Retaliation, Umpire Warnings

Let’s Talk About Umpire Warnings

Before we get into umpire warnings and how they might or might not be useful, let’s start with Wilmer Font.

Font is the definition of a journeyman pitcher, playing for five teams in a five-season big league career, with one Tommy John surgery and a few minor league campaigns in the middle of everything. In May, the Rays offloaded him to the Mets for next to nothing, at which point Font’s career ERA was 6.51.

Still, he throws with decent velocity, employs five different pitches and can be stretched out as a middle reliever. And in New York, things seem to have changed. Over the last month, Font has racked up a 0.69 ERA in 13 innings across seven appearances. The Mets bullpen has been in shambles, and the right-hander looked ready to pounce on the opportunity to gain some organizational trust.

Until yesterday, anyway. Font was inserted into the sixth inning of a game against the Phillies with runners on second and third and one out, and the Mets holding a 5-2 lead. The first hitter he faced, Jay Bruce, brought home a run with a groundout. The next hitter, Cesar Hernandez, brought home another run with an infield single. The next batter, Maikel Franco, gave the Phillies the lead with a two-run homer. The next batter, Brad Miller, extended the lead with another home run, then clowned his way to first base. In the span of four batters, Font’s ERA jumped from 4.58 to 5.50.

Of course he was frustrated. Maybe that’s why he sent a fastball at Scott Kingery’s head.

Kingery’s crime, of course, was merely hitting behind Franco and Miller. A leap and a shrug by the batter managed to help him deflect the pitch with his shoulder, but the intent was clear. Font put a pitch someplace that no pitcher ever should, and the Phillies were furious.

Enter plate ump Joe West, and the discussion about umpire warnings. West saw the pitch for what it was, but instead of tossing Font he opted for warnings to both benches. The umpire no doubt knew about the recent history between the teams, notable for a game back in April in which the Mets threw at Rhys Hoskin’s head in response to an ill-considered stolen base.

Still, issuing warnings to both teams precluded any sort of response from Philadelphia for an egregious act, never mind that, apart from Miller’s antics while heading toward first base, they’d been entirely clean. Phillies skipper Gabe Kapler was commensurately upset and came out to argue. It took West literally six seconds to toss him.

The increasingly vital Jomboy broke it all down:

As pertains to the Mets, West’s decision to warn Font rather than tossing him had no effect whatsoever on the game, given that Mickey Calloway pulled the reliever anyway. For the Phillies, however, it generated some constraints.

Never mind the idea of retaliation; with a two-run lead in the late innings, any possible head-hunting notions they may have harbored would likely have been tabled until another day anyway. The warning did, however, increase concern among Phillies hurlers about utilizing the inside corner. Kapler noted as much after the game, saying in a Philadelphia Inquirer report, “I felt like it was going to put us at a disadvantage throwing up and in.”

So what’s the right answer? Generally speaking, clued-in umpires tend to delay warnings until an aggrieved party has a chance to respond. Also generally speaking, Joe West is not always considered to be clued in. Overly quick warnings, like West’s on Tuesday, simply delay gratification for those with retaliatory tendencies. This means that instead of bad blood being contained to a single game, it spills into multiple days.

We’ll see if that’s the case with Philadelphia. Given that two Mets have thrown at the heads of their hitters so far this season, it’d be shocking if we don’t see some sort of response … maybe as soon as tonight.

Jonathan Sanchez, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes, Umpire Warnings, Umpires Knowing the Code

Toss Him Out! Let Him Play! The Importance of Understanding that not Every Situation is Exactly the Same

rsz_jonathan_sanchez (1)Jonathan Sanchez insists that the fastball he threw Friday—which nearly hit Cardinals first baseman Allen Craig in the head—was accidental. Sanchez was pitching inside, he said, quoting verbatim from the unofficial handbook of pitcher denials. The ball rose, he said. That was all.

Of course, given the pitcher’s recent struggles, not to mention his history with hot-headedness, questions abound. MLB certainly thought so, suspending him for six games on Saturday.

Sanchez opened Friday’s game against St. Louis by giving up back-to-back home runs to Matt Carpenter and Carlos Beltran, followed by a single by Matt Holliday. Sanchez sent his next pitch—apparently out of frustration—toward Craig’s head. (The ball ended up connecting with the spinning hitter’s shoulder.) Plate ump Tim Timmons didn’t hesitate, ejecting Sanchez without so much as a warning.

