Andrew McCutchen, Jack Taschner, Los Angeles Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Ramon Ortiz, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes, Zach Duke

Additional Thoughts on the Zach Duke Non-Incident

The lack of retaliation by Pirates pitcher Zach Duke when it was so clearly mandated has raised some interesting questions. For example, why didn’t Pirates manager John Russell—who by multiple accounts was enraged at Duke’s inaction—simply order his pitcher to get the job done?

Once, this would have been a no-brainer. In the 1940s, Leo Durocher was known to leave hundred-dollar bills in the locker of Whitlow Wyatt as a reward when the pitcher threw at players’ heads. Numerous opponents recall longtime manager Gene Mauch shouting for his pitcher to “spin his helmet.”

Heck, when Casey Stengel managed the Boston Braves, he was once so upset when one of his rookie pitchers—appearing in just his second big-league game—failed to retaliate according to expectations that he sent the guy back to the minors. It was four more years before Warren Spahn returned to the big leagues (although the U.S. Army also had something to do with his delay), a turn of events that Stengel later called the biggest blunder he ever made as a manager.

Modern managers, though, are different. Now that players constitute multi-million-dollar investments, nobody wants to take responsibility should a fastball go awry.

Pitchers are occasionally encouraged in vague terms (“Do what you have to do”), but rare is the order to actually drill somebody.

(One noteworthy exception to this trend is Ozzie Guillen, who ordered his own rookie pitcher, Sean Tracey, to hit a batter in 2006. When, like Spahn, Tracey failed to carry out his manager’s wishes, he was, like Spahn, banished to the minors.)

Instead, pitchers are expected to understand this responsibility. Should a young player fail to appropriately read a situation, a good talking-to will usually do the trick. For a veteran like Duke, however, significantly more is expected.

Another question involves the window of opportunity. Duke had the chance to directly retaliate against the pitcher who twice threw at McCutchen—Ramon Ortiz came to the plate for the first time this season in the sixth inning—and didn’t do anything about it.

The following inning, when Pirates reliever Jack Taschner sent a ball behind the head of the first hitter he faced, Andre Ethier, it was a clear message sent.

So is the case closed, especially if Ortiz manages to hit against the Pirates again? The vagaries of scheduling make this a mostly moot point; as of May 2, the Pirates and Dodgers had faced each other six times, and will not meet again until 2011. (We’re putting our money on them failing to square off in October.)

Not that it would have mattered. Duke had his chance and completely whiffed; Taschner got a measure of revenge with his message pitch, even though he didn’t actually hit anybody.

If the Pirates respond next season, it will open old wounds in a hurry. As in the wrong as the Dodgers were in this instance, Pittsburgh would be just as guilty if they choose to pursue this into 2011—and the smart money’s on them staying far, far away from even the appearance of vengeance.

That is, unless Zach Duke decides he has something to prove.

– Jason

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Andrew McCutchen, Jack Taschner, Ramon Ortiz, Retaliation, Zach Duke

Pirate Protection Falters; Duke Takes Blame

There are two prominent theories about why Pirates pitcher Zach Duke called himself out in the media for having failed to appropriately retaliate Saturday, after the Dodgers took one too many shots at Pittsburgh outfielder Andrew McCutchen:

  • Having failed to adequately protect his teammate, he realized that the best way to regain respect from within his clubhouse was to publicly recognize his failure.

or

  • He lost his mind.

Pitchers just don’t talk about this kind of thing to daily newspaper reporters. It would have been an especially egregious discussion had Duke actually targeted a member of the Dodgers (admitting one’s intentions in this regard provides the  commissioner’s office with all the ammunition it needs to levy a suspension), but even the simple acknowledgement that it needed to be done raised many an eyebrow.

The backstory: McCutchen hit a home run in the first inning against Dodgers pitcher Carlos Monasterios, making his first major league start. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggested that McCutchen might have showboated just a touch with a “celebratory gesture” as he rounded second, although the outfielder denied having done anything improper, telling reporters that “I play the game right.”

That Monasterios hit Lastings Milledge and Ronny Cedeno in the second inning could be viewed as retaliatory, or simply the mark of a nervous young pitcher failing to hit his spots. Pittsburgh’s lack of response was defensible.

In the fifth, however, Dodgers reliever Ramon Ortiz first buzzed McCutchen, then dropped him with a fastball spotted directly at his head, which the slugger managed to avoid.

The prescribed reaction to this was clear. Even if Ortiz’s pitches were unintentional (although it’s useful in this situation to remember Don Drysdale‘s maxim that the second purpose pitch is the most important, because it shows that the first wasn’t a mistake), placing a fastball near a hitter’s head is impossible to ignore. Response was mandatory.

Duke didn’t deliver, pitching two more innings. To make matters worse, he had the rare chance to face Ortiz himself, in his first plate appearance since 2007, and instead of sending a message, struck him out on four pitches.

Instead, it was Pirates reliever Jack Taschner (who took over in the seventh), who promptly threw a fastball behind Dodgers slugger Andre Ethier.

The message was clearly received; the Los Angeles dugout came alive with players telling Taschner at high volume exactly what they thought of him, his tactics and his mother.

Afterword, many members of Pittsburgh’s clubhouse were livid. The Post-Gazette went so far as to report that Pirates manager John Russell was “privately livid” about the situation. “It can be expected that the coaching staff will address Duke’s role, specifically,” read the report.

All of which is reason for Duke to be repentant, fully and publicly. This sort of self-inflicted humiliation serves as resounding proof to his teammates of lessons learned. (Why it took a six-year vet so long to figure it out is another matter entirely.)

Duke is the best pitcher on an atrocious Pirates staff. His team has little choice but to forgive him, but his leash in this regard will be exceptionally short. Next time a similar situation comes up on his watch, expect a vigorous response.

Update: Why didn’t Russell just order Duke to respond? Find out here.

– Jason