Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead

Twin Hacks 3-0, Gets Teammate Plunked, Reminds Us That People Still Pay Attention To This Kind Of Thing

There was some old-school baseball played in Arlington yesterday like we haven’t seen in years.

The setting: Minnesota leads the Rangers 13-5 in the ninth. With one out and nobody on, Texas reliever Shawn Kelly goes 3-0 on Twins right fielder Jake Cave. Cave is feeling good; he’s already punched an RBI double to right field and walked on the night, and has scored two runs. In a season short of personal highlights for him, this has been a good game.

He swung at the next pitch.

Some people decry the anachronistic nature of baseball’s unwritten rules, but there’s no denying the rationale behind some of them. I discussed this one in 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.”

As such, hitters are expected to lay back and, in the name of expedience for all involved, allow the pitcher to level the playing field.

That’s not what Cave did.

The second-year player swung at a 90-mph fastball, delivered slower than normal to improve accuracy with the understanding that Cave would not take advantage. Cave responded by smacking a single to right.

Did Kelly notice? He threw three inside pitches to the next hitter, Max Kepler, then drilled him with a fastball. This did not go without mention on the broadcast.

We don’t hear a lot anymore about the rule that limits 3-0 swings in blowout games, but the rationale behind it remains valid. Pitchers are expected to avoid nibbling around the corners when up or down by a lot of runs late in a game. The last thing anybody from either dugout wants to see in a blowout is the pace grinding nearly to a halt while a pitcher tries to finesse the edges. Kelly is 35 years old and in his 11th season. It’s no surprise that he remembers the basics.

The event reminds me of one of my favorite stories from The Baseball Codes, which also involves the Twins. It happened in 2006, in a game in which Minnesota led the Red Sox 8-1 in the eighth inning. With two outs and nobody on base, Torii Hunter drew three quick balls to start his at-bat against Red Sox reliever Rudy Seanez.

The unwritten rulebook does not equivocate at this moment, prohibit­ing hitters in such situations not just from swinging hard, but from swing­ing at all. Hunter did both, and his cut drew appropriate notice on the Minnesota bench. “After he swung I said to him, ‘Torii, you know, with a seven-run lead like that, we’ve got to be taking 3-0,’ ” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “He honestly had not even thought about it.”

“I wasn’t thinking,” admitted Hunter. “I just wanted to do something. I knew a fastball was coming, and if I hit a double or whatever, we could get something going. I was just playing the game. I got caught up in it.” The incident serves to illustrate the depth of the Code’s influence. Hunter was generally aware of the unwritten rules, and except for rare instances of absentmindedness abided by them—while simultaneously disdaining much about their very existence. “Man on second, base hit, and you’re winning by eight runs, you hold him up at third,” he said. “You play soft, and I hate that part of the game. I hate that you don’t keep playing the way you’re supposed to, but you have these unwritten rules that you don’t run the score up on guys. Well, okay, what if they come back? The runs we didn’t score, now we look bad. We don’t think about that. At the same time, those rules have been around a long time, and if you don’t fly by them, you’ll probably take a ball to the head, or near it.

“You don’t want to embarrass anybody, but what’s embarrassment when you’re trying to compete? There’s no such thing as embarrassment. You’re out there to try to win, no matter what the score looks like. Whether it’s 4–3 or 14–3, you’re trying to win. I’ve seen guys come back from 14–3 and win the game 15–14. If I go out there and try not to embar­rass you and you come back and win, I look like the dummy.”

It’s a powerful system that forces an All-Star to override his competi­tive instincts for a code in which he does not believe. If one wants to avoid retribution, one must embrace the unwritten rules; barring that, Hunter learned, an act of contrition can suffice.

After the game, Gardenhire took the outfielder to the visitors’ club­house to speak to Red Sox manager Terry Francona, trying to wipe away the potential for hard feelings. To abide by the unwritten rule that bars opposing players from the locker room, the meeting took place in a rear laundry room in the bowels of the Metrodome. There Hunter informed both managers that he had swung out of inattention, not disrespect.

“We wanted to make sure [Francona] understood,” said Gardenhire. “I went there to let him know that I know the game too. It’s a manager’s responsibility when a player swings 3-0 to make sure the player under­stands that. I wanted him to know we didn’t give a sign for him to swing away, that Torii just made a mistake. I thought that it was good for Torii to explain it to him, so I took him over.”

