Don't Swing on the First Pitch After Back-to-Back Home RUns, Evolution of the Unwritten Rules, Intimidation, The Baseball Codes

Brewers Never Answer the Question: How Many Homers is Too Many Homers?

Harper mashesOnce upon a time, in a different era of baseball, pitchers thought nothing of throwing at hitters’ heads. That’s changed.

In a different era of baseball, pitchers would drill a guy not only for his own success, but for the success of his teammates. The player in front of you hits a homer? Expect to wear one. That, too, has changed.

Both of those developments are unequivocally for the better.

But then we have something like last night, when four members of the Washington Nationals went deep in the span of five batters—four of them in a row—during a single inning, part of an eight-homer day. It was a ridiculous show of firepower, and the Milwaukee Brewers didn’t do a thing to slow it down.

Before proceeding, I offer a snippet from an interview with former Brewers pitcher and current Phillies hitting coach Bob McClure, conducted years ago for The Baseball Codes:

We were in Yankee Stadium one time, and I gave up back-to-back home runs to two left-handers. I’d given up back-to-back home runs before, but not to two lefties. Dave Kingman was up next. [Catcher] Charlie Moore called for a fastball away. He knew better, anyway. He was just going through them all. Fastball away. No. Curveball. No. Changeup. No. Fastball in. No. And then he goes [McClure flicks his thumb from out of his fist, under his index finger, the universal symbol for knock him down]. So I threw it, and it was a good one—it went right underneath him and almost flipped him. He hit the dirt and was all dusty. His helmet was off. He grabbed his bat and his helmet and gets right back in there. I threw him a changeup and he popped up to first base.

The upshot, from McClure: “Back then, we were taught the 0-2 up and in. Home run, next guy: boom! Knock him down.”

McClure was not trying to hit Kingman, or to hurt him. He was trying to disrupt his comfort in the batter’s box. Be clear about that distinction, because it could have done Brewers pitcher Michael Blazek—who gave up every one of Washington’s fifth-inning homers yesterday—a bit of good. The Nationals were clearly relaxed in the batter’s box. Utilizing inside pitches—not to hit anyone, but to move their feet, back them off the plate and make them consider the possibilities—could have disrupted that comfort. It did not appear to have any place in Milwaukee’s game plan, and the assault continued.

Historically, the most glaring example of this type of thing came from Paul Foytack, the first of the four pitchers (including Blazek) ever to give up four straight homers. While with the Los Angeles Angels in 1963, against Cleveland, Foytack surrendered three straight—to Woodie Held, pitcher Pedro Ramos (batting a robust .109 at the time) and Tito Francona—and set out to knock down the next batter, rookie Larry Brown. Even that didn’t go quite as planned, as Brown ended up hitting his first career home run. “That shows you what kind of control I had,” Foytack told reporters later.

The modern game, however, has eschewed inside pitching to such a degree that the idea never appeared to cross Blazek’s mind, nor—given that it was the pitcher’s first-ever big league start—that of his manager, Craig Counsell. What we’re left with is a record-tying performance that Blazek would rather have no part of.

***

Those four homers gave us another example of the evolution of the unwritten rules, which had more to do with the hitters than with Blazek. A generation ago, the code dictated that a batter would take the first pitch following back-to-back home runs. It was a courtesy offered a struggling opponent.

Take it from three-time All-Star Hal McRae: “Someone would pull you to the side and say, ‘Look, there have been two consecutive home runs hit. The third batter doesn’t swing at the first pitch.’ Take the first pitch. Alert the pitcher that you’re not swinging, that you know he’s out there, you respect him and you respect the job that he’s trying to do. So you take the first pitch, saying, ‘I’m not going to try to come up here and try to hit the third consecutive home run.’ After the first pitch, it’s okay for you to do your job.”

Yesterday, Blazek’s first pitches to Wilmer Difo and Bryce Harper—the second and third of the quartet of consecutive-homer hitters—were out of the strike zone, and taken. His first pitch to the fourth member of that group, Ryan Zimmerman, was down the pipe, and blasted over the left-center field fence.

The interesting part of this is not that the Nationals didn’t observe an obscure unwritten rule, but the extreme probability that nobody in their clubhouse apart from manager Dusty Baker and perhaps a coach or two has even heard of it. The idea of sacrificing statistics for a bit of kindness to an opponent is so beyond the pale in the modern game (and, frankly, has been that way since the 1980s), that it’s almost beyond comprehension.

It does serve, however, as a marker for how far the game has come, and the extreme evolution of its moral compass.

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Don't Swing on the First Pitch After Back-to-Back Home RUns, The Baseball Codes, Unwritten-Rules

Swing, Battah Battah, and Don’t Be Deterred By Back-To-Back Bombs

Buster's blast

With all the recent talk about bat flipping and fist pumping and making baseball fun again for a generation of players more concerned with self-expression than how that expression might be interpreted, it’s easy to lose sight of some of the more nuanced facets of the Code.

