Bat Flipping, Retaliation

Celebratory or Sour: Jose Bautista Has A Bat Flip For Every Occasion

Bautista flips

Because one can never have too much bat flip discussion, and because no bat flip discussion is complete without Jose Bautista, let’s start there.

On Wednesday, Bautista hit an angry home run against Atlanta. He was angry because earlier in the game, Toronto teammate Kevin Pillar, upset at having been struck out on a quick pitch from Jason Motte, shouted a homophobic slur toward the mound, causing benches to empty. (The slur, having violated the unwritten rules of society more than it did the unwritten rules of baseball, is not the point of this post.)

So when Bautista homered a bit later against Eric O’Flaherty, he did this:

As you can see, a bat flip was involved. Also as you can see, the moment was pointedly distinct from Bautista’s other noteworthy flip from the 2015 postseason, which was documented at some length within these pages.

The latter was an expression of joy—satisfaction at having succeeded, monumentally, at an important task.

The former consisted primarily of churlishness. There was little to celebrate—the Blue Jays were down 8-3 when Bautista swung the bat. He tried to stare down the pitcher. He did a weird skip around the bases. There is a difference.

Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki thought so. He had words for Bautista as the runner crossed the plate, and when Bautista stopped to enjoin him, benches emptied for the second time in the game. Afterward, O’Flaherty had some pointed comments. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“That’s something that’s making the game tough to watch lately. It’s just turned into look-at-me stuff, it’s not even about winning anymore. Guy wants to hit a home run in a five-run game, pimp it, throw the bat around – I mean, I don’t know. It’s frustrating as a pitcher. I didn’t see it at the time, but I saw the video – he looked at me, tried to make eye contact. It’s just tired. We’ve seen it from him, though.”

Add to that the fact that Toronto pitchers hit seven batters over the first three games of the series—one of which knocked Freddie Freeman out of action for 10 weeks with a broken hand—and Atlanta was left with an abundance of bad feelings. (The pitch to Freeman was clearly unintentional, a fastball that wasn’t all that far inside, which hit Freeman’s extended top hand as he tried to check his swing.)

Atlanta responded to it all on Thursday, Julio Teheran drilling Bautista in the hip two pitches into his first-inning at-bat. Warnings were issued and everybody moved on. (Allowing players to police their own business, in whatever reasonable form it took, served to diffuse the situation after that point. Bautista and the Jays made a statement of their own by scoring three runs in the inning en route to a 9-0 victory.)

There is something to be said for recent cries that baseball should embrace the passion of its players and allow them to more freely express themselves on the field when it comes to bat flips and other celebratory acts. Unfortunately, that same sentiment is also used to justify poor behavior from egotistical spotlight hogs.

A player exulting after a virtuous performance lends realism to the sport. Showboating out of petulance strips that realism away. Bautista has encapsulated both sides of that argument. On Wednesday, it wasn’t a good look for anybody.

 

Retaliation, Sign stealing

Johnny Cueto Doesn’t Care For Your Sign Stealing, Sir

Cuetto PB

The Dodgers denied it, sort of, but it sure appears that they were stealing signs in San Francisco on Wednesday.

On one hand, it’s not such a big deal. Every team has players who do it and who appreciate when their teammates do it for them. And ultimately, a team getting its signs nabbed is mostly an indication that it needs better signs.

Wednesday, however, had some wrinkles—the most photogenic being Cueto’s response: a head-high inside fastball that eventually led to both benches clearing.

Cueto cutter
The pitch Grandal hit.

It started in the first inning, when, with Justin Turner at second base, Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal golfed an inside cutter off his shoetops into the right-field corner for an RBI double. On one hand, it was the kind of pitch that seems impossible to connect with firmly without knowing it’s coming. On the other hand, Buster Posey was set up middle and slightly away—so there’s no way that Turner was signaling location—and was falling to his knees to block it as Grandal made contact. It’s possible that Posey’s location was a decoy and that the cutter simply sank more than he expected, but if the catcher didn’t know the pitch was coming, how could the hitter?

No matter.

When Grandal next came up, Cueto responded with a message pitch that, while high and inside, the hitter didn’t have to move to avoid. Posey, however, having called for something low and away, was unable to adjust in time to stab the ball, which sailed to the backstop and allowed the runner at third, Chase Utley, to score.

After Grandal flied out to end the inning two pitches later, he began jawing at Cueto, pointing at his head in a clear gesture of having not appreciated the location of Cueto’s previous offering.  Cueto jawed right back. That’s when players from both teams streamed onto the field.

