Rizzo Rapid to Render Respect


Whether or not one agrees with their implementation, the underlying nature of baseball’s unwritten rules—respect each other and the game at large—is difficult to quibble with. We saw one of its most basic elements yesterday, courtesy of Anthony Rizzo.

In an at-bat earlier in the game, Chicago’s first baseman had incorrectly assumed ball four from Pedro Baez, but as he was heading toward first base plate ump Angel Hernandez informed him that, no,  it was actually a strike.

There’s no indication that Hernandez was upset with Rizzo, but the hitter took it upon himself during his next at-bat, when the game paused for a mound conference, to make sure everything was square between himself and Hernandez. Watch for yourself:

On one hand, there’s self-preservation involved in the strategy. The more an umpire likes a player—or, more pertinently, the less he doesn’t like a player—the better the chances that close calls will go that player’s way. More important, however, is the basic decency of the gesture. There was a chance that Hernandez read something in Rizzo’s actions that Rizzo did not intend, so Rizzo took care of it as soon as he could.

“I don’t like showing up the umpires,” he said after the game. “They’re out here working their tails off 162 like we are. … I just let him know that, hey, my fault there. I probably should have waited a little longer and not just assumed that it was a ball.”

Turns out that a little bit of introspection suits ballplayers nicely.

[H/T Hardball Talk]




Filed under Earning respect, Umpire Relations

Today’s Question: What to do With Spying Eyes?


According to the Dodgers, the Cubs are stealing signs. Also according to the Dodgers, the Dodgers don’t like it.

As evidence, Los Angeles catcher Yasmani Grandal pointed to the eighth inning of Saturday’s Game 1 of the NLCS, when Ben Zobrist reached second base—the perfect location from which to peer in at the catcher’s hands—and Addison Russell’s at-bat changed considerably.

“All the sudden, Russell is not taking good swings at sliders, looking like he’s looking for a fastball and in a certain location,” Grandal said in a Los Angeles Times account. “Did we know Zobrist had the signs and was doing something for it? Yeah, we did. That’s why we do it.”

The “it” to which Grandal referred was a continuous loop of sign changes and mound meetings, the better to stifle would-be thieves.

“We are literally paranoid when it comes to men on second and they are trying to get signs,” he added. “We know who is getting the signs. We know what they’re doing. We know what they do to get it. In the playoffs, one relayed sign could mean the difference between winning the World Series and not getting there.”

Ignore for a moment whether there’s any difference between literal paranoia and figurative paranoia. Are the Dodgers so certain that Zobrist and the Cubs are spying on them? Zobrist assures us otherwise.

It seems likely that he’s obfuscating, if only because it doesn’t take a hardball savant—even somebody unable to decode a catcher’s signs—to signal location. Former infielder Randy Velarde once looked at me like I was half an idiot when I asked him about the ease of relaying stolen signs from second base. “It’s the easiest thing in the world,” he said. “I’m amazed that everybody doesn’t do it.”

Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter. The barest suspicion of such chicanery should prompt the very response the Dodgers appear to be embracing—cloaking their signs in any way possible. What said response does not include is getting angry at the Cubs … and the Dodgers seem to be fine on that front, as well.

Changing signs can be as easy as swapping out the indicator, or the sign after which the actual sign takes effect. Maybe it’s the sign following the second signal for fastball. Maybe it’s based on the count (a 2-0 pitch would trigger the second sign in a series, while a 3-2 count would trigger the fifth, etc.). It could be the number of signs a catcher puts down rather than the signs themselves. The possibilities are limitless.

The only trick is to not make things so complicated that the pitcher gets confused. (Giants pitcher Sam Jones, for example, killed the National League in 1959, going 21-12 with a 2.54 ERA everywhere but Wrigley Field. In Chicago, of course, the Cubs’ practice of stealing signs from the scoreboard led to an 0-3 mark with for Jones with an 8.53 ERA. Why didn’t the Giants just switch up their signs like the Dodgers have recently done? Jones had trouble recognizing all but the simplest signals.)

Stealing signs from beyond the field of play is illegal, of course, not to mention frowned upon from a moral standpoint, while stealing signs from the basebaths—as Zobrist is accused of doing—is widely considered acceptable practice. (At least up until one is caught, at which point an increased degree of subtlety is expected). There are red-asses through the history of the game partial to on-field accusations (one example from spring training of this year seems to reinforce the idea that the Cubs might really be into this type of thing), but the low-key approach Los Angeles is taking—calling it out in the press is a surefire way to make sure everybody’s paying attention—is the right one.

Ultimately, the Dodgers are also displaying another sort of best practice. The ultimate recourse available to a team whose signs have been pilfered is to switch ’em up, then go win ballgames. Which is exactly what Los Angeles is doing.


Filed under Sign stealing

The Commissioner Weighs in on the Unwritten Rules

rob-manfredPosition yourself for a moment as an old-school curmudgeon when it comes to baseball’s unwritten rules, a defender of decorum, issuing proclamations about how it was better back before the current generation took over and started flipping bats all over the field and celebrating June victories like they’d just won the World Series.

