Even those with cold, dead hearts can make hopefully appreciate a bat flip that punctuates a game-winner. If athletes play to win, and fans want to cheer winners, then there’s no better time to celebrate, right?
Willy Adames did. And how.
The Rays are currently a half-game back of the Yankees and need every win they can manage. Setting a new height standard with his lumber, Adames was fully in the moment after his walk-off single against Toronto on Wednesday. Criticize those who toss their bats after a mid-inning homer pulls their fourth-place team to within five runs of tying it up, if you must, but goddamn it leave Willy alone.
Perception is everything, and precedent feeds perception. On Wednesday, baseball saw two games with hotly contested hit batters, and while there is a strong possibility that neither was intentional, recent history has led those at the wrong end of the pitches to leap to some obvious conclusions.
Let’s start in Chicago, where the White Sox’ series with Kansas City was already steeped in contention, given that the last time these teams met resulted in a rhubarb over a Tim Anderson bat toss. The Royals have already paid him back for that, so when they did it again on Wednesday—pitcher Glenn Sparkman bouncing a ball off of Anderson’s head—the situation appeared ready to explode.
Except for this: It was the second inning of a 2-1 game, with nobody out and a runner on first. Also, it was a changeup—not the type of heat-seeker ordinarily utilized for nefarious purposes. For what it’s worth, the pitch merely grazed the brim of Anderson’s helmet—a terrible location to be sure, but more indicative of a ball that’s riding up and in than a missile aimed at an earflap.
Anderson seemed to realize all of this. Hell, the pitch didn’t even knock him down. While visibly frustrated, he more or less just stood in the batter’s box, helmetless, staring down Sparkman. Anderson’s lack of response was no doubt abetted by umpire Mark Carlson, who emerged from behind the plate and quickly tossed the befuddled pitcher from the game. (“It was a changeup,” Sparkman can be seen explaining on replays. Even Anderson said later that he felt the pitch was accidental.)
Had the Royals not already targeted Anderson this season, of course, there’s almost no chance that Sparkman would have been tossed. As it is, optics are important and Carlson did not want this game to get away from him. Sometimes it’s hard to be an umpire.
In Cincinnati, meanwhile, the game was getting away from the Reds, as Pittsburgh built up a 7-0 lead by the eighth inning. That’s when Pirates reliever Clay Holmes drilled Eugenio Suarez in the hand with a 94-mph fastball. There were some moments of immediate heat—Suarez approached the mound for before being led away by catcher Elias Diaz—but things cooled quickly. X-rays proved negative and Suarez is day-to-day.
“I don’t know if they are going to hit me on purpose,” Suarez said after the game in a MLB.com report. “That’s why I walked up to him and asked him if he hit me on purpose. He said, ‘No. Definitely not.’ I just said I wanted to make sure because I don’t like that pitch up and in, right on my face.”
This is believable. Holmes has walked 15 batters in 15⅔ minor league innings this season, and has issued seven free passes in 13 innings since being called up. Outstanding control does not appear to be his thing.
That didn’t prevent Reds manager David Bell from having a say about what had just gone down. So vehement was he when he came out to argue about the pitch that umpire Jeff Nelson ejected him.
Again, this is where optics matter.
In April, Pirates starter Chris Archer threw a pitch behind Derek Dietrich in response to the slugger taking an unusual amount of time to watch a home run that ended up in the Allegheny River outside PNC Park.
In April 2018, Pittsburgh’s Jameson Taillon broke the selfsame Suarez’s thumb with a pitch, costing the slugger three weeks. Later in the season, Taillon hit Suarez again, this time in the elbow. Never mind that none of the pitches appeared to be intentional, or that as a hitter Suarez could do a better job of turning his back toward inside pitches rather than leaning away from them with his hands exposed—a habit that got Jeff Bagwell’s hand broken in three consecutive seasons. Hitting him again looks bad, so it must be bad.
