Retaliation

One Pitcher From Last Season’s Yanks-Rays HBP Flap Spared, And It’s Not Sabathia

CC yells

It was kind of a big deal last September when, in his final appearance of the regular season, CC Sabathia responded to a head-high fastball thrown at one of his teammates by drilling an opponent of his own. It was kind of a big deal because warnings had already been issued, and Sabathia knew that he’d be ejected for the action, two innings from triggering a $500,000 bonus clause in his contract. He considered it money well spent.

At the time, a number of critics (myself included) suggested that the Yankees should pay him anyway. In December, they did.

Now the other half of the equation—Rays reliever Andrew Kittredge, whose head-high fastball to Austin Romine, itself a response to various teammates being tagged by Yankees pitchers, initially triggered Sabathia—was similarly relieved of a burden. MLB suspended him for three games at the time, a penalty that it rescinded yesterday. This is especially pertinent since Kittredge has been outrighted off Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster, and a suspension—to be served whenever he returns to the big leagues—would obviate the necessity to call him up for short-term help.

Sabathia, meanwhile, is still saddled with a five-game suspension, which doesn’t mean much to a starter who can easily be slotted behind Luis Severino, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ. Sabathia will likely get his first start bumped back by a day or two, and that will be that. At the very least, it will serve as a tangible reminder of the lengths he’s willing to go to to stand up for his teammates.

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RIP

RIP Frank Robinson

Frank Robinson
Paul Tepley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Frank Robinson, an inner-circle Hall of Famer and one of the very best outfielders ever to lace up spikes, passed away today after a battle with bone cancer. His career saw an MVP with the Reds in 1961, and another with the Orioles in 1966. When he retired in 1976, his 586 career homers ranked fourth all-time, and even after the steroid era still rate as the tenth most ever.

Just as notably, Robinson was the first African American manager in big league history, with Cleveland in 1975, and went on to manage the Giants, Orioles and Expos/Nationals. It was the latter tenure—during his final season as a big league skipper, in fact—that brings us one of my favorites stories of the man, and a fitting coda to his managing career. From The Baseball Codes:

Frank Robinson was one of the toughest players in baseball history, a guy who during his Hall of Fame playing career exhibited virtually no mental weakness on a ballfield, the perfect example of an indestructible personality. As a manager, however, at the helm of the Washington Nationals in 2006, he once broke down completely. Over the previous weeks the seventy-year-old Robinson had watched help­lessly as his catchers went down to injury, one by agonizing one. Starter Brian Schneider was disabled with a hamstring strain. Robert Fick, who was primarily an outfielder/first baseman anyway, missed the first six weeks of the season with elbow damage, and finally came off the disabled list to be used as a pinch-hitter, not to play the field. The only other guy on the club with catching experience was Wiki Gonzalez, who by that point wasn’t actually on the team—he was due to be outrighted to Triple-A New Orleans the following day and had already appeared in what would be his final game for Washington.

Desperate before a game against the Astros, Robinson turned to one of his favorite players, Matt LeCroy. LeCroy came up as a catcher but had primarily been a designated hitter to that point in his seven-year career, and spent all of one inning behind the plate the pre­vious season. Also, he was battling bone spurs in his throwing elbow. LeCroy was willing to catch, but he’d effectively be taking one for the team—and both he and Robinson knew it.

The Astros stole a base against the injured catcher in the second inning, and another in the fourth. By the sixth they had homed in on his weak­ness and began a slow, painful process of exploitation, swiping four more bags in the frame. In the seventh, Morgan Ensberg stole Houston’s sev­enth base of the night, advanced to third on LeCroy’s second throwing error of the game, then scored on Preston Wilson’s single, to close what had been a 7–1 Nationals lead to 7–5. At that point, Robinson couldn’t take any more. In the middle of the inning he instructed Fick—who had started only twenty games as a catcher over the previous four seasons— to strap on some shin guards, and walked slowly toward the plate to replace LeCroy.

