Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation

To Swing Or Not To Swing: What To Do With A Meatball When Your Team Is Comfortably Ahead?

Mattingly angry

Don Mattingly is the new uncontested King of Baseball’s Old School.

On Friday, his Marlins got into a benches-clearing dustup with the Dodgers, after reliever Ross Stripling drilled Giancarlo Stanton in the back. At first it appeared to be retaliation for Marlins pitcher A.J. Ramos hitting Brett Eibner, which came two pitches after Cody Bellinger blasted a two-run homer, not to mention that Eibner had already homered earlier in the game. (Watch it here.)

That’s a passel of old-school drama right there, what with pitchers drilling guys for some combination of teammates’ accomplishments and their own earlier success. But Mattingly’s subsequent explanation brought things to a whole new level.

“They’re up 5-0, swinging 3-0,” the manager said after the game in a Miami Herald report. “If you’re going to swing 3-0 and we got six outs left. … They can say it however they want it, but when you swing 3-0 up 5-0 going into the eighth, you can put it however you want.”

That is some serious throwback action. The 3-0 hitter Mattingly was talking about was Corey Seager, who eventually walked. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts later came out and said that not only did he not think it was a big deal but that it had been his decision, not Seager’s, which, maybe, okay, but taking heat off their players is what good managers do, so who knows.

Once upon a time, swinging 3-0 with a big lead late in the game was strict grounds for reprisal. The theory is based on the gentlemanly premise that any pitcher struggling to find the strike zone while his team holds a big lead needs all the help he can get. With the outcome of the contest no longer in question, allowing an opponent to pump a fastball down the heart of the plate in an effort to regain his footing is the least a hitter can do.

Take this quote:

“You’ll never see me hitting 3-0 five runs or more ahead. You don’t cherry-pick on the other team. You don’t take cripples. Three-oh, he’s struggling. He’s got to lay the ball in there. Don’t do it to the man. He’s got a family, too.”

That was from Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, in a New York Times article from 1993. Anderson decried such tactics as “cheap.”

In 2002, Matt Williams swung 3-0 while his Diamondbacks led San Francisco 6-0 in the fifth inning. He wasn’t drilled in response, but he heard about it from Giants manager Dusty Baker across the field.

“I did take exception to that, because [Williams, a former Giant] is one of my boys, and I had him [in San Francisco],” said Baker, looking back on the moment. “I said ‘Hey, man, I thought I taught you better than that. You don’t rub it in. You beat them up, but you don’t rub it in.’ ”

The best example from the not-so distant past doesn’t concern a 3-0 swinger, but the polar opposite. In the ninth inning of a game in 2002, with his team holding a 14-4 lead over the White Sox, Seattle outfielder Mike Cameron opted to watch a 3-0 fastball split the heart of the plate. His manager, Lou Piniella, had long preached against embarrassing opponents, and Cameron felt that taking a rip at such a juncture might do that very thing.

A pertinent detail: Cameron had already hit four homers on the day, and willingly passed up a golden opportunity for historic No. 5. He didn’t even consider it until afterward.

Those days, however, are long gone. Cameron last played in 2011, and his generation appeared to be the last to afford serious merit to the 3-0 rule. Part of it is the idea that modern players want to seize every stat-padding opportunity available, regardless of whether their team needs it to secure a victory. Even more pertinent are the definitions of big lead and late in the game.

Once, four runs were considered to be barely penetrable, and five runs—beyond the reach of a grand slam—were lock-box territory. Then came the juicing of baseballs and players alike, and the sport’s offensive explosion laid waste to prevailing notions about what kinds of leads might actually be safe. Five runs turned into six, then seven, then never enough.

Given Mattingly’s response, things might be regressing. The five-run deficit that so upset the Marlins skipper in the eighth inning offers a key tell. With the abundance of relievers—not only closers, but setup and seventh-inning men—pushing 100 mph, late-inning runs are harder to come by than ever. So maybe Mattingly is on to something, this idea that even a few runs over a game’s late frames are nearer a lock than at perhaps any point in history. The Dodgers’ late-inning guys—Kenley Jansen, Josh Fields and Pedro Baez—have combined for a 1.33 ERA this season. Jansen throws a 95-mph sinker, Fields a 95-mph cutter, and Baez a 97-mph four-seamer.

No wonder Mattingly felt overwhelmed.

Ultimately, embarrassing a pitcher by swinging 3-0 only works if said pitcher, or his team, is actually embarrassed. Of late, that’s been a rarity, but maybe Mattingly is ushering in a new/old era.

 

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6 thoughts on “To Swing Or Not To Swing: What To Do With A Meatball When Your Team Is Comfortably Ahead?

  1. Maybe it’s just me, but a 5 fun lead with six outs to go doesn’t sound large enough to lay off. If it was the ninth inning, yeah, i could see it.

  2. Me too. Maybe Mattingly’s just talking to take the heat off of somebody else … or maybe he’s on the vanguard of an unwritten-rules revolution.

  3. I read your book (and loved it!), so I knew about the rule. But when I heard Mattingly talking about a 5-run lead with 2 innings left, I thought, Is this man INSANE? Like y’all, I think that’s just too early (or too small a lead) to start shutting things down.

  4. In the scope of things it seems ludicrous, but before the McGwire/Sosa/Bonds offensive explosion of the 1990s-2000s, that view was patently mainstream. There’s something to be said for indomitable bullpens, but essentially crying uncle before you even reach a team’s closer is a tough pill to swallow.

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