Retaliation, Showboating

Up 13-1, Cardinals Had Leeway To Respond To Atlanta However The Hell They Pleased

Tensions are heightened come playoff time, which may explain why Ronald Acuña Jr.’s excitable response to his ninth-inning, two-run homer off of Carlos Martinez in Game 1 of the NLDS proved so annoying to the St. Louis pitcher. Acuña had absolutely smashed the ball—455 feet, as measured by Statcast—to close the Cardinals’ lead to 7-5, and gesticulated wildly toward his teammates in the Braves dugout as he rounded the bases.

This followed a notable moment in the third, when Acuña failed to run hard out of the box on what he assumed would be a home run, but which ended up as a single when the ball bounced off the wall. Acuña ended up stranded on base when he might otherwise have represented what would be a vital run for his team.

Acuña’s home run celebration was enough to shake Martinez to the point that he had to be calmed down by Yadi Molina. The right-hander then gave up an even longer home run two batters later, to Freddie Freeman, although he did finally close out what would be a 7-6 victory. Martinez was so upset after the game that he closed out the game by screaming at the Braves dugout, then said afterward: “I wanted [Acuña] to respect the game and respect me as a veteran player.”

And so we find ourselves back in the noman’sland of baseball celebrations, which have been officially sanctioned by the commissioner’s office even while a number of pitchers continue to bristle at them. Would Acuña’s antics have drawn notice had his Game 1 homer given his team the lead, rather than coming as it did with the Braves up, 3-1? Would Martinez have cared less had Acuña not already pulled something similar, with disastrous results, earlier in the game? Who knows?

Typically, the postseason is not a place to settle old scores. Even a remote possibility that an ill-timed retribution HBP can come back to bite you is enough to keep teams in line until stakes are lower. Sure enough, the series’ second, third and fourth games never saw either club with a lead of more than three runs.

Game 5, however, was different. St. Louis scored 10 in the first, one in the second and two more in the third, and led 13-1 when Acuña stepped in against Jack Flaherty with two outs in the fifth inning. Flaherty drilled him in the upper arm. Acuña slowly made his way to first base, chirping toward the mound all the while.

The evidence against the pitch being intentional: There was a runner on; it came on the fifth pitch of the at-bat, with three of those pitches being strikes (including a foul ball); it was a fastball, but not Flaherty’s fastest, the two-seamer coming in at just 90 mph.

The evidence for it being intentional: Apart from the history between the teams, it was mostly the Flaherty’s comments after the game. Via Jeff Jones: “It hit him. He took exception to it. That’s the guy he wants to be. That’s how it is. He’s been having all his antics all series. The guy hits a ball off the wall, he gets a single out of it. So he wants to take exception to it, he can do whatever he wants. He can talk all he wants. But we tried to go in, we talk, our scouting report is go in, we go in. So it got away, it hit him. He wants to take exception to it, he can do whatever he wants.”

Sure sounds to me like a guy with a grudge.

Flaherty denied intent as part of his diatribe against Acuña, but Cards skipper Mike Shildt seemed to feel otherwise in his postgame speech to the team after they finally put Atlanta away.

The primary takeway after a game like that is that with a 12-run lead, pitchers with malice aforethought have leeway to do whatever they think is right, even during a playoff game. The Braves have all winter to consider this, and how they might respond come next spring.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, now on to the NLCS, have more pressing matters on their minds.

Let The Kids Play, Showboating

MadBum Gets Angry, Does Some Shouting, Gives Up Dong, Yells At A Guy, Loses Game

For many years, Madison Bumgarner has cultivated an image of being extremely attuned to the unwritten rules of his sport, serving as baseball’s hardline arbiter of on-field behavior. Flip a bat against the cow-punching North Carolinian and you’ll hear about it. Same if you run too slowly around the bases.  

At Oracle Park on Sunday, however, MadBum revealed a bit too much. Today’s headlines are all about the left-hander’s response to Max Muncy taking him deep (plus Muncy’s response to Bumgarner, which we’ll get to in a bit). Muncy’s homer hurt: he plays for the hated Dodgers, he hit it as the second batter of the game, and the blast carried all the way into McCovey Cove. Before Muncy could even make it to first base, Bumgarner was all over him, chirping about taking too long in the batter’s box. Muncy responded as he circled the bases, and the feud was on.

The main problem with Bumgarner’s red-ass was that there really wasn’t much to get red-assed about, to the point that even Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow, while trying to explain the situation, could describe the hitter’s post-homer steps only as “that little walk.”

After the game, Bumgarner gave a light-hearted recitation for the media about what happened. His comments included snippets like, “I can’t even say it with a straight face, but the more I think about it, I should just let the kids play—but I just … I can’t,” and, in response to a question about the game changing, “They want to let everybody be themselves, then let me be myself. That’s me.”

