Retaliation, Slide properly

Fists Fly in Boston After Austin Powers Toward The Mound

Kelly punchesTyler Austin should have known better.

He should have known the pitch was coming as soon as he took out Red Sox shortstop Brock Holt with a questionable slide in the third inning, especially after Holt called him on it when it happened.

He should have known that leading with his foot raised several inches off the ground and well inside the bag, leaping late so that he all but landed on the fielder, would draw the opposition’s ire, even if he intended no malice.

He should have known that wearing one in that situation, even a 97-mph fastball—especially a 97-mph fastball—was his duty as the guy at the wrong end of the previous confrontation. It was on Austin to understand that his play looked bad, independent of whether he thought it actually was bad. Wear it with dignity, and everyone can go about their day.

That’s not what happened.

Boston reliever Joe Kelly held up his end of the bargain, planting a fastball into Austin’s ribcage, at which point the hitter spiked his bat and raced toward the mound. Kelly beckoned him almost gleefully, and proceeded to land multiple blows after Austin’s momentum took him to the ground. The rest of the fight— Austin punching Red Sox coach Carlos Febles by mistake while swinging at Kelly; Aaron Judge seeming to hold off half of Boston’s roster by himself—was no less fraught.

Still, there’s plenty of grey area for quibbling from both sides of the Yankees-Red Sox divide. Austin’s first at-bat following his slide came leading off the fifth, with Boston leading, 8-1. Starter Heath Hembree opted against squaring the hitter’s debt at that point, instead striking the hitter out on four pitches. It’s not incumbent upon Hembree to respond, of course, but were the Red Sox to address Austin’s slide on the field, that seemed like the obvious spot to do so.

By the time Kelly took matters into his own hands two innings later, New York had trimmed its deficit to 10-6. There’s also the fact that Kelly missed on his first attempt, Austin backing out of the way of an inside fastball two pitches prior to the one that ended up drilling him. Austin was correct in his postgame assessment when he said, “I thought it was over after that. They missed with the first one. In baseball, once it happens, it’s over after that.”

It’s important to understand, though, why Kelly did what he did. When an opponent takes liberties with a player’s on-field safety—as Austin did with Holt, independent of severity or intent—pitchers can be compelled to respond. Former Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly elucidated the notion in The Baseball Codes, and though he was talking about it in reverse—using his baserunning to counter a HBP, not the other way around—the logic holds:

“I’ve gotten on first base when I’ve been hit by a pitch and told the first baseman, ‘If there’s a ground ball hit I’m going to fuck up one of your middle infielders, and [pointing to the mound] you can tell him that it was his fault.’ That’s a way you can get them to police themselves. A pitcher drills somebody just because he feels like it, and if one of the middle infielders gets flipped out there he’s going to tell the pitcher to knock it off. Ultimately, that’s all we want anyway—just play the game the right way.”

Tellingly, in Austin’s postgame comments, he seemed about to say, “I play the game the right way,” but caught himself. Instead the phrase he used was, “I play the game hard.”

No matter how one feels about his actions, there’s no denying that.

The Yankees and Red Sox conclude their series tonight.

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Slide properly

Machado’s Spikes Spur Red Sox Rage

Machado slides

After Chase Utley broke the leg of Mets second baseman shortstop Ruben Tejada with a questionable slide in the 2015 playoffs, Major League Baseball implemented a rule to regulate that type of play, defining illegal slides—per the Baltimore Sun—as “those in which a runner doesn’t begin his slide before reaching the base, is unable to reach the base with his hand or foot, isn’t able to remain on the base after completion of the slide or changes the pathway of his slide to initiate contact with a fielder.”

On Friday in Baltimore, Manny Machado met at least three of the four criteria. He began his slide some five feet before second, and his path was aimed directly at the bag. As for remaining on the base, well, that’s up for interpretation.

Machado, clearly beaten by the throw, lifted his lead foot before reaching the base. Instead of popping up, he slid directly over, his spikes planting firmly into the left knee of Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. (Watch it here.)

This wasn’t a matter of breaking up a double play, or at least it shouldn’t have been. It had been a slow ground ball, and the throw from shortstop Xander Bogaerts arrived at the center-field side of the bag, forcing Pedroia to stretch like a first baseman to corral it. There was scant danger of a pivot.

