There’s nothing Cody Bellinger can’t do this year. He walks off games with walks. He walks of games with home runs. On back-to-back days, no less. Pertinent to this space, he also appears to have mastered the fine art of the subtle dig.
Travel back a week or so to June 24, with the Dodgers battling the Diamondbacks in Arizona. With the game tied, 4-4, reliever Yoan Lopez put LA down without much trouble in the eighth inning, capped by his strikeout of Joc Pederson. Lopez pounded his chest while descending the mound, then offered a little nod of superiority to Pederson en route to the dugout.
The Dodgers noticed.
So when Bellinger hit his game-winner home run off Lopez on July 3, he saw fit to notify the pitcher that the Dodgers have long memories. First came the bat toss and home-plate celebration. Then came the glare toward the mound. Then game the glare toward the visitors’ dugout. It was all prelude, of course, to a mocking chest-bang as Bellinger approached first base.
Much of this was lost in the ensuing mayhem. Apart from raising his arms before starting his trot—standard fare for a game-winner these days—at first blush, Bellinger’s response looked downright normal.
Still, it said everything he wanted it to. Let The Kids Play might be an official mandate, but that doesn’t mean that the kids’ opponents won’t notice. Disrespect comes in many forms, and that’s exactly how the Dodgers took Lopez’s actions toward Pederson. It was a minor affair, hardly worth a retaliatory pitch, but some of Lopez’s own medicine directed back his way?
Before we get into umpire warnings and how they might or might not be useful, let’s start with Wilmer Font.
Font is the definition of a journeyman pitcher, playing for five teams in a five-season big league career, with one Tommy John surgery and a few minor league campaigns in the middle of everything. In May, the Rays offloaded him to the Mets for next to nothing, at which point Font’s career ERA was 6.51.
Still, he throws with decent velocity, employs five different pitches and can be stretched out as a middle reliever. And in New York, things seem to have changed. Over the last month, Font has racked up a 0.69 ERA in 13 innings across seven appearances. The Mets bullpen has been in shambles, and the right-hander looked ready to pounce on the opportunity to gain some organizational trust.
Until yesterday, anyway. Font was inserted into the sixth inning of a game against the Phillies with runners on second and third and one out, and the Mets holding a 5-2 lead. The first hitter he faced, Jay Bruce, brought home a run with a groundout. The next hitter, Cesar Hernandez, brought home another run with an infield single. The next batter, Maikel Franco, gave the Phillies the lead with a two-run homer. The next batter, Brad Miller, extended the lead with another home run, then clowned his way to first base. In the span of four batters, Font’s ERA jumped from 4.58 to 5.50.
Of course he was frustrated. Maybe that’s why he sent a fastball at Scott Kingery’s head.
Kingery’s crime, of course, was
merely hitting behind Franco and Miller. A leap and a shrug by the batter
managed to help him deflect the pitch with his shoulder, but the intent was
clear. Font put a pitch someplace that no pitcher ever should, and the Phillies
Enter plate ump Joe West, and the discussion about umpire warnings. West saw the pitch for what it was, but instead of tossing Font he opted for warnings to both benches. The umpire no doubt knew about the recent history between the teams, notable for a game back in April in which the Mets threw at Rhys Hoskin’s head in response to an ill-considered stolen base.
Still, issuing warnings to both teams precluded any sort of response from Philadelphia for an egregious act, never mind that, apart from Miller’s antics while heading toward first base, they’d been entirely clean. Phillies skipper Gabe Kapler was commensurately upset and came out to argue. It took West literally six seconds to toss him.
The increasingly vital Jomboy broke it all down:
As pertains to the Mets, West’s decision to warn Font rather than tossing him had no effect whatsoever on the game, given that Mickey Calloway pulled the reliever anyway. For the Phillies, however, it generated some constraints.
Never mind the idea of retaliation; with a two-run lead in the late innings, any possible head-hunting notions they may have harbored would likely have been tabled until another day anyway. The warning did, however, increase concern among Phillies hurlers about utilizing the inside corner. Kapler noted as much after the game, saying in a Philadelphia Inquirer report, “I felt like it was going to put us at a disadvantage throwing up and in.”
So what’s the right answer? Generally speaking, clued-in umpires tend to delay warnings until an aggrieved party has a chance to respond. Also generally speaking, Joe West is not always considered to be clued in. Overly quick warnings, like West’s on Tuesday, simply delay gratification for those with retaliatory tendencies. This means that instead of bad blood being contained to a single game, it spills into multiple days.
