Don't Swing on the First Pitch After Back-to-Back Home RUns, Evolution of the Unwritten Rules, Intimidation, The Baseball Codes

Brewers Never Answer the Question: How Many Homers is Too Many Homers?

Harper mashesOnce upon a time, in a different era of baseball, pitchers thought nothing of throwing at hitters’ heads. That’s changed.

In a different era of baseball, pitchers would drill a guy not only for his own success, but for the success of his teammates. The player in front of you hits a homer? Expect to wear one. That, too, has changed.

Both of those developments are unequivocally for the better.

But then we have something like last night, when four members of the Washington Nationals went deep in the span of five batters—four of them in a row—during a single inning, part of an eight-homer day. It was a ridiculous show of firepower, and the Milwaukee Brewers didn’t do a thing to slow it down.

Before proceeding, I offer a snippet from an interview with former Brewers pitcher and current Phillies hitting coach Bob McClure, conducted years ago for The Baseball Codes:

We were in Yankee Stadium one time, and I gave up back-to-back home runs to two left-handers. I’d given up back-to-back home runs before, but not to two lefties. Dave Kingman was up next. [Catcher] Charlie Moore called for a fastball away. He knew better, anyway. He was just going through them all. Fastball away. No. Curveball. No. Changeup. No. Fastball in. No. And then he goes [McClure flicks his thumb from out of his fist, under his index finger, the universal symbol for knock him down]. So I threw it, and it was a good one—it went right underneath him and almost flipped him. He hit the dirt and was all dusty. His helmet was off. He grabbed his bat and his helmet and gets right back in there. I threw him a changeup and he popped up to first base.

The upshot, from McClure: “Back then, we were taught the 0-2 up and in. Home run, next guy: boom! Knock him down.”

McClure was not trying to hit Kingman, or to hurt him. He was trying to disrupt his comfort in the batter’s box. Be clear about that distinction, because it could have done Brewers pitcher Michael Blazek—who gave up every one of Washington’s fifth-inning homers yesterday—a bit of good. The Nationals were clearly relaxed in the batter’s box. Utilizing inside pitches—not to hit anyone, but to move their feet, back them off the plate and make them consider the possibilities—could have disrupted that comfort. It did not appear to have any place in Milwaukee’s game plan, and the assault continued.

Historically, the most glaring example of this type of thing came from Paul Foytack, the first of the four pitchers (including Blazek) ever to give up four straight homers. While with the Los Angeles Angels in 1963, against Cleveland, Foytack surrendered three straight—to Woodie Held, pitcher Pedro Ramos (batting a robust .109 at the time) and Tito Francona—and set out to knock down the next batter, rookie Larry Brown. Even that didn’t go quite as planned, as Brown ended up hitting his first career home run. “That shows you what kind of control I had,” Foytack told reporters later.

The modern game, however, has eschewed inside pitching to such a degree that the idea never appeared to cross Blazek’s mind, nor—given that it was the pitcher’s first-ever big league start—that of his manager, Craig Counsell. What we’re left with is a record-tying performance that Blazek would rather have no part of.

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Those four homers gave us another example of the evolution of the unwritten rules, which had more to do with the hitters than with Blazek. A generation ago, the code dictated that a batter would take the first pitch following back-to-back home runs. It was a courtesy offered a struggling opponent.

Take it from three-time All-Star Hal McRae: “Someone would pull you to the side and say, ‘Look, there have been two consecutive home runs hit. The third batter doesn’t swing at the first pitch.’ Take the first pitch. Alert the pitcher that you’re not swinging, that you know he’s out there, you respect him and you respect the job that he’s trying to do. So you take the first pitch, saying, ‘I’m not going to try to come up here and try to hit the third consecutive home run.’ After the first pitch, it’s okay for you to do your job.”

Yesterday, Blazek’s first pitches to Wilmer Difo and Bryce Harper—the second and third of the quartet of consecutive-homer hitters—were out of the strike zone, and taken. His first pitch to the fourth member of that group, Ryan Zimmerman, was down the pipe, and blasted over the left-center field fence.

