No-Hitter Etiquette

No-Hitter Etiquette Taking New Weight In The Age of Openers And Shifts

We’ve seen the recent implementation of pitching “openers” disrupt traditional baseball in numerous ways. Now we can add superstition to the mix.

The no-hitter jinx—banning any mention of the feat while said feat is in progress—is about as old as no-hitters themselves, but with the advent of relievers making planned appearances after only a couple of innings, it’s easier than ever to lose track of game details.

Take Tampa Bay’s Ryan Yarborough, who came into Sunday’s game against Baltimore in the third inning. As it happened, Rays opener Ryne Stanek had been perfect during his short stint, a detail that managed to escape Yarborough, who’d spent the first two innings either warming up in the bullpen or cooling down in the clubhouse tunnel. Either way, he wasn’t closely watching the game.

By the time Yarborough entered in the third, six Orioles had been retired in order. By the time Yarborough completed six innings of his own, 24 Orioles had been retired in order. Somehow, aided by the reticence of his superstition-abiding teammates when it came to mentioning anything in the dugout, the lefthander spent most of that duration with no idea that history was afoot.

He was informed of the perfect game by some Orioles fans working overtime to jinx it, who, from the grandstand, warned him against blowing it. The gambit was effective. “I’m like, wait a minute …” the pitcher said, in a Tampa Bay Times report. “I really had no clue.”

That happened just before Yarborough pitched the eighth. He responded with a three-up, three-down inning, but his proximity to immortality may have gotten to him while the Rays batted. The first batter he faced in the ninth, Hanser Alberto, hit Yarborough’s first pitch to right field for a single.

Actually, chances are slim that Yarborough out-thought himself. Alberto’s hit was little more than a soft tapper to the spot where the second baseman would have been standing had the Rays not been employing a shift. Depending on one’s reading of the situation, this might be clear evidence of the wrath of the Baseball Gods, who clearly disapprove of modern defensive strategies.

Then again, take a look at that TV chiron: “3 OUTS FROM PERFECT GAME.” The jinx wasn’t Yarborough’s, it was MASN’s … except that MASN wasn’t the only network to prematurely proclaim the possibility of perfection.

That’s in addition to the abundance of mentions on social media and radio. The lesson here is obvious: Never mess with the Baseball Gods.

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No-Hitter Etiquette

April Is The Season To Pull Pitchers In The Middle Of No-Hitters

Bauer bumps

In the let-the-kids-play world of new school baseball, the acceptance of bat flips and related celebrations isn’t the only thing turning the unwritten rules on their ear. Once, not so long ago, it was shocking to see a pitcher pulled in the middle of a no-hitter. Now we’ve now seen it happen twice in the span of a week.

Yesterday it was Trevor Bauer, who through seven innings and 117 pitches had allowed no hits to Toronto. The right-hander had racked up eight strikeouts and six walks (plus a 31-pitch third inning), and though he’d thrown as many as 147 pitches in a game back in college, Cleveland manager Terry Francona was not going to let him get anywhere near that number again.

On Monday it was Baltimore’s David Hess, who was yanked by manager Brandon Hyde in the middle of the seventh after only 82 pitches. His recent workload, however, included 42 pitches on opening day, four days earlier.

Hyde is a rookie skipper, only 45 years old. Francona is managing in his 19th big league season. What they have in common is the perspective that at such an early junction of the season, it simply doesn’t make sense to put unnecessary stress on a pitcher’s arm.

One need look no further than Johan Santana for a cautionary tale. The left-hander, on a Hall-of-Fame track to that point in his career, tossed a 134-pitch no-hitter for the Mets in 2012. He was left in by manager Terry Collins solely to pursue the first no-hitter in Mets history despite having missed the previous season following shoulder surgery, and despite Collins having proclaimed a 115-pitch limit for him before the game. Santana’s ERA, 2.38 through 11 starts to that point, was 8.27 in his 10 starts thereafter. After that, he never pitched in the big leagues again.

