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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation

To Swing Or Not To Swing: What To Do With A Meatball When Your Team Is Comfortably Ahead?

Mattingly angry

Don Mattingly is the new uncontested King of Baseball’s Old School.

On Friday, his Marlins got into a benches-clearing dustup with the Dodgers, after reliever Ross Stripling drilled Giancarlo Stanton in the back. At first it appeared to be retaliation for Marlins pitcher A.J. Ramos hitting Brett Eibner, which came two pitches after Cody Bellinger blasted a two-run homer, not to mention that Eibner had already homered earlier in the game. (Watch it here.)

That’s a passel of old-school drama right there, what with pitchers drilling guys for some combination of teammates’ accomplishments and their own earlier success. But Mattingly’s subsequent explanation brought things to a whole new level.

“They’re up 5-0, swinging 3-0,” the manager said after the game in a Miami Herald report. “If you’re going to swing 3-0 and we got six outs left. … They can say it however they want it, but when you swing 3-0 up 5-0 going into the eighth, you can put it however you want.”

That is some serious throwback action. The 3-0 hitter Mattingly was talking about was Corey Seager, who eventually walked. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts later came out and said that not only did he not think it was a big deal but that it had been his decision, not Seager’s, which, maybe, okay, but taking heat off their players is what good managers do, so who knows.

Once upon a time, swinging 3-0 with a big lead late in the game was strict grounds for reprisal. The theory is based on the gentlemanly premise that any pitcher struggling to find the strike zone while his team holds a big lead needs all the help he can get. With the outcome of the contest no longer in question, allowing an opponent to pump a fastball down the heart of the plate in an effort to regain his footing is the least a hitter can do.

Take this quote:

“You’ll never see me hitting 3-0 five runs or more ahead. 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.”

That was from Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, in a New York Times article from 1993. Anderson decried such tactics as “cheap.”

In 2002, Matt Williams swung 3-0 while his Diamondbacks led San Francisco 6-0 in the fifth inning. He wasn’t drilled in response, but he heard about it from Giants manager Dusty Baker across the field.

“I did take exception to that, because [Williams, a former Giant] is one of my boys, and I had him [in San Francisco],” said Baker, looking back on the moment. “I said ‘Hey, man, I thought I taught you better than that. You don’t rub it in. You beat them up, but you don’t rub it in.’ ”

The best example from the not-so distant past doesn’t concern a 3-0 swinger, but the polar opposite. In the ninth inning of a game in 2002, with his team holding a 14-4 lead over the White Sox, Seattle outfielder Mike Cameron opted to watch a 3-0 fastball split the heart of the plate. His manager, Lou Piniella, had long preached against embarrassing opponents, and Cameron felt that taking a rip at such a juncture might do that very thing.

A pertinent detail: Cameron had already hit four homers on the day, and willingly passed up a golden opportunity for historic No. 5. He didn’t even consider it until afterward.

Those days, however, are long gone. Cameron last played in 2011, and his generation appeared to be the last to afford serious merit to the 3-0 rule. Part of it is the idea that modern players want to seize every stat-padding opportunity available, regardless of whether their team needs it to secure a victory. Even more pertinent are the definitions of big lead and late in the game.

Once, four runs were considered to be barely penetrable, and five runs—beyond the reach of a grand slam—were lock-box territory. Then came the juicing of baseballs and players alike, and the sport’s offensive explosion laid waste to prevailing notions about what kinds of leads might actually be safe. Five runs turned into six, then seven, then never enough.

Given Mattingly’s response, things might be regressing. The five-run deficit that so upset the Marlins skipper in the eighth inning offers a key tell. With the abundance of relievers—not only closers, but setup and seventh-inning men—pushing 100 mph, late-inning runs are harder to come by than ever. So maybe Mattingly is on to something, this idea that even a few runs over a game’s late frames are nearer a lock than at perhaps any point in history. The Dodgers’ late-inning guys—Kenley Jansen, Josh Fields and Pedro Baez—have combined for a 1.33 ERA this season. Jansen throws a 95-mph sinker, Fields a 95-mph cutter, and Baez a 97-mph four-seamer.

No wonder Mattingly felt overwhelmed.

Ultimately, embarrassing a pitcher by swinging 3-0 only works if said pitcher, or his team, is actually embarrassed. Of late, that’s been a rarity, but maybe Mattingly is ushering in a new/old era.

 

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation

Chase Utley and New Levels of Dedication to Code Adherence

Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley takes batting practice before NLCS Game 6.So Peter Gammons relayed an anecdote involving a team stealing a base with a big lead, and the opposition sending a message. This tale, however, has a twist:

Coaches tell the story of a game in which the Dodgers had a big lead in the top of the eighth inning when one younger, enthusiastic teammate stole second base, which ticked off the opposition. When [Chase] Utley got to the plate in the ninth, he told the opposing catcher to have the pitcher drill him. Then his teammate would understand there are consequences for showing up the opposition.

This is a terrific tale—a hard-nosed veteran insisting on propriety at his own expense in order to teach a lesson to a young teammate.

The problem is, it doesn’t appear to have happened—at least not according to the details provided. Utley’s been hit by 17 pitches as a member of the Dodgers, and never after an ill-timed stolen base while Los Angeles held a big lead.

The closest match I could find happened last Sept. 12, when Los Angeles led the Yankees Yankees 5-1. With two outs and men at first and third, Howie Kendrick—the runner at first—took off for second. The throw from catcher Brian McCann was wild, allowing Josh Reddick to score from third, making the score 6-1. Andrew Toles then struck out looking.

Utley led off the following frame. Reliever Richard Bleier drilled him.

There are two primary problems here. One is that in the modern era, a four-run lead is hardly considered safe. The other is that the action went down in the third inning. No problem there.

So what happened? Gammons said that Utley asked to be drilled, not that he was drilled. Or, it could have happened in a spring training game. It might even have been while Utley was with the Phillies, the details twisted in the retelling.

But that’s the thing about baseball—tall tales have a way of sticking. Hell, legacies are built upon them. Whether or not Utley’s story actually happened, it could have happened, and that’s enough to bring a smile to one’s face over morning coffee.