Hidden Ball Trick

Softballers Remind Us Of The Glory That Is The Hidden-Ball Trick

We love the hidden-ball trick, not because it’s sound baseball or a consistent source of success, but because it’s a strategic wild hare that embodies the opposite of the staid and measured approach that typefies the sport. It’s what-the-hell-why-not baseball that, even for those who dislike trickery as a strategic option, is inevitably fun to watch.

We saw a simple version of it this spring, when Miguel Cabrera fielded a pickoff throw, faked a return to the pitcher, and tagged the unsuspecting runner. That inspired an extended post from me on the play, including tons of video and an extended excerpt from The Baseball Codes. It’s good. You should click on over.

That said, this play is more embraced at lower levels of ball than the big leagues. After all, younger players are not only more likely to be drawn to its rule-bending nature, they’re also more likely to fall for it.

Take, for example, the Trine University softball team, from Angola, Indiana, which recently used some carefully choreographed fakery to advance to the Division III College World Series. Up by two runs in the last inning against Genesco, with two outs and the tying runs on base, the Trine pitcher attempted a pickoff that not only sailed into center field, but past the center fielder. Or at least that’s what she wanted the opposition to believe.

The opposition believed it.

Love it or hate it, that’s some entertaining ball right there.

[H/T Deadspin.]

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Retaliation

Yankees-Rays Blood Feud Continues, With CC Sabathia At The Helm

Finally, we’re seeing retaliation for something other than bat flipping and the like. Agree with it or not, at least the reason feels somehow tangible.

On May 11 in Tampa, Rays pitcher Yonny Chirinos drilled Yankees first baseman Luke Voit on the left arm with a 95-mph fastball, one batter after DJ LeMahieu had homered. Even if it was unintentional, the optics were terrible. It didn’t help that Chirinos hit Gary Sanchez two batters later, or that Gleyber Torres had been drilled the previous night. “It’s the same thing,” said CC Sabathia in the aftermath. “We hit a home run and they throw up and in. It’s stupid.”

Sabathia, of course, has some history with the Rays. He’s already been suspended this season for the way he closed the 2018 campaign, by drilling Tampa Bay’s Jesus Sucre in response to a Rays pitcher throwing behind the head of Austin Romine a half-inning earlier. Some grudges die hard.

Still, Sabathia’s ire didn’t seem to spread to his teammates. The Yankees had a small opening to respond later in the game, after the Rays opened up a 7-2 lead in the ninth, but did nothing. They had another chance the next day after New York scored four in the top of the ninth to build a 7-1 lead. Again, no action. This would likely have gone unnoticed for the fact that Sabathia has a long memory and a thirst for justice.  

On Friday, in the series opener against the Rays at Yankee Stadium, the lefthander threw a pitch that forced Rays DH Austin Meadows to jackknife out of the way. Afterward, Romine said that he didn’t think it was intentional—a stance that lasted until he saw the video, which left little to doubt:  While walking back to the dugout after ending the inning, Sabathia shouted, “I definitely was trying to hit his ass.” During a tie game.

An inning later, the pitcher yelled at the Rays dugout some more.

“You know CC, he’s been around a long time,” Meadows told reporters after watching the video. “He’s a competitor. He obviously wanted to take a shot there, but it is what it is. Obviously, we had a beef back and forth. It’s part of the game, honestly. Luckily I didn’t get hit. But it is what it is.”

Things continued in Sunday’s series finale, when New York starter Chad Green drilled Daniel Robertson in the head after giving up back-to-back homers. Chance Adams later hit Yandy Diaz in the wrist, knocking him from the game. Robertson said afterward that he did not believe Green’s pitch was intentional, but Diaz was not so certain, saying, in the New York Post, “Maybe it was because I hit two home runs off them [on May 11].”

During the 2000s, the Rays had an extended beef with Boston, eight years’ worth of back-and-forth sniping that led to multiple brawls (all of which was dissected in The Baseball Codes). Now it seems like they’ve picked a new AL East opponent with which to do this particular tango. (Take a look at the above link about Sabathia drilling Sucre to see a rundown of some thorough short-term HBP detritus.)

The teams next see each other June 17 in New York. It would be surprising if things ended here.

