Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead

Is The Ninth Inning, With A Big Lead, The Time To Steal A Base? Gleyber Torres Thinks So

After Gleyber Torres stole second base last night with Yankees leading Tampa Bay, 9-3, in the ninth, some people, including Pedro Martinez on the TBS broadcast, intoned that he was disrespectfully trying to run up the score. In order to determine whether this is actually the case, we must first identify a key component of the play: Was Torres just playing hard, was he being a boor or was he sending a message? All three options are in play.

Playing hard
Tampa Bay went 8-2 against the Yankees this season, accounting for nearly all of their seven-game division lead at season’s end. None of those eight wins were laughers, though the Rays scored the winning run in the eighth two times, and once in the ninth. Late-game comebacks are possible, and in a five-game series, every run counts.  

Being a boor
The Yankees don’t like the Rays, and the Rays don’t like the Yankees. Kevin Kiermaier said so. This dates to at least 2018, when CC Sabathia drilled Rays catcher Austin Romine with a half-million-dollar fastball, then kept up the antagonism the following season. More recently, this past September, New York and Tampa Bay traded inside pitches and HBPs to the point that dugouts emptied and Aroldis Chapman and Aaron Boone were suspended.

Could Torres have stolen the base because he doesn’t like the Rays? Of course. Did the fact that he did it against Shane McClanahan, a guy making his major league debut, serve to further roil the Tampa Bay dugout? Could be.

Sending a message
The game was tight until the ninth, when Giancarlo Stanton’s grand slam off of Rays reliever John Curtiss gave the Yankees their six-run cushion. Curtiss—who by that point had given up two singles, two walks and Stanton’s homer, five runs in all, while recording only one out—threw his second pitch to the next hitter, Gio Urshela, high and tight. Torres, batting next, got a similar treatment.

Were those pitches intentional, borne of frustration? Given Curtiss’ struggles, that’s a strong possibility. The right-hander is coming off the finest season of his short career, during which he issued three walks all year. It’s reasonable to think that walking two guys in the span of four hitters during his first-ever playoff appearance, followed by a back-breaking homer, might have jumbled his emotions at least a little bit.

It’s also reasonable to think that Torres might have taken it precisely that way.

On the broadcast, Martinez did not hide his feelings, calling the steal “a terrible mistake” and intoning the maxim about “respect the opposition because you expect them to respect you.”

For that notion to hold water, Torres’ motivation would have to fall under one of the first two headings above. If what he did was actually a response to those inside pitches, however, the idea of respect is muted. Martinez, one of baseball’s prime intimidators during his Hall of Fame career, understands this as well as anybody, though he speaks from the perspective of someone who dished out far more in this regard than he took.

Should Torres ever decide to talk about why he did what he did, then perhaps we’ll know more. Until that point, it’s mainly a matter of waiting to see if the Rays respond, and how.

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead

The Day That Barry Bonds Learned To Not Bunt During A Blowout Game

Last week, the Athletic published a terrific oral history of Barry Bonds’ time in Pittsburgh. Included in the array of stories was one that took place when the slugger was 20 years old and in his first professional season, with the Prince William Pirates of the Single-A Carolina League.

Bonds himself narrates:

“One game, we were leading by seven or eight, and I bunted and got on base. I heard the other manager over there screaming and yelling, but I couldn’t calculate why. Right before my next at-bat, Bobby [Bonilla] comes up to me and puts his arm around my shoulders. He says, ‘B.B., whatever is gonna happen next, don’t react.’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He says, ‘Just trust me.’

“So, I go up to the plate. I didn’t think anything of it. And I got drilled almost in the head — really high on the back or shoulder. I went down to first base. I didn’t do anything. I came into the dugout and Bobby Bo says, ‘This ain’t college, kid. You can never do that. We’re up by eight runs in the seventh inning. You do not bunt.’ I said, ‘I got that. I’ll never do that again.’ ”

Bonilla, of course, was all of 22, but in his fifth year in pro ball, so he knew whereof he spoke.

Starting in 1988, Bonds went 8-for-14 when bunting for hits over the course of his career (stats are unavailable from before that point), and once told Alex Rodriguez that he could have hit .400 if he’d adopted bunting as a regular strategy.

