Author Archives: Jason Turbow

On the Nature of Dekes and What Constitutes Underhanded Baseball

kang-dekes

In Pittsburgh on Sunday, Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang saw Bryce Harper motoring toward third with a clean triple, even as the throw from right fielder Josh Bell soared above two relay men and wide of the base. Faced with the possibility of Harper scoring on the overthrow, Kang did what he thought necessary—he applied a phantom tag.

Such a play, known as a deke (short for “decoy”), has long been a staple of major league baseball. In it, a fielder acts as if a play he has no chance of making is in front of him, so as to slow or stop a runner who might otherwise advance to the next base. The most prominent deke ever came during Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, when Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch helped prevent Atlanta’s Lonnie Smith, at first base, from scoring on a double into the gap by pretending the blast never left the infield. Such a ploy can only work if the runner has no idea where the ball actually is, of course, but in that instance Smith did not. The run he failed to score cost his team dearly in a 1-0 loss. (The incident is discussed in depth in The Baseball Codes.)

The play was totally legit, and was likely the difference in Minnesota’s victory. However, it is not the type of deke we’re discussing today.

There is a difference between Knoblauch’s deke—and the panoply of plays like it that are seen around baseball all the time—and what Kang did to Harper. Smith paid no price outside of tarnished pride and a run off the scoreboard. Harper, however, was not so lucky. That’s because Kang’s decision to throw his glove down came so late in the play that the runner had no choice but to force himself into an ill-timed and awkward slide. (Watch it here.)

Such a play was described in The Baseball Codes:

A number of players have been injured by ill-timed or unnecessary dekes, which leads to an unwritten rule about when it is and isn’t appropriate to use the maneuver. Infielders throwing down phantom tags at the last possible moment can cause awkward slides, and the potential for damage is very real. “If a guy is stealing, you don’t pretend the throw is coming,” said second baseman Craig Grebeck. “If he’s coming in standing up and you all of a sudden look like the catcher is throwing the ball, a late slide can tear up an ankle or a knee.”

That’s exactly what happened to Gene Clines in 1973. Clines, a fourth-year outfielder with the Pirates, was on first base in a game against San Diego; with a full count on the hitter, he took off for second. The pitch was taken for ball four, but instead of simply strolling to second, Clines— who never peeked homeward to assess the situation—proceeded full speed ahead. Padres shortstop Derrel Thomas waited until Clines was nearly atop the base, then inexplicably threw his glove down as if a late throw were about to arrive. Clines, flustered, went into a hurried slide and badly injured his ankle. “That play right there cost me a lot of time,” he said, still angry at the thought more than three decades later. “I never fully recovered for the rest of that year.” Clines, batting .291 going into the game, missed three weeks, and hit just .227 in the two months thereafter.

Sure enough, Harper jammed his thumb on the play, and left the game shortly thereafter.

Pertinent point: Gene Clines was a coach under Dusty Baker for six years in San Francisco and another four in Chicago. Now Baker manages the Nationals, and through his close friend knows all too well the dangers of a poorly thrown deke.

Washington pitcher A.J. Cole responded during Kang’s next at-bat by throwing a pitch well behind the hitter at shoulder-blade level. (Whether Baker ordered it is highly doubtful, based on his track record.)

Because Kang ducked as the pitch flew behind him, the pitch looked like it came in head-high. The Pirates took great and understandable exception to Cole’s message, and benches quickly emptied. (Watch it here.)

The dustup served to distract from the far more interesting discussion about the grey area of infield decoys. The clear difference between Kang’s tag and that of Derrel Thomas decades earlier is that there was clear benefit to Kang’s strategy—holding Harper at third. If he could have put down his deke in a timely fashion, giving Harper enough space to undertake a regular slide, it would have been fine.

Kang appeared to have had time to have done this, even after identifying the overthrow. Barring that, however, he still had another option:

Don’t do anything at all. Which is exactly what he should have done.

 

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Jose Fernandez, RIP

jose-fernandezIn a note only tangentially related to baseball’s Code, it seems fitting to recall Jose Fernandez, as so many have done over the last day or so, as a man whose passions ran deep. His joyful embrace of the game accentuated the drama of his arrival in this country, and his enthusiastic approach had the baseball world remembering him as one of the sport’s most exciting players.