Details that matter:

  • Pedroia had offseason arthroscopic surgery on the knee in question and continues to rehab it.
  • Pedroia limped from the field after the slide. The play ended his day … and maybe more.
  • Regardless of Machado’s intent—at the very least, he can be accused of recklenssness—the Red Sox were decidedly unhappy.

As the game (a 2-0 Baltimore win) ended, a number of Red Sox personnel—including pitchers Rick Porcello and David Price, pitching coach Carl Willis and bench coach Gary DiSarcina—looked on angrily as the Orioles departed the field. (Porcello and Price will not pitch in the series’ final two games.)

Afterward, Pedroia—noteworthy for downplaying injuries over his career—stopped short of assigning blame to Machado, but his frustration was unmistakable. When asked about baseball’s injury-prevention rule, he told reporters this:

“I don’t even know what the rule is. I’ve turned the best double play in the major leagues for 11 years. I don’t need the fucking rule, let’s be honest. The rule is irrelevant. The rule is for people with bad footwork, and that’s it.”

On one hand, bad footwork can lead to awkward moments. On the other hand, sometimes even capable fielders like Pedroia must achieve compromising positions in order to complete a play. Boston manager John Farrell described the slide as “extremely late.” When asked if it was dirty, he responded again: “It was a late slide.”

Even more telling, perhaps, was the cluster of Red Sox players and coaches gathered around a clubhouse computer screen to dissect the play in slo-mo, again and again. The teams face each other 14 more times this season.

Machado said all the right things afterward about how he didn’t want to hurt his opponent, said he texted Pedroia his regrets, even. Then again, this is the same guy who kept hitting catchers with his bat, threw his bat in response when opponents took issue with it, blew up over an ordinary tag and charged Yordano Ventura, so who the hell knows.

How this plays out over the next two days—or the rest of the year—will go a long way toward explaining just how forgiving a group the Red Sox might be.

Slide properly

Sanity vs. Reality on the Basepaths: Time to Embrace the New School

Via Buzzfeed

The old-timers called it: On Saturday, Chase Utley played ball the old-fashioned way. Hard-nosed. Team-first. Selfless and aggressive and by the book.

What the old-timers fail to acknowledge is that the book has changed. Once, it was permissible to barrel roll into a fielder, back first, and knock him nearly into the outfield grass:

Via SB Nation

Once, a runner had to make no pretense about touching the base when hurling his body at a fielder.

Once, middle infielders were sitting ducks, with virtually no recourse against whatever liberties opponents unleashed upon their legs. Now, at the cost of Ruben Tejada’s continued participation in the postseason, recourse might finally be forthcoming.

Utley’s slide fits the litmus described above, and fell well within the rules. He was within arm’s reach of the bag. His goal was an important one: breaking up the double-play. He’s known not only for playing hard, but showing unyielding consistency when it comes to this type of takeout. Hell, this wasn’t even the first time he’s wiped out Tejada in such a manner. As a middle infielder himself, Utley knows whereof he slides.

What Utley’s slide also did was allow us to explore the ludicrousness of viewing such a play as acceptable. He went too far the moment he decided to aim not at the bag, but at Tejada’s plant foot. He certainly did not intend to injure the guy, but neither did he appear to care if that was a likely outcome. Which is entirely the problem.

Take a look at Hal McRae, taking out Willie Randolph in the 1977 ALCS:

Soon thereafter, baseball passed what became known as the “Hal McRae rule,” clarifying the need for a baserunner to be able to reasonably claim reaching base as within his purview. Utley satisfied that requirement by remaining somewhat close to the bag, but his goal was far different. That’s what has to change.

The curious part is that it hasn’t already. Matt Holliday took out Marco Scutaro in the 2012 NLCS with a slide that, while on top of the bag, had similarly little to do with preserving his presence on the basepaths. A Chris Coglan slide ended Jung Ho Kang’s season a few week’s back. Pablo Sandoval and Brett Lawrie stirred up similar controversy earlier this year. Once, when such slides were relatively commonplace, infielders’ reactions were far more instinctive. Today, they are focused strictly on completing the play, not on self-preservation. The Mets are left to deal with the most recent fallout.