We’ll see if that’s the case with Philadelphia. Given that two Mets have thrown at the heads of their hitters so far this season, it’d be shocking if we don’t see some sort of response … maybe as soon as tonight.
There were beanballs galore in Denver this week. On Monday, Rockies catcher Tony Wolters was drilled by Yu Darvish. Kris Bryant was plunked twice on Tuesday, perhaps spurring him to take Wednesday off. Despite Joe Maddon’s public insistence that he didn’t think Bryant’s beanings were intentional, the Cubs grew further steamed on Wednesday when a head-high fastball from Antonio Senzatela forced Javy Baez to the dirt in the top of the third. Intentional or not, that’s an awful lot of inside pitches in a short span of time, even for a team like the Rockies, known for working the inside corner. For Chicago starter Cole Hamels, it was the final straw.
In the bottom half of the frame, Hamels drilled Nolan Arenado near his left elbow, a blow that eventually forced the third baseman from the game. Arenado knew exactly what had happened, and got up steaming. “When we buzzed Baez’s tower …” he said after the game in an Athletic report, “I had a feeling it would be me.”
Though tensions were high, no warnings were issued. This made sense. Colorado had taken several shots, and Chicago responded. The circle appeared to be complete.
That lasted until the seventh inning, when Rockies reliever Brian Shaw plunked Hamels in the ankle. It had every hallmark of intention: Two outs, the bases were empty, and the Cubs led, 8-0. With that, hostilities resumed.
An inning later, Rockies reliever Phillip Diehl, in his second-ever big league appearance, drilled Anthony Rizzo in the backside, again with two outs and the bases empty. This was enough to finally draw warnings from plate ump Roberto Ortiz, which left the Cubs unable to respond directly—an especially unpalatable circumstance given that it was the final time the teams will face each other this season.
So the Cubs got creative. Enter the unwritten rules.
It started when Rizzo, on first after being drilled, stole second. This would have been a clear violation of the Code had not it so clearly born a message of discontent. (So uncontested was the steal—Rizzo was not even being held on by first baseman Mark Reynolds—that it was ruled defensive indifference.) Any other time, somebody choosing to run at such a point in a game with that kind of score would become a target. As it is, by the time these teams next meet, the play will hardly be remembered among the litany of everything else that went down.
Ultimately, Rizzo’s advancement didn’t make a bit of difference when Baez, blasted a 460-foot home run into the left field bleachers. Baez is known for his playfulness afield, but he took his time watching this one, and there was nothing playful about it. First, he stared down Diehl. Then he stared down the ball, lingering in the batter’s box before taking several slow, deliberate steps toward first in the early part of his trot. Between Baez and Rizzo, it was a pair of the most obvious messages of discontent one could imagine short of actually drilling somebody.
In the bottom of the ninth, Chicago reliever Brad Brach hit Wolters for the second time in the series, but somehow was allowed to remain in the game despite Ortiz’s prior warnings. Wolters ended up dishing out some Code-based lessons of his own, taking both second and third on defensive indifference before coming around to score on a groundout by Chris Iannetta. That only reduced Colorado’s deficit to 10-1, however, and even then, Baez, who fielded Iannatta’s ball, considered gunning Wolters out at the plate before making the smart play to first.
The final tally had six Cubs hit by pitches during the six games between the teams this season, the Rockies three. That’s on top of the 96-mph German Marquez fastball that hit Bryant in the helmet last season. (That Marquez hit Bryant again last week at Wrigley Field prior to Bryant’s two HBPs on Wednesday didn’t help matters.)
The only way these teams will see each other again in 2019
will be in the playoffs, which Arenado promised after the game “would be a
spicy series.” Would it ever.
Perception is everything, and precedent feeds perception. On Wednesday, baseball saw two games with hotly contested hit batters, and while there is a strong possibility that neither was intentional, recent history has led those at the wrong end of the pitches to leap to some obvious conclusions.
Let’s start in Chicago, where the White Sox’ series with Kansas City was already steeped in contention, given that the last time these teams met resulted in a rhubarb over a Tim Anderson bat toss. The Royals have already paid him back for that, so when they did it again on Wednesday—pitcher Glenn Sparkman bouncing a ball off of Anderson’s head—the situation appeared ready to explode.
Except for this: It was the second inning of a 2-1 game, with nobody out and a runner on first. Also, it was a changeup—not the type of heat-seeker ordinarily utilized for nefarious purposes. For what it’s worth, the pitch merely grazed the brim of Anderson’s helmet—a terrible location to be sure, but more indicative of a ball that’s riding up and in than a missile aimed at an earflap.