Bonds had about the highest baseball IQ of his generation, so the smart money’s on him not having repeated that particular maneuver early on. Later in his career, of course, the point became moot: On those occasions that he saw a hittable pitch, Bonds wanted to take advantage in grander ways than tapping it down the line.

Let The Kids Play, Swinging 3-0

Rangers Don’t Dig Tatis’ Tater, Fuel Controversy Over How (Or Whether) To Respond To Blowout Tactics

Yesterday, Fernando Tatis Jr. hit a grand slam and the internet lost its damn mind.

It wasn’t the homer that did it, of course, it was the response … something to do with the unwritten rules.

In this case, circumstances matter. It was the top of the eighth inning, the bases were loaded and the Padres were leading Texas by seven runs (thanks in part to a three-run homer by Tatis an inning earlier). Pertinent to this discussion, Tatis’ fateful shot came on a 3-0 pitch. The Rangers didn’t know it at the time, but the young slugger had missed (or ignored) a take sign from his coach.

With that, Rangers manager Chris Woodward removed pitcher Juan Nicasio, inserted pitcher Ian Gibault, and watched as Gibault threw a pitch behind the next batter, Manny Machado. Message delivered. (No warnings were issued, and no other pitches came close to hitting anybody.)

After the game, Woodward addressed the issue directly. “I think there’s a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today’s game,” he said. “I didn’t like it, personally. You’re up by seven in the eighth inning; it’s typically not a good time to swing 3-0. It’s kind of the way we were all raised in the game.”

This is the point at which Woodward, and baseball in general, tends to lose touch with its fan base. What in the hell was the manager talking about, cried the majority opinion? Why should one of the sport’s brightest young stars be expected to do anything other than bright-young-star things, regardless of the situation?

It’s complicated. The rationale starts with pitchers, not hitters. During a blowout, nobody in either dugout wants to see the pace grind nearly to a halt while a pitcher tries to finesse the edges of the strike zone, especially while down in the count. From The Baseball Codes:

The last thing a pitcher wants to do with his team down by a wide margin late in the game is walk batters, which not only suggests unnecessary nibbling but extends a game that players want to end quickly. When a count gets to 3-0 … it’s a near-certainty that the ensuing pitch will be a fastball down the middle.

At which point pitchers are expected (or were once expected, anyway) to throw something straight that will get the game moving again. For that one-pitch adjustment, hitters are expected (or were once expected) to lay off. As Sparky Anderson said in a New York Times report: “You don’t cherry-pick on the other team. You don’t take cripples. Three-oh, he’s struggling, he’s got to lay the ball in there. Don’t do it to the man. He’s got a family, too.”

Then again, Anderson said that back in 1993, which may as well have been 1893 as far as the evolution of the unwritten rules is concerned. The sport in which Anderson managed bears little resemblance to the modern game in numerous ways. A prominent aspect of this evolution is showboating, bat flips and the like, which once would have been certain to draw a pitcher’s attention but are now mostly background noise.

Swinging 3-0 is not quite the same thing, but it’s in the same ballpark.

It does happen from time to time. Last year, Twins outfielder Jake Cave swung 3-0 while his Twins led 13-5 in the ninth, and connected for a single. The next hitter, Max Kepler, saw three inside pitches and was drilled by the fourth.

Here’s the catch: The team doing the responding—the team at the wrong end of Cave’s swing—was Chris Woodward’s Texas Rangers. Woodward, it appears, is no stranger to having his pitchers mete out punishment for those who he feels cross a line, and swinging 3-0 is a prominent one for him.

(There are plenty of non-Woodward examples, as well. In 2017, Corey Seager swung 3-0 with a 5-0 lead, and before long teams were brawling on the field. In 2012, Jayson Werth swung 3-0 and benches emptied. In 2011, David Ortiz’s 3-0 swing helped lead to another fight. In the past, I’ve covered incidents from Davey Lopes, Vladimir Guerrero and Gary Sheffield. Hell, in 2001, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, fresh from Japan and unaware of this particular rule, was drilled for swinging 3-0 … and missing. Hell, Corey Kluber doesn’t even like it when guys swing hard against him, regardless of the count.)

