Author Archives: Jason Turbow

Stick With Me, Baby, And I’ll Stick With You

Smith arm

Two trains of thought here. One is that foreign substances—particularly of the tacky (as opposed to viscous) variety—are commonplace among the ranks of pitchers, used to increase grip on the baseball. It can help slightly with performance (more tightly spun breaking pitches), but also helps prevent balls from slipping out of the hand, which in turn means fewer inadvertently hit batters. Most hitters are willing to take that trade-off. With all that in mind, there is protocol for those who take exception to such practices. Verbal warnings are a start.

On the other hand, a pitcher so stupid as to wear the stuff right out in the open deserves whatever the hell he gets.

Debate is open whether Brewers reliever Will Smith deserved it on Thursday, but he certainly got it.

Smith entered the game in the seventh, with his team trailing Atlanta, 2-1, and promptly hit the first batter he faced, Pedro Ciriaco. Against his second batter, Jace Peterson, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez requested the pitcher be checked. Smith was subsequently ejected. (Watch it here.)

Was Gonzalez correct? He said that he had been aware of the substance from the start, but waited until he saw Smith go to it before alerting the umpires. Any history of Smith and/or the Brewers cheating against Atlanta has so far gone unreported; if it exists, Gonzalez had every right to do what he did. Otherwise, however, he’d have been better served to utilize less formal methods. The reality is that there are pitchers on Gonzalez’s own staff who turn to the tack (because there are pitchers on every staff who use the stuff), who now must exercise undue caution when playing Milwaukee.

This is hardly the first time this topic has come up over recent  years.

The best example comes from the 2006 World Series, in which Cardinals manager Tony La Russa had the umpires request that Tigers starter Kenny Rogers clean an obvious patch of pine tar from his palm, but did not request that they check—and subsequently eject—the pitcher. In that case, a warning sufficed. Rogers cleaned his hand and everybody moved right along.

Not so in Atlanta. Smith insisted that the substance on his arm was a combination of rosin and sunscreen,a fairly typical concoction for pitchers. (The part where he said that he forgot to clean it off before entering the game holds less water.) Brewers manager Craig Counsell said on MLB.com that he couldn’t imagine a scenario in which he would call out an opponent in such a matter. “It happens everywhere in the league,” he said. “And it happens on his team, too.”

Ulitmately for Gonzalez—who himself admitted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “every pitcher does it”—it came down to conspicuousness. “Just hide it better next time,” he said.

Despite a pissed-off Smith, who left the field screaming curses at the Atlanta dugout, this incident does not merit retaliation in any way beyond possible eye-for-an-eye gamesmanship. Knowing that, Braves pitchers better make sure that for the six games remaining against Atlanta this season they’re on their best, and least tacky, behavior.

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Filed under Cheating, Pine Tar

Knee-gate Revisited

Rosy's knee

Last week we examined Adam Rosales’ knee plant atop second base, which was called out by Rays shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera as violating some sort of unwritten rule pertaining to middle infielders. Never having heard of it, I took an unofficial survey of as many infielders as I could find when I was at the Oakland Coliseum last weekend.

Okay, it was only two. And one of them plays third base. Still.

“If his knee’s not in the way and he’s not trying to do it, then he’s not trying to do it,” said A’s third baseman Brett Lawrie (who’s had his own dose of slide-related drama this year). “If you’re on top of the bag but there’s still room to slide, that’s okay. Everything’s fine.”

A’s coach and longtime middle infielder Mike Gallego offered a different—though not contradictory—perspective. The difference between tags today and those of previous generations, he said, is replay.

“Back in the day with the old sweep tag, if the ball beats the runner the umpire is calling him out, no question,” he said. “Now, you have to literally put the tag on the play, so you might see guys blocking the base a little bit more to make sure they get the tag on the runner. It’s changing.”

It’s true. Prior to replay, runners never complained about being called out if the ball beat them to the base, even if the tag had already come and gone. Now, the necessity to position themselves not just to make a tag, but to hold it, is paramount. It only follows that they’ll have to at least occasionally brace themselves in ways about which previous generations would have been less tolerant. Not a direct correlation to Rosales’ situation, but worth mentioning.

