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Sabean Goes Off, People Freak Out

Wow. That’s pretty much the reaction du jour after Brian Sabean unleashed his verbal vengeance on Scott Cousins yesterday. Perhaps it’s that general managers don’t usually talk that way. Perhaps it’s that, more than a week after the incident in which Buster Posey was lost for the season, a guy in a position usually reserved for settling volatile situations has instead served to inflame this one.

A brief recap. In an interview on Giants flagship KNBR yesterday, Sabean said the following:

  • “He chose to be a hero in my mind, and if that’s his flash of fame, that’s as good as it’s going to get, pal. We’ll have a long memory. Believe me, we’ve talked to (former catcher Mike) Matheny about how this game works. You can’t be that out-and-out overly aggressive. I’ll put it as politically as I can state it: There’s no love lost, and there shouldn’t be.”
  • “If I never hear from Cousins again or he never plays another game in the big leagues, I think we’ll all be happy.”
  • “If you listen to the kid’s comments after the fact, he pretty much decided and it was premeditated that if he got a chance, he was going to blow up the catcher to dislodge the ball, And if you watch frame by frame from different angles, he does not take the path to the plate to try to score. He goes after Buster, right shoulder on right shoulder, and to me, that’s malicious.”

(Listen to the entire thing here.)

By referencing Matheny, Sabean was essentially promising retaliation. (Matheny, a catcher whose career was ended by a spate of concussions after too many collisions at the plate, was widely quoted as saying that situations such as this should be settled on the field.)

By calling the play malicious when it clearly was not, by wishing ill upon Cousins, by unleashing what by almost every account is an over-the-top tirade, Sabean has in the minds of most pundits gone too far.

Which may have been precisely his point.

The Giants don’t face the Marlins again until August, at which point Cousins—currently batting all of .159—might not even be on the team. Meanwhile, Sabean has sent an unequivocal message—not just a warning that one takes liberties with the Giants at one’s own risk, but that this type of play is drawing both notice and response.

Since the accident, Sabean has advocated for a reexamination of the rule that allows home plate collisions, especially those such as the one that injured Posey, in which the catcher cedes the baseline in an effort to avoid unnecessary contact. (Sabean, in fact, is not the first GM to get involved with the issue this week; Billy Beane has already instructed Kurt Suzuki to get out of the way and employ sweep tags.)

Baseball will probably opt against enacting any sort of rule change, at least in the short term, so the Giants’ GM is taking the law into his own hands. His volley was a clear message to would-be catcher stalkers: You better be damn sure that’s your only way of scoring, because if it’s not, we’ll be watching.

Sabean will likely be disciplined by MLB for his comments. Sabean likely does not care.

This issue is bigger than the Giants. In this regard, Sabean is taking one for the team—all those within baseball who share his views on the topic.

Did he go too far in his assessment? Absolutely. But did Sabean—who, while notoriously frank, is no dummy when it comes to public relations—feel that was the best way to get his message across?

Almost indisputably.

Update (June 3): The Giants just released this statement (note the explanation sans apology):

This is a very emotional time for the Giants organization and our fans. We lost for the season one of our best players to a serious injury and we are doing everything we can to support Buster Posey through this very difficult time. We appreciate Scott Cousins’ outreach to Buster Posey and to the Giants organization.

Brian Sabean’s comments yesterday were said out of frustration and out of true concern for Buster and were not meant to vilify Scott Cousins. Brian has been in contact with Florida Marlins General Manager Larry Beinfest to clarify his comments and to assure him that there is no ill-will toward the player. He has also reached out to Scott Cousins directly.

The issue of catcher safety is a complicated one. There are a number of differing opinions around the circumstances of last week’s collision and about what baseball should do to prevent serious injuries in the future. This issue goes far beyond last week’s incident as there have been a number of recent collision-involved injuries.

We have been in contact with Joe Torre, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president for baseball operations, and have asked for a thorough examination of this issue for the health and safety of all players.

We intend to move beyond conversations about last week’s incident and focus our attention on Buster’s full recovery and on defending our World Series title.

- Jason

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Filed under Protect Teammates

Lights, Rain and Radar: How to Get into your Opponent’s Head, an Introductory Course in Gamesmanship

When the lights go down in St. Louis . . .

When the lights went out in St. Louis last night, there were two outs in the 11th inning and San Francisco’s Brian Wilson was on the verge of closing out a 7-5 victory.

Instead, the teams sat for 16 minutes while the sound guy at Busch Stadium played Journey’s “Lights” and somebody tried to deal with the electrical system.

The chatter after Wilson finally returned to record the game’s final out had to do with the possibility of malfeasance on the part of Tony La Russa. Did the Cards’ manager manipulate the power grid in an effort to cool down the opposing closer?

Of course he didn’t. Or at least he probably didn’t. Still, the coincidental timing was enough for Bruce Bochy to quip afterward that it was “pretty good gamesmanship” on La Russa’s part.

The Giants’ skipper was joking, but there’s a reason La Russa’s name comes up during moments like this.

Earlier this year, for example, he was accused of selectively distributing weather information when the Cardinals were hosting Cincinnati, then pitching reliever Miguel Batista instead his scheduled starter, Kyle McClellan. Batista threw all of six pitches before rain halted the game for more than two hours.

Afterward, McClellan, fresh, took his rightful place on the mound.

Dusty Baker, meanwhile, claiming an information inequity between the teams, had his starter, Edinson Volquez, warm up from the get-go. The right-hander never got a chance to pitch, however; when play resumed, Baker had to turn to Matt Maloney rather than risk having Volquez get hot twice.