Nobody wants to revisit that kind of decision. Pitchers were pulled in the middle of no-hitters twice last year in Oakland alone—once for the A’s (Sean Manaea) and once for an opponent (Nathan Eovaldi, then with the Rays). Overuse is a risk that managers are no longer willing to stomach.

“I didn’t want to take him out …” Francona told reporters after the game about his decision to remove Bauer. “I told him I hate it. He goes, ‘I hate it too, but I know it’s the right thing.’ I care too much about him and this organization to hurt somebody. I would have loved to have seen it because I don’t doubt that he would have kept pitching and probably not given up a hit the way he was throwing. I just have an obligation to do the right thing even when it’s not the funnest thing to do.”

Leave fun to the bat-flippers, I guess. New-school baseball can be so confusing.

Retaliation

K.C.’s Baltimore Jacks Leave Bundy With Hungry Heart

Bundy jacked

I’d like to recall something that happened a couple weeks ago, which serves as a barometer for where baseball is, in relation to where it used to be.

On May 8, Baltimore starter Dylan Bundy gave up a single to Kansas City’s first batter of the game, then coughed up three straight homers, walked two guys, and gave up another jack. Seven hitters, seven runs and 15 total bases surrendered without recording an out. It was by any measure among the worst performances in baseball history.

The question here: Beyond simply pitching better, should Bundy have done anything differently?

Once, the obvious response would have been for Bundy to knock a hitter or two down—if not drill them outright— somewhere amid that chain of carnage. Some small examples:

  • 1944, St. Louis vs. Cincinnati. Walker Cooper, Whitey Kurowski and Danny Litwhiler hit consecutive homers against Clyde Shoun. Shoun knocked the next batter, Marty Marion, on his backside with an inside pitch.
  • After Cleveland scored three runs in the first inning and eight in the second against three Twins pitchers in 1975, Minnesota reliever Mark Wiley opened the third by drilling Rick Manning in the leg.
  • In 1985, Bob McClure gave up two homers to the A’s in the span of six batters, which struck the southpaw as especially egregious given that both were hit by left-handers. His first pitch sent the next batter, Dave Kingman, sprawling.

There was a point to those reactions beyond simple frustration. If a team is clearly comfortable in the batter’s box—as was the case against Bundy, and in all three examples above—it behooves the pitcher to disrupt the emerging pattern. This doesn’t mandate hitting anybody, of course, so much as making an opponent move his feet to avoid an inside pitch. In two of the above examples, this is precisely what happened. Marion’s at-bat ended with a popup to shortstop, Kingman’s with a popup to short right field. The hitter after Manning, George Hendrick, struck out. Bundy, however, kept pumping strikes, even as those strikes were getting hammered, and the result was self-evident.

Hell, Manning’s manager back in ’75 was the man with the reddest ass in the history of baseball, Frank Robinson. What did he think of Wiley plunking his guy? “When you’re getting your ass kicked, you’ve got to do something like that,” Robinson said in Making of a Manager.

That era has passed. Intentionally placed inside fastballs are frowned upon like never before. It does not even occur to many pitchers that disrupting a hitter’s comfort zone is actually a viable strategy. We saw it last year when the Nationals went deep four times in the span of five batters against Milwaukee. We saw it in 2010, when four straight Diamondbacks homered against Brewers right-hander Dave Bush.

For the clearest distinction between then-and-now responses, look to 1963, when Angels pitcher Paul Foytack gave up four consecutive jacks to Cleveland in a game that inspired a passage cut from the final draft of The Baseball Codes:

In a 1963 game, Foytack, a Los Angeles Angels pitcher in his 10th big league season, allowed consecutive home runs to Cleveland’s Woody Held, Pedro Ramos and Tito Francona. They were the fourth, fifth and sixth homers the right-hander had given up on the day. To make matters worse, Ramos was the opposing pitcher, sported a .107 batting average, and it was his second round-tripper of the game. Foytack had had about enough, and decided to knock down the next batter, rookie Larry Brown. But even that didn’t work out too well.

