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 The problem with classic execution, of course, is that it is by definition outdated, and the way baseball is currently set up harbors little space for that kind of mindset.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.

 

 

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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.

Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

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.

Retaliation, The Baseball Codes, Tony La Russa

PR Man Tony La Russa Would Like to Sell You on the Merits of Retaliation

La Russa watches

Tony La Russa is one of the most vengeful men baseball has ever known. An entire book, Buzz Bissinger’s “3 Nights in August,” went into great detail about his deliberative process as manager of the Cardinals when it came to figuring out which opponent to have drilled, and when.

On Tuesday, La Russa took a different avenue for retaliation.

It started when Pirates reliever Arquimedes Caminero popped two members of the Diamondbacks in the head—Jean Segura with a 96 mph fastball off the helmet, and Nick Ahmed with an 89 mph splitter off the chin. Both were almost certainly unintentional, and neither player was seriously injured. (In between, Arizona reliever Evan Mashall drilled Pittsburgh’s David Freese on the arm, leading to warnings for both benches, and Caminero’s ejection after hitting Ahmed. Watch it all here.)

In the Pirates broadcast booth, play-by-play man Greg Brown openly discussed La Russa’s history of retaliation, which was already more on the record than any manager in history. La Russa—now Arizona’s chief baseball officer—heard it, and invaded Pittsburgh’s booth to take direct issue. Brown directed the argument away from the microphones so that it would not be broadcast, and then opted against mention it on the air out of respect for La Russa. (Watch Brown discuss the incident here.)

La Russa blew that whole plan out of the water, however, by discussing the incident himself, with AZCentral. His goal was to explain why the Pirates were at fault, any lack of intent on their HBP’s be damned:

“A lot of guys who are pitching in don’t have the ability at this point to command it and it becomes very dangerous,” La Russa said in the article. “The reasoning you get from the other side is they didn’t mean to do it intentionally. If you don’t have command, then that’s intentionally careless.”

He was referring to Pittsburgh’s team philosophy, which has pitchers constantly working the inside edge, and has led the Pirates to leading baseball in hit batters from 2013 to 2015. Diamondbacks broadcasters repeatedly intoned a similar message during the game, decrying what they described as an institutionally reckless approach.

On Wednesday, Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale got right to the organizational talking points, echoing La Russa by telling reporters that Caminero was less at fault for the hit batters than Pittsburgh management.

“I don’t think the kid meant to do it,” he said. “When you put a guy out there that doesn’t have control in that area and you’re trying to pitch in, it’s not something that we can have here. The guy doesn’t have the ability to pitch in certain quadrants of the zone, we don’t do it. It’s almost the fault more of the coaching and the managing than it is the player at that point.”

The D’Backs have some history upon which to build their argument. In 2014, Pittsburgh closer Ernesto Frieri unintentionally broke Paul Goldschmidt’s hand with a pitch. (Arizona responded by drilling Andrew McCutchen in the back.) A year earlier, Pirates starter James McDonald hit Aaron Hill, breaking his hand.

La Russa’s response seems to be a new front in his retaliatory battle. A vengeance fastball to the ribcage might send a message to the opposing clubhouse, but a full-fronted PR battle against an opponent’s organizational philosophy? That’s a new one.

In case anybody doubts La Russa’s intentions, he went on the air with Arizona Sports 98.7 FM on Wednesday morning and discussed the situation further.

“So people are just telling them hey, you can’t just willy nilly throw the ball inside,” he said, via the station’s website. “It’s a real easy formula we’ve used for years: you can’t use us as targets, even if it’s unintentional. If you can’t command the ball inside, don’t throw it up and in — you’ve got to get the ball down. It’s really not that tough, it’s one that we try to enforce, and it’s one I think MLB could be more proactive in enforcing.”

Also, this: “They’ll just keep doing it to you, (and) pretty soon the guy the guy [who keeps getting hit] will not want to go to bat, and how do you win? So you’ve got to use common sense. It’s a competition and guys are going to anything they can to take something away from you.”

Adding that teammates are like family, La Russa said that if somebody slaps one of your family members, “you just slap back.”

Maybe La Russa’s canny, maybe he’s crazy. Maybe he’s both. The sport he loves is changing beneath his feet, moving away from the hard edges of intimidation and retribution, and toward the let’s-make-baseball-fun-again generation of bat flips and promo ops. Whether La Russa is willing to acknowledge these things is almost beside the point. Everything he’s said in recent days is based on inherent truths of competitive sports, regardless of whether the people hearing it agree with him.