“It’s really a tough start,” Baker said in an MLB.com report. “The information that we received was probably not the same information they received, or else we wouldn’t have started [Volquez] in the first place. We were told there was going to be a window of opportunity there. That window lasted about three minutes.”

Maloney gave up three runs in three innings, and the Cardinals won, 4-2.

La Russa, of course, is hardly alone when it comes to gamesmanship. In April, Livan Hernandez accused the Pirates of doing much the same thing.

Weather reports, however, are far less interesting than the other tally on Pittsburgh’s gamesmanship scorecard. That came when Clint Hurdle appeared to dupe Rockies skipper Jim Tracy with two outs in the 14th inning of a tie game. With a runner on first, Andrew McCutchen stepped into the on-deck circle as Jose Tabata batted.

That had been McCutcheon’s spot in the order earlier in the game, but the outfielder was removed as part of a double-switch. The guy actually scheduled to hit next was relief pitcher Garrett Olson, whose last plate appearance had come in 2009, and who has collected all of one hit in his five-year career.

Had Tracy been paying better attention, he might have realized that the Pirates’ bench was empty, leaving Olson to fend for himself at the plate.

It never came to that. Seeing McCutchen, Tracy had reliever Franklin Morales pitch to Tabata—who promptly lashed a game-winning double. (Watch it here.)

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Asked if the move was a decoy to get the Rockies to think McCutchen was up next … ‘No, come on, why would we do that,’ Hurdle said with a sly chuckle.”

* * *

Rain delays and decoys are one way for a home team to gain an advantage. Radar guns are another.

Earlier this season, Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers admitted to the Arizona Republic that when he held the same post with San Diego, the Padres took to manipulating their ballpark’s radar gun to get into the heads of opposing pitchers.

“I know for a fact that every time Brad Penny pitched for the Dodgers in San Diego it was probably the lowest velocities he ever had,” he said. “He liked velocity. He’d stare at the board. He was throwing 95-96, but we’d have it at 91 and he’d get pissed off and throw harder and harder and start elevating.”

Hardball Talk’s Aaron Gleeman checked, and—lo and behold—Penny is 1-5 with a 6.47 ERA in 10 career games pitched in San Diego.

(The subject was initially raised when fireballing Aroldis Chapman, after topping out at 106 mph earlier in the season, dropped nearly 15 mph off his fastball in San Diego, then magically regained his velocity during Cincinnati’s next series. Towers’ comments could themselves have been a form of gamesmanship, as his new club uses the non-manipulatable Pitch-f/x system, and the Padres—and all their secrets—are now the enemy.)

The tactic works both ways. During the 2002 postseason, when Robb Nen was throwing pus with a shredded shoulder during what would be the final innings of his career, the folks at AT&T Park shut off the radar gun altogether when the Giants’ closer entered the game. It might not have fooled anyone on the opposing team, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

- Jason

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Filed under Clint Hurdle, Dusty Baker, Gamesmanship, Jim Tracy, Kevin Towers, Tony La Russa

Frustration Night in Canada: Bautista Sparks Showdown of the Irritated

Jose, meet John. John, Jose.

If John Danks’ girlfriend broke up with him last season, when he won 15 games for the White Sox with a 3.72 ERA and finished seventh in the American League in WAR, he probably would have taken it a lot better than if she broke up with him sometime in the last two months.*

Which is to say, dealing with adversity is much easier when you’re on top of the world than it is when you’re getting your head kicked in every five days.

The latter scenario pretty aptly describes Danks this season, especially after giving up nine earned runs over four innings to Toronto on Sunday to run his record to 0-8 with a 5.25 ERA. Which is why it shouldn’t be too surprising that he’d show some thin skin when, having just retired the best hitter in baseball on a 3-2 pitch, said best hitter in baseball gave him an earful.

Never mind that Jose Bautista was cursing at himself, not Danks. He was cursing, and Danks was the pitcher, so of course Danks took it poorly. (Watch it here.)

Toughen up, one might tell Danks; Bautista didn’t mean to disrespect you. But think about it this way: Was Bautista frustrated by hitting a popup because he consistently expects better from himself, or was he frustrated because he had just seen two fat two-seamers from a pitcher who had given up four runs over the course of the previous two hitters, including a two-run homer to Corey Patterson—only to have watched the first for a called strike, then failed to hit the second past shortstop?

In other words, is Bautista that ferocious a competitor, or was he saying—in an extremely visible way—I can’t believe this chump just got me out?

It’s clearly possible that it’s the latter, which is all Danks needs to be justified in his reaction. Danks started shouting down Bautista from the moment he spiked the bat, and Bautista had a word or two in response.

“He was out there acting like a clown,” Danks said after the game. “He’s had a great year and a half—no doubt. He’s one of the best players in the league. But he’s out there acting like he’s Babe Ruth or something. . . . He isn’t that good to be acting like he needs to hit every ball out of the ballpark.”

Retaliation in the future: Likely.

This isn’t always the case, of course. Last May, Carlos Lee reacted similarly after popping up against Chris Carpenter, and heard about it from the St. Louis pitcher. One difference: Carpenter was 4-0 with a 2.80 ERA at the time, and though he was clearly frustrated in having just given up the game’s first run a batter earlier, he was (and still is) too good to take things as personally as he did (and does). Danks, at least right now, is nowhere near that point.

The lesson of the day: Play it safe and keep your frustrations to yourself, big leaguers, at least until you find your way back to the dugout.

- Jason

* I should probably note that I don’t have the foggiest idea if John Danks even has a girlfriend, let alone if he’s married, and certainly possess no information about his potential relationship issues outside of the purely hypothetical situation described above. I wish John Danks nothing but many years of avid bachelorhood or wedded bliss, whichever suits him better.

