Category Archives: Don’t Play Aggressively with a Big Lead

The Air is Hot, Smart or Not, Deep in the Heart of Texas

Lewis shoutsSo this is what the ruination of baseball’s unwritten rules looks like. People keep marginalizing them, shunting them to the corner, labeling those who play by their merits as kooks and haters of fun. What we’re left with, at least in part, is this: Ballplayers, both red-assed and traditionalist, playing less by moral imperative than by half-formed opinions based on a system they don’t appear to fully understand.

Case in point: Rangers starter Colby Lewis, who on Saturday lit into Toronto’s Colby Rasmus (in the rare and wondrous Battle of the Colbys) for daring to lay down a bunt late in the game while the Blue Jays sat on a huge lead.

Except that it was only the fifth inning. And the score was 2-0. Oh, Colby Lewis.

The section of the unwritten rulebook that Lewis was attempting to channel was the one that dictates avoidance of running up the score late in games. It’s a simple matter of respecting one’s opponent enough to keep from embarrassing him … but that doesn’t have much relevance to whatever happened in Toronto. Just as Astros manager Bo Porter was ludicrous when he exploded over a first-inning Jed Lowrie bunt back in April, Lewis is ludicrous now.

Rasmus bunted because—here’s the pertinent part—his run mattered. Lewis was upset that Rasmus had taken advantage of a defensive shift designed to stop him from hitting. Now that such shifts are gaining traction even as the Code is losing it, we’re faced with an awkward intersection: Is there a moral component to playing straight-up against the shift with the fact that it presents an obvious weakness (nobody playing down the third base line) to exploit? The closest example I can conjure is the first baseman who plays off the bag despite a runner being on base late in a blowout game, with the expectation that the runner will hold anyway. He wants the defensive advantage of playing in the hole, and expects that his opposition will not take similar advantages of their own.

But those who think that situation is reasonable do so because of the lopsided score. In a close game, if a defense wants to gain the advantage of an extra defender on the right side of the infield, it has no business taking exception should a batter exploit that weakness. Which is not only what Rasmus did, but which is what every hitter with speed should do, at least on occasion.

Lewis had words for Rasmus on the field (watch it here) and after the game explained just what was going on. “I told [Rasmus] I didn’t appreciate it,” Lewis said in an MLB.com report. “You’re up by two runs with two outs and you lay down a bunt. I don’t think that’s the way the game should be played. I felt like you have a situation where there is two outs, you’re up two runs, you have gotten a hit earlier in the game off me, we are playing the shift, and he laid down a bunt basically simply for average.”

Lewis’ criteria for judgment was that once Rasmus reached base, he didn’t try to steal and get himself into scoring position. “That tells me he is solely looking out for himself, and looking out for batting average, and I didn’t appreciate it,” he said, digging himself into a dangerous rabbit hole of inanity. Left unexplained: If in Lewis’ mind the game situation dictated that Rasmus wasn’t allowed to bunt, the question isn’t whether the pitcher’s head would have exploded had Rasums stolen a base, but how violently.

Hell, Curt Schilling didn’t take offense when Ben Davis bunted against him to ruin his perfect game in 2001. That’s because, like the game in Toronto, the score was 2-0 and a baserunner could have made a difference.

Or one could look in another direction: When Jarrod Saltalamacchia bunted to break up a perfect game against Oakland’s A.J. Griffin in 2012, he was barely faulted for it by Oakland manager Bob Melvin, not because the score was close but because Melvin had put on a shift similar to the one Texas used on Saturday. “I probably should have had the third baseman in,” said Melvin at the time.

Ultimately it’s up to players to recognize what is and isn’t appropriate, and to be damn sure they’ve been aggrieved should they get their jocks in a bunch over a given play. The Code is a powerful part of baseball’s social fabric, but only when it’s leveraged properly. Because the facts of the matter don’t back him up, all Colby Lewis is left with is a bunch of hot, angry air.

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Bo Knows: No Such Thing as Too Early, When it Comes to Well-Timed Bunts

Lowrie-Porter

What’s up, Bo Porter?

