Sign stealing

Wood Barks, Green Leaves and Seasons Turn: Dodgers, Padres Engage in Sign-Stealing Dustup

 

Wood barks

When it comes to things like sign stealing, one can frequently assume that ill will between teams is the result of a hot-headed player who doesn’t fully understand the dynamics of the situation. Signs are stolen all the time, at which point the primary response can be summed up with the phrase, “We’d better change our signs.”

When a runner at second base is too obvious in the practice, his aggrieved victim is within rights to call him out, either verbally or via a warning pitch. Either way, it’s then time for the relayer’s team to cool things off for a while. They weren’t subtle enough, they’d been caught, and laying low is a noncontroversial stance.

When the hot-heads in question are the adults in the room, however, things take on a whole different look.

Yesterday in San Diego the managers got into it, with Andy Green of the Padres and LA’s Dave Roberts both being ejected over an argument about stolen signs.

At issue: In the bottom of the first, Dodgers starter Alex Wood took issue with Padres left fielder Jose Pirela, who he thought was signaling the hitter, Manuel Margot, from second base. Wood turned around and suggested (in salty language) that Pirela should cease and desist. The reaction was reasonable—far preferable to Wood drilling Margot for the perceived infraction. Early in the game as it may be, at that point it was up to Pirela and the Padres to knock off their shenanigans for a while.

Wood’s warning—“If you keep giving away location, I’m going to fucking drill you”—was overheard by second base umpire D.J. Reyburn, after which plate ump Greg Gibson issued warnings to both benches, likely to head off further action from Wood. (This seems like an overreach. If Wood wanted to handle the situation with a fastball, he likely would have done so against Margot. Watch Wood’s reaction here.)

Both managers came out for an explanatory meeting before the start of the second inning, at which point various ideas were exchanged. Green felt that Wood should have been tossed, a patently ludicrous idea, and offered some pointed criticism of the pitcher as he turned toward the dugout. (Both managers declined to recount his exact verbiage.) Roberts responded, racing toward Green and bumping him in the process. Benches had to empty to separate the men. Possibly noteworthy is the fact that Roberts spent five seasons as a Padres coach before moving to the Dodgers when San Diego’s managerial job went—without Roberts getting so much as an interview—to Green.

This is where both managers were tossed. Their postgame comments to reporters serve to illustrate their respective positions:

  • Green: “I think the No. 1 thing I took issue with was the threat on the mound from their pitcher to our player that he was going to drill him, with some expletives mixed in. It’s unacceptable, and I don’t think there’s anyone on our club that’s going to tolerate that and just yield to that. I voiced how I felt about what their player had done … and I said it probably dripping with a little bit of sarcasm.”
  • Roberts: “I was just wanting to get his attention. I probably got too emotional, but I think we all care about our players. When things are said about your player, I think you get a little bit more sensitive to it.”
  • Wood: “I just thought they were giving location. I’ll never know if they were or they weren’t. … I didn’t mean to overreact if that’s how it came across. I just got caught up in the moment.” (This itself is dubious. Wood’s suspicion had to have been stout to elicit such a reaction. And if the Padres were signaling location, it would have been a simple matter for Dodgers catcher WHO to simply set up a little bit later.)
  • Padres starter Clayton Richard: “It’s nice to be in this fraternity of baseball players where there are so many legitimately tough people involved, because it’s such a grind, physically and mentally, to go through a season. Unfortunately, there’s a few guys that act fake-tough when they’re given an opportunity.”

While both managers can be cited for rash behavior, they can also be commended for fulfilling one of a manager’s most essential duties: standing up for his players. Roberts defended Wood, and then lost his mind a little when the pitcher was insulted. Green took anger directed at one of his players and made it his own business, handling things (rightly or wrongly) the way a good boss should.

That’s the good part. The bad part is leaders of men, who are supposed to be setting examples, acting like little kids.

The rest of the game, a 10-4 Dodgers victory, was played without incident.

Don't Call Out Teammates in the Press

On the Importance of Knowing One’s Clubhouse Standing Before a Public Rant, Miguel Montero Edition

Safe!

The Washington Nationals had themselves a time on the basepaths yesterday, stealing seven bases in a 6-1 victory over the Cubs without being caught. Major league steals leader Trea Turner swiped four. (Watch all seven here.)