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Filed under John Danks, Jose Bautista, Showing Players Up

Whiteside Shows that Plate Collisions Work Both Ways

Lost amid the recent talk about the propriety of crashing into the catcher is the fact that the catcher is hardly defenseless behind the plate. On late-breaking plays, of course—like the one in which Buster Posey was injured—he has little choice but to absorb whatever punishment is being dished out. But with time to prepare, a catcher has tools at his disposal.

From The Baseball Codes:

I might take a spike in the shoulder, but I’ve got my shin guard in his neck,” said Fred Kendall, who caught in the big leagues for a dozen sea­sons and whose son, Jason, became an All-Star catcher in his own right. “There are ways to counter it, if that’s the way he’s going to play. . . . If I take the baseball and put it in the web of my glove—the web, not the pocket—and I tag you, it’s just like taking a hammer and whacking you in the teeth; if I take my mask off and I throw it right where you’re going to slide; if I place my shin guards the right way, it’s like sliding into a brick wall.

Last night, the Giants received a reminder of this mindset in the most necessary way. Earlier in the day, Posey told reporters that his season was almost certainly over. Then, in the eighth inning against Milwaukee, Prince Fielder tried to score from second base on a two-out single.

The throw from left fielder Cody Ross came in on one hop, well in time and plenty high for Eli Whiteside—two days ago the Giants’ backup catcher, but now their starter—to brace for impact.

He did more than that.

Protecting his mitt with his bare hand, Whiteside lunged toward Fielder, taking the impact to the runner, punching him in the chest with the baseball as Fielder went flying. As Whiteside scrambled to his feet and saw umpire Mike Muchilinski call the runner out, he held out the ball, then flipped it insouciantly past Fielder toward the mound. (Watch it here.)

That it came at Fielder’s expense was merely bonus (if you forget why, click here). This was a message from Whiteside to his teammates, not to the Brewers: We are strong, we are resilient, and we are badass.

San Francisco’s chances to defend their title took a grave hit when Posey went down. But credit Whiteside for this: What he did was the mark of a champion.

- Jason

 

 

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Filed under Buster Posey, Eli Whiteside, Prince Fielder, Running Into the Catcher

Posey Leveled. Is a Clean Hit a Retaliation-Worthy Offense?

You be the judge: Did Scott Cousins go out of his way to hit Buster Posey?

By now, you’ve either seen the replay or willfully avoided it. In the 12th inning of Wednesday’s game between the Giants and the Marlins, Scott Cousins came barreling home with what he hoped would be the winning run. Giants right fielder Nate Schierholtz fired a strike that would have nailed the runner had catcher Buster Posey held onto the ball.

Posey did not hold onto the ball. Cousins, unaware of this, leveled him.

It was a split-second play, Cousins reacting as he was taught—to initiate contact with the catcher in hopes of dislodging the baseball. His approach was standard, and his hit was clean.

As with many plays involving baseball’s codes, however, there is a caveat: Posey was positioned perfectly, toward the pitcher’s mound, just up the line. He did not block the plate before he had the ball (which would have given Cousins unlimited leeway to do whatever he had to). The runner was offered a clear path to the dish—a tactic enacted specifically to avoid unnecessary contact. (Watch the play here.)

The result: a broken leg and torn ankle ligaments for the Giants’ most indispensable player, who will be out of action indefinitely.

The question in the wake of this devastating news is whether Cousins’ slide was appropriate. As is true with many sections of the Code, there are multiple ways to answer.

Yes, Cousins’ takeout was appropriate. It’s the hard-nosed approach ballplayers should take when trying to score on a contested play. It is, argue many within the game, as close as a play comes to embodying the competitive spirit of baseball. A collision at the plate is, without question, the most exciting moment in a given game.

Then again, if Cousins could have scored without contact, why not do it that way? (Take, for example, last year’s collisions involving Angels catcher Bobby Wilson and Indians catcher Carlos Santana, each of whom was run over by vicious hits; because they both were blocking the plate without the ball, repercussions for the baserunners were minimal.)

“Is it a cheap shot?” asked Giants manager Bruce Bochy on Giants’ flagship KNBR (as reported by the San Jose Mercury News). “It depends who you’re talking to. They happen all the time, home-plate collisions. I think he thought the ball was going to beat him. He decided to go at Buster and try to knock it loose, that’s what it looked like to me. But there was a lane for him.” (Listen to it here.)

Bochy knows this drill well. He was a big league catcher for nine seasons, a manager for 17. He has been blown up by baserunners, and understands that it’s part of a catcher’s job description. But it’s also part of his current job description to protect his guys. As such, he called for baseball to examine the rule regarding home-plate collisions.

He’s not the only one.

“You leave players way too vulnerable,” Posey’s agent, Jeff Berry, told ESPN’s Buster Olney. “I can tell you Major League Baseball is less than it was before [Posey's injury]. It’s stupid. I don’t know if this ends up leading to a rule change, but it should. The guy [at the plate] is too exposed.

“If you go helmet to helmet in the NFL, it’s a $100,000 fine, but in baseball, you have a situation in which runners are [slamming into] fielders. It’s brutal. It’s borderline shocking. It just stinks for baseball.”

Berry took his complaints to Joe Torre, who heads up on-field operations for MLB.

Whatever Torre decides, as the rules currently stand, actions like Cousins’ are entirely permissible. After watching replays, several members of the Giants spoke out in defense of the Florida outfielder. “We think it was (a clean hit),” said Freddy Sanchez in the Mercury News. Added Schierholtz, “It’s part of the game. There’s really no right way to take a hit.”

