Retaliation, Slide properly

Fists Fly in Boston After Austin Powers Toward The Mound

Kelly punchesTyler Austin should have known better.

He should have known the pitch was coming as soon as he took out Red Sox shortstop Brock Holt with a questionable slide in the third inning, especially after Holt called him on it when it happened.

He should have known that leading with his foot raised several inches off the ground and well inside the bag, leaping late so that he all but landed on the fielder, would draw the opposition’s ire, even if he intended no malice.

He should have known that wearing one in that situation, even a 97-mph fastball—especially a 97-mph fastball—was his duty as the guy at the wrong end of the previous confrontation. It was on Austin to understand that his play looked bad, independent of whether he thought it actually was bad. Wear it with dignity, and everyone can go about their day.

That’s not what happened.

Boston reliever Joe Kelly held up his end of the bargain, planting a fastball into Austin’s ribcage, at which point the hitter spiked his bat and raced toward the mound. Kelly beckoned him almost gleefully, and proceeded to land multiple blows after Austin’s momentum took him to the ground. The rest of the fight— Austin punching Red Sox coach Carlos Febles by mistake while swinging at Kelly; Aaron Judge seeming to hold off half of Boston’s roster by himself—was no less fraught.

Still, there’s plenty of grey area for quibbling from both sides of the Yankees-Red Sox divide. Austin’s first at-bat following his slide came leading off the fifth, with Boston leading, 8-1. Starter Heath Hembree opted against squaring the hitter’s debt at that point, instead striking the hitter out on four pitches. It’s not incumbent upon Hembree to respond, of course, but were the Red Sox to address Austin’s slide on the field, that seemed like the obvious spot to do so.

By the time Kelly took matters into his own hands two innings later, New York had trimmed its deficit to 10-6. There’s also the fact that Kelly missed on his first attempt, Austin backing out of the way of an inside fastball two pitches prior to the one that ended up drilling him. Austin was correct in his postgame assessment when he said, “I thought it was over after that. They missed with the first one. In baseball, once it happens, it’s over after that.”

It’s important to understand, though, why Kelly did what he did. When an opponent takes liberties with a player’s on-field safety—as Austin did with Holt, independent of severity or intent—pitchers can be compelled to respond. Former Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly elucidated the notion in The Baseball Codes, and though he was talking about it in reverse—using his baserunning to counter a HBP, not the other way around—the logic holds:

“I’ve gotten on first base when I’ve been hit by a pitch and told the first baseman, ‘If there’s a ground ball hit I’m going to fuck up one of your middle infielders, and [pointing to the mound] you can tell him that it was his fault.’ That’s a way you can get them to police themselves. A pitcher drills somebody just because he feels like it, and if one of the middle infielders gets flipped out there he’s going to tell the pitcher to knock it off. Ultimately, that’s all we want anyway—just play the game the right way.”

Tellingly, in Austin’s postgame comments, he seemed about to say, “I play the game the right way,” but caught himself. Instead the phrase he used was, “I play the game hard.”

No matter how one feels about his actions, there’s no denying that.

The Yankees and Red Sox conclude their series tonight.

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Sign stealing

Red Sox and Binocs and Smart Watch, Oh My

Them Apples

Three facts as pertain to today’s news:

  • Sign stealing in baseball is ages-old. It’s why signs exist in the first place: Teams constantly attempt to get the drop on the opposition’s communication.
  • Sign stealing in baseball is tolerated. Pretty much every team does it to some degree, with the understanding that if somebody breaks your code, the appropriate response is more or less to simply change your signs.
  • Sign stealing in baseball, as meets the above definitions, is a pursuit undertaken strictly from the field of play, with the naked eye. When teams branch out to video feeds and spyglasses in scoreboards it becomes an entirely different beast. At that point, the thievery is breaking not just the players’ unwritten code, but actual MLB rules.

As detailed in The New York Times, the Yankees recently filed a complaint with the league office—complete with video evidence—which began an inquiry into Boston’s sign-stealing practices at Fenway Park. What investigators found: the Red Sox had a clubhouse-bound employee pick up opposing catchers’ signals via a video feed, then transmit them to assistant trainer Jon Jochim in the dugout via an Apple watch. Jochim relayed the information to players.

The first piece of evidence New York cited occurred during the first game of a series in August, when Boston went 5-for-8 with runners at second base. Whereas players in that position are generally seen as having a good vantage point to peer into a catcher’s signals on their own, in this case they were relaying signs from the bench.

Where this story takes a turn away from the legions of similar such pursuits across baseball history is that the Red Sox admitted culpability (while insisting that manager John Farrell and GM Dave Dombrowski knew nothing about the scheme).

For those who might interpret this as a symbol of illegitimacy to Boston’s lead in the American League East, well … it’s complicated. Stolen signs haven’t helped Chris Sale or Drew Pomeranz become dominating starters, and they didn’t help Rick Porcello win the Cy Young Award last year. Without knowing exactly when the Red Sox started the practice (the Times reported that it had been in place for “at least several weeks”), they are just about league average when it comes to batting average, and are dead last in home runs. They actually average more runs on the road than they do at home (4.79 per game vs. 4.66). There’s also the fact that, even though Boston went 5-for-8 with runners at second on Aug. 18 to arouse New York’s suspicions, Red Sox hitters subsequently went 4-for-16 in identical situations over the series’ final two games, hardly the stuff of intrigue.