While this might ordinarily be an opportunity for some introspection, catcher Miguel Montero was having none of it. After the game, he said this, in an ESPN report:

 

“That’s the reason they were running left and right today, because [starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, against whom every base was stolen] was slow to the plate. Simple as that. It’s a shame it’s my fault because I didn’t throw anyone out. It really sucked, because the stolen bases go on me. But when you really look at it, the pitcher doesn’t give me any time, so yeah, ‘Miggy can’t throw anyone out,’ but my pitchers don’t hold anyone on.”

Montero is frustrated, and rightfully so. Arrieta is tied for the NL lead in stolen bases allowed, with 15 this season, and ranked fifth with 23 last year. His outing was the latest example of ongoing issues when it comes to the Cubs holding runners close. Still, it doesn’t much explain the fact that starting catcher Wilson Contreras has thrown out 34 percent of attempted thieves—well above the 28-percent league average—while Montero (whose pop time of 2.11 seconds is the second-worst in baseball) has thrown out just one of 31.

An aging backup catcher singling out a Cy Young winner as a source of blame is never a good look. By denying his own responsibility in the matter, Montero did himself no favors when it comes to his clubhouse standing.

Sure enough, Anthony Rizzo went on the radio this morning and confirmed as much.

The Cubs confirmed it further shortly thereafter, in even more concrete terms. They cut the catcher.

Examples of this type of tone-deaf behavior can be found throughout baseball history, and they rarely end well. (We won’t even count the finger-pointing of former White Sox pitcher Jamie Navarro, which came in such abundance that in 1999 the Chicago Sun-Times once devoted an entire feature story to it.)

In the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 1939 World Series, Cincinnati right fielder Ival Goodman couldn’t catch up with a ball that fell for a triple, which led to the winning run scoring for the Yankees. After the game, Paul Derringer—the pitcher who gave it up—lit into the fielder. “If you got no guts, get out of there,” he screamed. “That was the most gutless effort I’ve ever seen.” The words sparked a clubhouse fistfight between the two, recalled Bill Werber in Memories of a Ballplayer. New York went on to sweep the Reds.

Against Houston in 1968, Willie Mays took off from first base on a single to left field by Jim Ray Hart. Expecting Mays to stop at second, Astros left fielder Dick Simpson took his time getting to the ball—a window that Mays exploited by racing through to third. Cutoff man Bob Aspromonte couldn’t believe it, fielding the throw and turning to glare toward Simpson in disbelief. This was in some ways even more damaging than slagging his teammate to the press; Mays saw another opening and didn’t slow down, motoring home from first on an error-free single.

In 2001, the Detroit Tigers called a clubhouse meeting to address the fact that not everybody joined a fight spurred when Kansas City’s Mike Sweeney charged the mound after being drilled by Jeff Weaver. The reason more Tigers didn’t have the pitcher’s back: Weaver had recently and publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the run support he’d received during starts. “When you’ve only got two or three guys fighting behind you, it kind of irks you the wrong way,” the pitcher said afterward in the Detroit Free Press.

Ain’t that the truth. Just ask Miguel Montero, should he ever make it back to a big league clubhouse.

Showboating

Puig Does Puig, World Freaks Out

Puig pimps

This is what it looks like when things snowball. Wednesday night, after the Mets intentionally walked a batter to face him, Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig connected for a monster home run, then stood frozen for several long beats to admire it. This should not have come as a surprise. It is what Puig does.

Still, it rankled numerous Mets. As Puig rounded first base, Wilmer Flores had some words for him. Puig turned around, mid-trot, incredulous, offered a quick Fuck you¸ then slowed his trot to a virtual crawl, his 32.1 seconds rounding the bases being the second-slowest time recorded this season. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud offered some additional thoughts as Puig crossed the plate. (We’ve seen that act before, notably when then-Braves catcher Brian McCann literally blocked the baseline to give Carlos Gomez an earful under similar circumstances in 2013.)

What set the Mets’ response apart, however, was what happened after the inning, when New York’s Jose Reyes and Yoenis Cespedes tracked Puig down in the outfield to deliver a protracted screed about appropriate behavior on a baseball diamond.

“I don’t think he knows what having respect for the game is,” Flores told reporters after the game. “I think there’s a way to enjoy a home run. That was too much.”

