The guy to watch is Buster Posey.
In the wake of yesterday’s headline-grabbing free-for-all between Bryce Harper and Hunter Strickland, one can learn volumes by watching the Giants catcher.
Sure, Strickland drilled Harper in the hip with as intentional a fastball as can be thrown by a grudge-carrying pitcher.
Sure, his reason—Harper did some staring and some yelling after homering off of Strickland for the second time during the 2014 playoffs—was thin.
Sure, Harper acted like a punk in his own right, throwing his helmet at the pitcher before charging the mound, a decision made all the worse by his wild inaccuracy.
Sure, the fight was intense, at least by baseball standards, with Harper and Strickland getting in at least one shot each, even as Giants Michael Morse and Jeff Samardzija cinematically tackled each other while going after Harper.
It all provided some darn good theater on a lazy Memorial Day afternoon. But the person to watch was Posey.
In situations like yesterday’s, a catcher’s primary role is fight-preventer, his duty being to bear-hug an angry batter from behind before damage can be done to the pitcher. Not Posey. Not yesterday.
Harper took four-and-a-half angry steps before deciding to charge the mound. He took five more, plus a whole bunch of pitter-pats, once he started to run. Also, he threw his helmet.
Yet it wasn’t until Harper and Strickland began trading punches that Posey thought to approach the fracas, far too late to stop anything, or to even slow it down. That’s him, mask on, on the outside of the scrum looking in.
Why didn’t Buster do anything from the outset? Probably because he was nearly as annoyed at Strickland as Harper was. Because Strickland was redressing an issue from three seasons ago, in which the only injury was to Strickland’s ego, during a series the Giants won. (“I don’t even think [Strickland] should be thinking about what happened in the first round [of the playoffs],” Harper said after yesterday’s game. “He should be thinking about wearing that ring home every single night.”)
Posey may have been upset because Strickland decided that the time to do something was in the eighth inning of a game in which the Giants trailed by only two runs. (Given Strickland’s short-relief role, he doubtless felt that he had to seize any available opportunity. Harper’s postseason homers off him in 2014 represented the first two times the players ever met. Monday’s was the third.)
Sure, two were out and the bases were empty, but following Harper in the batting order were Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon—not exactly the cast you want to face out of the stretch. Sure enough, singles by Zimmerman and Murphy brought home pinch-runner Brian Goodwin to extend the Nats’ lead.
It was foreseeable. Posey foresaw it. And he knew that if the Nationals are to respond at some point during the series, he will likely be the one wearing the target. And he wasn’t pleased. So he stood there.
“Those are some big guys tumbling around on the ground …” Posey explained after the game in a San Jose Mercury News report. “It’ll be a little dangerous to get in there sometimes.” Uh huh.
Posey had every right to be angry with Strickland. Drilling Harper was a stupid decision at a stupid time. Still, it comes down to this: players are obligated to protect their teammates, no matter how much they may disagree with said teammates’ actions. They can offer chastisement in private, of course (one can only hope that Posey took such a tack with Strickland), but over the course of a season, any decision that frays a ballclub’s brotherhood is markedly unhelpful. When it comes to fights, the prevailing notion is: Protect your guys and sort out the details later.
To that end, Posey failed. He failed not only Strickland, but every other Giants pitcher who might one day wonder whether Buster might have his back when things get weird.
The thing is, Posey wasn’t even alone. Look at Brandon Crawford trotting in from shortstop in the above clip, as if trying to delay his arrival. Maybe Crawford’s just not a fighter. Or maybe it’s a collective anti-Strickland sentiment, almost as if the guy had been making clubhouse pronouncements about his intention to get Harper, even in the face of veteran teammates advising him against it.
Which, given Strickland’s reputation, wouldn’t be surprising. It all jumbles together in one inane stew that, no matter which angle one chooses, doesn’t look good for the Giants.
Update (5/30): Fox’s Ken Rosenthal suggests that Posey and Strickland may have had an understanding wherein Posey intentionally lay back to let things play out. This would explain a lot of things. Still, it doesn’t account for Posey’s complete lack of movement (were he prepared to act engaged while not actually engaging, one would expect that he’d try to sell it at least a little), nor the fact that Harper’s charge was decidedly unlikely in the first place.