Schierholtz, of course, was once on the other side of the equation, when he plowed into China’s catcher during the 2008 Olympics.

Nobody was more clear on the propriety of the event than Cousins himself, who was reportedly in tears upon hearing that Posey might be lost for the remainder of the season.

“It’s a baseball play,” he said in the Palm Beach Post. “It’s part of the risk of being a catcher. We’re trying to win games also. I’m not going to concede the out by any means, not in that situation, not ever. I’m on this team to help do the little things to help this team win a game and if that means going hard and forcing the issue on the bases because I have speed, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

On a micro level, the question now is: Should the Giants retaliate?

The answer is as complex as the issues leading up to the question. The play was clean. From a long view it was also unnecessary, but in the moment it’s tough to begrudge Cousins the decision he made.

Cousins did not play in Wednesday’s series finale, and a 1-0 score prevented any batters from being intentionally hit.

Cousins said he called Posey twice, and plans to send him a written apology. It might not be enough. If the Giants do seek revenge, it will be typical fare: Sometime during the teams’ next meeting, Aug. 12-14 in Florida, Cousins will be drilled in the ribs, thigh or backside. It will be small payback for the loss of Posey, who will almost certainly not have returned by that point, but it will have satisfied the Code’s requirement. When a player of Posey’s stature gets injured on a questionable play, payback is frequently part of the response.

Perhaps the definitive comment came from Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow, via the San Francisco Chronicle:

I hate what happened last night, but it was a clean play. The law of the land. It was a hard, aggressive play, and hell, it won the game (7-6) for them. What, you change the rules so no contact is allowed? No way to do that.

Tell you what, though. When I pitch against that guy (Cousins), I drill him. Oh, yeah, I’m smokin’ him. That’s legal, too, last time I checked.

Then again, should the Giants opt to let it slide, it will likely fail to make waves. This may be one of those instances in which the victim’s reaction dictates his teammates’ response: If Posey is angry, fastballs will undoubtedly fly in August. If, as a catcher, he appreciates Cousins’ clean intentions, that outcome is far less certain.

- Jason

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Filed under Buster Posey, Running Into the Catcher, Scott Cousins

Tenth Anniversary of an Unwritten Rule Violation People Still Delight in Referencing

Today marks a decade since Ben Davis bunted on Curt Schilling. If that reference fails to ring a bell, you clearly have some catching up to do. Might I suggest your nearest copy of The Baseball Codes, from which the following passage is excerpted:

Davis came up in the eighth inning as the twenty-third hitter to face Curt Schilling, entirely cognizant that his team was 0-for-22 to that point. Because swinging the bat against the big right-hander had not yet paid dividends, Davis switched gears and, noting the deep positioning of third baseman Craig Counsell, laid down a bunt. Although the execution was lacking—Davis popped the ball up, just over Schilling’s head—the hit nonetheless fell between the mound and second baseman Jay Bell, who was also stationed deep. Davis safely reached base with his team’s first hit.

The Arizona bench exploded at the audacity, calling the player gutless and intoning that he was afraid to take his hacks like a man. To judge the play by the unwritten rules, the Diamondbacks had a point. “The first hit of a no-hitter is not a bunt,” said Kansas City Royals pitcher Danny Jack­son fifteen years earlier, in 1986, after Angels rookie Devon White attempted to break up his own no-hitter with a failed eighth-inning bunt attempt. “I don’t know how long he’s been around,” Jackson said about the outfielder, “but he’s got to go down.” Arizona manager Bob Brenly felt the same way about Ben Davis, calling the play “chickenshit” and saying that Davis “has a lot to learn about how the game is played.”

“It wasn’t the heat of the pennant race in September, or something like that,” said Diamondbacks left fielder Luis Gonzalez. “They say every game counts, but when a guy’s doing something masterful like that, if you get a hit you want to earn it in the right way.” Third baseman Matt Williams said he wouldn’t have done it. First baseman Mark Grace said that, although he didn’t fault Davis, if it was him he wouldn’t have had the balls. Schilling was “a little stunned” at the move; his experience taught him that players should earn their way on base in that type of situation.

There was, however, a mitigating factor. The score of the game was 2–0, and when Davis reached base it brought the tying run to the plate. The Padres clearly hadn’t been getting it done against Schilling in any other regard, so from a strategic standpoint Davis’s approach worked. “I don’t know if you saw my swings against him . . . ,” the catcher said. “I’m just trying to get on base any way I can right there, and I did.”

“What if it’s the seventh game of the World Series? Would they or any­body be upset?” asked Padres manager Bruce Bochy. “No, because that’s a huge game and you’re trying to win.” Arizona, he said, wanted the Padres to “drop our weapons and raise our hands.”

Even Schilling grasped both sides of the argument. Though stopping short of taking Davis’s side, he expressed understanding for those who did. “Whether I agree with it being the right thing to do or not is not really relevant,” he said. “It was a 2–0 game. . . . If it’s 9–0, yeah, I think it’s a horseshit thing to do. But it was a 2–0 game and the bottom line is, unwritten rules or not, you’re paid to win games. That’s the only reason you’re playing in the big leagues.”