Anderson seemed to realize all of this. Hell, the pitch didn’t even knock him down. While visibly frustrated, he more or less just stood in the batter’s box, helmetless, staring down Sparkman. Anderson’s lack of response was no doubt abetted by umpire Mark Carlson, who emerged from behind the plate and quickly tossed the befuddled pitcher from the game. (“It was a changeup,” Sparkman can be seen explaining on replays. Even Anderson said later that he felt the pitch was accidental.)
Had the Royals not already targeted Anderson this season, of course, there’s almost no chance that Sparkman would have been tossed. As it is, optics are important and Carlson did not want this game to get away from him. Sometimes it’s hard to be an umpire.
In Cincinnati, meanwhile, the game was getting away from the Reds, as Pittsburgh built up a 7-0 lead by the eighth inning. That’s when Pirates reliever Clay Holmes drilled Eugenio Suarez in the hand with a 94-mph fastball. There were some moments of immediate heat—Suarez approached the mound for before being led away by catcher Elias Diaz—but things cooled quickly. X-rays proved negative and Suarez is day-to-day.
“I don’t know if they are going to hit me on purpose,” Suarez said after the game in a MLB.com report. “That’s why I walked up to him and asked him if he hit me on purpose. He said, ‘No. Definitely not.’ I just said I wanted to make sure because I don’t like that pitch up and in, right on my face.”
This is believable. Holmes has walked 15 batters in 15⅔ minor league innings this season, and has issued seven free passes in 13 innings since being called up. Outstanding control does not appear to be his thing.
That didn’t prevent Reds manager David Bell from having a say about what had just gone down. So vehement was he when he came out to argue about the pitch that umpire Jeff Nelson ejected him.
Again, this is where optics matter.
In April, Pirates starter Chris Archer threw a pitch behind Derek Dietrich in response to the slugger taking an unusual amount of time to watch a home run that ended up in the Allegheny River outside PNC Park.
In April 2018, Pittsburgh’s Jameson Taillon broke the selfsame Suarez’s thumb with a pitch, costing the slugger three weeks. Later in the season, Taillon hit Suarez again, this time in the elbow. Never mind that none of the pitches appeared to be intentional, or that as a hitter Suarez could do a better job of turning his back toward inside pitches rather than leaning away from them with his hands exposed—a habit that got Jeff Bagwell’s hand broken in three consecutive seasons. Hitting him again looks bad, so it must be bad.
Bell was fed up by the lot of it. He’d previously instructed
his pitchers not to retaliate for such things. That stance may have changed.
“We know they’ll do it,” the manager told reporters after the game in a Cincinnati.com report, explaining his argument with the umpires. “I was doing what I could to protect our players. Clearly, we’re not going to get protected. We’ve got to do whatever we can. We’ve got to take matters into our own hands. It’s unfortunate that our players aren’t going to get protected. That’s been made clear, and we know that team will intentionally throw at people. What are you supposed to think?”
“When someone is messing with your livelihood, your career,
who knows? You’ve got to protect yourself. Clearly, we’re not going to get
protected by the umpires or the league. That’s been made clear. Our players
need to do whatever they need to do protect themselves. I’ll back them whatever
that is. For some reason, we think it’s OK to throw at people. For whatever
reason, that was OK many years ago, and we’re still living some rules that I
don’t know about—that it’s OK to intentionally throw at our players. The
umpires think it’s OK. The league thinks it’s somewhat OK. Somebody’s going to
get hurt. We need to take as many measures as possible. Ours need to do
whatever they need to do to stick up for themselves, protect themselves. They
protect themselves, their career.”
Bell has already proved to be angry about this topic to the point of incoherence. Still, the closest the Reds came to a response yesterday was when reliever Raisel Iglesias threw an up-and-in, 97-mph fastball to Bryan Reynolds with an 0-2 count, before eventually striking Reynolds out.
What we’re left with is increasingly high tension. Bell has thrown down one gauntlet. Pirates broadcaster John Wehner threw down another on Pittsburgh radio, when he came down on Dietrich, of all people, for his homer-watching ways: “I can’t stand him. … I don’t understand why you have to do that. It’s different if you’re a Hall of Fame player, you’re a 60-homer guy, you’re an established guy. Nobody ever heard of him before this year.”
Wehner also referenced Dietrich’s grandfather, Steve Demeter, a longtime minor league coach in the Pirates system, who he said “is rolling in his grave every time this guy hits a home run. He’s embarrassed of his grandson.”
