just ask a ballplayer.

There are guys on the field who are playing the game at an incredibly high mental level. They know the pitcher on the mound slows his delivery to home plate when he gets in a 3-0 count and the difference between his normal pitch delivery time of 1.3 seconds and the 3-0 pitch delivery time of 1.5 seconds gives them a tenth of a second to spare because they can steal second base in 3.4 seconds.

They also know that this particular pitcher doesn’t walk too many people and just because he’s in a 3-0 count doesn’t mean he’s going to issue a base on balls. They also know there are two outs and if they stay at first it’ll take two hits to score a run because the guy at the plate is a singles hitter. So they take advantage of that tenth of a second and steal second base—

one

hit away from scoring a run.

There are big league ballplayers who think like that and they do it pitch after pitch after pitch. There are also big league ballplayers who couldn’t tell you how many outs there without checking the scoreboard.

Don’t believe me?

Here are four ways fans can spot a ballplayer who isn’t paying attention:

1. If you see a player catch a fly ball for the third out of an inning and he still comes up throwing the ball like his hair’s on fire, he doesn’t know how many outs there are. Same thing goes for a player who tries to leave the field after the second out. And a batter who has to be told to take first base because he just saw ball four isn’t really paying attention. (Actually, that was three ways, not one; so never say I didn’t give you your money’s worth.)

2. Check the outfielders’ feet. When an outfielder is locked in, his feet will be about shoulder-width apart. Every time a batter hits a ball—even a foul ball—the outfielder’s feet should move. As an outfielder gets more and more bored—and pitchers who don’t throw strikes and work too slow when they do are the main cause of bored outfielders—the bored outfielder’s feet will spread wider and wider. Sooner or later his hands will rest on his knees.

Now

when the batter hits a foul ball the bored outfielder will just turn his head and watch it sail—no movement of the feet.

3. Check the infielders’ feet. Mental vacations don’t just take place in the outfield; infielders can get caught napping as well. Pry your eyes away from the pitcher and watch the infielders as they get ready for a pitch to be delivered. Most of the time you’ll see guys get up on the balls of their feet and shuffle forward; feet parallel, bouncing—they’re ready to go. But once in a while you’ll catch a guy barely moving, standing splay-footed, his toes turned away from his body and his weight on his heels. That guy’s on vacation and if a ball gets hit to him, he’ll have less range.

4. Check the base runners’ eyes. If you see a base coach point at

his eyes, then wave his fingers toward the outfield or swirl them in the air, he’s telling a base runner to: "Look around." The base coach wants the runner to stop talking to his new best friend the shortstop and check the outfield’s positioning. Say the runner’s at first base, he checks the outfield and the right fielder is positioned over his right shoulder. Now a line drive is hit over the runner’s left shoulder; the runner does not have to wait to see the ball drop—he already knows the right fielder isn’t there to catch the ball. Take another runner and he doesn’t check the outfield; the line drive is hit over his

left shoulder and he has to turn and look to see if the ball will be caught. This runner will be several steps behind the guy who checked—and being several steps behind might mean he gets thrown out going first to third. And base runners need to check outfield positioning before every pitch because positioning changes by the count.

It takes one to know one

Ask Royals outfield coach Rusty Kuntz if he’s ever moved a player just to wake him up and he starts laughing. Rusty knows all the warning signs of outfield boredom. He asks you how he knows those warning signs, laughs again and says: "Because I

was

that guy."

Rusty says that when a pitcher worked too slow his mind would wander all over the place:

"I need to wash my car."

"I wonder if it’s going to rain."

"Where are we going to eat after the ballgame?"

He lost focus while he waited for his pitcher to get a ball in play. Pitchers who feel the need to deliver a pitch, walk off the mound, catch the ball, adjust their cap, rub up the ball, circle the mound, walk up the back of the mound, slowly take their position on the rubber, lean in, get a sign and then

finally

get around to delivering another pitch are the baseball equivalent of Sominex.

The rule book says:

When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call "Ball."

When’s the last time anyone saw this rule enforced? Put a stopwatch on pitchers and you’ll find guys taking twice that long and more to deliver a single pitch. If baseball is worried about the length of games (and they should be; instant replay isn’t making games any faster) they could start by enforcing their own rules.

But let’s get back to the inattentive ballplayer:

When Rusty spots an outfielder who’s out to lunch, what does he do?

He moves him.

He whistles, gets the outfielder’s attention and moves him a few steps. On the next pitch, another whistle and he moves him a few steps in a different direction. Another pitch, move him back to his original position. The outfielder is right back where he started, but he’s also back in the game.

The truth is, ballplayers are human and sometimes humans get bored or tired—we don’t always pay attention. When that happens, ballplayers sometimes take a pitch off. The season is 162 games long and most games require you to get ready over 100 times. Your legs are dead by August, you’re mentally exhausted and the guy on the mound is working slow enough to qualify for a job at the DMV—you just might lose focus. That’s when smart coaches like Rusty Kuntz step in and help you get back on track.

Next time you’re at a ballgame you now have four new things to look at. You might spot a bored ballplayer, but there’s no reason you have to be a bored fan.