It’s a continuation of the conversation we’ve been having all year about pitchers who might not be entirely on board with the modern era of officially sanctioned on-field celebrations.

That, though, is not what this post is about. The detail that many reports overlook is what immediately preceded Muncy’s blast. Against Kike Hernandez, the game’s very first hitter, Bumgarner got into a shouting match with plate umpire Will Little about the strike zone, which grew heated enough to draw Little toward the mound. Following some chirping from the Giants bench, the ump issued a cross-field explanation that can easily be read as an informal warning.

This was clearly on Bumgarner’s mind when he missed wide with his first three offerings to Muncy before leaving one up, in the slugger’s wheelhouse.

Baseball history is littered with the corpses of players whose weakness has been discovered by the opposition and subsequently exploited. Perhaps this is Bumgarner’s. Pitching in the ninth inning of the World Series doesn’t seem to faze him nearly as much as some perceived slight by the opposition. This has long viewed by outsiders as a motivational tactic—something to keep the pitcher’s competitive instincts honed. (Lord knows, it’s happened before.) This is supported by the fact that Muncy’s homer was the only run MadBum gave up as part of a fabulous performance. If the pitcher needs swagger to succeed, then swagger he shall deliver.

Still, Bumgarner was done in by his momentary lapse, one disastrous pitch serving as the difference in a 1-0 ballgame.

In the big picture, yelling at a guy is preferable to drilling him, especially for something like this. Also in the big picture, if Bumgarner can figure out a way to keep things a bit more contained—just enough to avoid the occasional slip on a day when he’s clearly dominant—it’d be better for everybody.

Then again, had MadBum been a little less mad, we would never have gotten Muncy’s response: “If you don’t want me to watch the ball, you can get it out of the ocean.” It doesn’t actually make sense, but at least it sounded pretty good in the moment.

Bat Flipping, Retaliation, Showboating

Wednesday’s Lesson In MLB: Try Not To Accidentally Hit Guys With Whom Your Team Is Already Beefing

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?”

He continued.

“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.

Bat Flipping, Retaliation, Showboating

If You’re Gonna Drill A Guy, At Least Know When To Do It

Anderson plunked

In the wake of yesterday’s coverage of the Let Tim Anderson Play Incident, it seems prudent to follow up with a secondary discussion about pitchers hitting batters. Not whether they should (hot take: they shouldn’t), but, for those whose minds are already made up, when to do so.

On Wednesday, Brad Keller whiffed.

So let’s say a guy, maybe a guy who pitches for the Royals, is miffed that an opponent took some liberties in celebrating a home run against him. Maybe some other guys were chirping about it in his dugout, so this Royals pitcher decides to stand up for The Right Way to Play, and drills his opponent in response.

Let slide for a moment your feelings about the decision. In this scenario it is fait accompli, a resolute act. At this point, once said pitcher cannot be diverted from his course, it would behoove him to drill the offender at a juncture of minimal impact to the game. Ideally, it would happen with two outs and the bases empty, with his team comfortably ahead. Or perhaps first base would be open in a situation in which the hitter might have been intentionally walked anyway. There are various metrics to determine the right time, and reasonable discussions to be had about sufficient size for a lead, etc. If enough of those metrics aren’t met, it should be incumbent upon said pitcher to wait—for an inning, a game, a series or a season—until favorable conditions present themselves.

Brad Keller does not seem much for waiting. In Anderson’s very next at-bat, Keller plunked him in the backside, first pitch. While nobody among the ranks of those who approve of such things should take issue with the placement, the pitch’s timing was a downright disaster.

Anderson was leading off an inning in a tie game. Suddenly, Keller was forced to pitch out of the stretch while worrying about a guy who’d stolen six bases in 16 games. (Or at least Keller would have had to worry about pitching out of the stretch had he not been ejected. Instead, he saddled reliever Ian Kennedy with that task.)

Ultimately it didn’t matter. Kennedy retired the next three hitters in order and Kansas City won the game, 4-3, in 10 innings. But this is all about percentages. Had Anderson (or his replacement, after he was ejected along with Keller) come around to score, costing the Royals a victory, the Twitterverse would have lost its mind. That’s because Keller drilling Anderson when he did was even stupider than Keller drilling Anderson in the first place.

Baseball’s unwritten rules have softened over time, and I’m on the record as saying that, when it comes to retaliatory HBPs, that’s a good thing. But as the mandate to drill opponents recedes, the understanding of when to do so recedes right along with it. Which leaves guys like Keller, determined to get their pound of flesh, with a clearly insufficient understanding about how to do so.

There are no easy answers here. When-to-drill-a-guy lessons don’t come easily in an environment bent on preventing pitchers from drilling guys. (Look no further than Keller being ejected without warning for a fairly benign HBP that didn’t even inspire a mound charge. It might have been a Joe West issue, but there’s no denying MLB’s newfound interest in preventing this kind of thing.)