Because baseball’s unwritten rules are built upon the concept of respect, the first rule among them is usually don’t run up the score.

What this means, practically speaking, is shutting down aggressive play late in blowout games—things like stealing bases and hustling into a base that is not otherwise conceded to you. People differ on the point at which such a code comes into play, but in nearly 10 years of covering this very topic, one thing has become abundantly clear to me:

The first inning of a game can never, ever, under any circumstances, be described as “late in the game.”

So when Houston manager Porter—and by extension, Astros pitcher Paul Clemens—took exception to Oakland’s Jed Lowrie laying down a bunt (against an accomodating defensive shift, no less) in the first inning on Friday, it was nothing short of ludicrous.

Houston’s fuse had burned short: The A’s had already scored seven runs in the frame, and Lowrie was batting for the second time. Also, they’re the Astros.

When Clemens faced Lowrie in his next-at bat, in the third, there was no mistaking his intentions. The right-hander’s first pitch was aimed at Lowrie’s knee, and ended up going between his legs. (Watch it here.) His second pitch was also inside.

After Lowrie flied out to end the inning, he asked former teammate Jose Altuve what was going on. At this point, Porter stormed out of the dugout and began shouting at Lowrie to “go back to shortstop.”

Porter’s rage would have been understandable if it was even the sixth or seventh inning, let alone the eighth or the ninth. Sure, his team is the AL-worst Astros, who boast six sub-.200 hitters in the starting lineup, and whose best hitter, Jason Castro, is batting .216. Yes, Porter was already into his bullpen.

His is probably the perfect team to lend credence to the point that, in the face of the Astros’ own inability to score runs, Lowrie was, in some way, rubbing it in.

But still: IT WAS THE FIRST INNING.

Lowrie hit it on the screws in his postgame comments.

“If we’re talking about the eighth inning, of course I’m not going to bunt,” he said in an MLB.com report. “But they’re giving me that by playing the shift and, as a competitive guy, I’m trying to help my team win. We’re talking about the first inning of a Major League game.”

Yes, we are. Yes, we are.

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Filed under Bunting for hits, Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead

Retiring Schneider Brings to Mind a Small Slice of Baseball Mayhem

Brian SchneiderBrian Schneider retired yesterday. A backup for most of his 13-year career, he was never a star, but saw enough action to make an impression.

The following excerpt from The Baseball Codes was reported primarily because I watched it unfold from the press box at AT&T Park, and was duly amazed. The moment involved Schneider, in the on-deck circle, being drilled by a foul ball and knocked out of the game.

That, in itself, is unusual, but the story surrounding it—including the aftermath—brought increasing levels of intrigue. Schneider was only a bit player, but it bears retelling:

In 2006, the Washington Nationals limped into San Francisco with a MASH unit where their catching corps should have been. Starting catcher Brian Schneider suffered a debilitating lower-back strain in Los Angeles a day earlier, and backup Matt LeCroy had been released eleven days previous. That left only one player on the roster with catching experience—Robert Fick, primarily a first baseman who had caught in 132 games over eight previous big-league seasons.

In the fourth inning, however, it all came apart. Fick, on first after sin­gling, tore rib cartilage diving back to the bag on a pickoff throw. Had there been another catching option for Nationals manager Frank Robin­son, Fick would have come out of the game immediately. As it was, Fick’s injury prevented him from swinging a bat, but he was still able to squat and catch, so he stayed in.

The single had been part of a five-run rally that gave Washington a 6–1 lead. But after catching the bottom of the fourth, Fick was in such serious pain that Schneider volunteered to come off the bench, bad back and all, to take over. He made it as far as the on-deck circle, where he was prepar­ing to bat in Fick’s spot with two outs in the fifth. Within moments, how­ever, Nationals hitter Damian Jackson lined a foul ball directly into Schneider’s right wrist, giving him injuries in two places and sending him back to the dugout. There was no other option—Fick had to bat for him­self. Which leads to a question: What does a hitter do when he can’t swing a bat?

