Flashback Gordon: Cryptic Communication within a Base-Running Relay-Throw Event

This article was written by Jeffrey N. Howard

This article was published in the Spring 2016 Baseball Research Journal


In a game where cryptic communication is of paramount importance in assuring success, why would the offense allow the defense free access to their “stop” and “go” signals as conveyed by their third base coach?

No sooner had Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez popped up for the last out in the 2014 World Series, the pundits, secondguessers, arm-chair managers, and even scientists embarked on quests to address third base coach Mike Jirschele’s decision to hold KC’s Alex Gordon at third, instead of sending him home to try to tie the game. In a moment that will haunt KC fans, Gordon stayed at third. We will never know with any reasonable degree of certainty if Gordon could have been safe. Or will we?

Alex GordonAnalyses of the play have addressed variables that range from Gordon’s speed and the breakdown of the relay throw, to Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford’s throwing accuracy and Giants catcher Buster Posey’s ability to get back to the plate in time from an off-line throw.[fn]Andrew Joseph, “Alex Gordon’s late start costs the Royals in 9th inning,” The Arizona Republic, October 30, 2014. Accessed October 30, 2014. http://www.azcentral.com/story/sports/heat-index/2014/10/30/alex-gordons-late-start-costs-the-royals-in-9th-inning/18176123[/fn], [fn]Chris Chase, “Alex Gordon going for inside-the-park HR would’ve been the greatest end to the World Series.” USA Today, October 30, 2014. Accessed October 30, 2014. http://ftw.usatoday.com/2014/10/alexgordon-triple-inside-the-park-home-run-score-could-world-series-game-7 [/fn] However, a thorough analysis of the entire scenario and its constituent variables requires one to ask “Was everything done strategically — both on offense and on defense — to extract the maximum amount of advantage from the scenario for its participants?” Such a question goes beyond a well-executed relay-throw chain and a base runner heading toward third base — it extends to the fundamentals of offensive and defensive baseball itself, and whether important strategic elements of the game were in place when Gordon’s trek began.

CRYPTIC COMMUNICATION IN BASEBALL

Baseball is a sport of hidden communication; there is always a “game within the game” being played somewhere on the field. Catchers give covert signals to pitchers to establish pitch type and location, when to pitch out, and cuing events such as snap-throws behind a runner on base. Fielders give each other signals regarding who should cover a base or take a relay throw, and managers and base coaches pass signals to players and each other in numerous strategic situations. As many as a thousand of these signals can be exchanged in an average major league game, and coordination of comprehensive offensive strategy among players and coaches can be critical in a close contest[fn]Paul Dickson, The Hidden Language of Baseball, Walker Books, 2005, 6.[/fn] However not all situations where cryptic communication may be of benefit are exploited in baseball. One such situation was indeed the Game Seven bottom-of-the-ninth baserunning situation that Kansas City’s Alex Gordon found himself in.

Gordon’s situation was not unusual outside of having occurred when and where it did. A team might find itself in this same situation once or twice every five to ten games — perhaps even more frequently. Sending the runner from third is reliant upon the most critical set of signals.[fn]Wayne Patterson, “The Cryptology of Baseball,” Cryptologia 35, no. 2 (2011): 158, 156–163. HOWARD: Flashback Gordon 15 NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY, COOPERSTOWN, NY Could Gordon have broken out of the box more quickly, overcoming the automatic programming of thousands of previous situations, or was his reaction too ingrained?[/fn] Why, then — in a game where cryptic communication is of paramount importance in assuring success — would the offense allow the defense free access to their “stop” and “go” signals as conveyed by their third base coach? To answer such a question, one has to look at what an alternative strategy to allowing such “theft” of signals to occur, might look like.

THE “TROJAN-HORSE”

The cryptic nature of communication among baseball coaches and players generally relies upon a mastersignal called an “indicator,” whereby the indicator consists of a specific act or behavior on the part of the coach (or player) conveying the signals. The intent of an indicator is to obfuscate the signals to an opponent who may also have visual access to the communication. For example, signals occurring prior to an indicator are false signals that convey no meaning. Only a signal given directly after the indicator — called the “hot sign”[fn]William R.Cheswick, “Johnny Can Obfuscate: Beyond Mother’s Maiden Name.” In Proceedings of the 1st USENIX Workshop on Hot Topics in Security. 2006, 33.[/fn] — is valid. Thus the indicator serves as a sort of “decryption key” for those privy to it.