Bell was fed up by the lot of it. He’d previously instructed
his pitchers not to retaliate for such things. That stance may have changed.
“We know they’ll do it,” the manager told reporters after the game in a Cincinnati.com report, explaining his argument with the umpires. “I was doing what I could to protect our players. Clearly, we’re not going to get protected. We’ve got to do whatever we can. We’ve got to take matters into our own hands. It’s unfortunate that our players aren’t going to get protected. That’s been made clear, and we know that team will intentionally throw at people. What are you supposed to think?”
“When someone is messing with your livelihood, your career,
who knows? You’ve got to protect yourself. Clearly, we’re not going to get
protected by the umpires or the league. That’s been made clear. Our players
need to do whatever they need to do protect themselves. I’ll back them whatever
that is. For some reason, we think it’s OK to throw at people. For whatever
reason, that was OK many years ago, and we’re still living some rules that I
don’t know about—that it’s OK to intentionally throw at our players. The
umpires think it’s OK. The league thinks it’s somewhat OK. Somebody’s going to
get hurt. We need to take as many measures as possible. Ours need to do
whatever they need to do to stick up for themselves, protect themselves. They
protect themselves, their career.”
Bell has already proved to be angry about this topic to the point of incoherence. Still, the closest the Reds came to a response yesterday was when reliever Raisel Iglesias threw an up-and-in, 97-mph fastball to Bryan Reynolds with an 0-2 count, before eventually striking Reynolds out.
What we’re left with is increasingly high tension. Bell has thrown down one gauntlet. Pirates broadcaster John Wehner threw down another on Pittsburgh radio, when he came down on Dietrich, of all people, for his homer-watching ways: “I can’t stand him. … I don’t understand why you have to do that. It’s different if you’re a Hall of Fame player, you’re a 60-homer guy, you’re an established guy. Nobody ever heard of him before this year.”
Wehner also referenced Dietrich’s grandfather, Steve Demeter, a longtime minor league coach in the Pirates system, who he said “is rolling in his grave every time this guy hits a home run. He’s embarrassed of his grandson.”
Let’s ignore for a moment the very old-school notion of players earning whatever leeway they’re afforded by the sport’s unwritten rules; Wehner seems completely oblivious of the sea change that’s occurred around baseball as pertains to celebrations.
However much they angered the Pirates and Royals, displays like Dietrich’s and Anderson’s are entering the mainstream, to the point of approval from MLB’s own marketing department. Pitchers have the right to try and put a damper on them, but that tactic does not appear to be working very well as a method of dissuasion.
At least Royals-White Sox and Reds-Pirates matchups, despite the meat-headedness therein, are far more interesting now than they were at the beginning of the season.
Last month, Tim Anderson made clear to us that MLB might not have thought its Let The Kids Play campaign all the way through. It was produced in response to controversy over bat flips both big and little, and other displays of emotion on a ballfield. It was, we were led to believe, institutional approval for players making the sport just a bit more fun.
For that, it worked fine. It just failed to account for whatever’s coming next.
As Anderson showed us, when run-of-the-mill bat flips become routine, players will have to dive deeper, progressing to whatever will grab the most attention next.
We might have seen a preview of that last night.
In the Single-A Florida State League, Royce Lewis of the Fort Myers Miracle—the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft—smacked a ball to the wall in center field for a standup double, and as he reached second base dropped down for some celebratory push-ups. Forget the opposition; even the fans were displeased.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Bradenton Marauders pitcher Gavin Wallace responded later in the game by throwing a pitch behind Lewis’ back, for which he was subsequently ejected.
The Miracle’s official explanation, that Lewis was simply punishing himself for not hitting it out, is about as weak as misguided justification can get. (Batting .233 with no homers in 37 games, perhaps he’s prone to overreach when the rare occasion arises.)
So what does this tell us?
