Retaliation

Boston Puts the ‘Harm’ in Charm City: Head-High Retaliation Draws O’s Ire

Machado headball

Baseball’s unwritten rules are pretty straightforward. When Manny Machado took out Dustin Pedroia with what many felt was a reckless slide on Friday, it seemed likely that the Red Sox would respond. A pitched ball into the ribcage or thigh, with Machado its probable target, would send a clear message to Baltimore and others around the league that taking liberties with Boston players comes at a price.

Then Matt Barnes threw at Machado’s head and sent the entire framework spinning on its axis.

Instead of closing the book on the incident, Barnes further inflamed some already raw feelings.

Instead of avenging Pedroia, Barnes forced his teammate into the uncomfortable position of having to shout across the field to Machado that the idea wasn’t his.

Instead of showing a unified clubhouse in which mutual accountability is paramount, where everyone has everyone else’s back, the Red Sox appear disjointed, unsure of what’s expected, who wants what, and how to execute when the time comes.

Orioles pitcher Zach Britton nailed it after the game when he told BaltimoreBaseballcom: “[Pedroia] is the leader of that clubhouse, and if he can’t control his own teammates, then there’s a bigger issue over there.”

The Red Sox actually tried to nail Machado earlier in the game, when in the sixth inning starter Eduardo Rodriguez threw three pitches toward Machado’s knees, all of which failed to connect. So two innings later, Barnes took things into his own hands. His head-high pitch just missed its mark, sailing across Machado’s shoulder blades, and ricocheted off his bat for a foul ball. (Watch it all here.)

The egregiousness of the pitch lent undue credence to those suggesting that the time for retaliation had already passed—never mind that in the two games between Machado’s slide and Rodriguez’s aborted response, neither team led by more than two runs, thus diminishing the Boston’s ability to freely cede baserunners to the opposition.

After the game, Pedroia went so far as to completely disavow his role. “That’s not how you do that, man,” he told reporters. “I’m sorry to [Machado] and his team. If you’re going to protect guys, you do it right away.” He then clarified: “It’s definitely a mishandled situation. There was zero intention of [Machado] trying to hurt me. He just made a bad slide. He did hurt me. It’s baseball, man. I’m not mad at him. I love Manny Machado.”

Boston manager John Farrell called it a dangerous pitch, but was it ordered? Possibly. Because Pedroia steered as clear as possible from the result doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have appreciated—or didn’t ask for—a better-placed retaliatory strike. Still, when he shouted across the field to Machado, Pedroia could clearly be seen saying, “It’s not me, it’s them.”

Who them are is of some interest, be it Farrell, a coach or a veteran pitcher offering guidance to Rodriguez and Barnes. Farrell’s statement in an MLB.com report—“Make no mistake, the ball got away from him. My comments are what they are”—leave open the possibility that he approved the message, if not the delivery.

It all serves as background in the face of a rapidly swinging pendulum. On Friday, it was Manny Machado playing the bad-guy role. To judge by his comments on Sunday—“I thought I did a good slide [on Friday]. Everyone knows. Everyone saw the replay on that side. That’s on them”—he has little interest in correcting the record.

Yet with one pitch, Barnes flipped the script for both clubhouses. It’s the Red Sox now wearing the black hats, and the Orioles with leeway to exact some retaliation of their own. (Machado got a measure of revenge after Barnes was kicked out of the game, tagging an RBI double off of the first offering from replacement pitcher Joe Kelly.)

What remains to be seen is how the Orioles respond. If they handle their business correctly, maybe everybody can put this affair behind them. If they do things like Matt Barnes and the Red Sox, however, we can count on things being dragged out even further.

The teams start a four-game series in Boston on May 1.

***

In  a related note, Zach Britton was unusually forthright in his description of how things work in this regard. As related to Rodriguez (in his third year in the league) and Barnes (in his fourth), Britton said this:

“As a player that doesn’t have the most service time in this room, when a guy like Adam Jones tells me to do something or not to do something, I’m going to do [what he says]. Same with Chris Davis or Darren O’Day, the guys in my bullpen. If they tell me, ‘Don’t do this or that,’ I’m going to listen to them because they’ve been around the game and they’ve seen things I haven’t seen. And you respect their leadership.”

As an institution, baseball has been drifting away from unwritten rules like these largely because the leadership Britton referenced features fewer old-school opinions with every year that passes. That doesn’t mean those opinions don’t still exist, however, more strongly in some clubhouses than others. It’s highly unlikely that anybody on the Red Sox suggested that Barnes go head-hunting, but given Pedroia’s response it’s a near-certainty that somebody suggested that a response to Machado was necessary.

