Intimidation

Let’s Talk About What To Do When Teams Hit Too Many Home Runs In A Row

Shortly after The Baseball Codes came out, I was asked by a radio guy about my favorite unwritten rule. It was an odd but interesting question—one that somehow, through the five-year process of researching and writing the book, I had never considered. The rule that first popped into my head did so, I think, because it’s quaint and outdated, and paints the long-ago baseball landscape in which it existed as entirely foreign, like some pastoral English countryside. It holds that a player should not swing at the first pitch after back-to-back home runs. Given this week’s power barrage, it seems like an appropriate discussion point.

The idea is one of courtesy. I’ll let Hal McRae explain:

“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, 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. . . . Don’t go up there and take a swing from your heels on the first pitch. Get in the box loosely. Let him know, okay, I’m not swinging. I know you’re out there trying to do a job. And I have to do a job, but you’ve just given up back-to-back home runs. So I take the first pitch.”

Early on, the rule actually covered any home run, not only back-to-back jobs. These days, of course, it’s entirely off the table. Hitters swing freely at whatever they see, regardless of circumstance.

Take this week, for instance. We’ve already seen one team hit back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs, and another slug three in a row. As it turned out, of the four Nationals homers off of Padres reliever Craig Stammen on Sunday, the final three came on the reliever’s second pitch. Of the three Diamondbacks to take Phillies right-hander Jerad Eickhoff deep to lead off their game Monday, all went deep into the count.

This is undoubtedly a matter of circumstance more than etiquette. It’s a safe bet that none of the seven hitters considered the above rule. Hell, it’s a safe bet that none of the seven hitters has heard of the above rule. Which is part of what makes it my favorite, the kind of thing left for discussion with old-timers.

That’s not the only thing at play here, though. Numerous teams have hit four straight home runs, but only rarely do they do so against one pitcher, without a reliever being summoned someplace along the way. In fact, Stammen was only the fourth hurler in big league history to bear that weight. “You want to dig a hole, crawl behind the mound and go in that hole and never return every time you give up a home run,” he said in an MLB.com report. “To give up four in a row, just times that by four. It doesn’t feel good. But it’s your job to go out there and make pitches. That’s what I was trying to do. I didn’t do it today.”

The other unwritten rule that comes into play here—which seems nearly as outdated as not swinging at the first pitch following back-to-back jobs—is the idea of making somebody uncomfortable at the plate. This is purely strategic, the power of an inside pitch that moves a hitter’s feet and backs him up in the box. The more a batter has to concentrate on the possibility of avoiding a baseball, after all, the less he can concentrate on hitting.

I discussed this in 2017, when the Nationals (none of them overlapping with the Washington quartet that recently did it again) hit four straight dongs off of Milwaukee’s Michael Blazek. I quoted longtime reliever Bob McClure telling his own story of similar frustration:

“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.”

That tactic—not hitting a guy, but disrupting his concentration—might have served Stammen well had he chosen to employ it. It certainly couldn’t have hurt. Instead, of the 12 pitches the right-hander threw to the four homer hitters, only one—the second pitch of the entire sequence—ran inside. The Nats seem to have appreciated this.  

Similar advice could have been utilized by Dylan Bundy last season, or David Bush back in 2010.

Given the ever-increasing incidences of home-run barrages (Washington’s recent quartet came as part of a game that saw 13 longballs), this kind of strategy seems more necessary now than ever. Which doesn’t in any way mean that pitchers will use it, of course.

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Basepath Etiquette, Play Clean

‘Manny Being Manny’ Happened Again, And Like Usual, It Doesn’t End Well For Anybody

Machado's bat III

Was Leo Durocher right? Do nice guys really finish last? As it happens, reputation matters in baseball. Coming readily to mind is Bill Lee’s story about pitching to Al Kaline, late in the Hall of Famer’s career, when the left-hander felt that umpires would give the slugger the benefit of the doubt on anything close. When Lee complained about it, he received an all-time response from the plate ump: “Son, Mr. Kaline will let you know it’s a strike by doubling off the wall.”

