Showboating

Puig Does Puig, World Freaks Out

Puig pimps

This is what it looks like when things snowball. Wednesday night, after the Mets intentionally walked a batter to face him, Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig connected for a monster home run, then stood frozen for several long beats to admire it. This should not have come as a surprise. It is what Puig does.

Still, it rankled numerous Mets. As Puig rounded first base, Wilmer Flores had some words for him. Puig turned around, mid-trot, incredulous, offered a quick Fuck you¸ then slowed his trot to a virtual crawl, his 32.1 seconds rounding the bases being the second-slowest time recorded this season. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud offered some additional thoughts as Puig crossed the plate. (We’ve seen that act before, notably when then-Braves catcher Brian McCann literally blocked the baseline to give Carlos Gomez an earful under similar circumstances in 2013.)

What set the Mets’ response apart, however, was what happened after the inning, when New York’s Jose Reyes and Yoenis Cespedes tracked Puig down in the outfield to deliver a protracted screed about appropriate behavior on a baseball diamond.

“I don’t think he knows what having respect for the game is,” Flores told reporters after the game. “I think there’s a way to enjoy a home run. That was too much.”

“Run the bases,” said Reyes in a Newsday report. “Don’t stand up, then walk four or five steps, then run slow. Wow.”

There are many things to unpack here.

What was the anger about, really?

Puig’s tendency to showboat is maddening for many opponents, but it’s also consistent. His display against the Mets, though hardly unique, may have been spurred to excess, at first by the preceding intentional walk, then by Flores’ comment.

Still, Puig is a central character in the mainstreaming of this type of display over recent years. And he’s hardly breaking new ground, either with his actions or in the types of response they solicit.

In 1977, Puig’s homer-pimping forebear, Oscar Gamble, admired a shot against the Yankees for so long that even before he’d even left the box New York catcher Thurman Munson told him, “All right, now you’re going to get drilled.” (The threat was empty; Gamble was not hit in any of the teams’ five remaining games that season.) Several years later, while playing for the Yankees, Gamble did it again, this time against Baltimore. Instead of threats, he—like Puig on Wednesday—was talked to by members of the opposition. “Eddie Murray and some of them other guys came up to me and said, ‘All right now, you’re taking a little too long up there,’ ” said Gamble, looking back. “That’s respect for players. They let you get your little style points in there, and then you have to go on and do what you do.”

Gamble’s displays were influenced by Reggie Jackson, whose coup de grace came in 1981, during a home run trot against Cleveland’s John Denny. Earlier in the game, Denny had thrown a pair of pitches up and in to Jackson before striking him out. When Reggie homered in his next at-bat, he showed his displeasure by pumping his fist toward the pitcher, then moving excessively slowly around the bases and tipping his cap as he trotted. Denny offered an earful for the duration with such invective that when Jackson crossed the plate, instead of heading back to the Yankees dugout he instead turned toward the mound, sparking an all-out fracas. (Among the peacemakers was Gamble, who literally helped lift Jackson over his head and carry him from the field.)

Jackson was himself influenced by one of the great sluggers of the 1960s, Harmon Killebrew, who was likely the first ballplayer to so admire his own handiwork. All of which is to say that Puig is not exactly breaking new ground, here.

Are the Mets angrier about their own play than about Puig?

After the game, Puig hardly seemed like man who had gained insight, saying, “If that’s the way [Flores] feels, it might be a result of them not playing so well.”

It’s harsh but accurate. The Mets, losers of six of their last seven, sat at 31-40, 11.5 games back in the NL East, and had lost three straight to Los Angeles by a combined score of 30-8 while surrendering a dozen homers. Annoyances are more tolerable while winning than they are while doing whatever it is the Mets have done this year.

“It’s frustration from everyone,” Reyes admitted later.

At least Puig is consistent. The Mets, who entered the season with postseason dreams, are not.

Is a lecture better than a fastball to the ribs?

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the exchange was the discourse in the outfield between Puig, Cespedes and Reyes.

Cespedes, after all, is a poster child in his own right when it comes to showboating. For him to deliver a lecture on the subject indicates no small amount of transgression on Puig’s part. According to Reyes, Puig had no idea what was on the Mets’ mind when the New York duo tracked him down in the outfield.