“Run the bases,” said Reyes in a Newsday report. “Don’t stand up, then walk four or five steps, then run slow. Wow.”

There are many things to unpack here.

What was the anger about, really?

Puig’s tendency to showboat is maddening for many opponents, but it’s also consistent. His display against the Mets, though hardly unique, may have been spurred to excess, at first by the preceding intentional walk, then by Flores’ comment.

Still, Puig is a central character in the mainstreaming of this type of display over recent years. And he’s hardly breaking new ground, either with his actions or in the types of response they solicit.

In 1977, Puig’s homer-pimping forebear, Oscar Gamble, admired a shot against the Yankees for so long that even before he’d even left the box New York catcher Thurman Munson told him, “All right, now you’re going to get drilled.” (The threat was empty; Gamble was not hit in any of the teams’ five remaining games that season.) Several years later, while playing for the Yankees, Gamble did it again, this time against Baltimore. Instead of threats, he—like Puig on Wednesday—was talked to by members of the opposition. “Eddie Murray and some of them other guys came up to me and said, ‘All right now, you’re taking a little too long up there,’ ” said Gamble, looking back. “That’s respect for players. They let you get your little style points in there, and then you have to go on and do what you do.”

Gamble’s displays were influenced by Reggie Jackson, whose coup de grace came in 1981, during a home run trot against Cleveland’s John Denny. Earlier in the game, Denny had thrown a pair of pitches up and in to Jackson before striking him out. When Reggie homered in his next at-bat, he showed his displeasure by pumping his fist toward the pitcher, then moving excessively slowly around the bases and tipping his cap as he trotted. Denny offered an earful for the duration with such invective that when Jackson crossed the plate, instead of heading back to the Yankees dugout he instead turned toward the mound, sparking an all-out fracas. (Among the peacemakers was Gamble, who literally helped lift Jackson over his head and carry him from the field.)

Jackson was himself influenced by one of the great sluggers of the 1960s, Harmon Killebrew, who was likely the first ballplayer to so admire his own handiwork. All of which is to say that Puig is not exactly breaking new ground, here.

Are the Mets angrier about their own play than about Puig?

After the game, Puig hardly seemed like man who had gained insight, saying, “If that’s the way [Flores] feels, it might be a result of them not playing so well.”

It’s harsh but accurate. The Mets, losers of six of their last seven, sat at 31-40, 11.5 games back in the NL East, and had lost three straight to Los Angeles by a combined score of 30-8 while surrendering a dozen homers. Annoyances are more tolerable while winning than they are while doing whatever it is the Mets have done this year.

“It’s frustration from everyone,” Reyes admitted later.

At least Puig is consistent. The Mets, who entered the season with postseason dreams, are not.

Is a lecture better than a fastball to the ribs?

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the exchange was the discourse in the outfield between Puig, Cespedes and Reyes.

Cespedes, after all, is a poster child in his own right when it comes to showboating. For him to deliver a lecture on the subject indicates no small amount of transgression on Puig’s part. According to Reyes, Puig had no idea what was on the Mets’ mind when the New York duo tracked him down in the outfield.

“He didn’t even know what he did,” Reyes told reporters. “He continued to say to me and Cespedes, ‘What did I do? What did I do wrong?’ Wow. If you don’t know what you did wrong, you’ve got problems.”

Puig was so unable to handle the heat that he did not even look at Cespedes while his countryman grew increasingly animated during the conversation. Instead, he looked at Reyes, standing silently nearby. When it came time for Reyes to speak, he kept his message simple. “Man, you have to be better than that,” he told Puig. “You have to make people respect you as a player.”

It’s a noble notion, but to judge by early results, it didn’t take.

“[Cespedes] told me to try to run a little bit faster and gave me some advice,” said Puig in a New York Post report. “I don’t look at it that way.”

Is it a cultural divide?

Much has been written about players from Latin America and the stifling nature of baseball’s unwritten rules. Let players have fun out there has become a regular refrain on baseball blogs, and it’s not entirely wrong. The ability to distinguish exuberance from disrespect is vital when it comes to integrating increasing numbers of foreign players into America’s pastime.

But when Puig says things like this

We are not understood. We have to adapt. There are things we are not used to doing in our countries. When you keep doing things wrong, people get tired; I even got tired myself. There should not be so many rules. You just have to do your job and let people have fun, which is what I was doing in 2013. They’ve wanted to change so many things about me that I feel so off. I don’t feel like the player I was in 2013.