Afterward, Grandal alluded to other instances that may have aroused Cueto’s suspicion, which involved Grandal not only receiving signs, but sending them. “It caught me by surprise,” the catcher said in an MLB.com report, speaking of the conversation he had with Cueto during the pitcher’s third-inning at-bat. “I’m trying to get a walking lead because I’m slow. He thought I was giving out signs.” This could only have happened after Grandal’s sign-aided* double in the first, which was the only time he reached base all day. (Don’t forget that Cueto has some experience with this type of thing. At least the players also managed to iron out their differences during the conversation, each offering apologies for their behavior according to post-game recollections from each of them.)

Grandal also denied that he had known what was coming earlier in the inning. “Making contact [on the double] has nothing to do with knowing it was coming,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have swung at it if I had known where it was.”

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was less guarded, all but admitting Cueto’s suspicions. “He obviously didn’t appreciate if we were doing something like that,” he said in a San Francisco Chronicle report. “If we were, that’s a part of the game.”

Ultimately, Roberts is correct. The Dodgers have every right to steal whatever signs they can, just as Cueto has every right to inform them in safe and reasonable ways that he’s on to their shenanigans.

“He said, ‘Sorry for the misunderstanding. Let’s just move on,’ ”said Cueto after the game in an AP report, recounting his third-inning chat with Grandal in the batter’s box. “I’m not going to use that as an excuse, but they were relaying signs.”

Ultimately, it wound up just as multiple instances of mixed communication have ended up this season—worse than it needed to be, thanks to a substandard understanding about how things are supposed to work. (Examples of this abound.)

If Cueto had any clue about the game situation, he’d never have intentionally thrown a pitch that had a chance to get by Posey with a runner at third base. (If history teaches us anything, it’s that this type of thing is simply how Cueto responds to certain situations.)

If Grandal had recognized that Cueto’s contact-free message message could have effectively ended the tension right there, he might have kept his mouth shut.

But these players, like so many of their colleagues, have forgotten (or never learned) the deeper meaning behind some baseball actions, or the responsibility inherent in performing them. The result was another unnecessary conflagration spurred by players who were just a little confused about the proper response to things that in previous generations were considered normal.

* Maybe.

 

Retaliation, Umpires Knowing the Code

When Bad Things Happen to Good Pitchers … At Least Pitchers With Good Intentions

Gausman

When it comes to baseball’s unwritten rules, it’s often imperative that umpires are apprised of any history that might play into potential confrontation between teams. Frequently this helps. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Wednesday fit into the “doesn’t” category.

As the Red Sox and Orioles took the field, everybody around baseball—fans, players, coaches and all levels of management—knew about what had gone down between them. Also, more importantly, what had the potential to go down.

Commissioner Rob Manfred was sufficiently concerned, arranging, along with MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, a pregame conference call with Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter of the Orioles, and Dave Dombrowski and John Farrell of the Red Sox. In so doing, he put everybody on both sides on notice, and effectively provided plate umpire Sam Holbrook an extra-heavy mallet with which to hammer out the peace.

In an ideal world, the threat of action on the umpire’s part would have been enough. In retrospect, it might actually have sufficed, and yet we do not live in an ideal world. Because in the second inning, Baltimore’s Kevin Gausman hit Xander Bogaerts.

In a vacuum, the play would barely have registered. Gausman had faced only five batters. He’d been erratic, throwing only eight of his 20 pitches on the day for strikes. The fateful pitch was a 76 mph curveball—the last weapon of choice for somebody with vengeance on his mind. Given that Gausman was working under the hottest lights imaginable for such a thing, Bogaerts could not have been hit less intenationally.

It made no difference. The game had, somewhat surprisingly, begun without warnings, and Holbrook opted against issuing one to Gausman. Instead, he ejected him from the game, in the process becoming the poster child for brain-locking umpires who make shortsightedly stupid calls.

The Orioles were stunned. Gausman signaled furiously that it had been a breaking pitch that failed to break, and nothing more. Catcher Caleb Joseph spiked his mask and had to be physically separated from Holbrook. Adam Jones ventured all the way in from center field to protest, and was eventually tossed when he kept yapping following a fifth-inning at-bat.

So the Orioles had to go to their bullpen three outs into the game. Even though they were fortunate to squeeze seven innings out of Richard Bleier (making his first appearance of the season after being called up from Triple-A Norfolk) and Ubaldo Jimenez, they will be pitching shorthanded in the bullpen for days to come. Also, they lost, 4-2.

We’ve seen pitchers tossed for similarly little. We’ve seen instances in which clueless umpires didn’t do enough to staunch a potentially volatile situation. But as we learned Wednesday, it’s not just the information an umpire’s given, it’s how he uses it that matters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Retaliation

Obsess Much? Time For Red Sox To Let Go Of Machado’s Slide

Sale-Machado

The theme of the last two weeks has been Pitchers Throwing Behind Hitters Who Don’t Seem to Understand That Pitchers Who Throw Behind Them Haven’t Actually Hit Them. 

