Take That, Royals … But Only Once

Up and in on Esco

Noah Syndergaard started Game 3 of the World Series by going up and in to leadoff hitter Alcides Escobar. The Royals grew irate. Syndergaard later described it as trying to set tone. The Royals decried the action as misguided headhunting. Syndergaard said that anybody who has a problem with it “can meet me 60 feet, six inches away.”

Syndergaard was correct in his justification … and wrong in his execution.

It is a pitcher’s prerogative to prevent hitters from getting comfortable in the batter’s box. His primary tool in this regard is the ability to move their feet with inside fastballs, preventing them from diving over the plate for outside stuff on later occasions. Nolan Ryan was a master at this. It worked out pretty well for him.

To judge by Game 3, however, Syndergaard is not that guy. He accomplished his goal of establishing a presence against the hottest leadoff hitter on the planet—a guy known for swinging at first pitches—and then completely failed to maintain it. Escobar struck out, but came back an inning later and singled to center field. The two hitters behind him in the first inning doubled and singled. The Royals scored once in the first and twice in the second. If intimidation was Syndergaard’s endgame, it was a pretty bad night.

Which is understandable. Anybody who throws as hard as Syndergaard must be wary of the implications of missing too far inside. That fear even hampered Ryan for a time, and he had to overcome it to reassert his dominance.

It’s not difficult to see the allure of intimidation. Syndergaard’s first pitch (which, contrary to reactions on the KC bench, did not come close to hitting the batter; watch the whole thing here) set Alcides up perfectly for two straight curveballs—the first of which froze him for a called strike, the second of which he fouled off. That, in turn, set him up for a fourth-pitch four-seamer at 99 mph, which Escobar had no hope of catching up with for strike three.

That was it for Syndergaard’s intimidation. So why were the Royals so upset?

Ballplayers tend to look at aggressive tactics, be they inside pitches or assertive slides, through a similar lens. Players who thrive on ferocious play, for whom it is a regular part of their approach, are granted more leeway in this regard than guys who break it out only when it suits them. It’s one explanation for why so few batters ever charged Ryan; they may have been scared of him, but they also knew that pitching inside was how he operated, and that nothing they could do in response would change that.

Syndergaard’s pitch caught the Royals by surprise. Only when such tactics are no longer startling will an opponent ever accept them as anything approaching standard practice.

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Filed under Intimidation

Signing Off: Were the Jays’ Eyes Pryin’, or Was Cueto Battered Into Paranoia?

Cueto stares

They say that a poor workman blames his equipment after something goes wrong. On Tuesday, Johnny Cueto was as poor a workman as he has ever been, allowing six hits, four walks and eight earned runs over just two innings pitched. Afterward, he did the baseball equivalent of blaming his equipment.

As relayed by teammate Edinson Volquez, Cueto’s rationale for his meltdown had something to do with Toronto stealing signs, both from the basepaths and from the furthest reaches of the Rogers Centre. It’s convenient, anyway, because there’s some history there.

In 2011, the Yankees openly accused Toronto of hustling signs from beyond the outfield fence, going so far as to have their catcher flash complex, highly coded signals to the pitcher, even with the bases empty (a situation that, with no chance of a baserunner peering in, teams usually keep things simple). New York’s aggrieved catcher at the time was none other than Russell Martin, who is, of course, the current Blue Jays catcher, and who has not said anything about it of late.

About a month after that, ESPN’s Amy Nelson dropped a bombshell article in which various opposing players detailed what they suspected was a complex system to relay signs within the Rogers Centre. It hinged on a guy in a white shirt, who, from the center field bleachers, would put his arms over his head for any pitch but a fastball, tipping hitters off.

The following year, Baltimore’s Jason Hammel made similar insinuations.

Baseball’s Code, of course, stipulates that while any potential sign filching from within the field of play is acceptable (provided that a player knocks it off once he’s caught), any advantage gained from a telescopic lens beyond the outfield fence is strictly verboten. (This is also against baseball’s actual rules.) The accusations against Toronto have lain dormant for a while, although to go by Cueto, ballplayers have continued to be vigilant about the possibility when traveling north of the border. (For what it’s worth, Royals manager Ned Yost and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred both dismissed the likelihood of such shenanigans.)

Just as hitters swear the ability to discern when a pitcher has thrown at them intentionally, many pitchers claim to sense when things aren’t adding up during a given inning. “When you’re throwing a bas­tard breaking ball down and away, and that guy hasn’t been touching that pitch but all of a sudden he’s wearing you out and hanging in on that pitch and driving it to right-center, something’s wrong with the picture,” said former Red Sox pitcher Al Nipper in The Baseball Codes.