The answer: He bunts. It was Fick’s only alternative, short of watching every pitch he saw. There were two problems, however. One was that Fick pushed his first bunt attempt foul, leaving him standing at the plate and awaiting the next pitch from San Francisco starter Noah Lowry. The other was that neither Fick nor anyone else in the Nationals dugout told the Giants what was going on. All Lowry saw was a player bunting after a five-run rally that broke the game open. He drilled Fick with his next pitch.

“I thought it was unbelievable, ridiculous,” said Lowry. “Sometimes during a game, emotions take over. The emotions were already there, and to add that icing on the cake. . . . There comes a point where you have to draw the line and say, ‘Hey, have respect for me, have respect for the game.’ ”

It wasn’t until afterward that the left-hander found out about Fick’s ribs (the injury was enough to send the would-be catcher to the disabled list the next day) and the various maladies of Washington’s other catchers, and he felt terrible. Had there been some communication—Fick telling Giants catcher Todd Greene about his predicament, and Greene relaying that information to Lowry, perhaps—might it have made a difference?

“Yeah, of course,” said the pitcher. “Knowing he was hurt would have been a completely different story. . . . When I heard about why he was doing it I felt like a jerk. But, not knowing, you just play the game the way you know how to play it.”

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Filed under Bunting for hits

Those Pitching Changes. Oh, Those Pitching Changes

Perhaps the most obvious piece of the Code is the mandate to shut down aggressive play on offense while holding a big lead late in the game. But what about pitching?

On Wednesday, Bruce Bochy went to his bullpen three times—going righty-lefty-righty with Guillermo Mota, Javier Lopez and Sergio Romo—to face four batters in the ninth inning against the Rockies. The Giants led 8-3.

“I’ve been here a few times and I’ve seen some comebacks that are hard to stop,” Bochy said in the San Jose Mercury News. “You don’t want to get a rally started here because momentum gets going.”

There’s no indication that the Rockies were annoyed by such tactics, and perhaps they shouldn’t have been. However, were manager Jim Tracy the type to get rankled over a stolen base by a team holding a five-run, ninth inning lead, it only stands to follow that this might get under his skin, as well.

 

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Some Leads are Insurmountable; Others are Insurmountable Only for the Cubs

Opinions about when it is and isn’t appropriate to play aggressively—stealing bases, say, or swinging 3-0—vary widely. When you’re the Chicago Cubs and are in the midst of getting pummeled, repeatedly, by the best team in the National League, it only makes sense that sensitivities might be a bit raw.

The game in question was the capper following three straight Nationals victories over Chicago, by a cumulative score of 22-7—“one of the biggest butt-whippings” Cubs manager Dale Sveum said he’d ever received. Ultimately, it served mainly to add misery to a season which at that point had the Cubs on pace to lose 102 games.

In the series’ fourth game, on Thursday, it took only four innings for Washington to build another substantial lead, 7-2, so when Jayson Werth swung at a 3-0 pitch with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth, it was enough to officially drive Cubs bench coach Jamie Quirk into an extreme state of annoyance.

From the dugout, he started “screaming out obscenities” toward Washington third-base coach Bo Porter, according to umpire Jerry Layne in the Chicago Tribune, a situation the umpire felt “was inappropriate” and “caused everything.”

“Everything” began with Porter approaching the Chicago bench and screaming right back at Quirk. That escalated to both dugouts emptying onto the field. (Watch it here.)

“You’re up 7-2,” said Cubs catcher Steve Clevenger. “You don’t swing 3-0.”

There’s truth to the statement, but its timing is straight out of the 1960s. The last time the fifth inning was utilized as a yardstick for when to stifle an attack, it was a pitcher’s league. They were the days of Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson, long before offenses exploded in a spate of expanded rosters and juiced balls and tiny ballparks and BALCO-fueled hitters. Today, the fifth inning sounds downright quaint.

Then again, this is the Cubs. The line for when to call off the dogs is malleable, depending on a team’s bench and bullpen, the freshness of its starting pitcher, the state of its offense. With the Cubs, for whom a two-run deficit might seem like an unbridgeable chasm, perhaps five runs, and only four innings to score them, is a  lot.