In addition to all that’s been said since news of his passing broke, I have only to add that for all the kid’s bravado, he offered up the single best response to his own breach of baseball etiquette that I have seen since I began covering this beat.

In 2013, when Fernandez was a 21-year-old rookie, he behaved so egregiously in a game against Atlanta that he nearly came to blows with Braves catcher Brian McCann. I went into detail about it at the time, but the important point is what came afterward: Before players had so much as settled into the postgame clubhouse, Fernandez owned up to his mistakes, apologized and vowed to do better.

It was a refreshing dose of self-awareness and humility, the likes of which are seen all too infrequently in professional sports. For it to come from a kid who’d barely reached drinking age made it all the more impressive.

They say, with good reason, that athletes frequently serve as poor role models. On that day in 2013, however, Jose Fernandez set as good an example as possible about how to own your mistakes, and what can be done to try and make things better. He will be missed, for his baseball skills and so much more.

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On the Glory of Red-Assery and the Origins of Motivation

madbum-puig

Does Madison Bumgarner like Yasiel Puig? He yelled at him in 2014 over a bat flip. Later on he hit him—clearly accidentally—and benches cleared.

Monday gave us more of the same. Puig grounded out to end the seventh, and when the players’ paths crossed, MadBum all but lost it. “Don’t look at me!” he yelled at the startled hitter over and over, even as Bumgarner himself initiated a staredown. Puig responded in kind and, again, benches emptied.

Maybe Puig was giving Bumgarner the stink eye, maybe he wasn’t. It didn’t matter either way—the left-hander was clearly looking for some extra-curricular action.

Bumgarner was fired up, having just finished his seventh inning of one-hit, no-walk, 10-strikeout ball in a must-win game, after having put up a 5.30 ERA over his previous six starts. This was clearly an extension of that, and it seems to have worked—right up until Bruce Bochy decided to pinch-hit for the pitcher the very next inning (to keep him out of harm’s way from a retaliatory fastball?) after which San Francisco’s bullpen blew another ninth-inning lead).

Bumgarner has gotten into it over the years with the likes of Wil Myers, Jason Heyward, Delino Deshields, Jesus Guzman and Carlos Gomez. There are few common threads between them save for the pitcher’s perpetually red ass. Somehow, none of those confrontations extended past the shouting phase.

This is simply how Bumgarner motivates himself, and it seems to pay pretty good dividends. Does it make him an asshole? Sure. Does he gave two snots about that? Not one freaking bit.

To the Dodgers’ credit, they had some fun with it the next day:

Puig himself even went so far as to sign a shirt, including the sentiments “#PuigYourFriend” and “I like you,” before sending it to Bumgarner in the Giants clubhouse.

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Do Only Certain Pitchers Get to Throw Inside? Depends on Who You Ask

bauer-drills-martinez

Question of the day: When do unintentionally hit batters become a big problem?

For people like Tony La Russa, the answer can be “almost immediately.” Others offer a modicum of leeway  should a pitch accidentally sail.

We saw this earlier in the year, when Pirates pitchers—who have a reputation for working the inside corner—unintentionally popped a couple Diamondbacks. La Russa, never long on patience for that type of thing, questioned whether maybe pitchers who don’t have the best control should avoid trying to bust fastballs in on hitters’ hands.

This weekend saw more of the same, courtesy of Trevor Bauer. On Sunday against the Tigers, Cleveland’s right-hander knocked the helmet from the head of Ian Kinsler, in addition to plunking Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. None of the pitches looked good, but unless Bauer is extremely competent at feigning concern, neither were they intentional. (Game situation alone confirms as much. Cabrera’s HBP, in the first inning, put a runner into scoring position. Kinsler was the leadoff hitter in the third. Martinez was drilled with the bases loaded. Watch it all here.)

Perhaps it would have been easier for Detroit to tolerate had the price been less steep. Kinsler suffered dizzy spells after the game. Martinez crumpled to the ground in agony, then went 0-for-3 after choosing to stay in the game.

Bauer cringed on the mound after hitting Kinsler, and tried to apologize after the inning and again after the game. It wasn’t nearly enough.