Robinson knew the Code [against removing players in the middle of an inning for any reason except injury], but, as repugnant as he found it, he felt he had no choice. He wasn’t angry at LeCroy, but sorry for him. Sorry that he was exposed as being so vulnerable, sorry he couldn’t get the job done, sorry circumstances dictated that he had to be out there in the first place. LeCroy took it well, saying, “If my daddy was managing this team I’m sure he would have done the same thing,” but when Robinson was asked about it after the game, one of the hardest men in baseball was unable to maintain his composure. As he talked, tears streamed down his cheeks.

“It’s not LeCroy’s fault,” he said. “We know his shortcomings. They took advantage of him today. That’s my responsibility. I put him in there. . . . That’s on my shoulders.” In protecting his player from one evil—the base-path assault of the Houston Astros—Robinson exposed him to another: potential ridicule from fans and players alike. The man­ager was forced to choose between two barely palatable options, and ulti­mately decided to put the good of the team ahead of the good of both LeCroy and, to gauge by his analysis of the situation, himself.

Robinson, as fierce a competitor as the sport has known, will be sorely missed.

Bat Flipping

Flipping Out, Winter League Style

tatis flips

It’d be easy to say that it’s bat-flip season in the winter leagues, but that’d be mistaken. Even after this, from Fernando Tatis, Jr. (bat flip at the :43 mark), in the Dominican Winter League …

… in concert with Willians Astudillo’s glorious effort earlier in the week.

It’d be mistaken, because, during wintertime anyway, it’s always bat-flip season in the winter leagues.

Home run pimping

Homering In Latin America Is The Most Fun Way To Homer

astudillo pimps

Amazing that it’s taken this long, but we finally have a winter league bat flip worthy of attention.  It comes courtesy of Willians Astudillo, who hit three homers for the Twins last season (mostly in September, after rosters expanded), a number clearly insufficient for him to take such events as old hat.

Astudillo is Venezuelan, and hit the dong in question in the Venezuelan Winter League, where such displays are far more common than they are in, say, Minnesota. We’ve previously discussed in this space the idea that Latin American players, who grew up playing the sport in ways too vibrant for some of their U.S. counterparts to fully digest, tend to tone down their acts for the MLB. This was never more clear than during the World Baseball Classic in 2017, when players from Puerto Rico let loose their emotions, and during the WBC in 2013, when Dominican players did the same, drawing the ire of their counterparts on the U.S. squad.

Last April, Puerto Rico native Francisco Lindor, who played for his national team during the WBC, hit a regular-season home run against the Twins during a game held in Puerto Rico, and celebrated as he saw fit for his home country. It was only afterward that he stopped to consider the fact that, location aside, it was nonetheless a regulation Major League Baseball game, and norms might have shifted. Lindor went so far as to apologize for what was second nature to him, at least when playing in his home country.

All of which is to say that because home run pimping isn’t all that unusual in Central South America, it takes an especially heroic effort to make people take notice.

Baseball fans, Willians Astudillo is such a hero.

RIP

RIP Willie McCovey

Willie Mac

I drew the above picture in 1980, when I was 10 and Willie McCovey was 42, shortly after he’d hit his final home run, number 521, tying him with Ted Williams on the all-time list. I was a kid, and he was my baseball hero, the last vestige of a classic Giants era that wrapped up before I was old enough to take notice. Willie Mays was long gone—first to the Mets, and then to retirement—but McCovey was still around, still doing great things even after he had long passed the point of being great himself. Mays was legend, but McCovey was tangible, something to grasp. He was right there, the wizened elder whose feats of strength, while increasingly rare, were still, on occasion, majestic. I remember my father explaining to me in the Candlestick Park grandstand that year how the slugger, wobbling atop arthritic knees that would eventually leave him wheelchair-bound, might be the only man in baseball to smack a ball off the right-field fence—as he’d just done—and never even consider advancing to second base.

McCovey died yesterday at age 80, succumbing to a panoply of health issues that began piling up before his career even ended.

By the time I came up as a sportswriter in the Bay Area in the early 2000s, Willie Mac was a regular at what was then known as Pac Bell Park, joining Mays to frequent the office of clubhouse manager Mike Murphy to such a degree that the duo effectively became part of the tableau, just another wondrous aspect of clubhouse culture. I spoke with him on occasion, but only when I had specific questions for a story I was working on, and always at a remove. Hanging out with McCovey? That was something Willie Mays got to do, not mortals like me.