Now imagine your head exploding when you hear that commissioner Rob Manfred, the man at the head of the food chain, tasked with shepherding baseball into its next golden era, said this in response to a question about on-field celebration:

I actually think players being more demonstrative on the field is a good thing for the game. I think it’s exciting.

It came during a media conference on Saturday and was easy to miss, being sandwiched between questions about minority representation in the sport and replay implementation. It seems, however, noteworthy. Is baseball’s head honcho actually advocating for more showboating within the sport?

Before we answer that question, take off the old-school cap I asked you to put on back in the first paragraph, and instead position yourself on the opposite end of the spectrum, as somebody who decries baseball’s unwritten rules as outdated and without function, serving mainly to suppress individuality and fun within the sport. You’re pretty happy with Manfred about now, aren’t you? So how do you feel about the very next thing that came out of his mouth?:

Overall, baseball has always had unwritten rules that kind of govern what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. The way I think about the changes we’ve seen in the last couple of years, is that we have a really exciting new, young generation in the game. And just like the players 20 years ago, they are going to develop a set of unwritten rules as to what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Yep, it’s possible to walk both sides of the line without being in the least bit hypocritical. Manfred is absolutely correct in leaving it up to the players to determine what is appropriate and what is not. That’s been the rule since forever, and things have seemed to work out pretty well. Once, an act like digging into the batter’s box was considered retaliation-worthy. Then times changed. Now, bat flips are all but ignored, and occasionally encouraged. Because that’s the way the players (certain among their ranks—*cough, Bumgarner, cough*—excepted) want it.

It’s the very position I’ve advocated in this space from my very first blog post. My own feelings have little sway in whatever position I happen to be examining. The issue at question is about how a player’s actions mesh with the mores established by his peer group at large. If he’s in the mainstream, there should be little problem with whatever it is he’s done. Otherwise, let’s discuss it and, if need be, discuss it again.

Manfred closed his answer thusly: “I have great faith in our players; that they will use good judgment; that they will develop a set of rules that are respectful of the game, but also are reflective of the differences between these young players and the people that may be played a generation ago. I think we should all embrace that. I think it’s a good thing for the game.”

Honestly, no answer he could give to any question would convince me of his competence more than that one. At their core, the unwritten rules are about respect, and however the current crop of players ends up getting there is far less important than their getting there at all.

Ultimately, that’s all any defender of the sport’s code should care about. Manfred is about two years into his tenure; looks like we’re in good hands, baseball fans.

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Filed under Unwritten Rules

Temperatures Top Out in Toronto Over Tepid Toss


Yesterday we had a nice, nuanced discussion about the propriety of infield dekes, with multiple viewpoints weighing in on a play Jung Ho Kang made on Sunday. It was a reminder about why baseball’s unwritten rules are fun and valuable, and how they can affect the execution of the game on a very real level.

Then the Yankees and Blue Jays started throwing baseballs at each other, and all that goodwill went to hell.

It started with New York’s Luis Severino hitting Josh Donaldson in the first inning Monday with a clearly unintentional fastball that grazed the hitter’s elbow. Blue Jays starter J.A. Happ nonetheless responded an inning later by throwing a pitch behind Chase Headly, and then hit him in the hip with his next offering. (Watch it here.)

What was the point? For the Blue Jays to show that they will not abide pitchers coming inside to their MVP candidate? Even for those who see such a response as entirely justified, Happ had his chance and he missed. Hitting Headly at all is weak sauce, but to take another shot after the first one failed is even worse.

It also set some damaging precedent. Responding to Happ, Severino went after Justin Smoak in the bottom of the inning, but, like Happ, missed. Then, also like Happ, he finished the job a pitch later. (Watch it here.) All told, the events inspired two benches-clearing incidents in which punches were thrown. Severino and New York manager Joe Girardi were ejected.

Unless there’s some backstory about which I’m unaware, there’s little place in the game anymore for Happ’s sort of reaction—brutality for brutality’s sake—to an unintentional HBP.

It was an old-school and outdated approach to Code enforcement, but at least we had Mark Teixeira to lend some new-school levity to the proceedings. After tying the game with a solo homer in the ninth, and celebrated like this:

He said later that it was the first time he’d ever flipped a bat.

It was the final meeting between the teams this season. Here’s hoping they’re able to start the 2017 season with fresh eyes.

Update (9-27): Looks like the Baseball Gods have spoken.


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Filed under Retaliation

On the Nature of Dekes and What Constitutes Underhanded Baseball


In Pittsburgh on Sunday, Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang saw Bryce Harper motoring toward third with a clean triple, even as the throw from right fielder Josh Bell soared above two relay men and wide of the base. Faced with the possibility of Harper scoring on the overthrow, Kang did what he thought necessary—he applied a phantom tag.

