Bat Flipping, Retaliation, Showboating

If You’re Gonna Drill A Guy, At Least Know When To Do It

Anderson plunked

In the wake of yesterday’s coverage of the Let Tim Anderson Play Incident, it seems prudent to follow up with a secondary discussion about pitchers hitting batters. Not whether they should (hot take: they shouldn’t), but, for those whose minds are already made up, when to do so.

On Wednesday, Brad Keller whiffed.

So let’s say a guy, maybe a guy who pitches for the Royals, is miffed that an opponent took some liberties in celebrating a home run against him. Maybe some other guys were chirping about it in his dugout, so this Royals pitcher decides to stand up for The Right Way to Play, and drills his opponent in response.

Let slide for a moment your feelings about the decision. In this scenario it is fait accompli, a resolute act. At this point, once said pitcher cannot be diverted from his course, it would behoove him to drill the offender at a juncture of minimal impact to the game. Ideally, it would happen with two outs and the bases empty, with his team comfortably ahead. Or perhaps first base would be open in a situation in which the hitter might have been intentionally walked anyway. There are various metrics to determine the right time, and reasonable discussions to be had about sufficient size for a lead, etc. If enough of those metrics aren’t met, it should be incumbent upon said pitcher to wait—for an inning, a game, a series or a season—until favorable conditions present themselves.

Brad Keller does not seem much for waiting. In Anderson’s very next at-bat, Keller plunked him in the backside, first pitch. While nobody among the ranks of those who approve of such things should take issue with the placement, the pitch’s timing was a downright disaster.

Anderson was leading off an inning in a tie game. Suddenly, Keller was forced to pitch out of the stretch while worrying about a guy who’d stolen six bases in 16 games. (Or at least Keller would have had to worry about pitching out of the stretch had he not been ejected. Instead, he saddled reliever Ian Kennedy with that task.)

Ultimately it didn’t matter. Kennedy retired the next three hitters in order and Kansas City won the game, 4-3, in 10 innings. But this is all about percentages. Had Anderson (or his replacement, after he was ejected along with Keller) come around to score, costing the Royals a victory, the Twitterverse would have lost its mind. That’s because Keller drilling Anderson when he did was even stupider than Keller drilling Anderson in the first place.

Baseball’s unwritten rules have softened over time, and I’m on the record as saying that, when it comes to retaliatory HBPs, that’s a good thing. But as the mandate to drill opponents recedes, the understanding of when to do so recedes right along with it. Which leaves guys like Keller, determined to get their pound of flesh, with a clearly insufficient understanding about how to do so.

There are no easy answers here. When-to-drill-a-guy lessons don’t come easily in an environment bent on preventing pitchers from drilling guys. (Look no further than Keller being ejected without warning for a fairly benign HBP that didn’t even inspire a mound charge. It might have been a Joe West issue, but there’s no denying MLB’s newfound interest in preventing this kind of thing.)

This is some weird middle ground we’re in. We’ll probably have to wait until a similarly impatient pitcher actually costs his team a game before people begin to acknowledge this in a widespread fashion.

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Bat Flipping, Retaliation, Showboating

In Wake Of Sox-Royals Dustup, Letting The Kids Play Is Turning Into More Of A Headache Than Anybody Imagined

Anderson flips

Last year this would have been a story about Tim Anderson and his celebratory histrionics.

Hell, last year this was a story about Tim Anderson and his celebratory histrionics. Twice.

This year, however, celebratory histrionics come with a perspective. That is, Major League Baseball has putatively endorsed them via its “Let the Kids Play” campaign, which makes things confusing when pitchers respond to said histrionics with disdain.

Pitchers like Kansas City’s Brad Keller, say.

Now, when Anderson does what Anderson is known to do—in this case, vigorously hurl his bat toward his own dugout after launching the 50th homer of his career—we’re conflicted in the aftermath. Letting the kids play seems like a swell idea to fans, to executives and to an unknown portion of ballplayers, but there appears to be a significant percentage of pitchers who disagree.