Foytack’s first offering tailed over the plate, and Brown hit the Indians’ fourth straight homer. It was the first of his career, and made Foytack the first pitcher in major league history to give up back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs.

“Today,” said Foytack a few years back, “if you throw close to a guy, they want to take you out.”

There’s a lot to be said for this latest, gentlest iteration of baseball. Some of the things that are getting lost, however, are actually pertinent to the playing of quality baseball. 

Bunt appropriately, Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Dozier Doubles Down on Blowout Bunt Talk

Dozier

Brian Dozier wants to explain himself.

After invoking baseball’s unwritten rules in ridiculous ways on Sunday to defend his disenchantment with the fact that an opponent had the audacity to bunt against the Twins’ shift, he felt some clarity was in order. So he continued to talk.

It all had to do, he said on Monday, with the fact that Baltimore had, an inning earlier, failed to hold Minnesota’s Ryan LeMarre on base after he’d singled in the ninth. The game situation—a 7-0 twins lead—was nearly identical the one that Dozier found so offensive only moments later.

“When they didn’t hold our runner on, they conceded to the fact they didn’t want us to steal, so we didn’t steal,” Dozier said in a Pioneer Press report. “We could have very easily stolen and put up more runs, so therefore in return you don’t bunt. That’s what everybody is missing in this whole thing.”

It’s an interesting point. In Dozier’s reading, the Orioles tacitly approved late-game blowout tactics by not holding LeMarre close to first, thereby giving themselves a defensive advantage by positioning first baseman Chris Davis in the hole rather than tethering him to first base. Adhering to the Code, LeMarre stayed put, and did not attempt to steal.

It was a classic example of straightforward blowout tactics, fanciness stripped out in favor of straight-up baseball designed to push the pace and end things quickly. The point that Dozier seems to have missed is that Minnesota’s shift against Sisco was not that. Positioning three fielders to the right side of second base is anything but straight-up baseball, and if the Twins felt that the game situation was insufficient to dissuade them from doing so, they had no business complaining that the game situation was insufficient to dissuade Sisco from responding.

Bill James, meanwhile, made an equally ludicrous suggestion on the opposite side of the argument:

Ignore for a moment the idea of suspension for the outspoken members of the Twins, because James’ suggestion doesn’t apply here. Sisco wasn’t trying to win the game, he was trying to beat the shift, down seven runs with the bases empty and two outs to go. There’s value in that, even during a blowout. If Sisco wants to leverage the bunt as a means of getting teams to stop shifting on him, a lopsided score should not interfere with an opportunity to do so. It had little to do with winning.

As for James’ idea of MLB implementing thought police, it’s pure fantasy, and he knows it. It’s analogous to the idea of automatically suspending pitchers who throw at batters, which would lead to a number of issues, none bigger than the impossibility of determining intent. Who in baseball would want to be charged with containing that morass? With that in mind, under James’ proposed rule, what kind of comments would be okay for players to make, and who would judge the gray area, and how would a team’s fan base react to a star player being suspended for having thoughts?

In a league where good vibes rule and the commissioner would love nothing more than for every ounce of drama to be contained to the field, this suggestion would blow up in fabulous and unexpected ways. James doesn’t strike me as the type to say sensational things simply to garner attention, but this statement certainly qualifies.

Bunt appropriately, Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Ninth-Inning Bunt Bothers Berrios, Twins Talk Tersely About Turf Tactics

Cisco bunts II

We didn’t even make it out of the season’s opening weekend before being hit with 2018’s first Guy Who Bunted When He Shouldn’t Have Bunted controversy.

We’ve rehashed the most famous example of this, Ben Davis breaking up Curt Schilling’s perfect game in 2001, many times now. Davis was a slow-footed catcher who had no business doing what he did, save for one detail: The score was 2-0 in the eighth inning, and by reaching safely Davis brought the tying run to the plate. One dictate in baseball’s unwritten rulebook is incontrovertible: winning trumps everything, and Davis had just given his team its best chance at pulling out a W.

