This is what happens when catchers start talking to hitters about their retaliatory instincts.
The reason we don’t frequently hear about this situation is that most catchers, based upon some combination of smarts and seasoning, understand that such banter is rarely productive. The brainpower of Cubs catcher’s Willson Contreras is entirely speculative, but his lack of seasoning is beyond question—last night was only the 24-year-old’s 20th game as a big leaguer.
So when, in the eighth inning of Chicago’s game against Atlanta, Contreras followed an inside fastball from reliever Hector Rondon with a lecture to the hitter, Jeff Francoeur, things took a turn, and benches emptied. (Watch it here.)
It was a long night for Cubs hitters, with Chicago’s Kris Bryant twice being plunked by Lucas Harrell, on a full-count fastball in the fourth, and on a 1-2 curveball in the eighth. The latter, which hit Bryant on the knee and led to his precautionary removal from the game, was Harrell’s final pitch of the night.
Chicago’s problem, if Chicago had a problem, was that right-hander Hunter Cervenka, in relief of Harrell, drilled the first batter he faced, Anthony Rizzo. Every one of the hit batters came with Atlanta trying to protect a 2-0 lead. Intent did not appear to play a part in any of them.
The actual issue wasn’t that Rondon responded with a message pitch to Francouer in the bottom half of the frame—a pitch that, for not coming close to connecting with the hitter should have been entirely unobjectionable—but that Contreras decided to harp about it.
Nobody discussed what was actually said with reporters—the incident’s principals declined to talk, and Cubs manager Joe Maddon said only that “Francouer took exception, which he should not have”—but it’s clear from the video that Contreras had some things to get off his chest before allowing Francouer to get back to hitting.
The entire point of message pitches, as I’ve been led to believe, is that they’re just that: pitches that bear meaning. Francouer was not upset at Rondon’s inside heater, nor should he have been. It was only when the catcher, young buck that he is, decided to lecture him about it that things grew heated. (It’s possible, but far from certain, that Francouer would have accepted a lecture from a more seasoned player.)
Had Contreras let the pitches do the talking—which is, again, their purpose—all would likely have ended calmly. Another lesson in what’s certain to be a season full of them for a young player.