Retaliation, Umpire Warnings

Let’s Talk About Umpire Warnings

Before we get into umpire warnings and how they might or might not be useful, let’s start with Wilmer Font.

Font is the definition of a journeyman pitcher, playing for five teams in a five-season big league career, with one Tommy John surgery and a few minor league campaigns in the middle of everything. In May, the Rays offloaded him to the Mets for next to nothing, at which point Font’s career ERA was 6.51.

Still, he throws with decent velocity, employs five different pitches and can be stretched out as a middle reliever. And in New York, things seem to have changed. Over the last month, Font has racked up a 0.69 ERA in 13 innings across seven appearances. The Mets bullpen has been in shambles, and the right-hander looked ready to pounce on the opportunity to gain some organizational trust.

Until yesterday, anyway. Font was inserted into the sixth inning of a game against the Phillies with runners on second and third and one out, and the Mets holding a 5-2 lead. The first hitter he faced, Jay Bruce, brought home a run with a groundout. The next hitter, Cesar Hernandez, brought home another run with an infield single. The next batter, Maikel Franco, gave the Phillies the lead with a two-run homer. The next batter, Brad Miller, extended the lead with another home run, then clowned his way to first base. In the span of four batters, Font’s ERA jumped from 4.58 to 5.50.

Of course he was frustrated. Maybe that’s why he sent a fastball at Scott Kingery’s head.

Kingery’s crime, of course, was merely hitting behind Franco and Miller. A leap and a shrug by the batter managed to help him deflect the pitch with his shoulder, but the intent was clear. Font put a pitch someplace that no pitcher ever should, and the Phillies were furious.

Enter plate ump Joe West, and the discussion about umpire warnings. West saw the pitch for what it was, but instead of tossing Font he opted for warnings to both benches. The umpire no doubt knew about the recent history between the teams, notable for a game back in April in which the Mets threw at Rhys Hoskin’s head in response to an ill-considered stolen base.

Still, issuing warnings to both teams precluded any sort of response from Philadelphia for an egregious act, never mind that, apart from Miller’s antics while heading toward first base, they’d been entirely clean. Phillies skipper Gabe Kapler was commensurately upset and came out to argue. It took West literally six seconds to toss him.

The increasingly vital Jomboy broke it all down:

As pertains to the Mets, West’s decision to warn Font rather than tossing him had no effect whatsoever on the game, given that Mickey Calloway pulled the reliever anyway. For the Phillies, however, it generated some constraints.

Never mind the idea of retaliation; with a two-run lead in the late innings, any possible head-hunting notions they may have harbored would likely have been tabled until another day anyway. The warning did, however, increase concern among Phillies hurlers about utilizing the inside corner. Kapler noted as much after the game, saying in a Philadelphia Inquirer report, “I felt like it was going to put us at a disadvantage throwing up and in.”

So what’s the right answer? Generally speaking, clued-in umpires tend to delay warnings until an aggrieved party has a chance to respond. Also generally speaking, Joe West is not always considered to be clued in. Overly quick warnings, like West’s on Tuesday, simply delay gratification for those with retaliatory tendencies. This means that instead of bad blood being contained to a single game, it spills into multiple days.

We’ll see if that’s the case with Philadelphia. Given that two Mets have thrown at the heads of their hitters so far this season, it’d be shocking if we don’t see some sort of response … maybe as soon as tonight.

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Celebrations

Stroman’s Celebration Irks Eck, And People Have Opinions

A lot’s being made over Dennis Eckersley’s comments about Marcus Stroman’s on-field celebration on Sunday to close out the sixth inning against Boston, during which the broadcaster called Stroman’s actions “tired.” You know, hypocrisy and all, what with Eck having pretty much set the standard for pitcher gesticulation back in his day. Let’s let Twitter tell the tale.

There’s something to the fact that Stroman’s initial response appears to have been intended for the Boston dugout, but for me, there’s a different takeaway — not from the game itself, or even its aftermath, but from the Tim Anderson affair back in April, when the White Sox slugger infuriated the Royals by hurling his bat following a home run. Asked about it, Stroman was concise: “I could care less if someone pimps a homer off me. I gave it up. Showing emotion is part of the game.”

There it is. Love the guy or hate him, at least he’s consistent. The moment that Stroman takes issue with a home run pimp job, please alert Rob Friedman.