Francona brushed it off as no big deal, saying that his mind had been wrapped around devising ways for the Red Sox to come back in the final frame and that he hadn’t even noticed. He did, however, express his appreciation for the visit. And the rationale worked. It appeased the mem­bers of the Red Sox who had noticed—there were several—and no bean­balls were thrown the following day.

“You see those types of things and you know it’s being taken care of internally,” said Red Sox pitching coach Al Nipper. “You say, Hey, it’s an honest mistake, it wasn’t something intentional, where the guy’s trying to show you up. We all make mistakes in this game. Ron Gardenhire is a class manager, and that was a true coaching moment for him. . . . I guarantee you, that was a moment he probably didn’t relish to have to do with a vet­eran, but he had to do it.”

In yesterday’s game, Cave, like Hunter, appears to have forgotten the situation before he swung, offering an embarrassed shrug at first base when informed of what he’d just done. Kelly may well have overreacted by drilling Kepler, but the hitter knew exactly why it happened, and trotted down to first base without further incident.

This kind of thing doesn’t come around often, but it sure is fun to examine it when it does.

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead

When Is Stealing With A Big Lead In The Fourth Inning Acceptable? Pretty Much Always

There was some discussion this morning about Pirates broadcasters Greg Brown and Bob Walk lambasting the Cardinals’ decision to steal two bases yesterday—both by Yairo Munoz, in the span of two pitches—while holding an 11-4 lead. Suffice it to say that the Bucs’ broadcasters were not impressed.

Brown and Walk are unequivocally old-school, going so far as to initially misidentify the ensuing boos as being directed at the Cardinals’ perceived breach of etiquette rather than at the home team’s sloppy play. Walk even alluded to retaliation, saying, “I know exactly what would happen now, in a different era.”

Holy hell, guys—it was the fourth inning. Under even the kindest reading of the code—even the code from Walk’s era (he pitched from 1980 to 1993)— that’s way too early to expect behavior modification. In The Baseball Codes, we broke the idea down via a series of quotes intended to convey the diversity of opinion on the subject about when a team should take its foot off the gas in a blowout game:

* “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.”

The first three bullet points fail to mention timing, but the other four take care of that. In the homer-happy, run-barrage landscape of modern baseball, in which comebacks are more likely than ever, is it weird to think that a seven-run lead in the fourth inning is safe? Of course not. Hell, even the Pirates thought so, having first baseman Josh Bell hold Munoz on first base prior to his initial steal (despite the insistence of pitcher Luis Escobar to steadfastly ignore him).

And why wouldn’t they? It was the fourth inning for crying out loud.

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation

Profar Learns The Hard Way That Some Teams Are Sensitive Creatures When It Comes To Stolen Bases

Profar drilled

Perhaps the trickiest of baseball’s unwritten rules has to do with when to take one’s foot off the gas pedal.

Everybody agrees that it’s bad form to pile on when sitting on a big lead late in a game, with aggressive tactics like stealing bases. It’s just that nobody can seem to agree upon when that point is.

Once, a four-run lead was considered somewhat safe. That was a long time ago. As offense has increased over the years, so has the margin. Now, it’s upward of six or more.

The precise number hinges on numerous factors—primarily how far along the game is, but also things like the strength of a team’s bullpen and its ability to come back from a given deficit. A four-run lead in the ninth is generally considered to be safer than a six-run lead in the fifth.

All that being said, seven runs seems about right as a point at which to call off the big dogs. Just like a football team putting in second-teamers when sitting on a five-touchdown margin, teams can reasonably be expected to cool it on overt scoring attempts while holding such a big lead. Players still try to get hits and score runs, of course, but at some point tactics trend toward station-to-station baseball—runners taking one base on a single, two on a double, etc. If a play necessitates a slide, then it’s probably best not to attempt it.

On Saturday, Jurickson Profar stole a base while the Rangers held a seven-run lead over Minnesota. In his next at-bat, Twins reliever Addision Reed threw two pitches inside, then drilled Profar in the leg with the third. (Watch it here.)

Which is where we get to mitigating circumstances. For one, Profar had already been hit twice on the day, his contested steal coming after the second HBP. For another, it was only the fourth inning, by any count too early in the game to consider shutting things down.

That didn’t stop the Twins from crying foul—literally, from their dugout—to the point that Profar expected the drilling he eventually received.

“I thought it was after the fifth inning that you shut it down,” Profar said after the game in an MLB.com report. “They almost came back at the end. They thought it was bad. It is what it is. It’s baseball, I’ll learn from it.”

It’s unclear what Profar thinks he’ll learn, since he’s spot-on about everything else. The Twins, down 9-2 at the time he stole the base, scored the game’s final four runs and brought the tying run to the plate before losing, 9-6.

