Even those with cold, dead hearts can make hopefully appreciate a bat flip that punctuates a game-winner. If athletes play to win, and fans want to cheer winners, then there’s no better time to celebrate, right?
Willy Adames did. And how.
The Rays are currently a half-game back of the Yankees and need every win they can manage. Setting a new height standard with his lumber, Adames was fully in the moment after his walk-off single against Toronto on Wednesday. Criticize those who toss their bats after a mid-inning homer pulls their fourth-place team to within five runs of tying it up, if you must, but goddamn it leave Willy alone.
Perception is everything, and precedent feeds perception. On Wednesday, baseball saw two games with hotly contested hit batters, and while there is a strong possibility that neither was intentional, recent history has led those at the wrong end of the pitches to leap to some obvious conclusions.
Let’s start in Chicago, where the White Sox’ series with Kansas City was already steeped in contention, given that the last time these teams met resulted in a rhubarb over a Tim Anderson bat toss. The Royals have already paid him back for that, so when they did it again on Wednesday—pitcher Glenn Sparkman bouncing a ball off of Anderson’s head—the situation appeared ready to explode.
Except for this: It was the second inning of a 2-1 game, with nobody out and a runner on first. Also, it was a changeup—not the type of heat-seeker ordinarily utilized for nefarious purposes. For what it’s worth, the pitch merely grazed the brim of Anderson’s helmet—a terrible location to be sure, but more indicative of a ball that’s riding up and in than a missile aimed at an earflap.
Anderson seemed to realize all of this. Hell, the pitch didn’t even knock him down. While visibly frustrated, he more or less just stood in the batter’s box, helmetless, staring down Sparkman. Anderson’s lack of response was no doubt abetted by umpire Mark Carlson, who emerged from behind the plate and quickly tossed the befuddled pitcher from the game. (“It was a changeup,” Sparkman can be seen explaining on replays. Even Anderson said later that he felt the pitch was accidental.)
Had the Royals not already targeted Anderson this season, of course, there’s almost no chance that Sparkman would have been tossed. As it is, optics are important and Carlson did not want this game to get away from him. Sometimes it’s hard to be an umpire.
In Cincinnati, meanwhile, the game was getting away from the Reds, as Pittsburgh built up a 7-0 lead by the eighth inning. That’s when Pirates reliever Clay Holmes drilled Eugenio Suarez in the hand with a 94-mph fastball. There were some moments of immediate heat—Suarez approached the mound for before being led away by catcher Elias Diaz—but things cooled quickly. X-rays proved negative and Suarez is day-to-day.
“I don’t know if they are going to hit me on purpose,” Suarez said after the game in a MLB.com report. “That’s why I walked up to him and asked him if he hit me on purpose. He said, ‘No. Definitely not.’ I just said I wanted to make sure because I don’t like that pitch up and in, right on my face.”
This is believable. Holmes has walked 15 batters in 15⅔ minor league innings this season, and has issued seven free passes in 13 innings since being called up. Outstanding control does not appear to be his thing.
That didn’t prevent Reds manager David Bell from having a say about what had just gone down. So vehement was he when he came out to argue about the pitch that umpire Jeff Nelson ejected him.
Again, this is where optics matter.
In April, Pirates starter Chris Archer threw a pitch behind Derek Dietrich in response to the slugger taking an unusual amount of time to watch a home run that ended up in the Allegheny River outside PNC Park.
In April 2018, Pittsburgh’s Jameson Taillon broke the selfsame Suarez’s thumb with a pitch, costing the slugger three weeks. Later in the season, Taillon hit Suarez again, this time in the elbow. Never mind that none of the pitches appeared to be intentional, or that as a hitter Suarez could do a better job of turning his back toward inside pitches rather than leaning away from them with his hands exposed—a habit that got Jeff Bagwell’s hand broken in three consecutive seasons. Hitting him again looks bad, so it must be bad.
Bell was fed up by the lot of it. He’d previously instructed
his pitchers not to retaliate for such things. That stance may have changed.
“We know they’ll do it,” the manager told reporters after the game in a Cincinnati.com report, explaining his argument with the umpires. “I was doing what I could to protect our players. Clearly, we’re not going to get protected. We’ve got to do whatever we can. We’ve got to take matters into our own hands. It’s unfortunate that our players aren’t going to get protected. That’s been made clear, and we know that team will intentionally throw at people. What are you supposed to think?”
“When someone is messing with your livelihood, your career,
who knows? You’ve got to protect yourself. Clearly, we’re not going to get
protected by the umpires or the league. That’s been made clear. Our players
need to do whatever they need to do protect themselves. I’ll back them whatever
that is. For some reason, we think it’s OK to throw at people. For whatever
reason, that was OK many years ago, and we’re still living some rules that I
don’t know about—that it’s OK to intentionally throw at our players. The
umpires think it’s OK. The league thinks it’s somewhat OK. Somebody’s going to
get hurt. We need to take as many measures as possible. Ours need to do
whatever they need to do to stick up for themselves, protect themselves. They
protect themselves, their career.”
Bell has already proved to be angry about this topic to the point of incoherence. Still, the closest the Reds came to a response yesterday was when reliever Raisel Iglesias threw an up-and-in, 97-mph fastball to Bryan Reynolds with an 0-2 count, before eventually striking Reynolds out.
What we’re left with is increasingly high tension. Bell has thrown down one gauntlet. Pirates broadcaster John Wehner threw down another on Pittsburgh radio, when he came down on Dietrich, of all people, for his homer-watching ways: “I can’t stand him. … I don’t understand why you have to do that. It’s different if you’re a Hall of Fame player, you’re a 60-homer guy, you’re an established guy. Nobody ever heard of him before this year.”
Wehner also referenced Dietrich’s grandfather, Steve Demeter, a longtime minor league coach in the Pirates system, who he said “is rolling in his grave every time this guy hits a home run. He’s embarrassed of his grandson.”
Let’s ignore for a moment the very old-school notion of players earning whatever leeway they’re afforded by the sport’s unwritten rules; Wehner seems completely oblivious of the sea change that’s occurred around baseball as pertains to celebrations.
However much they angered the Pirates and Royals, displays like Dietrich’s and Anderson’s are entering the mainstream, to the point of approval from MLB’s own marketing department. Pitchers have the right to try and put a damper on them, but that tactic does not appear to be working very well as a method of dissuasion.
At least Royals-White Sox and Reds-Pirates matchups, despite the meat-headedness therein, are far more interesting now than they were at the beginning of the season.
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
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.”
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
“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.
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.
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.