I’d like to recall something that happened a couple weeks ago, which serves as a barometer for where baseball is, in relation to where it used to be.
On May 8, Baltimore starter Dylan Bundy gave up a single to Kansas City’s first batter of the game, then coughed up three straight homers, walked two guys, and gave up another jack. Seven hitters, seven runs and 15 total bases surrendered without recording an out. It was by any measure among the worst performances in baseball history.
The question here: Beyond simply pitching better, should Bundy have done anything differently?
Once, the obvious response would have been for Bundy to knock a hitter or two down—if not drill them outright— somewhere amid that chain of carnage. Some small examples:
- 1944, St. Louis vs. Cincinnati. Walker Cooper, Whitey Kurowski and Danny Litwhiler hit consecutive homers against Clyde Shoun. Shoun knocked the next batter, Marty Marion, on his backside with an inside pitch.
- After Cleveland scored three runs in the first inning and eight in the second against three Twins pitchers in 1975, Minnesota reliever Mark Wiley opened the third by drilling Rick Manning in the leg.
- In 1985, Bob McClure gave up two homers to the A’s in the span of six batters, which struck the southpaw as especially egregious given that both were hit by left-handers. His first pitch sent the next batter, Dave Kingman, sprawling.
There was a point to those reactions beyond simple frustration. If a team is clearly comfortable in the batter’s box—as was the case against Bundy, and in all three examples above—it behooves the pitcher to disrupt the emerging pattern. This doesn’t mandate hitting anybody, of course, so much as making an opponent move his feet to avoid an inside pitch. In two of the above examples, this is precisely what happened. Marion’s at-bat ended with a popup to shortstop, Kingman’s with a popup to short right field. The hitter after Manning, George Hendrick, struck out. Bundy, however, kept pumping strikes, even as those strikes were getting hammered, and the result was self-evident.
Hell, Manning’s manager back in ’75 was the man with the reddest ass in the history of baseball, Frank Robinson. What did he think of Wiley plunking his guy? “When you’re getting your ass kicked, you’ve got to do something like that,” Robinson said in Making of a Manager.
That era has passed. Intentionally placed inside fastballs are frowned upon like never before. It does not even occur to many pitchers that disrupting a hitter’s comfort zone is actually a viable strategy. We saw it last year when the Nationals went deep four times in the span of five batters against Milwaukee. We saw it in 2010, when four straight Diamondbacks homered against Brewers right-hander Dave Bush.
For the clearest distinction between then-and-now responses, look to 1963, when Angels pitcher Paul Foytack gave up four consecutive jacks to Cleveland in a game that inspired a passage cut from the final draft of The Baseball Codes:
In a 1963 game, Foytack, a Los Angeles Angels pitcher in his 10th big league season, allowed consecutive home runs to Cleveland’s Woody Held, Pedro Ramos and Tito Francona. They were the fourth, fifth and sixth homers the right-hander had given up on the day. To make matters worse, Ramos was the opposing pitcher, sported a .107 batting average, and it was his second round-tripper of the game. Foytack had had about enough, and decided to knock down the next batter, rookie Larry Brown. But even that didn’t work out too well.
Foytack’s first offering tailed over the plate, and Brown hit the Indians’ fourth straight homer. It was the first of his career, and made Foytack the first pitcher in major league history to give up back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs.
“Today,” said Foytack a few years back, “if you throw close to a guy, they want to take you out.”
There’s a lot to be said for this latest, gentlest iteration of baseball. Some of the things that are getting lost, however, are actually pertinent to the playing of quality baseball.