For one thing, at least some of the players who have been crying out for leeway regarding emotional displays are being disingenuous. Even while accepting that tossing one’s lumber can be an expression of uninhibited joy, when the act goes mainstream and players have to up their flip game to draw attention to themselves, that’s exactly what they’ll do. To judge by Anderson and Lewis, they’re already doing it. So it’s not entirely about exuberance. These are type-A athletes who spend their professional lives in the spotlight; Q ratings mean something to many of them.
It should be expected, which is what makes MLB’s failure to expect it especially glaring. Now that the league has embraced showmanship on an institutional level, it’s going to have to figure out how to deal with the aftermath. This is because through it all, pitchers—at least enough of them to matter—haven’t changed a bit. They know better than anyone that some celebrations are simply self-aggrandizement wrapped in a thin veneer of joy, and are commensurately annoyed by them. Guys who pump themselves up at the expense of the opposition continue to be seen as disrespectful, so the reactions of Keller and Wallace should in no way be construed as fringe opinions.
The league ultimately suspended Anderson after his grand bat toss — not for the toss itself, but for using racially inflammatory language in the aftermath. Perhaps they were trying to send an indirect message. If so, it didn’t take.
“I want to be that guy you don’t want to play against, because I’m a dog,” Anderson told Sports Illustrated. “My team loves it, so I don’t care about anybody else. … I’m bringing something to baseball that’s never been brought, as far as the swag.”
Anderson’s attitude is neither good nor bad, per se. How he brings the swag will make a difference, as will the way his opponents react to it.
This is only the beginning, folks. Settle in for what looks to be a wild ride.
In the wake of yesterday’s coverage of the Let Tim Anderson Play Incident, it seems prudent to follow up with a secondary discussion about pitchers hitting batters. Not whether they should (hot take: they shouldn’t), but, for those whose minds are already made up, when to do so.
On Wednesday, Brad Keller whiffed.
So let’s say a guy, maybe a guy who pitches for the Royals, is miffed that an opponent took some liberties in celebrating a home run against him. Maybe some other guys were chirping about it in his dugout, so this Royals pitcher decides to stand up for The Right Way to Play, and drills his opponent in response.
Let slide for a moment your feelings about the decision. In this scenario it is fait accompli, a resolute act. At this point, once said pitcher cannot be diverted from his course, it would behoove him to drill the offender at a juncture of minimal impact to the game. Ideally, it would happen with two outs and the bases empty, with his team comfortably ahead. Or perhaps first base would be open in a situation in which the hitter might have been intentionally walked anyway. There are various metrics to determine the right time, and reasonable discussions to be had about sufficient size for a lead, etc. If enough of those metrics aren’t met, it should be incumbent upon said pitcher to wait—for an inning, a game, a series or a season—until favorable conditions present themselves.
Brad Keller does not seem much for waiting. In Anderson’s very next at-bat, Keller plunked him in the backside, first pitch. While nobody among the ranks of those who approve of such things should take issue with the placement, the pitch’s timing was a downright disaster.
Anderson was leading off an inning in a tie game. Suddenly, Keller was forced to pitch out of the stretch while worrying about a guy who’d stolen six bases in 16 games. (Or at least Keller would have had to worry about pitching out of the stretch had he not been ejected. Instead, he saddled reliever Ian Kennedy with that task.)
Ultimately it didn’t matter. Kennedy retired the next three hitters in order and Kansas City won the game, 4-3, in 10 innings. But this is all about percentages. Had Anderson (or his replacement, after he was ejected along with Keller) come around to score, costing the Royals a victory, the Twitterverse would have lost its mind. That’s because Keller drilling Anderson when he did was even stupider than Keller drilling Anderson in the first place.
Baseball’s unwritten rules have softened over time, and I’m on the record as saying that, when it comes to retaliatory HBPs, that’s a good thing. But as the mandate to drill opponents recedes, the understanding of when to do so recedes right along with it. Which leaves guys like Keller, determined to get their pound of flesh, with a clearly insufficient understanding about how to do so.