This is some weird middle ground we’re in. We’ll probably have to wait until a similarly impatient pitcher actually costs his team a game before people begin to acknowledge this in a widespread fashion.

Bat Flipping, Let The Kids Play, Retaliation, Showboating

In Wake Of Sox-Royals Dustup, Letting The Kids Play Is Turning Into More Of A Headache Than Anybody Imagined

Anderson flips

Last year this would have been a story about Tim Anderson and his celebratory histrionics.

Hell, last year this was a story about Tim Anderson and his celebratory histrionics. Twice.

This year, however, celebratory histrionics come with a perspective. That is, Major League Baseball has putatively endorsed them via its “Let the Kids Play” campaign, which makes things confusing when pitchers respond to said histrionics with disdain.

Pitchers like Kansas City’s Brad Keller, say.

Now, when Anderson does what Anderson is known to do—in this case, vigorously hurl his bat toward his own dugout after launching the 50th homer of his career—we’re conflicted in the aftermath. Letting the kids play seems like a swell idea to fans, to executives and to an unknown portion of ballplayers, but there appears to be a significant percentage of pitchers who disagree.

We had this conversation less than two weeks ago, when Pittsburgh’s Chris Archer—a known showboat himself—expressed displeasure with Derek Dietrich’s decision to pimp his homer by throwing a ball behind Dietrich in an ensuing at-bat. It was an old-school response that would have drawn little attention a generation ago … or maybe even last season.

But when the league itself encourages Anderson’s kind of behavior, the entire circumstance gets cloudy. That’s because the issue of respect is hardly one of clear delineation.

Are some bat flips okay, but others not? Anderson’s was less insouciant toss and more angry spike. Did that somehow cross an ever-shifting line? Had he not turned toward his dugout—or, more pertinently, turned his back toward the Royals dugout—would it have been better received?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. There’s bound to be a transition period between one epoch and another, and right now we’re stuck in a place where some players feel disrespected by some actions that many people—including baseball officials, apparently—would like to see more of. So when Brad Keller feels disrespected (or is sticking up for teammates who feel disrespected), there’s bound to be a reaction regardless of corporate messaging.

Yesterday it was a fastball to Anderson’s backside in his ensuing at-bat. Things did not end well. Anderson started yelling, but, restrained by catcher Martin Maldonado, never approached the mound. Still, dugouts and bullpens emptied, and tempers flared when White Sox manager Rick Renteria shouted for the Royals to clear the field, inflaming Kansas City bullpen coach Vance Wilson. Anderson, Renteria, Keller and Royals bench coach Dale Sveum were ejected.

In the aftermath, we’re left wondering two things: How many players still care about this kind of stuff, and how long will that last?

The Royals have at least two of them on their roster. “Keller did the right thing,” the pitcher’s teammate, Hunter Dozier, said after the game in a Chicago Sun Times report. “He aimed for the lower body. Hit him. It should just be like ‘OK, go to first and move on.’ It shouldn’t have been as big of a situation as it was.”

Dozier is spelling out the party line from a previous generation, offering instructions that, while once status-quo, are now … well, who really knows?  Dozier is 27. Keller is 23. Despite their old-school sensibilities, they seem an awful lot like the kids who the commissioner wants to let play.

This shift is clearly not going as smoothly as baseball’s PR machine would have liked. We’re stuck in a place where, when bat flipping becomes the new normal, showboats like Anderson have to up the ante simply to draw attention to themselves. Bigger antics. More vicious tosses. Sentiments like the one Renteria espoused after the game—“You want [Anderson] to not do that? Get him out”—might make sense to the vast majority of the population, but the key here is that upping the ante rarely sits well with pitchers, some of whom are bound to respond.

Ten days ago it was Chris Archer. Yesterday, it was Brad Keller. So long as hitters continue to push the celebratory envelope, there will always be a pitcher willing to respond.

Our only problem is that we continue to be surprised by it.

Update 1 (4-19): If you’re gonna drill a guy, at least know when to do it.

Update 2 (4-20): There was some incredulity in the immediate aftermath that Anderson was tossed from the game, given his primary role as victim. We later found out that it was due to language so severe that he was eventually suspended for a game.

Showboating

Celebrate Good Times, Come On! (Or Don’t, Depending On Your Perspective)

Salvy n Tim

It seems that there are some growing pains as baseball transitions from The Sport Of Tradition-Gripping Dryness to something a little bit looser. As it turns out, even those known to celebrate from time to time have limits.

On Saturday in Kansas City, Chicago’s Tim Anderson hit a leadoff homer, proceeded to watch it, then unleashed some self-congratulatory invective as he rounded the bases. Royals catcher Salvador Perez took note while recalling that Anderson acted similarly after hitting a pair of home runs on opening day, also against the Royals. As the runner crossed home plate, Perez said something to him about it. Anderson patted him on the chest protector and trotted back to his bench.