Of course, when a pitcher struggles as much as Cueto did, he’ll seek to rationalize it almost by default. It’s the paradox of the battered pitcher: If one is going well, there’s no need to call out possible sign stealing, but when one gets one’s teeth kicked in, it looks like nothing so much as a desperate hunt for excuses.

Maybe Cueto was on to something. Then again, none of the Royals were complaining of stolen signs a day later, after winning, 14-2.


Filed under Sign stealing

On the Benefits of Embracing the Moment, or: Not All Bat Flips Are Created Equal

Bautista goes yard II

Jose Bautista’s bat flip yesterday was so powerful as to obscure the wildest game many of us have ever seen. It has drawn endless opinions, many of which consisted of little more than the notion, “Wow, wasn’t that something?”—the hallmark of any sporting act powerful enough to draw the attention of the non-sporting public. Pure, visceral response to a pure, visceral moment.

It was something. And it was magnificent.

It was an all-world player at the peak of his powers, unleashing as violent a swing as you will see from a man entirely under control, against a fastball approaching 100 mph, in an inning that had already yielded so much drama as to leave fans emotionally drained, in a game upon which the season hinged, for a team that had not played for anything so meaningful in nearly a quarter-century.

It was all that. It was more.

There are those who feel that such displays—a hitter staring at his handiwork until after the ball has settled into the seats, then tossing his lumber with intensity approaching that of his swing—are beneath the sanctity of the game. They claim it shows up an opponent, that it offers disrespect, that in a world where self-aggrandizement has taken over the sporting landscape, humility is a necessary attribute for our heroes. Yesterday, many of those voices resided in the Rangers’ postgame clubhouse.

They’re not entirely wrong. But they’re not entirely right, either.

The moment would have carried no less gravity had Bautista simply laid down his bat and trotted around the bases. The hit would have been no less important. But the moment Bautista gave us was enduring, as physical a manifestation of pure emotion as will ever be seen on a baseball diamond. It was in every way a gift.

Sports fandom, at its essence, is about embracing the weightiest moments, win or lose. About being fully invested in the outcome of a given play, able to devote one’s emotional energy toward joy or despair, depending upon whether things break your way. Those who criticize things like bat flipping and chest pounding and hand-signs to the dugout after hitting innocuous doubles, who decry them for subjugating key moments at the expense of stoking egos, are correct. Let the moments breathe. A player’s initial actions are inevitably more powerful than his ensuing reactions.

Most of the time.

Sometimes, however, someone transcends it all. Bautista’s display didn’t distract from the moment, or even highlight it—it was the moment, part of it, anyway, as inexorably intertwined with our collective memory as the pitch or the swing or the baserunners or the fans. More so, in many ways. What do we remember of the last greatest Blue Jays moment? Was it the swing Joe Carter put on that ball in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series? Or was it his joyous reaction as he literally leaped around the bases? Do we recall Dennis Eckersley’s backdoor slider, or Kirk Gibson’s fist pump after he deposited it in the bleachers? Would Carlton Fisk’s homer in 1975 mean half of what it does today had he simply rounded the bases instead of physically willing it fair?

This wasn’t some preplanned shtick in some minor moment, no pulling Sharpie from sock following a midseason touchdown. This was one of the game’s great players coming through as profoundly as possible in literally the biggest moment of his career, and responding as such. It was so powerful that Adrian Beltre simply could not keep his feet, taking a seat on the turf as Bautista rounded the bases.

Bautista deserved it. We deserved it. Save the indignation for the .220 hitter who tosses his bat some Tuesday in July. I may well join you. For now, though, I’m going to savor this for as long as I can.


Filed under Bat flips, Toronto Blue Jays

Because Of Course He Did

It wasn’t so much that Jose Bautista unleashed the pure-attitude king-hell mother of all bat flips during Game 5 Wednesday, it was that the Rangers took notice and Ken Rosenthal still saw fit to ask him about it afterward.

Wherever we’re going, I guess we’re not there yet.


Filed under Bat flips, Toronto Blue Jays

Sanity vs. Reality on the Basepaths: Time to Embrace the New School

Via Buzzfeed

The old-timers called it: On Saturday, Chase Utley played ball the old-fashioned way. Hard-nosed. Team-first. Selfless and aggressive and by the book.

What the old-timers fail to acknowledge is that the book has changed. Once, it was permissible to barrel roll into a fielder, back first, and knock him nearly into the outfield grass:

Via SB Nation

Once, a runner had to make no pretense about touching the base when hurling his body at a fielder.

Once, middle infielders were sitting ducks, with virtually no recourse against whatever liberties opponents unleashed upon their legs. Now, at the cost of Ruben Tejada’s continued participation in the postseason, recourse might finally be forthcoming.

