Dealing With Records

Red Sox Play Petty In Failed Attempt To Deny Minor His Strikouts

Baseball has a long history of acknowledging superlative performances from the opposing dugout, but precedent be damned, things in Arlington got downright wacky last night.

The moment that has gained the most notice was the decision by Rangers first baseman Ronald Guzman to allow a popup, tapped some 30 feet down the line, to drop untouched in foul territory. Ceding an easy putout brought the count on the batter, Chris Owings, to 1-2, and put pitcher Mike Minor in position for a strikeout.

And Mike Minor’s strikeouts are what this story is all about.

Minor, 31, has been pitching in the big leagues since 2010, and despite three campaigns in which he topped 30 starts, and two more in which he topped 25, he had never until yesterday reached 200 strikeouts in a season. It was a stated goal of his, statistical affirmation that he’d fully returned from the torn labrum that cost him two full big league seasons. He went into his final start of the year on Thursday needing nine punchouts to reach that plateau.

The Red Sox were having none of it.

The left-hander started strong, whiffing two of the first three batters he faced, striking out the side in the third, and tacking on one more K in each of the fourth, fifth and seventh innings. That put Minor at eight on the day, one away from his mark.

The problem for him lay mainly with Boston’s other at-bats. The Red Sox put up three runs in the fourth on three singles and a double, and two more in the seventh on homers by Jackie Bradley Jr. and Chris Owings, the latter of which tied the game, 5-5. Ordinarily, this would have been more than enough for Rangers manager Chris Woodward to remove Minor, who’d thrown 98 pitches. Given that both teams have long since been eliminated from playoff contention, however, the most notable achievement on the table for either club on Thursday was Minor’s strikeout mark. The lefthander remained in the game.

For some reason, though, Boston was adamant that he not reach his goal. This is different than being at the wrong end of a no-hitter or losing a playoff clincher, outcomes that bear at least some degree of ignominy. Two hundred strikeouts in a season can be personally relevant to the pitcher who throws them, but it’s hardly a sign of statistical dominance. Minor ranks 10th in the American League in strikeouts, more than 100 behind Gerrit Cole. Precisely nobody outside of the Minor household should care about who he set his mark against.

Bizarrely, the Red Sox cared.

With Minor on the verge of No. 200, Boston’s first three batters of the seventh inning all swung at the first pitch they saw. This included the home runs by Bradley and Owings. It could be happenstance, or it could be the beginnings of a conspiracy to deny the pitcher his milestone.

The Rangers regained the lead with two runs in the bottom of the seventh, after which Minor, sitting on 117 pitches, returned to the mound. He’d thrown that many in a game exactly once in his career, back in 2013, prior to his shoulder issues. But 200 strikeouts meant more to him than the game meant in the standings, and his manager had rope to offer.

For the second straight inning, the Red Sox responded by swinging at the first pitch they saw in every at-bat. Brock Holt grounded out softly to first. Gorkys Hernandez grounded out to shortstop. Bradley Jr. popped up to short. The latter two pitches were well outside the strike zone, but Boston players seemed determined to make contact, even to the detriment of actually getting, you know, hits. They were sacrificing their own success on the pyre of denying Mike Minor a bit of statistical satisfaction. Hell, Minor said that after Holt was retired he looked toward the Rangers dugout and laughed.

“I haven’t seen a three-pitch inning, I don’t think in my career, to be honest,” said Woodward in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram report.

That was the nice way to put it. A more accurate description would have been to call the Red Sox classless. It’s a move that indicates some prior history between Minor and somebody in the Boston clubhouse or the team at large—an unknown grudge that needed tending. What that is, if it exists, has yet to surface. If nothing exists, the Red Sox look all the worse.

Minor was now at 120 pitches. There was no way he was coming out of the game. At this point for the Rangers, it was a matter of principal.

“I said, ‘You’re going back out,’ ” Woodward recalled, as reported in the Athletic. “If they want to do that, you’re going back out. … If they would have been grinding and having long at-bats, he was probably one long at-bat away [from removal].”