One interesting aspect of the play was that even among the ranks of baseball’s old guard—guys who lived for and played by the Code—there was hardly unanimity of opinion. Cases were made both for and against Davis, with precedents cited from every generation—like the bunt by Milwaukee catcher Bill Schroeder that broke up a 1987 no-hitter by Roy­als left-hander Charlie Leibrandt in the sixth inning. Nineteen years after that, when Tampa Bay rookie Ben Zobrist bunted for his team’s first hit in the sixth inning of a game against Seattle’s Jerrod Washburn, the pitcher himself agreed that nothing improper had transpired. “If it was the eighth or ninth, maybe that would have rubbed me the wrong way,” Washburn said, “but bunting is just part of the game, and he was just trying to make something happen.”

The Schilling-Davis affair, however, was full of gray area. Some base­ball people will accept a no-hitter-spoiling bunt if bunting is an estab­lished part of the hitter’s offensive repertoire—but Ben Davis was hardly a bunter. In fact, said Brenly, “That was the only time Ben Davis ever tried to bunt for a base hit to my recollection. . . . For a backup catcher who had never bunted for a base hit before in his life to do it, I thought that was unnecessary to begin with, and disrespectful, to top it off.”

The notion of disrespect stems from the fact that Davis clearly took advantage of Counsell’s extra-deep positioning, as the infielder attempted to protect against hard-hit balls that might otherwise have shot by him. Counsell felt safe at that range because he thought there was little chance that a runner as slow as Davis would so blatantly violate the unwritten rules.

Part of the problem was that Davis’s bunt wasn’t even good enough to benefit from Counsell’s positioning. “I was mad that it was such a bad bunt and was still a hit,” said Schilling. “He bunted as bad a ball as you can bunt, to the most perfect spot in the infield to bunt it. . . . I never said it was a horseshit play. I thought it was a horseshit bunt.”

Once the dust settled a bit, the last man standing at the center of the controversy wasn’t Schilling or even Davis—it was Brenly, who, as the most outspoken critic of the play, was left in its aftermath to defend his initial anger. He has since softened his stance, even going so far as to admit that much of his posturing was simply a matter of standing up for his pitcher, to make sure that “Curt Schilling knew that I was looking out for his interests.”

Still, years after the fact, he had a question for which he says he never received an adequate answer: “If it’s such a good fuckin’ play, why didn’t he do it every time?”

- Jason

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Filed under Ben Davis, Curt Schilling, Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

You Talk Too Much: The Fine Art of Complaining Your Way into the Doghouse

Edinson Volquez, in a moment of not saying anything.

It’s been a bad week for baseball types to talk, with every talker doing his darndest to deflect blame that he incontrovertibly deserves.

In Cincinnati, Edinson Volquez continued his season-long meltdown on Sunday by giving up seven runs to Cleveland over 2 2/3 innings. The right-hander has a 6.35 ERA and leads the National League with 38 walks.

Volquez’s problem, according to Volquez: the Reds’ offense.

“Everybody has to step up, start to score some runs,” he said in the Cincinnati Enquirer. “In the last five games, how many runs have we scored? Like 13? That’s not the way we were playing last year. We’re better than that.”

This is a terrific way to further alienate teammates who are already undoubtedly upset with the pitcher’s inability to keep Cincinnati in games. It’s even more infuriating than Gaylord Perry’s habit of physically showing frustration on the mound when his teammates made errors behind him in the field. At least Perry took the blame when he deserved it. Plus–unlike Volquez–he was a winner.

Cincinnati’s response was swift; on Monday, Volquez was optioned to Louisville. It was a dramatic move–the right-hander was their opening day starter, a former All-Star who went 17-6 in 2008. Of course, the guy has long battled maturity issues, being kicked by the Rangers all the way down to Single-A from the big leagues in 2007, shortly before they shipped him to Cincinnati (in exchange for Josh Hamilton).

If Volquez jeopardized his own spot in a major league clubhouse, Brian Fuentes jeopardized that of his manager. After Oakland’s interim closer gave up the lead yesterday against the Angels, he used his time in front of the post-game media to light into Bob Geren.

As with Volquez, it was primarily a matter of frustration. Fuentes has picked up losses in four straight appearances; his seven on the season already stand as a career high. He’s on pace to lose more games than any reliever in history.

At issue: how Fuentes has been used. He hasn’t had a save opportunity since May 8, coming primarily into tie games as of late. It happened again on Monday, when Fuentes walked one of the two hitters he faced before being pulled in favor of Michael Wuertz, who promptly let his inherited runner score, tagging Fuentes with the loss.

MLB.com’s Jane Lee posted the entire transcript of the reliever’s bluster:

What did you think of the situation you were placed in tonight?

It’s surprising yet not surprising all at the same time.

How do you feel with the way the manager has handled you as a reliever?
Pretty poorly.

How much communication do you have with him?
Zero.

Why is it pretty poorly?
There’s just no communication. Two games, on the road, bring the closer in a tied game, with no previous discussions of doing so. And then, tonight, in the seventh inning, I get up. I haven’t stretched, I haven’t prepared myself. If there was some communication beforehand I would be ready to come into the game  – which I was, when I came into the game, I was ready. Just lack of communication. I don’t think anybody really knows which direction he’s headed.

How much different is this compared to past managers?
It’s a pretty drastic difference.

What goes through your mind when the phone rings in the seventh tonight?
I thought he misspoke. I thought it was some sort of miscommunication, but he said, ‘No, you’re up,’ so I got up and cranked it up. You can’t try to guess along with them. Very unpredictable.

At the beginning of the season, did he tell you that you were the closer?
Yes, from get go, I’ve been closing.

In regards to communication, is that something that ought to change?
It should. It’s not my decision. I can’t predict the future. If he decides to take that step, then there will be communication. If not, I’ll make sure I’m ready from the first.

Does there need to be a “clear the air” meeting?
Some people might think so. At this point I have nothing to say.

