Retaliation

Things Get Real in Baltimore: Jays Rookie Hunts Heads, Draws Ire

Marcus Stroman needs to sit down for a while. A long while, probably.

The Blue Jays right-hander took a noble idea—standing up for one’s teammates, the mark of any good team player—and turned it ugly in a hurry on Monday. After Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph apparently stepped on Jose Reyes’ fingers during a bang-bang play at the plate in the fifth inning, Stroman responded during Joseph’s next at-bat, spinning a 92-MPH fastball just behind the hitter’s helmet.  (Watch it all here.)

Plate ump Ted Barrett immediately warned both benches. It was the wrong decision. On one hand, the warning removed Baltimore’s option to respond (in what would hopefully be a more reasoned manner). More importantly, tossing Stroman immediately might have obviated the need for any response at all. (O’s manager Buck Showalter came out to vociferously argue the latter point, as far as Stroman’s lack of ejection.)

“You let your emotions take over and all of a sudden someone’s lying at home plate in a pool of blood with a blow to the head,” said a disgusted Showalter after the game in a Baltimore Sun report. “How really manly do you feel? Was it really worth it?”

Even within baseball there is widespread disagreement over what constitutes a retaliation-worthy offense, and what shape retaliation should take when it’s in the offing. One thing everybody agrees on is that any liberties taken above the shoulders are squarely out of bounds. As former outfielder Dave Henderson said in The Baseball Codes: “I have a rule: You can drill me all you want. But if you throw at my face, it gets personal. I kill you first, then your grandpa, your grandma—I just go on down the list. It gets personal. Batters should get mad. The guys who get hit on the elbow and all that, I have no sympathy for them. Big deal, you got hit. I got hit in the head twice in my career; the other stuff didn’t count.”

Stroman is 23 and having a splendid rookie season for Toronto. As such, he probably feels the need earn his stripes with the veterans on his team, showing them that he has the convictions necessary to protect their collective flank. It’s been the dance of big league pitchers forever; what Stroman lacks is nuance. Never mind that Joseph did nothing wrong; there were still a dozen ways for Stroman to send a message about Reyes’ hurt fingers without putting anybody in harm’s way.

Whether the ball ended up where the pitcher wanted it to, or if it was a message pitch that came a little closer than intended is irrelevant. Showalter nailed it after the game when he said, “If you don’t have the command to throw the ball where you’re supposed to to deliver a message, then you shouldn’t be throwing at all there. It really pushed the hot button with all of us because it certainly wasn’t called for. That was obvious. It was borderline professionally embarrassing.”

Joseph himself clairified the complete disconnect between Stroman’s actions and the mores of the game when he said, “Yeah, there’s a code. Every baseball player knows there’s a code. I’m not the judge here to judge intent or any of that stuff. I’m just glad it didn’t hit me.”

In that, Joseph wasn’t just acting like a ballplayer. He was acting like a human being, which is something to which Marcus Stroman needs to pay some very close attention.

Update (9-17): MLB has ruled: Stroman will sit for six games, pending appeal.

Sign stealing

Girardi to O’s: You Can’t Hide Your Spying Eyes

ShowalterWhether Orioles third base coach Bobby Dickerson was signaling pitch location to his team’s hitters is almost beside the point. The Yankees thought he was doing it, and that’s enough.

The dispute emerged at the end of the first inning of Monday’s game, when Buck Showalter raced from his dugout to yell at Joe Girardi for giving Dickerson a hard time from the Yankees dugout. According to Dickerson, the abuse started with Baltimore’s first hitter of the game, Nick Markakis (who hit a ground-rule double).

” ‘I know what you’re doing,’ ” Girardi yelled, according to Dickerson.

This means that if Dickerson was doing something suspicious, it probably wasn’t the first time. The only way the Yankees could be on something like that so quickly is if they were already aware of it and paying particularly close attention from the game’s first pitch.

“Yelling it, body language, pointing at me,” Dickerson said in an MLB.com report. “That’s it. And I’m a grown man, that’s all. I don’t see why he was yelling at me. I just said, ‘You don’t know anything. You don’t even know me to be yelling at me.’ ”

Showalter should be commended for taking up for his guy—which he did in the most visible way possible, with sufficient animation that the benches cleared (watch it here)—but Girardi is the one on solid footing here.