Bat Flipping, Retaliation

This Is The New Face Of Baseball Celebrations

Last month, Tim Anderson made clear to us that MLB might not have thought its Let The Kids Play campaign all the way through. It was produced in response to controversy over bat flips both big and little, and other displays of emotion on a ballfield. It was, we were led to believe, institutional approval for players making the sport just a bit more fun.

For that, it worked fine. It just failed to account for whatever’s coming next.

As Anderson showed us, when run-of-the-mill bat flips become routine, players will have to dive deeper, progressing to whatever will grab the most attention next.

We might have seen a preview of that last night.

In the Single-A Florida State League, Royce Lewis of the Fort Myers Miracle—the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft—smacked a ball to the wall in center field for a standup double, and as he reached second base dropped down for some celebratory push-ups. Forget the opposition; even the fans were displeased.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Bradenton Marauders pitcher Gavin Wallace responded later in the game by throwing a pitch behind Lewis’ back, for which he was subsequently ejected.

The Miracle’s official explanation, that Lewis was simply punishing himself for not hitting it out, is about as weak as misguided justification can get. (Batting .233 with no homers in 37 games, perhaps he’s prone to overreach when the rare occasion arises.)

So what does this tell us?

For one thing, at least some of the players who have been crying out for leeway regarding emotional displays are being disingenuous. Even while accepting that tossing one’s lumber can be an expression of uninhibited joy, when the act goes mainstream and players have to up their flip game to draw attention to themselves, that’s exactly what they’ll do. To judge by Anderson and Lewis, they’re already doing it. So it’s not entirely about exuberance. These are type-A athletes who spend their professional lives in the spotlight; Q ratings mean something to many of them.

It should be expected, which is what makes MLB’s failure to expect it especially glaring. Now that the league has embraced showmanship on an institutional level, it’s going to have to figure out how to deal with the aftermath. This is because through it all, pitchers—at least enough of them to matter—haven’t changed a bit. They know better than anyone that some celebrations are simply self-aggrandizement wrapped in a thin veneer of joy, and are commensurately annoyed by them. Guys who pump themselves up at the expense of the opposition continue to be seen as disrespectful, so the reactions of Keller and Wallace should in no way be construed as fringe opinions.

The league ultimately suspended Anderson after his grand bat toss
— not for the toss itself, but for using racially inflammatory language in the aftermath. Perhaps they were trying to send an indirect message. If so, it didn’t take.

“I want to be that guy you don’t want to play against, because I’m a dog,” Anderson told Sports Illustrated. “My team loves it, so I don’t care about anybody else. … I’m bringing something to baseball that’s never been brought, as far as the swag.”

Anderson’s attitude is neither good nor bad, per se. How he brings the swag will make a difference, as will the way his opponents react to it.

This is only the beginning, folks. Settle in for what looks to be a wild ride.

[H/T Bring Me The News.]

Cheating

More Pine Tar Found In New York. It Continues To Not Be Much Of An Issue

We have the season’s second incident of a pitcher being too brazen for his own good. In April, it was Noah Syndergaard. On Wednesday it was Seattle left-hander Yusei Kikuchi. Their problem: not hiding pine tar well enough.

For Kikuchi, there was so much stuff slathered beneath the bill of his cap that fans in the second deck of Yankee Stadium were screaming for the umpire to check him. Fans, however, don’t have the power to make that request. Yankees manager Aaron Boone did, and opted against it.

Meanwhile, Kikuchi had a no-hitter through five innings and pitched into the eighth as the Mariners won, 10-1.

Pine tar, of course, adds grip for a pitcher. Where a slippery substance like Vaseline lends movement by removing spin from the baseball, pine tar can help (to lesser degrees) by increasing snapability. For somebody like Kikuchi, whose success depends on placement of breaking pitches, it can make a difference. The result of Wednesday’s game is evidence. (Whereas somebody like Syndergaard may have been tempted to use it during a frigid game in April, the Seattle Times informs us that Kikuchi might use it because he sweats a lot.)

So why didn’t the Yankees make a stink? Because, as we know by now, pitchers on virtually every team use pine tar—if not more nefarious substances—and rare is the manager who wants to get into an escalating battle of if-you-check-my-pitcher-then-I’ll-check-yours.