The interesting part of this is not that the Nationals didn’t observe an obscure unwritten rule, but the extreme probability that nobody in their clubhouse apart from manager Dusty Baker and perhaps a coach or two has even heard of it. The idea of sacrificing statistics for a bit of kindness to an opponent is so beyond the pale in the modern game (and, frankly, has been that way since the 1980s), that it’s almost beyond comprehension.

It does serve, however, as a marker for how far the game has come, and the extreme evolution of its moral compass.

The Baseball Codes

Yordano Ventura, RIP

yordano-venturaYordano Ventura was killed over the weekend in a car crash in the Dominican Republic. On-field and off, this is tragic. The guy was 25 years old, with a lot of growing still to do.

The right-hander possessed some of the best stuff in baseball, but was still figuring out how to harness it, putting up ERAs over 4.00 in each of the last two seasons. When Ventura was right, though, he was nearly untouchable, highlighted by a 7-1 record with a 2.38 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 68 innings over his last 11 starts of 2015.

The thing about being able to throw 100 mph, though, is that people are going to take issue when that stuff comes too far inside. Which never seemed to bother Ventura very much. As such, he became a prominent face in an increasingly complex transition from whatever baseball’s Code was, to whatever it will be. He celebrated on the mound. He enjoined opponents in battles both verbal and physical. He seemed all too willing to get into it on the field for any reason. No clearer evidence of this exists than his record two Aprils back, when Ventura scrapped with Mike Trout, Brett Lawrie and Adam Eaton—three players on three teams in a span of four starts. Last year’s brawl with Manny Machado furthered the pitcher’s reputation.

Ventura undeniably brought excitement to the sport, but at the same time he gave opponents a blueprint for how to draw his focus away from the task at hand. A run-in with Blue Jays first-base coach Tim Leiper in the 2015 ALCS is a perfect example of a team knowing just how easy it was to get into Ventura’s head. The pitcher’s own teammates appeared to grow weary of his antics, publicly backing him less and less frequently as his rap sheet grew.

The thing about Ventura, though, was that we always wanted to see what came next. His talent was one thing—skill that, if ever fully harnessed, could have made him one of the game’s best pitchers—but to overlook his personality would sell the man short. He was a guy who asked into an area softball game a day after his team lost the World Series. He was a guy who took pleasure in visiting kids’ lemonade stands.

From a baseball standpoint, we’re left mostly with questions. The kid was just starting to mature into whatever he would have become, and getting to watch that process in a player is one of the great joys of baseball fandom. There might have been nobody more emblematic than that in all the sport. When Jose Fernandez passed away too soon, we had a pretty good idea of how great a pitcher he could be. With Yordano Ventura, we were just beginning to find out.

Earning respect, The Baseball Codes, Unwritten-Rules

What the Hell is Wrong With Craig Counsell?

Segura

 

At one end of baseball’s unwritten-rules spectrum, angry pitchers try to justify their desire to throw baseballs at hitters. At the other end, celebration-minded batters ignore the Code entirely while seeing how high they can flip their bats.

On Friday, Brewers manager Craig Counsell broke new ground among their ranks, and not in a good way.

Start with the details. In a game against Arizona, Milwaukee second baseman Orlando Arcia, making only his third major league appearance, collected his first hit as a big leaguer—an RBI single to right field. So far, so good.

When the ball was returned to the infield, however, Arcia’s counterpart, D’Backs second baseman Jean Segura—the man who Milwaukee traded in January, in part to clear space for Arcia—took note of the moment and tossed the ball into the Brewers dugout for safekeeping. It was a nice, anticipatory gesture on behalf of a young player, and prevented the Brewers from having to waste time by halting play and requesting the ball themselves.

Counsell’s reaction was pure bush league. He protested to the umpiring crew that Segura removed the ball from play without first calling for a time stoppage. The umps agreed, Arcia was awarded two extra bases, and Segura was tagged with a thoroughly unearned error. (Watch it here.)