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Slide properly

Machado’s Spikes Spur Red Sox Rage

Machado slides

After Chase Utley broke the leg of Mets second baseman shortstop Ruben Tejada with a questionable slide in the 2015 playoffs, Major League Baseball implemented a rule to regulate that type of play, defining illegal slides—per the Baltimore Sun—as “those in which a runner doesn’t begin his slide before reaching the base, is unable to reach the base with his hand or foot, isn’t able to remain on the base after completion of the slide or changes the pathway of his slide to initiate contact with a fielder.”

On Friday in Baltimore, Manny Machado met at least three of the four criteria. He began his slide some five feet before second, and his path was aimed directly at the bag. As for remaining on the base, well, that’s up for interpretation.

Machado, clearly beaten by the throw, lifted his lead foot before reaching the base. Instead of popping up, he slid directly over, his spikes planting firmly into the left knee of Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. (Watch it here.)

This wasn’t a matter of breaking up a double play, or at least it shouldn’t have been. It had been a slow ground ball, and the throw from shortstop Xander Bogaerts arrived at the center-field side of the bag, forcing Pedroia to stretch like a first baseman to corral it. There was scant danger of a pivot.

Details that matter:

  • Pedroia had offseason arthroscopic surgery on the knee in question and continues to rehab it.
  • Pedroia limped from the field after the slide. The play ended his day … and maybe more.
  • Regardless of Machado’s intent—at the very least, he can be accused of recklenssness—the Red Sox were decidedly unhappy.

As the game (a 2-0 Baltimore win) ended, a number of Red Sox personnel—including pitchers Rick Porcello and David Price, pitching coach Carl Willis and bench coach Gary DiSarcina—looked on angrily as the Orioles departed the field. (Porcello and Price will not pitch in the series’ final two games.)

Afterward, Pedroia—noteworthy for downplaying injuries over his career—stopped short of assigning blame to Machado, but his frustration was unmistakable. When asked about baseball’s injury-prevention rule, he told reporters this:

“I don’t even know what the rule is. I’ve turned the best double play in the major leagues for 11 years. I don’t need the fucking rule, let’s be honest. The rule is irrelevant. The rule is for people with bad footwork, and that’s it.”

On one hand, bad footwork can lead to awkward moments. On the other hand, sometimes even capable fielders like Pedroia must achieve compromising positions in order to complete a play. Boston manager John Farrell described the slide as “extremely late.” When asked if it was dirty, he responded again: “It was a late slide.”

Even more telling, perhaps, was the cluster of Red Sox players and coaches gathered around a clubhouse computer screen to dissect the play in slo-mo, again and again. The teams face each other 14 more times this season.

Machado said all the right things afterward about how he didn’t want to hurt his opponent, said he texted Pedroia his regrets, even. Then again, this is the same guy who kept hitting catchers with his bat, threw his bat in response when opponents took issue with it, blew up over an ordinary tag and charged Yordano Ventura, so who the hell knows.

How this plays out over the next two days—or the rest of the year—will go a long way toward explaining just how forgiving a group the Red Sox might be.

Retaliation, Yordano Ventura

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

Machado-Ventura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guess it didn’t take.

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

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

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

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

 

Retaliation

Has Baseball Evolved? To Judge by the Response to Ham-Handed Intimidation Tactics, It’s At Least Getting There

Papelbon

By their inherent nature, sports are built to promote the concepts of good guys and bad guys. It’s them-vs.-us in tribal glory, where the opponent is the enemy simply by dint of wearing the wrong colors. This is why when we are provided an actual heel—Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, John Rocker—we so revel in lambasting him.

The series of events that began on Wednesday with Jonathan Papelbon needlessly drilling Baltimore’s Manny Machado had all the makings for just such a scenario. Papelbon, the crotchety closer who’s pissed off opponents and teammates alike with three clubs over the last five years, was perfectly positioned as the foil, serving up behavior so outlandish that his own right fielder, Bryce Harper, publicly groused that he’d probably be the one to take the fall for it.

And then Buck Showalter stepped in. Finally, somebody who not only sees ludicrous things for what they are, but refuses to buy into a system that all but mandates senseless violence as an acceptable response mechanism.

The quick beats:

  • Machado hit a go-ahead homer off Nationals starter Max Scherzer in the seventh inning Wednesday, and admired it for a moment longer than Papelbon thought appropriate. Or maybe it was his pointing afterward, to the heavens, to the grandstand. Papelbon didn’t say.
  • Machado’s next at-bat came in the ninth, with the closer on the mound. Papelbon threw his second pitch up near Machado’s head; after it missed he did it again. Had Machado stayed in his crouch the ball would likely have connected with his cheek or ear. Because he stood up and spun toward the backstop, it merely ricocheted off the top of his shoulder. Papelbon was ejected immediately. (Watch it here.)