For evidence that Minnesota did not actually deem it too late in the game, know only that they were still holding Profar on prior to his contested steal. If a team expects an opponent to play by blowout tactics, they themselves should, too. In this case, that would have involved playing first baseman Logan Morrison in the hole, with the understanding that Profar would not take advantage by stealing the base. This did not happen. (Nor should it have, given that it was the fourth inning.)

“The thought process between the unwritten rules of the game is not clearly defined,” said Twins manager Paul Molitor after the game in a Dallas News report. “What I might think and what he might think might be different things. I was surprised that [Profar] ran with the score the way it was, when he did. And getting hit there was something that Banister felt wasn’t appropriate.”

The likely reason that Bannister felt it wasn’t appropriate is because it wasn’t appropriate. A lack of clear definition when it comes to this stuff doesn’t override the fact that the fourth inning is too freaking early under nearly any imaginable circumstance to take offense at something like a stolen base. The Twins aren’t presenting a good look, here, and not for the first time this season.

Despite expressed displeasure from manager Brian Bannister, the Rangers opted not to retaliate. At least somebody in this story possesses a clear head about these things.

Bunt appropriately, Bunting for hits, Gamesmanship, Taking Advantage of Injury

CC Sabathia Still Has Issues With Boston’s Bunting

Nunez bunts

America is a place where people in prominence can claim ludicrous things and then, after others have pointed out said ludicrousness, double down on their bad ideas. Freedom.

On Thursday, it was CC Sabathia’s turn. Remember just last week when he made the specious, if not downright addled claim that because he was returning from a knee injury, the Red Sox had no right to bunt against him?

If anybody tried to explain to him what a flawed position he was taking, they did a poor job of it. Yesterday, Sabathia again faced the Red Sox, and again the Red Sox did some bunting—starting with the game’s second hitter, Eduardo Nunez, who laid one down in front of the plate, which Sabathia pounced upon … and then threw wildly for an error. “That’s my game,” said Nunez, who also bunted against the pitcher last week, in a Providence Journal article. “You can’t take away my game.”

The strategy proved effective beyond the reach of the bunt itself, when a rattled Sabathia walked the two guys following Nunez in the order, throwing only two strikes in the span of 10 pitches. The pitcher buckled down to escape the jam, then yelled toward the Red Sox dugout as he left the field, explaining in R-rated terms how he felt about their strategy. After the game he said, via a New York Daily News report, that the Red Sox were “scared,” and that “they just think I’m a bigger guy who can’t field my position.”

Well, yes. To which an appropriate response could entail multiple suggestions, primary among them: Figure out how to field your position, or learn to deal with the consequences. Sabathia’s knee is “not my problem,” said Nunez, adding, “If I have to bunt four times in a row, I’d do it. I don’t care if he’s mad or not.”

With last week’s round of complaints, the pitcher effectively offered an open invitation for opponents to get inside his head by bunting. When the Red Sox took him up on it, he responded by channeling a senior citizen chasing neighborhood kids off his lawn.

“I’m an old man,” groused the 37-year-old. “They should want to go out and kick my butt.”

Yes and no. The problem with kicking the butt of an effective pitcher is that alternative paths are sometimes the best route to success. Sabathia earned the victory on Thursday with six innings of one-run ball, and has now won all four of his starts against Boston this season. The Red Sox are obligated to find more effective methods against him.

During the Revolutionary War, the British complained that American forces wouldn’t fight them in formation—a tactic that almost certainly would have led to defeat. With this in mind, why would any team approach Sabathia in his own chosen manner, unless they concurred that it was the best approach?

The Red Sox are being paid to win baseball games, and satisfying the skewed morals of a crotchety pitcher has nothing to do with winning baseball games.

Freedom. Get off my lawn.

 

Bunt appropriately, Bunting for hits, Gamesmanship, Taking Advantage of Injury

CC Sabathia Has Thoughts on Boston’s Bunting Habits

Knee

CC Sabathia is angry that the Red Sox took advantage of him. The pitcher, returning from a knee injury, tossed a splendid game against Boston over the weekend, giving up four hits and two runs over six innings to earn the win. One of his takeaways, however, concerned the opposition’s sustained insistence on making him prove that he was healthy by laying down bunt after bunt, to test the left-hander’s agility.

Boston’s very first batter, Eduardo Nunez started things off, though his attempt rolled foul and Sabathia ended up striking him out. Outfielder Andrew Benintendi did similarly, and Sabathia fielded his bunt cleanly, after which he motioned in frustration with his glove toward the Red Sox dugout.