Alex Gordon and the Kansas City coaching staff found themselves in a situation that called for an indicator that could cryptically signal Gordon to keep running and simultaneously convey false information to the defense, thus causing a delay/hesitation on the part of the San Francisco Giants’ relay-throw chain. In particular, with respect to the play as it unfolded, second baseman Joe Panik would be the target of such a “deke” — a word derived from the word “decoy” — where the intent is to mislead or fool an opposing player in some way.[fn]Jason Turbow and Michael Duca, The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime, Anchor, 2011, 81. [/fn] Such dekes have been well-documented with respect to delaying an opposing player’s behavioral response using situational cues such as body-language. [fn]Jason Turbow, “Deking Propriety.” The Baseball Codes, April 28, 2010. Accessed February 1, 2015. http://thebaseballcodes.com/2010/04/28/deking-propriety[/fn] The “automatic switch” also exists which reverses the meaning of a specific signal until futher notice. [fn]William R. Cheswick, 2006, 33.[/fn] But in Gordon’s situation it was clear that the regular stop/go signal sequence was in place.

The application of a cryptic indicator by Kansas City third base coach Mike Jirschele would in essence have constituted a “Trojan-Horse” of sorts whereby the true intent of the signal given to the base runner is hidden from the defense. A consultation of the video replay provides a clear view of the effect that Jirschele’s signal had not only on Gordon, but the effect it had on Panik and Crawford and how it influenced their defensive strategy.[fn]MLB.com. 2014. “Gordon takes third on error,” October 29, 2013. Accessed November 15. http://m.mlb.com/mia/video/topic/63106348/v36878067/ws2014-gm7-gordon-singles-takes-third-on-error[/fn] The MLB.com video is fairly conclusive as to “where” Panik is gleaning his information from during the relay throw. At the 38-second mark Panik begins looking back over his left shoulder toward Jirschle — and it is fairly clear that Panik is not looking at Gordon. (Gordon is directly behind him at this point in the video.) At the 41-second mark Panik, having seen Jirschle give the “stop” sign, throws up his arms nearly in-concert with Jirschle, while turning toward Crawford who is receiving the relay throw. Jirschle, Gordon, and Panik are all visible in the frame.

As mentioned, Panik would be the main target of the deke, and Panik indeed readily watches for Jirschele’s signal so he can turn and verbally relay to Crawford what is transpiring on the basepaths while Crawford concentrates on receiving the relay throw from left fielder Juan Perez. Crawford was likely mentally contemplating his next move based upon some verbal signal by Panik — and the video seems to bear this out. The ball can be seen in the air about 15 to 20 feet in front of Crawford (and Gordon about 12 feet from third base) at 40 to 41 seconds. A verbal warning to a cutoff man could be beneficial in two ways:

  1. In the event the runner is going, the cutoff man can mentally prepare to make the relay throw. A fluid throw, utilizing continuity of momentum, will allow for the quickest possible relay.
  2. In the event that the runner is not going, the verbal warning avoids an unnecessary relay throw — a throw that could be errant or get away from a fielder, potentially allowing runners to advance.

Indeed, being deked into making a relay throw could be the intent of some strategy, as a bad throw may create opportunities for the offense. A June 26, 2014, Giants and Reds game demonstrates such a relay (absent any “deke” situation) with two outs in the top of the eighth, with Crawford as the relay man and Brandon Phillips of the Reds as the intended home plate target. Crawford’s relay throw was slightly high and to the left of Buster Posey the catcher, and so slow such that despite Posey having moved in front of the plate several feet to meet it, he had to dive and reach back toward the plate to nick Phillips on the arm and secure the out. Had there been a even a minute delay in Crawford’s relay throw, Phillips would have clearly been safe.[fn]MLB.com. 2014. “Relay nabs Phillips,” June 26, 2014. Accessed February 4, 2015. http://m.mlb.com/video/v34074955/cinsf-relay-throw-cuts-down-phillips-at-the-plate/?c_id=mlb[/fn]

If a deke-inducing signal strategy had been in indeed in place, Panik would have falsely warned Crawford that Gordon was a “no-go” — but Gordon would have kept running. Most interestingly, even if San Francisco knew ahead of time that the Royals might deke the cutoff man in this type of base-running event, such knowledge would render useless any verbal warning that an infielder might give. The cutoff man would then have to wait on the ball, turn, assess the situation himself, and then make (or hold) the throw — all of which would buy more time for a runner on the move.