Utley’s slide fits the litmus described above, and fell well within the rules. He was within arm’s reach of the bag. His goal was an important one: breaking up the double-play. He’s known not only for playing hard, but showing unyielding consistency when it comes to this type of takeout. Hell, this wasn’t even the first time he’s wiped out Tejada in such a manner. As a middle infielder himself, Utley knows whereof he slides.

What Utley’s slide also did was allow us to explore the ludicrousness of viewing such a play as acceptable. He went too far the moment he decided to aim not at the bag, but at Tejada’s plant foot. He certainly did not intend to injure the guy, but neither did he appear to care if that was a likely outcome. Which is entirely the problem.

Take a look at Hal McRae, taking out Willie Randolph in the 1977 ALCS:

Soon thereafter, baseball passed what became known as the “Hal McRae rule,” clarifying the need for a baserunner to be able to reasonably claim reaching base as within his purview. Utley satisfied that requirement by remaining somewhat close to the bag, but his goal was far different. That’s what has to change.

The curious part is that it hasn’t already. Matt Holliday took out Marco Scutaro in the 2012 NLCS with a slide that, while on top of the bag, had similarly little to do with preserving his presence on the basepaths. A Chris Coglan slide ended Jung Ho Kang’s season a few week’s back. Pablo Sandoval and Brett Lawrie stirred up similar controversy earlier this year. Once, when such slides were relatively commonplace, infielders’ reactions were far more instinctive. Today, they are focused strictly on completing the play, not on self-preservation. The Mets are left to deal with the most recent fallout.

MLB has already implemented rules to protect catchers from unnecessary collisions, which have drawn nary a complaint since they were implemented. It also has the “neighborhood play,” which allows middle infielders to drift across the bag without necessarily touching it while turning two, specifically to avoid such collisions. (Umps claimed that Tejada, having spun around, was exempted, and ruled Utley safe on the play.)

Something mandating that slides land in front of the base would take care of much of the issue. Even without such a change, of course, baseball already has enough rules in place to have not only called Utley out on the basepaths, but Howie Kendrick out at first for Utley’s interference. Never mind that they weren’t invoked on Saturday—the fact that they’re wildly underutilized in general speaks to the institutional apathy about the issue.

Hopefully, Joe Torre’s decision to hand down a two-game suspension to Utley (as much as anything, perhaps, to short-circuit potential retaliatory thoughts in the Mets’ clubhouse as the series returns to New York) portends a change in this line of thinking.

(What might not change is the Mets’ desire to respond. Tonight’s starter, Matt Harvey, alluded to it in the New York Post when he said, “Doing what’s right is exactly what I’m going to do.” If Utley does not play—he’s appealing his suspension—Harvey’s version of “what’s right” will likely wait until next season if the game is anything short of a blowout.)

Utley’s not ashamed of his actions, coming as they did within the acceptable definition of “playing the game the right way.” And maybe as an old-school player he shouldn’t be.

The rest of the sport, however, needs to embrace the new school on this one. It’s embarrassing that it hasn’t been done already.


Filed under Slide properly

On the Whys, Whens and Hows of Drilling an Ace

Arrieta drilled

Depending on one’s perspective, Tony Watson’s decision to drill Jake Arietta last night was either supremely rational or patently ludicrous, depending on which details you want to focus.

Watson’s Pirates were losing a do-or-die wild card game, the 4-0 score mattering far less than the fact that Arietta had meticulously dismantled their offense, batter by batter, pitch by pitch. The Pirates couldn’t touch him, and they knew it. This is a bad reason to throw a fastball at the opposing pitcher.

But …

Arietta had hit two batters himself—catcher Francisco Cervelli in the fifth, and Josh Harrison in the sixth. Neither was intentional, the former coming against the inning’s leadoff batter, the latter coming on an 85-mph breaking ball which put two men on with one out and Andrew McCutchen at bat.

The you-hit-my-guy-so-I’ll-hit-your-guy ethos is reptilian and outdated, especially when Arrieta went out of his way to explain to Cervelli that he had been hit accidentally. Also, intentionally gifting an opponent baserunners during an elimination game is usually a bad idea, pretty much regardless of the score.

But …

Arietta had twice come up and in to batters in addition to the two men he hit. Because his control was superb throughout the game (he walked nobody), this was a clear indication that he was taking excessive liberties with inside pitches, content with a margin of error that included an occasional hit batsman. (His postgame explanation that “balls were slick” was hogwash.) Pittsburgh had every right to dissuade him of this idea—especially when it comes to future meetings.

And …

The Pirates are still sore about the semi-dirty takeout slide Chicago’s Chris Coghlan laid on Pirates shortstop Jung Ho Kang last month, knocking him out for the season. If that was Watson’s primary motivation, Coghlan (who did not play Wednesday) is the guy who should have been in the crosshairs. Even for the revenge-minded, that’s the kind of thing that can wait for an appropriate time.