It was an abhorrent string of hitters in an abhorrent season of starts for Sanchez, who has thrown a total of only 11.3 innings over four outings, with a 12.71 ERA. Twenty-one hits and eight walks. He’s made it to the fifth inning only once. Well, of course he’s frustrated.

“You’ve got two home runs, and then you’ve got a line-drive single up the middle, and then the very first pitch is up around the shoulder and head area,” Timmons told a pool reporter at Busch Stadium. “He threw intentionally at him, and in that area I deemed that intentional, and he’s done. Very dangerous.”

“It surprised me,” Sanchez said in a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review report. “(Timmons) said it was obvious I wanted to hit him. I said no, I just missed my spot.”

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was outraged at the quick hook, arguing vociferously enough to get tossed himself. After the game he said he was bringing his complaints to the commissioner’s office, although Sanchez’s ensuing suspension gave a pretty good indication about how much attention the commissioner was paying.

Any umpire who feels that a pitcher is intentionally head-hunting is justified in leveling ejections, with or without prior warnings. Timmons earned extra credit by keeping quiet after Cardinals pitcher Lance Lynn later hit Pirates outfielder Starling Marte not once but twice—each almost certainly incidental—even after warnings were issued. (One barely clipped Marte’s hand, the other sailed into his arm, just off the plate; the hitter barely tried to avoid either one.)

Lynn himself was brushed back by Pittsburgh reliever Jared Hughes in the eighth, avoiding a pitch that, because he was squatting while squared to bunt, came in head-high. Lynn ducked backward out of the way, ending up on his back in the batter’s box. Again, Timmons let it slide.

In the eighth, Cardinals pitcher Mitchell Boggs drilled Gaby Sanchez in the back. (This, too, may have been unintentional, given Boggs’s recent struggles and the fact that all three hitters he faced reached base.)

Watch a compendium of the action here. (In an unrelated Code note, watch Pirates catcher Russell Martin jump to get between batter and pitcher in the first clip, as A.J. Ellis wishes he had recently done.)

One takeaway from all this is that an umpire on top of his game can go a long way toward stemming future disturbances. Timmons and MLB seem to agree upon that even one head-hunting incident is too many, and there’s no better way to tamp down the practice than by making examples of pitchers who stray from the proscribed course.

By letting the rest of the game play out as it did—even what appeared to be an obvious message from Hughes to Lynn—Timmons further defused lingering resentment between the clubs. Neither of the weekend games between the team featured much of anything resembling Code-based drama, even with the ample opportunities presented by Pittsburgh’s 9-0 blowout on Sunday.

Ultimately, the situation appears to have been handled just right. The power of positive umpiring. 

Rick Porcello, Umpire Warnings

When Umpires Strike, Blatant-Retaliation-for-Questionable-Offenses Division

There are two directions an umpire can go in instances of retaliation that occur under his watch.

He can let the situation play out, offering the other team a chance to respond before bringing down the hammer with warnings.

Or he can go quick-draw in an effort to immediately tamp down further inflammatory actions.

In the latter scenario, the offended party will inevitably be displeased about being handcuffed in its response. Which is exactly what happened to the Indians over the weekend.

It started with Asdrubal Cabrera mashing a ball down the line, an an all-or-nothing shot certain to clear the fence. He watched it fly, to see whether it went fair or foul.

It went foul. As did Tigers pitcher Rick Porcello, who by appearances felt shown up by Cabrera’s lingering presence in the batter’s box. He put his next pitch behind Cabrera’s back.

The Cleveland shortstop glared toward the mound, but his progress in that direction was stopped by plate ump Paul Schrieber, who issued quick warnings to both benches. Indians manager Manny Acta was not pleased. (Watch it here.)

“When that happens, you don’t need a warning to throw the guy out of the game,” he said in a Fox Sports report. “If you do not throw the guy out of the game then you should not issue a warning because then we’re not getting our shot.”

If only everyone was so clear, concise and correct. The manager has every right to expect a chance to respond to such a blatant Code violation—or, alternatively, have the ump collect a pound of flesh on his behalf. This doesn’t happen every time, of course; ever since umpires were instructed to tighten their trigger fingers, countless players and managers have been upset at lost retaliatory opportunities.