Yesterday in Baltimore, another catcher, rookie Chance Sisco, dropped down a ninth-inning bunt against Twins starter Jose Berrios, who was two outs from wrapping up not only the first shutout of his career, but the first complete game. Berrios, however, had already given up a hit—a double in the third, also to Sisco—so he should have been cool with it, right?

Right, except for this: The Twins led, 7-0, a point at which—with one out and nobody on in the ninth inning—baseball etiquette dictates that players stop trying to get cute and play simple, straight-up baseball. That means a lack of nibbling around the corners for pitchers, and nothing but hard hacks for hitters. The sooner a blowout ends, the quicker everybody can go home.

“Obviously, we’re not a fan of [Sisco’s bunt],” said Twins second baseman Brian Dozier after the game, in an MLB.com report. “He’s a young kid. I could’ve said something at second base, but they have tremendous veteran leadership over there with Chris Davis, Adam Jones and those guys. I’m sure they’ll address it and move forward. It’s all about learning up here.”

“It’s not good for baseball in that situation,” said Berrios. “That’s it.”

Okay, then. So Sisco shouldn’t have bunted. Right?

Right, except for this: Despite their lead, the Twins were employing a full shift against the rookie. Another unwritten rule says that when a defense calls off the dogs late in a blowout, the offense will not take advantage. Usually this refers to opting against holding a runner on first base, with the understanding that said runner will not attempt to steal second. Like the hard-hacks theory above, it’s aimed at more quickly reaching a conclusion that is virtually inevitable. With the game out of hand, positioning the first baseman back gives the defense a better chance to make a play.

That said, there’s a difference between playing one’s first baseman back with a man aboard, and what happened yesterday. The Twins were trying to end the game quickly by deploying what they felt was their most effective defensive formation, but such extreme shifts allow opponents unfettered opportunities to bunt down the line. By exploiting such a glaring hole, Sisco did his part—as, frankly, most hitters should—to make Minnesota consider the ongoing value of shifting against him like that. It was part of a long game, and the catcher had every right to take advantage.

If the Twins want to cede the possibility of such an outcome, they shouldn’t be all too surprised when it happens. And they sure as hell shouldn’t whine about it afterward.

Cisco's field
Minnesota’s defense as Sisco’s bunt rolls. That’s a lot of line.

Related: Dozier Doubles Down on Blowout Bunt Talk (4-4-18)

Retaliation, Umpires Knowing the Code

When Bad Things Happen to Good Pitchers … At Least Pitchers With Good Intentions

Gausman

When it comes to baseball’s unwritten rules, it’s often imperative that umpires are apprised of any history that might play into potential confrontation between teams. Frequently this helps. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Wednesday fit into the “doesn’t” category.

As the Red Sox and Orioles took the field, everybody around baseball—fans, players, coaches and all levels of management—knew about what had gone down between them. Also, more importantly, what had the potential to go down.

Commissioner Rob Manfred was sufficiently concerned, arranging, along with MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, a pregame conference call with Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter of the Orioles, and Dave Dombrowski and John Farrell of the Red Sox. In so doing, he put everybody on both sides on notice, and effectively provided plate umpire Sam Holbrook an extra-heavy mallet with which to hammer out the peace.

In an ideal world, the threat of action on the umpire’s part would have been enough. In retrospect, it might actually have sufficed, and yet we do not live in an ideal world. Because in the second inning, Baltimore’s Kevin Gausman hit Xander Bogaerts.

In a vacuum, the play would barely have registered. Gausman had faced only five batters. He’d been erratic, throwing only eight of his 20 pitches on the day for strikes. The fateful pitch was a 76 mph curveball—the last weapon of choice for somebody with vengeance on his mind. Given that Gausman was working under the hottest lights imaginable for such a thing, Bogaerts could not have been hit less intenationally.