Although the previously mentioned “automatic switch” could attain similar results in a “Gordon situation,” the Trojan-Horse strategy incorporates three options as opposed to the on/off binary option provided by the automatic switch. The Trojan-Horse indicator strategy can take on one of three forms:

  1. The “literal” indicator — where status quo prevails and the stop/go signs are presented as they always have been;
  2. The “deke” — an indicator is used (e.g. helmet in hand) that conveys the inverse of the status quo — where stop means “go”… and go means “stop”; or
  3. The “ignore” indicator — where an indicator is used, but said indicator is ignored in favor of the status quo. Implementing such a cryptic signal permanently as a part of a team baserunning strategy could increase runs scored within certain types of play-at-the-plate situations.

INSIDE THE BOX

Major League Baseball players invest a great deal of time watching video and studying tendencies of pitchers to maximize the result of each at-bat (and pitchers study batters in the same manner). This intense study places the batter under the cognitive load to simultaneously process what they learned about a pitcher — such as how the current count aligns with known pitcher tendencies — with all the other sensory inputs in the batters box such as coaching signals, changing pitch count, and other situational hitting information.

Alex Gordon was probably not ruminating in-depth about running hard and fast out of the box prior to making contact; it is far more likely he was internally analyzing his own actions, assessing the pitch sequence he had seen up to that point, trying to predict what the next pitch might be in the sequence with respect to the current count, recalling what Bumgarner’s tendencies were, and what — if anything — might tip him off to the next pitch. In short, the power of the situation had control of Gordon — and research has shown that even the power of situations which are clearly artificial can have a profound effect on behavior to the point where those in the situation can seemingly lose touch with reality[fn]Craig Haney, Curtis Banks, and Philip Zimbardo, “Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison.” International Journal of Criminology & Penology (1973), 90.[/fn]

Batters can become consumed with critiquing their actions on a pitch-by pitch basis; they meticulously self-monitor their performance. Action-control research supports the view that high self-monitoring individuals are sensitive to external (situational) cues, and exceedingly influenced by unanticipated events.[fn]Julius Kuhl, and Jürgen Beckmann, eds. “Action control: From cognition to behavior.” Springer Science & Business Media, 2012, 22[/fn] Few would argue against the idea that baseball players during an at-bat will self-monitor pitch-by-pitch so as to make adjustments. Ultimately, Gordon cannot be faulted if he went into a routine response mode, for according to Singer, Lidor, and Cauraugh, “attaining a state of automaticity in routine acts is the goal in any mastery situation.”[fn]Robert Singer, Ronnie Lidor, and James H. Cauraugh, “To be aware or not aware? What to think about while learning and performing a motor skill.” Sport Psychologist 7 (1993): 21, 19–309.[/fn] Such “automaticity” would clearly explain Gordon’s reserved start in leaving the batter’s box upon making what he deemed to be a “routine” hit.

OUTSIDE THE BOX

A number of sources direct criticism at Gordon’s speed to first in that situation.[fn]Rob Neyer, “What if Alex Gordon had hustled?” FOXSports.com, Accessed February 4, 2015. http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/just-a-bit-outside/story/alex-gordon-world-series-game7-mike-jirschele-royals-thirdbase-coach-103114.[/fn] In Gordon’s defense, his behavioral response was natural with respect to human nature and the means by which humans interpret “cues” within the immediate environment. This can be particularly true of contextual cues which convey information that is highly relevant to one and one’s current situation.[fn]Eric Buckolz, Harry Prapavesis, and Jack Fairs, “Advance cues and their use in predicting tennis passing shots.” Canadian Journal of Sport Sciences; Journal Canadien des Sciences Dusport, 13, no. 1 (1988): 20, 20–30.[/fn] Outfielders provide us with a prime example of such cues and their influence. Outfielders use cues from batters to discern their immediate action upon batter contact with the ball.[fn]Mike Evans, “Outfield Fundamentals. Evans Pressure Baseball,” n.d. http://www.evanspressurebaseball.com/books-articles/outfield.php[/fn] These cues can consist of things such as whether the batter has dropped their shoulder or the bat at a low angle, where the batter’s head is facing, or if the batter’s body positioning upon contact is an open stance (which can cause a ball to “slice”) or remains closed (which can cause a ball to “hook”). These cues allow outfielders to get a more accurate “jump” or first step in pursuit of the ball.[fn]David Krival, and Tito Landrum, “Tito Landrum on Outfield Play: Getting a Good Jump on the Ball,” Hardball Magazine, 1993 (Winter). http://www.msblnational.com/HardBall-Archives/Blog/Tito-Landrumon-Outfield-Play-39-193.htm.[/fn] A batter is no different after making contact — a batter will immediately receive physical feedback from the contact, as well as visual feedback from the flight path of the ball and will interpret behavioral cues from fielders where the ball is headed. Such cues quickly convey information regarding the fielder’s likelihood of making a play on the ball. A hitter who receives fielder cues indicating the fielder is playing a “routine hit” will likely respond with behavior consistent with a routine hit — particularly if the fielder cues coincide with the physical feedback a hitter receives upon making contact.