Once upon a time, players were expected to feel empathy for a struggling opponent. It’s a direct relative of the don’t-pile-on ethos that leads football and basketball teams to pull their starters late in blowout games. Take your foot off the pedal when extra gas is no longer useful to your cause. Make things easy. Show some respect.

Pertinent to this story is the concept of not swinging at the first pitch following back-to-back home runs. The idea is to give a struggling pitcher a small window of opportunity—a freebie pitch with which to regain his bearings.

“Someone would always pull you to the side and say, ‘Look, there have been two consecutive home runs hit—the third batter doesn’t swing at the first pitch,’ ” said Hal McRae in an interview for The Baseball Codes, talking about his time coming up with Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in the early 1970s. “Take the first pitch. Alert the pitcher that you’re not swinging, that you know he’s out there, that you respect him and you respect the job that he’s trying to do.”

Which brings us to yesterday. The Giants led Milwaukee, 7-3, at the start of the eighth inning. Then Denard Span hit a three-run homer. The next hitter, Joe Panik, followed with a solo shot. With an 11-3 lead and the two guys ahead of him having just homered, Buster Posey got a first-pitch fastball from pitcher Ariel Pena, 92 mph and over the plate. He mashed it over the fence in center field, ending Pena’s night. (Watch it here.)

Was Posey wrong? Of course not.

The reality is that the aforementioned piece of Code, while among the noblest of baseball’s unwritten rules, had its detractors even during McRae’s day. Batters are paid to hit the ball, a status that does not change late in blowout games, and many did not want to be deprived of that opportunity. In the modern game, of course, with the Code so thoroughly diminished, the rule seems downright quaint … if it seems like anything at all.

The reality is that Posey didn’t break the rule because Posey probably didn’t know the rule. Nor should he have, necessarily. He intended no disrespect with his swing, and by all accounts none was taken in the Milwaukee dugout. (Hell, the next hitter, Hunter Pence, also swung at the first pitch he saw, although that was against a new pitcher.)

So what’s the point of a rule that few people know about, nobody follows, and which wasn’t universally popular even in its heyday?

Maybe it’s the simple act of knowing it. Knowing that it exists, and that once a time there were players who abided by it. It offers a window not only into baseball’s past, but into its soul, a reminder that even if the ideals that drove a different generation are no longer worth of imitation, they’re still worthy of veneration.

The game has moved on, and that’s okay. It sure is nice to remember where it came from, though.

[Thanks to @BaseballRuben for the heads-up.]

David Bush, Don't Swing on the First Pitch After Back-to-Back Home RUns, Intimidation

D’Backs Go Deep Again and Again . . . and Again . . . and Again

In June, we declared the antiquated unwritten baseball rule mandating that hitters take the first pitch after back-to-back home runs to be unequivocally dead.

It’s not that most hitters don’t abide by it—it’s that most hitters haven’t heard of it.

If more proof is needed, look toward the Arizona Diaondbacks’ efforts last night, when Adam LaRoche, Miguel Montero, Mark Reynolds and Stephen Drew took Milwaukee right-hander David Bush deep, all in a row, in the fourth inning. (Watch it here.)

Reynolds, batting after back-to-back homers, swung at (and missed) the first pitch he saw.

Drew watched one, but that’s because it was out of the strike zone.

The guy who followed them all, Gerardo Parra, swung at the first pitch, singling to right field.

The true Code violation here was Bush’s refusal to take advantage of the stipulation allowing him free reign to knock somebody down. The Arizona lineup had become all too comfortable at the plate, a development that Bush did nothing to discourage.

It’s another example of how the game has changed. Bob McClure recalls giving up back-to-back homers while pitching for the Brewers in the 1980s, and knocking down the next hitter, Dave Kingman, in response.

“The catcher, Charlie Moore, called for a fastball away, but he knew better,” he said. “He went through them all. He called for a fastball away. I said no. Curveball. No. Changeup. No. Fastball in. No. And then he goes (flip sign), and I nod. I threw it, and it was a good one. It went right underneath (Kingman) and almost flipped him. He was all dusty and his helmet was over here and he was grabbing at his bat and his helmet. . . . Back then, we were taught the 0-2 up and in. Home run, next guy: boom! Knock him down.”

It’s about more than respect. It’s about pitchers utilizing the tools at their disposal to better insure their own success. Angels pitcher Paul Foytack, the first pitcher to ever give up four consecutive homers also failed to utilize those tools, going down nearly as meekly as Bush.

It was 1963, and Foytack started by allowing consecutive home runs Cleveland’s Woody Held, pitcher Pedro Ramos (batting a robust .109 at the time) and Tito Francona. At that point, he said, he decided to send a message by knocking down the next hitter, rookie Larry Brown. Even that didn’t go quite as planned, however; Foytack missed his spot, left the ball over the plate, and Brown hit his first career home run—and the fourth in a row for the Indians.