“If you can’t command the ball inside, you’ve got to maybe not go inside,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus after the game, echoing La Russa in an MLB.com report. “This is the big leagues, and if you’re going to hit guys in the head and the kneecap then something’s got to give.”

What gave on Sunday was Tigers starter Derrick Norris throwing a pitch behind Rajai Davis in response to Kinsler’s beaning, at which point both benches were warned. (One thing the umps couldn’t stop was Justin Upton’s message-laden pimp-and-glacial-home-run-trot-combo in the fifth.)

So who’s right? Bauer, or any other pitcher, can’t be expected to simply give up a portion of the strike zone on the basis that he’s a bit wild on a given day. Pitching out of fear is a terrible strategy for winning ballgames.

Then again, when players are falling left and right at the hands of a pitcher who has no idea where the ball is headed, it’s understandable that flames will be fanned.

Ultimately, it’s why baseball has penalties for being wild. Walks and hit batters mean baserunners, and too many baserunners mean that a pitcher’s not long for an outing. Bauer gave up six earned runs in 5.2 innings, which isn’t so surprising considering the other details of his day. And that’s pretty much the best result that Detroit could hope for in an otherwise bleak situation.

[H/T to Uzzy]

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How to Deal With Meathead Pitchers 101, or: Retaliation Without Communication Builds Aggravation

fernandez-fumes

The headlines for yesterday’s action concern the clearing of the benches and the placement of fastballs near hitters’ heads. The intrigue, however, lies in the ability of a player or team to communicate, and what an effective approach in that regard might bring.

First, though, some details.

On its own, the eye-level inside fastball thrown by Atlanta’s Julio Teheran to Jose Fernandez in the fifth inning Wednesday was not enough to draw anger. Fernandez shrugged it off, literally, as he flashed a these-things-happen expression toward the mound.

But maybe Teheran meant to do it. Back in July, a three-game Braves-Marlins series saw eight HBPs, four by each team. (Oddly, two players absorbed seven of those plunkings—Miami left fielder Derek Dietrich was hit four times, Atlanta catcher Tyler Flowers three.)

Three of the HBPs Miami doled out came in the final game. Did that mean something?

Maybe that’s why Teheran drilled Martin Prado an inning later. (Or maybe he was just terrible. Prado was one of five batters Teheran faced in the sixth, four of whom scored before the pitcher was pulled.)

Still, if Atlanta was so hell-bent on response, wouldn’t the opening game of the current series, which took place on Monday, been a better place for it—especially when the Braves found themselves with a 7-0 lead in the third inning?

So if Teheran was looking for trouble, and if he failed to connect with Fernandez, and if he intended to hit Prado … well, it would be tough to fault the Marlins for taking issue. Which they did.

The bottom of the sixth presented Fernandez a perfect opportunity—bases empty with two outs—to respond. The guy at the plate, Nick Markakis, had already homered and flied out deep to right field. Somehow, after Teheran’s head-shot in the fifth and plunking of Prado in the sixth, warnings had not yet been issued.

Fernandez plunked Markakis in the backside. Agree or disagree with this as baseball methodology, things should have ended there. Somebody had been drilled from each team. It was time to move on.

But then—with plate ump Marvin Hudson still having failed to issue warnings—reliever Jose Ramirez became the second Atlanta pitcher of the day to throw at Fernandez’s head. It was a clear warning shot, sailing well behind the pitcher, but traveled 95 mph at eye level. (Watch it all here.)

A livid Fernandez took steps toward the mound and benches emptied, but no punches were thrown.

After the game, Fernandez did not hold back.

“Like everybody knows, I’m not known for hitting people,” he said in a Miami Herald report. “If you think it’s on purpose, and you want to hit me, go ahead. Hit me. I don’t mind getting hit. That’s part of the game. But you don’t throw at somebody’s head because I have a family.”

Not knowing whether July’s HBP-fest factored into any of this, and in advance of the team’s four-game series later this month, the question remains: Are things now settled? To that end, Fernandez must be given abundant credit: At the tail end of the dustup, before players returned to their dugouts, he tracked down Markakis and made sure they were square.