The recent pitches in question have come in both above the shoulder (bad) and below (better). Either way, outrage abounded.

The upshot is that purpose pitches are precisely that: pitches that serve a purpose, delivering messages about unappreciated behavior on the part of the opponent. The takeaway in this corner, generally speaking, is that a pitch behind a guy, away from his head, which poses no danger to his physical well-being, should not inspire the kind of misguided rage that we saw last week.

Then came yesterday. Chris Sale threw behind Manny Machado. Manny Machado was unhappy.

Unlike some of the preceding examples of misplaced animosity, he had every right to be.

The Red Sox were angry when Machado spiked Dustin Pedroia on April 21. They responded on April 22, first when Eduardo Rodriguez threw three pitches at Machado’s knees, all of which failed to connect, then another one, from reliever Matt Barnes, behind his head.

It is reasonable to expect that the first dose of retaliation should have mitigated whatever karmic debt Machado incurred with his slide, and that Barnes cleaned up any leftover crumbs with his ill-conceived follow-up. If the Red Sox wanted to drill Machado, they had their shot—two of them—and they blew it. The expiration date on their justified rage had passed.

Boston did not see it that way.

Which leads to the question: What was Chris Sale’s goal? Did he want to drill Machado, but, like his teammates before him, miss? Did he simply want to send what has becoming an increasingly common message that the guys in his clubhouse haven’t forgotten about what the guy in the other clubhouse did? Was it somehow about Mookie Betts, who had been hit by a pitch a day earlier?

No matter the answer, to what freaking end?

Assuming that the pitch was related to the Pedroia play, Machado already knows that the Red Sox, or at least certain players among their ranks, don’t like him. He knows that what he did continues to sit poorly with Boston’s roster. The Red Sox have gone through great pains to inform him of this. Sale’s pitch lent no additional degree of understanding.

Perhaps it’s Machado’s ongoing insistence that his slide was entirely above board. Maybe it’s aggrieved reaction to being thrown at the first time. Regardless, the Red Sox refuse to let it go.

To Machado’s credit, he handled his rage beautifully, saving it for a profanity-laced postgame rant for the ages. On the field, he simply took his base and later hit a monster home run.

The Red Sox have gone from good-guy victims in this drama to out-of-control vengeance monsters in the span of a week. The theme of recent message pitches across the league—hitters need to understand them better in order to better process the messages therein—has flipped entirely. This time it’s pitchers who need to understand when and how to end what at this point seems like an endless string of retaliatory actions.

It’s not a good look, for the Red Sox or for baseball.

 

Retaliation

Tension in Texas: Tempers Flare When They Didn’t Have To. Again.

Napoli steps

Just last week we discussed the importance of understanding baseball’s unwritten rules, regardless of how one feels about them. Minnesota’s Miguel Sano had been thrown at, and missed, yet still made a stink of things and got tossed out of the game.

Yesterday, it happened again. With two outs and nobody on base in the sixth inning, Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. threw a pitch behind Rangers first baseman Mike Napoli. Houston trailed 2-1 at the time, not a great moment for retaliation, but a purpose pitch that sails wide of its mark cedes only one ball in the count, not a free baserunner. And if the pitch had somehow connected, well, Napoli had already homered and singled against McCullers. Not having to face Texas’ No. 5 hitter wasn’t too big a price to pay.

McCullers’ motivation was clear: Rangers starter Andrew Cashner had drilled Jose Altuve in the first inning and Yuli Gurriel in the second. After the pitch sailed behind Napoli, the batter took several angry steps toward the mound, and benches quickly cleared. (Watch it here.)

This is where we get into the importance of knowing what’s actually going on.

In the modern game, it’s a stretch to think that two unintentionally hit batters, guys who took first base without incident and, in Altuve’s case, came around to score, merit response. But McCullers, the son of a former big league pitcher, may have learned to view such things a bit more dogmatically.

So personal was the decision behind his pitch that his catcher, Brian McCann, didn’t give a thought to stopping Napoli’s advance on the mound, which is every catcher’s prime responsibility in such situations. Instead, he turned around to retrieve the wild pitch from the backstop, because it never occurred to him that Napoli might be angry.

McCullers’ was the softest response possible for a teammate being hit, a no-impact nod signifying that the Astros were paying attention. It shouldn’t have elicited a raised eyebrow in the Rangers dugout. Instead, we got statements like these, via MLB.com:

  • “They threw at Napoli on purpose. … They threw behind Napoli’s head.” (Cashner)
  • “I think anytime somebody throws behind a hitter’s head it’s going to create some tension.” (Rangers manager Jeff Banister)

As it turned out, McCullers did not throw behind Napoli’s head. His pitch came in across the lower portion of Napoli’s uniform number, closer to his belt than his shoulders. It was so far behind him that Napoli did not have to move to avoid it.