MLB has already implemented rules to protect catchers from unnecessary collisions, which have drawn nary a complaint since they were implemented. It also has the “neighborhood play,” which allows middle infielders to drift across the bag without necessarily touching it while turning two, specifically to avoid such collisions. (Umps claimed that Tejada, having spun around, was exempted, and ruled Utley safe on the play.)

Something mandating that slides land in front of the base would take care of much of the issue. Even without such a change, of course, baseball already has enough rules in place to have not only called Utley out on the basepaths, but Howie Kendrick out at first for Utley’s interference. Never mind that they weren’t invoked on Saturday—the fact that they’re wildly underutilized in general speaks to the institutional apathy about the issue.

Hopefully, Joe Torre’s decision to hand down a two-game suspension to Utley (as much as anything, perhaps, to short-circuit potential retaliatory thoughts in the Mets’ clubhouse as the series returns to New York) portends a change in this line of thinking.

(What might not change is the Mets’ desire to respond. Tonight’s starter, Matt Harvey, alluded to it in the New York Post when he said, “Doing what’s right is exactly what I’m going to do.” If Utley does not play—he’s appealing his suspension—Harvey’s version of “what’s right” will likely wait until next season if the game is anything short of a blowout.)

Utley’s not ashamed of his actions, coming as they did within the acceptable definition of “playing the game the right way.” And maybe as an old-school player he shouldn’t be.

The rest of the sport, however, needs to embrace the new school on this one. It’s embarrassing that it hasn’t been done already.

Retaliation, Slide properly

Down and Dirty: The Different Responses to a Takeout Slide

You hit my guy so I’ll hit your guy. Retaliation is the oldest story in baseball. Friday saw two similar events—middle infielders being taken out by aggressive slides—handled in different ways.

In Boston, Pablo Sandoval went out of his way to wipe out Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop. In Kansas City, Brett Lawrie did similarly with Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar. Both were trying to break up double plays. The primary difference was the response.

The Orioles stayed cool, and two innings later—during Sandoval’s next at-bat—their pitcher, Ubaldo Jimenez, made it clear that such behavior would not be tolerated, planting a fastball into the third baseman’s shoulder blade. (Watch it here.) Jimenez took it upon himself to remind the aggressor that such actions have repercussions, and that taking liberties with an Oriole—any Oriole—carries repercussions. That kind of HBP may not deter Sandoval or the Red Sox from such actions in the future, but they will at the very least pause to consider it.

Lawrie’s takeout of Escobar with a late, awkward slide was a bit different in that Escobar was injured and had to be helped off the field. (It wasn’t even a good baseball play, as Lawrie would have been safe had he gone directly into the bag. Watch it here.) Rather than wait for a more formal response, benches cleared immediately, though no punches were thrown. That it was a tie game in the seventh inning precluded any notions a Royals pitcher may have had toward responding; similarly, Lawrie next batted in the ninth inning with the Royals protecting a two-run lead.

Headline fodder for the Jimenez incident was his immediate ejection by plate ump Jordan Baker, without warning and while having allowed no hits. The fact that it was only the fourth inning mitigates the latter item, but there is no way around the fact that Jimenez’s ejection was without merit. He handled a baseball play in a peer-vetted baseball way. A warning would have been more prudent, with Baker even holding the option to delay until Boston could itself respond. Regardless, the Orioles had their say, and both teams were able to move on.

In Missouri, things are far less clear. Escobar will likely miss several games, and while players and manager Ned Yost publicly agreed that there was likely nothing malicious in Lawrie’s slide, this will remain an item of potential contention until further notice.

[gifs, respectively, via Deadspin]

Matt Cain, Matt Holliday, Matt Holliday, Retaliation, Slide properly

Holliday’s Had It: Calls out Cain for ‘Less Than Tough’ Retaliation

For those who think that Matt Cain waited to long to retaliate against Matt Holliday—the outfielder’s questionable slide into Giants second baseman Marco Scutaro occurred in Game 2 of the NLCS, and he was drilled a week later, in Game 7, once the series was salted away—Holliday put that timetable to shame.