Reputations, of course, can work in the opposite direction, as well. Last week The Athletic ran a poll of big leaguers, asking them about which fellow players were overrated, underrated, intimidating and the like. They also asked who was the dirtiest. The results for the latter question weren’t too surprising.


Machado dirty

So when Machado—a guy known for kicking opponents during the playoffs, spiking middle infielders, hitting catchers with backswings, getting annoyed at routine plays and fighting with pitchers for little reason—does something with even a hint of controversy, we can only expect umpires to respond accordingly.

On Tuesday, Machado’s reputation bit him during a routine popup against Arizona. Head down, he nearly collided with Diamondbacks catcher John Ryan Murphy, who was tracking the ball just up the first base line a few steps from the plate. Then Machado tossed his bat gently toward Ryan’s feet. Then Ryan dropped the ball in foul territory. Umpire Bill Welke called Manny out anyway, for interference, a decision that led to Padres manager Andy Green getting tossed when he came out to argue.

Machado’s defenders say that his head was down and he was running toward first in the only lane available to him. They say that he more or less dropped the bat where he would have had Green been nowhere near him. They say that Green had no business dropping a ball that was still very catchable. And they’re right. But it doesn’t mean that the play wasn’t dirty.

The part about nearly bumping the catcher is easily excused. Machado did have his head down before heading up the line, wide of Ryan. If contact was made, it’s just as likely that Ryan ran into Machado as the other way around.

Where Manny put the bat, however, is up for interpretation. For somebody inclined to believe that the guy does not always have the best interests of his opponents at heart, it’s easy to see how he might have meant to place it in an area where the chances of the catcher tripping over it were greatest. After all, he took care to drop it on the opposite side of Ryan, almost reaching around his opponent to do so. He looked up and assessed the situation before acting. Malice aforethought is entirely plausible, and, given Machado’s history, is even likely. When it came to Welke, that’s what mattered.

The interference call was hardly pro-forma. Rule 6.01(a)(10) states in part that “when a catcher and batter-runner going to first base have contact when the catcher is fielding the ball, there is generally no violation.” Perhaps Welke would have called it differently had a different player done it.

But this was Manny Machado, and Manny Machado has a reputation, and Bill Welke knows all about it.

So when an umpire asks himself “What would Manny do?” and the answer is “something he shouldn’t be proud of,” it can’t come as much of a surprise when the subsequent ruling reflects as much.

At this point in his career, Manny has nobody to blame but himself.

Retaliation

Retaliatory Smackdown Comes Back To Bite Pirates

Musgrove drills

Wait for it.

That’s a prime directive when it comes to baseball retaliation, instructing pitchers hell-bent on drilling a guy to delay their vengeance until the time is right. What that means, of course, is up for interpretation, and sometimes players interpret wrong.

Joe Musgrove is one of those guys.

In the top of the seventh inning, Arizona’s Braden Shipley buried a 96-mph fastball into the top of Josh Harrison’s shoulder blade, just missing his head. The blow eventually knocked Harrison from the game. Shipley then sent another fastball near Austin Meadows’ head before getting him to fly out to center field.

That was enough for Musgrove, who responded in kind in the bottom half of the frame. What the Pirates right-hander had working in his favor was a 5-0 lead, plus the fact that he’d given up only four hits and no walks to that point. Musgrove was cruising, and so felt little need to wait until two were out, as is standard operating procedure in these types of situations.

He drilled leadoff hitter Chris Owings (appropriately, below the belt), and everything went immediately to hell. Musgrove then wild-pitched Owings to second. Nick Ahmed singled in Owings, cutting Pittsburgh’s lead to 5-1. Shipley, hitting for himself, reached on a throwing error by third baseman David Freese (who inexplicably rushed his throw), and that was all for Musgrove. Reliever Edgar Santana was greeted with an RBI single by Daniel Descalso. Now the score was 5-2. One out later, Jake Lamb hit a three-run homer, tying the game. Arizona scored four more in the eighth to win it, 9-5.