“He didn’t even know what he did,” Reyes told reporters. “He continued to say to me and Cespedes, ‘What did I do? What did I do wrong?’ Wow. If you don’t know what you did wrong, you’ve got problems.”

Puig was so unable to handle the heat that he did not even look at Cespedes while his countryman grew increasingly animated during the conversation. Instead, he looked at Reyes, standing silently nearby. When it came time for Reyes to speak, he kept his message simple. “Man, you have to be better than that,” he told Puig. “You have to make people respect you as a player.”

It’s a noble notion, but to judge by early results, it didn’t take.

“[Cespedes] told me to try to run a little bit faster and gave me some advice,” said Puig in a New York Post report. “I don’t look at it that way.”

Is it a cultural divide?

Much has been written about players from Latin America and the stifling nature of baseball’s unwritten rules. Let players have fun out there has become a regular refrain on baseball blogs, and it’s not entirely wrong. The ability to distinguish exuberance from disrespect is vital when it comes to integrating increasing numbers of foreign players into America’s pastime.

But when Puig says things like this

We are not understood. We have to adapt. There are things we are not used to doing in our countries. When you keep doing things wrong, people get tired; I even got tired myself. There should not be so many rules. You just have to do your job and let people have fun, which is what I was doing in 2013. They’ve wanted to change so many things about me that I feel so off. I don’t feel like the player I was in 2013.

… it feels like an excuse. He has gone from the runner-up Rookie of the Year in 2013 to a guy the Dodgers have been actively shopping for multiple seasons now. His batting average has dropped from .319 to its current .244. Even though Puig is on pace to set a career high in homers (he currently has 13), his slugging percentage and OPS are far below what they were during his first two campaigns. He has been consistently injured, and was even farmed out to Triple-A Oklahoma City for a month last year. This is not simply a matter of his team stifling his celebratory nature.

In fact, it’s worth asking whether the opposite might be true. Might Puig, without the onslaught of attention for his bat flips and home run watching, without the lectures from opponents and teammates alike, without the array of distractions caused by his own on-field behavior, maybe be a better player than he currently is?

The question is unanswerable, unless Puig himself proves it one way or another.

What are we left with?

Strip everything else away—the caveats about internal frustration and Puig’s established behavior and all the prior precedence—and the lone question remaining is, Were the Mets right to get upset?

The answer is yes. The answer is yes because Puig’s display on Wednesday was not about exuberance or about some unknown entity trying to stifle his essential nature. The answer is yes because Puig had malice aforethought in everything he did during the play. He was pissed that the Mets walked Joc Pederson to face him. He was pissed because Flores scolded him at first base, and d’Arnaud did it again at the plate. His action was intended to show the Mets up, and that’s exactly how the Mets took it. Puig wasn’t celebrating, he was gloating.

It’s the difference between the first historic example above, in which Oscar Gamble was wrapped up in the wonder of being Oscar, and the second, in which an angry Reggie Jackson could not find enough ways to display his loathing of the opposition.

There is a distinction, and it is important. On Wednesday, the Mets understood it. To judge by his reaction, Puig never will.

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Verlander’s No-No Beaten By Bunt, and Nobody Seems to Mind

Dyson bunts

It’s a convoluted question, so bear with me: Can the circumstances following a clear violation of the unwritten rules somehow alter how that rule is perceived?

In other words, might the end of a play justify the means?

The play in question is Jarrod Dyson’s bunt in the sixth inning of yesterday’s game against the Tigers, which broke up Justin Verlander’s perfect game.

Such a thing, of course, has long been frowned upon by baseball moralists as disrespectful of a pitcher’s attempt at greatness. To challenge a guy fully, the theory goes, one must do so in a straightforward manner, without trickery or deceit.

The most famous example of this, as outlined in The Baseball Codes, was the bunt laid down by Padres catcher Ben Davis against Arizona’s Curt Schilling in 2001. Davis was San Diego’s 23rd batter of the night but the first—after his ill-executed attempt managed to drop between the mound and second base—to reach safely. Afterward, Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly called the play “chickenshit” and said that Davis “has a lot to learn about how the game is played.”

Part of it was the intrusion on attempted perfection. Part of it was that Davis was a slow-footed catcher for whom bunting and speed were hardly part of his repertoire. Part of it was that the attempt came in the eighth inning, with Schilling only five outs from immortality.