If Dickerson was indicating location (Yankees catcher Austin Romine insisted that he had the signs themselves well protected), he was fulfilling a longstanding duty of base coaches throughout the history of the game. Not all of them do it, of course, but it’s expected—and accepted—that a certain number will.

Coaches may bend at the waist to indicate one type of pitch, and stand upright for another. When Leo Durocher was coaching third while managing the Brooklyn Dodgers in the mid-1940s, he’d whistle to the hitter to indicate he knew the pitch. (Not only would he take it from the catcher, but he’d also peer in to the pitcher’s grip for clues.) Giants right-hander Ace Adams made a point once of showing him a curveball grip, which Durocher dutifully relayed. Adams, however, threw a fastball right at the batter. That, he said, stopped the whistling in a hurry.

In the early 2000s, the Cardinals were convinced that Cubs first-base coach Sandy Alomar was signaling pitches to Sammy Sosa. St. Louis coach Jose Oquendo handled the situation via a face-to-face confrontation with Alomar, during which he urged (at top volume) the cessation of such activity. That said, Oquendo himself carries a reputation as an accomplished sign thief. In an interview for The Baseball Codes, he admitted to stealing signs “every day” from the first-base coach’s box, but insisted that he used the information only to inform strategy for his team’s baserunners, never passing it along to hitters.

All told, such efforts to tamp down this kind of activity are entirely expected. Which is precisely what Girardi did. As a manager, it’s his job to call out such intransigence as soon as he’s aware of it, at which point it becomes incumbent of the offender to knock off whatever it was he had been doing.

Had Showalter played by the unwritten rules and remained in his dugout while making sure Dickerson laid low for a while, the outcome would have been no different—we’d just have heard nothing about it.

Josh Rupe, Retaliation, Russell Martin

Martin Drilled; Yankees Cry Retaliation, O’s Say, ‘Who, Me?’

Russell Martin during his sweet spot—after his second homer and before he was drilled.

The plunking of Russell Martin on Saturday, April 23, by Baltimore pitcher Josh Rupe was enough to fire up the usually stoic Joe Girardi, who was seen pumping his fist in the dugout in response to Brett Gardner’s revenge homer a batter later.

Why so impassioned? Martin was drilled high between the shoulder blades, just below his head, after hitting two home runs in what would end up a 15-3 laugher for the Yankees.

“What happened last night, it’s ugly, it’s unfortunate,” said Girardi in the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

O’s skipper Buck Showalter agreed, though he stuck by his pitcher’s claim of innocent intent. Of course he did. That’s his job.

More interestingly, when asked how he might respond should the Yankees retaliate, he told the Baltimore Sun, “We’ll deal with it. It’s self-inflicted.”

That’s a big statement from a manager—a tacit admission to the opposing club that, should they handle their business appropriately, they will have an uncontested free shot available to them the next time the teams meet.

Rupe issued the requisite denial in which he insisted he was attempting nothing more than to pitch inside. Then he took it a step further.

“I know how it looked, and for me and a lot of these guys on this team, I pitch in,” he said in an MLB.com report. “That’s what I do when I’m coming out of the ‘pen. I’ve already given up a home run, and yeah, I was really [ticked] off. But I’m not going to resort to possibly hurting a guy and end his career or anything like that. There’s no reason for me to do that.”

There might even be some truth to the sentiment. Rupe came in with the bases loaded in the eighth, and promptly gave up a grand slam to Alex Rodriguez. He later hit Martin with two outs in the ninth. Any fastball fueled by frustration is bound to get wild, regardless of its intended target. This doesn’t excuse the pitch, of course, or get the Orioles off the hook. And it certainly didn’t change the Yankees’ collective opinion.

Martin, on Rupe’s intent: “Yes—there’s no doubt about it. I want to stay in the lineup, so I’m not going to do anything stupid, but I wouldn’t recommend him doing that again.”

Girardi: “It was right at his head.”

Mark Teixeira: “That’s a heck of a coincidence if it wasn’t intentional. . . . There’s no place for it.”

Teixeira’s opinion holds extra merit, as he went in spikes high against Baltimore infielder Robert Andino in the seventh inning. Andino immediately got up and had words for the baserunner.

It was not Teixeira who was targeted, however, despite coming to bat the following inning with the Yankees ahead, 9-3. (He walked, loading the bases.)

