In the eighth inning of Saturday’s game the Mariners had runners on first and third and one down. The score was 5-3, the Royals were ahead. If the Mariners could pick up an easy run in the eighth – and a fly ball to the outfield would do the trick – their job would get much easier in the ninth; they’d need only one run to tie the game, not two.
But the runner on first base – Kyle Seager – was getting too big a lead. If there was a ground ball hit on the infield it would be Seager’s job to get down to second base and break up a double play, and it looked like Seager was trying to get a good jump.
So Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer might have signaled catcher Salvador Perez to attempt a pickoff (more on that in a moment), and Perez caught Seager napping. So with two outs in the inning after Seager was picked off, Franklin Gutierrez’s fly ball to Paulo Orlando did not score the runner on third, it ended the inning.
The pickoff of Seager was a turning point, and the Royals won the game.
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Did Hosmer give Perez a sign?
In the postgame press conference manager Ned Yost said Hosmer had a sign that he gives to Perez when the runner is getting too big a lead, but after the game Hosmer would not own up to it.
When asked whether he signaled for a pickoff, Hosmer said, “That’s all Salvy right there,” which didn’t really answer the question and shows Hosmer is pretty smart. But if Hosmer didn’t have a sign requesting a pickoff attempt, it would be kind of surprising. Most first basemen do.
Baseball players and coaches need to be able to communicate without speaking to one another, so in between each pitch there are signs being flashed all over the field.
Signs, signs everywhere a sign
Everybody knows the third base coach gives signs to the batter and runner, but those signs might be meaningless. While everyone focuses on the third base coach, the real signs might be coming from someone in the dugout.
And the signs don’t end there.
When a big-league catcher looks into the dugout he’s not getting signs for pitch calling; he’s getting signs for controlling the running game. Someone on the bench will call for pitchouts, pickoffs or slide steps, and the catcher will relay those signs to the pitcher.
If the catcher slides his hand down his thigh he’s asking the pitcher to throw this next pitch out of a slide step. If the catcher makes a flicking motion with his thumb, he’s telling the pitcher to attempt a pickoff.
That used to be the sign for throwing at a batter, but once the center field cameras started showing it clearly, catchers had to quit using that sign; it was hard for the pitcher to deny he hit a batter intentionally when there was video showing the catcher asking him to do it.
Now catchers have to go to the mound to tell the pitcher to drill someone, and they often ask the pitcher to do it on the second or third pitch after the visit; drilling the batter on the first pitch after a visit is too suspicious.
Other signs you might not have noticed
Obviously coaches give players signs; if a base coach points at his eyes, then spins a finger in a circle he’s telling the runner to look around – remind himself where the defenders are standing so the runner knows right away if a ball’s been hit to an open area in the outfield.
If a first baseman shows a pitcher crossed wrists, he’s telling the pitcher he’s playing behind the runner; do not attempt a pickoff because the first baseman won’t be there to catch it.
If an outfield coach pats the top of his head he’s telling his outfielder to forget about the lead runner; throw the ball to second base and keep the double play in order.
If a middle infielder makes a hissing noise just as a pitch is being delivered, he’s telling the corner infielder playing next to him that the pitch is off-speed and might be pulled.
Runners on second base that can see the sign sequences from the catcher might decipher them and pass that information along to the hitter. If they get caught doing it those runners risk getting drilled the next time they come to the plate – and everybody’s very suspicious of catchers who are on second base; they know all the popular sign sequences and decipher them fairly easily.
So with everybody flashing signs, you can pick up an advantage if you can decipher those signs. Seager would not have been picked off if the Mariners knew the Royals’ pickoff sign and who flashes it.
That’s why Hosmer was vague.
Maybe he asked Salvy to throw him the ball, maybe Salvy told Hosmer he was about to attempt a pickoff. If the Mariners aren’t sure where the sign came from, picking it up makes their job a little tougher.
And maybe it wasn’t even a called play; Hosmer said when a pitch pulls Perez toward the first-base side of the plate, he looks for Salvy to try a pickoff. A pitch outside to a right-handed hitter makes Perez catch the ball backhand and puts him in perfect throwing position, so Hosmer has to stay ready.
But however it happened it was a big play in the game. The Royals picked up another victory and you picked up another thing to look for when you watch a baseball game.
But if Perez picks off another runner at first base, don’t expect Hosmer to admit he called for it.