We’ve already established that their emotions are raw, which explains why reliever Lendy Castillo threw at Bryce Harper to lead off the the sixth. That set Harper off on his own shouting jag, and the dugouts emptied again. (Watch it here.)

Harper nailed it in his postgame comments, saying in the Tribune, “I’d be pretty ticked off if I was getting my teeth kicked in all week, too.”

Nationals manager Davey Johnson proved to be tone deaf earlier this season when it came to a different facet of the game’s propriety, but on this particular issue he was pretty much spot-on.

“We’re in a pennant race, we’re going to swing 3-0, we’re going to do everything,” he said in the Washington Post. “We ain’t stopping trying to score runs. Certainly a five-run lead at that time is nothing. I think it was the bench coach’s frustration in us handing it to them for a couple days. If they want to quit competing and forfeit, then fine. But we’re going to keep competing. I don’t know why they’re getting on about swinging 3-0. Their first baseman [Anthony Rizzo] swung 3-0 in the first inning. What’s the difference with the bases loaded in the fifth with only a five-run lead and two outs?”

At this point in the game’s history, not much. “Only” a five-run lead is exactly that, even against the Cubs. One would hope that next time they display a bit more pride.

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Filed under Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Jayson Werth, Swinging 3-0

Mike Cameron: Code Over Glory

Mike Cameron gets congratulated after his fourth homer on the day.

We got word Sunday that Mike Cameron was retiring after 17 seasons of largely productive baseball. He hit 278 home runs during that span, four of them in a single game (watch the glory here). A four-homer day is noteworthy for many reasons, of course, but it turns out the Code was involved in this one.

It was recounted in the original draft of The Baseball Codes, but the passage was cut for space considerations. In honor of Cameron, here it is:

On May 4, 2002, Seattle’s Mike Cameron stepped to the plate in the top of the ninth inning with two on, nobody out and his team leading the Chicago White Sox, 15-4. When reliever Mike Porzio started him off with three straight balls, Cameron knew just what to do—his manager, Lou Piniella, was a stickler for the unwritten rules and had taught his players well.

Cameron watched the fourth pitch split the plate for a called strike. It didn’t even occur to him that he’d already hit four home runs on the day, and couldn’t have asked for a pitch served up more nicely to give him a record fifth. As Cameron proved, however, should players let it, the Code even trumps history.

- Jason

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Pride, Punches and Papi: Things to do when Your Team is Getting Hammered

David Ortiz charged the mound on Friday. What he thought he was doing was putting an end to some half-baked intimidation tactics from Orioles pitcher Kevin Gregg. What he actually did, however, held significantly more interest. With one inspired charge the guy tore open baseball’s unwritten rulebook, giving us a good look inside; before the game was done, the Red Sox and Orioles touched on no fewer than five distinct sections of the Code.

To recap: Boston hammered the O’s for eight first-inning runs, highlighted by Ortiz’s three-run homer. By the time Ortiz batted in the eighth, the score was 10-3. Gregg—Baltimore’s closer, in the game to get some reps—threw three inside fastballs to him, two of which forced Ortiz to jump backward.

After the third, Ortiz took a few steps toward the mound, pointing and shouting. Dugouts emptied, but no punches were thrown. Once order was restored and the at-bat resumed, Ortiz popped up Gregg’s next pitch to right field. As he ambled toward first, Gregg lit into him verbally, inspiring Papi to cut short his trot in favor of a sprint toward the mound. (Watch it here.)

Enter the unwritten rules.

When your pitching staff can’t seem to slow down the opposition, make things uncomfortable. Boston had abused Baltimore pitchers to that point, scoring 20 runs over two games. (It was part of a five-game streak in which the Orioles gave up 10 or more runs four times.) A pitcher can hardly be blamed for trying to gum up a roll like that.

What’s unknown is whether Gregg requested entry into the game specifically for this purpose. As it was, the right-hander did everything by the book. Drilling a hitter for his team’s success is usually unnecessary. The pitcher’s job in such a situation is to move a hitter’s feet, make him uncomfortable, get him out of his groove. Gregg wanted Ortiz to think about something other than hitting another homer, and in that regard he was wildly successful.

