To Bunt or Not to Bunt, That is the Question

Hosmer

Lee Judge of the Kansas City Star just came out with the best, most reasoned piece on baseball’s unwritten rules in some time. It’s not because he staunchly defends them—to the contrary, he concludes that players should be allowed to aggressively chase stats any way they can, even during the course of a blowout, a position with which I disagree—but because he presents a comprehensive look into expectations during lopsided games.

In so doing, Judge refers to an Aug. 24 game between Kansas City and Baltimore, in which the Royals scored seven runs in the sixth inning to take a five-run lead. The key moment was Eric Hosmer coming to the plate for the second time in the inning, after all seven runs had scored … and trying to bunt for a hit. The Orioles were not happy about it, and expressed as much from their dugout.

The answer to whether Hosmer was right or wrong is what makes baseball’s Code so variable, and so difficult to understand by those not paying close attention. To wit:

  • While most agree that aggressive tactics like stolen bases and hit-and-runs should be abandoned during the late innings of blowouts, the definitions of how much and when have shifted over time. Only a few years ago, amid the steroid-fueled chaos unleashed upon box scores nightly, a five-run lead in the sixth would have barely registered. Now, however, with offense down, it now appears to be back in play.
  • Another thing that’s changed over the last few years is the prevalence of the defensive shift. Does the fact that Baltimore was playing the majority of its infield on the right side of the diamond—giving itself a clear defensive edge—negate Hosmer’s mandate to play non-aggressive baseball, which includes bunting for hits? The Orioles were playing like run prevention still mattered, and if their lack of willingness to give up aggressive defensive tactics has to carry some weight.
  • It’s not unlike the defense giving itself an advantage by failing to hold a runner at first during a blowout, knowing that, based on the Code, he won’t take off for second. The inequity of being able to play the first baseman in the hole rather than having him tethered to the bag, even while insisting that the opposing team not take advantage of it, is wildly lopsided. (The compromise position, as Judge points out, is to play the first baseman back, but not all the way back.)
  • Numerous factors are involved in the designation of what lead is too big and what point in the game is too late, including geography and bullpen availability. A big lead in San Francisco is far more sound than a big lead in a bandbox like Philadelphia. Similarly, if a team does not have its full complement of relievers available to protect a lead, it may try to pile on more than it otherwise would. As is usual in these types of situations, communication is paramount; letting the opposition know that one’s decision to eschew the Code is reasoned and not personal can go a long way toward avoiding bad blood.

Ultimately, I agree with Hosmer and Judge: Regardless of circumstance, if a team is willing to put on a defensive shift, it must be prepared to deal with the consequences of that shift. Run at will, boys.

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Zen and the Chutzpah of Pitch Framing

If it’s okay for a diving outfielder who traps a ball to act as if he caught it, what’s wrong with A.J. Pierzynski trying to do the same from behind the plate? Just asking.

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Was Bowa Angry About a Quick Pitch or a Bat Flip? Does it Even Matter?

Bowa bites

Even as many tenets of baseball’s Code slip into the ether—witness the preponderance of bat flips and home plate scrums and Twitter-driven talk about no-hitters in progress—the quick pitch endures. The pitcher, having received a go-ahead from the plate umpire, hurriedly delivers ball to plate in hopes of surprising a batter who is not yet settled.

Batters do not like this. Neither does Larry Bowa.

On Tuesday, Mets reliever Hansel Robles quick pitched Darin Ruf, who, while technically in the batter’s box hadn’t yet settled in to await the delivery. Umpire Dan Bellino waved off the pitch, but Bowa, Philadelphia’s bench coach, exploded from the dugout, as did outfielder Jeff Franceour. (Ruf himself didn’t seem even mildly perturbed.)

Bowa stormed the field, directing his ire toward Mets first baseman Daniel Murphy—screaming “Fuck you” repeatedly and pointing toward his ribs as if to show Murphy where he’d soon be hit by a pitch. Murphy had tossed his bat after homering on Monday, but Bowa later denied that had anything to do with his rant.

“When you’re in the box, and the first thing you do is you check your stance, and your head’s down and you look up and the ball’s right here, someone’s going to get hurt,” said Bowa in a Newsday report. “And if it hits somebody in the face, they could get killed.”