My own lingering question is that, with New York’s signs available in the dugout, why the Red Sox waited until a runner was at second base to relay them. Not only did this limit Boston’s opportunities, but placed the Red Sox at far greater risk of being caught. Much simpler would have been a verbal system such as the one Hank Greenberg enjoyed in Detroit in the 1940s, in which “All right, Hank” indicated a fastball, and “Come on, Hank” meant a curve. Other iterations have included shouts of encouragement using either a player’s first name or last name to mean different things, or a simple whistle, which Yankees pitcher Bob Turley used to notify his teammates that an upcoming pitch would be different than the one preceding it.

The Red Sox responded by filing their own complaint against the Yankees, who they claimed were stealing signs at Yankee Stadium via a TV camera from the YES Network.

The history of such pursuits is legion:

  • In the 1950s, the “exploding scoreboard” at Comiskey Park housed not only a platform from which an employee with binoculars could spy on the opposing catcher, but a hidden light—visible from the plate and the home dugout, but not from the visitors’ side of the field—that flashed in accordance with the upcoming pitch.
  • Pitchers Bob Feller and Bob Lemon, Hall of Famers both, helped set up a relay system in Cleveland in 1948 using a military-grade gun sight that Feller brought back from World War II. With it, the Indians won 19 of their final 24 games (all but four of them at home) to force a one-game playoff with the Red Sox for the AL pennant (which the Indians also won, even though it was played in Boston).
  • In 1959, the Cubs placed traveling secretary Don Biebel and a pair of binoculars inside the Wrigley Field scoreboard. Biebel would signal hitters by placing his feet into an open frame.
  • Also, of course, the Shot Heard ’Round the World.

More recently, the Blue Jays were accused repeatedly, by numerous opponents, of similar activity at the Rogers Centre, to the point that ESPN commissioned an expansive expose on the practice.

The Phillies drew the ire of multiple teams—including the Yankees, in the World Series—for their alleged ballpark shenanigans. It didn’t help that, in 2010, their bullpen coach was caught on the field with binoculars.

In 2014, Chris Sale accused Victor Martinez and the Tigers of having somebody in center field.

The Padres have had (probably baseless) accusations thrown their way, as have the Marlins.

All of which is to say that this is nothing new. If you haven’t heard about repercussions from those other incidents, you likely won’t remember the fallout from this one either. Assuming that the Red Sox knock it off, you can expect it to quietly disappear.

 

Bunt appropriately, Bunting for hits, Gamesmanship, Taking Advantage of Injury

CC Sabathia Still Has Issues With Boston’s Bunting

Nunez bunts

America is a place where people in prominence can claim ludicrous things and then, after others have pointed out said ludicrousness, double down on their bad ideas. Freedom.

On Thursday, it was CC Sabathia’s turn. Remember just last week when he made the specious, if not downright addled claim that because he was returning from a knee injury, the Red Sox had no right to bunt against him?

If anybody tried to explain to him what a flawed position he was taking, they did a poor job of it. Yesterday, Sabathia again faced the Red Sox, and again the Red Sox did some bunting—starting with the game’s second hitter, Eduardo Nunez, who laid one down in front of the plate, which Sabathia pounced upon … and then threw wildly for an error. “That’s my game,” said Nunez, who also bunted against the pitcher last week, in a Providence Journal article. “You can’t take away my game.”

The strategy proved effective beyond the reach of the bunt itself, when a rattled Sabathia walked the two guys following Nunez in the order, throwing only two strikes in the span of 10 pitches. The pitcher buckled down to escape the jam, then yelled toward the Red Sox dugout as he left the field, explaining in R-rated terms how he felt about their strategy. After the game he said, via a New York Daily News report, that the Red Sox were “scared,” and that “they just think I’m a bigger guy who can’t field my position.”

Well, yes. To which an appropriate response could entail multiple suggestions, primary among them: Figure out how to field your position, or learn to deal with the consequences. Sabathia’s knee is “not my problem,” said Nunez, adding, “If I have to bunt four times in a row, I’d do it. I don’t care if he’s mad or not.”

With last week’s round of complaints, the pitcher effectively offered an open invitation for opponents to get inside his head by bunting. When the Red Sox took him up on it, he responded by channeling a senior citizen chasing neighborhood kids off his lawn.

“I’m an old man,” groused the 37-year-old. “They should want to go out and kick my butt.”

Yes and no. The problem with kicking the butt of an effective pitcher is that alternative paths are sometimes the best route to success. Sabathia earned the victory on Thursday with six innings of one-run ball, and has now won all four of his starts against Boston this season. The Red Sox are obligated to find more effective methods against him.

During the Revolutionary War, the British complained that American forces wouldn’t fight them in formation—a tactic that almost certainly would have led to defeat. With this in mind, why would any team approach Sabathia in his own chosen manner, unless they concurred that it was the best approach?