The craziest statement came from Napoli himself: “I understand how things work. Two of their guys get hit, but all he has to do is put it in my hip and I run down to first base. No one likes 95 [mph] behind their back.”

It seems nuts, but he’s arguing that a guy should have hit him rather than missed him.

Folks get caught up in the heat of a moment, but situations like these continue to prove that the dissolution of baseball’s unwritten rules—the fact that each successive generation of ballplayers understands the Code less thoroughly than its predecessors—is playing out poorly. Because there will always be somebody like Lance McCullers Jr., who learned the game the old-fashioned way, willing to make old-fashioned statements. Instead of seeing them for what they are, many younger ballplayers—and sometimes even a 12-year vet like Napoli—will react poorly and inflame tensions where no inflammation is necessary.

Even if Napoli is innocent of his own intent—a step toward the mound with a word of warning for McCullers, followed by an uneventful trip to first base would not be unheard of—he’s surrounded by far younger players who lack the requisite understanding of what had just happened.

That’s what truly raised the temperature in Houston: Even as Napoli stood near the plate, a bevy of his younger teammates streamed from the dugout and, rather than following the veteran’s lead, escalated the proceedings. (Even some older teammates got in on the act, Shin-Soo Choo leading the charge.)

It could be that the Rangers—11-15 and in last place in the AL West, with five members of the starting lineup (including Napoli himself) hitting  below .205—are at a point where baseball is frustrating enough without guys like McCullers nudging the process along.

Then again, after the game Napoli addressed the rivalry between the teams from Texas. “That’s how it should be,” he said. “There’s too much, people that are friends, and talking before the game, buddy-buddy. I remember coming up, if we were playing that night, it was time to get down and play a tough game and do what you have to do to win. It’s what it should be.”

Maybe he gets it after all.

Retaliation

Rays’ Reaction to HBP: Isolated Incident, or is This What Baseball Looks Like?

Bautista stares

Aaaaaand we’re back. After a flurry of retaliation talk surrounding the Red Sox and Orioles last week, we got some fireworks north of the border yesterday. Or at least a sparkler or two.

It started on Saturday, when Toronto’s Joe Miangini hit Rays outfielder Steven Souza in the hand with a pitch. It was almost certainly unintentional—a running, letter-high fastball that Souza failed to spin away from. The pitch was tight, but not egregiously so. Not to mention that the Jays led by only three, and with one out and the heart of Tampa Bay’s order coming up, it was no time to cede free baserunners.

That Souza had to be removed from the game on Saturday and then, despite X-rays coming back negative, sat out on Sunday, might have provided Archer’s motivation to respond. On Sunday,  the right-hander threw a fastball behind Jose Bautista, hip high. From the looks of it, he could well have been aiming at the batter but missed his spot. (Watch it here.)

As retaliation is concerned, below the waist is the way to go … but was it remotely necessary? Miangini’s pitch was accidental and in no way reckless. He wasn’t taking unnecessary liberties with Tampa Bay players. His behavior did not merit addressing.

Which is the point of purpose pitches, even those that intentionally miss their targets. If Archer was trying to show teammates that he’s looking out for their well-being, a response to something actually nefarious, or at least willfully negligent, would be in order. What he gave us on Sunday was not that.

Bautista gave Archer a long staredown at the plate, then had some words for him after flying out to right field. Plate ump Jim Wolf issued a warning after the pitch, curtailing further such liberties.

Perhaps that was the end of it. Because Archer didn’t actually hit Bautista, that should be the end of it. But maybe we’re sliding into a new world order in baseball—which is actually an old world order in baseball—where retaliation for offenses that shouldn’t even register, a pendulum swing away from the influx of free-wheeling bat flippers, is the new way of doing business.

Maybe that’s the case, but hopefully not.

 

Bat Flipping

Kris Bryant Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Bat Flips

Bryant headshot

Kris Bryant went on Chicago radio station 670 The Score on Tuesday and discussed bat flipping. While being careful to say that he’s not offended when others do it, and adding that it’s good to “add more of that fun to the game,” he also said this:

If [you hit a home run] halfway up the video board, that’s it, that’s enough of a disgrace for the pitcher that you don’t need to add anything to it. You crushed a home run, you felt good about it. He felt bad about it. And it’s good.”

It’s all personal opinion, of course. In baseball’s new bat-flip-tolerant landscape, pitchers have little call to get upset by the practice. But Bryant drove to the heart of the anti-showboat mentality: Put your head down and act like you’ve been there before. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

[H/T Big League Stew]