Gordon could have overridden any influence from fielder cues by making the conscious effort to tell himself at the plate beforehand to run full-bore no matter what type of contact he made. But he responded to the situational cues that were available to him in the manner he always had. Gordon had no way of knowing that center fielder Gregor Blanco’s response would be punctuated with a “slip” of Blanco’s plant foot, resulting in the ball skipping beneath his glove and headed for the wall in center field. Gordon’s mental processes as he moved out of the box would likely have reflected that of the earlier-mentioned concept of automaticity. Before seeing the error by Blanco, Gordon was simply responding (physically and mentally) to what he thought looked like a routine hit.

RUNNING THE NUMBERS

Accounts of Gordon’s velocity toward first base indicate that he was traveling at approximately 19.31 feet per second, and arrived at 4.66 seconds — an arrival time that coincides with the lowest possible score of “2” as per the major league scouting system.[fn]Andrew Joseph, October 30, 2014.[/fn] This is consistent with physical feedback and fielder cues a batter would receive upon contact with a ball that was indicative of a routine single. In comparison, Gordon’s triple on April 5, 2013, in Philadelphia had Gordon arriving at third one second faster — with a time of 11.03 seconds — than he arrived in the World Series scenario.[fn]Rob Neyer, February 4, 2015.[/fn] The most telling contrast between these two events is the type of hit that was delivered by Gordon. The Philadelphia triple was driven hard to the right-center gap, with immediate response cues of the fielders indicating not a “play” on the ball, but rather a “chase.”[fn]MLB.com. “Gordon’s RBI triple,” April 5, 2013. Accessed January 10, 2015. http://m.mlb.com/video/topic/42930092/v26025851/kcphi-gordons-rbi-triple-puts-royals-in-the-lead/?query=alex%2Bgordon%2Btriple[/fn] Gordon reacted to the situational cues the context warranted and ran hard and fast.

Knowing that Gordon’s peak velocity and arrival time at third base during the Philadelphia triple was better than in the World Series scenario begs the question: would the base-running parameters of the Philadelphia triple, when coupled with the theorized “Trojan Horse” strategy, have allowed Gordon to score in Game Seven?

Had Gordon’s base-running performance been the equivalent of his Philadelphia 2013 triple, and if a Trojan-Horse strategy were in-place — e.g. where Jirschele held his protective helmet in his hand while simultaneously giving the universally accepted baseball “stop” sign to Gordon (both hands held up in the air) — Crawford (the cutoff man) would have received a false verbal base-running status warning from Panik that could have amounted to a delay in Crawford’s relay throw. Could such a delay while Gordon was running at full speed (the same velocity as the Philadelphia 2013 triple) account for the distance Gordon needed to be called safe? The sequence of events listed below supports the argument that there was sufficient variability in the system that could have been manipulated by the offense allowing Gordon to arrive safe, but that this variability simply was not addressed by Kansas City physically or strategically during the play.