From my post about Syndergaard a few weeks back:

That’s hyperbole, but probably not by much. When Detroit’s Mike Fiers tossed a no-hitter against Los Angeles in 2015, he did so with a shiny substance that many took for pine tar adhered to his glove. Dodgers players knew all about it and didn’t say a thing. When Kenny Rogers was caught with pine tar on his hand during the 2006 World Series, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa didn’t even have him ejected, wanting only to make sure that  the pitcher’s hands were clean (literally and figuratively) and that the cheating stopped. When Clay Bucholz was caught with slick stuff loaded onto his arm in 2014, his opponents—despite what seemed like the entire mediasphere piling on—refused to indict him. Bucholz was never checked, and everything proceeded more or less apace. Even the instances in which players are called out tend to back up this mindset. After Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez had Brewers reliever Will Smith tossed from a game in 2015, all he said afterward was, “Every pitcher does it—just hide it better next time.”

MLB didn’t even comment on the matter, let alone take action. Yankees outfielder Cameron Maybin may as well have been speaking for everybody when he said after the game (via NJ.com). “Nobody noticed it, nobody said anything. We’ve got a lot bigger worries, trying to manufacture runs, trying to get on base, but I don’t think that had anything to do with it.”

Kikuchi has been in the big leagues for less than two months. He clearly knows how to cheat. Now he just has to learn to be more subtle about it.

Retaliation

Braves Wait Nine Months For Retaliation, Then Miss Their Man

On Friday, we were reminded of the sustained vitality behind the long-established baseball concept of waiting for retaliation. In the big leagues, it’s what you have to do sometimes when you see a given opponent only every once in a while, and even then you must wait for an appropriate moment to minimize the chance that drilling somebody will cost you on the scoreboard. Ultimately, revenge fantasies can prove logistically difficult.

Okay, enough with the generalities.

Remember last August, when Jose Urena drilled Ronald Acuna Jr. for being awesome? The Braves do.

Atlanta hadn’t faced Urena since then, apparently not even in spring training. So when the Miami pitcher stepped into the box against Kevin Gausman in the second inning of Friday’s game, Gausman built up some clubhouse goodwill with a first-pitch fastball that let Urena know unequivocally that his act of cowardice had not been forgotten by the guys in the visitors’ dugout.

Gausman missed his mark, Urena leaning toward the plate as the thigh-high pitch sailed behind him. The target was clearly intentional; the miss was likely accidental. Plate ump Jeff Nelson tossed Gausman immediately.

This type of thing is hardly unheard of.

During the 1998 NLCS, Padres catcher Jim Leyritz was drilled by future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux one pitch after asking the plate umpire to check the ball for scuff marks. The Padres waited until the following May for retaliation, when Sterling Hitchcock planted a fastball into Maddux’s hip. (As it happened, Leyritz was Hitchcock’s personal catcher.) “It’s just baseball,” Leyritz said after the game, even as a coach on his own team, Davey Lopes, joked to him that “some guys hold a grudge a long time.”

In 2001, Barry Bonds homered against Russ Springer—and, as was his way, watched the ball fly—in the pitcher’s final game before losing more than a season to rotator cuff and labrum injuries. The next time Springer faced Bonds, in 2004, he drilled him. The next time he faced him after that, in 2006, he drilled him again. The latter HBP was noteworthy because Bonds was sitting on 713 career homers, one away from tying Babe Ruth.

Or go back to 1971, when Chris Speier homered off of Pittsburgh’s Steve Blass during the National League Championship Series. The next time the two squared off, the following June, Blass hit Speier in the ribs. “I was thinking, ‘Well, what the fuck was that for?’ ” said Speier later. “I had no idea, so I asked him the next day. He said, ‘You remember that home run you hit off me?’ I said, ‘You guys won the fuckin’ World Series! Whaddaya gotta drill me for?’ ”

As pertains to Friday’s incident, the real question is whether the second inning of a 1-1 game—during which Gausman had already given up a single, a walk and hit a batter—was the right time for the pitcher to do what he did. There were two outs, and by passing up the chance to retire a weak hitter like Urena, Gausman forced himself to face the top of the order with the bases loaded. Not smart.