By now, Minor was fully cognizant of Boston’s strategy. He opened the top of the ninth by feeding Sandy Leon a 64-mph knuckle-curve that bounced three feet in front of the plate, all but daring the hitter to swing at slop. (Leon did not swing.) The next pitch, a changeup, was more to Leon’s liking, and he flied out to left, “preserving,” wrote Chris Thompson at Deadspin, “Boston’s petty attempt at dishonorably denying an opposing player an honest shot at a strikeout.”

This is where Guzman’s dropped popup came into play. Had he caught it, Minor would have had one out remaining, against a team determined to not strike out. Instead, Owings—who on the first pitch of the at-bat had taken a called strike that barely touched the high, outside part of the zone (a gift to Minor from plate ump C.B. Bucknor, perhaps?)—was faced with a two-strike count.

If there were questions about Bucknor’s priorities with the first pitch to Owings, they were resolved with the fourth, a 1-2 changeup that lolled in at 86 mph, high and well inside. Owings took it. Bucknor, calling bullshit on Boston’s tactics, rung him up anyway.

Minor got his 200th whiff of the season on his 126th pitch of the game, and was immediately pulled. Jose LeClerk came on to get the final out (another strikeout, natch, this one on five pitches), and Rangers won, 7-5.

Afterward, Red Sox manager Alex Cora offered the weakest line of the night, criticizing Guzman’s ignored popup by saying, “I’m just happy our guys are playing the game the right way.”

No, the Red Sox were not playing the game the right way. There are lots of examples through baseball history of players and teams yielding to an opponent in deference to a feat that said player was actively trying to achieve. As recounted in The Baseball Codes, in a meaningless game in 1968, Denny McLain fed Mickey Mantle a requested meatball to let him pass Jimmy Foxx on the all-time home run list. It’s why Brooks Robinson played deep against Bobby Richardson on the final day of the 1959 season, allowing him to bunt for a necessary base hit that would raise his season batting average to .300. (Richardson turned down the offer, swung away and went 2-for-3 on the day to end at. 301.)

There are also examples of players being less gracious. Closer to the Red Sox’ mentality was A’s pitcher Johnny Babich, who in 1941 vowed to end Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak by retiring him in his first at-bat, then walking him every subsequent time he came to the plate. (DiMaggio neutered the plan by singling his first time up.) Or Orioles manager Paul Richards, who, in 1961, with Roger Maris down to his final chance to tie Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in 154 games, brought in closer Hoyt Wilhelm to face him in the ninth inning of a meaningless game in which the Orioles trailed, under threat of fine if he threw anything but knuckleballs. Maris struck out.

Which is not to suggest that the Red Sox should have done anything approaching McLain or Robinson. Nobody would have thought twice had they taken their at-bats against Minor straight up. Hell, that’s all we expect out of ballplayers. Instead, Boston players willingly sacrificed their own best chances in order to deny an opponent a special moment. It was petty, it was beneath them, and it was beneath baseball. Or it should have been, anyway.

Be better, Red Sox.

Celebrations

Stroman’s Celebration Irks Eck, And People Have Opinions

A lot’s being made over Dennis Eckersley’s comments about Marcus Stroman’s on-field celebration on Sunday to close out the sixth inning against Boston, during which the broadcaster called Stroman’s actions “tired.” You know, hypocrisy and all, what with Eck having pretty much set the standard for pitcher gesticulation back in his day. Let’s let Twitter tell the tale.

There’s something to the fact that Stroman’s initial response appears to have been intended for the Boston dugout, but for me, there’s a different takeaway — not from the game itself, or even its aftermath, but from the Tim Anderson affair back in April, when the White Sox slugger infuriated the Royals by hurling his bat following a home run. Asked about it, Stroman was concise: “I could care less if someone pimps a homer off me. I gave it up. Showing emotion is part of the game.”

There it is. Love the guy or hate him, at least he’s consistent. The moment that Stroman takes issue with a home run pimp job, please alert Rob Friedman.

Sign stealing

Did The Dodgers Take Advantage Of Stolen Signs In Game 2? It Sure Seems Like It

Manny signals

There are lots of reasons to dislike Manny Machado. Stealing signs isn’t one of them.