There are no easy answers here. When-to-drill-a-guy lessons don’t come easily in an environment bent on preventing pitchers from drilling guys. (Look no further than Keller being ejected without warning for a fairly benign HBP that didn’t even inspire a mound charge. It might have been a Joe West issue, but there’s no denying MLB’s newfound interest in preventing this kind of thing.)
This is some weird middle ground we’re in. We’ll probably have to wait until a similarly impatient pitcher actually costs his team a game before people begin to acknowledge this in a widespread fashion.
This year, however, celebratory histrionics come with a perspective. That is, Major League Baseball has putatively endorsed them via its “Let the Kids Play” campaign, which makes things confusing when pitchers respond to said histrionics with disdain.
Pitchers like Kansas City’s Brad Keller, say.
Now, when Anderson does what Anderson is known to do—in this case, vigorously hurl his bat toward his own dugout after launching the 50th homer of his career—we’re conflicted in the aftermath. Letting the kids play seems like a swell idea to fans, to executives and to an unknown portion of ballplayers, but there appears to be a significant percentage of pitchers who disagree.
We had this conversation less than two weeks ago, when Pittsburgh’s Chris Archer—a known showboat himself—expressed displeasure with Derek Dietrich’s decision to pimp his homer by throwing a ball behind Dietrich in an ensuing at-bat. It was an old-school response that would have drawn little attention a generation ago … or maybe even last season.
But when the league itself encourages Anderson’s kind of behavior, the entire circumstance gets cloudy. That’s because the issue of respect is hardly one of clear delineation.
Are some bat flips okay, but others not? Anderson’s was less insouciant toss and more angry spike. Did that somehow cross an ever-shifting line? Had he not turned toward his dugout—or, more pertinently, turned his back toward the Royals dugout—would it have been better received?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. There’s bound to be a transition period between one epoch and another, and right now we’re stuck in a place where some players feel disrespected by some actions that many people—including baseball officials, apparently—would like to see more of. So when Brad Keller feels disrespected (or is sticking up for teammates who feel disrespected), there’s bound to be a reaction regardless of corporate messaging.
Yesterday it was a fastball to Anderson’s backside in his ensuing at-bat. Things did not end well. Anderson started yelling, but, restrained by catcher Martin Maldonado, never approached the mound. Still, dugouts and bullpens emptied, and tempers flared when White Sox manager Rick Renteria shouted for the Royals to clear the field, inflaming Kansas City bullpen coach Vance Wilson. Anderson, Renteria, Keller and Royals bench coach Dale Sveum were ejected.
In the aftermath, we’re left wondering two things: How many players still care about this kind of stuff, and how long will that last?
The Royals have at least two of them on their roster. “Keller did the right thing,” the pitcher’s teammate, Hunter Dozier, said after the game in a Chicago Sun Times report. “He aimed for the lower body. Hit him. It should just be like ‘OK, go to first and move on.’ It shouldn’t have been as big of a situation as it was.”
Dozier is spelling out the party line from a previous generation, offering instructions that, while once status-quo, are now … well, who really knows? Dozier is 27. Keller is 23. Despite their old-school sensibilities, they seem an awful lot like the kids who the commissioner wants to let play.
This shift is clearly not going as smoothly as baseball’s PR machine would have liked. We’re stuck in a place where, when bat flipping becomes the new normal, showboats like Anderson have to up the ante simply to draw attention to themselves. Bigger antics. More vicious tosses. Sentiments like the one Renteria espoused after the game—“You want [Anderson] to not do that? Get him out”—might make sense to the vast majority of the population, but the key here is that upping the ante rarely sits well with pitchers, some of whom are bound to respond.
Ten days ago it was Chris Archer. Yesterday, it was Brad Keller. So long as hitters continue to push the celebratory envelope, there will always be a pitcher willing to respond.
Our only problem is that we continue to be surprised by it.