“I told him ‘Hey, man. I throw you one of the best breaking balls that I have, and you hit it out,’ ” he recounted after the game in an MLB.com report. “ ‘I threw you another one and you hit the [stuffing] out of it. That second at-bat, I threw some good fastballs in, he was late on it. Jam. Jam. I was hoping, 2-0, throw a fastball in, he hits a popup to second base. Obviously, that was not the case. The ball slipped out of my hands, and I hit him.”

By every indication, Markakis accepted this explanation.

Fernandez has done this kind of thing before, to great effect. Then, however, he had clearly been in the wrong during the leadup. Now he himself was aggrieved, and nonetheless took steps to right the ship.

Baseball’s unwritten rules have abundant critics, many of whom offer sensible critiques. If more players handled their business like Fernandez, however, all the what-ifs enumerated above—every possible cause for motivation that leads players and public alike to wonder whether a given inside pitch was intended to be there—would be mitigated. Plays would be plays, not displays, and everybody could spend more time focusing on the game rather than on perceived anger and the ensuing response.

As it turns out, effective communication works. Nice job, Jose Fernandez.

Update 9-19: Ramirez suspended three games.

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To Bunt or Not to Bunt: Is That Even a Question Anymore?

 

wee-willie-keeler

Today’s topic sits at the core of baseball’s unwritten rules, but amid the recent thunderstorm of bat flips and other erstwhile celebration it seems to have gotten a bit lost: Don’t run up the score on an opponent.

What this means in baseball terms is the cessation of aggressive play while holding a big lead late in a game. Players in such situations still try to get hits and score runs, of course—they just don’t take chances to do so. Mostly this means playing station-to-station, advancing only one base on a single, two on a double, etc. The rule also discourages things like stolen bases and sacrifices.

The pertinent question is less about whether one should do such a thing than when it should happen—what constitutes the definition of big lead and late?

The Baseball Codes offers a quick-hit array of opinions on the matter:

  • “It used to be that [running with] anything more than a four-run lead was wrong, and you’ve got to be careful with that.”—Tony La Russa
  • “When I was playing, if you had a four-run lead it was a courtesy not to run. But you can do that now.”—Ozzie Guillen
  • “Once I had you by five runs and you couldn’t tie me with a grand slam, that was it.”—Sparky Anderson
  • “I was always taught you shut it down at five runs after six.”—Dusty Baker
  • “Five runs in the sixth, I’m not stopping there. We get into the sev­enth inning, then I’ll start chilling a little bit.”—Ron Washington
  • “We play [to shut it down] if you’re up seven runs in the seventh inning.”—Jim Slaton
  • “From the seventh inning on, if one swing of the bat can tie you up, it’s game on,” said ex–first baseman Mark Grace in 2006. “If it’s 4–0, you have Jason Schmidt on the mound, and he’s only given up one hit, you still go for it if Ray Durham gets on base in the eighth inning. Now, if it’s 6–0, you’re in territory where you might get a player hit in the brain in response.”

That list was first published in 2010, and already it seems so, so quaint.

Take, for example, yesterday’s Dodgers-Diamondbacks game. Los Angeles starter Kenta Maeda had given up only one hit through six as his team built an 8-0 lead, but with two on and nobody out, he did this:

maeda-bunts

Additional details: The game was played in pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium, limiting the big-comeback potential held by numerous bandboxes around the league. Dodgers starters had gone at least six innings in each of the previous two games, so their bullpen wasn’t particularly hurting. Maeda had thrown only 86 pitches. The lead seemed about as safe as a lead could be, yet there was Maeda, laying one down.

Was this kosher? My gut screamed “No!”—but I’m willing to admit that my gut is rooted in 1954 as far as these things go. It’s now okay to toss a bat for something so simple as a sacrifice fly, so perhaps it’s also okay to chase runs while up by eight and with every incidental factor leaning in your favor. Hell, Vin Scully said as much during the broadcast, and who am I to question the legend?

One thing that hasn’t changed is the question about how much is too much. Is eight runs now the limit? Ten? Twelve? In the sixth inning or the eighth?

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the diversity of opinion. I haven’t run any recent polls of big league managers, but it’s a fair certainty that there’s hardly unanimity on the subject. Even more certain is that, while four runs were once the limit, the current number is much, much higher. That is, if there even is an upper limit.

There must be a reason, after all, that this hasn’t been much of an issue recently. Bunt away, boys.

[H/T Uzzy]

 

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