When diligent scouts from opposing teams arrived early at Tampa Bay Rays training camp recently, they found they were locked out. For the first several days of camp, they had been allowed in the stadium at 9:30 a.m. to watch batting practice and roam free. But now their entry was barred until 10:20 a.m.
The reason? Rays Manager Joe Maddon was working on plays and did not want nosey scouts to see them.
“I appreciate how hard they work,” Maddon said, adding: “But there are times when it’s not appropriate for them to see what we’re doing. You wouldn’t allow scouts to come in and watch an NFL or NBA practice, would you?”
Despite the commonly held assumption that nothing of value can be learned about an opponent in spring training, there are indeed a few nuggets that can be gleaned and then applied in the regular season. Getting people to admit it, though, is tough.
“Sure, there are some things,” said Bobby Valentine, the new manager of the Boston Red Sox. “You can tell some stuff about catchers: their tendencies, what they like to do, how they set up.”
Valentine, though sometimes accused of paranoia, does not bar scouts from workouts, even if he is practising relays and cutoffs, or some of his unusual infield manoeuvres.
“I don’t care,” he said. “What are they going to see?”
But when Valentine called for a suicide squeeze in the ninth inning of Thursday night’s game against the Yankees, the Yankees had plenty to see. They may have been irritated that Valentine, against spring training protocol, used the play. He had runners on second and third and one out with the Yankees leading by a run, and flashed some of his National League pedigree by running the squeeze instead of letting the hitter swing away, and possibly win the game with a hit.
Whether or not it was showmanship by Valentine, it gave Yankees manager Joe Girardi something to think about when these teams meet when it matters.
“I don’t think they would do that with most of their hitters,” Girardi said, “but you have to be aware. You see who they might hit-and-run with, who they might squeeze with. You can learn a lot. But you don’t know if that’s what he’ll do in a real game.”
The Yankees would have also been remiss not to have noticed that the new Red Sox right-hander Aaron Cook, a career National Leaguer, has a solid pickoff move. Cook picked off two savvy Yankees runners, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones. They are not likely to fall asleep on him again this season.
“I think we saw how quick Cookie’s feet are,” Girardi said.
Valentine, who said he wanted to see how his players executed the squeeze, also drew criticism from Lou Piniella, the former manager who is now a broadcaster, for another play he ran in the first meeting between the Red Sox and Yankees. In the bottom of the first, the Yankees had runners at second and third. Valentine had shortstop Mike Aviles and second baseman Dustin Pedroia start back, then charge on the pitch.
Piniella said managers should never run plays like that in spring training, an assessment Valentine dismissed with a wave of his hand.
“Really? he said. ”So, how are you supposed to know how it works if you don’t practise it? That was a perfect place for us to work on it.“
The Yankees did take notice, and after the inning Valentine spent several minutes in the dugout hashing out the results of the play with Pedroia and Aviles.
But it is not only the new managers who have to be watched carefully. Yankees centre fielder Curtis Granderson recalled a 2008 spring training game when he was with the Detroit Tigers, playing against the Toronto Blue Jays. Granderson noted how aggressive the Blue Jays were on the base paths, speeding from bag to bag at every chance, and they did not care who saw it.
”I figured, these guys are going to try and steal a lot of bases this year,“ Granderson said.
Sure enough, the Blue Jays, in the fifth and final year under manager John Gibbons, stole 80 bases, a 40-per-cent increase from the year before.
There are also aspects of the game that are noticed in the way a player plays. Some pitchers prefer to hide their real arsenal of pitches in spring training, or let the managers do it for them. Even though the Red Sox have seen the Yankees’ CC Sabathia 20 times over the years, Girardi had him pitch in a minor-league game Thursday rather than face Boston in spring training.
But some astute players can notice tendencies of opposing players that cannot be hidden. Chavez said that one spring training he noticed the unusual way the ball came off the bat of the left-handed first baseman Casey Kotchman.
”Normally lefties have some slice on the ball when they hit it to third,“ he said. ”He didn’t. It just came with normal topspin, like a right-handed hitter pulling the ball.“
So in the regular season Chavez made sure to play Kotchman closer to the line than he would for most left-handed hitters.
Girardi said he could recall one slice of info that he learned in the 2008 spring training from one at-bat by Evan Longoria, the Rays’ rookie third baseman.
”It was the first time I saw him, and, man, it was a great at-bat,“ Girardi said. ”He fouled off some really good pitches and then hit a double to right-centre. I said, ‘Wow.’ ”
So, Longoria was good even then. It was the kind of springtime material even Maddon could not hide from the scouts.