As pertains to this space, when McCovey’s name came up during interviews for The Baseball Codes, it was almost universally under the same subject heading. The guy was known for his abundant power—it earned him the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1959, and the MVP a decade later—but people who played against him also remember how he leveraged his strength while tagging runners at first base. Lou Brock once said that leading off against the Giants was the worst experience a player could have. “He slapped that big ol’ glove down there, hard,” said Chris Speier.

“Willie would slap you so nicely,” recalled Dusty Baker. “He’d smile, then drop that hammer on your head, on your ribs.”

Did anyone hold it against him?

“Well, he was so nice, and he was so big, who could get mad at him?”

Which was a huge part of the guy’s appeal. The first baseman’s demeanor allowed him to keep runners close simply by the threat of tagging them, without real repercussions given that they knew it was never personal. His nature was further on display in an incident that had nothing to do with his tags, during a fight between the Giants and the Chicago Cubs in 1973. From Baseball Digest:

“When the scuffle flared to a red-hot pitch, Jose Cardenal, a 5-foot-10, 150-pound fight fielder for the Cubs, bolted directly toward Willie McCovey, the Giants’ 6-foot-4, 200-pound first baseman.

“ ‘I want you, beeg man,’ Cardenal shouted as he leaped to launch a swing at McCovey. His punch missed by a foot. McCovey laughed and declined to squash his antagonist.”

The guy was beloved. He ran the team’s kangaroo court during his playing days, and now has a statue memorializing the same swing pictured above gracing a cove named after him beyond the right-field wall at AT&T Park. (Had McCovey played there, the theory holds, he’d have slugged untold balls into that water.) So deep is the respect for him that the Giants’ annual honorific for the player who displays the most spirit and leadership, as voted upon by teammates, is called the Willie Mac Award.

It’s a sad day for Giants fans. We’ve lost a legend.

Sign stealing

Did The Dodgers Take Advantage Of Stolen Signs In Game 2? It Sure Seems Like It

Manny signals

There are lots of reasons to dislike Manny Machado. Stealing signs isn’t one of them.

It’s not that he doesn’t steal signs. To the contrary, according to a piece by Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller, Machado is an active sign stealer, and the Red Sox know all about it.

Just don’t hate him for it, because that kind of action puts him firmly in baseball’s mainstream.

According to Miller, during the fourth inning of Wednesday’s Game 2 in Boston, Machado, on second base, went through a series of gyrations that signaled to the hitter, Kike Hernandez, what kind of pitch was about to be delivered. From that vantage, of course, Machado had a clear view into the signs catcher Christian Vazquez was giving to David Price, and relayed them appropriately to the plate. Hernandez hung in for nine straight pitches, giving his teammate plenty of opportunities.

From Bleacher Report:

As Price was coming set, Machado, leading off from second, would place his hands on his hips. Then, just before each pitch, Machado would begin a series of motions: touching his helmet with either his right or left hand, sometimes then touching or pulling the script on his jersey afterward and other times grabbing or touching the thigh/groin area of his pants.

Red Sox pitching coach Dana LeVangie caught on to it right away, and was primed to visit the mound to inform Price about it. The left-hander, however, ended up striking out Hernandez, and the coach opted against interfering with his momentum. With the score 1-1, it was a gamble.

The next batter, Yasiel Puig, made Boston pay. Machado signaled him from the start, just as he had with Hernandez, and Puig slapped Price’s first pitch into center field for a single to bring home Machado and give LA the lead.

“I saw Manny the entire time,” said LeVangie after the game. “I knew what he was doing.”

This kind of stuff happens constantly, and is rarely cause for alarm. Mostly it just means that the team being pilfered needs better signs.

The Dodgers alone have been on the receiving end of things that have blown up to the point that the media took notice at least twice over the last few seasons, and have at least once been accused.

