Retaliation, Rookie Etiquette, The Baseball Codes

On the Importance of Occasionally Embracing the Silence

Frenchy fights

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.)

Some backstory:

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.


Passing Rules Down, Rookie Etiquette, The Baseball Codes

Archer Sets Tone in Rays Camp

Those who thought that the Chris Archer’s outstanding 2015 season—in which he made the All-Star team and finished fifth in the American League Cy Young voting—might be taken as an excuse to ease off the gas pedal are sorely mistaken.

On the very first day of workouts in Port Charlotte, Fla., Archer pulled aside two young pitchers, Jacob Faria and Blake Snell, for showing up late to a team meeting. How late were they? It was 8:28 a.m. The meeting started at 9.

For Archer, it was all about tone.

“You guys are the last two pitchers here,” he scolded in front of reporters, according to a Tampa Bay Times report. “You guys have zero service time. You got no right to be coming in after me, really. I get here super early. I wouldn’t expect you to be here at 6:30, but 8:30?”

With that gesture, Archer provided a baseline expectation about accountability—an especially important measure considering the youth of Tampa Bay’s staff. This is the basis for winning clubhouse atmospheres.

Dusty Baker tells a story about showing up one minute late to the hotel lobby during his rookie season, to catch a ride to the ballpark with some teammates. It was 4:01 p.m., and he had been in his room, catching the end of Gunsmoke on TV. The group he was to meet waited for him to arrive, and as soon as he saw them sped off. “I had to run behind the truck all the way to the ballpark,” Baker said. Lesson learned. The incident helped to inform an approach to the game that he carries with him to this day.

“What you learn in this game is not yours to pos­sess, but yours to pass on,” Baker said in The Baseball Codes. “I believe that, whether it’s equipment, knowledge, or philosophy, that’s the only way the game shall carry on. I believe that you have to talk, communicate, and pass on what was given to you. You can’t harbor it. You can’t run off to the woods and keep it for yourself, because it isn’t yours to keep. And what you teach other guys is the torch you pass. I don’t make this up—it was passed to me.”

Archer seems to be right on board. “I remember being in some of these younger guys’ shoes,” he said in the Rays spring training clubhouse last week. “Hopefully I can have the same impact that James Shields and D.P. [David Price] had on me.”

If his recent actions are any indication, the Rays are in good shape in that regard.

Bat tossing, Rookie Etiquette, Wil Myers

Flipping Out: Myers Makes the Most of His Sixth Career Homer

Myers flip
Click image for GIF.

From The Baseball Codes:

When Phillies rookie Jimmy Rollins flipped his bat after hitting a home run off St. Louis reliever Steve Kline in 2001, the Cardinals pitcher went ballis­tic, screaming as he followed Rollins around the bases. “I called him every name in the book, tried to get him to fight,” said Kline. The pitcher stopped only upon reaching Philadelphia third baseman Scott Rolen, who was moving into the on-deck circle and alleviated the situation by assuring him that members of the Phillies would take care of it internally.

I bring this up because of Wil Myers’ reaction to the first of two home runs he hit Sunday against Yankees starter Phil Hughes. There’s no mistaking the rookie’s bravado, and the fact that he did it against a seven-year vet struggling to find his way in the game certainly didn’t help matters. (It’s also not the first time for him.)

The Yankees opted against making it a public issue, but place Kline’s commentary after Rollins’ blast—which was only the third of his career—within the mainstream:

“That’s fucking Little League shit. If you’re going to flip the bat, I’m going to flip your helmet next time. You’re a rookie, you respect this game for a while. . . . There’s a code. He should know better than that.”

Kline never responded from the mound, because he faced Rollins only five more times over the course of his career, all with the game on the line. The Yankees visit Tampa Bay in late August. The convictions of New York’s pitching staff will be made apparent then.