In the series finale the following day, no batters from either team were hit. Perhaps the Yankees’ blowout victory the previous day allowed them to move on. More likely, the combination of a close score on Sunday (the game was tied, 3-3, going into the 11th inning) and proximity to the initial incident was enough to put Girardi off … for the time being.

Still, he made sure to say, “I think it’s important that your players have each others’ backs during a long season. As a team, you have to take care of each other.”

The Yankees visit Baltimore on May 18.

– Jason

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Swinging 3-0

The Differences Between Spring Training and the Regular Season Sometimes aren’t so Different After All

Buck Showalter: Not a fan of the 3-0 swing.

As March draws to a close, it’s a good time to ponder the meaning of spring training games.

They exist to help players prepare for the season, that much is obvious. But what of their actual function? Because they don’t count, they’re handled differently than other contests.

Managers regularly empty their benches with steady streams of substitutions. Pitchers don’t fret about poor outings—at least early on—under the hypothesis that they’re working out winter kinks; if they feel like throwing 10 curveballs in a row then by gorum that’s what they’ll do, regardless of what hitters are doing to those curveballs.

But still, they are games. And games are played with certain elemental consistencies.

The last two weeks have seen separate incidents that bring to the fore the question “What’s appropriate in spring training and what’s not?” Both, coincidentally, involved catchers for the Orioles.

On March 15, Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen tried to score from first on a hit by Baltimore’s Matt Diaz, but was tagged out when Matt Wieters blocked the plate, forcing McCuthen into his shin guards.

“I don’t know what (Wieters) was thinking,” McCutchen said afterward in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “It’s spring training. We’re not trying to get hurt. I wasn’t expecting that much contact. I’m OK, though.”

It harkens back to Pete Rose bowling over Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game. How much is too much when it comes to hard-nosed baseball during the course of an exhibition?

In this case, however, it was McCutchen himself initiating the contact; Weiters did nothing more than react precisely as a catcher should—protecting both himself and the baseball.

As Yahoo’s Kevin Kaduk observed, “Why did McCutchen slide if he was uninterested in making contact? There’s two bangs in a bang-bang play and McCutchen could have easily withheld one by simply peeling off if he felt the run wasn’t that important in the whole scheme of things.”

On Monday, another Baltimore catcher, Jake Fox—who leads the Grapefruit League with 10 home runs—showed that he’s not much afraid to take his hacks, regardless of the circumstances. With runners on second and third and nobody out in the eighth inning—and his team holding a 13-3 lead against the Tigers—Fox swung 3-0.

One of the clearest-cut sections of baseball’s unwritten rulebook mandates that when one’s team holds a big lead late in a game, one does not, as a hitter, swing at a 3-0 pitch. We’ve gone over it in this space before, but the prevailing notion holds that any pitcher in the wrong end of a blowout game is not on the most solid of footing to begin with. With that in mind, and because the last thing a manger wants to see with his team down by double digits (or something close to it) is a bubble reliever trying to get fine, the next pitch is almost certain to be a fastball down the heart of the plate.

Because of this, hitters are expected to back off and give the pitcher sufficient leeway with which to regain his footing.

Were this the regular season, Fox’s actions would have drawn unequivocal ire, but did the fact that they came in a spring training game affect things? Jake Fox is a journeyman, has played for three teams since 2007, and last year was the first in which he logged no time in the minors. While his prodigious display of power this March has all but locked up a roster spot, one can never be too careful, right? The more numbers he puts up, the better his chances of earning a real payday.

Then again, he was facing a minor leaguer in Chance Ruffin. And regardless of circumstance, proper etiquette is proper etiquette. Ruffin was wearing a big league uniform and facing a big league hitter, and deserves an according level of respect. As does the game itself.

Two people who agree were Jim Leyland and Buck Showalter. Once Fox walked, Leyland raced to the top step of the dugout and berated him for his transgression.

Showalter took things a step farther, yanking off his hat and enumerating at high volume to those in the dugout the ways in which Fox had soiled the reputation of the game. He then sent in a pinch-runner, and made sure to meet Fox in the dugout, where he then unloaded on him. Wrote Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun, “It apparently wasn’t the first time this spring where Fox ignored a clear take situation.”

If Leyland feels that there’s a lesson to be taught here, it shouldn’t take long—Baltimore and Detroit meet in the teams’ second series of the season, starting April 4.

– Jason