Acta, however, verbalizes his frustration better (read: more candidly) than most.

He was forced to specifically instruct pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez to avoid responding; it was still early in the game and he didn’t want to burn his bullpen. (His message was effective—Jimenez refrained from taking action, but that’s not always the case. Joe Torre recalls a time when he managed the Braves, in which he told pitcher Ray King Donnie Moore to leave well enough alone at the tail end of a volatile situation—before recognizing the situation for what it was. “‘I have no chance. I’m talking to a deaf man,” he said of the conversation. “I walked back to the dugout and he hit Graig Nettles. You can talk until you’re blue in the face, but it’s guys defending each other. That’s what it’s about.”)

Acta also talked about the nature of Cabrera’s blast (“The guy was just standing there looking at a foul ball. It was a foul ball. That was all”) and the blatant nature of the drilling (“Everybody, including the vendors in the stadium, knew that he threw at him”), but it was his touchstone summary of the Code and some of its modern interpretations that was truly impressive. The gems included:

  • A mini-treatise on the relative safety of retaliation for AL pitchers, as well as the inherent risks: “Guys who do that in the American League, all they’re doing is putting their team in jeopardy because they don’t hit. Guys in the National League who hit guys are the guys that show me something because they have to get up to the plate.”
  • A polemic on the inter-team chumminess of modern players: “None of these guys want to fight. The game has changed so much, it’s a joke. All we’ve got to do is watch BP (batting practice). They’re all hugging and laughing (with opponents). Look on the bases, how you’ve got three, four guys (on opposite sides) talking to each other.”
  • A sidebar on players’ softness (directed toward Porcello), pointing out one player who did not fit that bill—Francisco Rodriguez. While with the Mets, the closer took exception to comments made by Yankees pitcher Brian Bruney about his animated nature, and confronted him before a game. Acta: “You want to know who’s tough? Frankie Rodriguez is tough. He didn’t like what some guy did a couple years ago, he went out at stretch time. . . . That’s being tough, not throwing a ball at a guy and not even facing the guy. If you have to get up to the plate (to hit), then maybe I can see you being tough.”

Porcello offered standard denials about the pitch getting away from him, but if even the vendors could read his intent it doesn’t hold much water.  The teams meet again on Sept. 5. Hold onto your hats.

– Jason

Jason Bay, Sergio Mitre, Umpire Warnings

To Warn, or Not to Warn: An Umpire’s Quandary

I’ve been talking to radio hosts across the country over recent weeks in support of The Baseball Codes, and a surprising number have brought up the topic of umpires, and their affect on the unwritten rules.

It can be profound. An ill-timed warning can prevent appropriate retaliation for a Code violation; instead of completing the disrespect-response cycle, they leave it open-ended, to be continued another day. Meanwhile, the offended party is left to stew, which often makes the situation worse than it would have otherwise been.

Sometimes, of course, umpires understand—and, importantly, tolerate—what’s going on, saving their warnings until after the aggrieved team has a chance to respond in kind.

Last night in New York, however, was not one of those times. In the sixth inning, Yankees reliever Sergio Mitre hit Jason Bay in the back with a pitch. There were two outs and nobody on base (the perfect situation for a pitcher with vengeance on his mind), and Bay had homered in his previous two at-bats. Umpire Marvin Hudson immediately issued warnings to both benches.

It all made sense, right up to the 75 mph breaking ball that drilled Bay. That kind of pitch is the least-likely weapon of choice for a pitcher looking to inflict a little pain—which, had the plunking been intentional, would have been precisely Mitre’s point.

Pitchers are expected to deny intention every time they hit a batter, but in Mitre’s case it was justified.

“It was a breaking ball that got away,” he said in the New York Daily News. “I don’t think a warning was needed from that pitch. It was just a breaking ball that backed up, and it just followed him. It was one of those balls where you try and get away, but it keeps following you. It was just a terrible breaking ball.”

The biggest downside for such a warning is that it lends the perception of intent to a pitch for which there wasn’t any. The Mets didn’t take it that way—no Yankees were hit in response (which could also have been due to the warning)—but it would have been tough to blame them if they did.

– Jason