Cueto Goes Gunslinger: A Lesson on the Merits of Retaliation

Cueto-Franco

We’ve been thinking a lot about baseball retaliation this season—what it means in the modern landscape, and when (and if) it’s ever justified. We’ve thought about it so much, in fact, that one of our most noted bat-tossers had to clarify the idea of “a baseball play,” distinguishing between game action and sideline stupidity, and how a hard slide into a red-ass Rangers infielder should not lead to fisticuffs.

On the other end of the spectrum is Diamondbacks exec Tony La Russa, noting that retaliation is merited even in some cases of unintentional HBPs, should a pitcher with shaky command insist on working the inside edge—a tactic he decried as “intentionally careless.”

Which brings us to Johnny Cueto.

Yesterday in San Francisco, Phillies starter Aaron Nola was terrible, giving up 10 hits and five earned runs over 3 1/3 innings. Also, he hit three batters along the way. Nola is known for his outstanding control (indeed, he didn’t walk a batter against the Giants), but, given his awful June (he became the first Phillies pitcher since 1982 to go four straight starts with fewer than four innings pitched, during which he put up a 15.23 ERA), it’s difficult to mistake any of his mistakes as intentional.

His first and second HBPs, in the first and third innings, each loaded the bases. His third came one batter after his second, and drove in a run. Two of the three came on curveballs.

It mattered little to Cueto. Granted a 5-1 lead with two outs in the top of the fourth, the right-hander planted a fastball into the ribs of cleanup hitter Maikel Franco. Intent was obvious, and plate umpire Doug Eddings immediately warned both benches against further hijinks. (Watch it here.)

We can debate the merits of Cueto’s actions (while making note that the guy has some history with this kind of thing), but more pertinent to this conversation are the consequences.

Cueto, who had allowed one hit prior to drilling Franco, walked the next batter and then gave up back-to-back singles, scoring two runs. An inning later he gave up two singles, a double and a walk, leading to two more runs and a 5-5 score. In the sixth, the Giants having taken a 6-5 lead, Cueto gave up a leadoff homer to Odubel Herrera, costing himself a decision in what otherwise could have been his 12th win. It was his worst start of the season.

Did hitting Franco have anything to do with it?

After the game, Cueto denied intent, then blamed his downturn on Eddings having shrunk the strike zone. Giants manager Bruce Bochy was more clear-eyed, noting that Cueto looked rattled after the warning.

If there is an enduring lesson here, it is that any pitcher who decides to take up for his teammates in such a fashion—whether or not his teammates actually desire such a thing—must be able to withstand whatever repercussions come his way.

On Sunday, that was not Johnny Cueto, who by every reasonable interpretation should have known better.

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Come Chat About the Mahatma

Can’t get enough Branch Rickey? My latest piece, Branch Rickey’s Baseball Revolution: The Continental League, is now up at The National Pastime Museum. I’ll be chatting about it at 10 a.m. PST today. Come on by.

Rickey Continental

 

 

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The Best Kind of Revenge

Panik mashes

On Saturday, Rays starter Matt Moore put a 92 mph fastball directly into Joe Panik’s helmet. (Watch it here.)

It was, without question, unintentional. It came in the top of the fifth, there was nobody out, and Tampa Bay was clinging to a 3-1 lead. Also, the bases were loaded.

That is how Panik came to drive in San Francisco’s second run of the game.

The blow was severe—as is any head shot—but wasn’t enough to knock Panik from the game. It also wasn’t severe enough to merit a retaliatory fastball from any of the six Giants pitchers who followed. (That the DH was in play to protect Moore may have been a factor, but given San Francisco’s general reticence when it comes to that type of behavior, a payback HBP wouldn’t have been expected anyway.)

Panik authored his team’s response himself, hitting a tie-breaking homer in the ninth against Tampa Bay’s previously unhittable closer, Alex Colome, which won the game for the Giants. (Watch it here.)

Now that’s what retaliation is supposed to look like.

 

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Branch Rickey: Making Baseball Better In So Many Ways

Come chat with me at 10 a.m. this morning over at the National Pastime Museum, where my latest—about Branch Rickey and his underappreciated contribution to the arena of baseball safety—is now up.

BRANCH-RICKEY-PT1

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Turns Out That Composite Bats Flip, Too

Canes pimp

It was bound to come to this. Now that bat flips have become more or less acceptable, somebody had to come along to push the envelope regarding how much will be tolerated. Meet Edgar Michelangeli, newly minted power hitter from the University of Miami, whose ongoing displays of flippitude are leaving all other flippers behind.

In Sunday’s Super Regional against Boston College, Michelangeli hit a grand slam to give Miami a 9-3 lead, then pulled off what has for him become standard schtick—he strolled down the line holding his bat at arm’s length, then tossed it high once he was most of the way to first base.

There are arguments to be made for the spiritual power of a good bat flip—how it captures the spark of success, encapsulates a conquering moment for a home run hitter. Michelangeli’s flip had none of that. It was pure contrivance, an awkward display of self-aggrandizement intended strictly to draw attention to his own prowess as a master preener.

As Michelangeli approached the plate, BC catcher Nick Sciortino had some angry words for him, and benches quickly emptied. (Yes, Michelangeli has done this kind of thing before.) No punches were thrown, but the anger was sufficient for both coaches and the umpiring crew to opt against holding the traditional post-game handshake line.

 

Yesterday’s confrontation shouldn’t be on Boston College, though. My question concerns what Miami coach Jim Morris is saying about all of this. The guy is in his 23rd year on the job and has national Coach of the Year awards on his mantle, so it’s not like he lacks any sort of institutional authority. Allowing this sort of nonsense to go unchecked is to pass up a teachable moment about comportment, and the points at which glory-seeking become disrespectful to one’s opponent.

