Basepath Retaliation, Collisions, Retaliation

Pittsburgh Responds To Rizzo Takeout: You Slide Into Mine, I’ll Slide Into Yours

Musgrove slides

They were back at it in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the Cubs and Pirates coming to a head over the second questionable slide in a three-game span. This time it was the Pirates hitting the dirt, as pitcher Joe Musgrove powered into second with a blatantly late slide in an effort to disrupt a double play. (Watch it here.)

This time it was Javy Baez on the receiving end, and though the slide did no damage, he wasn’t pleased. Musgrove leaped so late that he landed virtually atop the bag, his momentum carrying him straight past it. In so doing he violated two of the four tenets of Rule 6.01(j), which we’ve heard an awful lot about recently. It reads:

 

If a runner does not engage in a bona fide slide, and initiates (or attempts to make) contact with the fielder for the purpose of breaking up a double play, he should be called for interference under this Rule 6.01. A “bona fide slide” for purposes of Rule 6.01 occurs when the runner: (1) begins his slide (i.e., makes contact with the ground) before reaching the base; (2) is able and attempts to reach the base with his hand or foot; (3) is able and attempts to remain on the base (except home plate) after completion of the slide; and (4) slides within reach of the base without changing his pathway for the purpose of initiating contact with a fielder.

 

Baez knew that Musgrove’s slide wasn’t by the book, and as the pitcher started back toward Pittsburgh’s dugout, let him know about it. Things hardly grew heated—Baez gently put a hand on the Musgrove’s hip in a “there, there” kind of way—and though benches cleared, players never came close to fighting.

For a blog about unwritten rules, we’ve sure spent a lot of time recently on the written ones. Still, there’s an awful lot of subtext here. Musgrove’s slide was about much more than hard-nosed baseball—it was about retaliation for Anthony Rizzo’s disputed takeout of Pittsburgh catcher Elias Diaz on Monday. Musgrove admitted as much, telling reporters after the game: “I was trying to go in hard like their guy did. [Baez] should’ve got out of the way, I guess.”

Not enough? The pitcher elaborated.

“We’re not trying to fight anybody here,” he said in an MLB.com report. “We’re not trying to cause any problems, but you blindside our catcher when he’s got no chance to defend himself … That’s something that I feel like is part of baseball. I don’t think he was happy that I went after their guy or anything like that, but yeah, you try to pick up your teammates where you can. I didn’t hurt him. I easily could have made a dirty slide, but I feel like I made a clean slide and went in hard.”

It’s a simple message. The cleanliness of Musgrove’s slide is up for debate, but his claims about not wanting to injure anybody are valid. Baez himself believed them, telling reporters after the game: “I’m not saying it was a bad slide, but he just went hard. I asked him, ‘What was that about?’ He said, ‘Sorry,’ and the conversation was over.”

Musgrove sent a message, to the Cubs and his own team alike, that plays like Rizzo’s will be answered. It was a canny decision. As a pitcher, Musgrove easily could have conveyed the sentiment with a message pitch, but by going slide-for-slide, he was able to provide tangible support for his teammates in an aboveboard fashion.

Musgrove—a third-year pitcher trying to establish himself after coming over from Houston in the Gerrit Cole trade—earned a measure of clubhouse standing with seven innings of one-run ball on Wednesday. He may have earned even more with his slide.

 

 

 

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Collisions

Rizzo’s Romp: Old-School Play In A New-Era Sport Leaves Many People Angry

Rizzo slides

In this kinder, gentler MLB, we’re facing what has become a string of uncomfortable conversations about basepath etiquette, delineating not only what is legal, but what is right. It started in April, when a wide slide into second by New York’s Tyler Austin took out Red Sox shortstop Brock Holt and, after a retaliatory strike, led to a full-fledged brawl on the Fenway Park infield.

Monday’s slide into the plate by Anthony Rizzo was quieter than that, if only because the Pirates chose not to retaliate. Rizzo had come home on a bases-loaded grounder to shortstop, and took out the right ankle of Elias Diaz, despite the catcher having already made the putout and cleared the box as he prepared to fire the ball to first base to complete the double play. The ensuing throw went wild, allowing Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber to score on the error. Diaz remained on the ground for a while, clutching at his leg, but did not leave the game.

On the one hand, this is classic baseball. Double-plays are meant to be broken up, and Rizzo did nothing untoward in terms of raising his spikes or barreling into the catcher. His slide kept him within easy reach of the plate and was textbook clean. It unfolded exactly as intended, impacting Diaz enough to disrupt the throw.

On the other hand, Rizzo had only one reason to be where he was: taking out the catcher. Because Diaz had cleared out appropriately, ceding the entire plate to the runner, Rizzo had to deviate from his route (defined as the path taken by a runner directly to the next base) to force impact. Rizzo had been approaching the plate from the foul side of the baseline before veering toward the catcher. This is in direct violation of Rule 6.01(j), which says that a runner must “slide within reach of the base without changing his pathway for the purpose of initiating contact with a fielder.”

After initial review, the slide was ruled to be within the boundaries of the rulebook, but MLB announced yesterday that it should have been interference, which would have wiped the runs from the play off the board. (Given that the Pirates were shut out in what became a 7-0 game, it was hardly the difference in victory and defeat.)

What we’re left with is the gray area between rules and interpretation of those rules. Catcher safety came to the forefront with Scott Cousins’ collision with Buster Posey back in 2011, and has only grown more pronounced since then. Why does it keep happening?