Things picked up again in the bottom half of the inning, when Perez reached second base on an error and a two-out walk, at which point he opted to continue the conversation with Anderson. He and the shortstop ended up nose to nose, with teammates spilling out of the dugout to separate them.

“I don’t have any problems with the guy hitting a homer, taking a couple steps, walk two steps and keep running,” said Perez after the game, in a Kansas City Star report. “But when you start to get loud, to say some bad words … I don’t like that. He had to respect my team and my pitcher. We’re professional in here. I don’t like that and he told me at second base, ‘I like to have fun, Salvy, what do you want me to do?’ I was like, ‘OK, we like to have fun too. I like to have fun. You see me every day out there, laughing and having fun every day. But I don’t disrespect your team. I respect your team, too. I hit some homers too, I keep running the bases, I don’t get loud like you.’ That’s the only thing I told him. Keep doing what you’re doing, bro, have fun, but again respect my team. That’s it. So he was mad about that. What you want me to do? I can’t do anything about that.”

(Perez did himself no favors when he also told reporters: “If you’re gonna keep doing that … I’m going to hit you. I’m going to tell the pitcher to hit him. … If you want to fight, let’s fight.” Intentionally drilling an opponent for what is essentially inconsequential behavior will not play well in retrospect should a Royals pitcher actually dot Anderson in a future encounter.)

Anderson, of course, got into it just last week, for similar reasons, with Justin Verlander. The guy likes to celebrate. For his reaction to it, Perez was labeled as a member of “the fun police” by various sources. There are, however, some considerations.

For those in Anderson’s camp who decry the stifling of emotion on a ballfield, let’s take the conversation to its logical conclusion: At what point does celebration become overkill? A classic Barry Bonds pirouette, only while running the bases instead of standing in the batter’s box? Summersaults? Ripping off one’s uniform jersey, like they do in soccer? The question is not aimed at painting false equivalency, but wondering about the point at which a player’s behavior—presuming that none of it is aimed at the opposition—might eventually cross the line, even for those who support that kind of thing. Baseball is obviously more lenient now than it was during past generations, but how lenient is it, really?

I think the answer can be found in what came next, after Anderson’s confrontation with Perez.

Duda’s walk—the play that advanced Perez to second—loaded the bases. The next batter, Abraham Almonte, hit a sharp grounder to shortstop that Anderson booted, allowing Mike Moustakas to score from third. (It was ruled a single, but easily could have been an error. Watch it here.) Alex Gordon followed by stroking a two-run single to center, giving the Royals a 3-1 lead in a game they ended up winning, 5-2.

Anderson’s confrontation last week against Verlander ended with him getting picked off of second base at a point in which the pitcher was on the ropes and the White Sox desperately needed baserunners. This one ended with the Royals scoring three runs that might have remained off the board had Chicago’s shortstop been less distracted.

And there it is: Anderson’s shtick will eventually become too much, even for his most ardent supporters, when it begins to interfere with his team’s chances to win baseball games. Based on the above examples, he may already have reached that point.

 

Showboating, Unwritten-Rules

Puerto Rico Ama A Francisco Lindor: A Celebratory Lesson

Lindor trots

I’ve referenced 2017’s World Baseball Classic twice in posts this season, and it’s only April. Today is the third—and most pertinent. Francisco Lindor hit a home run yesterday, then effectively paraded his way around the bases, skipping, waving his arms and inciting the crowd. Afterward, he publicly apologized for potentially offensive behavior.

As with most things, details matter.

The WBC was terrific because it showed us a Puerto Rico national squad that was unafraid, within the context of the way baseball is played on the island (and throughout much of Central America), to show some emotion on the field. Though the occasional American red-assed stick-in-the-mud took issue with this, it was generally seen as a good thing.

Lindor was on that Puerto Rico team. Last night’s game was held in Puerto Rico, against the Twins at San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

Of course Lindor celebrated.

Such is the reach of baseball’s unwritten rules—especially the part held up by American red-assed stick-in-the-muds—that Lindor recognized after the fact that his antics might not have been appreciated by the opposing team. Thus, we got this:

That Cleveland was playing the Twins was unfortunate, given Minnesota’s collective, ludicrous, unwritten-rules-inspired groan at a perfectly reasonable bunt earlier in the season. If any team would take issue with a hometown kid playing by hometown rules after succeeding in front of his hometown fans, it’d be these guys, right?

As it turns out: not so much.

Credit to Lindor for sensitivity with this issue, and relieved acknowledgement that everybody involved seemed content to let him have this particular moment.

Update, 4-18: The Twins agree: Lindor was a-ok.