“I get it,” said Counsell after the game in an MLB.com report, “but you have to wait.”

In soccer, players’ code dictates that the ball be intentionally kicked out of bounds when an opponent goes down with a legitimate injury, nullifying an unearned extra-man advantage. In cycling, a race leader who has suffered a mechanical breakdown or other stroke of bad fortune will frequently be granted some slack by his pursuers. Yes, these things aid the opposition, but they also maintain honor.

Where the hell does honor fit into Counsell’s game plan? His move was less gamesmanship—taking advantage of a chink in the system—than sheer, calorie-free bravura, emotional junk food that, while giving his team a slight advantage, diminished himself and the game at large. As a player, Counsell made something of a habit of stealing bases while his team held big leads late in games, so maybe this is just business as usual for him.

Leaving the play alone—letting his ex-player, Segura, do something nice for his current one, Arcia—wouldn’t have drawn notice, because it would have been expected. By calling out a letter-of-the-law violation, however, Counsell painted himself as petty and self-involved.

Ultimately, Arcia was stranded at third base, and Arizona won, 3-2, on a bases-loaded walk, in 11 innings.

Could have been the baseball gods sending Counsell a message.

New York Mets, New York Yankees, Retaliation, Sign stealing, The Baseball Codes

Lots of Drama in Showdown between Big Tex and the Mets

Teixeira screams

Mark Teixeira sure knows how to get under guys’ skin. Sometimes it mandates hollering at them after being hit by a pitch. Sometimes it’s more or less just standing around near second base.

It’s rivalry week in New York, , and Teixeira got things off to a rollicking start yesterday by homering against Mets starter Steven Matz in the second inning, then yelling at him after the lefty plunked him in his next at-bat.

Of far more interest was what happened in the seventh, when Mets reliever Hansel Robles got a little nutty about Teixeira’s presence at second base, overtly accusing the bemused Yankee of stealing signs.

First things first. Matz got off to a rocky start, having already given up three runs on five hits and a walk when Teixeira came up with two outs in the second inning and two men on base. The slugger quickly added three more runs to Matz’s line with an opposite-field homer into the right-field bleachers.

Matz remained in the game and quickly settled down, retiring the next eight hitters he faced … until Teixeria came up again, at which point he hit him in the shin. The hitter was incredulous. “You’ve got to be kidding!” he screamed toward the mound, inspiring both dugouts to empty despite no moves being made to fight. (Teixeira shouted all the way to first base, drawing an escort from Mets catcher Rene Rivera, but the exchange was so relatively tame that the relievers only half-heartedly filtered from the bullpens, wandering barely past the warning track before heading back in. Watch it all here.)

Although Teixeira didn’t address it directly, Matz’s rookie status likely played into the first baseman’s response. Speaking with the YES Network after the game, Teixeira called him “a good kid” while saying “when you miss a pitch that bad right after I hit a home run, you’re going to get a reaction.” Matz himself addressed the issue, saying in a New York Post report that, “Me being a rookie I can understand why he was mad.’’

The evening’s headliner, however, was Teixeira’s seventh-inning exchange with Robles. The reliever, having given up a single, a double and two walks among the first six batters he faced, was pitching to Starlin Castro with the bases loaded, Teixeira on second, with two outs in the seventh, when he came a bit unhinged.

Whatever Teixeira was doing as a baserunner was taken by Robles, and possibly Rivera, to be signaling the catcher’s signs and/or location to Castro. The pitcher glared toward second, telling Teixeira precisely what was on his mind. In response, Teixeria made an effort to live up to the accusations, mock-signaling the plate by overtly touching different parts of his face.

Castro reached on an RBI infield single, and Robles was removed. As the pitcher returned to the dugout, he had a cross-field conversation with Teixeria (by that time standing at third), about his suspicions. Guilty or not, Teixeria’s response was perfect: a smile and a point to his own helmet, indicating his presence in Robles’ head.