The trick now is figuring out how to implement it all within the modern landscape. When it comes to guys like La Russa—at the top of his organizational food chain, who can do pretty much whatever the hell he wants—the question matters less on a day-to-day basis than in big-picture form. That’s why the messages he’s sending seem more a matter of selling the public on his approach. Yep, La Russa and his crew are waging a PR campaign on behalf of a team’s right to drill its opponents.

“Intimidation is an important part of sports,” he said on the radio. “People will try to intimidate you, if you back off you’re easier to beat. The game has a way of handling itself.”

Now we’re left to see how the rest of baseball responds.

Retaliation

Break Out the Red Cards: Dodgers and D’Backs at it Again

Turner drilledSo the Dodgers and Diamondbacks are drilling each other. Welcome to baseball season.

In a continuation of the bad blood we’ve seen between these teams over recent years—the lowlight being a protracted brawl at Dodger Stadium in 2013, followed by some shameful disrespect after Los Angeles beat the D’Backs in the playoffs a few months later—the teams went tit-for-tat-for-tit-for-tat on Monday, in a Cactus League game that saw four hit batters and four ejections.

This is becoming something of a spring tradition for Arizona, which made sense in recent years given the perpetual macho posturing of General Manager Kevin Towers. But Towers is out this year, canned shortly after Tony La Russa took over. Thing is, La Russa’s own track record when it comes to eye-for-an-eye justice is no softer than that of Towers—he’s just a bit more judicious in how he talks about it.

Each of Monday’s incidents can be broken down piecemeal (watch ’em all over at CBSsports.com), but can be summarized in a few key points:

  • Intent seems almost incidental here. After Chris Anderson drilled Mark Trumbo in the first inning, Arizona’s response was pro forma.
  • Because, of course it was. Tony La Russa’s in charge. The king is dead. Long live the king.
  • The fact that the drilling was done largely by a bunch of farmhands is one explanation for their collective lack of control, but so too can it be used to explain intent. What better way to garner attention in a system that favors on-field justice than to mete out some of your own?
  • Both managers denied everything. This is their job, regardless of veracity. “We wouldn’t start something in spring training, said Don Mattingly in an MLB.com report, “and if we did, never around the head.” [Emphasis mine.]
  • Spring training is the time to settle old scores on both personal and institutional levels. When the games don’t count, extra baserunners don’t matter. The Diamondbacks in particular have some history with using this detail to their nefarious advantage.

So: Did they mean it, either of them? Ultimately it doesn’t matter. Multiple gauntlets were thrown on Monday, and multiple responses offered. For a couple of teams that already didn’t like each other coming into the game and which play each other 19 times this season, this portends for more interesting dynamics in 2015.

Unwritten-Rules

Kevin Towers, We Hardly Knew Thee …

Towers-La RussaIf we’re gonna remember Bo Porter when he’s canned, seems only right to do the same for Kevin Towers. The GM who brought a lot of toughness and not too many victories to the desert as of late was canned Thursday by new boss Tony La Russa.

Towers’ grit-based organizational structure came to prominence last month when the D’Backs drilled Andrew McCutchen, because Pirates closer Ernesto Frieri accidentally hit Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt on the hand a day earlier, breaking a bone. It led to a protracted discussion about how, while an eye-for-an-eye mentality once played well on baseball’s landscape—and despite Towers’ own overt statements to the contrary—things have kind of changed.

That said, La Russa has never been one to shy from grit. He thrives on it, in fact, with an entire book—Buzz Bissinger’s 3 Nights in August—being more or less dedicated to dissecting La Russa’s strategy of drilling other players in response to stuff they or their teammates did.

No, La Russa probably cared more about Towers’ record than his team’s treatment of Andrew McCutchen. The problem for Towers: That hasn’t been strong, either. After two straight .500 seasons, Arizona is 59-81 this year. Towers has traded away Trevor Bauer, Ian Kennedy, Jarrod Parker and Juston Upton, among many others, without getting a whole lot in return. His handling of free-agent signee Brandon McCarthy—who struggled after being instructed against throwing his cutter—drew particular notice once McCarthy joined the Yankees, kickstarted his best pitch and began to dominate again.

(Lest anyone think that La Russa and Towers are pure opposites, check out this story from 2011, in which each man is separately accused of gamesmanship practices that fall someplace between evil-genius and good-for-a-chuckle.)

Now on the hot seat: Gritty Kirk Gibson.