One detail, however, served as adequate cover. The score was 2-0, and Davis had managed to bring the tying run to the plate. No matter how much animosity his bunt engendered in the opposing dugout, it is impossible to ignore the prime directive governing baseball’s unwritten rules: Winning trumps everything, and Davis had given his team its best chance on the day to win. Justification.

The circumstances yesterday in Seattle were somewhat different. Dyson’s bunt came in the sixth inning—early enough, perhaps, to validate it on its own merits. Take it from a different Seattle player, Jarrod Washburn—who pitched for the Mariners for four seasons, through 2009—whose own no-hitter was broken up by a bunt from Tampa Bay rookie Ben Zobrist in 2006. Like Dyson, Zobrist did it in the sixth inning, and it didn’t bother Washburn a bit. “If it was the eighth or ninth, maybe that would have rubbed me the wrong way,” he said at the time, “but bunting is just part of the game, and he was just trying to make something happen.”

Also in Dyson’s favor is that, unlike Davis, speed is an integral part of his game. Still, the play occurred while the Tigers held a 4-0 lead, and Dyson hardly represented the tying run. Sixteen years earlier, Davis could have creditably claimed that winning informed his strategy, but down four runs, Dyson’s rationalization was considerably more specious … save for two little words: And then.

And then, pitching out of the stretch for the first time all night, Verlander walked Mike Zunino. And then Jean Segura collected an infield single to load the bases. And then Ben Gamel scored Dyson with a single to center. And then, after Verlander struck out Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz brought home two more with a double. And then it was 4-3 and Verlander’s day was over. After retiring Seattle’s first 16 hitters, he retired only one of its next six, including Dyson’s bunt. Seattle scored four more against Detroit’s bullpen, and went home with a 7-5 victory.

Regardless of how things may have seemed at the moment Dyson laid down his bunt, there’s no questioning that the effort played a significant role in his team’s victory. Justification.

After the game, Verlander said that he had no problem with Dyson’s strategy. The best summation, however, came from Schilling, in reference to his own spoiled no-hitter all those years earlier. “Unwritten rules or not, you’re paid to win games,” he said in The Baseball Codes. “That’s the only reason you’re playing in the big leagues.”

 

Bat Flipping

Herrera’s Bat Flips: Not Just For Special Occasions Anymore

Herrera flips

Odubel Herrera is a guy firmly committed to his bat-flipping lifestyle.

Against the Giants on Saturday, he did it twice—once on a fly out and again on a double—the latter of which happened against notorious hothead Hunter Strickland, and led a reporter to ask in the postgame clubhouse whether Herrera ever considers that pitchers might not appreciate that kind of stuff on hits that aren’t actually homers.

 

 

The outfielder responded by ranking the latter flip as his best ever.

And what, he was questioned, if such actions should lead to an angry pitcher planting one into his ribcage?

“Of course it worries me a little bit,” he said in a CSN Philly report. “I don’t want to get drilled. But I’m not going to change the way I play. If I get hit, I’m just going to have to rub it.”

(The latter statement is itself a violation of the macho division of the sport’s unwritten rules. Never acknowledge that the pitcher hurt you, goes the tenet, because You can’t hurt me is a far more effective tone-setter than Ow, that stung.)

Regardless of the stupidity with which Herrera flings his bat all over the yard, one must at least credit him for perseverance. At least he has that much going for him.

 

Gamesmanship

By Any Means Necessary: Pinder Channels Brando In Effort To Reach Base

Pinder bunts

In the greater scheme, it wasn’t much of a moment—an inside fastball that was fouled off on a bunt attempt for the first strike of an inning.

But, oh, the details behind it.

The fastball was thrown on Wednesday by Cleveland’s Corey Kluber to A’s second baseman Chad Pinder, leading off the fifth. Kluber had to that point had struck out seven A’s, so Pinder tried to mix things up and small-ball his way aboard. The pitch ran inside, however, and hit the batter in the hand. Plate ump Tom Hallion awarded him first base.

But then! Replays showed that the ball didn’t hit Pinder at all—his reaction was pure pantomime. The ball had contacted the bat squarely between his hands, but Pinder, who may initially have reacted with shock and surprise, did nothing to deter the umpire from his decision. (Watch it here.)

Because Major League Baseball has become a replay-driven league, the call was overturned, and Pinder returned to the batter’s box with a 0-1 count. (He ended up grounding out to shortstop.)