 

“That’s how the game is played,” said Musgrove after the game, straddling the line of self-incrimination in an MLB.com report. “You’re willing to go out and hit somebody, you’ve got to be willing to deal with what might come with that, putting the leadoff runner on base, especially late in the game like that. You don’t want to start a rally.”

At least his manager had his back. “You play the game and you protect your teammates,” said Clint Hurdle. “It’s been going on for 135 years or so.” (It also appeared that the umpires had the pitcher’s back, failing to issue warnings after Musgrove drilled Owings in clear retaliation.)

The fateful HBP was actually one of five in the game, two coming from Arizona relievers, and three from Musgrove. Save for the final one, to which the pitcher all but admitted, intent behind the preceding four is strictly conjecture. Even if Shipley’s two pitches (the fateful one to Harrison, and the nearly fateful one to Meadows) were strictly accidental, the idea of a pitcher taking liberties around the head with a blazing fastball over which he has little control is rightly infuriating to opponents. Calmer pitchers than Musgrove have been inspired toward retaliation by less.

This actually has been a theme of sorts around the Pirates clubhouse of late. Two weeks ago, Anthony Rizzo took out Pittsburgh catcher Elias Diaz with a wide slide. After reliever Richard Rodriguez didn’t so much as pitch inside to Rizzo during his next at-bat, Musgrove took things into his own hands the following day, barreling into Cubs second baseman Javier Baez with a retaliatory slide into second.  “Trust me, we’ve talked about it,” said Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon in the Athletic. “We’ve had internal discussions.”

Taillon spent a few minutes after the game discussing the merits of retaliation. He doesn’t necessarily speak for the Pirates as a whole, but as of right now he’s the guy going on the record in any kind of depth.

“They can say the ball slipped, but it’s not our job to judge intent,” he said. “All I can tell you is J-Hay [Harrison] gets pitched in a lot. And even if it’s not on purpose, J-Hay gets hit way too much. I get sick of seeing him get spun around up there—sick of it. Something needs to be done by the staff, and Joe did it for us.”

That, of course, doesn’t much matter in the face of the ensuing meltdown by Pittsburgh’s bullpen.

“I don’t really know what’s going on inside their dugout, but if it was retaliation, it certainly cost their pitcher a couple of runs and it might have cost them a win,” Arizona manager Tory Lovullo said in an Arizona Republic report. “We were lying flat and dormant and being dominated by him, and I felt like it gave our dugout a lot of energy.”

That much is certain. Musgrove might not change a thing if he had it all to do over again, but given the results of his approach, it’s tough to deny that one can never be too careful in this type of situation.

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Belt’s (Sort-Of) Bunt Breaks Up No-No, Everybody Remains Calm

Belt bunts

We have another entry in the bunting-to-break-up-a-no-hitter category only a short way into the season: Brandon Belt did it on Tuesday to ruin Patrick Corbin’s no-no in the eighth inning. It was completely aboveboard, for a host of reasons:

  • It was a swinging bunt, not a squared-up affair. Arizona manager Torey Lovullo called it a check-swing, but it looked to me more like a clear push toward the left side.
  • It would have been okay even if it was the buntiest of squared-up bunts, given that the game was scoreless and Belt represented the go-ahead run.
  • The reason Belt so wanted to push the ball to the left side was that, like Minnesota before them, the Diamondbacks had put on an extreme right-side shift against him. It paid off for them earlier in the game, when Belt grounded out to third baseman Daniel Descalso, positioned to the right side of second base, in the third inning. Descalso was positioned similarly in the eighth. It didn’t work out so well the second time around.

Belt bunts sort of

Unlike Minnesota, nobody on Arizona’s side of the field seemed to take umbrage with Belt’s tactics following the D’Backs’ 1-0 victory. “Unfortunately we play a shift, we play an aggressive overshift and you saw what happened,” said Lovullo after the game, blaming himself, not Belt, in an MLB.com report.

This year we’ve already seen Cleveland bunt against the shift during a one-hitter and the Angels bunt against Cleveland during a no-hitter, which follow last year’s incidents involving Justin Verlander and Gio Gonzalez.

The good news is that, save for a few profoundly sensitive players in Minnesota, nobody really thought twice about any of these situations.