That’s how it’s not supposed to go. Here’s a small handful of examples of more successful operations:

  • In 1944, Cardinals Walker Cooper, Whitey Kurowski and Danny Litwhiler hit consecutive homers against Reds pitcher Clyde Shoun. The next hitter, Marty Marion, was knocked down.
  • In 1991,Angels pitcher Scott Bailes hit Randy Velarde of the Yankees after giving up consecutive home runs.
  • In 1996, after the Red Sox connected for three home runs against the Angels, reliever Shawn Boskie threw a pitch behind Jose Canseco’s back.
  • In 2003, Astros pitcher Shane Reynolds gave up three home runs to the Pirates, then put a pitch under the chin of Brian Giles.
  • Mike Hegan: “In April of 1974, I hit behind Graig Nettles the whole month. Graig hit 11 home runs, and I was on my back 11 times. That’s the kind of thing that happened.”

None of this is intended to suggest that success merits retaliation. (The Commissioner’s office agrees; for his actions against New York, Bailes was ejected and fined $ 450.)

There is, however, importance in a pitcher’s ability to keep hitters light on their feet, and wondering at least a little about what his intentions might be on any given pitch. The more they think about their own safety, after all, the less they think about the act of hitting.

The Diamondbacks didn’t wonder about any of that with David Bush last night. Perhaps they should have.

– Jason

Don't Swing on the First Pitch After Back-to-Back Home RUns, Gabe Gross

Don’t Swing at the First Pitch After Back to Back Homers: RIP

Earlier this month, a reader pointed out that Oakland’s Gabe Gross had swung at the first pitch after Jack Cust and Kevin Kouzmanoff hit back-to-back home runs against the Red Sox, and wondered about the propriety of the action.

My initial response was that it was a 9-6 game, the ball was clearly flying at Fenway, and Gross had the leeway to take liberties.

Then I realized just how long I’ve spent with my nose in the Code. Much more important than Gross’ leeway is the fact that this rule barely exists anymore, if at all.

It serves as a great example of the evolution of the Code; in the 1970s, Sparky Anderson lived by the rule, as did many of his disciples. Now that power numbers play such a vital part in contract negotiations, however, it’s fallen into such disuse that finding a player who has even heard of it is a feat.

Gross certainly hadn’t.

“If I have a 3-0 count in a blowout game, I don’t swing,” he told me recently. “That, I understand. But the first pitch thrown over the plate after back-to-back homers . . . With all respect to Sparky, I don’t see any reason to be taking it. I’d never heard of that before.”

The swing in question—Gross fouled the pitch off—was not meant to disrespect the pitcher, Manny Delcarmen, nor did Delcarmen take it that way.

Heck, just across the bay, it recently happened with the Giants—twice. Both times, Aubrey Huff and Juan Uribe went back-to-back; both times, the next hitter (Pat Burrell and Pablo Sandoval, respectively) swung at the next pitch.

Let’s have a moment of silence. As charming as this rule may be, I officially pronounce it deceased.

– Jason

Don't Swing on the First Pitch After Back-to-Back Home RUns, Ryan Spilborghs

Spilborghs Swings at First Pitch after Back-to-Back Jacks; Costs Reader Beef

Welcome to the Memorial Day edition of the Reader Mailbag. This is the first one we’ve ever done.

Dear Mr. Turbow:

My name is Michael Baker and I live in Denver, Colorado. I recently read your article about the “Unwritten Rules of Baseball.”

I thoroughly enjoyed your article, especially Unwritten Rule #1- Don’t Swing at the First Pitch After Back-to-Back Home Runs.

After the Rockies hit back-to-back jacks yesterday I stood up and told my three buddies about “Rule #1.” I then guaranteed, and even bet one guy a steak dinner, that the next batter would not swing at the first pitch. Two seconds later, Ryan Spilborghs swung at the first pitch and crushed a ball over the left field fence.

I humbly request that you send me a check for $150 to cover my expenses as I buy my friend a steak dinner and to compensate me for my humiliation, pain and suffering.

Please mail the check to:

Mr. Michael Baker
XXXXX
Greenwood Village, CO

The check does not have to be certified, I know you are good for it. Cash is acceptable as well.

I can provide wire instructions if that is easier for you.

Sincerely Yours,

Michael  Baker

Michael,

I’m sorry to hear about your lost wager. Steak dinners can be precious commodities.

Unfortunately, I’m merely the messenger for the Code, and am unable to enforce its adherence among the major league ranks.

The notion is to give a touch of professional courtesy to a pitcher who is clearly struggling–a single pitch with which to find his focus and right his ship. It’s known as a “courtesy take,” and it was especially prominent with Sparky Anderson and his Big Red Machine teams of the 1970s.

“Let him know, okay, I’m not swinging,” said Hal McRae, who played on those Cincinnati ballclubs. “I know you’re out there trying to do a job.”

These days, fewer players follow this piece of code. The instance in question also contains some gray area: When Spilborghs came to the plate, the Rockies held a five-run lead in the seventh. In Coors Field, that’s hardly considered safe. Spilborghs can be justifiably criticized for lack of decorum, but so too can he mount a defense that the score was close enough to attack the opposition in any way he could.

Colorado visits San Francisco this Monday. I’ll try to track down the perpetrator for comment at some point during the series.

As you dine, please try not to think of opportunities lost, but of friendships gained through the purveyance of beef.

And thanks for reading.

– Jason