Yesterday, the response from the Padres was less about the retaliatory pitch from Texas than with their own shortstop. On the telecast, cameras caught Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer—30 years old and a 10-year vet—telling various Rangers that “we’ll talk to him.” Sure enough, Hosmer sat Tatis down for a dugout conversation. Later, San Diego manager Jayce Tingler talked to reporters about the importance of getting signs correctly, called it “a learning opportunity,” and said “[Tatis] will grow from it.” (Prior to taking over the Padres, Tingler worked in the Rangers organization since 2007. The guess here is that he knows precisely what it will take to avoid bad blood with that team.)

But what about Tatis himself? On one hand, he’s 21 years old, in only his second season and hails from the Dominican Republic, where a freewheeling, unfettered brand of baseball is the norm. On the other, he grew up learning the major league game from his father, whose own big league career ran from 1999 to 2010, when Jr. was 11 years old.

“I’ve been in this game since I was a kid,” Tatis Jr. said after the game. “I know a lot of unwritten rules. I was kind of lost on this. … Those experiences, you have to learn. Probably next time, I’ll take a pitch.”

This is just another example of baseball needing to get a handle on outdated concepts of ballplayer decorum. Developing an entire promotional campaign—Let the Kids Play—around the idea of unfettered joy on a ballfield is fine … right up until an angry pitcher disagrees and responds to a bat flip with some questionable behavior. Somehow, Woodward’s Rangers have been involved in those fights as well.

The reason that most pitchers no longer care about bat flips is that bat flipping has been divorced from the meaning it once held. It is now seen as a joyous act, not a disrespectful one.

Swinging 3-0 during a blowout holds deeper connotations, but ultimately the concept is the same. Either we let the kids play, or we don’t. When Sparky Anderson told the Times that, as pertains to swinging 3-0, “there is a thing in this game—honor—that will always stay with me and I’ll never give it up,” he was speaking from a different era.

At some point, baseball has to make up its mind. Until it does, this cultural dissonance of blowback against young stars doing things that the public wants to see is going to continue until everybody’s so frustrated that they turn their backs altogether. This is a problem that baseball is already trying to counter; it led to Let the Kids Play in the first place.  

“I love this game, and I respect the game a lot,” Tatis said after the game. “I feel like every time I go out there, I just wanna feel respect for everybody else. … This game is hard for everyone, so why not just celebrate and have fun the way you wanna have fun?”

It was the smartest thing anybody said all day.

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Pandemic Baseball

The Minor Leagues Are For Learning Lessons

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. Today’s theme: Part 2 of what and what not to do when your team holds a big lead late in the game.

With Tri-Cities in the Northwest League in 1967, future big leaguer Von Joshua was 19 years old and fresh out of college, and in a game that his team led, 14-2, he beat out a bunt for his fifth hit of the game.

Two batters later he advanced to third, at which point Tri-Cities third-base coach Don LeJohn asked him what the hell he’d been thinking. Joshua had no idea what the problem might be; the only thing running through his mind was his five-hit day.

LeJohn offered a quick summary of the things a player does not do while his team is sitting on such a lead, bunting included. When Joshua came back to the dugout, veteran teammates suggested that it would be a good idea to avoid getting too comfortable during his next at-bat.

When Joshua next came up, he didn’t need his teammates’ warnings, as the other team made its intentions unmistakably clear. Abandoning all pretense of accidentally hitting Joshua, the opposing manager called one of his outfielders to the mound, simply because he was the hardest thrower on the team. The next three pitches were all aimed at Joshua’s head, at which point he charged the mound and, in his own words, “all heck broke loose.”

“I learned the hard way,” he said. “You don’t do that kind of stuff.”

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Pandemic Baseball

'I Looked Up At The Board And Thought, Oh Shit'

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. Today’s theme: Part 2 of what and what not to do when your team holds a big lead late in the game.

On Aug. 13, 1997, Cleveland took a 4-1 lead over the Tigers into the eighth inning, when three singles and an error over the span of the inning’s first four batters extended the lead to 6-1. The problem, as pertained to the Indians, was that both runs had scored on one play, during which their manager, Mike Hargrove, had been paying attention to something else and thought that only one had scored.