Myers flip II

Jordany Valdespin, Rookie Etiquette

Valdespin Class: Mets Rookie Gets Some Schooling

For all the modernity in today’s game; for the allowances teams make when the opposition mobs one of their own after a game-winning hit; for the inter-team chatter around the batting cage; for pitchers willing to permit batters to crowd the plate and dig in; for the definition of “blowout” that has gone from five runs to six runs to eight runs or more—there is still something sacrosanct about the silent rookie.

This is the player who enters a big league clubhouse wide-eyed and ready to learn, partly because he’s willing, and partly because it’s expected. It’s the guy who keeps his mouth shut, the better to watch, the better to absorb.

“In my day, rookies didn’t speak unless spoken to,” said George Brett. “Nobody paid attention to you. You just kind of kept your mouth shut and did what was expected of you. You listened, observed and learned.”

Jim Davenport estimated that one needed 400 at-bats before he could speak up. Lefty Grove had already won four games for the A’s by the time team veterans so much as acknowledged his presence.

“As rookies coming up in Detroit, we were told to be seen not heard, and that’s what we did,” said former Mets manager Jerry Manuel. “We kept our place.”

The sentiment is no longer enforced with quite so much vigor as it was even a generation ago, but it still exists. Which is why veterans notice when a guy like Jordany Valdespin hits a clubhouse.

Valdespin has made quite the impression on his teammates since the Mets called him up in late April, not all of it good.

Reported the New York Times: “In this, his rookie season, [Valdespin] has become an unusual wild card, a player equally capable of providing an instant spark or a head-slapping blunder . . . whose judgment and maturity may still be a work in progress.”

Mets manager Terry Collins has expressed his own concerns, specifically addressing the value in rookies being “very, very quiet” as they earn their position. There’s a reason for this: Valdespin’s behavior, while not necessarily outlandish, has not exactly been rookie-like. His is an outsized personality, the kind that takes over the clubhouse stereo, and by multiple accounts he has not made much of an effort to fit into his expected role. His teammates, needless to say, have noticed.

They responded last week with a not-so-subtle reminder, in the way that veterans have long been not-so-subtly reminding rookies of things. Valdespin had worn a white T-shirt on the bus from the team hotel in San Francisco to AT&T Park, despite the dress code requiring collared shirts.

Following that night’s game, Valdespin arrived at his locker to find the sleeves of his T-shirt shredded, and colorful messages—“NY Loves Valdy” (complete with a heart in place of “loves”) on the front, and “El Hombre” (a reference to him referring to himself as “The Man,” after pinch-hitting a homer off Jonathan Papelbon in May) on the back .

El Hombre was not pleased. Angry, he began yelling in the crowded clubhouse about the inequity of it all.

This was the moment at which Valdespin could either have earned points with his teammates, or alienated himself further. During Chan Ho Park’s rookie season in 1996, his Dodgers teammates shredded his suit (which they later found out had been given to him by his mother), then watched, befuddled, as he threw food across the room, tossed his chair into a row of lockers and wept openly.

When rookie Armando Benitez found the clothing in his locker replaced by a dress, he pinned down a number of veterans against the far wall of the shower room with a steady barrage of baseballs picked out of a nearby bucket. (In the end, the pitcher refused to capitu­late, even after being told that his clothes had been packed and were already en route to the airport. “He wore a T-shirt and a pair of shorts on the frickin’ plane,” said one team member. “That didn’t sit too well with the veterans, I can tell you that.”)

Valdespin, however, appears to have learned an important lesson. He stormed to the back of the clubhouse after seeing his shirt in tatters, but—apparently after being talked to by some veterans, including David Wright—returned before long with a grin on his face, and proceeded to model the shirt, going so far as to pose for his teammates’ cell phone pictures.

“I got mad at that moment, but it’s funny now,” Valdespin said the following day, while wearing the shirt again. “It’s a process. I need to keep learning.”

Based on that statement alone, there’s hope for the kid yet.

Rookie Etiquette, Trevor Bauer

Well, Duh: Miguel Montero probably knows the Padres’ hitters ‘a little bit better’ than Trevor Bauer

The Arizona Republic recently estimated that Diamondbacks pitchers shake off catcher Miguel Montero three or four times per game. Tuesday, however, was not like most games.