Sign stealing

Fed Up With Complex Signs, Jansen Turns To Little-Used Tactic: The Intentional Balk

In the ninth inning on Friday, with Jason Heyward on second base and the Dodgers holding a 5-3 lead over Chicago, Kenley Jason had had enough. With catcher Russell Martin putting down the type of advanced sequencing used to prevent runners in Heyward’s position from easily reading signs and relaying them to the hitter, LA’s closer grew confused. With one out, he called Martin out for a conversation about his 0-2 selection against David Bote. Then Jensen struck out Bote with a cutter.

That presented options. With a two-run lead and little concern for Heyward, Jansen took the easiest path toward returning to simple signs: He intentionally balked the runner to third — where Heyward’s view toward Martin’s signals would be impeded — making sure to shout his plan to second base ump D.J. Reyburn in advance, to make sure that nothing was missed.  

Jimmy O’Brien, a Yankees-centric blogger who goes by the handle Jomboy, offered an expert and entertaining breakdown:

Believe it or not, this kind of thing has happened before. It’s right there in The Baseball Codes. From the chapter on sign stealing:

Trying to hold a 4–2, ninth-inning lead over Minnesota in 2005, Indians closer Bob Wickman came upon an uncomfortable realization: Michael Cuddyer had been at second base for two consecutive batters, which to the pitcher was an eternity. About two weeks earlier, Wickman had blown a save in Anaheim when Garrett Anderson hit a low outside pitch for a bloop single to drive in Darrin Erstad from second. The stout right­hander was convinced that the only reason Anderson made contact was that the pitch had been tipped by the baserunner. (When faced with Wickman’s accusation, Erstad just smiled. “I guess we’ll never know, huh?” he said.)

Wickman had no inside knowledge that Cuddyer or the Twins had done anything untoward, but he wasn’t about to be burned twice by the same tactic. Rather than take a chance, the pitcher opted for an unortho­dox approach. If Cuddyer was on third base, reasoned Wickman, his view to the catcher would be significantly hampered. So Wickman invented the intentional balk. Before his first pitch to the inning’s fourth hitter, Shan­non Stewart, the right-hander lifted his left leg as he wound up, then froze. After a long beat, he returned to his starting position. “As I did it, I’m thinking to myself, ‘There it is, dude, call it,’ ” said Wickman. Plate umpire Rick Reed did just that, and sent Cuddyer to third. Wickman’s decision was based on perverse logic—given Cleveland’s two-run lead, Cuddyer’s run didn’t matter, but Stewart’s did. Stewart, said Wickman, was “a semi–power hitter, and he possibly could have hit one out on me if he knew what pitch was coming.” It was the first balk of Wickman’s thirteen-year career.

Of course, the pitcher nearly shot himself in the ERA by subsequently walking Stewart, who promptly stole second, giving him the same vantage point from which Wickman had just balked Cuddyer. The pitcher, how­ever, managed to strike out Matt LeCroy on a full count to earn his sixth save of the season. “Some guys couldn’t believe it, but to me as the closer my job is to finish the game without giving up the lead,” Wickman said. “There are so many things that come into play. I’d have no problem doing it again if a guy’s standing there too long.”

I spoke to Wickman about it a couple of years after the fact, and he remained remarkably serious about it all. “When it’s a two-run lead and there’s absolutely zero chance that a shortstop or second baseman is holding the runner on, and you call an inside pitch and see the guy at second going back toward the base, you ask yourself, ‘Why the hell is he going back to second?’ ” he said. “The middle infielders aren’t anywhere near him. He just tipped off where the pitch is going to be.” The pitcher was less worried about stolen signs than stolen location, he told me

“Some guys couldn’t believe it,” he added, “but to me, as the closer, my job is to finish the game without giving up the lead, no matter what the situation.”

Same for Jansen, apparently, who struck out Victor Caratini to end it. All’s well that ends well for inventive closers.

Don't Steal with a Big Lead, Retaliation

Unwritten Rules As Revenge: After Warnings Limit HBPs, Rizzo Steals While Up 8-0, Baez Watches Homer To Send Message

There were beanballs galore in Denver this week. On Monday, Rockies catcher Tony Wolters was drilled by Yu Darvish. Kris Bryant was plunked twice on Tuesday, perhaps spurring him to take Wednesday off. Despite Joe Maddon’s public insistence that he didn’t think Bryant’s beanings were intentional, the Cubs grew further steamed on Wednesday when a head-high fastball from Antonio Senzatela forced Javy Baez to the dirt in the top of the third. Intentional or not, that’s an awful lot of inside pitches in a short span of time, even for a team like the Rockies, known for working the inside corner. For Chicago starter Cole Hamels, it was the final straw.