Thinking his team’s lead was still only four, he had the next batter, Omar Vizquel, squeeze in another run. The Tigers just about lost their minds, left fielder Phil Nevin screaming into the dugout about being disrespected.

“I thought, wait a minute, what is he so upset about?” said Hargrove, looking back. Then he noticed Tigers manager Buddy Bell, a good friend, staring daggers at him. “So I looked up at the board and thought, oh shit,” said Hargrove. “I was just intent on scoring as many runs as we could to put the game away, and I missed a run.”

Hargrove felt fine about playing hard for a five-run lead, even late in the game, which put him beyond the reach of a grand slam. Once that lead was achieved, he backed off of aggressive tactics.

Except that he’d called for a squeeze while his team led, 6-1.

“I went to talk to Buddy after the game, and then I talked to Phil Nevin,” Hargrove said. “I told Phil, ‘I’m not that way. I don’t have the reputation of being somebody like that. And I’m certainly not going to take one of my very best friends and rub his face in it. Buddy understood, and Phil did, as well.”

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Pandemic Baseball

'If They Want To Hit Me, Hit Me, But I'm Going To Play To Win The Ballgame'

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. Today’s theme: Part 2 of what and what not to do when your team holds a big lead late in the game.

Phil Garner: “I came up with the Oakland A’s, a great team. I was just a rookie, and we had a four- or five-run lead, a pretty good lead, in the sixth or seventh inning, and I bunted for a base hit.

“Sal Bando comes down the bench to me and says, ‘You better be ready, you’re going to get drilled next time.’

“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’

“He said, ‘You shouldn’t bunt with a lead like that.’

“I said, ‘Aren’t we still trying to win the ballgame?’

“He said, ‘Yeah, we are. But there’s the code. You don’t do that.’

“So I said, ‘What’s the difference between me trying to bunt for a hit and swinging?’

“He said, ‘Don’t argue. That’s just what it is.’

“Well, I got drilled. I got nailed. And you know what? The next time in the same situation, I’ll bunt the fucker again. If they want to hit me, hit me, but I’m going to play to win the ballgame. I did it as a player and I do it as a manager. I’m not trying to play to embarrass people, but I like winning ballgames.”

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Pandemic Baseball

Ron Gardenhire Found It Quite Entertaining

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. Today’s theme: Part 2 of what and what not to do when your team holds a big lead late in the game.

Ron Gardenhire: “I remember we were in Triple-A, the Tidewater Tides, playing against the Columbus Clippers for the International League championship. We were leading about 11-2 in the third or fourth inning. Davey Johnson was our manager. Columbus had one of those ball parks where runs are just scored, like Wrigley Field with the wind blowing out.

“I’m up to the plate. Gil Flores is on first, and Davey gives him the steal sign. We wanted to keep playing, because it’s not like the eighth inning in a blowout. We know runs are going to be scored.

“So Gil steals, and on the very next pitch I get drilled right in the head. They felt we should not be running up by more than six. He steals, I get drilled. They thought they were getting killed early on and we should not be running, and Davey Johnson thought it had a long way to go. I took a whack on the head because of it. It was Mets-Yankees—Triple-A, not the big leagues—but the organizational stuff might apply a little.

“There were fights everywhere on the field. Davey was fighting with Johnny Oates—even the managers were hooking. I got knocked out, and when I woke up there were brawls going on everywhere. It was quite entertaining.”

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Pandemic Baseball

Dick Williams Didn't Just Want To Beat The Red Sox, He Wanted To Destroy Them

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. Today’s theme: Part 2 of what and what not to do when your team holds a big lead late in the game.

Dick Williams took over the Red Sox in 1967 as a 38-year-old rookie manager, and guided a club that was coming off of back-to-back ninth-place finishes to the World Series. Still, amid acrimony and injuries to two key starting pitchers, Williams was fired before he could complete his third season—something about which he harbored resentment for years. Once Williams assumed managerial duties for other teams, he didn’t just want to beat the Red Sox, he wanted to destroy them.