Let’s ignore for a moment the very old-school notion of players earning whatever leeway they’re afforded by the sport’s unwritten rules; Wehner seems completely oblivious of the sea change that’s occurred around baseball as pertains to celebrations.
However much they angered the Pirates and Royals, displays like Dietrich’s and Anderson’s are entering the mainstream, to the point of approval from MLB’s own marketing department. Pitchers have the right to try and put a damper on them, but that tactic does not appear to be working very well as a method of dissuasion.
At least Royals-White Sox and Reds-Pirates matchups, despite the meat-headedness therein, are far more interesting now than they were at the beginning of the season.
Finally, we’re seeing retaliation for something other than bat flipping and the like. Agree with it or not, at least the reason feels somehow tangible.
On May 11 in Tampa, Rays pitcher Yonny Chirinos drilled Yankees first baseman Luke Voit on the left arm with a 95-mph fastball, one batter after DJ LeMahieu had homered. Even if it was unintentional, the optics were terrible. It didn’t help that Chirinos hit Gary Sanchez two batters later, or that Gleyber Torres had been drilled the previous night. “It’s the same thing,” said CC Sabathia in the aftermath. “We hit a home run and they throw up and in. It’s stupid.”
Still, Sabathia’s ire didn’t seem to spread to his teammates. The Yankees had a small opening to respond later in the game, after the Rays opened up a 7-2 lead in the ninth, but did nothing. They had another chance the next day after New York scored four in the top of the ninth to build a 7-1 lead. Again, no action. This would likely have gone unnoticed for the fact that Sabathia has a long memory and a thirst for justice.
On Friday, in the series opener against the Rays at Yankee Stadium, the lefthander threw a pitch that forced Rays DH Austin Meadows to jackknife out of the way. Afterward, Romine said that he didn’t think it was intentional—a stance that lasted until he saw the video, which left little to doubt: While walking back to the dugout after ending the inning, Sabathia shouted, “I definitely was trying to hit his ass.” During a tie game.
An inning later, the pitcher yelled at the Rays dugout some
“You know CC, he’s been around a long time,” Meadows told
reporters after watching the video. “He’s a competitor. He obviously wanted to
take a shot there, but it is what it is. Obviously, we had a beef back and
forth. It’s part of the game, honestly. Luckily I didn’t get hit. But it is
what it is.”
Things continued in Sunday’s series finale, when New York starter Chad Green drilled Daniel Robertson in the head after giving up back-to-back homers. Chance Adams later hit Yandy Diaz in the wrist, knocking him from the game. Robertson said afterward that he did not believe Green’s pitch was intentional, but Diaz was not so certain, saying, in the New York Post, “Maybe it was because I hit two home runs off them [on May 11].”
During the 2000s, the Rays had an extended beef with Boston, eight years’ worth of back-and-forth sniping that led to multiple brawls (all of which was dissected in The Baseball Codes). Now it seems like they’ve picked a new AL East opponent with which to do this particular tango. (Take a look at the above link about Sabathia drilling Sucre to see a rundown of some thorough short-term HBP detritus.)
The teams next see each other June 17 in New York. It would be surprising if things ended here.
Last month, Tim Anderson made clear to us that MLB might not have thought its Let The Kids Play campaign all the way through. It was produced in response to controversy over bat flips both big and little, and other displays of emotion on a ballfield. It was, we were led to believe, institutional approval for players making the sport just a bit more fun.
For that, it worked fine. It just failed to account for whatever’s coming next.
As Anderson showed us, when run-of-the-mill bat flips become routine, players will have to dive deeper, progressing to whatever will grab the most attention next.
We might have seen a preview of that last night.
In the Single-A Florida State League, Royce Lewis of the Fort Myers Miracle—the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft—smacked a ball to the wall in center field for a standup double, and as he reached second base dropped down for some celebratory push-ups. Forget the opposition; even the fans were displeased.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Bradenton Marauders pitcher Gavin Wallace responded later in the game by throwing a pitch behind Lewis’ back, for which he was subsequently ejected.
The Miracle’s official explanation, that Lewis was simply punishing himself for not hitting it out, is about as weak as misguided justification can get. (Batting .233 with no homers in 37 games, perhaps he’s prone to overreach when the rare occasion arises.)
So what does this tell us?
For one thing, at least some of the players who have been crying out for leeway regarding emotional displays are being disingenuous. Even while accepting that tossing one’s lumber can be an expression of uninhibited joy, when the act goes mainstream and players have to up their flip game to draw attention to themselves, that’s exactly what they’ll do. To judge by Anderson and Lewis, they’re already doing it. So it’s not entirely about exuberance. These are type-A athletes who spend their professional lives in the spotlight; Q ratings mean something to many of them.