 

We had this conversation less than two weeks ago, when Pittsburgh’s Chris Archer—a known showboat himself—expressed displeasure with Derek Dietrich’s decision to pimp his homer by throwing a ball behind Dietrich in an ensuing at-bat. It was an old-school response that would have drawn little attention a generation ago … or maybe even last season.

But when the league itself encourages Anderson’s kind of behavior, the entire circumstance gets cloudy. That’s because the issue of respect is hardly one of clear delineation.

Are some bat flips okay, but others not? Anderson’s was less insouciant toss and more angry spike. Did that somehow cross an ever-shifting line? Had he not turned toward his dugout—or, more pertinently, turned his back toward the Royals dugout—would it have been better received?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. There’s bound to be a transition period between one epoch and another, and right now we’re stuck in a place where some players feel disrespected by some actions that many people—including baseball officials, apparently—would like to see more of. So when Brad Keller feels disrespected (or is sticking up for teammates who feel disrespected), there’s bound to be a reaction regardless of corporate messaging.

Yesterday it was a fastball to Anderson’s backside in his ensuing at-bat. Things did not end well. Anderson started yelling, but, restrained by catcher Martin Maldonado, never approached the mound. Still, dugouts and bullpens emptied, and tempers flared when White Sox manager Rick Renteria shouted for the Royals to clear the field, inflaming Kansas City bullpen coach Vance Wilson. Anderson, Renteria, Keller and Royals bench coach Dale Sveum were ejected.

 

 

 

 

 

In the aftermath, we’re left wondering two things: How many players still care about this kind of stuff, and how long will that last?

The Royals have at least two of them on their roster. “Keller did the right thing,” the pitcher’s teammate, Hunter Dozier, said after the game in a Chicago Sun Times report. “He aimed for the lower body. Hit him. It should just be like ‘OK, go to first and move on.’ It shouldn’t have been as big of a situation as it was.”

Dozier is spelling out the party line from a previous generation, offering instructions that, while once status-quo, are now … well, who really knows?  Dozier is 27. Keller is 23. Despite their old-school sensibilities, they seem an awful lot like the kids who the commissioner wants to let play.

This shift is clearly not going as smoothly as baseball’s PR machine would have liked. We’re stuck in a place where, when bat flipping becomes the new normal, showboats like Anderson have to up the ante simply to draw attention to themselves. Bigger antics. More vicious tosses. Sentiments like the one Renteria espoused after the game—“You want [Anderson] to not do that? Get him out”—might make sense to the vast majority of the population, but the key here is that upping the ante rarely sits well with pitchers, some of whom are bound to respond.

Ten days ago it was Chris Archer. Yesterday, it was Brad Keller. So long as hitters continue to push the celebratory envelope, there will always be a pitcher willing to respond.

Our only problem is that we continue to be surprised by it.

Update 1 (4-19): If you’re gonna drill a guy, at least know when to do it.

Update 2 (4-20): There was some incredulity in the immediate aftermath that Anderson was tossed from the game, given his primary role as victim. We later found out that it was due to language so severe that he was eventually suspended for a game.

Cheating, Pine Tar

Things Getting Grippy In Philly For Thor

Syndergaard

We officially have our first pine-tar incident of the young season. Less of an incident, actually, than a series of suppositions borne by conspiracy theorists who are parsing two seconds’ worth of potentially incriminating tape like it’s the Zapruder film. Starring Thor.

That’s because on Monday night in Philadelphia, Noah Syndergaard appeared to dab the first two fingers of his pitching hand into the heel of his glove while on the mound, the reason for doing so—at least according to the Internet—being to apply a foreign substance to his fingertips.

It makes sense. On cold or wet nights, pine tar is a pitcher’s best friend—not to lend an advantage per se, but simply to restore whatever grip may have been lost to the conditions. Monday night in Philly saw 50-degree weather and 24-mph winds at first pitch. Things only got colder from there.

Generally speaking, hitters don’t mind a bit of pine tar around a pitcher’s mound now and again. Giving a guy who throws as hard as Syndergaard—whose four-seamer averaged almost 99 mph on Monday—an extra measure of control certainly has merit. (Then again, it can also lend snap to breaking balls, and Syndergaard’s were working nicely on Monday, to the tune of nine strikeouts in five innings—four of which came on sliders and one on a curveball.)