Williams bunted whenever he could to advance runners into scoring position, even when games were well in hand. His baserunners tagged up from second on fly balls, even when leads made such tactics unnecessary. And he squeezed.

If stealing second base with a big lead is enough to make an opponent’s head spin, squeezing is enough to blow it clean off his neck. There is no surer we’re-going-to-pull-out-every-last-calculated-measure-in-our-playbook-to-push-another-run-across statement in the game.

Williams took over the Angels in 1974. During a game against Boston the following season, his club used a hit, a walk and an error to extend its lead to 6-2 in the eighth inning. The manager knew just what to do. With runners on second and third and second baseman Jerry Remy at the plate, Williams called for a squeeze that extended the Angels’ lead even further. “You do what the manager says,” said Remy, “but I knew it was the wrong thing to do.”

The next day, Boston pitcher Roger Moret threw at Remy with the first pitch of every at-bat, a subtle message that the squeeze had not been appreciated. Fortunately for Remy, all four pitches missed. “After the game, [Williams] said to me, ‘I guess I got you thrown at,’ ” said Remy. “I said, ‘I guess you did.’ ”

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Pandemic Baseball

Rookies Need To Pay Attention, Too

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. Today’s theme: what and what not to do when your team holds a big lead late in the game.

When Marlins rookie Eric Reed tried to bunt for a base hit with his team holding an 8-0, fifth-inning lead over the Pirates in 2006, he was struggling with a .114 batting average and trying to use his speed to jump-start his offensive game. It didn’t work—Reed was thrown out—but it did manage to stir up the Pittsburgh dugout, where manager Jim Tracy and pitching coach Jim Colborn seethed.

As Reed ambled back to the bench, Marlins pitcher Dontrelle Willis turned to first baseman Wes Helms in the dugout and said, “He’s getting hit the next time up.” “You think so?” asked Helms. “Yep,” said Willis.

Sure enough, the next time Reed came up, with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, he was drilled by Pirates reliever John Grabow—the only baserunner Grabow allowed in the span of seven batters, five of whom he struck out. The intent of the pitch was clear.

“You knew that just about every game Eric was going to try to bunt for a hit at least once,” said his teammate, Matt Herges. “But he didn’t know. He had no idea and he got drilled, and he was pretty upset about it.”

“It wasn’t a very pleasant conversation between the two sides of the field,” said Tracy. “Mr. Reed got … a little reminder of the fact that, hey, don’t do that shit. And no one on their side of the field said one word. It was done very professionally, a nice little jolt to the hip, take your base and we’re done.”

After the game, several Marlins veterans “loud-talked” the locker room, addressing no one and everyone at the same time, their message boiling down to, “No more bunting with a big lead because you’ll get drilled, and you might get us drilled.”

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Pandemic Baseball

When Bad Things Happen To Good Bunters

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. Today’s theme: what and what not to do when your team holds a big lead late in the game.

Ron Brand: “I remember an incident in 1965, we were ahead of Chicago about 6-0 in about the seventh inning. I was up with two outs and the pitcher on deck. Santo was way back, so I dropped down a bunt, and it rolled foul. Ron approached the plate just screaming at me, calling me bush, saying that I was trying to show him up. All I was trying to do was keep the pitcher from leading off the next inning in case he got into trouble on the mound.

“Bob Buhl was the Cubs pitcher, with Santo yelling at me, he came up to me and said, ‘You’d better hang loose.’ He threw at me three friggin’ times, and walked me. I said, ‘Thanks.’ Whether I bunted on them or they walked me, I got the pitcher to hit.

“I told Santo, if you don’t want me to bunt, play close. I’m not a 40-homer guy like you. If you play back, I’ll bunt.’ I think that’s fair. … Santo even agreed with me after I talked with him. I said, ‘You know, you guys have all these good players and you’re behind us in the standings. What does that tell you?’ Maybe their attitude was a little to lackadaisical.

“He came up to me afterwards and said, ‘You know, you’re dead right, we don’t play hard enough.’ I told him, ‘I didn’t want to show you up, I just wanted to get the pitcher out of the on-deck circle, that’s all.’ ”