“That’s not the way you play baseball,” Robles said afterward in an MLB.com report. “You have to play baseball as a man.”

In that, Robles is wildly mistaken. Stealing signs is, and has long been, an accepted part of the game. The reliever was within his rights to call out Teixeira for any perceived indiscretions, but that’s pretty much where it had to stop. At that point, it’s up to Teixeira to knock off whatever it was he was doing (he denied the accusation in a New York Times report, saying only that “I was breathing”). Even more importantly, it’s up to the Mets to change their signs (a simple task, even mid-inning). Most of all it’s up to Robles to move right along with the task at hand, retiring the hitter.

That’s not what happened. Teixeira, seeing the discord, pounced. Just as Gaylord Perry had great success making people think he was throwing a spitter, even when he was not throwing a spitter—especially when he was not throwing a spitter—because Teixeira got Robles to think about sign stealing, he managed to distract him at least somewhat from pitching to Castro.

Afterward, Teixeira denied stealing signs, but was on the mark with the rest of his analysis.

“I’ve never gotten inside of someone’s head just by standing there,” he said. “That’s a talent, I guess. Listen, if you think I have your signs, just change them. That’s part of the game. I try not to do it a lot. I don’t like it, trying to steal signs. If you think I have them, then change the signs. Don’t try to challenge me to a duel.”

That pretty much sums it up. The next pitcher, Josh Edgin, walked Teixeira home, and the Yankees won, 9-5. The teams meet tonight for the final time this season. Teixeira’s misdeeds, if they existed, do not merit further response unless they continue unabated. With the way things went yesterday, however, who knows?

Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

The Cardinal Way is Now Officially a Thing

Cashner

Maybe Andrew Cashner hates the Cardinals. Maybe he just struggles with command. But on July 21, pitching for San Diego, he drilled Matt Holliday in the nose, opening a nasty cut but doing no thorough damage. Yesterday, Cashner’s team had changed but his strategy had not.

In his first start after being traded to Miami, he got right back at it, running an inside fastball that hit Aledmys Diaz on the hand, an injury that eventually forced Diaz from the game.

It made no difference that Cashner was wearing a different uniform when he plunked Holliday. Patterns of abuse—even unintentional abuse—do not go unnoticed in organizations in which Tony La Russa has let his presence. A half-inning after the right-hander drilled Diaz, Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez plunked Giancarlo Stanton in the back. Message sent.

With Cashner’s pitch to Holliday on July 21 having come in above the shoulders, dangerously close to doing real damage, it’s little surprise that the Cardinals—whether Martinez was acting on his own or nudged from above—chose to react. The sight of blood will do that, and it’s likely that some in the St. Louis clubhouse had considered retaliation even before Diaz was hit. (The pitch to Holliday a week-and-a-half earlier had been Cashner’s last of the game, in the final game of the series, and a one-run score never allowed for future response on the Cardinals’ part.)

Talking about it later in an MLB.com report, Cashner theorized that it’s “kind of the ‘Cardinal way’ over there.” (St. Louis skipper Mike Matheny said he didn’t “have a thought or anything else” to offer about the exchange.)

The pertinent issue here involves which scores have been settled, because the Cardinals clearly have long memories when it comes to this type of thing.

It’s safe to assume that their response to Cashner wiped his slate clean. Is the same true when it comes to his ex-team, the Padres? We’ve already heard from La Russa that retaliation can be triggered merely by an opponent’s philosophy, if said philosophy involves pitching inside. (For what it’s worth, San Diego doesn’t appear to pitch inside more or less than anybody else, their collective HBPs hovering right around league average.) They don’t face the Cardinals again until next season.

If nothing else, we have one clear takeaway. When a club like St. Louis takes issue with a pitcher, a change of uniform or the removal of facial hair hardly provides sufficient disguise. If Cashner does something similar again the next time he faces the Cards, it won’t matter who he’s pitching for. Retaliation is all but assured.