The nonsense about Ruf’s life being endangered aside, Bowa did bring up an interesting point: Is it ever okay to quick pitch a guy? The Mets, according to the New York Post, “have been employing the tactic with some regularity.”

The quick pitch is against the written rules—8.05e, which says that “A quick pitch is an illegal pitch. Umpires will judge a quick pitch as one delivered before the batter is reasonably set in the batter’s box. With runners on base the penalty is a balk; with no runners on base, it is a ball. The quick pitch is dangerous and should not be permitted.”

The quick pitch—even those that meet criteria allowed by the rule book—is also against the Code. Baseball’s unwritten rules were established to maintain respect and fair play, and attacking an opponent while he’s unprepared is certainly not that. Wednesday came and went, however, with neither Murphy, nor anyone else from the Mets, getting plunked. Mets manager Terry Collins addressed Murphy’s bat flip by saying that he—along with the rest of baseball’s mainstream—no longer even notices such things. “You see it everywhere—I mean you see it everywhere,” he said in a NJ.com report. “And you see stars doing it. So I shrugged it off. Dan Murphy, that’s not even part of his makeup. He hit a homer and he took one second and tossed the bat aside. He didn’t really flip it up in the air or anything drastic.”

I love Bowa for his old-school sensibilities, but Collins is in the right on this one. Focusing on Murphy after a quick-pitch that he had nothing to do with, then decrying the pitch as potentially fatal, then denying that Murphy’s bat flip was unrelated to his anger does little more than paint Bowa as the crank he is. Visually threatening Murphy with physical violence makes the old coach seem unhinged. Sometimes acting the crank can make Bowa loveable. This time it just makes him wrong.

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Even The Tolerant Have Little Use For Gusto When Down By Nine

Gomez shoutsCarlos Gomez is at it again. The man who was called out by Brian McCann more visibly than perhaps anybody, ever, was at it again on Tuesday—against McCann’s new team, the Yankees, no less. (The catcher wasn’t on the field for this one, though.)

Start with an RBI double in the first, in which Gomez tossed his bat and held his hands high, then dove recklessly into second, nearly taking out second baseman Brendan Ryan, who was striding away from him, toward the outfield.

Follow with a popup in the sixth, on a pitch near Gomez’s ankles, after which he slammed his bat to the ground in frustration. The New York dugout was all over him as he trotted to first. Gomez, never one to shy from confrontation, jawed back—he could be seen shouting “Shut up” on the replay—and benches quickly emptied. (No punches were thrown.)

On one hand, Gomez has long since made clear who he is and what he does, in which light it was obvious that his actions had nothing specifically to do with the Yankees. On the other hand, even tolerant teams can grow grumpy when down 9-0, as New York was at the time of Gomez’s histrionics. The same mindframe that warns against things like aggressive baserunning and pitchers nibbling when holding a large lead is true here, as well. In those moments, streamlining the process is a priority, and Gomez was not playing by those rules.

In addition to McCann, Gomez has blustered at Gerrit Cole and Joe Mauer and Ian Desmond. The guy is clearly going to have his say. Teams keep trying—and failing—to teach him lessons. Wonder who’s going to learn first?

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Did Fiers Cheat? Should Anyone Care?

Fiers glove

Mike Fiers’ no-hitter on Friday was as notable for his opponents’ reactions as for the event itself. Any no-hitter offers a significant degree of intrigue, but this one gained steam when the television broadcast appeared to show a shiny substance on Fiers’ glove in the ninth inning, assumed to be pine tar.

Rather than bemoan their fate at the hands of a possible cheater, however, the Dodgers took the appropriate path, issuing credit where it was due and downplaying any semblance of controversy.

“I don’t want to take anything away from his night,” Carl Crawford told the Los Angeles Times. Don Mattingly said, “I think it sounds like you’re whining if you look at it and talk about it,” and added (without accusation) that pine tar use is more or less accepted unless it’s “blatantly obvious.” (Fiers, for his part, denied everything.)