As for Belt, he continued to be a thorn in Arizona’s side on Wednesday night.

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation

Baseball Man Steals With Eight-Run Lead; Opposing Baseball Man Confused, Miffed

ThouShaltNotSteal

Perhaps the oldest of baseball’s age-old unwritten rules concerns the point at which a team should take its foot off the gas and coast in to victory. Nearly everybody agrees that cessation of aggressive tactics—stolen bases, bunting for hits, sacrifice flies—is appropriate at some point in a blowout. Consensus on what that point is, however, in terms of either score or inning, is difficult to come by.

On Sunday, Arizona rookie reliever Braden Shipley used his mound-top pulpit to lobby for an eight-run lead in the fifth as designated markers.

How he did so represented some serious throwback attitude. With Minnesota leading the Diamondbacks, 12-4, and two outs in the fifth, Twins outfielder Byron Buxton reached first and found himself repeatedly retreating to the bag under a hail of pickoff attempts.

They didn’t work. Buxton swiped his 22nd base of the season. That he never scored did little to appease Shipley.

When Minnesota next batted, the pitcher waited to act until he’d retired the first two batters. That brought up Chris Gimenez, who had already singled, doubled and homered. A cycle may have been improbable for a man who’d accrued only one triple to that point in his nine-year big league career, but he had at least given himself a chance … until Shipley took it away. The right-hander’s first pitch fastball drilled Gimenez in the ribs.

It was classic execution. The problem with classic execution, of course, is that it is by definition outdated, and the way baseball is currently set up harbors little space for that kind of mindset. Even more egregious was that the purity of Shipley’s old-school attitude was undermined entirely by what appears to be a significant misunderstanding of the way this particular rule is supposed to work.

While it’s acceptable to decry a base stolen by a team holding an eight-run lead, mainstream thought holds that to do so before the seventh inning  is premature.

Furthermore, were Shipley truly set on traditional parameters, he had no business trying to keep Buxton close at first base. After all, if one is to decry aggressive offensive tactics during a blowout, it’s only fair to forgo aggressive defensive tactics as well. While facing a lead so insurmountable as to expect cessation of steals, a defense would ordinarily play its first baseman in the hole, even with a runner at first, with the expectation that said runner will not take advantage. (This strategy stirs up its own controversy, the heart of which involves a team giving itself a defensive advantage—better positioning for the first baseman—at absolutely no cost. But that’s a topic for another post.)

Finally, in situations like this, circumstances count. Target Field is the fourth-most homer-friendly ballpark in the big leagues this season, and Minnesota’s bullpen is surrendering more than five runs per game, fifth-worst in the American League. Closer Brandon Kintzler has been outstanding, but the rest of the bullpen has ranked between adequate and awful, presenting a decent opportunity for a comeback-seeking club.

A quick recap:

  • It was early in the game.
  • Shipley worked hard to hold Buxton close to first base.
  • The Twins’ ballpark plays small.
  • The Twins’ bullpen ain’t real good.

Gimenez was within his rights to be angry over the drilling, but chose instead to take it like a pro. “It’s baseball,” he said after the game in a 1500ESPN report. “If he had thrown at my face we might have had some issues, but he did it the right way.”

Right way or no, the pitch begat a response. In the seventh, Minnesota reliever Ryan Pressly came inside to D’Backs shortstop Adam Rosales, drawing a warning to both benches from plate ump John Tumpane. (For reasons unclear—his guy got to hit a batter, their guy did not—Arizona manager Torey Lovullo argued the point and was subsequently ejected.)

Leave it to Gimenez to put everything in perspective. “It is what it is,” he said after the game. “Hopefully it’s a learning experience for everybody involved. Obviously, it’s a younger pitcher on the mound as well, maybe not quite understanding the situation.” Gimenez pointed out that he and Shipley, both alums of the University of Nevada-Reno, are friendly. “No hard feelings at all,” he said. “That’s baseball.”

Later in the day, Shipley was optioned to Triple-A Reno. It probably had nothing to do with his response to Buxton, but that, too, is baseball.

