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Robert Gsellman's secret, exposed

Robert Gsellman had a secret: He couldn't swing.

The right-handed pitcher was making his major league debut for the New York Mets, a National League team playing in the year of the lord 2016. He was thus obliged by major league rules to bat, against major league pitchers, in a major league game, with a major league audience and major league stakes.

He had a partially torn labrum in his left, non-throwing shoulder. It would be repaired with arthroscopic surgery in the offseason. But there were, as it turned out, 17 plate appearances between that debut and the offseason, 17 times Gsellman had to take a bat, two batting gloves, a thick wad of bubble gum and a secret into the batter's box, for the most extraordinary experiment of the 2016 baseball season.

What happens when a man can't bat? Would teams notice? If they did, how would they react? Until they did, how would he approach his role? After they did, would he change? Fortunately for us, they play these baseball games for our consumption, so all of these questions can be answered.

1.

"You know what Gsellman's doing right now?" Mets broadcaster Ron Darling says, a couple of minutes before Gsellman's first major league at-bat. "Trying to find out where his helmet is. 'Do I have a bat? Can I borrow someone's bat?'"

Gsellman, waiting his turn in the on-deck circle a moment later, looks intent. He takes half-swings like a normal hitter, loosening up his hands and wrists. He rubs something on the bat -- a grip stick, looks like -- which then causes him distress as it adheres to his throwing hand. A bat boy jogs out with batting gloves for him, blue with white trim.

Fortunately for Gsellman and his secret, Travis d'Arnaud singles with one out, and Gsellman is therefore able to blend into the situation. He digs into the box and waggles his bat for a moment, but then squares early to lay down a sacrifice bunt. Shhh, the bunt says. Secret's safe with me.

Gsellman, still in blue batting gloves, gets many high fives in the dugout. It all looks like baseball.

2.

With two outs and nobody on in the fourth inning of the same game, Gsellman bats for himself. There's the waggle, but it's restrained, and he holds the bat almost horizontal over the back of his shoulder. He tracks the first pitch into the catcher's glove, taking all the way, then on 0-1 he attempts a running push bunt.

This should be the first clue to an opposing team or an advance scout. Only one pitcher in 2016 successfully bunted for a hit with two outs and nobody on, and only five times did a pitcher even lay down a bunt in that situation. It's an odd time to bunt.

Not only that, but anybody paying attention to Gsellman's minor league season would have known for sure that something was up.

Gsellman did swing this year. In two starts at Double-A Binghamton, he swung three times, according to the Binghamton Mets broadcaster, Tim Heiman. (In his other nine Double-A starts, he didn't bat, due to minor league DH rules.) Knowing what we know now, we'd speculate that even then he was somewhat swing-averse: On May 26 he took a called strike three and bunted for a hit, though he also swung twice; and on June 5 he took a called strike three and attempted to bunt for a hit with two strikes, though he also swung once. So he's swinging, but he's also taking and bunting too much to be normal.

But Heiman said Gsellman's unusual approach didn't stand out in such a small sample, and he didn't know anything about Gsellman's shoulder injury at that point.

When he got to Triple-A, Gsellman batted seven times. His highly unusual log:


  • Called out on strikes

  • Out bunting for a hit

  • Called out on strikes

  • Out bunting for a hit

  • Sacrifice bunt

  • Called out on strikes

  • Out bunting for a hit

Before all this, Gsellman had been a respectable-enough hitter. He had two hits in 14 minor league at-bats in 2015, and struck out only four times. Jeff Paternostro, the senior prospect writer for Baseball Prospectus, saw Gsellman's swing in a game that year and mentally filed it away as "fine for a pitcher." In that game, Paternostro also saw Gsellman (in jest) dispute a strike called on him by the home plate ump, indicating that he has at least some interest in performing the task.

So by this point, any careful observation of Gsellman would produce one of two hypotheses: He physically can't swing; or he's trying to win a bet. In either scenario, he's not swinging. A helpful scouting report on Gsellman the hitter might read: "It's a hard G, like guh-ZELL-man."

So, on 0-2, Jaime Garcia throws him a slider in the dirt.

