To Bunt or Not to Bunt: Is That Even a Question Anymore?

 

wee-willie-keeler

Today’s topic sits at the core of baseball’s unwritten rules, but amid the recent thunderstorm of bat flips and other erstwhile celebration it seems to have gotten a bit lost: Don’t run up the score on an opponent.

What this means in baseball terms is the cessation of aggressive play while holding a big lead late in a game. Players in such situations still try to get hits and score runs, of course—they just don’t take chances to do so. Mostly this means playing station-to-station, advancing only one base on a single, two on a double, etc. The rule also discourages things like stolen bases and sacrifices.

The pertinent question is less about whether one should do such a thing than when it should happen—what constitutes the definition of big lead and late?

The Baseball Codes offers a quick-hit array of opinions on the matter:

  • “It used to be that [running with] anything more than a four-run lead was wrong, and you’ve got to be careful with that.”—Tony La Russa
  • “When I was playing, if you had a four-run lead it was a courtesy not to run. But you can do that now.”—Ozzie Guillen
  • “Once I had you by five runs and you couldn’t tie me with a grand slam, that was it.”—Sparky Anderson
  • “I was always taught you shut it down at five runs after six.”—Dusty Baker
  • “Five runs in the sixth, I’m not stopping there. We get into the sev­enth inning, then I’ll start chilling a little bit.”—Ron Washington
  • “We play [to shut it down] if you’re up seven runs in the seventh inning.”—Jim Slaton
  • “From the seventh inning on, if one swing of the bat can tie you up, it’s game on,” said ex–first baseman Mark Grace in 2006. “If it’s 4–0, you have Jason Schmidt on the mound, and he’s only given up one hit, you still go for it if Ray Durham gets on base in the eighth inning. Now, if it’s 6–0, you’re in territory where you might get a player hit in the brain in response.”

That list was first published in 2010, and already it seems so, so quaint.

Take, for example, yesterday’s Dodgers-Diamondbacks game. Los Angeles starter Kenta Maeda had given up only one hit through six as his team built an 8-0 lead, but with two on and nobody out, he did this:

maeda-bunts

Additional details: The game was played in pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium, limiting the big-comeback potential held by numerous bandboxes around the league. Dodgers starters had gone at least six innings in each of the previous two games, so their bullpen wasn’t particularly hurting. Maeda had thrown only 86 pitches. The lead seemed about as safe as a lead could be, yet there was Maeda, laying one down.

Was this kosher? My gut screamed “No!”—but I’m willing to admit that my gut is rooted in 1954 as far as these things go. It’s now okay to toss a bat for something so simple as a sacrifice fly, so perhaps it’s also okay to chase runs while up by eight and with every incidental factor leaning in your favor. Hell, Vin Scully said as much during the broadcast, and who am I to question the legend?

One thing that hasn’t changed is the question about how much is too much. Is eight runs now the limit? Ten? Twelve? In the sixth inning or the eighth?

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the diversity of opinion. I haven’t run any recent polls of big league managers, but it’s a fair certainty that there’s hardly unanimity on the subject. Even more certain is that, while four runs were once the limit, the current number is much, much higher. That is, if there even is an upper limit.

There must be a reason, after all, that this hasn’t been much of an issue recently. Bunt away, boys.

[H/T Uzzy]

 

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Strike a Pose … But Not For Too Long

The above moment is from the Little League World Series over the weekend, but it hardly tells the entire story.

The catcher, from the Seoul, South Korea, team, futilely attempts to frame a pitch, and when the umpire doesn’t bite, holds his pose as a matter of protest. It’s what comes next that makes it special. Check it out over at Deadspin. There’s a lot to love.

There’s the umpire, coolly roaming around to dust off the plate, the better to squat down to the catcher’s level and make sure the message that’s about to be delivered is heard.

And there’s the message itself, which, without even knowing what’s being said, is obviously received. (Kudos to the umpire for employing subtle tactics, which, to judge by the catcher’s response, were utterly effective.)

It’s an easy example of baseball dynamics, because Respect one’s elders is an even older-school maxim than Let’s play two. A kid catcher expressing public discontent to an adult umpire is as black and white as a child talking back to the teacher in class.

But those respective roles aren’t so different from their big league counterparts, with professional umpires—the authority figures of a baseball game—demanding commensurate respect (though not always employing such effective tactics in order to get it).

The lesson for today: Nobody likes to be shown up. Sometimes it takes a kid to illustrate the essential truth of a situation.

 

 

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Come On Down and Chat

My latest is up over at the National Pastime Museum: Partly about Gabby Hartnett’s fabled “Homer in the Gloaming,” which propelled the Cubs to the 1938 pennant, but mostly about the largely forgotten leadup that helped it endure.

I’ll be chatting about it today at 1 p.m. EST. Come on by for a visit.

Homer Gloaming

 

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The Best Revenge Can Be Found On the Scoreboard

Posey avoids pitch

I’ve long claimed in this space that the best kind of retaliation is the kind that hurts figuratively, on the scoreboard, rather than literally, in, say, the ribcage. In San Francisco, Bruce Bochy seems to be a proponent of the former.

A few days prior to the All-Star break, the Diamondbacks got into it with San Francisco, starting when Jean Segura homered on Jeff Samardzija’s first pitch of the game. When Segura came to the plate an inning later, the right-hander drilled him with a fastball.

Intent was speculative, and highly unlikely. The Giants trailed 2-0, there was a runner on first and only one out. Still, a hit batter is a hit batter, and in the land of Tony La Russa, hit batters frequently merit response.

The first Giant to bat in the bottom half of the inning was Buster Posey. Diamondbacks starter Patrick Corbin nearly hit him in the knee. When Corbin sailed another pitch behind him, warnings were issued.

Bochy roared from the dugout, wondering at top volume why the hell Corbin was being allowed to stay in the game. The skipper was ejected for his protest (watch it here), but it hardly mattered. Posey walked, and the very next batter, Brandon Crawford, tied the score with a home run—the first of what became six unanswered for the Giants, who went on to win, 6-2.

Crawford’s shot, he said afterward in a San Francisco Chronicle report, was borne of motivation: “I don’t want to sugarcoat it—that’s what I went up there to do. I don’t know what they were thinking throwing at Buster twice. That kind of fired me up. When he walked, I wanted to make them pay for doing it.”

More pertinent to the big picture are the divergent approaches taken by the teams. The Diamondbacks, first under guys like Kirk Gibson and GM Kevin Towers, and now under La Russa and manager Chip Hale, have a storied history of exacting revenge at the slightest of provocations. Under Bochy, the Giants tend to approach things with leveler heads.

San Francisco outfielder Gregor Blanco neatly summed up the mindframe after the game, saying that Arizona’s strategy “was not smart baseball right there.”

“When something like that happens,” he said, “we feed off that anger. It shows what we’re capable of.”

That’s the sort of thing that ballplayers are expected to say, but in this case it appears to be true. Samardzija retired 12 of the next 13 batters he faced after the warnings, and the Giants closed the first half with the best record in baseball. (Arizona, perhaps coincidentally, is in last place, 19 games back.) Talent has a lot to do with it, of course, but it’s also a decent example of what a baseball team focusing on the right things actually looks like.

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