The early verdict: Both Lawrie and Gallego mentioned that planting a knee next to the bag is preferable than doing so on top of it, for reasons that Cabrera enumerated after jamming his fingers. They also said that things happen in a bang-bang play, and what Rosales did was hardly objectionable. (Hell, first basemen like Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell were known for applying pile-driving tags on pickoff throws as a means of reminding the runner about the cost of doing business. Tag etiquette can be a complex affair.)

I’ll continue to ask around as the season progresses. Updates as events warrant.

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Armando Benitez Drilled Tino Martinez 17 Years Ago Today. No, He Was Not Playing by the Unwritten Rules

Seventeen years ago today, Armando Benitez intentionally drilled Tino Martinez after the preceding batter, Bernie Williams, hit a dramatic three-run homer. The event was more noteworthy for the ensuing mayhem—the fight ended up spilling into a dugout and resulted in suspensions for five players—than for the deed itself.

The moment merits current notice for the fact that decriers of baseball’s unwritten rules—pundits like Hardball Talk’s Craig Calcaterra—are using it to blame baseball’s Code for just how ludicrous this kind of behavior is. Referencing then AL President Gene Budig’s harsh words about Benitez when handing down the ensuing eight-game suspension for Benitez, Calcaterra wrote:

I do get the sense sometimes that no one inside the game thinks of throwing at guys as a bad thing in the sorts of terms Budig uses here. [Budig said, among other things, “The location of the pitch was extremely dangerous and could have seriously injured the player.”] It’s all thought of as self-policing and part of the game and stuff. Maybe the violence is reduced because people don’t want to risk player health, but the idea that sometimes, well, you gotta throw at someone still lingers. It’s an odd little thing.

The point that is consistently overlooked by people who disagree with these methods of play is that Benitez’s strike wasn’t a product of the Code, it was directly contravening it. The unwritten rules aren’t set up to give license to guys who want to indiscriminately drill opponents whenever the mood strikes them. To the contrary, they present a framework for dealing with that type of thing when it happens.

You can disagree with Hideki Irabu responding on the Yankees’ behalf by plunking both Mike Bordick and Brady Anderson the next day, but the truth is that not only did he do it correctly (below the shoulders), but those Orioles were then within their rights to subsequently tell Benitez to knock off his shenanigans, because he was putting his teammates in harm’s way. Irabu gave the Yankees closure, and at the same time proactively dealt with Benitez’s future actions. (That latter note is strictly theoretical. The incident in question was actually the second time Benitez drilled Martinez following a teammate’s homer—the first occurred in 1995, when Martinez was with the Mariners—which does not speak well to the pitcher’s ability to listen or absorb.)

I have no problem with people criticizing a culture in which ballplayers throw baseballs at each other in anger. Usually I agree with them. All I ask is for a reasonable assessment before laying down judgement. The system can certainly be the problem, but sometimes it’s just a rogue player within it. Take the time to examine the difference.

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Filed under Baltimore Orioles, New York Yankees, Retaliation

The World According to Pedro

Pedro cardJust in case anybody doubted Pedro Martinez’s reputation as one of baseball’s biggest headhunters, he confirmed as much in his book, “Pedro,” excerpted last week in Sports Illustrated.

In July 2003, Martinez pitched a series finale against the Yankees. He takes it from there.

Two days before my start, Roger Clemens drilled Kevin Millar. I didn’t care whether it was intentional or not. Clemens hit one of my players, so I filed it at the top of my to-do list.

The first batter of the first inning was Alfonso Soriano. I nicked him, but I swear, that one was just up and in. Soriano leaned in and swung right into that ball. The umpire said it was a strikeout.

Derek Jeter was up next, and I sailed one in on his hands and got him good. Both he and Soriano had to leave the game early to have X-rays taken. I told some teammates, “At least I gave them a discount on an ambulance—they both got to go in the same one.” That comment surprised [fellow pitcher] Derrek Lowe. He told me he figured that when I hit batters, it was an accident 90% of the time. He was 100% wrong. When I hit a batter it was 90% intentional.

This is the same guy who once said, “Wake up the Bambino and have me face him. Maybe I’ll drill him in the head.” You know, just in case his Hall-of-Fame stuff wasn’t intimidating enough on its own.

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Filed under Boston Red Sox, Intimidation, New York Yankees

Oy Gevalt

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Knee, Meet Fingers. Fingers, Knee. Chat Amongst Yourselves

Rosy's kneeAfter having paid particular attention to baseball’s unwritten rules since I started researching The Baseball Codes in 2005, I’ve compiled what seems like a pretty comprehensive set. On Saturday, Asdrubal Cabrera may have informed me of a new one.