That last part was only conceptual, of course. Because Gausman missed Urena, he did not load the bases, but in getting himself ejected he did his team no favors. Touki Toussaint relieved him with a 1-0 count on the batter, and proceeded to walk Urena on three more pitches.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Toussaint escaped trouble by striking out Curtis Granderson to end the inning, and the Marlins are the Marlins, so a tie game in the second inning is nearly as good as five-run lead against them in the ninth. Atlanta ended up winning the game, 7-2, and the series in a clean sweep, during which time they outscored Florida 19-5.

Hopefully, this beef is over. The teams next meet in June, which is when we should know for sure.

Update 5/7: Gausman’s been suspended five games.

Retaliation

IronPigs Troll Job Backfires, Which Is Less A Reason To Write About It Than Being Able To Put ‘IronPigs’ Into A Headline

This season has already given us one of the great minor league troll jobs in recent memory, and it wasn’t even directed at a specific player or team:

On Monday, we got another, when the Lehigh Valley IronPigs—the Triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies—hit Jacob Rhame where it hurt.

Rhame, of course, was recently featured in these pages for his role in a kerfuffle with Philadelphia’s Rhys Hoskins, which started with Rhame’s head-high fastball and ended with Hoskins blasting a homer against him, then taking a trip around the bases so slow that it made Bengie Molina look like Tim Raines. (Actually, it ended when Rhame was suspended for two games, then sent to the minor leagues. But still.)

Rhame, now with the Syracuse Mets, was called into Monday’s game against Lehigh Valley during the sixth inning, and as he warmed up, the IronPigs’ video board showed a clip not only of Hoskins’ homer, but of his ensuing 34-second trot. Syracuse.com takes it from there:

IronPigs president and general manager Kurt Landes came into the visiting manager’s office and got an earful from Mets manager Tony DeFrancesco after the game. DeFrancesco told Landes the team was upset with the stunt, because whatever happened between the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies last week at Citi Field had nothing to do with what transpired on a field in Allentown, Pa., the following week.

Hitting coach Joel Chimelis said someone needed to be held accountable for showing the video. Landes apologized and said he was unaware the video was going to be shown.

Rhame and DeFranceso did not want to talk about the incident after the game.

In the big-league version, Hoskins punished his assailant with success, by homering off of him. The Mets’ minor-league counterparts did similarly, returning from a one-run deficit for a 7-4 victory, then beating the IronPigs again on Tuesday, 18-5, and Wednesday, 8-2, the latter victory vaulting them into first place. That makes a cumulative 30-7 score since the video was shown.

“They didn’t respect (us), not only the pitcher, they don’t respect us as a team,” said Syracuse outfielder Carlos Gomez (who’s been at the center of an abundance of unwritten-rules related dustups himself) in the Syracuse.com report. “They should not have played that video. We’re all professionals here.”

Did the IronPigs learn their lesson when it comes to trolling the Mets? The IronPigs did not learn their lesson:

Minor league baseball rules.

Retaliation

Head-Hunting Hoskins Hurts Hurler In Long Run

headhunterIt’d be easy to think that the Mets threw at Rhys Hoskins on Tuesday in response to the passel of New York hitters—five in five games, including two a day earlier—drilled by the Phillies over the early part of the season. As is frequently the way with these kinds of things, however, there’s more to the story. There was another trigger, too, far more central to baseball’s unwritten rules.

It happened during the sixth inning of Tuesday night’s game, with the Mets leading, 8-0—the kind of score that mandates its own unwritten rules about piling on. The idea, of course, has to do with restraint from embarrassing an opponent you’re already beating soundly.

There has always been debate about how big a lead is sufficient to take one’s foot off the gas, and at what point in the game it should happen. The Mets clearly felt that eight runs in the sixth was within those boundaries. As such, after J.T. Realmuto singled to center with one out, New York first baseman Pete Alonso opted against holding him on as a matter of professional courtesy. At that point in the game, the Mets were gearing toward ending things as quickly as possible, letting players on both teams get home to regroup and go at it again fresh the following day. Positioning Alonso in the hole, where he could cover more ground, was a step in that direction. The expectation was that the Phillies would not take advantage.