That’s because rookie Trevor Bauer—making only his second big league start—shook off the signs, said Montero, on “almost every pitch.”

That said, it was only 3 1/3 innings’ worth of almost-every pitches. Then again, giving up six hits, four walks and seven runs to San Diego necessitated 80 offerings from Bauer. Shaking off even a quarter of them would have made for an astounding number, for no reason more glaring than the fact that Montero is a seven-year vet with more than 4,000 innings behind the plate.

Bauer is unconventional, from his preparatory practices to his delivery, which is  all angles and torque. It doesn’t stop there. From the Republic:

While most pitchers try to pitch down in the strike zone, he prefers to work up in the zone. In the past couple of years, Bauer has worked to learn and incorporate a pitch-sequencing theory called “Effective Velocity,” a way of attacking hitters that aims to disrupt timing.

If there are benefits to Effective Velocity, they weren’t apparent Tuesday afternoon. In fact, Bauer might have inadvertently personified an ongoing disagreement between the old and new schools over whose methodoligy is more effective. It’s a tiny sampling, of course, but a  21-year-old just out of college appears to have put his think-tank strategy to the test at the expense of leveraging wisdom from a guy who knows the game.

There’s something to be said for execution (if Bauer doesn’t hit his spots, it doesn’t matter what kind of strategy he employs), but beyond that is the Code and its mandate that young players defer to veterans, at least until such time as they’re able to carry a significant portion of the load on their own.

Montero opted not to blast Bauer afterward, talking about the youngster’s talent and promise. Still,  he added, “I would like him to get a little trust in me. . . . I don’t have all the answers, but I probably know [the Padres’ hitters] a little bit better [than Bauer].”

For a guy carrying the old-school end of the argument, Montero’s response was anything but. For an example of real old-school when it comes to this stuff, turn to the the Red Sox clubhouse in 1967, after rookie pitcher Sparky Lyle, 22, shook off catcher Elston Howard—at age 38, a nine-time All-Star and the 1963 AL MVP—not once, but twice during the course of an at-bat, throwing sliders instead of fastballs, both out of the strike zone, en route to issuing a base on balls.

After the game, Carl Yazstrzemski cornered Lyle in the clubhouse. “I want to know one thing,” Yaz said to the rookie, as recounted by Lyle in The Bronx Zoo. “How can a guy who’s been in the big leagues two weeks shake off a guy who’s been catching fourteen years?”

To make sure the point wasn’t lost, manager Dick Williams then promised a $50 fine every time Lyle shook off Howard from that point on.

Bauer should be so lucky.

Bryce Harper, Rookie Etiquette

Harper Homers, High-Fives, Handles History

For a young player with a history of attitude, Bryce Harper did a lot right upon hitting his first home run Monday. After crushing a slider from Padres right-hander Tim Sauffer to dead center field, well beyond the 402 marker, Harper didn’t watch the ball, didn’t pirouette in the box, didn’t skip his way toward first and didn’t toss his bat.

What he did do: He put his head down, and he ran. (Watch it here.)

Perhaps it was the excitement of his first big league homer, but according to Tater Tot Tracker, the only guy this season to circle the bases faster than Harper’s 17.07 seconds was Milwaukee’s Carlos Gomez, who ran a 16.46 primarily because he didn’t realize the ball had cleared the fence until he was already at third base.

“I don’t want to show up that pitcher,” Harper said in the Washington Post. “The only time I would do that [would be] if they were messing with my team.”

After a few moments in the dugout, Harper emerged for a curtain call. Some might take issue with a rookie taking such a liberty—especially after all of one career homer—but the crowd was clamoring and the Nationals’ broadcast crew called it “a for-sure curtain call” before Harper even made a move.

“Everyone started cheering and whatnot, and I was just standing there waiting like, should I go? Nah, I better not. Don’t do it,” said Harper in a report. “Then (Jayson) Werth was like, ‘Go, get up there, kid.’ ”

All in all, well-played for the rookie, who didn’t even have to face the silent treatment in the dugout, unlike some other notable players of late. After taking the highest of high roads against Cole Hamels last week, this is another indication that, even though he’s only 19, this kid gets the game on pretty much every level.