Has this been boiling up or is it just recent?
Just recent, really. I think the games in San Francisco were some unorthodox managing. I thought it was maybe the National league thing, that maybe that had something to do with it, but tonight was pretty unbelievable.

“Unbelievable” is an appropriate term. Fuentes has some validity with his points, but going public with them makes him look like a half-bit pitcher searching desperately for excuses. In the process, he completely undermined his manager and potentially damaged team chemistry. Today saw calls for Geren to resign, and questions have been raised about how the team will communicate moving forward.

This is a lot of damage for a pitcher who has been with the A’s for all of two months to inflict over the course of a five-minute interview.

The Reds sent Volquez to the minors. Fuentes doesn’t have to worry about that, but his position in the bullpen is certainly in danger. (Geren said that would have been the case even had Fuentes kept his mouth shut.) A’s closer Andrew Bailey is due back soon from the DL, and the return to health of Joey Devine and Josh Outman makes Fuentes expendable; shuffling him out of sight until he can be dealt to a contender should not be too difficult. (Fuentes came back tonight, and, without backing down from his statements, apologized to Geren—assumedly for the public nature of his discourse.)

* * *

Most noteworthy of all talkers was Mets owner Fred Wilpon, who set New York atwitter as soon as the New Yorker published Jeffrey Toobin’s profile of him. Amid what is otherwise a sympathetic story, Wilpon spent a few choice paragraphs disparaging his players. Jose Reyes, he said, will never get “Carl Crawford money” when he hits free agency after this season, because he’s too frequently injured. (The direct quote: “He’s had everything wrong with him.”)

Carlos Beltran was given a seven-year, $119 million deal by “some schmuck” (that would be Wilpon referring to himself), which the owner has come to regret. David Wright, he said, while a very good player, is not a superstar.

And the team as a whole: “Shitty.”

Yikes. In one brutal volley, Wilpon inadvertently undermined his financial recovery from the Bernie Maddoff fallout, at least as far as the Mets are concerned. (This despite the fact that, like Fuentes, Wilpon probably didn’t say anything that was inaccurate). He’s not going to re-sign Reyes, that much is now clear; what leverage the Mets held in trade talks regarding their shortstop has been radically diminished. Beltran, too, is on the trading block, but what kind of bargaining position will the Mets be in after their owner proclaimed the center fielder to be “sixty-five to seventy percent of what he was?” Will Wright—or any other player, for that matter—want to stick around a dysfunctional ballclub once free agency comes calling?

Most of all, Wilpon wants to sell part of the team, which may be harder to do after he’s publically acknowledged that it’s shitty. Not to mention that whoever buys in would have to defer to a proven loose cannon.

Other players on all three teams—the Reds, A’s and Mets—have done a good job avoiding additional conflict, opting against saying anything to further inflame their situations. Dennis Eckersley, however, let loose on Fuentes during an interview on the A’s flagship radio station (as tweeted by Chronicle columnist John Shea and compiled by Hardball Talk). Eck was talking about Fuentes, but conceptually he could have be referring to any one of the three:

“Weak. If you fail, you fail. You don’t throw the manager under the bus.  . . . He makes a ton of money, and he’s not the greatest closer in the universe. So zip it … It makes him look bad. It just does. At the same time, it doesn’t show a lot of respect for the manager … If I’m the manager, he’s in my office. If that was La Russa, are you kidding me? He’d chop my head off. I would make a formal apology … Geren’s got to do something.”

Geren does have to do something. As do the Reds (Volquez can’t stay in the minors forever) and the Mets.

All that’s left to figure out is what.

Update: Wilpon has apologized to the Mets, via conference call.

Update 2: For Geren, the piling on has officially begun. The latest: Huston Street weighed in on his ex-manager’s shortcomings from Colorado. Plus, a tale about Mike Sweeney not getting along with the guy, which really doesn’t look good considering that if there was a Nicest Man in the History of Baseball Award, it’d likely go to Sweeney. Unless the A’s experience extraordinary success into October, the chances of Geren returning next year are at this point minimal. If he makes it even that long.

- Jason

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Filed under Brian Fuentes, Clubhouse Etiquette, Don't Call Out Teammates in the Press, Edinson Volquez, Fred Wilpon, Uncategorized

Young Umps at it Again: Royals Catcher Tossed for No Good Reason

Matt Treanor and Angel Campos share some thoughtful opinions.

What is it with the Kansas City Royals and fill-in umpires? Last year it was Jason Kendall getting shown up, then ejected by a recent call-up from Triple-A. Today it was Matt Treanor.

The incidents have one thing in common, apart from the ejections of each catcher and manager Ned Yost: neither Kendall or Treanor did anything wrong.

Sunday’s run-in began immediately after Royals pitcher Everett Teaford walked Colby Rasmus. Treanor had some things to say to plate ump Angel Campos—he insists that they had nothing to do with balls and strikes, which is an ejection-worthy offense—but never turned around as he spoke.

This is key. The umpires’ code—which every catcher knows intimately—mandates that catchers and hitters have significant leeway when addressing an umpire, but the moment they turn around to do so—in other words, when they make it look like they’re saying something contentious—whatever ice they may be standing on grows quickly and dangerously thin.

This wasn’t Treanor’s problem. He was in his squat, facing the pitcher’s mound, when Campos ejected him. There was no indication they were even having a discussion.

According to Treanor, Campos roamed to the front of the plate to address him just prior to their fateful exchange, but that was not caught on the Royals’ broadcast. (Watch it here.)

“I basically told him not to show me up by coming around the plate,” Treanor said in the Kansas City Star. “I’m not doing anything to disrespect him. I was just trying to ask him some questions. He came back around the plate, said he had enough of me.”