  1. In his April 5, 2013, triple at Philadelphia, Gordon traveled 270 feet over 11.03 seconds — a velocity of 24.47 feet per second. However, this rate includes Gordon’s head-first slide into third. With sustained momentum absent any slide, Gordon most likely attains a 26 feet per second rate rounding third base (more conservative than Freed’s calculated rate of 30 feet per second[fn]David Freed, “Should Alex Gordon Have Been Sent Home?” The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective (HSAC), October 31, 2014. http://harvardsportsanalysis.org/2014/10/should-alex-gordon-have-been-sent-home.[/fn] ) which is the equivalent of a sustained 4.615 40-yard dash time; a reasonable estimate given such a unique adrenalinecharged situation. It’s also important to note that Gordon’s actual distance travelled would not have been linear as a path, but rather it would have been “parabolic” at times given that base runners do not make exact 90-degree turns at full speed when contacting bases, nor do they run straight toward a base on all occasions. The aforementioned conservative estimate of 26 feet per second rate upon arriving at third base does serve to slow Gordon down to some degree so as to compensate for the fact that Gordon’s journey would not have been precisely linear, and would have deviated to some extent from an exact 270 feet.
  2. If there was no stop sign, Gordon’s momentum around third base at the 26 feet per second rate puts him .97 seconds past third base at the 12-second mark when Crawford receives the ball (11.03+.97=12.0). That .97 seconds beyond third base at 26 feet per second equals 25.22 feet, which places Gordon 295.22 feet into his journey, or 64.78 feet away from home plate.
  3. Crawford has the ball at the 12 second mark — but Giant’s second baseman Joe Panik has been yelling at him for 1.25 seconds to “hold up! hold up!” In the video Panik sees Jirschele’s stop-sign before Crawford receives the relay throw, then turns to Crawford, and puts his arms up in the air, repeating the stop-sign.[fn]MLB.com. 2014. Gordon[/fn] Crawford would have known to “hold up” prior to catching Perez’s relay throw due to the auditory signal from Panik — and Panik’s auditory warning means that Crawford may have mentally “relaxed” to a certain extent because he knows before turning around that he does not have to make a throw. However, Crawford is still in a ready-state when he turns around, as evidenced by the video. In addition, at this point, and likely due to the auditory signal from Panik, Crawford no longer has the need to prepare to make a relay throw.
  4. Suppose that the stop-sign Jirschle gave was indeed a “Trojan” stop-sign — where Jirschele passed an indicator to Gordon, such as giving the stop-sign with his helmet in his hand. This Trojan signal would tell Gordon to keep going, but would appear to be the stop sign to the Giants. If the deke caused Crawford to hesitate a mere 1.1 seconds before realizing it, Gordon would have covered 31.2 more feet, putting him 33.58 feet from home plate.
  5. According to Freed, “If Crawford reaches 70 miles per hour on his throw, probably the most realistic estimate; he gets it home in 1.36 seconds.”[fn]David Freed, 2014.[/fn] Crawford’s throw (which due to the deke he now has to launch without optimal momentum and rhythm toward home plate) covers the 140 feet to home plate in 1.36 seconds at 70mph — but Gordon will cover 35.36 feet in this same time frame — which puts Gordon at home plate 1.78 feet ahead of Crawford’s throw.

CONCLUSION

The intent of this paper was to demonstrate that maximized offensive manpower resources within the “Gordon situation,” when coupled with maximized offensive strategic resources, could have exacted the result of tying the game for Kansas City, and more importantly, that the status quo for communicating base runner advance information under the circumstances that Gordon endured, is a good candidate for offensive strategic change within the game of baseball.

From a psychological perspective, the pundits, journalists, fans, and scientists have not been entirely fair to Gordon, as “the power of the situation” reasonably vindicates Gordon for his late start.[fn]Craig Haney, Curtis Banks, and Philip Zimbardo. 1973.[/fn] Gordon was not only a participant in the situation, he was also a victim of it. Gordon’s triple in Philadelphia and his error-stricken single in the 2014 World Series are clearly two different types of hits. It is unreasonable to conclude that Gordon should have exhibited the same behavioral reaction to two very different behavioreliciting situations.

The same commentary that targets Gordon’s late start assumes Crawford would have been accurate on a throw home — leaving Salvador Perez to face Bumgarner as Kansas City’s last hope. But accuracy in throwing under pressure is only one aspect of Brandon Crawford’s multi-faceted job; for Bumgarner, it’s nearly his entire job. When faced with the choice of who will fail to perform under pressure when it comes to throwing accuracy, gambling on one hurried throw from a very good shortstop at 140 feet, over an at-bat against a World Series MVP pitcher like Bumgarner from 60.5 feet, seems like a good choice.

JEFFREY N. HOWARD is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Dr. Howard received his Ph.D. in Human Factors Psychology from Wichita State University. His research interests include music-cognition, decision-making, and cross-sensory modality investigations. He also holds master’s degrees in clinical and experimental psychology, as well as a bachelor’s degree in radio-television journalism.

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