The Telephone Game in Cleveland

CLEVELAND — This author is all too familiar with cases of identification mix-ups within the confines of Progressive Field, as you might be aware of if you are a loyal listener of FanGraphs Audio.

Earlier this year, I approached Matt Davidson’s locker stall in the visiting clubhouse in Cleveland and asked Matt if he had time for an interview. Seated, Matt agreed. He was pleasant and eager, as if he hadn’t spent much time being hounded by reporters. It was in the midst of the interview, speaking with Matt — Matt Skole — when he mentioned how he played in the Nationals organization earlier in his career. I realized my mistake. I had the wrong 6-foot-4 position-playing Matt. I politely asked another question or two and ended the interview. While a surge of embarrassment struck me, at least the error was realized before, say, publication.

There was another sort of case of mistaken identity in Cleveland on Tuesday night.

Unfortunately for the Indians, the item in question was public, and there is nowhere to hide in the fish bowl of performance that is a major-league playing surface. I was in attendance for the game and was surprised like everyone else in the press box and watching from afar when, with the game spiraling out of control in the top of the ninth inning and Joey Votto coming to bat with the bases loaded, Indians manager Terry Francona elected to call upon Dan Otero.

Votto is of course one of the best hitters in the game and he bats left-handed. Otero is right-handed and entered with lefties battering him for a .348/.362/.739 slash line. Lefty Oliver Perez was available in the bullpen.

Otero left the outing with lefties slashing .362/.388/.766 against him.

The Reds entered the ninth trailing 4-0 after Trevor Bauer had tossed eight dominant shutout innings to increase his WAR and FIP to MLB bests of 4.9 and 2.14 on the season, respectively. The Reds left with a 7-4 lead, which held as the final score.

So as the media descended from the press level, from the fourth level at Progressive Field to the underground bunker that is the clubhouse and postgame media room, one of the first questions directed to Francona was of course about understanding why Otero entered the game.

It was a communication error, a mix-up of identities, Francona explained.

As Cody Allen unraveled in the ninth, Francona asked Indians pitching coach Carl Willis to get “O.P.” up in the Indians bullpen. Willis heard “O.T.” So it was Otero who warmed in the bullpen as the Reds mounted an unlikely comeback.

Said Francona:

“We had a communication [error]. Carl thought I said ‘O.T.’ That one lands squarely on me,” Francona said. “Once O.T. comes through the [bullpen] gate …. it was not the guy I was expecting. I know Carl is beating himself up.”

Said Willis to reporters including The Athletic’s Zack Meisel afterward:

“I thought I heard ‘O.T.’ ” Willis said. “Frankly, I should’ve asked him to repeat it. But, I got Otero up. I actually sat down and looked at my matchup sheet. You know, Votto is 0-for-4 off of Otero. You know, it’s a ground-ball guy that we trust. And, quite frankly, heart of hearts, I felt like Cody was going to get out of the situation. But, I made the mistake — got the wrong guy up. It’s not that he can’t get the job done, but it probably wasn’t the best matchup.”

Francona was forced to make an awkward walk to the mound:

To be fair to Willis, those are nicknames that sound awfully alike, particularly in the ninth inning when a rally is taking place and patrons are becoming restless. Otero, “O.T.,” has been a member of the club since Willis arrived this spring. Perez was a midseason acquisition. We can understand how this communication breakdown occurred. After all, this author has mistaken Matts in a much more serene environment.

This contributor is surprised such communication errors do not happen more often. Or maybe they do, we just don’t know about them. Had Otero retired Votto, we might not know about this event. You are probably aware of the telephone game. You have probably participated in it. It frequently illustrates how common even simple communication errors can be. In an age when most executives, and smart-phone owners, text to communicate, an actual telephone is used to relay orders to bullpen personnel. A manager often relays a message to the pitching coach, who then relays it to the bullpen coach. (There are TV monitors in most dugouts that observe the bullpens, which should help reduce such issues.)

Moreover, baseball nicknames are typically very similar. They are often either initial-based or formed by dropping the last syllable of a surname and adding a “y.” Tuesday was something of a perfect storm of baseball-related communication problems.

The Indians are fortunate this happened in a regular-season game — at a time when they hold 99% postseason odds — and not in October. I doubt this happens again. Some fail-safe measure will be put in place. (Perhaps when dealing with initial-based nicknames, the NATO phonetic alphabet ought to be employed. Francona wanted Oscar Papa, not Oscar Tango.)

Still, the incident has this author thinking about a couple of things.

Coaches need to feel comfortable in repeating, and questioning, orders that don’t seem strategically logical. Willis said he should have asked to have the pitcher’s name repeated, but he didn’t. Speaking up can be crucial.

And, as more and more technology figures to trickle into major-league dugouts, perhaps the bullpen phone is in jeopardy (even if it wasn’t to blame in this circumstance. Still, the telephone and telephone game can lead to miscommunication. Maybe texts to the bullpen are the future and a better fail-safe method.

Also, Tuesday was a reminder that the Indians need some bullpen help.

Mistakes happen. Earlier this year, New York Mets manager Mickey Callaway made a mistake with a lineup card. Misidentifications happen. This author is guilty. The Indians’ coaches probably won’t repeat this mistake, but we can understand how, in a raucous stadium environment, in a sport employing in-game telephone communication, this could happen again. Many things go into a win or loss each night in the majors, and sometimes it’s as simple as communication.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Sometime in the future a pitcher with the last name “Ducking” will make generations of autocorrect fails FINALLY right.