Precisely one month after his slide, and three weeks after Cain drilled him, Holliday addressed the topic in an Insidestl.com report, calling it, among other things, “less than tough”:

[The pitch] seems on purpose. I wish that if he wanted to hit me, he would’ve just done it on the first pitch in the next game he had pitched. You know, if you’re going to do it, do it, get it out of the way. But to do it, I don’t remember what the score was but it was out of hand, that’s about it. I thought the timing of it was….I don’t want to get into it. I wasn’t thrilled about it. . . .

If you’re going to do it, I think that is when you do it. I wouldn’t be happy about it anytime. I just thought that in the situation that it actually did happen it was less than tough.

It might seem odd for Holliday to express displeasure with Cain’s delay weeks after the fact, when he could have done it immediately following the game in which it happened. To be fair, he was answering a question, not promoting an agenda, and it’s not like Cardinals players had much media time once they’d packed their bags for the winter upon returning to St. Louis.

It’s unlikely that this will further ill feelings come 2013, but also serves to remind us that another incident—one of Cain’s pitches slips, perhaps, or Holliday again takes out a middle infielder—will not be easily digested by the other side.

(Via HardballTalk.)

 

Matt Holliday, Slide properly

Slide, Baby, Slide: Holliday Hammers Home Controversy in Game 2

The Giants said all the right things Monday about Matt Holliday’s slide. Although they universally questioned its timing, placement and function, to a man they denied feeling like Holliday intended to injure Marco Scutaro.

Unfortunately, he did injure Scutaro. After Holliday took San Francisco’s second baseman out, breaking up a double-play with a chop block to the knees, Scutaro responded with two hits in three at-bats before being removed from the game and taken to the hospital for tests. (Watch it here, or a gif of the play here.)

The Giants, hewing to propriety, said all the right things. Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, however, summed up the parameters fairly neatly in an interview for The Baseball Codes.

“The only time I have a problem with any opponent is if you slide on the back side of the base—if you jump over the base and then slide,” he said. “If you slide in front of the base, even you end up against the wall in left field, I could care less—as long as you start in front of that base. But if you jump slide on the back side of that base, that shows intent to separate somebody’s knees or legs, and that’s dirty play.”

Holliday’s slide met that description perfectly: He left the ground in front of the base and landed on the back side of the bag—directly into Scutaro’s legs. Bruce Bochy called the slide “illegal.”

A counter opinion comes from Mike Krukow, the ex-Giants pitcher who called Holliday’s slide as a member of the team’s broadcast crew. From The Baseball Codes:

Low barrel rolls [are] acceptable. When A-Rod took out Jeff Kent and sprained Kent’s right knee in 1998, he [low] barrel-rolled him. On TV that night, Kuip [Krukow’s broadcast partner, Duane Kuiper, a twelve-year major-league second baseman] and I said, That’s a legit play. After the game, Kent was pissed about it. He said that was a horseshit slide. No, it’s not. Basically, a low barrel roll— anything within arm’s distance of the bag—is acceptable. (Acceptable or not, the following night, Giants pitcher Orel Hershiser drilled Rodriguez in the shoulder.)

The Giants did not respond on Monday—Holliday went 0-for-3 against Ryan Vogelsong and Jeremy Affeldt the rest of the way—even with first base open in the third, and a four-run lead in the fifth and eighth. Bochy said that Scutaro is probable for tonight’s Game 3, and downplayed any talk of retaliation, but if it’s determined that Scutaro will miss time, it wouldn’t be shocking to see some fireworks. (“If one gets away,” Matt Cain told Andrew Baggarly, “one gets away.”)

Even Cardinals manager Mike Matheny seems to understand this. “We do play hard and we understand that they play hard,” he said in a San Jose Mercury News report. “That’s the way the game goes.”

For his part, Holliday responded appropriately after the fact, checking with catcher Buster Posey about Scutaro’s well being prior to his next at-bat (asked if he scolded Holliday during the exchange, Posey laughed and said no), and calling the clubhouse after the game. (Scutaro had already left to have tests done.)

Holliday has a reputation for going in hard to bases, so Monday’s slide was not out of character in that regard. Hal McRae had a similar reputation, but he took things to such an extent that legislation was enacted to counter his tactics. McRae’s takeout slide of New York’s Willie Randolph in the 1978 playoffs helped lead to the “Hal McRae rule,” stipulating that a runner must have at least a pretense of reaching the base while taking out an opposing fielder.