The Baseball Codes offers an entire chapter on sign stealing, which opens with an incident from a game in 1997 in which the Expos beat the Giants 19-3. From that passage:

San Francisco’s frustration boiled over when manager Dusty Baker spied Montreal’s F. P. Santangelo—at second base for the second time in the inning—acting strangely after ten runs had already scored. One pitch later, the guy at the plate was drilled by reliever Julian Tavarez. Two bat­ters later, the inning was over. “They were killing us,” said Baker. “F.P. was looking one way and crossing over, hands on, hands off, pointing with one arm. I just said, ‘That’s enough. If you are doing it, knock it off— you’re already killing us.’ ”

Former Boston pitcher Al Nipper described the sentiment like this: “When you’re throwing a bas­tard breaking ball down and away, and that guy hasn’t been touching that pitch but all of a sudden he’s wearing you out and hanging in on that pitch and driving it to right-center, something’s wrong with the picture.”

It doesn’t even have to be that complicated. All a baserunner has to do to be effective is signal location—where the catcher’s setting up. If the pitcher hits his spot, the batter has a profound advantage. Not that the Red Sox were angered by Machado’s efforts, per se.

“Oh, it’s clean,” LaVangie said. “It’s baseball. If you’re not hiding your stuff with a runner on second base and you’re giving them a free view, that’s on you, the pitcher and the catcher. It’s up to the pitcher and catcher to manage that and to us to oversee it and make sure we’re going about it the right way.

“We see this all the time. Not just him, with everyone. We are very respectful of all this, and it’s a big part of who we are and what we try to manage. As far as our pitching staff, we want to make sure we control those guys at second base and [that] they’re not stealing our signs. We’re changing our signs constantly, every pitch. Typically, every one of our pitchers will change every pitch.”

This isn’t as difficult as it might seem. Teams usually use an indicator sign to notify the pitcher that whatever comes next is the one he should pay attention to. Changing signs can be as simple as changing the indicator. Still, it’s a layer of subterfuge that teams would rather not have to take.

We’re now at the point at which both teams have a decision to make. Dusty Baker summed up the Dodgers’ end when he was discussing the Giants-Expos incident from back in ’97. “Stealing signs is part of the game—that’s not the problem,” he said. The problem is, if you get caught, quit. That’s the deal. If you get caught you have to stop.”

In a few hours we’ll see if the Dodgers do stop. If they don’t, just as Baker insinuated, that’s the point at which real problems might arise.

Sign stealing

MLB Clears Astros Spy Of Wrongdoing, Because Whose Interests Is It Really In To Call Out That Kind Of Thing At This Time Of Year?

Astros camera

Some people think the Astros were illegally stealing signs from the stands during the playoffs. Okay, a lot of people think the Astros were illegally stealing signs from the stands during the playoffs.

According to Metro US and Yahoo’s Jeff Passan, a guy named Kyle McLaughlin, working for Houston, was perched in a dugout-adjacent photographer well without appropriate credentials and aiming a cell phone into Cleveland’s dugout during the ALDS. He was also caught doing it to the Red Sox during the current ALCS.

Houston said that it was a counterintelligence effort, an attempt by the Astros to ensure that opponents were not spying on them. Of primary concern were last year’s allegations that a Red Sox coach used an Apple Watch to steal opponents’ signs.

Passan’s report, however, details other allegations against the Astros that don’t much square with their defense. Among others, members of the Oakland A’s “noticed Astros players clapping in the dugout before pitches and believed they were relaying stolen signs,” with the Dodgers airing similar concerns during last year’s World Series. Other players noted various Astros banging a trash can in the dugout during games as a supposed method of communicating pinched signs.

As has been noted many times in this space, there are different layers to this kind of thing. If the signs are being stolen from the field of play without use of mechanical aid, that’s normal. If, for example, a baserunner at second has a clear view in to the catcher’s signs, and if the catcher has not mixed things up to the point that said baserunner can quickly and easily decipher them, and if those signs are then relayed to the hitter at the plate prior to the pitch being thrown—well, that’s mostly on the defensive team for not implementing better signs. Even if the runner is indicating only location—where the catcher places his target pre-pitch—that too can be countered by the catcher setting up too late in the sequence for the runner to do anything about it.