“I take offense to every run scored off every one of our pitchers . . .” Gregg said after the game, in an AP report. “You get tired of getting your butt kicked every night when you come in here, and I’m going to stick up for what’s ours and try to get the plate back.”

This leads to a corollary rule, exhibited here on a purely theoretical basis owing to the fact that Gregg probably wasn’t trying to hit Ortiz (but presented in case he was):

Hitting a guy intentionally is harder than it looks. “As a pitcher, your preparation and your mechanics all prepare you to throw the ball to a spot, usually to the catcher’s glove, and that’s where your focus is,” said former pitcher Shawn Estes, who famously missed Roger Clemens while trying to retaliate for the Rocket’s shenanigans against Mike Piazza in the 2000 World Series. “Well, it’s tough to take your focus off that and try to hit a moving object. . . . It’s not as easy as it looks.”

If Gregg missed his target—three times—he wouldn’t have been the first to do so.

Other pieces of the Code in question on Friday:

Don’t swing at a 3-0 pitch with a big lead late in the game. The fastball that Ortiz popped up came on a 3-0 count, with his team holding a seven-run in the eighth. That’s domain in which a pitcher unequivocally expects a freebie. (With such a lead, say the baseball Gods and Kevin Gregg, it’s the least a hitter can do.) “It’s 3-0, they’re up seven, and I think there are some ethics to this game and guidelines that you have to stay within,” Gregg said in the Boston Herald.

There’s little question that the pitcher was sending a message with his inside fastballs. With that swing, Ortiz sent one of his own.

Run to first base like you care. This is where things got sticky. Ortiz, clearly unhappy to have hit a short fly ball, took a few sad steps toward first before starting to trot. Had Gregg not been predisposed to friskiness, it’s unlikely he would have taken umbrage. But keyed up as he was after Ortiz’s 3-0 swing, the slight delay provided all the provocation necessary for the right-hander to profanely urge Papi to step it up.

Plate ump Mike Estabrook tossed Gregg immediately, but it wasn’t enough to keep Ortiz from turning and charging. He ended up throwing several punches (none of which connected), and benches again cleared. Ejections (primarily Ortiz and Gregg) followed.

Everybody joins a fight. This is a no-brainer. From The Baseball Codes: “Most of the Code is about respect for the opponent, but this rule is about respecting teammates. It’s the most basic of sacrifices, and the fact that the majority of baseball fights don’t involve much actual fighting is almost incidental; it’s a matter of loyalty that can’t be ignored. Hall of Famer Ernie Banks called a player’s failure to join a fight ‘the ultimate violation of being a teammate.’ ”

On Friday, Boston’s Josh Reddick took this rule to an extreme. He was on third base when Ortiz hit the ball, and tagged up. Once hostilities erupted, however, he headed for the mound rather than the plate. That was enough for the umpires to declare him to be the third out of the inning.

As if to take things a step further, Red Sox infielder Marco Scutaro—all 5-foot-10 of him—was the first guy to reach Gregg (6-foot-6, 230 pounds), and as such was tasked with trying to slow the big fella down. It can only be seen for a moment in the game footage, but Gregg offers an inadvertently impressive show of strength, tossing around a clinging Scutaro basically by waving his arm.

We could also get into the concept of waiting for retribution, as Sunday’s series finale featured three HBPs and one near-HBP, most of which were likely unintentional. (It was Red Sox pitcher Kyle Weiland’s first big league start, and neither of his hit batsmen bore any hallmarks of intention; also fitting that bill was Orioles pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, who hit Kevin Youkilis with a changeup.) If there was a message pitch, it came from Mike Gonzalez, who in the sixth threw a fastball behind Ortiz.

After that, though, all remained quiet. Gregg had his say, Ortiz had his own, each club followed up and everybody moved on. Wildness has its time, but so too does order. It’s the Code at work, and it’s a beautiful thing.

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Filed under David Ortiz, David Ortiz, Don't Showboat, Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Everybody Joins a Fight, Swinging 3-0