Diving back into second base on a pickoff attempt, Cabrera jammed his fingers into the knee of Rangers second baseman Adam Rosales, and got up shoving. (At first blush it appeared to be because Rosales inadvertently leaned on him with an off-balance elbow, but that had nothing to do with it. Watch the play here.)

After the game, Cabrera said, in an MLB.com report: “He put a knee onto second base. I’ve played both sides, second and short, and I know that’s not fair to put a knee on the base.”

At the very least, Cabrera was correct in his assessment that, had Rosales’ knee not been planted atop the base, his fingers would have remained blissfully unjammed.

Rosales’ general demeanor is among the best in all of baseball, and there’s no question that whatever he did was done unintentionally. Still, it begs the question—especially with the accusation flying from one infielder to another—was he out of line?

More to follow …

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On Defending the Code

Keep calm

Yesterday, the Atlantic’s website came out with a think piece slamming baseball’s unwritten rules and going so far as to call for a ban on hit batsmen. All hit batsmen. At any time.

Author Adam Felder suggests that baseball eject any pitcher who hits a batter, an idea that is on its face ludicrous and would change the game for the worse by massive amounts, all but eliminating the inside corner. Felder realizes this, of course, and seems to be throwing it out there more as a conversation starter than anything. At least he gets credit for creative thinking.

More worthy of nitpicking are the rest of his hypotheses. The piece is riddled with errors of assumption that are easy to believe. Felder asserts that the dearth of player fatalities since Ray Chapman was struck down in 1920 have “less to do with improvements in player safety and more to do with dumb luck,” when in fact it has everything to do with safety improvements. (Is he really claiming that helmets haven’t made an enormous difference?) Counter to another of his contentions, pitchers are not routinely ordered to drill opponents. (Those orders, while somewhat prevalent prior to the 1980s, are nearly extinct today.) The story led with Chapman (who Felder mistakenly transposed with the man who threw the fatal pitch, Carl Mays), a guy who died in a singular accident that had nothing to do with the unwritten rules, and which would have been prevented had helmets been in use at the time.

And that’s just in the opening paragraph.

What Felder is missing is that the Code serves a grander purpose than being a simple manifestation of aggression. Baseball is a sport of relative leisure, its pace allowing for meaning to be imbued into a given action. A stolen base doesn’t have to mean something, but when a player wants it to, it does. (He can take off late in a blowout game. He can go in too hard, or too late, or spikes high. The possibilities are multiple.) At that point, it is up to the opposing pitcher to respond.

Contrary to popular perception, retaliatory strikes act as a release valve, allowing a team both to acknowledge an act and respond to it. Rather than having bad blood fester between teams—a real possibility considering that division rivals face each other 19 times each season—the cycle ends there. Everybody moves on, all according to the Code.

Internally, it is vital that a player know his teammates have his best interests at heart. When the second baseman on the wrong end of that message-laden stolen base—the guy who was barreled into late—is protected by a retaliatory strike, it helps build a unified front. Should he not be protected it can quickly do the opposite. Just as importantly, the retaliatory pitch lets the other team know that future indiscretions will not be tolerated.

Ultimately—and this is the point that most people miss—the Code is about respect and safety. Pitchers who hit a batter for lightweight infractions like showboating or the above-mentioned ill-timed stolen base can be justifiably criticized. But when players go about intentionally risky business (the runner who flies recklessly into an infielder; the infielder who throws down an intentionally late tag—or, even worse, a deke—to force a baserunner into an awkward slide; any player who plays with excess aggression when aggression is uncalled for), handling things in this manner is a proven, effective way to put a stop to it.

The Code covers that part, too. A pitcher who places a ball above an opponent’s shoulders—intentionally or otherwise—is the closest thing to a pariah that the game knows. The batter who is hit justifiably and properly, in the hip or the thigh, will quietly take his base. Every time.

Sometimes things don’t play out according to the script, Kansas City’s ongoing drama with Oakland serving as a recent example. Those, however, are exceptions, noteworthy for that very detail. Had the participants acted according to proscribed tenets, the bad blood would have barely been noteworthy at all.

There’s a reason for the Code. Feel free to quibble with how it frequently plays out (hell, players themselves do that much), but at least understand why it’s there, and why it endures.

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Filed under Unwritten Rules