Regardless of whether Fiers was using a banned substance, those in the Los Angeles clubhouse know that they have pitchers among their own ranks who do that very thing—as does every club in baseball. And if every club does it, it’s not such a catastrophe. And if it’s not such a catastrophe, why paint it as such? Mattingly respected Fiers’ feat for what it was, exactly as he should have done.

Well played, Dodgers.

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Filed under Cheating, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, No-Hitter Etiquette, Pine Tar

Location, Location, Location: On Intentionally Positioning Your Argument to Disrupt the Opposition

Scioscia chatsThe beauty of gamesmanship in baseball is the subtle and creative ways in which it can manifest. Wednesday in Chicago it was Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who undertook a discussion he should not have been having, for longer than was necessary and in a location on the field—in front of home plate—that prevented White Sox closer David Robertson from keeping warm in the interim.

Erick Aybar led off the ninth inning of a game in which his team trailed, 2-1, by striking out on a pitch in the dirt. Aybar reacted as if Chicago catcher Tyler Flowers never tagged him (which appears in replays to have been the case) and ran to first base. Plate ump Fieldin Culbreth immediately ruled, however, that Flowers made the tag. The play went to review (which should never have happened, because Flowers’ lack of a throw to first was predicated entirely on Culbreth’s out call), and after the call was upheld Scioscia emerged to argue the point. He stood nearly atop the plate to do so. (Watch it here.) When Robertson finally resumed pitching he allowed two quick singles and an RBI groundout that tied a game the White Sox eventually won in 13.

This is a classic move, which, noted the White Sox broadcast, Billy Martin used to do all the time. And why not? If the Angels manager can easily put the opposition at a disadvantage, why wouldn’t he? I once saw a Scioscia-led Angels team let a warm-up ball escape the bullpen and onto the field of play in the late innings (it rolled to a stop near the plate), thoroughly disrupting the rhythm of a game in which they were struggling. Accident? Possibly. It was a minor moment, but baseball is a game of rhythms, and this was a clear disruption.

It’s also hardly unique.

One of the most noteworthy enactments of such tactics came in the seventh game of the 1926 World Series, when St. Louis pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander was called in from the bullpen to protect a 3-2 lead with the bases loaded and New York’s rookie shortstop, Tony Lazzeri, at the plate. Recognizing the antsiness of the young player, Alexander took his sweet time ambling to the mound, stopping to examine the gloves of center fielder Wattie Holm and shortstop Tommy Thevenow en route. Thoroughly disrupting Lazzeri’s rhythm, Alexander—39 years old and in his 16th big league season—struck him out and saved the victory for the Cardinals.

What Scioscia did on Wednesday was just as shrewd, and no less objectionable. Robertson called Scioscia “bush league” afterward, but if the White Sox are to take umbrage with anybody, it’s Culbreth, who could have ended the conversation before it began (arguing reviewed calls is grounds for ejection) or at least moved it away from the plate. Hell, either Robertson or Flowers could have requested as much. Scioscia even walked away from the plate for the second half of the discussion, and Robertson still didn’t throw a warmup.

The White Sox ended up winning the war, but that particular battle was all Mike Scioscia.

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Baseball in August: Same as in April, it Seems

Jays-RoyalsCheez. A fella heads out of the country for a few weeks, and everything goes straight to hell. A little distance can lend a lot of perspective, however, and coming home to a slew of drama pretty much confirms the points I’ve always made: In baseball, respect is paramount, safety is vital and red-assery is growing thinner—and more noteworthy—than ever.

Some takeaways:

