As March draws to a close, it’s a good time to ponder the meaning of spring training games.
They exist to help players prepare for the season, that much is obvious. But what of their actual function? Because they don’t count, they’re handled differently than other contests.
Managers regularly empty their benches with steady streams of substitutions. Pitchers don’t fret about poor outings—at least early on—under the hypothesis that they’re working out winter kinks; if they feel like throwing 10 curveballs in a row then by gorum that’s what they’ll do, regardless of what hitters are doing to those curveballs.
But still, they are games. And games are played with certain elemental consistencies.
The last two weeks have seen separate incidents that bring to the fore the question “What’s appropriate in spring training and what’s not?” Both, coincidentally, involved catchers for the Orioles.
On March 15, Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen tried to score from first on a hit by Baltimore’s Matt Diaz, but was tagged out when Matt Wieters blocked the plate, forcing McCuthen into his shin guards.
“I don’t know what (Wieters) was thinking,” McCutchen said afterward in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “It’s spring training. We’re not trying to get hurt. I wasn’t expecting that much contact. I’m OK, though.”
It harkens back to Pete Rose bowling over Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game. How much is too much when it comes to hard-nosed baseball during the course of an exhibition?
In this case, however, it was McCutchen himself initiating the contact; Weiters did nothing more than react precisely as a catcher should—protecting both himself and the baseball.
As Yahoo’s Kevin Kaduk observed, “Why did McCutchen slide if he was uninterested in making contact? There’s two bangs in a bang-bang play and McCutchen could have easily withheld one by simply peeling off if he felt the run wasn’t that important in the whole scheme of things.”
On Monday, another Baltimore catcher, Jake Fox—who leads the Grapefruit League with 10 home runs—showed that he’s not much afraid to take his hacks, regardless of the circumstances. With runners on second and third and nobody out in the eighth inning—and his team holding a 13-3 lead against the Tigers—Fox swung 3-0.
One of the clearest-cut sections of baseball’s unwritten rulebook mandates that when one’s team holds a big lead late in a game, one does not, as a hitter, swing at a 3-0 pitch. We’ve gone over it in this space before, but the prevailing notion holds that any pitcher in the wrong end of a blowout game is not on the most solid of footing to begin with. With that in mind, and because the last thing a manger wants to see with his team down by double digits (or something close to it) is a bubble reliever trying to get fine, the next pitch is almost certain to be a fastball down the heart of the plate.
Because of this, hitters are expected to back off and give the pitcher sufficient leeway with which to regain his footing.
Were this the regular season, Fox’s actions would have drawn unequivocal ire, but did the fact that they came in a spring training game affect things? Jake Fox is a journeyman, has played for three teams since 2007, and last year was the first in which he logged no time in the minors. While his prodigious display of power this March has all but locked up a roster spot, one can never be too careful, right? The more numbers he puts up, the better his chances of earning a real payday.
Then again, he was facing a minor leaguer in Chance Ruffin. And regardless of circumstance, proper etiquette is proper etiquette. Ruffin was wearing a big league uniform and facing a big league hitter, and deserves an according level of respect. As does the game itself.
Two people who agree were Jim Leyland and Buck Showalter. Once Fox walked, Leyland raced to the top step of the dugout and berated him for his transgression.
Showalter took things a step farther, yanking off his hat and enumerating at high volume to those in the dugout the ways in which Fox had soiled the reputation of the game. He then sent in a pinch-runner, and made sure to meet Fox in the dugout, where he then unloaded on him. Wrote Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun, “It apparently wasn’t the first time this spring where Fox ignored a clear take situation.”
If Leyland feels that there’s a lesson to be taught here, it shouldn’t take long—Baltimore and Detroit meet in the teams’ second series of the season, starting April 4.