There are wasted pitches, and there is this 0-2 slider to a batter who can't swing. The umpire has to give Garcia a new baseball. It's literally wasted. A cow died for that baseball. Carbon was emitted to manufacture, transport, throw and discard that baseball.

Garcia throws him a curveball for strike three, looking. As one does, Gsellman stares down at his bat as he walks out of the batter's box, like the bat did something wrong.
3 & 4.

It's now his second start, against a new opponent -- the Phillies. This means an opponent that hasn't seen him, but also an opponent that has had its major league advance scouts see him.

An error puts two men on with nobody out in his first at-bat, though, so he gets to bunt. He's wearing the same batting gloves that had been randomly assigned to him one start earlier. First baseman Tommy Joseph stands about 10 feet in on the grass and charges aggressively, but not aggressively enough to suggest he knows Gsellman's secret -- it's an obvious bunt situation, after all. Everything still looks like normal baseball: A good bunt, a perfunctory act of defense, an out. The Mets' broadcast team praises him for his second successful bunt. "Gotta help yourself," Keith Hernandez says.

He bats once more in this game, in another sacrifice situation. After each pitch, he takes a long look down to the third base coach, looking for his sign. He is incapable of swinging a baseball bat, it is an obvious bunt situation and he still looks to an authority figure for instructions. This is why self-help books sell.

He strikes out bunting a 3-2 fastball foul. The pitch is probably high, in a location that is called for a strike only 30 percent of the time. There is no indication the Phillies know what's up, or that they don't, but circumstances have allowed a man who is physically incapable of swinging a baseball bat to credibly bat four times in major league action. Heaven help us if Frank Abagnale ever tries to play baseball.

5.

New game, new opponent -- the Nationals. New batting gloves, pristine white.

Tanner Roark's first pitch is a fastball down the middle. It's 91 mph, compared to the 93 mph he averages in the start. Perhaps he knows? Probably not. The next pitch is 93, also a strike, and Gsellman shows bunt but takes it for strike two. And then, the crucial decision: On 0-2, as he waits for the pitch, he sneaks a peek at the third baseman in the corner of his eye. He's going to bunt yet again.

Now, at this point Gsellman either has a secret or he doesn't, and part of what makes this complex is that he doesn't know. All the Nationals (or any team) needed to do to figure things out was note the odd bunting pattern, check his minor league performance and put it together. On the other hand, the bunting pattern was only slightly suspicious. And one can imagine team employees preferring to spend their time on something more useful than a rookie pitcher's recent minor league batting, like checking Twitter.

If the Nationals don't know about his secret, Gsellman has incentive to protect it. If he makes them think he is capable of hitting, they have to respect at least the minor threat he represents; they can't pour in 76 mph batting practice fastballs, they can't bring all seven defenders in to form a semicircular barrier around the pitcher's mound, etc.

But to protect his secret, Gsellman has to be cool. He can't bunt every time. Taking three strikes, as a pitcher, will probably go unnoticed. Bunting every time, including with two strikes and nobody on, will not. The fact that he bunts here, with two strikes and nobody on, suggests Gsellman doesn't think his secret is worth protecting, which perhaps suggests that he thinks they must already know his secret. How could they not?

This is one of the dangers inherent in intelligence work: There is a pervasive paranoia that causes one to assume his opponent knows more than he does, or is behind plots that don't exist. The he knows that I know that he knows that I know dance causes one to doubt everything, and undercuts a real intelligence advantage. Here, Gsellman has a secret that his opponent probably knows nothing about. Yet he is willing to give away that secret for the tiny chance that he can bunt his way onto first base with two strikes. He is in knots!

The pitch is a slider, low and away and out of the zone, and Gsellman -- showing bunt -- takes it. It must now be concluded with certainty that, in throwing an 0-2 chase pitch, Tanner Roark did not know Gsellman's secret. But now, just as quickly as Gsellman has discovered that his secret was safe, it is now perhaps not safe, because of that gratuitous bunt attempt.

On the next pitch he strikes out bunting foul.

6.