“To come out and that’s your strategy, that got me going a little bit,” Sabathia told the New York Post after the game. “Literally, two of the hottest hitters in baseball bunting. If that was their strategy, I [handled] it.”

The pitcher’s anger is misplaced. Any player nursing an injury is a proven liability, not to mention a target for the opposition. If Sabathia was not healthy enough to help his team, he should not have been on the mound. If he was able to help his team—and boy was he ever—then the upside of his pitching had to be sufficient to protect against those who might seek to take advantage of him in other ways.

It’s why Dusty Baker played in the 1981 World Series with a sprained wrist, despite it preventing him from doing anything of consequence with the bat. The threat of Baker in the lineup was itself valuable, and by not openly discussing his injury, sustained away from the field during the NLCS, he hoped that the Yankees would continue to treat him as the dangerous hitter he’d been all season long.

It doesn’t even take an injury to fit this bill. During the 1974 World Series, Alvin Dark called in Catfish Hunter for a relief role to close out Game 1. When Dark said that the hitter, Joe Ferguson, couldn’t handle curveballs, Hunter told him that Ferguson would see nothing but fastballs. The reason: “I ain’t got no curveball today.” At that moment it was up to Hunter—as it is up to any pitcher trying to perform without his full complement of pitches—to keep that knowledge from the opposition for as long as possible. Ferguson had no idea that he’d not see a single bender, and so had to prepare for the opportunity that he might.

Five fastballs later, he went down swinging for the game’s final out. This kind of thing happens all the time.

Sabathia is obviously concerned about his health, and has every right to be. But if he’s not up for fulfilling every facet of his job description, he must at least be willing to act as if he is.

 

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation

Baseball Man Steals With Eight-Run Lead; Opposing Baseball Man Confused, Miffed

ThouShaltNotSteal

Perhaps the oldest of baseball’s age-old unwritten rules concerns the point at which a team should take its foot off the gas and coast in to victory. Nearly everybody agrees that cessation of aggressive tactics—stolen bases, bunting for hits, sacrifice flies—is appropriate at some point in a blowout. Consensus on what that point is, however, in terms of either score or inning, is difficult to come by.

On Sunday, Arizona rookie reliever Braden Shipley used his mound-top pulpit to lobby for an eight-run lead in the fifth as designated markers.

How he did so represented some serious throwback attitude. With Minnesota leading the Diamondbacks, 12-4, and two outs in the fifth, Twins outfielder Byron Buxton reached first and found himself repeatedly retreating to the bag under a hail of pickoff attempts.

They didn’t work. Buxton swiped his 22nd base of the season. That he never scored did little to appease Shipley.

When Minnesota next batted, the pitcher waited to act until he’d retired the first two batters. That brought up Chris Gimenez, who had already singled, doubled and homered. A cycle may have been improbable for a man who’d accrued only one triple to that point in his nine-year big league career, but he had at least given himself a chance … until Shipley took it away. The right-hander’s first pitch fastball drilled Gimenez in the ribs.

It was classic execution. The problem with classic execution, of course, is that it is by definition outdated, and the way baseball is currently set up harbors little space for that kind of mindset. Even more egregious was that the purity of Shipley’s old-school attitude was undermined entirely by what appears to be a significant misunderstanding of the way this particular rule is supposed to work.

While it’s acceptable to decry a base stolen by a team holding an eight-run lead, mainstream thought holds that to do so before the seventh inning  is premature.

Furthermore, were Shipley truly set on traditional parameters, he had no business trying to keep Buxton close at first base. After all, if one is to decry aggressive offensive tactics during a blowout, it’s only fair to forgo aggressive defensive tactics as well. While facing a lead so insurmountable as to expect cessation of steals, a defense would ordinarily play its first baseman in the hole, even with a runner at first, with the expectation that said runner will not take advantage. (This strategy stirs up its own controversy, the heart of which involves a team giving itself a defensive advantage—better positioning for the first baseman—at absolutely no cost. But that’s a topic for another post.)

Finally, in situations like this, circumstances count. Target Field is the fourth-most homer-friendly ballpark in the big leagues this season, and Minnesota’s bullpen is surrendering more than five runs per game, fifth-worst in the American League. Closer Brandon Kintzler has been outstanding, but the rest of the bullpen has ranked between adequate and awful, presenting a decent opportunity for a comeback-seeking club.