The obvious question is, did Pinder act appropriately? According to baseball’s code, he did. Free bases are free bases, and far be it from a player—whose goal is to put his team into its best position to win a game—to snub a generous offer. It’s why outfielders who knowingly trap balls act like they’ve caught them. During his days as a catcher, longtime A’s manager Connie Mack would make a clucking sound on check swings in an effort to fool the ump into thinking that the pitch had been tipped. After Willie Stargell and Dave Parker collided while going after a popup in 1976, Pittsburgh second baseman Rennie Stennett reached for the ball—obscured on the ground between their bodies—and, in the guise of checking on his fallen teammates, placed it into Stargell’s glove. (It worked.)

More pertinent to Pinder, this exact scenario took place in 2010, featuring no less a figure than Derek Jeter, who not only acted as if a pitch had hit him, but worked hard to sell it, grabbing his arm and pirouetting out of the box on a ball that connected with the knob of his bat as he tried to spin out of the way.

If the Captain can try to pantomime his way on base, who’s to tell Chad Pinder to knock it off?

[H/T Cleveland.com]

 

Catchers Protect Pitchers, Retaliation

On the Merits of Moving On: Harper and Hunter Try to Make Nice

Harper-Hunter

Harper-Strickland: The Day After played out in San Francisco yesterday, and was noteworthy primarily for just how un-noteworthy it had become. It became that way because the players made it so. Retaliation was nowhere to be found on the field Tuesday at AT&T Park.

In the visitors’ clubhouse before the game, Bryce Harper—fresh off receiving a four-an appeal-reduced three-game suspension—spoke about the hope that both sides could move on from worrying about the past, saying things like, “That’s gonna suck if I get hit again.”

On the Giants’ side, the conversation turned away from pitcher Hunter Strickland (himself suspended for six games) and toward somebody with significantly more effect on the team’s fortunes, a guy who through his own inaction managed to become a focal point of the story.

But Buster Posey didn’t want to talk about it.

His first comment to reporters was, “I just want to focus on playing the game.” Then he ended the interview.

With space to consider the implications, the more it seems that Posey’s actions were deliberate, not delinquent. If that’s so, the primary question becomes whether the catcher knew about Strickland’s intentions in advance, which leads to two primary scenarios:

  • If he did, Posey likely attempted to dissuade the pitcher from hitting Harper, and was subsequently disgusted when Strickland ignored his advice.
  • If he didn’t, Posey was shocked into inaction, less in a too-surprised-to-move sort of way than a let-dude-fix-his-own-mess sort of way.

In the aftermath of the fight Monday night, in the Giants’ postgame clubhouse, Posey sat facing his locker as Strickland approached from the side to talk to him. What they said was private, but Posey never once turned to look at his teammate. It did not lend an impression of understanding or warmth.

On Tuesday, Strickland tried to put it behind him, saying, “I never once questioned or had to question Buster or anyone on this team. We’re here to win ballgames and I don’t look at it any further than that.”

Discussing the fight itself, Harper expressed some relief that Giants players didn’t get to him more quickly, with particular appreciation for San Francisco first baseman Michael Morse, Harper’s teammate in Washington in 2012, Harper’s rookie year. “I’m thankful that Mikey Mo and [Jeff] Samardzija collided, because Samardzija saw blood a little bit, I thought,” he said

Harper used the phrase “I’m very thankful for Mikey Mo” twice more in the conversation.

As for Morse, he said his intention, had he not collided with his teammate (resulting in a concussion that landed him on the 7-day DL), was to grab Harper and pull him the hell away from the pile. He likes the guy—went out of his way to protect him, not hurt him. How that sits with guys like Strickland or Samardzija, both of whom did see blood a little bit, is unknown.

Ultimately, focus on the situation grew so absurd that Harper even went so far as to suggest that baseball might be better off were players more emotionally in-tune. “If [Strickland] did have a problem,” he told reporters, “he could have talked to me during BP about it, said, hey, I don’t like the way you went about it.”

Then, realizing the folly of his suggestion, he sighed, “That’s not human nature, I guess.”

Let’s leave the last word, though, to Posey, with a sentiment that was, literally, his last word before shooing the gathered media away from his locker before Tuesday’s game. “Funny world we live in, isn’t it?” he said.

Indeed.