In this case, the answer appears to reside with the Cubs themselves. Rizzo’s slide was clearly illegal—MLB itself said as much—but was it dirty? Various members of Chicago’s roster and front office seem to think otherwise. “The catcher’s gotta clear the path,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon told reporters. “You have to teach proper technique. He’s gotta get out farther, he’s gotta keep his foot on the plate clear, because that’s absolutely what can happen.”

There is no way to deny that the catcher cleared out. It’s right there on video. Even Rizzo did not dispute that Diaz ceded the entire baseline. It’s part of a manager’s job to take heat for his players, and maybe that was Maddon’s endgame, but his comment makes no sense.

Also, it was only his opening salvo. Later, the manager tried to shift the conversation from player safety to Rizzo’s reputation.

“For that group out there that believes Anthony is dirty in any way, shape or form, that’s my biggest concern about this rule,” Maddon said on Tuesday. “Because all of a sudden, either it’s an announcer or a fan base or somebody that believes Anthony did something dirty. It’s only because the catcher fell down. I mean, seriously, that’s all that was about. And that’s such a bad interpretation of all of that.”

It’s only because the catcher fell down is among the most ludicrous pieces of baseball analysis ever presented in earnest by an informed source. Diaz fell down because Rizzo went out of his way to take him down. Feel free to debate the merits of Rizzo’s slide, but don’t blame it on Diaz.

Maddon’s comments might be more easily taken as defense of his player had the slide been a lone blip on Rizzo’s radar. Instead, it seems to be a pattern. Last year, he took out San Diego catcher Austin Hedges in similar fashion (while trying to score, not to break up a double play), and encountered similar sentiments about dirty play from the viewing public—but not from his team’s management. Maddon went on record, repeatedly, defending the slide.

Which cuts to the heart of the issue. Rizzo’s takeout of Diaz was called dirty by people all the way up to the league office, yet he earned support for it from both Maddon and Cubs GM Theo Epstein. Unless the league steps in with penalties (unlikely) or the Pirates step up with retaliation (also unlikely, despite calls for it from the local press), why on earth would Rizzo change this facet of the game, especially when he’s lauded for it inside his clubhouse?

Maddon went so far as to call baseball’s catcher-safety rule “nebulous with regards to interpretation,” but there’s nothing nebulous about Rizzo drifting from his baseline to take out Diaz. Any team that encourages its players in that direction is treading a dangerously ignorant line.

Adherents to baseball’s unwritten rules are frequently labeled as out of touch with modern culture. This, though, is an instance of an old-school acolyte going out of his way to be anachronistic. Joe Maddon really ought to know better.

 

 

Collisions, Evolution of the Unwritten Rules, Slide properly

Collision Course: The State Of Baseball, 2018

Dietrich dustup

This is a story about baseball’s rulebook, and also about baseball’s unwritten rulebook. One, it turns out, feeds the other.

Yesterday, Marlins left fielder Derek Dietrich, racing home on a single, was easily beaten by the throw from Cubs right fielder Ben Zobrist. With his only hope at scoring being to dislodge the ball from the catcher, Dietrich plowed into Victor Caratini, just as generations before him have done.

Actually, it was a fair step milder than in previous generations, the collision being mostly arms, not even forceful enough to knock Caratini from his feet. Still, this is the no-contact era of major league baseball, a place where, following Scott Cousins’ takeout of Buster Posey back in 2011, the target on catchers’ backs was institutionally removed. This is a time in which a late slide from Tyler Austin—a slide that once wouldn’t have so much as raised an eyebrow in the opposing dugout—led to fisticuffs in New York.

So, when Dietrich took liberties with Caratini, Caratini responded in kind. The dugouts quickly emptied, and though the most significant moment of the resulting skirmish involved Kris Bryant tickling former teammate Starlin Castro, the event is worthy of exploration.

MLB rule 6.01(i)(1) instructs that any catcher ceding the baseline—standing in front of the plate and relying on a swipe tag to make the putout—is in safe waters: “A runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate), or otherwise initiate an avoidable collision.”

Dietrich did not deviate from his pathway because he did not have to: Caratini was planted firmly atop the line while awaiting the throw—going firmly against Rule 6.01(i)(2), which clarifies that “unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score.”

In this case, it appeared to be unwitting: Upon receiving the ball, Caratini turned to make the requisite swipe tag before realizing that he had overshot his positioning and was reaching into foul territory, away from the plate. He quickly drew his glove back into the runner.

It left Dietrich little choice about contact. The runner’s ensuing shove was purely elective, of course, though it was a far cry from the devastation possible had he opted to lower his shoulder. Dietrich even tried to make nice by tipping his cap to the catcher before Caratini got into his face.

We’re left with this: Victor Caratini is 24 years old and was playing in his 51st big league game. Posey-era rules are all he’s ever known. With little basis from which to understand the rationality of Dietrich’s decision, the catcher reacted angrily at being shoved, and a play that should barely have registered soon bordered on fisticuffs.

The sport’s unwritten rules can be seen in similar light. Take the aforementioned Yankees-Red Sox brawl back in April. On one hand, the Red Sox were overly sensitive about a slide that a generation earlier wouldn’t have drawn much notice. On the other, the slide was clearly outside of baseball’s recently established parameters, and Austin should have been prepared for the response that he received.

Ultimately, neither side had much clue about how to handle what was, before now, a fairly standard baseball situation, and things ended badly. They ended badly because many players no longer understand the intentions behind much of the Code, and react instinctively rather than rationally. It’s what enables sensitivity about the personal nature of an action that is not at all personal.

These are the unintended consequences of the sanitation of the sport. There are clear benefits—fewer collision-based injuries and a decline in retaliatory beanballs—but there are also growing pains. Yesterday’s collision was only one of them, with more certain to follow.