Realmuto took off on the first pitch.

This, according to some in the New York dugout, flew against the code. It’s an interesting dynamic, this idea of not pressing the issue. The impetus is pure—respect for an opponent who’s having a bad day—but its execution can sometimes be confusing. What if the Phillies disagreed that the sixth inning was too early to give up their running game? What if the 12 outs remaining seemed like a reasonable number with which to stage a rally or two? With guys like Hoskins and Bryce Harper in the lineup, scoring batches of runs was not out of the question.

The other possibility is that Realmuto, not being held on and with second base an easy 90 feet away, decided to run of his own accord. Despite nothing happening on the play—Hoskins fouled the ball off and Realmuto returned to first—the Mets were displeased. Rather than opt for a message pitch, they responded with some of the same. After the Phillies went down in order, with Realmuto failing to advance, New York found itself in a similar situation during the bottom half of the frame: Juan Lagares on first base with two outs. With the Phillies also opting against holding the runner, Lagares motored into third base on Robinson Cano’s single, despite the unwritten rule mandating that teams holding huge leads play station-to-station baseball, advancing only one base on a single, two on a double, etc.

Now it was the Phillies’ turn to be angry. New York’s next hitter, Michael Conforto, walked on four pitches, primarily because two of them appeared to have been intentionally thrown up and in. At first base, Hoskins discussed the situation with Conforto.

In a tit-for-tat world of code violations and the responses to them, the ledger appeared to be even. Then, with two outs in the ninth—the Mets having increased their lead to 9-0 on a single that drove in Legares from third (which wouldn’t have happened had he held at second)—Phillies reliever Jacob Rhame threw a 97-mph, first-pitch fastball directly at Hoskins’ head. (Watch it here.)

That the hitter was able to duck out of the way helped prevent the situation from exploding, but only some. The delivery of a fastball above the shoulders is never acceptable in modern baseball, especially in response to an event that already appeared to have been answered. (For those who point to the dual HBPs the previous day as potential impetus, both were clearly unintentional. One loaded the bases, and the other, with the bases already loaded, drove in a run.)

Hoskins, angry, took a step toward the mound, triggering players from both dugouts to prepare to charge. Plate ump Scott Barry, however, quickly took control of the situation, issuing blanket warnings. Hoskins ended up walking on six pitches, every ball outside the strike zone coming in high and inside. He gave Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud an earful while making his way to first base.

“I don’t get it,” said Bryce Harper after the game, in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I understand that two of their guys got hit yesterday, but, I mean, if it’s baseball and you’re going to drill somebody, at least hit him in the ass. Not in the head. You throw 98, it’s scary now. You could kill somebody. Lose your eyesight. That’s bigger than the game.”

It’s possible that Rhame was wild, as he claimed after the game—although that sort of denial is standard fare—especially given that he walked two of the four batters he faced, with 10 of his 19 pitches coming in outside the strike zone. Even if this is true, however, he’d find few defenders in Philadelphia’s clubhouse.

“He didn’t miss up and in or out and up to a lefty the rest of the inning, so I’ll let you decide,” said Hoskins after the game. “But I understand baseball. They got hit a couple of times yesterday.”

If there’s a happy ending to this story, it’s that Hoskins was able to exact retaliation of his own, homering in the ninth inning of Wednesday’s game, against Rhame of all people.

That was the first part of his revenge. The second part was a glacially slow trot around the bases—at 34.2 seconds, the slowest in the five years since Statcast has been tracking such things. (It is also the longest such circuit in the history of TaterTrotTracker, which ceased tracking tater trots in 2016, save for one by Luke Scott, who was injured as he rounded the bases.)

To Rhame’s credit, he calmly rolled with the insult.

“He got me,” the pitcher told reporters after the game. “If I make a better pitch, he doesn’t get to run the bases. It’s his job, man. I’m not really thinking about any of that. … Going through my mind is, I shouldn’t throw one right down the middle to him. That’s about it.”

This will hopefully be it for this episode of Bad Blood Central, NL East Edition. The Mets and Phillies next meet in late June.

Update (4-26): Rhame has been suspended for two games.