The motivation of a young umpire to interject himself so forcefully and ignorantly into game action is tough to explain, especially now that it’s happened twice in two seasons to the Royals. Minor league umps are generally instructed to have shorter leashes than than their big league brethren, which may have played a part in this, but it’s hardly an excuse. Baseball has enough problems with a small handful of veteran umps thinking they’re bigger than the game; if they allow young umps to grow unchecked into that role, it’s going to make for some very rocky exchanges in the future. Especially for Yost.

“Treanor did a great job in that situation,” said the Royals manager on MLB.com. “Nobody in the park knew that they were arguing. Nobody. And to eject the guy under those circumstances isn’t right.”

Perhaps Yost should write a new line in the Codebook for his catchers: If you’re wearing powder blue and there’s a young ump behind the plate, keep your mouth shut at all costs—no matter how correct you might be.

- Jason

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Filed under Angel Campos, Matt Treanor, Ned Yost, Umpire Relations

Oh, Jorge – Things Turn Ugly in a Hurry in New York

The most important factor in the Posada Madness pandemic that erupted over the weekend in New York is the ongoing viability of Jorge Posada—both as an everyday player or even somebody meritous of a roster spot.

The big picture will likely be sorted out in short order. Aging and ineffective performers—even those as vital to their teams’ recent history as Posada—are rarely granted much leeway.

More interesting to the purposes of this blog is how it played out. Both sides—Posada on one and the Yankees (particularly GM Brian Cashman) on the other—set about shredding standard decorum under the increasingly gleeful glare of the New York media. A quick recap, in case you were taking your five-year-old daughter on her first ski trip, like me, and missed the entire thing:

  • Saturday night: Joe Girardi pencils Posada, New York’s designated hitter, into the No. 9 spot in the order—the first time the 39-year-old has been positioned so low since 1999.
  • An hour or so before first pitch Posada asks out of the lineup.
  • According to New Jersey Record columnist Bob Klapisch, Posada doesn’t explain himself, and Girardi doesen’t press him. Accounts differ about what is said, but multiple sources tell multiple media members that Posada feels insulted. The term “hissy fit” was used at least once to describe the encounter between player and manager. Considering when the request came—prior to a nationally televised game against the Red Sox—and who it came from—Girardi, a guy Posada has reportedly not much liked since their days together as co-catchers on the Yankees—perhaps this should not be surprising.
  • Cashman intervenes, urging Posada to reconsider his decision. Posada does not reconsider.
  • Cashman takes the audacious step of meeting with reporters in the press box during the game, to clarify that Posada is healthy, and that management has nothing to do with his absence from the game.
  • With timing that one can only assume is in response to Cashman’s impromptu press conference, Posada’s wife, Laura, counters that claim, tweeting that Posada’s back is too stiff to play.
  • After the game, Posada downplays his physical ailments (he hadn’t, after all, previously raised the issue with Girardi or team trainers), and says he just needed time to “clear his head.” He then sets his sights on Cashman, saying, “I don’t know why he made a statement during the game. I don’t understand that. That’s the way he works now.”
  • On Sunday, Posada apologized to both Girardi and Cashman, saying, “All the frustration came out. It was just one of those days you wish you could take back.”
  • The Yankees, in turn, decline to discipline their former star, who in the three games since has appeared only once, as a pinch-hitter.

Ultimately, nobody came out looking too good. Girardi, by way of essentially staying out of it (Everybody needs a breather now and again, he told the press, rather than justifiably lighting into his catcher), is the least scathed. Posada and Cashman: not so much.

Posada: An unwritten rule mandates that managers refrain from removing position players from the middle of innings except in cases of injury. The counter to this rule holds that players not remove themselves from the lineup while at the wrong end of a hissy fit.

Big league clubhouses are rife with what is commonly referred to as a “warrior mentality.” The term isn’t particularly accurate in this case, in that warriors go to battle against opponents. In this case, Posada needed to be in the lineup to prove his allegiance, not his ability, to his teammates—not the Red Sox. For a veteran, a proven winner, to turn his back on his teammates in a key game for reasons that can only be construed as personal is inexcusable. Posada is no different than any other ballplayer in this regard; his ego will never be as important as the success of his team. His teammates know it, and his position in the clubhouse hierarchy depends upon it.

A reader asked how Posada’s move compares to Cal Ripken removing himself from the Orioles’ lineup in 1998. Ripken was, like Posada, in the late stages of his career. Ripken’s consecutive-games streak had grown so mountainous by that point that it trumped any move manager Ray Miller could have made that involved his star shortstop spending a game on the bench. Ripken was hampering himself and his team by staying in the lineup every day. He ended his streak for the greater good, and was lauded for it.

Another example, from earlier this season, saw Giants outfielder Pat Burrell ask out in the middle of a game. His reason:  Tim Lincecum was throwing a no-hitter, and Burrell didn’t want his sub-par glove and lack of range to be the reason Lincecum gave up a hit. Like Ripken, he did it for the greater good. (Lincecum did indeed give up a hit in the seventh inning—the same inning in which Burrell was removed. This brings up the topic of changing nothing during the course of a no-hitter, including defensive players, but that’s a topic for another post.)

The primary guy to have Posada’s back through his ordeal has been Derek Jeter, who told the New York Daily News that he “didn’t think it was that big a deal. If you need a day, you need a day.”

Whether or not the captain actually believes this is incidental. Perhaps he’s sticking up for Posada because that’s what teammates do, but it’s hard to imagine that Jeter picturing his own neck on the chopping block didn’t play a part.

