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.

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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.

They Bled Blue

They Bled Blue Is Out Today. Read Some Of It Over At Los Angeles Magazine

Just in time for opening day of They Bled Blue, Los Angeles Magazine has an excerpt about the most remarkable aspect of a remarkable season. Fernandomania was real, and it was spectacular.

They Bled Blue, out today wherever fine books are sold.

I’ll be reading tonight at Diesel Books in Santa Monica, and on Thursday I’ll be talking baseball with author Ron Rapoport and Dodgers team historian Mark Langill at the South Pasadena Library. Come on down.

Bat Flipping

Free Willy!

Even those with cold, dead hearts can make hopefully appreciate a bat flip that punctuates a game-winner. If athletes play to win, and fans want to cheer winners, then there’s no better time to celebrate, right?

Willy Adames did. And how.

The Rays are currently a half-game back of the Yankees and need every win they can manage. Setting a new height standard with his lumber, Adames was fully in the moment after his walk-off single against Toronto on Wednesday. Criticize those who toss their bats after a mid-inning homer pulls their fourth-place team to within five runs of tying it up, if you must, but goddamn it leave Willy alone.

Bat Flipping, Retaliation, Showboating

Wednesday’s Lesson In MLB: Try Not To Accidentally Hit Guys With Whom Your Team Is Already Beefing

Perception is everything, and precedent feeds perception. On Wednesday, baseball saw two games with hotly contested hit batters, and while there is a strong possibility that neither was intentional, recent history has led those at the wrong end of the pitches to leap to some obvious conclusions.

Let’s start in Chicago, where the White Sox’ series with Kansas City was already steeped in contention, given that the last time these teams met resulted in a rhubarb over a Tim Anderson bat toss. The Royals have already paid him back for that, so when they did it again on Wednesday—pitcher Glenn Sparkman bouncing a ball off of Anderson’s head—the situation appeared ready to explode.

Except for this: It was the second inning of a 2-1 game, with nobody out and a runner on first. Also, it was a changeup—not the type of heat-seeker ordinarily utilized for nefarious purposes. For what it’s worth, the pitch merely grazed the brim of Anderson’s helmet—a terrible location to be sure, but more indicative of a ball that’s riding up and in than a missile aimed at an earflap.

Anderson seemed to realize all of this. Hell, the pitch didn’t even knock him down. While visibly frustrated, he more or less just stood in the batter’s box, helmetless, staring down Sparkman. Anderson’s lack of response was no doubt abetted by umpire Mark Carlson, who emerged from behind the plate and quickly tossed the befuddled pitcher from the game. (“It was a changeup,” Sparkman can be seen explaining on replays. Even Anderson said later that he felt the pitch was accidental.)

Had the Royals not already targeted Anderson this season, of course, there’s almost no chance that Sparkman would have been tossed. As it is, optics are important and Carlson did not want this game to get away from him. Sometimes it’s hard to be an umpire.

***

In Cincinnati, meanwhile, the game was getting away from the Reds, as Pittsburgh built up a 7-0 lead by the eighth inning. That’s when Pirates reliever Clay Holmes drilled Eugenio Suarez in the hand with a 94-mph fastball. There were some moments of immediate heat—Suarez approached the mound for before being led away by catcher Elias Diaz—but things cooled quickly. X-rays proved negative and Suarez is day-to-day.

“I don’t know if they are going to hit me on purpose,” Suarez said after the game in a MLB.com report. “That’s why I walked up to him and asked him if he hit me on purpose. He said, ‘No. Definitely not.’ I just said I wanted to make sure because I don’t like that pitch up and in, right on my face.”

This is believable. Holmes has walked 15 batters in 15⅔ minor league innings this season, and has issued seven free passes in 13 innings since being called up. Outstanding control does not appear to be his thing.

That didn’t prevent Reds manager David Bell from having a say about what had just gone down. So vehement was he when he came out to argue about the pitch that umpire Jeff Nelson ejected him.

Again, this is where optics matter.

In April, Pirates starter Chris Archer threw a pitch behind Derek Dietrich in response to the slugger taking an unusual amount of time to watch a home run that ended up in the Allegheny River outside PNC Park.

In April 2018, Pittsburgh’s Jameson Taillon broke the selfsame Suarez’s thumb with a pitch, costing the slugger three weeks. Later in the season, Taillon hit Suarez again, this time in the elbow. Never mind that none of the pitches appeared to be intentional, or that as a hitter Suarez could do a better job of turning his back toward inside pitches rather than leaning away from them with his hands exposed—a habit that got Jeff Bagwell’s hand broken in three consecutive seasons. Hitting him again looks bad, so it must be bad.

Bell was fed up by the lot of it. He’d previously instructed his pitchers not to retaliate for such things. That stance may have changed.

“We know they’ll do it,” the manager told reporters after the game in a Cincinnati.com report, explaining his argument with the umpires. “I was doing what I could to protect our players. Clearly, we’re not going to get protected. We’ve got to do whatever we can. We’ve got to take matters into our own hands. It’s unfortunate that our players aren’t going to get protected. That’s been made clear, and we know that team will intentionally throw at people. What are you supposed to think?”

He continued.

“When someone is messing with your livelihood, your career, who knows? You’ve got to protect yourself. Clearly, we’re not going to get protected by the umpires or the league. That’s been made clear. Our players need to do whatever they need to do protect themselves. I’ll back them whatever that is. For some reason, we think it’s OK to throw at people. For whatever reason, that was OK many years ago, and we’re still living some rules that I don’t know about—that it’s OK to intentionally throw at our players. The umpires think it’s OK. The league thinks it’s somewhat OK. Somebody’s going to get hurt. We need to take as many measures as possible. Ours need to do whatever they need to do to stick up for themselves, protect themselves. They protect themselves, their career.”

Bell has already proved to be angry about this topic to the point of incoherence. Still, the closest the Reds came to a response yesterday was when reliever Raisel Iglesias threw an up-and-in, 97-mph fastball to Bryan Reynolds with an 0-2 count, before eventually striking Reynolds out.

What we’re left with is increasingly high tension. Bell has thrown down one gauntlet. Pirates broadcaster John Wehner threw down another on Pittsburgh radio, when he came down on Dietrich, of all people, for his homer-watching ways: “I can’t stand him. … I don’t understand why you have to do that. It’s different if you’re a Hall of Fame player, you’re a 60-homer guy, you’re an established guy. Nobody ever heard of him before this year.”

Wehner also referenced Dietrich’s grandfather, Steve Demeter, a longtime minor league coach in the Pirates system, who he said “is rolling in his grave every time this guy hits a home run. He’s embarrassed of his grandson.”

Let’s ignore for a moment the very old-school notion of players earning whatever leeway they’re afforded by the sport’s unwritten rules; Wehner seems completely oblivious of the sea change that’s occurred around baseball as pertains to celebrations.

However much they angered the Pirates and Royals, displays like Dietrich’s and Anderson’s are entering the mainstream, to the point of approval from MLB’s own marketing department. Pitchers have the right to try and put a damper on them, but that tactic does not appear to be working very well as a method of dissuasion.

At least Royals-White Sox and Reds-Pirates matchups, despite the meat-headedness therein, are far more interesting now than they were at the beginning of the season.