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.

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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.

Evolution of the Unwritten Rules

The Unwritten Rules at the World Baseball Classic: A Lesson in Two Parts

In many ways, the World Baseball Classic gave us baseball as it ought to be (and maybe once was)—a sport in which pride outstripped other motivating factors by a fairly wide margin, where the simple act of participation was its own reward. Strip away salaries, endorsements, public relations and other outside influences on modern players, and that’s what’ll remain.

How that pride manifests, of course, differs from culture to culture, and it offered two prime lessons in the unwritten rules of the modern game.

Lesson 1: “The Right Way”

Ian Kinsler, who now plays for the Detroit Tigers but a week ago played for the United States in the WBC, made a proclamation in the New York Times that garnered some attention despite coming 19 paragraphs into a 20-paragraph story:

“I hope kids watching the WBC can watch the way we play the game and appreciate the way we play the game as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays. That’s not taking anything away from them. That just wasn’t the way we were raised. They were raised differently and to show emotion and passion when you play. We do show emotion; we do show passion. But we just do it in a different way.”

Those on one side of the discussion openly yearned for the return to a time in which players put their heads down in response to moments of athletic triumph so as to avoid showing up those they’d bested. Those on the other propped up Kinsler as the face of an outdated code of conduct, a no-fun zone where excitement is stifled in the name of propriety.

As is frequently the case in these types of debates, they’re both right. At least to a degree.

So is Kinsler. He and many of his US-born colleagues were raised differently than players from Latin America. They were taught that solemnity on a ballfield equals respect, and that respect is paramount. The catch is that many of the Latin-born players to whom he referred agree entirely with the latter part of that equation. Respect is everything—it’s the unwritten rule upon which everyone eventually settles. The difference is that guys from the Caribbean and Central America cast a narrower net when it comes to interpretation of potentially impertinent acts. Which doesn’t make their celebrations disrespectful. After all, like Kinsler said, they were raised differently.

So when players in the Puerto Rico dugout hop around like little kids after one of their countrymen performs a feat of baseball heroism, it’s hardly a stretch to think that it has nothing to do with their opponents and everything to do with each other. This is how the game is played in their home country. While the big leaguers among them might tone it down a notch for their primary employers during the regular season, it’s difficult to fault the players for ramping it right back up when surrounded by their own. “We do a great job playing and having fun out there, said Javier Baez, he of The Tag. “That’s what it’s all about. This is a game. It’s not as serious as a lot of people take it, but, you know, everybody’s got their style and their talent. I have a lot of fun.”

The major leagues have adapted to the increasing influx of foreign players, largely though adoption of their habits. South Korea-quality bat flips might still elicit some anger, but the garden-variety toss has long since become status quo—brought to the fore by Cuba native Yasiel Puig. Puig’s habits have gained traction because they’re fun—and because the only ones taking it personally are those too curmudgeonly to see things any other way. Hell, four of my last five posts have been on that topic alone.

Playing the game “the right way” has long been a rallying cry for baseball traditionalists. But as players across the WBC continued to show us, their game is, more and more, what “the right way” is beginning to look like.

Lesson 2: Don’t Read Too Much Into Backstory Unless You’re Confident That You Know What You’re Talking About

After beating Puerto Rico in the WBC final, multiple U.S. players spoke out about being motivated by a perceived slight from their opposition. Said Andrew McCutchen in an ESPN report: “We heard and we saw T-shirts were made and printed out for the Puerto Rican team. We even heard a flight was made for them for that parade because they said they were going to win. That ignited us, we were ready to go.”

Added Adam Jones: “That didn’t sit well with us, so we did what we had to do.”

There is a long history of this type of bulletin-board motivation. One example, from The Baseball Codes:

In the victorious vis­itors’ clubhouse after the Indians won the 2007 American League Divi­sion Series at Yankee Stadium, Cleveland’s Ryan Garko told the press that celebratory champagne tasted just as good on the road as it did at home. A week later, however, when the Indians raced out to a three-games-to-one lead over the Red Sox in the ALCS, Boston players mistakenly—or perhaps intentionally—advanced the notion that Garko’s statement was not in reference to the Indians’ previous series, but to clinching the pennant at Fenway Park. With the quote posted on the inside of Boston’s clubhouse door as inspiration before Game 6, the Red Sox went on to win en route to the world championship.

Just as Garko intended no disrespect—indeed, his comment had to be skewed significantly to locate anything improper therein—the Puerto Rico team planned their parade independent of victory in the final game. They wanted to celebrate, win or lose, a detail that they did not attempt to hide. Drawing conclusions from the story’s bare bones was a fine way to motivate the American clubhouse—frequently, one needs little more than the ability to twist details to serve one’s own purposes—but the reality was that Puerto Rico’s parade was cast in the same vein as Puerto Rico’s approach to baseball itself. It had nothing to do with superiority or braggadocio or, heaven forbid, disrespect—and everything to do with embracing the fact that the country’s best ballplayers had gotten together and had themselves a time.

And what in the world is wrong with that?

Evolution of the Unwritten Rules, Unwritten-Rules

Let me Tell you About Back in the Day …

Gibson cardInteresting stuff up today over at Hardball Talk about the idea of Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale becoming a crutch for people trying to express how players of bygone eras wouldn’t put up with the shenanigans of today, even though they hit far fewer batters than their modern reputations would suggest. I’m sure that I’ve been guilty of this myself; each guy is an easy stand-in to illustrate points about player toughness and the kinds of things modern players get away with.

Still, how representative were they, really? Despite all the talk about Gibson’s intolerance, there’s little question that he and Drysdale were outliers, simply the meanest characters fronting the scariest trigger fingers of their era. Virtually nobody could match those two—less in terms of sheer body count than in putting the fear of God into batters via a steady stream of knockdown pitches. It’s why they’re still the faces of that particular franchise.

But then there’s this: During the 1968 World Series, in which Gibson played a significant part, Pee Wee Reese apparently bemoaned the lack of modern-day attention to the preponderance of showboating. It’s easy to forget that for all the “kids today are soft” conversations we may have, the previous generation had those same conversations about us, and their elders had the same conversations about them.

Change is inevitable, and, apart from seismic shifts in societal mores, rare is the person who thinks that things are better today than they used to be. Always has been, always will be.