The issue, as pertains to Syndergaard, seems largely to be … well, let’s leave it to Philadelphia first baseman Rhys Hoskins, who explained things about as clearly as they can be explained.

“As a hitter, with a guy that throws as hard as he does, I would rather him be able to feel the ball than not,” Hoskins said in a Delco Times report. “But I think there’s some unwritten rules. Just don’t make it so obvious. Obviously that was what [Michael] Pineda did a couple of years ago, that was quite obvious. But as long as it’s not obvious … I guess? I don’t know. It makes you wonder.”

Pineda, of course, is remembered for getting caught using pine tar while with the New York Yankees in 2014, and then, only two weeks later, getting caught using it again, this time in far more spectacular fashion.

Hoskins’ confusion about the subject is understandable given the nebulous nature of enforcement. Pitchers across baseball use foreign substances, particularly pine tar, especially early and late in the season during inclement weather. Opponents almost inevitably look the other way, at least partly because they likely have pitchers on their own staffs doing similar things, with the expectation that bad behavior will be curtailed at least temporarily as a matter of goodwill should a perpetrator get caught. “Most pitchers are using it,” said an anonymous Mets player in defense of Syndergaard, in the New York Post. “Check every reliever that comes in there and you will find it.”

That’s hyperbole, but probably not by much. When Detroit’s Mike Fiers tossed a no-hitter against Los Angeles in 2015, he did so with a shiny substance that many took for pine tar adhered to his glove. Dodgers players knew all about it and didn’t say a thing. When Kenny Rogers was caught with pine tar on his hand during the 2006 World Series, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa didn’t even have him ejected, wanting only to make sure that  the pitcher’s hands were clean (literally and figuratively) and that the cheating stopped. When Clay Bucholz was caught with slick stuff loaded onto his arm in 2014, his opponents—despite what seemed like the entire mediasphere piling on—refused to indict him. Bucholz was never checked, and everything proceeded more or less apace. Even the instances in which players are called out tend to back up this mindset. After Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez had Brewers reliever Will Smith tossed from a game in 2015, all he said afterward was, “Every pitcher does it—just hide it better next time.”

Hell, Pineda himself was outed by the Red Sox only after they’d carefully warned him via public comments about being so obvious about it, before he went out and did it again anyway.

This all might be why nobody on the Phillies called out Syndergaard in an official capacity during the game, leaving comments by Hoskins and manager Gabe Kapler (“Everybody becomes more aware,” he said afterward. “You just pay closer attention to it, that’s all”) to serve notice that Thor will have to play it straighter the next time around.

***

For a fuller look at what various substances can do, and how various pitchers feel about them, see the piece I wrote a few years back for SportsIllustrated.com, or Dirk Hayhurst’s compendium at Deadspin.

Gamesmanship

Next-Level Trolling, Minor League Baseball-Style

Give it up for the Stockton Ports of the Single-A California League, who have taken opponent trolling to new heights. Now, as a matter of charitable pursuit, fans can choose the walk-up music for opposing batters at one of two price tiers: $5 will get your song randomly assigned to an opposing batter, while for $10 you can choose which lucky player gets to hear your personally curated tune.

Next time you’re in Stockton, bring a sawbuck to the yard and have yourself a time.

 

Retaliation

David Bell Didn’t Like What Chris Archer Did To The Point That He’s No Longer Making Sense

Bell argues

Reds manager David Bell got to talking with reporters on Tuesday about his team’s Let-the-Kids-Play fight with the Pirates, for which he was ejected and ultimately suspended, and unfortunately for those following along, his comments didn’t make a whole lot of sense. All quotes from the Dayton Daily News:

  • “[Derek] Dietrich clearly didn’t do anything wrong because he wasn’t ejected or suspended. If MLB has a problem with what Derek did then there needs to be a rule against what he did.”