At least BC coach Mike Gambino was on point. “What we talk about in our program is character, toughness and class …” he said in an AP report. “I think our boys play hard. I think they play the game the right way. I think they respect the game and their opponents.”

Maybe it’s different in the big leagues, but this is college—a place where kids go to, you know, learn things. Gambino seems to get it. Michelaneli clearly does not.

 

 

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Talking About the Past

pirates

My first feature for the National Pastime Museum, Bobby Bragan: At the Vanguard of Baseball Thought, just went up. They have some truly great content over there—well worth checking out if you haven’t already.

It’s the first of 10 features I wrote for them that will be published in coming weeks. I’ll be hosting online chats about all of them. The Bragan chat will start at 10 a.m. PST. Come on down.

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Immovable Object Meets Unstoppable Force: Meatheaded Melee Brings Machado to Mound

Machado-Ventura

When Nolan Ryan was busy scaring the hell out of American League hitters, he made a habit of tamping down the grass in front of home plate before games with his cleat, taking care to stare down the opposing dugout all the while. His message: Don’t you dare bunt on me. Those who chose to ignore him knew all too well what kind of response they’d receive. Ryan’s red-ass reputation preceded him, and hitters were (usually) smart enough to avoid ticking the guy off.

Which is to say, the two guys at the center of yesterday’s Throwdown in B-Town bear some reputations of their own, and consideration of this point could have served both of them well.

Manny Machado has gotten into it with Jonathan Papelbon (spurring the closer’s infamous choke hold on Bryce Harper last year). He’s flipped out at being tagged. Hell, the guy went so far as to take a bat to the head of an opposing catcher.

Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura, meanwhile, has beefed with Adam Eaton. He’s beefed with Brett Lawrie. He’s beefed with Mike Trout. He spurred a beef with Jeff Samardzija. And that was all within a month of each other, last April.

Which is also to say that whereas Nolan Ryan’s opponents knew enough to avoid angering him, when two hotheads stare each other down, it’s all too likely that neither of them have the best interests of their respective teams in mind.

Yesterday’s fracas started in the second inning, when Ventura buzzed Machado inside (raising his hackles, of course) before getting him to fly out to left field on a ball that the hitter at first thought would leave the yard. Machado and his hackles ended up staring down the pitcher, then pimping what turned out to be a wind-killed medium-deep flyball, then screaming at Ventura (and vice versa) before returning to the dugout. (Watch it here.)

Back to reputations. Machado was clearly aware of Ventura’s, and knew what kind of response an unnecessary shouting match might deliver—if only because his manager, Buck Showalter, warned him of it before his fifth-inning at-bat. That’s the best explanation for his decision to charge the mound after the pitcher planted a 99-mph four-seamer into his backside. (Watch the whole thing here.)

Ventura, for his part, should have been more prescient. Know thine enemy and etc. when it comes to things like understanding what it’ll take to set a guy off.

That said, it’s likely that  Ventura knew precisely what he was doing. The right-hander had given up six earned runs in four-and-a-third innings to that point (which didn’t even include a would-be home run by Pedro Alvarez). His was a response borne of frustration and a likely desire to force his own damn exit.

The latter point can be illustrated by the bevy of quotes to emerge from the postgame clubhouses. On Baltimore’s side, Machado’s compatriots were all too eager to back him up. A sampling, via the Baltimore Sun:

  • O’s outfielder Adam Jones: “Manny ain’t at fault for nothing.”
  • Jones, on Ventura: “The talent is all there, but between the ears, there’s a circuit board that’s off balance. I don’t get it.”
  • Showalter: “[It’s] not the first time. Obviously, it must be something that’s OK because [Ventura] continues to do it. It must be condoned. I don’t know.”
  • Showalter again, on the possibility of continuation into today’s game: “Bring it on. Whatever. Bring it on. We’ll handle it. You try not to let one person’s actions speak for a lot of people, but it’s been going on a while with him.”
  • Mark Trumbo: “It’s important for everyone that’s at this level and in the game, period, to go about your business the right way. This isn’t the type of stuff that’s good for the game.”

The Royals were more reticent. Manager Ned Yost was representative when he offered a “Probably” when asked if Ventura’s wild-card nature was grating on his teammates, adding in a Kansas City Star report that “there’s a little frustration when things like this happen, yeah.”

When given the opportunity to defend his pitcher, he said, “I don’t know, that’s something you’re going to have to ask him.” Hardly a ringing endorsement.

“You see the reaction by [Ventura’s teammates],” said Jones, speaking on behalf of the opposition. “They weren’t too happy that he did something so stupid.”

Traditionally, this is the point at which Yost or any number of Ventura’s veteran teammates pulls him aside to talk about how reckless behavior on the mound impacts everybody, and that if somebody was injured trying to break up the fight, or if a Royal is drilled by a retaliatory pitch tonight, it’ll rest on Ventura’s shoulders. That would make sense, except for the fact that those conversations should have happened more than a year ago (and likely did), during the pitcher’s previous spate of madness.

At that point, the guy seemed to have learned his lesson:

Guess it didn’t take.

Ultimately, Baltimore exacted the purest kind of revenge, with the O’s next two hitters following the fracas, Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis, going back-to-back against reliever Chien-Ming Wang, to extend their lead to 8-1.

Here’s hoping that’ll suffice today and preclude any further response from Baltimore, unlikely as that may be.

Update (6/9/16): Machado’s been dinged for his actions: four games and $2,500.

Update II (6/9/16): And now Ventura: nine games, which will effectively cost him one or two starts.

 

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