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.

Intimidation

When to Get Upset Over a Line Drive Up the Middle (Hint: Never)

This is the line between messages sent and messages received. In this case the message was intended for the sender’s own team, but as is often the case when dealing with lunkheads, that didn’t matter a bit to Yordano Ventura.

Heading into the sixth inning Sunday, Kansas City was hammering the Angels and Royals starter Ventura had given up only one hit. With one out, he threw a fastball up and in to Mike Trout, then took offense when Trout drilled the next pitch up the middle, about a foot over Ventura’s head … as if even the league’s best hitter has that kind of bat control.

As Trout settled in at first, the pitcher took several steps in his direction, a display of anger that the incredulous Trout seemed not to comprehend. Trout eventually came around to score on Albert Pujols’ double, upon which he popped up from his slide and implored the on-deck hitter, Matt Joyce, to keep up the momentum.

This is where Ventura proved himself as either unfailingly brave or unflinchingly stupid. Six feet tall and a rail-thin 180 pounds, Ventura gives up two inches and 55 pounds to his opponent. In proximity to the Angels slugger from his position backing up the play, he again started to vibe on Trout—this time for his exuberance—and was quickly whisked away by catcher Salvador Perez, who is clearly smart enough to serve as the brains for two people. (Watch it here.)

If Ventura got into anybody’s head, it was his own. The pitcher suffered a mysterious calf cramp on the very next play, allowing Joyce to reach first base when he was unable to cover the bag, and was removed from the game.

If Ventura and Trout have any history, it isn’t yet clear. (Trout had one hit and one walk against the right-hander in five plate appearances prior to Sunday.) Until that point, Trout … and the rest of the baseball world … are left to wonder just how much more red Ventura’s ass can get.

[gif via Deadspin]

Grant Balfour, Intimidation, Victor Martinez

You Lookin’ at Me?: Staring Contest Goes Awry in Detroit

Balfour - MartinezVictor Martinez looked at Grant Balfour during the ninth inning of yesterday’s ALCS Game 3. Apparently he didn’t do it correctly.

Balfour began jawing. Martinez jawed back. They exchanged at least 16 letters’ worth of four-letter words. Dugouts emptied. Angry hops behind phalanxes of teammates were hopped. Then Balfour got back to his job, got three quick outs, and sealed Oakland’s 6-3 victory.

Balfour is fiery. Also, Australian. He does a lot of spectacularly accented shouting on the mound, usually toward nobody in particular. It does, however, further his goal of being as intimidating as possible.

Martinez was having none of it. After fouling off a 1-2 pitch, he stared down the pitcher while adjusting his batting gloves. Upping the ante, Balfour impolitely told him to knock it off. Martinez responded in kind. According to videotape evidence, each thinks the other is a “bitch.” (Watch a bleeped version here.)

“Fuck that,” Martinez said to reporters after the game. “Not even the greatest closer, that’s Mariano [Rivera], tells you stuff like that. I’m not a rookie that he’s going to come in and say little shit like that.”

Balfour’s intimidation jab, it seems, was successfully parried. (It’s easy to say that Balfour is now in Martinez’s head, putting the hitter at future disadvantage, but it would be just as easy to say that Martinez did the same thing in reverse. )

The moment calls to mind one of the least plausible mound charges in history, mostly because it came from a guy widely considered to be among the best human beings to wear a baseball uniform. It was 2001, and in a game between the Royals and Tigers, Mike Sweeney caught everybody by surprise by going out of his squeaky-clean character to charge pitcher Jeff Weaver.

His reason: Weaver, he said, “said something I didn’t like.”

(Weaver’s insult came in response to Sweeney’s request that the rosin bag be moved to a different spot on the mound.)

Sweeney tackled Weaver, punches were thrown and the game was delayed for 12 minutes.

“It’s something I’ve never done before and it’s something I’m not proud of. But I had to do it,” Sweeney said later. “Weaver is a talented young pitcher, but I’d like to see him respect the game more. Tonight, what he did was uncalled for and I did what I did.”

The lesson: Don’t mess with a man’s respect.