Catchers Protect Pitchers, Retaliation

Hats Off To (Bryce) Harper: Ill-Considered HBP Spawns Ill-Considered Response to Ill-Considered Mound Charge

 

Harper charges

The guy to watch is Buster Posey.

In the wake of yesterday’s headline-grabbing free-for-all between Bryce Harper and Hunter Strickland, one can learn volumes by watching the Giants catcher.

Sure, Strickland drilled Harper in the hip with as intentional a fastball as can be thrown by a grudge-carrying pitcher.

Sure, his reason—Harper did some staring and some yelling after homering off of Strickland for the second time during the 2014 playoffs—was thin.

Sure, Harper acted like a punk in his own right, throwing his helmet at the pitcher before charging the mound, a decision made all the worse by his wild inaccuracy.

Sure, the fight was intense, at least by baseball standards, with Harper and Strickland getting in at least one shot each, even as Giants Michael Morse and Jeff Samardzija cinematically tackled each other while going after Harper.

It all provided some darn good theater on a lazy Memorial Day afternoon. But the person to watch was Posey.

In situations like yesterday’s, a catcher’s primary role is fight-preventer, his duty being to bear-hug an angry batter from behind before damage can be done to the pitcher. Not Posey. Not yesterday.

Harper took four-and-a-half angry steps before deciding to charge the mound. He took five more, plus a whole bunch of pitter-pats, once he started to run. Also, he threw his helmet.

Yet it wasn’t until Harper and Strickland began trading punches that Posey thought to approach the fracas, far too late to stop anything, or to even slow it down. That’s him, mask on, on the outside of the scrum looking in.

Why didn’t Buster do anything from the outset? Probably because he was nearly as annoyed at Strickland as Harper was. Because Strickland was redressing an issue from three seasons ago, in which the only injury was to Strickland’s ego, during a series the Giants won. (“I don’t even think [Strickland] should be thinking about what happened in the first round [of the playoffs],” Harper said after yesterday’s game. “He should be thinking about wearing that ring home every single night.”)

Posey may have been upset because Strickland decided that the time to do something was in the eighth inning of a game in which the Giants trailed by only two runs. (Given Strickland’s short-relief role, he doubtless felt that he had to seize any available opportunity. Harper’s postseason homers off him in 2014 represented the first two times the players ever met. Monday’s was the third.)

Sure, two were out and the bases were empty, but following Harper in the batting order were Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon—not exactly the cast you want to face out of the stretch. Sure enough, singles by Zimmerman and Murphy brought home pinch-runner Brian Goodwin to extend the Nats’ lead.

It was foreseeable. Posey foresaw it. And he knew that if the Nationals are to respond at some point during the series, he will likely be the one wearing the target. And he wasn’t pleased. So he stood there.

“Those are some big guys tumbling around on the ground …” Posey explained after the game in a San Jose Mercury News report. “It’ll be a little dangerous to get in there sometimes.” Uh huh.

Posey had every right to be angry with Strickland. Drilling Harper was a stupid decision at a stupid time. Still, it comes down to this: players are obligated to protect their teammates, no matter how much they may disagree with said teammates’ actions. They can offer chastisement in private, of course (one can only hope that Posey took such a tack with Strickland), but over the course of a season, any decision that frays a ballclub’s brotherhood is markedly unhelpful. When it comes to fights, the prevailing notion is: Protect your guys and sort out the details later. 

To that end, Posey failed. He failed not only Strickland, but every other Giants pitcher who might one day wonder whether Buster might have his back when things get weird.

The thing is, Posey wasn’t even alone. Look at Brandon Crawford trotting in from shortstop in the above clip, as if trying to delay his arrival. Maybe Crawford’s just not a fighter. Or maybe it’s a collective anti-Strickland sentiment, almost as if the guy had been making clubhouse pronouncements about his intention to get Harper, even in the face of veteran teammates advising him against it.

Which, given Strickland’s reputation, wouldn’t be surprising.  It all jumbles together in one inane stew that, no matter which angle one chooses, doesn’t look good for the Giants.

Posey watches

Update (5/30): Fox’s Ken Rosenthal suggests that Posey and Strickland may have had an understanding wherein Posey intentionally lay back to let things play out. This would explain a lot of things. Still, it doesn’t account for Posey’s complete lack of movement (were he prepared to act engaged while not actually engaging, one would expect that he’d try to sell it at least a little), nor the fact that Harper’s charge was decidedly unlikely in the first place.