It’s not that he doesn’t steal signs. To the contrary, according to a piece by Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller, Machado is an active sign stealer, and the Red Sox know all about it.

Just don’t hate him for it, because that kind of action puts him firmly in baseball’s mainstream.

According to Miller, during the fourth inning of Wednesday’s Game 2 in Boston, Machado, on second base, went through a series of gyrations that signaled to the hitter, Kike Hernandez, what kind of pitch was about to be delivered. From that vantage, of course, Machado had a clear view into the signs catcher Christian Vazquez was giving to David Price, and relayed them appropriately to the plate. Hernandez hung in for nine straight pitches, giving his teammate plenty of opportunities.

From Bleacher Report:

As Price was coming set, Machado, leading off from second, would place his hands on his hips. Then, just before each pitch, Machado would begin a series of motions: touching his helmet with either his right or left hand, sometimes then touching or pulling the script on his jersey afterward and other times grabbing or touching the thigh/groin area of his pants.

Red Sox pitching coach Dana LeVangie caught on to it right away, and was primed to visit the mound to inform Price about it. The left-hander, however, ended up striking out Hernandez, and the coach opted against interfering with his momentum. With the score 1-1, it was a gamble.

The next batter, Yasiel Puig, made Boston pay. Machado signaled him from the start, just as he had with Hernandez, and Puig slapped Price’s first pitch into center field for a single to bring home Machado and give LA the lead.

“I saw Manny the entire time,” said LeVangie after the game. “I knew what he was doing.”

This kind of stuff happens constantly, and is rarely cause for alarm. Mostly it just means that the team being pilfered needs better signs.

The Dodgers alone have been on the receiving end of things that have blown up to the point that the media took notice at least twice over the last few seasons, and have at least once been accused.

The Baseball Codes offers an entire chapter on sign stealing, which opens with an incident from a game in 1997 in which the Expos beat the Giants 19-3. From that passage:

San Francisco’s frustration boiled over when manager Dusty Baker spied Montreal’s F. P. Santangelo—at second base for the second time in the inning—acting strangely after ten runs had already scored. One pitch later, the guy at the plate was drilled by reliever Julian Tavarez. Two bat­ters later, the inning was over. “They were killing us,” said Baker. “F.P. was looking one way and crossing over, hands on, hands off, pointing with one arm. I just said, ‘That’s enough. If you are doing it, knock it off— you’re already killing us.’ ”

Former Boston pitcher Al Nipper described the sentiment like this: “When you’re throwing a bas­tard breaking ball down and away, and that guy hasn’t been touching that pitch but all of a sudden he’s wearing you out and hanging in on that pitch and driving it to right-center, something’s wrong with the picture.”

It doesn’t even have to be that complicated. All a baserunner has to do to be effective is signal location—where the catcher’s setting up. If the pitcher hits his spot, the batter has a profound advantage. Not that the Red Sox were angered by Machado’s efforts, per se.

“Oh, it’s clean,” LaVangie said. “It’s baseball. If you’re not hiding your stuff with a runner on second base and you’re giving them a free view, that’s on you, the pitcher and the catcher. It’s up to the pitcher and catcher to manage that and to us to oversee it and make sure we’re going about it the right way.

“We see this all the time. Not just him, with everyone. We are very respectful of all this, and it’s a big part of who we are and what we try to manage. As far as our pitching staff, we want to make sure we control those guys at second base and [that] they’re not stealing our signs. We’re changing our signs constantly, every pitch. Typically, every one of our pitchers will change every pitch.”

This isn’t as difficult as it might seem. Teams usually use an indicator sign to notify the pitcher that whatever comes next is the one he should pay attention to. Changing signs can be as simple as changing the indicator. Still, it’s a layer of subterfuge that teams would rather not have to take.

We’re now at the point at which both teams have a decision to make. Dusty Baker summed up the Dodgers’ end when he was discussing the Giants-Expos incident from back in ’97. “Stealing signs is part of the game—that’s not the problem,” he said. The problem is, if you get caught, quit. That’s the deal. If you get caught you have to stop.”