But …

At least Watson did the dead properly, drilling Arrieta below the belt. “The butt’s perfect,” the pitcher said afterward in an ESPN report.

Also …

Ultimately, the benches would not have cleared had Arrieta simply headed to first base—which he should have done, given the circumstances. It was only when he stopped, stared down Watson and started to jaw—the point at which the chance of a physical confrontation rose to realistic levels—that his teammates streamed out to protect him. (As per usual, it was fairly uneventful … save for this.)

And …

Arrieta got his own dose of revenge, stealing second on the very next pitch. It was the first steal that Arietta had so much as attempted as a professional. “That was awesome,” he said in USA Today.

And so …

Ultimately, it’s all rubbish. Were the Pirates hell-bent on avenging Kang, they could have waited until next season. If they wanted to show Arrieta that they did not appreciate his liberties with the inside corner, the seventh inning of an elimination game was not the time to try to affect change. Ultimately, this was little more than frustration bubbling over in a way that does not reflect well on the Pirates.

The playoffs are not a time for vendettas. Pittsburgh now has about five months with which to consider that notion.


Filed under Retaliation

On Measured Responses, and Why Every Slight Doesn’t Have to Equal Retaliation

Ration won the day again.

Wednesday, Cleveland second baseman Jose Ramirez homered against the Twins, admired it for a long while, then flipped his bat in the direction of Minnesota’s dugout. This was noteworthy less for the flip itself—which by now has become somewhat commonplace among the big league ranks—than for the reaction from the Twins dugout. Manager Paul Molitor stood on the top step and told Ramirez to “get the fuck off the field.” Catcher Kurt Suzuki lurked alongside, offering similar sentiments. (The gif above, via Deadspin, shows it all. Watch the full clip here.)

They had good reason to be angry. The balance of respect did not fall into Ramirez’s favor:

  • Ramirez celebrated his 23rd birthday only two weeks ago, while the guy he showed up, Ricky Nolasco, is 32 and a 10-year vet.
  • It wasn’t like he hit a bomb; his blast failed to clear the first row in right field and bounced back onto the grass.
  • Most importantly, the Twins Cleveland led 7-1 before he swung, and 10-1 afterward.

As best anybody could figure, Ramirez was upset with the fact that Minnesota had just intentionally walked Jason Kipnis to face him—a by-the-book move—and was letting off some steam.

Afterward, Nolasco threatened that Ramirez “will get his,” and the baseball media swarmed. Talk of retaliation has been at something of a fever pitch following last week’s episode of Papelbon Madness. Molitor himself was visibly pissed, and folks couldn’t wait to see what the manager would do.

Like Buck Showalter before him, however, Molitor sided with modern baseball reason. Instead of inflaming tensions by reacting to a perceived slight with tangible retaliation, he instead chose to do nothing. The Twins are a game back in the wild-card hunt, and have better things to worry about. Last night’s game—the teams’ final meeting this season—featured no hit batters.

Perhaps this is the new way of things, an enlightenment that dictates jackoff showboaters unworthy of undue attention.

Yesterday, Jeremy Affeldt announced his retirement with a bylined piece at SI.com in which he discussed the “recent trend of ‘look at me’ machismo,” writing, “Yes, let’s celebrate the game of baseball, and, if warranted, celebrate our on-field accomplishments with genuine shows of emotion. When you smack a double into the gap to take the lead in the eighth inning, by all means, pump your fist and praise your maker in the sky. But when you flash self-congratulatory signs after a meaningless first-inning single—or, even worse, a walk—you’re clowning yourself and not representing your club or your teammates very well.”

The notion is perfect—humble while acknowledging reality, accepting of changing times while refuting the kind of hubris that’s gained recent popularity. It’s noteworthy, however, for the fact that it followed something else Affeldt wrote: “I played the game the right way—not necessarily in compliance with some antiquated and silly ‘code.’ ”

Affeldt is right—the antiquated part of the Code is silly. But the stuff that governs the majority of big league ballplayers has evolved along with the rest of the game. It continues to mandate, as Molitor indicated from the top step of the visitors’ dugout in Cleveland, that respect be given an opponent. It also says now, in ways that would have been viewed as foreign a generation ago, that hard-line responses are not always necessary.

There’s always the chance that Molitor was simply abiding by game flow on Wednesday. The Twins didn’t lead by more than a run until the ninth inning, and could not afford to cede baserunners to their opponents. They always have the option of picking up the string against Ramirez again next season.

Here’s hoping that’s not the case.


Filed under Bat flips, Retaliation, Showboating