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.

Intimidation, The Baseball Codes

Yadier Molina Has a Message for You, Pitchers

molina_pushups_med_i7mol65c

In St. Louis yesterday, Phillies reliever Brett Oberholtzer knocked down catcher Yadier Molina with an inside pitch at the knees. Molina, having pitched forward to avoid it, ended up face down in the dirt, over the plate, bat still in his hand. Then he did some push-ups. (Watch it here.)

You can’t intimidate me.

Most hitters opt for less representational manifestations of that kind of message, opting simply to get back into the batter’s box as if nothing had happened. Frank Robinson would actually move closer to the plate. But push-ups?

You can’t intimidate me.

Pete Rose made a point of sprinting to first base after being hit by a pitch, to prove that not only could he not be intimidated, he also couldn’t be physically hurt. Guys like Stan Musial and Ted Williams took pleasure in abusing pitchers who threw too far inside, following knockdowns with extra-base hits. Just last year Andrew McCutchen set precedent for Molina, doing push-ups of his own after being knocked down in a game against Cincinnati, and then hitting a double.

The notion of anti-intimidation has a rich history in baseball, never more prominently enacted than by Jackie Robinson early in a career in which opposing pitchers made him one of the most tested batters in big league history. In his excellent book, Baseball’s Great Experiment, Jules Tygiel described a game from 1946, when Robinson still played for the minor league Montreal Royals:

Paul Derringer, a thirty-nine-year-old former major league hurler who had won 223 games over his fifteen-year career, faced Robinson in an April exhibition game. The Kentucky-born player told [Montreal manager Clay] Hopper that he would test the black athlete. The first time Robinson came to the plate, Derringer hurled a fastball at his head. “He knocked him down all right,” said Hopper, “Forced him to put his chin right in the dirt.”

Robinson stepped back in and Derringer threw a second pitch that headed at him and then broke sharply over the inside corner. Robinson lashed the ball on a line over the third baseman’s head for a single.

Two innings later, Derringer again decked Robinson. This time the angry batter drove the next pitch into left-center for a triple. After the game Derringer confided to Hopper, one southerner to another, “Clay, your colored boy is going to do all right.”

And Molina? On the pitch following his batter’s-box calisthenics, he singled into center field. Even if Oberholtzer’s knockdown was unintentional, Molina sent a powerful message to the rest of the league.

You can’t intimidate me.

 

Intimidation, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Do the Royals Really Want a Piece of Noah Syndergaard? Why the Hell Would They?

Up and in on Esco

When Newsday reported yesterday that the Royals were still harboring a grudge over Noah Syndergaard’s first-pitch fastball in Game 3 of last year’s World Series, it struck an awkward tone. The teams meet on opening day, and rumors that the Mets have something in store for their opponents (Syndergaard is scheduled to start the second game of the series) raised more questions than it answered.

It’s not that teams and players don’t have long memories, or that they aren’t willing to wait weeks, months and, in some situations, years for retribution. (In his final season as a pitcher—indeed, in his final game—Bob Gibson was unable to retaliate against Pete LaCock for the perceived slight of having hit a grand slam against him. So he waited 15 years until they met in an old-timers’ game, then drilled him in the back.)

The thing about the Royals allegedly being angry, though, is that Syndergaard didn’t do anything wrong.

As a power pitcher, it is his right to establish tone, and the inside fastball is a valid weapon in any pitcher’s arsenal. With his first pitch of the game, the right-hander threw head-high at 98 mph to Alcides Escobar, one of Kansas City’s hottest hitters and a first-pitch swinger.

Thing is, the pitch didn’t come close to hitting Escobar. It didn’t even cross the line of the batter’s box. When catcher Travis d’Arnaud reached up to catch it, his glove shot straight into the sky, not toward the hitter.

And it worked. Escobar, shaken, struck out.

There’s no reason for the Royals to like this kind of tactic, but neither can they decry it as worthy of retaliation. (It’s their option to feed Syndergaard some of the same, but if that was the endgame there was little reason not to do it at the time.)