In the bottom half of the frame, Hamels drilled Nolan Arenado near his left elbow, a blow that eventually forced the third baseman from the game. Arenado knew exactly what had happened, and got up steaming. “When we buzzed Baez’s tower …” he said after the game in an Athletic report, “I had a feeling it would be me.”

Though tensions were high, no warnings were issued. This made sense. Colorado had taken several shots, and Chicago responded. The circle appeared to be complete.

That lasted until the seventh inning, when Rockies reliever Brian Shaw plunked Hamels in the ankle. It had every hallmark of intention: Two outs, the bases were empty, and the Cubs led, 8-0. With that, hostilities resumed.

An inning later, Rockies reliever Phillip Diehl, in his second-ever big league appearance, drilled Anthony Rizzo in the backside, again with two outs and the bases empty. This was enough to finally draw warnings from plate ump Roberto Ortiz, which left the Cubs unable to respond directly—an especially unpalatable circumstance given that it was the final time the teams will face each other this season.

So the Cubs got creative. Enter the unwritten rules.

It started when Rizzo, on first after being drilled, stole second. This would have been a clear violation of the Code had not it so clearly born a message of discontent. (So uncontested was the steal—Rizzo was not even being held on by first baseman Mark Reynolds—that it was ruled defensive indifference.) Any other time, somebody choosing to run at such a point in a game with that kind of score would become a target. As it is, by the time these teams next meet, the play will hardly be remembered among the litany of everything else that went down.

Ultimately, Rizzo’s advancement didn’t make a bit of difference when Baez, blasted a 460-foot home run into the left field bleachers. Baez is known for his playfulness afield, but he took his time watching this one, and there was nothing playful about it. First, he stared down Diehl. Then he stared down the ball, lingering in the batter’s box before taking several slow, deliberate steps toward first in the early part of his trot. Between Baez and Rizzo, it was a pair of the most obvious messages of discontent one could imagine short of actually drilling somebody.

In the bottom of the ninth, Chicago reliever Brad Brach hit Wolters for the second time in the series, but somehow was allowed to remain in the game despite Ortiz’s prior warnings. Wolters ended up dishing out some Code-based lessons of his own, taking both second and third on defensive indifference before coming around to score on a groundout by Chris Iannetta. That only reduced Colorado’s deficit to 10-1, however, and even then, Baez, who fielded Iannatta’s ball, considered gunning Wolters out at the plate before making the smart play to first.

The final tally had six Cubs hit by pitches during the six games between the teams this season, the Rockies three. That’s on top of the 96-mph German Marquez fastball that hit Bryant in the helmet last season. (That Marquez hit Bryant again last week at Wrigley Field prior to Bryant’s two HBPs on Wednesday didn’t help matters.)

The only way these teams will see each other again in 2019 will be in the playoffs, which Arenado promised after the game “would be a spicy series.” Would it ever.

Intimidation

Let’s Talk About What To Do When Teams Hit Too Many Home Runs In A Row

Shortly after The Baseball Codes came out, I was asked by a radio guy about my favorite unwritten rule. It was an odd but interesting question—one that somehow, through the five-year process of researching and writing the book, I had never considered. The rule that first popped into my head did so, I think, because it’s quaint and outdated, and paints the long-ago baseball landscape in which it existed as entirely foreign, like some pastoral English countryside. It holds that a player should not swing at the first pitch after back-to-back home runs. Given this week’s power barrage, it seems like an appropriate discussion point.

The idea is one of courtesy. I’ll let Hal McRae explain:

“Look, there have been two consecutive home runs hit. The third batter doesn’t swing at the first pitch. Take the first pitch. Alert the pitcher that you’re not swinging, that you know he’s out there, you respect him, you respect the job that he’s trying to do. So you take the first pitch, saying, ‘I’m not going to try to come up here and try to hit the third consecutive home run.’ After the first pitch it’s okay for you to do your job. . . . Don’t go up there and take a swing from your heels on the first pitch. Get in the box loosely. Let him know, okay, I’m not swinging. I know you’re out there trying to do a job. And I have to do a job, but you’ve just given up back-to-back home runs. So I take the first pitch.”

Early on, the rule actually covered any home run, not only back-to-back jobs. These days, of course, it’s entirely off the table. Hitters swing freely at whatever they see, regardless of circumstance.