It made no difference. The game had, somewhat surprisingly, begun without warnings, and Holbrook opted against issuing one to Gausman. Instead, he ejected him from the game, in the process becoming the poster child for brain-locking umpires who make shortsightedly stupid calls.

The Orioles were stunned. Gausman signaled furiously that it had been a breaking pitch that failed to break, and nothing more. Catcher Caleb Joseph spiked his mask and had to be physically separated from Holbrook. Adam Jones ventured all the way in from center field to protest, and was eventually tossed when he kept yapping following a fifth-inning at-bat.

So the Orioles had to go to their bullpen three outs into the game. Even though they were fortunate to squeeze seven innings out of Richard Bleier (making his first appearance of the season after being called up from Triple-A Norfolk) and Ubaldo Jimenez, they will be pitching shorthanded in the bullpen for days to come. Also, they lost, 4-2.

We’ve seen pitchers tossed for similarly little. We’ve seen instances in which clueless umpires didn’t do enough to staunch a potentially volatile situation. But as we learned Wednesday, it’s not just the information an umpire’s given, it’s how he uses it that matters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Retaliation

Obsess Much? Time For Red Sox To Let Go Of Machado’s Slide

Sale-Machado

The theme of the last two weeks has been Pitchers Throwing Behind Hitters Who Don’t Seem to Understand That Pitchers Who Throw Behind Them Haven’t Actually Hit Them. 

The recent pitches in question have come in both above the shoulder (bad) and below (better). Either way, outrage abounded.

The upshot is that purpose pitches are precisely that: pitches that serve a purpose, delivering messages about unappreciated behavior on the part of the opponent. The takeaway in this corner, generally speaking, is that a pitch behind a guy, away from his head, which poses no danger to his physical well-being, should not inspire the kind of misguided rage that we saw last week.

Then came yesterday. Chris Sale threw behind Manny Machado. Manny Machado was unhappy.

Unlike some of the preceding examples of misplaced animosity, he had every right to be.

The Red Sox were angry when Machado spiked Dustin Pedroia on April 21. They responded on April 22, first when Eduardo Rodriguez threw three pitches at Machado’s knees, all of which failed to connect, then another one, from reliever Matt Barnes, behind his head.

It is reasonable to expect that the first dose of retaliation should have mitigated whatever karmic debt Machado incurred with his slide, and that Barnes cleaned up any leftover crumbs with his ill-conceived follow-up. If the Red Sox wanted to drill Machado, they had their shot—two of them—and they blew it. The expiration date on their justified rage had passed.

Boston did not see it that way.

Which leads to the question: What was Chris Sale’s goal? Did he want to drill Machado, but, like his teammates before him, miss? Did he simply want to send what has becoming an increasingly common message that the guys in his clubhouse haven’t forgotten about what the guy in the other clubhouse did? Was it somehow about Mookie Betts, who had been hit by a pitch a day earlier?

No matter the answer, to what freaking end?

Assuming that the pitch was related to the Pedroia play, Machado already knows that the Red Sox, or at least certain players among their ranks, don’t like him. He knows that what he did continues to sit poorly with Boston’s roster. The Red Sox have gone through great pains to inform him of this. Sale’s pitch lent no additional degree of understanding.

Perhaps it’s Machado’s ongoing insistence that his slide was entirely above board. Maybe it’s aggrieved reaction to being thrown at the first time. Regardless, the Red Sox refuse to let it go.

To Machado’s credit, he handled his rage beautifully, saving it for a profanity-laced postgame rant for the ages. On the field, he simply took his base and later hit a monster home run.

The Red Sox have gone from good-guy victims in this drama to out-of-control vengeance monsters in the span of a week. The theme of recent message pitches across the league—hitters need to understand them better in order to better process the messages therein—has flipped entirely. This time it’s pitchers who need to understand when and how to end what at this point seems like an endless string of retaliatory actions.

It’s not a good look, for the Red Sox or for baseball.