Brett Lawrie, Rookie Etiquette

Lawrie Draws Buzz: One Kind from Teammates, Another from Opponents

Brett Lawrie celebrated, and Yunel Escobar was drilled as a result. (At least that’s the way it seems.)

In Wednesday’s game against Oakland, Lawrie hit the first grand slam of his nascent big league career, and was met with enthusiasm from teammates both as he crossed the plate and once he returned to the dugout, where he emphatically gave high fives and flung his helmet. (Watch it here.)

A touch too exuberant? Perhaps, but the kid is entitled to his moment. Even the A’s recognized that much, and let it go uncontested.

Two innings later, however, when Lawrie scored from second on a single to make it 8-4, then exulted as he crossed the plate, it appeared to cross the A’s line. Oakland reliever Jordan Norberto drilled Escobar with his next pitch, and dugouts emptied, though no punches were thrown.

The likely root of the problem is not so much the celebrations themselves as the tenure of the guy at their center. Lawrie has been in the big leagues less than a week, and the Code stipulates that players earn whatever leeway they’re given—a process that takes time. (Cincinnati’s Jordan Smith learned this lesson last year, as it pertains to umpires.) The fact that Lawrie is one of the game’s more heralded prospects probably works against him in this regard.

“I probably wouldn’t have chosen to celebrate it that way,” said reliever Craig Breslow, whose pitch Lawrie hit for the grand slam, in the San Francisco Chronicle.

It’s one of those things that doesn’t make much sense from the outside, and occasionally doesn’t make sense from the inside, either.

Steve Lyons recalls playing center field early during his rookie season, and calling off the right- and left-fielders on various fly balls, only to have them step in front of him to make the catch. Lyons was abiding by the rule of thumb that corner outfielders defer to the center fielder, but teammate Reid Nichols set him straight, telling Lyons that he had to “gain their respect.” Said Lyons: “I’m like, ‘While I’m gaining their respect, are we going to fuck up a few balls in left and right field?”

During Sparky Lyle’s rookie year with the Red Sox, he twice shook off catcher Elston Howard en route to walking a batter, and was promptly removed by manager Dick Williams. Recounted Lyle in “The Bronx Zoo”:  “After the game (Carl Yazstrzemski) cornered me in the locker room and said, ‘I want to know one thing. How can a guy who’s been in the big leagues two weeks shake off a guy who’s been catching fourteen years?’ ”

These are examples featuring teammates. When it’s an opponent who sees a rookie overstepping his bounds . . . well, suffice it to say that Yuni Escobar doesn’t end up all that pleased. Lawrie takes pride in his enthusiasm, and it’s certainly worked in his favor in his ascension through the minors.

Part of his initiation into the big leagues is learning that not everybody he encounters shares that view.

– Jason

Jordan Smith, Rookie Etiquette

How to Make an Inauspicious Outing Even Worse, No. 762

By most measures, Jordan Smith has had a fine rookie season for the Cincinnati Reds. He’s compiled a 3.32 ERA in 37.1 innings out of the bullpen, with 22 strikeouts against only nine walks. He’s even racked up a save.

On Monday, however, he learned a valuable lesson in rookie comportment.

In what was by far his worst appearance as a big leaguer—and probably his worst appearance ever—Smith threw nine pitches to two batters, only one of which was a strike. After walking the second man, he was removed by manager Dusty Baker.

Which is pretty much where things fell apart. On his way off the field, Smith decided to have a chat about the strike zone with plate ump John Hirschbeck.

At this point he would have been well served to observe the first rule of rookiedom (generally more valid in years past than today, but still rock-solid when it comes to umpires): Don’t speak unless spoken to.

Words led to shouting; shouting led to ejection. (Watch it here.)