This goes beyond the simple etiquette of the unwritten rules. Once upon a time somebody like Papelbon could have gotten away with that kind of message pitch, informing the opposition that styling—even styling so slight as to have almost entirely evaded the TV replay—will not be tolerated, at risk of great physical peril. But baseball has moved on from that mindset, almost universally for the better. Machado did nothing outside the mainstream, his actions offensive only to the red-assed among us who cry that old-school retaliation is the only way to curb such offensive behavior.

Manny n BuckThe fact that Papelbon took things a step further, throwing two pitches near Machado’s head, is on its own merits worthy of a considerable suspension.

Modern-day baseball has graduated from making emotional slights physical. It’s not that skins have grown thicker over the years; it’s that as celebrations have become commonplace, most players just stopped caring about them. The question is no longer who thinks them worthy of retaliation, but who even notices.

On the other hand, Papelbon’s attack—an actual, physical assault with a baseball upon Baltimore’s best hitter—is the kind of thing that cries out for response. It would be easy to justify; when somebody goes full-bore loony, there are proven methods of getting his attention. Papelbon gave just such an opening to the Orioles, spurring Harper to grouse that the closer’s actions are “pretty tired,” and that “I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow.”

With that comment, Harper all but validated whatever response Showalter had up his sleeve. People filled the ensuing hours with discussion about when and how and on what part of the body Harper might wear one. And then we were surprised.

Showalter demurred.

“You’re not supposed to do that,” he said in a Baltimore Sun report. “The best retaliation would be to win another game, right? That’s usually how it works. … The greatest form of revenge is success, isn’t that what they say?”

Can it really be that simple? Yep. Thursday saw no retaliation of any sort, save for Machado calling Papelbon a coward. And sure enough, the Orioles won. Like Showalter himself said, “That hurts more, especially when you take the high ground.”

Showalter knows whereof he speaks. Machado himself spurred a similarly embarrassing affair only last year, and the O’s skipper appears to want no part in revisiting any part of that mindset. Wednesday, Papelbon proved himself again as a heel who it’s fun to root against, but that, in sports, is old hat.

In avoiding unnecessary conflict, Showalter gave us the opposite—not just somebody worth cheering, but somebody worth emulating, a clean-cut cat whose clear-eyed logic carried the day. With the Orioles still holding an outside shot at a wild-card spot, Showalter allowed his team to do the one thing that’s absolutely necessary for the good of its immediate future: concentrate on playing baseball.

Well played, Buck. Well played.

Update 9-25: Well, there it is: three games for Pap.

Unwritten-Rules

To Bunt or Not to Bunt, That is the Question

Hosmer

Lee Judge of the Kansas City Star just came out with the best, most reasoned piece on baseball’s unwritten rules in some time. It’s not because he staunchly defends them—to the contrary, he concludes that players should be allowed to aggressively chase stats any way they can, even during the course of a blowout, a position with which I disagree—but because he presents a comprehensive look into expectations during lopsided games.

In so doing, Judge refers to an Aug. 24 game between Kansas City and Baltimore, in which the Royals scored seven runs in the sixth inning to take a five-run lead. The key moment was Eric Hosmer coming to the plate for the second time in the inning, after all seven runs had scored … and trying to bunt for a hit. The Orioles were not happy about it, and expressed as much from their dugout.

The answer to whether Hosmer was right or wrong is what makes baseball’s Code so variable, and so difficult to understand by those not paying close attention. To wit:

  • While most agree that aggressive tactics like stolen bases and hit-and-runs should be abandoned during the late innings of blowouts, the definitions of how much and when have shifted over time. Only a few years ago, amid the steroid-fueled chaos unleashed upon box scores nightly, a five-run lead in the sixth would have barely registered. Now, however, with offense down, it now appears to be back in play.
  • Another thing that’s changed over the last few years is the prevalence of the defensive shift. Does the fact that Baltimore was playing the majority of its infield on the right side of the diamond—giving itself a clear defensive edge—negate Hosmer’s mandate to play non-aggressive baseball, which includes bunting for hits? The Orioles were playing like run prevention still mattered, and if their lack of willingness to give up aggressive defensive tactics has to carry some weight.
  • It’s not unlike the defense giving itself an advantage by failing to hold a runner at first during a blowout, knowing that, based on the Code, he won’t take off for second. The inequity of being able to play the first baseman in the hole rather than having him tethered to the bag, even while insisting that the opposing team not take advantage of it, is wildly lopsided. (The compromise position, as Judge points out, is to play the first baseman back, but not all the way back.)
  • Numerous factors are involved in the designation of what lead is too big and what point in the game is too late, including geography and bullpen availability. A big lead in San Francisco is far more sound than a big lead in a bandbox like Philadelphia. Similarly, if a team does not have its full complement of relievers available to protect a lead, it may try to pile on more than it otherwise would. As is usual in these types of situations, communication is paramount; letting the opposition know that one’s decision to eschew the Code is reasoned and not personal can go a long way toward avoiding bad blood.