The Red Sox are being paid to win baseball games, and satisfying the skewed morals of a crotchety pitcher has nothing to do with winning baseball games.

Freedom. Get off my lawn.

 

Retaliation

Corey Kluber Is No Fan Of Hard Swings, and Doesn’t Care How Hard He’s Hit in Order to Prove It

Kluber

Maybe when you’re as good as Corey Kluber, you think you can get away with questionable activities.

Maybe when you’re as good as Corey Kluber, you think that your prodigious skill will help you escape any jam—even those of your own devising.

Maybe when you’re as good as Corey Kluber, it doesn’t matter to you whether or when you put opposing players on the basepaths, because you’re Corey Kluber and you’re good enough to handle your business.

Right up until the moment that you’re not.

Heading into the eighth inning of last Wednesday’s game against Boston, Kluber was pitching a gem: four hits, one run, 11 strikeouts, one walk. That Cleveland was losing 1-0 had very little to do with his performance.

Kluber got Mitch Moreland to fly out for the first out of the eighth. He whiffed Christian Vazquez—making it an even dozen on the day for the right-hander—for the second out. After a walk to Brock Holt, Eduardo Nunez came up and, with a 2-0 count, took a mammoth swing, spinning himself into the dirt as he futilely chased a 90 mph cutter. Kluber didn’t like it. With his next pitch, he drilled Nunez.

 

Maybe the pitcher thought it was a safe move with two outs, but Nunez bats leadoff in a high-powered offense. The next batter, Mookie Betts, drilled a single off the glove of third baseman Giovanny Urshela, bringing home Holt and padding Boston’s lead. Out came manager Terry Francona, and that was it for Kluber. Before the game ended the Red Sox had tacked on four more runs against Cleveland’s bullpen in a 6-1 victory.

From the Boston Herald:

Asked on Thursday if there was any reaction in the dugout when Nunez got hit, Red Sox manager John Farrell said, “For (a guy with) pinpoint control, you know, I think that was fairly obvious, the message (that was sent).”

Is it against the unwritten rules of baseball to swing too hard?

“No, I don’t think so,” Farrell said.

It was a perfect example of the line between confidence and cockiness. Kluber perceived Nunez’s swing as some sort of slight—never mind that the vast majority of his colleagues would have brushed it off as being of little consequence—and felt invincible enough to act on it in the moment. Baseball has long had an unwritten rule regulating swings at 3-0 pitches (only the reddest of asses in big league history even considered 2-0), but that applies only in blowouts, which this game decidedly was not.

Perhaps it was a lesson that no pitcher, Kluber included, is as invincible as he might occasionally think. Or maybe it was just karma. Either way, it did not end well for the Indians.

[H/T WEEI.]

Bunt appropriately, Bunting for hits, Gamesmanship, Taking Advantage of Injury

CC Sabathia Has Thoughts on Boston’s Bunting Habits

Knee

CC Sabathia is angry that the Red Sox took advantage of him. The pitcher, returning from a knee injury, tossed a splendid game against Boston over the weekend, giving up four hits and two runs over six innings to earn the win. One of his takeaways, however, concerned the opposition’s sustained insistence on making him prove that he was healthy by laying down bunt after bunt, to test the left-hander’s agility.

Boston’s very first batter, Eduardo Nunez started things off, though his attempt rolled foul and Sabathia ended up striking him out. Outfielder Andrew Benintendi did similarly, and Sabathia fielded his bunt cleanly, after which he motioned in frustration with his glove toward the Red Sox dugout.

“To come out and that’s your strategy, that got me going a little bit,” Sabathia told the New York Post after the game. “Literally, two of the hottest hitters in baseball bunting. If that was their strategy, I [handled] it.”

The pitcher’s anger is misplaced. Any player nursing an injury is a proven liability, not to mention a target for the opposition. If Sabathia was not healthy enough to help his team, he should not have been on the mound. If he was able to help his team—and boy was he ever—then the upside of his pitching had to be sufficient to protect against those who might seek to take advantage of him in other ways.

It’s why Dusty Baker played in the 1981 World Series with a sprained wrist, despite it preventing him from doing anything of consequence with the bat. The threat of Baker in the lineup was itself valuable, and by not openly discussing his injury, sustained away from the field during the NLCS, he hoped that the Yankees would continue to treat him as the dangerous hitter he’d been all season long.

It doesn’t even take an injury to fit this bill. During the 1974 World Series, Alvin Dark called in Catfish Hunter for a relief role to close out Game 1. When Dark said that the hitter, Joe Ferguson, couldn’t handle curveballs, Hunter told him that Ferguson would see nothing but fastballs. The reason: “I ain’t got no curveball today.” At that moment it was up to Hunter—as it is up to any pitcher trying to perform without his full complement of pitches—to keep that knowledge from the opposition for as long as possible. Ferguson had no idea that he’d not see a single bender, and so had to prepare for the opportunity that he might.

Five fastballs later, he went down swinging for the game’s final out. This kind of thing happens all the time.

Sabathia is obviously concerned about his health, and has every right to be. But if he’s not up for fulfilling every facet of his job description, he must at least be willing to act as if he is.

 

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.