  • Run-of-the-mill bat flips no longer count as showboating, which leaves no space for pitchers to get peeved in response. Although his behavior was marginally acceptable for sixth-graders, San Diego’s Dale Thayer was out of line in tossing his gum at Giants catcher Hector Sanchez following a pimp-heavy grand slam, and Padres reliever Shawn Kelly went full nutter by coming inside twice—with intention—to Sanchez three innings later in further response. (This wasn’t even the first gum-related incident between the teams this season.) Mainstream behavior can not, by definition, be taken personally. Get over it, pitchers.
  • This works in both directions for the Giants, as Madison Bumgarner—owner of perhaps the reddest ass in the big leagues—hollered at Delino Deshields for hollering at himself after he popped out against the lefthander. MadBum has a bit of history with this kind of thing. Fabricated drama is the worst kind of drama.
  • Style points count when it comes to retaliation. Under appropriate circumstances, there is a place for pitchers to retaliate on behalf of drilled teammates, but how they do it counts as much as anything. Rockies reliever Christian Friederich hitting Kolten Wong near his head in response to teammate D.J. LeMahieu being drilled by St. Louis starter Carlos Martinez was patently unacceptable. Like all pitchers, Friederich has some leeway in letting teammates know he has their welfare in mind, but doing it with such little regard for the opposition paints him as a goon. (At least when Arizona’s Dominic Leone drilled Christian Yellich in response for David Peralta being unintentionally hit in the head by Jose Fernandez, he did it appropriately, hitting him—however unnecessarily—in the posterior.)

All of this pales, of course, to Royals-Blue Jays. Because Royals-Blue Jays never disappoints. There was tit-for-tat retaliation, starting when Royals pitchers drilled Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki, and brushed back Donaldson in two different at-bats for good measure. Aaron Sanchez hit Alcides Escobar in response, and was summarily ejected. (Watch it all here.) The Royals spent the early part of the season picking fights with seemingly everybody in the American League, but the particulars of the skirmish were far less interesting than the extracurriculars.

First was the back-and forth chirping. Donaldson said afterward that he was happy Volquez was not tossed, what with him being “pretty good hittin’.” Volquez said that Donaldson was “Crying like a baby.” It continued on Twitter, where Jose Bautista said he “lost a lot of respect” for Ned Yost, at which Yordano Ventura called Bautista “a nobody” in a since-deleted Tweet.

The most intriguing part of the action came from plate ump Jim Wolf, who issued warnings after Donaldson was hit. Thing was, he opted not to eject anybody either time Donaldson was brushed back, or when Tulowitzki was hit—with the Blue Jays in the cross-hairs every time—but tossed Sanchez in the only instance of a Toronto pitcher coming too far inside all day. The Blue Jays went to lengths to elucidate that imbalance, but ultimately it was a matter of judgement calls, which, when it comes to the unwritten rules, is a key to quality umpiring. Grant Brisbee broke it down over at SBNation:

* Was Volquez really so mad at Donaldson that he was going to risk ejection in the third inning of a close game? If so, why didn’t he actually hit him after buzzing him around the head, if he had already committed to it? Probably not intentional, unless it he meant it in a move-him-off-the-plate kind of way, not a die-die-die kind of way.

* Why would Ryan Madson wait until the seventh pitch of an at-bat, with a two-strike count and a runner on second in a close game, to hit someone who was never involved? Probably not intentional.

* Madson’s 2-2 pitch to Donaldson in the next at-bat was timed poorly, to say the least. It buzzed his face again, but the situation again suggests it was a pitch that got away. Two runners already on, in a game the Royals still thought they could win? That’s not the place where pitchers want additional runners, especially if there’s a risk of ejection behind it. Especially considering the Blue Jays never retaliated to that point. Probably not intentional.

* Aaron Sanchez came in, waited until there were two outs and no one on, and plunked a Royal. Probably intentional, and he was tossed.

There’s value in umpires having the leeway to judge the merit of baseball actions. Viable strategy exists in making a hot hitter like Donaldson less comfortable in the box, and if a pitch thrown intentionally inside misses a bit and hits a guy, that’s a justifiable cost of doing business. Wolf deserves credit for recognizing this. The rest of his decisions can be similarly defended.

That said, tossing Volquez at the first incident after warnings were issued would have circumvented a lot of the ensuing drama—and there’s value in that, too. Hell, with the abundance of judgement calls going Kansas City’s way in this one, it may have been a preferable tactic from the outset. That’s only in retrospect, of course. In a vacuum,  ejecting a player for an unintentional (if poorly timed) pitch is of little benefit to anybody.

At the very least, it all made for entertaining reading once I returned to the home office. If the Royals and Blue Jays play each other again this season, it’ll be in the playoffs. But there are still nearly two months to go—plenty of time for some quality drama.

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