With his display of ill temper, Smith undoubtedly made it more difficult for himself the next time he sees Hirschbeck. Much like veteran players, many umps like to test rookies, just a little, to see what they’re made of.

“The longer you play, the more rope you get,” said Andy Van Slyke, describing the phenomenon.

Whether Hirschbeck had been intentionally squeezing Smith is unclear, but there’s certainly precedent to fall back on.

Take Wade Miller. In the pitcher’s major league debut for Houston in 1999, a start against Arizona, umpire Rich Rieker was being extremely judicious with his strike calls.

After one pitch that split the plate was called a ball, Miller gave the ump a protracted glare. That was all his catcher, Randy Knorr, needed to see. He quickly trotted out for a mound visit.

“I said, ‘Wade, man, just get through today. If you get through today, you’ll be fine. Just don’t show up the umpire. He’s testing you. I’m trying to work him back there, don’t be snapping the ball on him or anything like that.’ ”

Miller ended up allowing seven runs over three innings, but ultimately passed the test. The final batter he faced, Arizona pitcher Brian Anderson, was called out on strikes.

“As he walked off the field,” said Knorr, “I think the umpire said, ‘Good job, Wade.’ ”

– Jason

Ken Griffey Jr., Rookie Etiquette

Griffey Jr. Primed for 22nd Season. He Had to Learn his Rookie Lessons Somewhere

Reports out of Seattle have Ken Griffey Jr. healthy and raring to go for his 22nd big league season. Not bad for someone they call, “Kid.”

Griffey was a natural interview target for the book, having grown up around the game and seen first-hand how the unwritten rules have changed since his dad roamed major league outfields in the 1970s.

It was clear through the conversation that Griffey wasn’t just paying lip service to the Code; he believed in it, and understood it through all its permutations.

Of particular interest were his reminiscences about his rookie season. He came into the league as a 19-year-old amid unbelievable hype, just 22 months after being selected by the Mariners with the top overall pick of the 1987 draft. Even with his pedigree, even with his draft position and even with the hype, it didn’t take long for Griffey to learn his place in the pecking order.

The following quote from Jeffrey Leonard made the book; everything else is a Web bonus:

I had Jeffrey Leonard, Alvin Davis, Harold Reynolds, Dave Valle, Jim Presley, Mickey Brantley, Henry Cotto—I was around a bunch of good guys who said, “This is what we’re going to do—we’re going to show you how to play baseball. We know you know how to play, but we’re going to show you the right way to play the game.”

Jeffrey’s exact words to me were, “There’s going to be a lot of people kissing your ass. I won’t be one of them.”

He helped me at that critical time of being a teenager and not knowing. He was like, “Hey, you’re still going to sit up in the front of the bus as a rookie, but when I call you back, you’re going to come back and sit and talk to me. We’re going to go eat and talk about baseball. We’re going to the ballpark and we’re going to talk about baseball. You’re going to be right next to me all year.”

And sure enough, my locker was right next to him the whole year.

A rookie’s primary clubhouse goal, of course, is to blend into the scenery, a concept that Griffey understood as well as anyone. Still, his effervescence, personified by the backward cap that always seemed perched atop his head, appeared to actively fly in the face of Code convention.

Not so, he told us:

I grew up with what we now call old school, but I think I’m a hybrid—a kind of new school/old school. We’ve changed the game some, with the long pants and baggy uniforms, that type of stuff. You just try to make the game more fun. Some of the guys have their hats askew—you know, like me with my hat being backward.

People thought I was just trying to be different, but that’s not it. When I was a kid, I’d grab my dad’s hat. It was big, so whenever I started to run, the brim fell in front of me and I couldn’t see. But I always wanted to grab my dad’s hat, so I turned it around. I’ve been doing it since I was four.

I wasn’t trying to be different. When I finally explained it to people, they started laughing. Because, you know, when you’re a kid, what’s the one thing you want to do? You want to be just like your dad. You put on his shoes and walk around the house, you put on his pants and hold them up and walk around, and those are the things that I did—but my dad just happened to be a professional baseball player.