Take this week, for instance. We’ve already seen one team hit back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs, and another slug three in a row. As it turned out, of the four Nationals homers off of Padres reliever Craig Stammen on Sunday, the final three came on the reliever’s second pitch. Of the three Diamondbacks to take Phillies right-hander Jerad Eickhoff deep to lead off their game Monday, all went deep into the count.

This is undoubtedly a matter of circumstance more than etiquette. It’s a safe bet that none of the seven hitters considered the above rule. Hell, it’s a safe bet that none of the seven hitters has heard of the above rule. Which is part of what makes it my favorite, the kind of thing left for discussion with old-timers.

That’s not the only thing at play here, though. Numerous teams have hit four straight home runs, but only rarely do they do so against one pitcher, without a reliever being summoned someplace along the way. In fact, Stammen was only the fourth hurler in big league history to bear that weight. “You want to dig a hole, crawl behind the mound and go in that hole and never return every time you give up a home run,” he said in an MLB.com report. “To give up four in a row, just times that by four. It doesn’t feel good. But it’s your job to go out there and make pitches. That’s what I was trying to do. I didn’t do it today.”

The other unwritten rule that comes into play here—which seems nearly as outdated as not swinging at the first pitch following back-to-back jobs—is the idea of making somebody uncomfortable at the plate. This is purely strategic, the power of an inside pitch that moves a hitter’s feet and backs him up in the box. The more a batter has to concentrate on the possibility of avoiding a baseball, after all, the less he can concentrate on hitting.

I discussed this in 2017, when the Nationals (none of them overlapping with the Washington quartet that recently did it again) hit four straight dongs off of Milwaukee’s Michael Blazek. I quoted longtime reliever Bob McClure telling his own story of similar frustration:

“We were in Yankee Stadium one time, and I gave up back-to-back home runs to two left-handers. I’d given up back-to-back home runs before, but not to two lefties. Dave Kingman was up next. [Catcher] Charlie Moore called for a fastball away. He knew better, anyway. He was just going through them all. Fastball away. No. Curveball. No. Changeup. No. Fastball in. No. And then he goes [McClure flicks his thumb from out of his fist, under his index finger, the universal symbol for knock him down]. So I threw it, and it was a good one—it went right underneath him and almost flipped him. He hit the dirt and was all dusty. His helmet was off. He grabbed his bat and his helmet and gets right back in there. I threw him a changeup and he popped up to first base.

The upshot, from McClure: “Back then, we were taught the 0-2 up and in. Home run, next guy: boom! Knock him down.”

That tactic—not hitting a guy, but disrupting his concentration—might have served Stammen well had he chosen to employ it. It certainly couldn’t have hurt. Instead, of the 12 pitches the right-hander threw to the four homer hitters, only one—the second pitch of the entire sequence—ran inside. The Nats seem to have appreciated this.  

Similar advice could have been utilized by Dylan Bundy last season, or David Bush back in 2010.

Given the ever-increasing incidences of home-run barrages (Washington’s recent quartet came as part of a game that saw 13 longballs), this kind of strategy seems more necessary now than ever. Which doesn’t in any way mean that pitchers will use it, of course.

Showboating

MadBum Gets Angry, Does Some Shouting, Gives Up Dong, Yells At A Guy, Loses Game

For many years, Madison Bumgarner has cultivated an image of being extremely attuned to the unwritten rules of his sport, serving as baseball’s hardline arbiter of on-field behavior. Flip a bat against the cow-punching North Carolinian and you’ll hear about it. Same if you run too slowly around the bases.  

At Oracle Park on Sunday, however, MadBum revealed a bit too much. Today’s headlines are all about the left-hander’s response to Max Muncy taking him deep (plus Muncy’s response to Bumgarner, which we’ll get to in a bit). Muncy’s homer hurt: he plays for the hated Dodgers, he hit it as the second batter of the game, and the blast carried all the way into McCovey Cove. Before Muncy could even make it to first base, Bumgarner was all over him, chirping about taking too long in the batter’s box. Muncy responded as he circled the bases, and the feud was on.

The main problem with Bumgarner’s red-ass was that there really wasn’t much to get red-assed about, to the point that even Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow, while trying to explain the situation, could describe the hitter’s post-homer steps only as “that little walk.”

After the game, Bumgarner gave a light-hearted recitation for the media about what happened. His comments included snippets like, “I can’t even say it with a straight face, but the more I think about it, I should just let the kids play—but I just … I can’t,” and, in response to a question about the game changing, “They want to let everybody be themselves, then let me be myself. That’s me.”