It should be expected, which is what makes MLB’s failure to expect it especially glaring. Now that the league has embraced showmanship on an institutional level, it’s going to have to figure out how to deal with the aftermath. This is because through it all, pitchers—at least enough of them to matter—haven’t changed a bit. They know better than anyone that some celebrations are simply self-aggrandizement wrapped in a thin veneer of joy, and are commensurately annoyed by them. Guys who pump themselves up at the expense of the opposition continue to be seen as disrespectful, so the reactions of Keller and Wallace should in no way be construed as fringe opinions.
The league ultimately suspended Anderson after his grand bat toss — not for the toss itself, but for using racially inflammatory language in the aftermath. Perhaps they were trying to send an indirect message. If so, it didn’t take.
“I want to be that guy you don’t want to play against, because I’m a dog,” Anderson told Sports Illustrated. “My team loves it, so I don’t care about anybody else. … I’m bringing something to baseball that’s never been brought, as far as the swag.”
Anderson’s attitude is neither good nor bad, per se. How he brings the swag will make a difference, as will the way his opponents react to it.
This is only the beginning, folks. Settle in for what looks to be a wild ride.
On Friday, we were reminded of the sustained vitality behind the long-established baseball concept of waiting for retaliation. In the big leagues, it’s what you have to do sometimes when you see a given opponent only every once in a while, and even then you must wait for an appropriate moment to minimize the chance that drilling somebody will cost you on the scoreboard. Ultimately, revenge fantasies can prove logistically difficult.
Atlanta hadn’t faced Urena since then, apparently not even in spring training. So when the Miami pitcher stepped into the box against Kevin Gausman in the second inning of Friday’s game, Gausman built up some clubhouse goodwill with a first-pitch fastball that let Urena know unequivocally that his act of cowardice had not been forgotten by the guys in the visitors’ dugout.
Gausman missed his mark, Urena leaning toward the plate as the
thigh-high pitch sailed behind him. The target was clearly intentional; the
miss was likely accidental. Plate ump Jeff Nelson tossed Gausman immediately.
This type of thing is hardly unheard of.
During the 1998 NLCS, Padres catcher Jim Leyritz was drilled by future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux one pitch after asking the plate umpire to check the ball for scuff marks. The Padres waited until the following May for retaliation, when Sterling Hitchcock planted a fastball into Maddux’s hip. (As it happened, Leyritz was Hitchcock’s personal catcher.) “It’s just baseball,” Leyritz said after the game, even as a coach on his own team, Davey Lopes, joked to him that “some guys hold a grudge a long time.”
In 2001, Barry Bonds homered against Russ Springer—and, as was his way, watched the ball fly—in the pitcher’s final game before losing more than a season to rotator cuff and labrum injuries. The next time Springer faced Bonds, in 2004, he drilled him. The next time he faced him after that, in 2006, he drilled him again. The latter HBP was noteworthy because Bonds was sitting on 713 career homers, one away from tying Babe Ruth.
Or go back to 1971, when Chris Speier homered off of Pittsburgh’s Steve Blass during the National League Championship Series. The next time the two squared off, the following June, Blass hit Speier in the ribs. “I was thinking, ‘Well, what the fuck was that for?’ ” said Speier later. “I had no idea, so I asked him the next day. He said, ‘You remember that home run you hit off me?’ I said, ‘You guys won the fuckin’ World Series! Whaddaya gotta drill me for?’ ”
As pertains to Friday’s incident, the real question is whether the second inning of a 1-1 game—during which Gausman had already given up a single, a walk and hit a batter—was the right time for the pitcher to do what he did. There were two outs, and by passing up the chance to retire a weak hitter like Urena, Gausman forced himself to face the top of the order with the bases loaded. Not smart.
That last part was only conceptual, of course. Because Gausman missed Urena, he did not load the bases, but in getting himself ejected he did his team no favors. Touki Toussaint relieved him with a 1-0 count on the batter, and proceeded to walk Urena on three more pitches.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Toussaint escaped trouble by striking out Curtis Granderson to end the inning, and the Marlins are the Marlins, so a tie game in the second inning is nearly as good as five-run lead against them in the ninth. Atlanta ended up winning the game, 7-2, and the series in a clean sweep, during which time they outscored Florida 19-5.
Hopefully, this beef is over. The teams next meet in June, which is when we should know for sure.