It’s the top of the 8 inning of a 4-1 playoff game where the home team is ahead. The home pitcher has been dealing all game. He has only given up a few base runners and the lone blemish on the scorecard was a 2 base error on a misplayed fly ball that came around to score. Regardless, the pitching staff is well rested and there are guys getting ready in the pen as the pitch count inches up closer to 100. The lead-off batter in the 7th has worked the count back to full. The left-handed pitcher toes the rubber against the left-handed batter, but a righty is on deck and the pitcher knows that this could be his last batter if he doesn’t get his man on this pitch.
The 3-2 pitch comes humming in on the outside corner. It’s painted and the catcher sticks it. Ball 4. The defense can’t believe it and the pitcher slaps his glove in frustration. As he tries to process the missed call, he sees his head coach come off the top step of the dugout and make his way to the mound. Angry, he turns his back with frustration. Little does he know, the righty coming to bat has reverse splits and hits lefties much worse than righties. The coach is actually coming out to give him an updated scouting report and give some defensive positioning information to the infielders. As the coach, catcher, and infielders make their way to the mound, the pitcher has come to grips with his fate. He did his job.
As the coach reaches the pitcher’s circle, the pitcher walks down to slope and hands him the ball before exiting to dugout. The coach has no time to react, but the decision has been made by the pitcher and there’s no going back after he mentally checks out. The coach makes the call to the bullpen. Before the half inning ends, the score is now tied at 4 and it’s a brand new ballgame.
What Went Wrong:
If this sounds familiar, it’s because a similar situation played out in the World Series when Dodgers lefty Rich Hill handed the ball off to manager Dave Roberts in game 4, despite Roberts’ intention to leave him in the game. That was a classic and unfortunate case of miscommunication. We know how that story ended, with the Red Sox storming back to win the game and eventually the World Series.
The mistake here is relatively straight forward, the pitcher stopped focusing on things he controls. In trying to think along with his coach, he took his focus off of pitching and himself out of the game. Here is a simple rule for pitchers: make your head coach or whoever makes a pitching change physically take the ball out of your hand. You don’t leave the rubber until your coach gets there and puts his hand out for the ball. There are many important reasons for this so let’s break them down…
Mentality: Your mentality as a pitcher must always be in compete mode. You want the ball. You want to be pitching in the big spot and nothing is going to stop you from doing that except your coach. Once you start playing coach, your mind is no longer focused on competing. Make your coach pry that ball out of your hand so that you stay competitive the whole time you are in the game. Once a coach sees that a pitcher has mentally stepped out of compete mode (like handing the ball off), he has no choice but to take them out because they have already signaled that they are ready to go and the focus is elsewhere.
Communication: In the World Series game, just like this situation, there was miscommunication between player and coach. Communication doesn’t always have to be verbal. In fact, when deciding whether to take a pitcher out of the game, much of the communication that the coach is relying on is body language. Rather than focusing on how to get the next batter out, the pitcher misread the reason the head coach and not the pitching coach was coming out. Rather than guess, the pitcher should have waited for the coach to physically take him out of the game by taking the ball out of his hand. That is a very clear and decisive action with a clear and decisive meaning.
We’ve gotten a little long-winded here, but the lesson is this: As a pitcher, never give up the ball on the mound without your coach asking for it or physically taking it out of your hand. This eliminates all confusion and keeps you in competitive pitching mode during your entire outing.