It’s a continuation of the conversation we’ve been having all year about pitchers who might not be entirely on board with the modern era of officially sanctioned on-field celebrations.

That, though, is not what this post is about. The detail that many reports overlook is what immediately preceded Muncy’s blast. Against Kike Hernandez, the game’s very first hitter, Bumgarner got into a shouting match with plate umpire Will Little about the strike zone, which grew heated enough to draw Little toward the mound. Following some chirping from the Giants bench, the ump issued a cross-field explanation that can easily be read as an informal warning.

This was clearly on Bumgarner’s mind when he missed wide with his first three offerings to Muncy before leaving one up, in the slugger’s wheelhouse.

Baseball history is littered with the corpses of players whose weakness has been discovered by the opposition and subsequently exploited. Perhaps this is Bumgarner’s. Pitching in the ninth inning of the World Series doesn’t seem to faze him nearly as much as some perceived slight by the opposition. This has long viewed by outsiders as a motivational tactic—something to keep the pitcher’s competitive instincts honed. (Lord knows, it’s happened before.) This is supported by the fact that Muncy’s homer was the only run MadBum gave up as part of a fabulous performance. If the pitcher needs swagger to succeed, then swagger he shall deliver.

Still, Bumgarner was done in by his momentary lapse, one disastrous pitch serving as the difference in a 1-0 ballgame.

In the big picture, yelling at a guy is preferable to drilling him, especially for something like this. Also in the big picture, if Bumgarner can figure out a way to keep things a bit more contained—just enough to avoid the occasional slip on a day when he’s clearly dominant—it’d be better for everybody.

Then again, had MadBum been a little less mad, we would never have gotten Muncy’s response: “If you don’t want me to watch the ball, you can get it out of the ocean.” It doesn’t actually make sense, but at least it sounded pretty good in the moment.

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Bunting During A No-Hitter is No Bueno, Even In The Minor Leagues

Finally, we have some unwritten-rules stuff in baseball that doesn’t involve bat flips or pitchers annoyed by bat flips or bat flippers annoyed by the fact that pitchers get annoyed by bat flips.

A minor-league game yesterday harkened back to one of the great moments in unwritten-rules history (as defined by something that seems utterly inconsequential being elevated to a level of national importance):

Bunting to break up a no-hitter.

The event we remember best in this regard happened back in 2001, when San Diego catcher Ben Davis broke up Curt Schilling’s perfect game by laying one down. Folks on the Arizona bench were irate. I went over this in some detail in The Baseball Codes, including a meaty excerpt of the section that ran on the 10th anniversary of the event.

Yesterday it happened again in a Double-A game between the Trenton Thunder and the Hartford Yard Goats. With one out in the ninth and his team having gone 0-for-25 to that point, Trenton’s Matt Lipka laid one down in front of surprised closer Ben Bowden, and beat it out.

Bowden quickly got the remaining two outs, but his teammates were disgruntled to the point of wanting to fight, which led to a postgame infield scrum before the teams could decamp for their respective clubhouses. No punches appear to have been thrown.

The idea behind the prohibition against such bunts is that players should not resort to trickery to avoid ending up on the wrong end of history. No-hitters don’t come around that often, and any pitcher dominant enough to take one late into a game deserves the opposition’s best effort, not some weasely backdoor attempt to slap a hit on the board in any way possible.

This kind of thing happens far more frequently than one might think.

As with Ben Davis’ bunt against Schilling 18 years ago, of course, there were some mitigating factors in Hartford.

For one thing, it wasn’t one Hartford pitcher having an all-time dominant day, but four: right-hander Rico Garcia pitched the first six innings, followed by one frame each by a trio of relievers. Two Trenton runners had already reached base earlier in the game on errors

Far more importantly, the score at the time of the bunt was only 3-0. By reaching safely, Lipka put the tying run on deck and got Bowden into the stretch. After more than eight innings of baseball, it was his team’s best chance to get back into the game. (In case you haven’t already clicked the above link, Davis’ bunt came in a 2-0 game, and Schilling didn’t hold it against him.)

Ultimately, as with any unwritten rule, winning trumps the Code. Just as close games serve to stifle retaliatory tendencies, they also allow players to get away with some tactics that would never play with a different score.

Even, it appears, in the minors.

Update, 6/7: Well, that took a dark turn. Some fans are nuts.