There is a rule against what he did—it’s unwritten, and it’s been around for about as long as baseball itself. We have recently been lulled into thinking that it’s no longer enforced, which seemed to be fine until we realize that  guys like Chris Archer still inhabit pitcher’s mounds. MLB promotional slogans aside, the reality is that some players still don’t appreciate showboating. Dietrich can pimp any homer any way he’d like; he just has to cop to the possibility that he’ll piss somebody off in the process.

To Bell’s other point, a lack of prohibition against a given act in the rulebook doesn’t automatically make that act acceptable. Had Dietrich, unprovoked, decided to approach the Pittsburgh bench and spit tobacco juice onto Clint Hurdle’s cleats, he wouldn’t have broken any rules. He’d still be an asshole, though.  

  • “I had one intention [in coming out to argue the call] and that was to defend our team and to defend our hitter and to get Archer ejected.”

Never mind that that’s technically three intentions. Trying to get Archer ejected without a warning for throwing a pitch that didn’t come close to hitting a batter is, to put it exceedingly mildly, a stretch.

  • “I felt my only course of action was to get their pitcher ejected for intentionally trying to hurt our player.”

It’s unclear how throwing a ball below the belt and well behind a hitter in any way constitutes intent to injure. By this point in the conversation Bell is in full-fledged protect-my-guy mode, and appears to be spitting out whichever authoritarian argument reaches his brain first.

  • “Whether they throw at their heads or their backs or their legs, it is all the same to me. For that to be OK, or even somewhat acceptable that it wasn’t at his head, to me that is a very dangerous approach.”

This is where Bell really goes off the rails, because drawing false equivalences can be downright dangerous. What Archer did was clearly not the same as throwing at an opponent’s head. What Archer did was not even the same as drilling a guy in the ribs. Any modern pitcher who intentionally rifles a ball above somebody’s shoulders becomes an automatic pariah among his peers, and rightly so. Chris Archer does not remotely fit that bill, at least to judge by his approach to Dietrich.

  • “I don’t know what those [unwritten] rules are. All I know is this is pretty simple—our hitter hit a home run and didn’t do anything against major league rules or the umpire’s rule or anybody’s else’s rules. But everybody in the ballpark knew he was going to have to stand up there and possibly get hit with a fastball, maybe hit in the head and done damage.”

Waitaminute. If everybody in the ballpark knew that retaliation was imminent, Dietrich must have done something pretty obvious to inspire it. One needn’t approve of Archer’s response to acknowledge this reality.

David Bell is well respected around the sport, deservedly so, and I agree with him that pitchers have no business seeking physical retribution for an act so simple as showboating. But that’s an awfully high horse he’s decided to mount in Dietrich’s defense—so high that he appears to have lost all contact with what’s actually happening below. Defending his players is part of the guy’s job, but over the last couple of days Bell may have been throwing himself into his work with just a touch too much vigor.

Retaliation

Pirates, Reds Argue Whether We’re Actually Ready To Let The Kids Play

Puig fights

So it seems that we’re now talking in matters of degrees. We’re going to let the kids play and flip themselves silly and celebrate in all sorts of ways that would have gotten them drilled by a previous generation of pitchers, and baseball is going to be better for it.

At least until somebody acts exactly like MLB has promoted in its own promotional campaigns and we’re reminded that red-assed pitchers maybe don’t watch too many commercials and somebody does something stupid and we’re right back to where we started.

We’re talking of course, about Pittsburgh’s Chris Archer in the role of the Red-Ass, and Cincinnati’s Derek Dietrich in the role of the Kid (never mind that he’s 29, only six months younger than Archer—a marketing slogan is a marketing slogan), and Yasiel Puig as the enforcer of a player’s right to showboat. (Who better, amiright?)

A quick recap: In the second inning of yesterday’s game, Dietrich yammed a monster homer clear into the Allegheny, then stood in the box watching it for what even by let-the-kids-play standards seemed like an exceedingly long time.

Pittsburgh catcher Francisco Cervelli was the first to express displeasure, waiting as Dietrich crossed the plate to deliver some words of rapprochement, to which the runner did not respond. (According to Puig, Cervelli also warned that retaliation was coming, which, if true, surely played no small part in what was to come.)