 

 

Retaliation

Scratch Those Premature Obituaries, Baseball’s Unwritten Rules Are Alive and Well

 

RamosII

We’ve spent a long time—years now—wondering whether baseball’s unwritten rules, the sport’s code of conduct, were slowly meeting an inexorable irrelevance. Bats are flipped, celebrations are celebrated, and teams mostly go about their merry ways, unperturbed by the spectacle.

Fair enough. If that’s how big leaguers are playing it, that’s how things are. This blog isn’t bent on prescription of the sport’s unwritten rules so much as documentation of how they’re enacted by those who matter.

Then Monday happened. Fastballs flew at batters, some intentional, some not, some difficult to ascertain. But they elicited response. Oh, did they elicit.

In San Francisco, Diamondbacks starter Taijuan Walker drilled Buster Posey in the helmet. It was the first inning, there was a runner on second and Walker had already faced the Giants once this season without incident. So unless something happened back on April 5 that irked Walker something fierce while going entirely unnoticed by the media on hand, the pitch was clearly a mistake.

Still, it was a 94 mph fastball that knocked the Giants’ best player from the game and landed him on the 7-day disabled list.

Until recently, this would have unquestionably merited response, be it a pain-inducer (fastball to the ribs) or a warning shot (brushback). In the current version of Major League Baseball, of course, nothing is typical as regards the unwritten rules. Things are calmer, more relaxed. Vendettas are strictly an old-school affair.

So it seemed only normal when Walker escaped unscathed. Neither of his subsequent at-bats were ideal for retribution—with one out and nobody on in the third, he hit a fly ball to right field; in the fifth, with two outs, a runner on second and the Giants leading 3-0, he whiffed—but neither were they unacceptable.

From there, though, things grew interesting. In the eighth inning, Giants starter Matt Moore plunked David Peralta in the back. Then, in the first inning of yesterday’s game, Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija plunked Arizona’s cleanup hitter, Paul Goldschmidt, in the backside—the ages-old response of “your best hitter for our best hitter.”

Bochy refused to discuss Samardzija’s pitch, and offered up an interestingly vague comment about Moore’s, saying in a San Jose Mercury-News report that “a pitch got away from him—I’ll leave it at that.”

Despite a pro forma post-game denial about wanting to pitch Goldschmidt inside, Samardzija had clear intentions for his target. Because the pitch was professionally delivered—into the posterior, nowhere near the head—the slugger took it without complaint. He knew the drill.

Why hadn’t it been Walker? Could be many reasons, though none resonate so firmly in a close game as not wanting to forgo an easy out by drilling the pitcher when one can send as firm a message against a far more dangerous hitter. Why Samardzija and not Moore? Might be a matter of personality, or the fact that the severity of Posey’s injury wasn’t known until after Moore’s game had ended.

***

Across the country, Phillies pitcher Edubray Ramos entered a tie game in the eighth inning and threw a one-out fastball well over the head of Asdrubal Cabrera. It didn’t come close to making contact, but was enough to elicit warnings from plate ump Alan Porter, and the subsequent ejection of Phillies manager Pete Mackanin for arguing a hair too vociferously. (Watch it here.)

The backstory seems pretty obvious. Ramos last faced Cabrera in September while gunning for his first big league save. Cabrera wrecked it, then did this:

Retaliating for a game-winning celebration is some old-school mentality. And here’s the thing: for all the noise coming out of the World Baseball Classic about how Latin players like to celebrate their achievements on the field, Ramos—a native Venezuelan—was having none of the exuberance of one of his fellow countrymen. Or maybe that latter detail offers another wrinkle to their relationship about which we aren’t yet aware. Whatever it was, it stuck in the pitcher’s craw.

So there it is: On the West Coast, a passel of Americans participated in all-American retaliatory daisy chain; on the East Coast, two Venezuelans did the same. (Worth noting is that Ramos’s teammate, Odubel Herrera—another Venezuelan—is a bat-flipping savant, while Mackanin, Ramos’ manager, is himself no fan of the flips.)

The unwritten rules may be inexorably changing, but it all serves to show that one should never place too big a bet on who their champion might be.

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.