So why, one might ask, would the Royals still be holding on to it all these months later? The answer, at least according to K.C. manager Ned Yost, is, they’re not.

“Our retribution,” he said in the Kansas City Star, “was winning the World Series.”

Similar sentiments were echoed around the clubhouse.

Edinson Volquez: “There’s nothing wrong with what he did last year.”

Former Met Dillon Gee: “I’ve been here all spring, and I don’t think I’ve really heard anybody even bring up the Mets.”

The best reason to believe the Royals is because the report that sparked the controversy was so unbelievable in the first place. Newsday’s Marc Carig cited “multiple industry sources” as the basis of his report, whatever that means, but on its face the story was little more than shit stirring on a slow news day.

In this regard, Yost is already on his game, offering more pointed insight than any journalist could offer.

“Some buffoon writes something,” he said, “and you guys are gonna jump like little monkeys in a cage for a peanut.”

 

Intimidation

Take That, Royals … But Only Once

Up and in on Esco

Noah Syndergaard started Game 3 of the World Series by going up and in to leadoff hitter Alcides Escobar. The Royals grew irate. Syndergaard later described it as trying to set tone. The Royals decried the action as misguided headhunting. Syndergaard said that anybody who has a problem with it “can meet me 60 feet, six inches away.”

Syndergaard was correct in his justification … and wrong in his execution.

It is a pitcher’s prerogative to prevent hitters from getting comfortable in the batter’s box. His primary tool in this regard is the ability to move their feet with inside fastballs, preventing them from diving over the plate for outside stuff on later occasions. Nolan Ryan was a master at this. It worked out pretty well for him.

To judge by Game 3, however, Syndergaard is not that guy. He accomplished his goal of establishing a presence against the hottest leadoff hitter on the planet—a guy known for swinging at first pitches—and then completely failed to maintain it. Escobar struck out, but came back an inning later and singled to center field. The two hitters behind him in the first inning doubled and singled. The Royals scored once in the first and twice in the second. If intimidation was Syndergaard’s endgame, it was a pretty bad night.

Which is understandable. Anybody who throws as hard as Syndergaard must be wary of the implications of missing too far inside. That fear even hampered Ryan for a time, and he had to overcome it to reassert his dominance.

It’s not difficult to see the allure of intimidation. Syndergaard’s first pitch (which, contrary to reactions on the KC bench, did not come close to hitting the batter; watch the whole thing here) set Alcides up perfectly for two straight curveballs—the first of which froze him for a called strike, the second of which he fouled off. That, in turn, set him up for a fourth-pitch four-seamer at 99 mph, which Escobar had no hope of catching up with for strike three.

That was it for Syndergaard’s intimidation. So why were the Royals so upset?

Ballplayers tend to look at aggressive tactics, be they inside pitches or assertive slides, through a similar lens. Players who thrive on ferocious play, for whom it is a regular part of their approach, are granted more leeway in this regard than guys who break it out only when it suits them. It’s one explanation for why so few batters ever charged Ryan; they may have been scared of him, but they also knew that pitching inside was how he operated, and that nothing they could do in response would change that.

Syndergaard’s pitch caught the Royals by surprise. Only when such tactics are no longer startling will an opponent ever accept them as anything approaching standard practice.

Intimidation

Joaquin Andujar: RIP

Andujar

Sad news just in from the Dominican Republic: Former pitcher Joaquin Andujar—four-time All-Star and the rotation cornerstone of St. Louis’ world champs in 1982—has passed away. Part of his success was predicated on effective use of intimidation, which led to one of my favorite stories in The Baseball Codes, courtesy of former pitcher Mike Krukow. Andujar comes across as a bit of a villain in the tale, but there’s no mistaking that for the better part of a decade he was one of the best pitchers in the National League. Baseball lost a good one.