At least Holliday touched the bag.

Until Game 3 tonight, settle for the below clip of Joe Morgan taking out Dick Green in the 1972 World Series (It’s the second play in the clip.), which has been making the rounds. It’s primarily valuable to help illustrate the fact that baseball has toned down its act, and that—partly thanks to things like the Hal McRae rule—significant amounts of basepath violence have been removed from the action.

Bill Hall, Nick Swisher, Slide properly, Tsuyoshi Nishioka

It’s Been a Bad Week for Takeout Slides, at Least as far as Middle Infielders are Concerned

How much is too much, and when is enough when it comes to takeout slides? These questions were asked multiple times and with no firm answer in Houston and New York last week.

Start with Bill Hall. Was flying into Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez on a play at second base, as the Astros second baeman did Friday, too much? It was certainly aggressive. Ramirez, firmly planted behind and to the left of second base as he attempted to turn a double-play, provided a stationary target as Hall went out of his way to take him out. (Watch it here.)

That, however, is what players are taught to do—interrupt the fielder at any cost, so long as it’s clean. And Hall’s slide was clean, if a touch late. He went in feet first and spikes down, with one clear purpose: prevent the double-play. That he went out of his way—but not too far out of his way—to do it falls well within the definition of getting the job done.

“Clean play? Dirty play? That’s hard to tell unless it’s very obvious,” said Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez in the Palm Beach Post. “He came hard but he was in range. He was touching the base. That’s the way he plays and that’s the way it should be—play hard.”

Hall ended up going shin-to-shin with Ramirez, knocking them both down for several minutes. Hall returned to the game; Ramirez sat out until Tuesday.

A day prior, Nick Swisher of the New York Yankees took out Twins second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka in a similar play, with far graver consequences. Swisher’s slide—like Hall’s, off the base and intended to break up the double-play—broke the second baseman’s fibula, just six games into his big league career. (Watch it here.)

The reason both infielders were hurt is that neither of them jumped. Ramirez fielded the throw in an awkward place coming from the shortstop position and had to adjust; Nishioka might simply never have learned any difference.

Twins broadcaster Dan Gladden, who spent a year playing in Japan (winning the Japan Series with the Yomiuri Giants in 1994), was quoted in the Minneapolis Star Tribune talking about the dearth of such tactics in that country.

“When I got over there I told them, ‘I don’t slide to the bag. We are taught to break up double plays,’ ” he said. “The coach told me, ‘We expect the Americans to play that way.’ ”

Swisher went so far as to visit Nishioka in the X-ray room at Yankee Stadium to offer a personal apology for the inadvertent injury. Nishioka told him there was no apology necessary. And that was it. No retaliatory strikes the following day. No bad blood resulting from a hard, clean play.

The same can not be said for the Marlins. Ramirez was injured far less severely than Nishioka, but despite the fact that he publicly exonerated Hall—“My opinion is he was trying to break up a double play,” he said in the Post. “He told [Marlins infielder Greg] Dobbs that he was sorry but … he was trying to do his job.”—his teammates clearly had a score to settle.

Saturday’s game was too consistently close to consider a retaliatory strike, but on Sunday, with a 6-1 lead in the seventh inning, Edward Mujica drilled Hall in the hip. The intent was clear; Mujica has hit only three guys over the course of his six-year career and walks almost nobody. His control is exquisite. He was quickly ejected.

Ramirez being the face of his franchise certainly had something to do with it. The fact that he has a history of calling out Marlins pitchers for lack of retaliatory response may also have factored in. (Then again, Mujica was with San Diego during that particular tirade, and may have been entirely ignorant of it.)

Had Hall been out of line with his slide, with a barrel roll or some other questionable tactic—in other words, had he deserved the response—it might have ended there. As it was, Houston reliever Anuery Rodriguez stood up for his guy by plunking Gaby Sanchez in the ninth. This one was easy to see coming; Rodriguez is a rookie with a double-digit ERA. His performance on the field is not winning much respect from his teammates, so he felt the need to earn it in a different capacity. He, too, was ejected. (Watch both ejections here.)

The Marlins and Astros meet once more this season, in July. There’s no reason for renewed hostilities at that point—but then again there rarely is. Stay tuned.

– Jason