John McGrath

John McGrath: Death, taxes and home runs that follow visits to the mound

From left, Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, pitcher CC Sabathia and shortstop Derek Jeter talk strategy during a 2010 playoff game against the Rangers in Texas. The origin of talking into gloves on the mound is unclear, but some say it followed a grand slam given up by Greg Maddux in 1989.
From left, Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, pitcher CC Sabathia and shortstop Derek Jeter talk strategy during a 2010 playoff game against the Rangers in Texas. The origin of talking into gloves on the mound is unclear, but some say it followed a grand slam given up by Greg Maddux in 1989. The Associated Press

Every time a pitching coach visits the mound to settle down a pitcher stuck in a late-inning jam, the next pitch is a home run.

This might be an exaggeration. In fact, I’m sure it’s an exaggeration. The percentage of pitching mound visits that precede home runs is probably in the neighborhood of only .950, so the sweeping term “every time” should be amended to “seems like every time.”

But I can say with certainty that there’s a much better chance of a home run following a pitching coach’s visit than of a hitter leading off an inning moments after having made a stellar defensive play.

“It’s uncanny,” somebody in the broadcast booth will point out whenever a fielder immediately transitions into a hitter, referring to an occurrence with a .111 probability potential. When a .111 probability is realized, it is not uncanny. When a .111 probability is realized, it is a coincidence.

The home run that follows a pitching coach’s visit, on the other hand, is more like an inevitability steeped in the premise that the typical conversation goes like this.

Pitching coach: “You can’t walk this batter.”

Pitcher: “I know.”

Pitching coach: “Throw strikes.”

Pitcher: “OK.”

The batter, astute in the presumption he’ll see a fastball in the strike zone, swings at a fastball in the strike zone, and we know how that turns out.

What I don’t understand is why these visits often require the participation of not just the catcher but the entire infield. I also don’t understand why the pitcher and catcher use gloves to cover their faces when they talk, while the pitching coach doesn’t cover his face. You’d think the guy giving the instructions would be more concerned about opponents reading lips than the guys listening to the instructions.

The origin of talking into gloves on the mound is unclear. Some believe Curt Schilling was the first to do it; others trace the practice to Greg Maddux, who gave up a grand slam off the bat of Will Clark in the first game of the 1989 National League championship series between the Giants and the Cubs.

As Clark has recalled, he was in the on-deck circle when Cubs manager Don Zimmer went to the mound to discuss a bases-loaded predicament with Maddux. Clark insists he saw Maddux pronounce the words “fastball in,” which is difficult to believe but it’s Clark’s story and he’s sticking to it.

Anyway, Clark got the inside fastball and clobbered it halfway to the moon, and pitchers and catchers have been covering their faces during conversations on the mound pretty much ever since.

I am not a fan of catchers — thinking here of retired Yankees backstop Jorge Posada — asking the ump for permission to talk strategy with the pitcher several times an inning. Among my sports pet peeves, this ranks right up there with free-throw shooters accepting congratulatory fist bumps after clanging a basketball off the rim, and football coaches attempting to an unnerve a field-goal kicker by calling a timeout a split-second before the snap.

There oughta be a law: No more than, say, three catcher-requested disruptions per game. If the catcher calls for a fourth time out, he is subject to a $10 million fine and sentenced to six months of listening to every Home Run Derby shot called by Chris Berman.

As for the timeout to allow the pitching coach and the pitcher to discuss situation strategy, I get it. They need to be on the same page, because if they’re not on the same page, bad things can happen.

Then again, bad things can happen even if the pitching coach and the pitcher are on the same page. They happen again and again.

Numbers are the lifeblood of baseball, the first sport to recognize statistics and the first sport to recognize how new kinds of stats can inform and enlighten.

Wanted: a statistic showing the frequency of home runs hit after pitching coaches visit the mound during the last three innings of a close game.

I suspect the frequency is through-the-roof high, but, hey, I have been wrong before. I once thought eight-track tapes were here to stay, the Internet was a fad, Justin Smoak had MVP potential, and that my trusty Ole Yeller laptop would never actt upp onn meeee.

john.mcgrath@

thenewstribune.com

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