Archer continued his team’s messaging during Dietrich’s next at-bat, sending a pitch to the backstop, just behind the hitter’s rear end. Dietrich barely had to flinch to avoid it. Plate ump Jeff Kellogg immediately warned both benches. This is where things got interesting.

While Dietrich was downright passive in his response, Reds manager David Bell tore from the dugout to argue the warning, followed closely by a number of Reds players and coaches, notably Puig. Almost instantly, fists were thrown. (Again: notably Puig.) Cincinnati’s Bell, Puig and reliever Amir Garrett were ejected, as were Pittsburgh’s Felipe Vazquez and Keone Kela.

There’s a lot to unpack here. On one hand, Archer delivered a clear and harmless message, sent well behind the batter, below his belt. Annoying maybe, but hardly impactful. (“When someone is throwing at someone, they are trying to inflict pain or possibly hurt someone or send a message,” Dietrich said after the game, overblowing the details by a considerable margin.)

On the other hand, it was clear hypocrisy on Archer’s part, the idea being that a pitcher like him—a showboat in his own right—has no business getting angry when an opponent dishes out some of his own. And make no mistake: Archer’s emotional displays are prevalent to the point that his own team released a promo video about them before the game.

Or, take Bell, whose argument with Kellogg was that by acting so quickly, the umpire denied the Reds a chance to respond. Unless his argument was that Archer should have been ejected without warning. Either of which are nonsense, given that it was the Reds who started it, and that Pittsburgh’s answer didn’t even involve drilling a guy. What did Bell want to do? Escalate the situation by having one of his pitchers hit a Pirate? Send a similar message without fear of ejection? To what end?

Ultimately, of course, it won’t matter. If Bell or any member of his team is bent on responding, they’ll have no problem waiting until the next time the teams meet at the end of May. It’d be stupid, but that’s their prerogative.

There’s also the idea that, according to the unwritten rules, the aggrieved party in this type of situation dictates his team’s response. Had Dietrich made a mad dash for the mound, it would have made sense for his teammates to follow. But Dietrich didn’t do a thing. When Bell came out to argue, Puig seized the opportunity, vaulting the dugout rail to confront Archer on the field. Puig, of course, has never been much for the unwritten rules. This alone will earn him a suspension.

If you really want to get into the woods, examine the postgame sentiments of Vazquez, one of those ejected. “[Dietrich] shouldn’t have done that,” he said in a Pittsburgh-Post Gazette report. “That’s against the principles. If you do something like that you’re going to pay for it. We’re trying to play the game the right way by respecting it. Joey [Votto] can do it because he’s been here a long time. But a guy like him isn’t supposed to do that. He hasn’t earned the right. It was a little too much. We all knew it was going to be far but you’re not supposed to wait until the ball hits the ground to start running. You aren’t supposed to do that.”

The idea of veterans earning various rights not granted to their less-seasoned contemporaries is ages-old in baseball and, if expressed 20 years ago, wouldn’t be surprising. But in a landscape where an abundance of voices are calling for freer reign—to let the kids play—it’s an odd message. By Vazquez’s logic, the kids should be hamstrung, just like they always were, remaining reserved in their actions until such time as they’re sufficiently tenured to loosen up. That is, until they’re no longer kids.

Then again, Vazquez (née Rivero), as a Venezuelan national, is taking a decidedly counter approach to that espoused by a great many Latino players, who generally tend to default toward more celebratory practices, not fewer.

Ultimately, did Dietrich learn any lessons? To judge by the homer he hit six innings later, almost to the same spot as the first, no. He stood and admired that one, too.

The best thing to come out of this was @stormchasernick’s response to Cut4’s suggestion about art.

Reds-Pirates, May 27. Mark it on your calendars.

Update, 4-09-19: Archer has been suspended for five games, Puig for two and Bell for one. The Archer penalty in particular, which will only force him to bump back a start for a day or two, shows that MLB viewed his actions as relatively inconsequential. Which makes sense, given that he didn’t come close to hitting anybody.

Update, 4-11-19: David Bell’s talking, but he’s not making much sense.