A quick recap:

  • It was early in the game.
  • Shipley worked hard to hold Buxton close to first base.
  • The Twins’ ballpark plays small.
  • The Twins’ bullpen ain’t real good.

Gimenez was within his rights to be angry over the drilling, but chose instead to take it like a pro. “It’s baseball,” he said after the game in a 1500ESPN report. “If he had thrown at my face we might have had some issues, but he did it the right way.”

Right way or no, the pitch begat a response. In the seventh, Minnesota reliever Ryan Pressly came inside to D’Backs shortstop Adam Rosales, drawing a warning to both benches from plate ump John Tumpane. (For reasons unclear—his guy got to hit a batter, their guy did not—Arizona manager Torey Lovullo argued the point and was subsequently ejected.)

Leave it to Gimenez to put everything in perspective. “It is what it is,” he said after the game. “Hopefully it’s a learning experience for everybody involved. Obviously, it’s a younger pitcher on the mound as well, maybe not quite understanding the situation.” Gimenez pointed out that he and Shipley, both alums of the University of Nevada-Reno, are friendly. “No hard feelings at all,” he said. “That’s baseball.”

Later in the day, Shipley was optioned to Triple-A Reno. It probably had nothing to do with his response to Buxton, but that, too, is baseball.

 

 

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation

Bruce Rondon: Protector of the Code, or Just an Asshole?

Moose drilled

The scene: Tiger Stadium last Wednesday, the ninth inning of a blowout win by the Royals. Lorenzo Cain, on second base, races home on a single to left field by Eric Hosmer, making the score 14-2.

The problem? Baseball’s unwritten rules mandate that aggressive tactics be waylaid late in lopsided games. This means, among many other things, that baserunners play station-to-station ball, advancing one hit on a single, two on a double, etc.

Cain did not abide, and Tigers reliever Bruce Rondon responded by drilling the next guy, Mike Moustakas, in the thigh with a 99-mph fastball. Benches cleared, and Rondon was tossed by plate ump D.J. Reyburn.

Once, this type of response would have barely raised an eyebrow on the opposing bench, so clear-cut was the idea of holding one’s ground in a blowout. In the modern game, of course, things are different. It would not have been surprising had the Tigers overlooked such action entirely.

Not Rondon, though, who didn’t even offer a courtesy miss outside the zone in order to offer some plausible deniability before drilling Moustakas. His first pitch to the hitter ran inside. The second pitch nailed him. Moustakas was decidedly unhappy, not quite charging the mound but not going to first base either, as he lit into Rondon verbally.

There is yet a mitigating factor at play here. One segment of baseball intelligencia holds that station-to-station baseball in a blowout is a fine rule of thumb, but if there will be no play at a given base then a runner has every right to advance. Take it from no less an authority than former Rangers manager Ron Washington, who said: “If you have to slide, you don’t go. If you can go in standing up, then it’s okay. You don’t stop playing the game. That ain’t showing anybody up, playing the game.”

As an example, take another game played by the Royals, an inconsequential contest against Seattle in 2001. In the eighth inning, Royals third-base coach Dave Myers decided to hold speedster Charles Gipson at third base because KC held a nine-run lead. “I knew Gipson could score,” Myers theorized after the game, “but he’d have to slide to be safe. Had the right fielder bobbled the ball, then I would have sent Gipson. Then it would have been their fault that he scored.”

On Wednesday in Detroit, Cain scored standing up. Left fielder Justin Upton never even made a throw.

It’s possible that Rondon is a latent code-warrior, sticking up for moral propriety on the ballfield (even as he ignored the fact that Detroit had ceded the play). Or he could just be a hothead who let his temper get away from him. This is the guy who got sent home for “lack of effort” in 2015, a move widely supported by his teammates, and who got farmed out for several months this April. On Wednesday, Rondon was upset at being inserted into a blowout. He was upset at surrendering a single to Cain, and the subsequent balk call that allowed Cain to advance to second. He was upset at giving up another hit, to Hosmer. He was upset that his ERA was 10.50.

Maybe—maybe probably—the pitcher’s actions had nothing to do with the Code and everything to do with taking out his frustrations on whoever was unlucky enough to be standing in the batter’s box at the time. Royals pitcher Danny Duffy nailed it after the game when he said, in an MLB.com report, “If [Rondon] doesn’t want to compete in a situation that’s not sexy, they should just send his ass home.”

Two days later the pitcher gave up three runs in one-third of an inning to blow a lead against Houston. His ERA now stands at 12.41 and, with acts like the one Wednesday doing litttle to help Rondon’s cause, Duffy’s suggestion may well come to pass.