Another incident had a more lasting impact. In 1931, the White Sox were playing an exhibition game against a Houston club from the Texas League, whose 20-year-old pitcher, reported Sport Magazine (and re-reported in David Gallen’s book, The Baseball Chronicles), would not stop talking to the hitters.

“Well, lookee, now watta we got here?,” he said. “Jes’ keep that ol’ bat on the shoulder, fellah. I’m a gonna breeze this here one right across the middle. Now don’t get the catcher fussed up by swingin’ at it. Jes’ save yer strength and watch ‘er go by.”

Irate White Sox manager Owen Bush called out to his hitter.

“What’s going on out there?,” he yelled. “You’re supposed to be a major-leaguer. You’re letting that dizzy kid make a fool outa ya!”

That “dizzy kid” was named Jay Hanna Dean. The next season he would win 18 games for the St. Louis Cardinals en route to a Hall of Fame career. And Bush’s inadvertent nickname stuck; the right-hander’s given name was quickly lost to history.

As for Balfour, he insisted that there were no prior problems with Martinez. He even went so far as to indicate there wasn’t even a present problem.

“It’s all good,” he said in an MLB.com report. “I’m cool with it, bro. Hey, he’s a great competitor. He’s a great hitter. I like a little fire and obviously he does, too. It makes for a bit of fun, right?”

Intimidation, Retaliation

Inside the Mind of Miggy – Cabrera Buzzed, then Fanned, then Steams

Cabrera unhappyIt was a classic misdirection. With an 0-2 count on Miguel Cabrera to open the 10th inning on Saturday, Fernando Rodney sent a 100-mph pitch so outside the strike zone that catcher Jose Molina could not get a glove on it. Wildness thus established, he followed it up with a pitch near Cabrera’s head.

In many respects, the pitch was perfectly placed. It tailed in at the last moment, but was easily trackable by the batter and was never in danger of hitting him. Cabrera leaned back to avoid it, but it would not have made contact even had he remained still.

The strategy was also sound. The previous day, Cabrera had homered twice (and didn’t help matters by celebrating that game’s final out by performing what appeared to be an imitation of Rodney’s archer pose, which the closer strikes following saves). Cabrera leads the major leagues in batting average, RBIs and OPS, and is second in home runs. It was without doubt in Rodney’s best interest to make him as uncomfortable at the plate as possible.

And it worked. Cabrera flailed at the next pitch, a down-and-in changeup, for strike three.

Perhaps Cabrera’s displeasure was compounded by the result of his at-bat, but upon reaching the dugout he spent a considerable amount of time gesturing toward, and yelling at, Rodney. (Watch it all here.)

The pitcher was obviously not trying to hit Cabrera during extra innings of a 3-3 game. Even if he was, it is given wisdom that such a strike is far easier to execute when aiming at the torso than at the head, which is a smaller and more maneuverable target. Much more likely was that Rodney wanted to crimp Cabrera’s style—get him out of the dangerous space in which he’s resided all season—and either A) misjudged the height of his inside pitch, or B) didn’t care.

Cabrera didn’t comment afterward, but his manager, Jim Leyland, did.

“I don’t care about throwing inside but I don’t like it up there,” Leyland said in an MLB.com report, referring to Cabrera’s head. “We will not tolerate that. You can take that to the bank. We won’t tolerate that up to the head to anybody. … That will cause a lot of problems for people.”

It caused problems for Ben Zobrist on Sunday, when, with two outs and nobody on base in the first inning, Tigers starter Rick Porcello drilled him in the back with a 94-mph fastball. It was intentional and it was expected. Plate ump Vic Carapazza quickly warned both benches.

Cabrera got his own measure of revenge three innings later, when he crushed a homer into the Rays Touch Tank—only the second such blast in the ballpark’s history.

Despite Cabrera being “a little sensitive,” according to Zobrist, the Rays left it at that. Except of course, for the final explanation offered by Maddon for their lack of further response. Via Twitter:

Maddon tweetTo gauge it by the wisdom of the author of The Godfather, the Rays, apparently, will not forget this slight. Considering that they won’t face Detroit until next season (or in the playoffs), however, their memories will have to hold for a while.