Ultimately, I agree with Hosmer and Judge: Regardless of circumstance, if a team is willing to put on a defensive shift, it must be prepared to deal with the consequences of that shift. Run at will, boys.

Cheating, Pine Tar

What’s a Little Pine Tar Between Friends?

Matusz

People talked a lot about subterfuge last week, and how failing to hide one’s foreign substances crosses a pitcher’s line of demarcation between competitive behavior and outright cheating. On Monday, Orioles right-hander Brian Matusz was suspended eight games for “hiding” a foreign substance on his arm two days earlier against the Marlins. (Watch it here.) He was the second guy in a week to be so outed.

In so doing, Marlins manager Dan Jennings went against what has become an avalanche of everybody-does-it opinions, but don’t let his  lack of experience at the position belie the fact that there’s more to this scenario than tacky balls. Tighter grip means more control (which hitters like from a pitcher), but it also means tighter spin on breaking balls, which provides a distinct competitive advantage.

The prevailing theory of acceptability is that a pitcher who’s hidden a substance thoroughly on his body will go to it only when necessary—when he finds a given baseball particularly difficult to grip. When he puts the stuff right out in the open, however, it indicates something far more brazen. At that point, his behavior is a matter of course; instead of merely helping to maintain control, it becomes a prevailing method and a competitive advantage. Under those circumstances it needs to be tamped down. Which seems only reasonable.

Baltimore Orioles, New York Yankees, Retaliation

Armando Benitez Drilled Tino Martinez 17 Years Ago Today. No, He Was Not Playing by the Unwritten Rules

Seventeen years ago today, Armando Benitez intentionally drilled Tino Martinez after the preceding batter, Bernie Williams, hit a dramatic three-run homer. The event was more noteworthy for the ensuing mayhem—the fight ended up spilling into a dugout and resulted in suspensions for five players—than for the deed itself.

The moment merits current notice for the fact that decriers of baseball’s unwritten rules—pundits like Hardball Talk’s Craig Calcaterra—are using it to blame baseball’s Code for just how ludicrous this kind of behavior is. Referencing then AL President Gene Budig’s harsh words about Benitez when handing down the ensuing eight-game suspension for Benitez, Calcaterra wrote:

I do get the sense sometimes that no one inside the game thinks of throwing at guys as a bad thing in the sorts of terms Budig uses here. [Budig said, among other things, “The location of the pitch was extremely dangerous and could have seriously injured the player.”] It’s all thought of as self-policing and part of the game and stuff. Maybe the violence is reduced because people don’t want to risk player health, but the idea that sometimes, well, you gotta throw at someone still lingers. It’s an odd little thing.

The point that is consistently overlooked by people who disagree with these methods of play is that Benitez’s strike wasn’t a product of the Code, it was directly contravening it. The unwritten rules aren’t set up to give license to guys who want to indiscriminately drill opponents whenever the mood strikes them. To the contrary, they present a framework for dealing with that type of thing when it happens.

You can disagree with Hideki Irabu responding on the Yankees’ behalf by plunking both Mike Bordick and Brady Anderson the next day, but the truth is that not only did he do it correctly (below the shoulders), but those Orioles were then within their rights to subsequently tell Benitez to knock off his shenanigans, because he was putting his teammates in harm’s way. Irabu gave the Yankees closure, and at the same time proactively dealt with Benitez’s future actions. (That latter note is strictly theoretical. The incident in question was actually the second time Benitez drilled Martinez following a teammate’s homer—the first occurred in 1995, when Martinez was with the Mariners—which does not speak well to the pitcher’s ability to listen or absorb.)

I have no problem with people criticizing a culture in which ballplayers throw baseballs at each other in anger. Usually I agree with them. All I ask is for a reasonable assessment before laying down judgement. The system can certainly be the problem, but sometimes it’s just a rogue player within it. Take the time to examine the difference.