Cashman: The guy is a veteran, and no matter how well he does his job, he probably puts up with more grief from the New York media than the next several most second-guessed GMs combined. He, of all people, should understand the machinations of communication in the big leagues, and that going through the media for any of it rarely turns out well.

On one hand, Cashman’s method of delivery added layers of importance and urgency to his message. Short of suspending Posada or releasing him outright (both of which would have brought their own headaches), there was no less equivocal way for Cashman to inform the veteran that he was not messing around.

Wrote Buster Olney on ESPN.com Insider, Cashman “is not only willing to be the instrument of change with the team’s older players, he views it as his responsibility to the Steinbrenners.”

That has to be a particularly difficult place to inhabit, especially when it comes to icons like Posada and Jeter, and Cashman is taking a hard-line approach. (Telling Jeter to test the waters during off-season contract negotiations was a clear step in this direction.) To do it the way he did it, however—not just publicly, but in a manner so unusual that the delivery itself brought attention, independent of the message delivered—was to ignore the service and success that Posada has given the organization over the last 17 years.

Even the enemy was motivated to chime in, with David Ortiz telling the Boston Herald that “they’re doing (Posada) wrong.”

Ultimately, Posada’s actions amounted to nothing more than a really bad day. Holding him accountable is reasonable. Benching him for lack of production is also reasonable. From a baseball (if not contractual) standpoint, giving him his outright release would be entirely justified.

From former GM Jim Bowden, on ESPN.com: “Until you are ready to . . . ask Posada to step aside, and keep him out of the lineup for good, you PROTECT HIM! He’s a Yankee, a five-time world champion Yankee who is known for his class and dignity. Show him the same.”

Taking it public like Cashman did serves only one purpose. It tells the rest of the aging roster—Jeter in particular—that when it’s time to go, they better not mess around.

Time will tell if the ends were worth the means, but as of right now it’s not looking too good.

- Jason

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Filed under Brian Cashman, Jorge Posada, Respect Teammates

No-Hitter Etiquette Picks Up Steam in Spate of May Games

Justin Verlander, enjoying the fruits of his accomplishment.

Last week we heard about the superstitious behavior of the Twins as Francisco Liriano worked through his no-hitter against the White Sox.

This week: An additional spate of such behavior as pitchers around the league flirted with their own no-no’s—and in the case of Justin Verlander, actually completed it.

Which seems like a good place to start.

A primary piece of no-hitter etiquette has to do with avoiding the pitcher in any way possible and under no circumstances mentioning the fact of the no-hitter. This happened during Liriano’s feat, but not in Verlander’s—at least as far as the pitcher was concerned.

This is where already having a no-hitter on his resume came in handy. As evidenced by Verlander’s post-game calm, the right-hander felt little of the pressure normally associated with such feats. He went so far as to dissipate dugout nerves himself, seeking out teammates with whom to interact. (No report yet about how those teammates handled it.)

A secondary rule holds that those in the dugout maintain whatever it is they’re doing—sitting in the same seats, flipping a ball up and down, & etc.—since that action is clearly responsible for the events on the field. (In The Baseball Codes, Bob Brenly talks about spending innings on end rapping on the knob of Matt Kata’s bat during Randy Johnson’s perfect game, despite the increasing rawness of his knuckles.)

In Toronto, Verlander’s teammate, Alex Avila, took things a step further, refraining from using the restroom despite an increasing need from the sixth inning on. “I was too afraid to go,” he told the Detroit Free Press.

Even after Verlander completed his feat, Avila was compelled to take part in the celebration, both on the mound and in the clubhouse. It wasn’t until 10 minutes afterward that he was finally able to hit the head.

On the air, Tigers broadcasters Mario Impemba and Rod Allen refused to reference the feat during the game. This is a contentious point, as many in the business feel that a broadcaster’s primary job is to inform the audience about what is going on.

The Detroit duo had at least one defender—Free Press columnist Terry Foster, who wrote about being “stunned” when a fellow parent at his kid’s soccer game told him of Verlander’s feat, in progress. Ultimately, though, he did come around. A little. “I forgive those parents . . . only because it worked out,” he wrote. “We know who to blame if Toronto managed a cheap hit at the end.”

A quick rundown of other would-be no-hitters that didn’t quite reach completion:

  • Jamie Garcia vs. Milwaukee, May 6 (broken up in the eighth): The left-hander was alone by the sixth inning. “What are you going to say? ‘Ain’t this great?’ ” said Tony La Russa in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We all had our thoughts.”
  • Yovani Gallardo vs. St. Louis, May 7 (broken up in the eighth): Same teams as Garcia’s game, different outcome one day later. Gallardo had thrown 104 pitches through seven innings, raising substantial concerns that Brewers manager Ron Roenicke might remove him. In response, fellow starters Randy Wolf and Shaun Marcum stood guard in the dugout. “The other starting pitchers wouldn’t let me take him out,” said Roenicke in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “They put a block on me. I really didn’t have a choice.”
  • Anibal Sanchez vs. Washington, May 8 (broken up in the seventh): Sanchez was over 100 pitches in the seventh, putting Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez in much the same position as Roenicke. “We were paying a lot of attention to the pitch count,” Rodriguez said in the Miami Herald.

Save for Verlander, of course, none of these pitchers was able to finish what he started—developments that had nothing to do with the perpetuation of superstition in their own vigilant dugouts.

Then again, it’s not like it would have mattered.

“If a pitcher tells you he’s not thinking about it, it’s not true,” said Gallardo in reference to people trying to avoid the subject with him. Which is entirely the point.

- Jason

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