In 1984, the Giants found themselves in an ongoing feud with St. Louis pitcher Joaquin Andujar, who frequently tried to establish his menacing mound presence through early-innings use of brushback and knockdown pitches. That appeared to be his strategy on July 17, when he hit San Francisco’s second batter of the game, Manny Trillo. In retrospect, it wasn’t his best decision.

“Manny was a teammate of mine on three teams and a very good friend, and a guy you should not hit when I was the pitcher,” said Mike Krukow, on the mound for the Giants that day. “And when Andujar got him, I said, ‘Okay, boys, wear your batting gloves on the bench because we’re going to fight when this asshole steps up to the plate.’ ”

When Andujar came up two innings later Krukow didn’t hesitate, putting everything he had into a fastball aimed directly at his nemesis . . . and missed. The ball ran inside and backed Andujar up, but didn’t come close to damaging its intended target. This only made Krukow angrier. The pitcher snapped the return throw from catcher Bob Brenly, stalked across the mound, and glared at the hitter. Again he fired his best fastball at Andujar . . . and again he missed. At that point, home plate umpire Billy Williams interceded, levying a hundred-dollar fine and tell ing Krukow, “I gave you two, and that’s enough.”

The pitcher knew he was beaten. He hadn’t been able to hit Andujar when he had the chance, and now he was out of chances. So he seized his only remaining opportunity, dropped his glove and rushed the plate in a rare instance of the reverse mound-charge. Krukow was able to throw a quick punch at his counterpart before the two were separated.

Inexplicably, once the fight was broken up, neither pitcher was ejected. “Now, how about that?” said Krukow, still amazed decades after the fact. “Billy Williams says to me, ‘Now, that’s it, I’m going to leave you in the game. You’re not going to throw at him anymore?’ I said, ‘No, no. I’m all right. Everything’s cool. I got him.’ ”

The umpire allowed Krukow to return to the mound, still in the mid­dle of Andujar’s at-bat. At that point, said Krukow, the first thought that flashed through his mind was “Son of a bitch—I have another chance to get him!” It didn’t take long, however, for the right-hander to realize the ultimate futility of the situation; in addition to Williams’s warning was Krukow’s own fear of missing Andujar a third straight time. Instead, he bore down and struck his antagonist out.

Although Krukow did no immediate damage at the plate, his tactics certainly had an effect. When Andujar got back to the mound, his 13-7 record and 2.88 ERA were rendered meaningless; the would-be intimida­tor quickly unraveled, giving up four runs to the Giants in his next inning of work, and seven runs overall in just over four frames. It was his worst start of the season, almost certainly a result of the confrontation a half-inning earlier. “We exposed his macho,” said Krukow. “It was great.”

Boston Red Sox, Intimidation, New York Yankees

The World According to Pedro

Pedro cardJust in case anybody doubted Pedro Martinez’s reputation as one of baseball’s biggest headhunters, he confirmed as much in his book, “Pedro,” excerpted last week in Sports Illustrated.

In July 2003, Martinez pitched a series finale against the Yankees. He takes it from there.

Two days before my start, Roger Clemens drilled Kevin Millar. I didn’t care whether it was intentional or not. Clemens hit one of my players, so I filed it at the top of my to-do list.

The first batter of the first inning was Alfonso Soriano. I nicked him, but I swear, that one was just up and in. Soriano leaned in and swung right into that ball. The umpire said it was a strikeout.

Derek Jeter was up next, and I sailed one in on his hands and got him good. Both he and Soriano had to leave the game early to have X-rays taken. I told some teammates, “At least I gave them a discount on an ambulance—they both got to go in the same one.” That comment surprised [fellow pitcher] Derrek Lowe. He told me he figured that when I hit batters, it was an accident 90% of the time. He was 100% wrong. When I hit a batter it was 90% intentional.

This is the same guy who once said, “Wake up the Bambino and have me face him. Maybe I’ll drill him in the head.” You know, just in case his Hall-of-Fame stuff wasn’t intimidating enough on its own.