You probably didn't watch the Kansas City Royals play the Minnesota Twins on Sunday. The starting pitchers were Bruce Chen and Jason Marquis, and the two teams entered with a combined eleven wins. Even if you are a big Royals or Twins fan, you might've had other plans. You probably aren't a big Royals or Twins fan.
The Twins wound up defeating the Royals 7-4, as Josh Willingham and Danny Valencia each chipped in with three hits. But perhaps the most memorable part of the game occurred early in the bottom of the first. Denard Span led off against Chen for the Twins, and he drew a five-pitch walk. That brought Jamey Carroll to the plate, and this image can tell you everything you need to know about the subsequent proceedings:
Bruce Chen threw over to first base ten times while Carroll was batting. If you don't believe me, you can watch it all unfold right here with your very own eyes, but I implore you to believe me. I didn't photoshop that image above, because that would be an incredible waste of my time. And I've watched the whole sequence four times now. All four times, I didn't know why I was doing it. You don't need to watch Bruce Chen throw over to first base ten times to know what it's like to experience watching Bruce Chen throw over to first base ten times.
Chen threw six pitches to Carroll before Carroll singled. Ordinarily, with a runner on base, we would expect that plate appearance to last just around two minutes. According to MLB.tv, Chen came set prior to his first pick-off attempt at 19:57. Chen threw his sixth and final pitch at 24:50. That was five minutes of Bruce Chen standing on the mound and Jamey Carroll standing beside home plate with Denard Span sometimes on and sometimes just off of first base.
Why would Chen throw over so much, especially so early in the game? Maybe it's not a complete shock - Chen is the American League leader in pick-off attempts this season. But then, that 31 total includes his ten from Sunday, so that's clearly inflated. Of note: Josh Johnson is the National League leader in pick-off attempts this season, with 44. Also of note: They record the number of pick-off attempts! I had literally never seen a pick-off attempt leaderboard before in my life.
In theory, Chen would throw over to first base like that because he was threatened and wanted to keep Denard Span close. Denard Span is quick, having stolen 26 bases in 2010. But then Denard Span stole six bases in 2011, and perhaps more significantly, here's Denard Span's lead following Chen's first pick-off attempt:
Here's Denard Span's lead following Chen's last pick-off attempt:
It's the exact same lead. The exact same lead. Chen looks different in the pictures. The first-base coach looks different in the pictures. Eric Hosmer looks different in the pictures. Denard Span looks the exact same. Same distance off first, same stance. Bruce Chen wasn't keeping Denard Span closer.
Perhaps the answer is revealed in the ramblings of the Kansas City TV broadcast during the at-bat. Following, a chronological selection of quotes while Span was on first base:
Bruce has a pretty good move over to first base - not an outstanding move, you would call.
Throwing over to first base like that might annoy the fans, but really, Bruce could care less about the fans.
And what he will do at times is convince the runner at first base, okay, he won't throw over here again and the runner will go on first movement.
I think he gets curious to see how loud the boos will get. "Oh you didn't like that throw over to first? How about this one?"
Bruce Chen - he chews his gum confidently.
I don't hold the last one against the broadcast because by that point I had also lost my mind. But consider the penultimate one. Fans boo pick-off moves. Fans hate pick-off moves. They'll tolerate it when it's their own pitcher, but they'll boo visitor pick-off moves like they'd boo Bryce Harper. Every time Bruce Chen threw over to first, the Target Field fans booed a little bit louder. In time the boos started to cascade down from every section of the ballpark. Chen received a Bronx cheer when he threw a pitch to the plate.
The best explanation I've got is that Bruce Chen was curious. He knows all about the Minnesota stereotype, so he thought he'd put it to the test, entertainment value of the baseball game be damned. Bruce Chen was experimenting. Which could be an isolated instance, or which could signal the beginning of an uncomfortable era. For years, fans have been going to baseball games to observe baseball players. If baseball players start going to baseball games in part to observe the fans, then shit's gonna get awful meta, awful quick.