"Gsellman clearly has no confidence in his ability to swing that bat," says Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen, after Gsellman attempts to bunt for a hit with two strikes, two outs and a runner in scoring position. This is either coded language -- Cohen knows but is too cautious to say -- or proof that even the Mets' broadcasters don't know his secret, and that what they are seeing is just profoundly weird to them.

Let's see if we can tell which it is by Keith Hernandez's response:

"Hahahahaha."

Just profoundly weird to them.

7 & 8.

Fourth game, fourth opponent -- the Braves. As Gsellman comes to bat leading off the top of the third, the SNY camera pans across the field, so we can see where the defense plays him: The third baseman is about 10 feet behind the third-base bag; the second baseman and shortstop are standing on the edge of the outfield grass; the outfielders are all standing up, on two legs, holding gloves, as though they even exist in this version of baseball that Robert Gsellman is playing. As the Braves pitcher Julio Teheran delivers, his catcher does that catcher thing, where he puts his glove out, facing down at the ground, and motions for him to keep the pitch low.

Robert Gsellman, meanwhile, might as well be holding a baby.

He takes a fastball for strike one, then as the camera holds a tight shot on his face, we see Gsellman peek down at the third baseman. Oh, brother. He squares around to bunt.

Teheran throws him two sliders out of the zone before Gsellman gets a bunt down. As the pitcher fields it, we can see that the Braves third baseman had stayed back behind the bag, not believing that Gsellman was going to bunt.

As Gsellman bats for a second time in the game, the Braves catcher seems to motion to the third baseman to be aware. Gsellman takes the next four pitches, three of them for strikes, every target directly in the middle of the zone, concluding with a slider down the gut. This is the first time I've suspected that somebody other than Gsellman knows his secret.

A major league batter took at least seven plate appearances in the majors with no swings before anybody noticed -- and not even conclusively then. He managed to do almost no harm to his club beyond what he would have been expected to do anyway.

9 & 10, 11 & 12.

He faces the Nationals, and Tanner Roark, again. There are five crucial moments in his two at-bats in this game:

1. Gsellman starts his first plate appearance by doing that practice swing that real hitters do, where the batter holds the finish right in front of him, the lumber upright and pointing out toward the pitcher in a bat-shaped "I got you" expression. Roark responds with three fastballs, all belt-high, all taken for strikes. He totally knows.

2. On the other hand, with the go-ahead runner on second and two outs in the fourth, and Gsellman on deck, the Nationals do not intentionally walk Rene Rivera. Well, they do, but not until they fall behind him 2-0. There's a strategic case for going after Rivera, hoping he'll get himself out, then getting to start the next inning with Gsellman's automatic out. But if the Nationals really knew that Gsellman couldn't and wouldn't swing, an intentional walk to Rivera with the runner in scoring position would have seemed the obvious move. I don't think they know.

3. But with Gsellman then coming to bat with two on, acting Nationals manager Chris Speier looked out at the defense for a minute, as if considering where everybody should stand against a non-swinging batter, and then he put both hands out like "I don't know."

After about a minute more thought, he put a hand up and motioned the defense to come in. He knows.

4. Mets announcer Cohen, during this second at-bat: "We've seen him bunt. We have not seen him swing." He knows.

5. Gsellman still peeks down at the third baseman. He's trying to camouflage his intentions at least a little bit. He's also chewing his gum more vigorously, which suggests he might feel a little bit like a goof out there. He strikes out after three push-bunt attempts, and tensely grips the bat with both hands as he walks back. It all looked like this:

This final bunt attempt is too much for the secret to hold. The next day's papers report his torn labrum, and that he can't swing. The whole world now knows what it looks like inside Gsellman's shoulder. The Mets' broadcast talks openly about it in his next start. When he faces the Braves and Julio Teheran again, they throw him nothing but fastballs -- including one, at 89 mph, that is the slowest fastball Teheran will throw all day. The Braves corner infielders are crashing down on him so hard that Gsellman attempts to bunt over the first baseman Freddie Freeman. The whole sport is now crumbling, all rules of strategy and intent overturned by one side's complete forfeiture of ability.

Everything's going to change now, probably.

13.

He bunts for a hit.