Such a play, known as a deke (short for “decoy”), has long been a staple of major league baseball. In it, a fielder acts as if a play he has no chance of making is in front of him, so as to slow or stop a runner who might otherwise advance to the next base. The most prominent deke ever came during Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, when Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch helped prevent Atlanta’s Lonnie Smith, at first base, from scoring on a double into the gap by pretending the blast never left the infield. Such a ploy can only work if the runner has no idea where the ball actually is, of course, but in that instance Smith did not. The run he failed to score cost his team dearly in a 1-0 loss. (The incident is discussed in depth in The Baseball Codes.)

The play was totally legit, and was likely the difference in Minnesota’s victory. However, it is not the type of deke we’re discussing today.

There is a difference between Knoblauch’s deke—and the panoply of plays like it that are seen around baseball all the time—and what Kang did to Harper. Smith paid no price outside of tarnished pride and a run off the scoreboard. Harper, however, was not so lucky. That’s because Kang’s decision to throw his glove down came so late in the play that the runner had no choice but to force himself into an ill-timed and awkward slide. (Watch it here.)

Such a play was described in The Baseball Codes:

A number of players have been injured by ill-timed or unnecessary dekes, which leads to an unwritten rule about when it is and isn’t appropriate to use the maneuver. Infielders throwing down phantom tags at the last possible moment can cause awkward slides, and the potential for damage is very real. “If a guy is stealing, you don’t pretend the throw is coming,” said second baseman Craig Grebeck. “If he’s coming in standing up and you all of a sudden look like the catcher is throwing the ball, a late slide can tear up an ankle or a knee.”

That’s exactly what happened to Gene Clines in 1973. Clines, a fourth-year outfielder with the Pirates, was on first base in a game against San Diego; with a full count on the hitter, he took off for second. The pitch was taken for ball four, but instead of simply strolling to second, Clines— who never peeked homeward to assess the situation—proceeded full speed ahead. Padres shortstop Derrel Thomas waited until Clines was nearly atop the base, then inexplicably threw his glove down as if a late throw were about to arrive. Clines, flustered, went into a hurried slide and badly injured his ankle. “That play right there cost me a lot of time,” he said, still angry at the thought more than three decades later. “I never fully recovered for the rest of that year.” Clines, batting .291 going into the game, missed three weeks, and hit just .227 in the two months thereafter.

Sure enough, Harper jammed his thumb on the play, and left the game shortly thereafter.

Pertinent point: Gene Clines was a coach under Dusty Baker for six years in San Francisco and another four in Chicago. Now Baker manages the Nationals, and through his close friend knows all too well the dangers of a poorly thrown deke.

Washington pitcher A.J. Cole responded during Kang’s next at-bat by throwing a pitch well behind the hitter at shoulder-blade level. (Whether Baker ordered it is highly doubtful, based on his track record.)

Because Kang ducked as the pitch flew behind him, the pitch looked like it came in head-high. The Pirates took great and understandable exception to Cole’s message, and benches quickly emptied. (Watch it here.)

The dustup served to distract from the far more interesting discussion about the grey area of infield decoys. The clear difference between Kang’s tag and that of Derrel Thomas decades earlier is that there was clear benefit to Kang’s strategy—holding Harper at third. If he could have put down his deke in a timely fashion, giving Harper enough space to undertake a regular slide, it would have been fine.

Kang appeared to have had time to have done this, even after identifying the overthrow. Barring that, however, he still had another option:

Don’t do anything at all. Which is exactly what he should have done.

Update (9-27): Deking is wrong, but drilling is punishable. Cole just drew a five-gamer.



Filed under Deke Appropriately

Jose Fernandez, RIP

jose-fernandezIn a note only tangentially related to baseball’s Code, it seems fitting to recall Jose Fernandez, as so many have done over the last day or so, as a man whose passions ran deep. His joyful embrace of the game accentuated the drama of his arrival in this country, and his enthusiastic approach had the baseball world remembering him as one of the sport’s most exciting players.

In addition to all that’s been said since news of his passing broke, I have only to add that for all the kid’s bravado, he offered up the single best response to his own breach of baseball etiquette that I have seen since I began covering this beat.

In 2013, when Fernandez was a 21-year-old rookie, he behaved so egregiously in a game against Atlanta that he nearly came to blows with Braves catcher Brian McCann. I went into detail about it at the time, but the important point is what came afterward: Before players had so much as settled into the postgame clubhouse, Fernandez owned up to his mistakes, apologized and vowed to do better.

It was a refreshing dose of self-awareness and humility, the likes of which are seen all too infrequently in professional sports. For it to come from a kid who’d barely reached drinking age made it all the more impressive.

They say, with good reason, that athletes frequently serve as poor role models. On that day in 2013, however, Jose Fernandez set as good an example as possible about how to own your mistakes, and what can be done to try and make things better. He will be missed, for his baseball skills and so much more.

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Bat Flip

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Filed under Bat Flipping, Uncategorized