… it feels like an excuse. He has gone from the runner-up Rookie of the Year in 2013 to a guy the Dodgers have been actively shopping for multiple seasons now. His batting average has dropped from .319 to its current .244. Even though Puig is on pace to set a career high in homers (he currently has 13), his slugging percentage and OPS are far below what they were during his first two campaigns. He has been consistently injured, and was even farmed out to Triple-A Oklahoma City for a month last year. This is not simply a matter of his team stifling his celebratory nature.

In fact, it’s worth asking whether the opposite might be true. Might Puig, without the onslaught of attention for his bat flips and home run watching, without the lectures from opponents and teammates alike, without the array of distractions caused by his own on-field behavior, maybe be a better player than he currently is?

The question is unanswerable, unless Puig himself proves it one way or another.

What are we left with?

Strip everything else away—the caveats about internal frustration and Puig’s established behavior and all the prior precedence—and the lone question remaining is, Were the Mets right to get upset?

The answer is yes. The answer is yes because Puig’s display on Wednesday was not about exuberance or about some unknown entity trying to stifle his essential nature. The answer is yes because Puig had malice aforethought in everything he did during the play. He was pissed that the Mets walked Joc Pederson to face him. He was pissed because Flores scolded him at first base, and d’Arnaud did it again at the plate. His action was intended to show the Mets up, and that’s exactly how the Mets took it. Puig wasn’t celebrating, he was gloating.

It’s the difference between the first historic example above, in which Oscar Gamble was wrapped up in the wonder of being Oscar, and the second, in which an angry Reggie Jackson could not find enough ways to display his loathing of the opposition.

There is a distinction, and it is important. On Wednesday, the Mets understood it. To judge by his reaction, Puig never will.

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Verlander’s No-No Beaten By Bunt, and Nobody Seems to Mind

Dyson bunts

It’s a convoluted question, so bear with me: Can the circumstances following a clear violation of the unwritten rules somehow alter how that rule is perceived?

In other words, might the end of a play justify the means?

The play in question is Jarrod Dyson’s bunt in the sixth inning of yesterday’s game against the Tigers, which broke up Justin Verlander’s perfect game.

Such a thing, of course, has long been frowned upon by baseball moralists as disrespectful of a pitcher’s attempt at greatness. To challenge a guy fully, the theory goes, one must do so in a straightforward manner, without trickery or deceit.

The most famous example of this, as outlined in The Baseball Codes, was the bunt laid down by Padres catcher Ben Davis against Arizona’s Curt Schilling in 2001. Davis was San Diego’s 23rd batter of the night but the first—after his ill-executed attempt managed to drop between the mound and second base—to reach safely. Afterward, Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly called the play “chickenshit” and said that Davis “has a lot to learn about how the game is played.”

Part of it was the intrusion on attempted perfection. Part of it was that Davis was a slow-footed catcher for whom bunting and speed were hardly part of his repertoire. Part of it was that the attempt came in the eighth inning, with Schilling only five outs from immortality.

One detail, however, served as adequate cover. The score was 2-0, and Davis had managed to bring the tying run to the plate. No matter how much animosity his bunt engendered in the opposing dugout, it is impossible to ignore the prime directive governing baseball’s unwritten rules: Winning trumps everything, and Davis had given his team its best chance on the day to win. Justification.

The circumstances yesterday in Seattle were somewhat different. Dyson’s bunt came in the sixth inning—early enough, perhaps, to validate it on its own merits. Take it from a different Seattle player, Jarrod Washburn—who pitched for the Mariners for four seasons, through 2009—whose own no-hitter was broken up by a bunt from Tampa Bay rookie Ben Zobrist in 2006. Like Dyson, Zobrist did it in the sixth inning, and it didn’t bother Washburn a bit. “If it was the eighth or ninth, maybe that would have rubbed me the wrong way,” he said at the time, “but bunting is just part of the game, and he was just trying to make something happen.”

Also in Dyson’s favor is that, unlike Davis, speed is an integral part of his game. Still, the play occurred while the Tigers held a 4-0 lead, and Dyson hardly represented the tying run. Sixteen years earlier, Davis could have creditably claimed that winning informed his strategy, but down four runs, Dyson’s rationalization was considerably more specious … save for two little words: And then.