The most obnoxious part about that hit is that the pitch was probably a ball:

Look at that pitch chart and weep for the whole enterprise. Jake Thompson, facing a man who might as well be a carnival-prize stuffed bear propped up in the batter's box, throws him four pitches and three of them are out of the zone. The fourth one, according to ESPN Stats & Information, is called a strike only 10.9 percent of the time.

The fact that Thompson couldn't throw Gsellman three strikes isn't exclusively a Thompson problem. Most pitchers miss their targets constantly. In the most get-it-over situation imaginable -- on a 3-0 count to the opposing pitcher, who will under virtually no circumstances be swinging -- pitchers still manage to get their pitch in the strike zone only 68 percent of the time. That's arguably a skewed sample -- wild pitchers are more likely to fall behind 3-0 to an opposing pitcher -- but if pitchers are only capable of finding the strike zone even 70 percent of the time, a hitter with no bat would walk in more than 7 percent of his plate appearances. Even if it were 75 percent strikes, a batter could walk every 25 at-bats or so.

Once Gsellman got ahead 2-1, he was 22 percent likely to draw a walk, just by not swinging. (We're using the 70 percent estimate for pitchers' ability to throw any strike on command.) Once Thompson let go of the 2-1 pitch that would come in up and inside, Gsellman was closer to 65 percent likely to draw a walk. All he had to do was not swing at anything, which by his great luck was the one thing in the world God made his body qualified to do.

But he didn't. Instead, Gsellman pushed a bunt to Ryan Howard, who was playing so far behind first base that the ball traveled 65 feet before Howard even entered the camera frame. His only chance after that was to tag Gsellman, but Jake Thompson stopped running and blocked Howard.

"Not sure there was a whole lot Howard could have done," the Phillies broadcaster says.

Look. You have expectations when you walk out the door every morning. You expect basic competency: The chef at the restaurant knows the difference between cooking oil and bleach. You expect basic self-preservation: The guy driving in the opposite direction as you isn't suicidal. You expect that cause and effect will follow predictable rules: The cashier will give you a handful of change, not a raccoon.

You expect to turn on a baseball game and see two capable, self-interested teams. And you end up with a batter who can't (and shouldn't) swing a bat, a pitcher who can't throw a strike and Ryan Howard standing 15 feet behind the bag. Mathematically speaking, all three of these men are better at their job than your doctor is. Cheers.

14.

Bases loaded, one out. Gsellman bunts into a force at home. I suddenly remember that the Philadelphia Phillies once had 30 losing seasons in a span of 31 years.

15.

Phillies broadcaster 1: They gonna let him swing away here? Phillies broadcaster 2: Yeah, I would think so.

He shows bunt twice. He strikes out looking.

16 & 17.

After striking out looking, Gsellman tries one more push bunt in the fifth inning of the final start of his season. This time Ryan Howard is playing well in front of the bag, and Gsellman has no chance. Though you might have figured he always had no chance.

There's a great irony here: Secrets aren't supposed to last anymore. Everything gets tracked; everything gets scouted; it's done automatically to produce terabytes of data, and it's done by hand by an ever-growing labor force of scouts. It's then shaped into nutritious information packets suitable for each of the different stakeholders on a team -- the players, the coaches, the front office and the strategists who increasingly bridge those groups. It's, also, all public: If anybody had just gone to Baseball Prospectus and sorted a leaderboard by swing rate, they'd have seen what looks like a data error but is actually Robert Gsellman's secret, exposed.

All this information was right out in plain sight. It still took at least seven plate appearances, and as many as 13, before anybody noticed. It might have been because there's so much data that we missed it. That's one of the dangers inherent in intelligence work, too.

If you ever get into the business of entertaining strange hypotheticals about baseball, one of the most common questions you'll get is "how much damage would a normal person do playing for a major league baseball team?" Now, even without the ability to swing, Robert Gsellman wasn't a normal person the way you and I are. He was capable of standing in a batter's box without panicking. He was able to hold a bat steady in front of a 94 mph fastball and push it gently into fair territory. He was at least a half-second faster running to first base than you or I would be. But he also couldn't swing. He couldn't swing. He still got a hit. What's our excuse?

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