In a few hours we’ll see if the Dodgers do stop. If they don’t, just as Baker insinuated, that’s the point at which real problems might arise.

Pitch Tipping

Was Tipping Pitches To Blame For Severino’s Awful ALDS Start?

Severino

They’re saying now that Luis Severino’s dismal start against the Red Sox in Game 3 of the ALCS—you know, the one that Boston ended up winning, 16-1—may have been compromised by tipped pitches.

According to Fancred’s John Heyman, various Yankees heard “chatter” about it from folks around the Red Sox. (Important to note that Heyman used the word “people,” not “players.”) The possibility was noted on the Red Sox broadcast by Lou Merloni, and Jackie Bradley Jr. was caught on camera, in the dugout, calling for a fastball moments before Severino delivered one.

The idea is that Severino did something in his pre-pitch setup, or even during the course of his delivery, that gave Red Sox hitters advance notice of what he was about to throw. We’ve covered the topic in this space before, regarding Johan Santana, Ben Sheets and Matt Moore, among other instances. The Baseball Codes itself has an entire section on pitch tipping, including the following passage:

Hall of Fame spitballer Burleigh Grimes was done in by his cap. Although he shielded the ball with his glove to keep hitters from knowing whether or not he was preparing for a spitter, members of the Phillies realized that the brim of his hat—visible above the top of his glove—would rise when he opened his mouth to spit, and laid off the ensuing pitches. It worked beautifully, at least until the pitcher wised up and got a bigger cap.

Picking up tells can be a veritable art form, with master practitioners noticing things about a player that escape even their most astute. Bob Turley, for example, in addition to being a great sign thief, could also pick up tells better than almost anybody in the game.

“When (Connie Johnson) starts his windup, he’ll move his foot to the other end of the rubber if he’s going to throw his screwball,” he once told Mickey Mantle, as reported in Baseball Digest. “Billy Pierce always wore a long, heavy sweatshirt, no matter how hot it was. When he went into his glove to grip a fastball, you would see the back of his wrist. When he was going to throw a curve, he would get deeper in there and you would not see his wrist. Early Wynn, when he pitched from the stretch, where were his hands before he threw? If he was going to throw a knuckleball, they were at his belt. For a fastball, he’d come up under his chin. Slider, around his nose. Curve, up at his forehead. Jim Bunning altered his windup a little depending on what he was going to throw.”

If this is true it gave the Red Sox a huge advantage, allowing them to lay off as Severino’s devastating slider sailed outside the strike zone. On one hand, this is supported by fact: According to CBS Sports, Boston hitters offered at only six of the pitcher’s 15 sliders on the day, a 40-percent rate that’s lower than the 47.2-percent rate he posted during the regular season. On the other hand, if one Red Sox hitter had swung just once more at one of those pitches, the offer rate against him would have been effectively the same as it had all season.

Still, Severino virtually abandoned the pitch toward the end of his outing, throwing only two sliders across the final nine hitters he faced. That left him with only a fastball and a changeup, and as we’ve long since learned, fastball pitchers—no matter how potent the fastball—have a difficult time surviving in the big leagues without a potent breaking pitch to accompany it.

Whether the right-hander was actually tipping is up for debate. Severino’s splendid first half—a 2.10 ERA with 132 strikeouts against only 26 walks, and six homers allowed with a 15-2 record over 17 starts in the season’s first three months—contrasts starkly with his final three months: 5.20 ERA, 88 whiffs and 20 walks, 13 homers over 15 starts, a 9-6 record. But here’s the thing: Hitters were waving at his slider at almost exactly the same rate all season. By this metric, anyway, Severino’s late-season failures had nothing to do with him fooling them less. The fact that he lost nearly a mile-per-hour off his fastball between his June peak and October might have more to do with it, or that his slider’s movement across the strike zone steadily decreased as the season wore on.

The Yankees, of course, aren’t talking, and neither are the Red Sox. Trade secrets like this are valuable commodities, after all. One thing to be certain of, however, is that if Severino was tipping, the Yankees will be all over it this off-season, and come spring training the righty will have something to work on in addition to his regular regimen.

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.

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.