It’s all totally legal.

What’s not legal, either in the unwritten rulebook or the actual one, is the use of binoculars, TV cameras, radio devices and the like, including Apple Watches. Unless a pitcher was exhibiting an obvious tell, it’s extremely unlikely that the Astros would be clapping or banging garbage cans in their dugout based on something they saw directly. Much more feasible is that somebody with a video feed was passing them timely information.

In my Apple Watch post I offered some brief history on illicit sign stealing, including the 1950s “exploding scoreboard” at Comiskey Park, the military-grade gun sight that Bob Feller used to help the Indians to the 1948 pennant, and the Cubs’ traveling secretary, who used binoculars to nab opponents’ signs from the Wrigley Field scoreboard in the 1950s. Such affairs are hardly a relic of the past, however. From that post:

More recently, the Blue Jays were accused repeatedly, by numerous opponents, of similar activity at the Rogers Centre, to the point that ESPN commissioned an expansive expose on the practice.

The Phillies drew the ire of multiple teams—including the Yankees, in the World Series—for their alleged ballpark shenanigans. It didn’t help that, in 2010, their bullpen coach was caught on the field with binoculars.

In 2014, Chris Sale accused Victor Martinez and the Tigers of having somebody in center field.

The Padres have had (probably baseless) accusations thrown their way, as have the Marlins.

All of which is to say that this is nothing new. If you haven’t heard about repercussions from those other incidents, you likely won’t remember the fallout from this one either. Assuming that the Red Sox knock it off, you can expect it to quietly disappear.

Perhaps the Red Sox didn’t knock it off, and Houston’s excuse that they were just being vigilant is valid. Or perhaps many teams are involved in this kind of thing, and are only very rarely caught, and the Astros were just trying to get away with something. (That said, we’re in the playoffs now. TV cameras are everywhere and people are paying attention. Houston really has to be smarter.)

MLB responded to the affair by increasing its security detail at Tuesday’s Game 3, sending an additional nine staffers—three from baseball-ops and six from security—to monitor the game, including somebody in each team’s video-review room. Its takeaway: Houston did nothing wrong. The official statement:

Before the Postseason began, a number of Clubs called the Commissioner’s Office about sign stealing and the inappropriate use of video equipment. The concerns expressed related to a number of Clubs, not any one specific Club. In response to these calls, the Commissioner’s Office reinforced the existing rules with all playoff Clubs and undertook proactive measures, including instituting a new prohibition on the use of certain in-stadium cameras, increasing the presence of operations and security personnel from Major League Baseball at all Postseason games and instituting a program of monitoring Club video rooms.

With respect to both incidents regarding a Houston Astros employee, security identified an issue, addressed it and turned the matter over to the Department of Investigations. A thorough investigation concluded that an Astros employee was monitoring the field to ensure that the opposing Club was not violating any rules. All Clubs remaining in the playoffs have been notified to refrain from these types of efforts and to direct complaints about any in-stadium rules violations to MLB staff for investigation and resolution. We consider the matter closed.

Look away. Nothing to see here.

Of course, even as the Astros claimed vindication—”They’ve done their investigation and cleared us” crowed Houston GM Jeff Luhnow prior to Game 4—there’s a lot more to unpack here. Taking Luhnow’s claims of innocence at face value means that, at the very least, his opponents—specifically Cleveland in the ALDS and Boston currently—may well be doing the things that the Astros have themselves been recently accused of. At a minimum, Houston’s suspicions were strong to station a non-credentialed employee in a sensitive location to enact shady surveillance tactics in response.

Is that actually likely? MLB’s claims to support the theory suggest that it is. Or maybe it’s just that the league office wants to avoid a spygate controversy blowing up on the cusp of the World Series, potentially sullying the eventual champion, whoever that might be.

When a baserunner is caught trying to relay pinched signs to a hitter, it’s incumbent upon his team to knock things off, at least for a while. My own guess is that the knock-it-off message here is coming from an institutional level, not from one player to another but from the commissioner’s office to the Astros, telling them that this entire affair is bad for business and it’d be best for everyone if it was quickly forgotten.

Which it no doubt will be.