And then, pitching out of the stretch for the first time all night, Verlander walked Mike Zunino. And then Jean Segura collected an infield single to load the bases. And then Ben Gamel scored Dyson with a single to center. And then, after Verlander struck out Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz brought home two more with a double. And then it was 4-3 and Verlander’s day was over. After retiring Seattle’s first 16 hitters, he retired only one of its next six, including Dyson’s bunt. Seattle scored four more against Detroit’s bullpen, and went home with a 7-5 victory.

Regardless of how things may have seemed at the moment Dyson laid down his bunt, there’s no questioning that the effort played a significant role in his team’s victory. Justification.

After the game, Verlander said that he had no problem with Dyson’s strategy. The best summation, however, came from Schilling, in reference to his own spoiled no-hitter all those years earlier. “Unwritten rules or not, you’re paid to win games,” he said in The Baseball Codes. “That’s the only reason you’re playing in the big leagues.”

 

Bat Flipping

Herrera’s Bat Flips: Not Just For Special Occasions Anymore

Herrera flips

Odubel Herrera is a guy firmly committed to his bat-flipping lifestyle.

Against the Giants on Saturday, he did it twice—once on a fly out and again on a double—the latter of which happened against notorious hothead Hunter Strickland, and led a reporter to ask in the postgame clubhouse whether Herrera ever considers that pitchers might not appreciate that kind of stuff on hits that aren’t actually homers.

 

 

The outfielder responded by ranking the latter flip as his best ever.

And what, he was questioned, if such actions should lead to an angry pitcher planting one into his ribcage?

“Of course it worries me a little bit,” he said in a CSN Philly report. “I don’t want to get drilled. But I’m not going to change the way I play. If I get hit, I’m just going to have to rub it.”

(The latter statement is itself a violation of the macho division of the sport’s unwritten rules. Never acknowledge that the pitcher hurt you, goes the tenet, because You can’t hurt me is a far more effective tone-setter than Ow, that stung.)

Regardless of the stupidity with which Herrera flings his bat all over the yard, one must at least credit him for perseverance. At least he has that much going for him.

 

Gamesmanship

By Any Means Necessary: Pinder Channels Brando In Effort To Reach Base

Pinder bunts

In the greater scheme, it wasn’t much of a moment—an inside fastball that was fouled off on a bunt attempt for the first strike of an inning.

But, oh, the details behind it.

The fastball was thrown on Wednesday by Cleveland’s Corey Kluber to A’s second baseman Chad Pinder, leading off the fifth. Kluber had to that point had struck out seven A’s, so Pinder tried to mix things up and small-ball his way aboard. The pitch ran inside, however, and hit the batter in the hand. Plate ump Tom Hallion awarded him first base.

But then! Replays showed that the ball didn’t hit Pinder at all—his reaction was pure pantomime. The ball had contacted the bat squarely between his hands, but Pinder, who may initially have reacted with shock and surprise, did nothing to deter the umpire from his decision. (Watch it here.)

Because Major League Baseball has become a replay-driven league, the call was overturned, and Pinder returned to the batter’s box with a 0-1 count. (He ended up grounding out to shortstop.)

The obvious question is, did Pinder act appropriately? According to baseball’s code, he did. Free bases are free bases, and far be it from a player—whose goal is to put his team into its best position to win a game—to snub a generous offer. It’s why outfielders who knowingly trap balls act like they’ve caught them. During his days as a catcher, longtime A’s manager Connie Mack would make a clucking sound on check swings in an effort to fool the ump into thinking that the pitch had been tipped. After Willie Stargell and Dave Parker collided while going after a popup in 1976, Pittsburgh second baseman Rennie Stennett reached for the ball—obscured on the ground between their bodies—and, in the guise of checking on his fallen teammates, placed it into Stargell’s glove. (It worked.)

More pertinent to Pinder, this exact scenario took place in 2010, featuring no less a figure than Derek Jeter, who not only acted as if a pitch had hit him, but worked hard to sell it, grabbing his arm and pirouetting out of the box on a ball that connected with the knob of his bat as he tried to spin out of the way.

If the Captain can try to pantomime his way on base, who’s to tell Chad Pinder to knock it off?

[H/T Cleveland.com]