Catchers Protect Pitchers, Retaliation

On the Merits of Moving On: Harper and Hunter Try to Make Nice

Harper-Hunter

Harper-Strickland: The Day After played out in San Francisco yesterday, and was noteworthy primarily for just how un-noteworthy it had become. It became that way because the players made it so. Retaliation was nowhere to be found on the field Tuesday at AT&T Park.

In the visitors’ clubhouse before the game, Bryce Harper—fresh off receiving a four-an appeal-reduced three-game suspension—spoke about the hope that both sides could move on from worrying about the past, saying things like, “That’s gonna suck if I get hit again.”

On the Giants’ side, the conversation turned away from pitcher Hunter Strickland (himself suspended for six games) and toward somebody with significantly more effect on the team’s fortunes, a guy who through his own inaction managed to become a focal point of the story.

But Buster Posey didn’t want to talk about it.

His first comment to reporters was, “I just want to focus on playing the game.” Then he ended the interview.

With space to consider the implications, the more it seems that Posey’s actions were deliberate, not delinquent. If that’s so, the primary question becomes whether the catcher knew about Strickland’s intentions in advance, which leads to two primary scenarios:

  • If he did, Posey likely attempted to dissuade the pitcher from hitting Harper, and was subsequently disgusted when Strickland ignored his advice.
  • If he didn’t, Posey was shocked into inaction, less in a too-surprised-to-move sort of way than a let-dude-fix-his-own-mess sort of way.

In the aftermath of the fight Monday night, in the Giants’ postgame clubhouse, Posey sat facing his locker as Strickland approached from the side to talk to him. What they said was private, but Posey never once turned to look at his teammate. It did not lend an impression of understanding or warmth.

On Tuesday, Strickland tried to put it behind him, saying, “I never once questioned or had to question Buster or anyone on this team. We’re here to win ballgames and I don’t look at it any further than that.”

Discussing the fight itself, Harper expressed some relief that Giants players didn’t get to him more quickly, with particular appreciation for San Francisco first baseman Michael Morse, Harper’s teammate in Washington in 2012, Harper’s rookie year. “I’m thankful that Mikey Mo and [Jeff] Samardzija collided, because Samardzija saw blood a little bit, I thought,” he said

Harper used the phrase “I’m very thankful for Mikey Mo” twice more in the conversation.

As for Morse, he said his intention, had he not collided with his teammate (resulting in a concussion that landed him on the 7-day DL), was to grab Harper and pull him the hell away from the pile. He likes the guy—went out of his way to protect him, not hurt him. How that sits with guys like Strickland or Samardzija, both of whom did see blood a little bit, is unknown.

Ultimately, focus on the situation grew so absurd that Harper even went so far as to suggest that baseball might be better off were players more emotionally in-tune. “If [Strickland] did have a problem,” he told reporters, “he could have talked to me during BP about it, said, hey, I don’t like the way you went about it.”

Then, realizing the folly of his suggestion, he sighed, “That’s not human nature, I guess.”

Let’s leave the last word, though, to Posey, with a sentiment that was, literally, his last word before shooing the gathered media away from his locker before Tuesday’s game. “Funny world we live in, isn’t it?” he said.

Indeed.

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Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

The Best Revenge Can Be Found On the Scoreboard

Posey avoids pitch

I’ve long claimed in this space that the best kind of retaliation is the kind that hurts figuratively, on the scoreboard, rather than literally, in, say, the ribcage. In San Francisco, Bruce Bochy seems to be a proponent of the former.

A few days prior to the All-Star break, the Diamondbacks got into it with San Francisco, starting when Jean Segura homered on Jeff Samardzija’s first pitch of the game. When Segura came to the plate an inning later, the right-hander drilled him with a fastball.

Intent was speculative, and highly unlikely. The Giants trailed 2-0, there was a runner on first and only one out. Still, a hit batter is a hit batter, and in the land of Tony La Russa, hit batters frequently merit response.

The first Giant to bat in the bottom half of the inning was Buster Posey. Diamondbacks starter Patrick Corbin nearly hit him in the knee. When Corbin sailed another pitch behind him, warnings were issued.

Bochy roared from the dugout, wondering at top volume why the hell Corbin was being allowed to stay in the game. The skipper was ejected for his protest (watch it here), but it hardly mattered. Posey walked, and the very next batter, Brandon Crawford, tied the score with a home run—the first of what became six unanswered for the Giants, who went on to win, 6-2.

Crawford’s shot, he said afterward in a San Francisco Chronicle report, was borne of motivation: “I don’t want to sugarcoat it—that’s what I went up there to do. I don’t know what they were thinking throwing at Buster twice. That kind of fired me up. When he walked, I wanted to make them pay for doing it.”

More pertinent to the big picture are the divergent approaches taken by the teams. The Diamondbacks, first under guys like Kirk Gibson and GM Kevin Towers, and now under La Russa and manager Chip Hale, have a storied history of exacting revenge at the slightest of provocations. Under Bochy, the Giants tend to approach things with leveler heads.

San Francisco outfielder Gregor Blanco neatly summed up the mindframe after the game, saying that Arizona’s strategy “was not smart baseball right there.”

“When something like that happens,” he said, “we feed off that anger. It shows what we’re capable of.”

That’s the sort of thing that ballplayers are expected to say, but in this case it appears to be true. Samardzija retired 12 of the next 13 batters he faced after the warnings, and the Giants closed the first half with the best record in baseball. (Arizona, perhaps coincidentally, is in last place, 19 games back.) Talent has a lot to do with it, of course, but it’s also a decent example of what a baseball team focusing on the right things actually looks like.

Buster Posey, Retaliation, Sam LeCure

A Time and a Place for Everything, or: What Was it You Were Retaliating for, Again?

Buster's revenge: Posey takes Sam LeCure deep in the ninth.

In baseball, it’s not difficult to determine what constitutes a retaliation-worthy offense, and what does not. Intent behind that HBP? Retaliate away. Nobody should say a word.

On Tuesday, however, Reds reliever Sam LeCure apparently didn’t care for the fact that Joey Votto was drilled in the backside by San Francisco’s Dan Otero during what would become a six-run inning. What he failed to consider: Otero is a rookie with all of 6.2 innings to his name this season, and was in the midst of a full-throated meltdown—all six runs were his, in fewer than two innings—that saw his ERA rise from 2.70 to 8.64. The guy was clearly not hitting his marks.

Which didn’t keep LeCure from putting a ball behind Buster Posey’s knee in the ninth.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy was seen to mouth the words, “That’s fucking bullshit” in the dugout, and was more than happy to expound on that theme after the game.

“The kid (Otero) has got two weeks in the big-leagues,” he told the press. “He’s trying to get through an inning. He’s trying to survive. He’s not trying to hit anybody. He was scuffling out there. I’m sure he was nervous. . . . That’s how people get hurt. Here’s a guy (Posey) we lost for a long time last year and he gets a ball thrown at his kneecap.”

Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle had an interesting take on LeCure’s rationale, going back to Daniel Hudson’s preseason proclamation that Arizona pitchers would no longer tolerate shots at their teammates:

During spring training, Arizonastarter Daniel Hudson articulated a warning to all the pitchers in the National League. Justin Upton is the Diamondbacks’ best player and he was hit by 19 pitches last year, most in the National League. So Hudson made it clear that if Upton continued to get hit, the Diamondbacks would retaliate.

I get that. I also get that sometimes it’s OK for a team to retaliate for a hit batter even if it was accidental, if it keeps happening over and over. At some point, the batter’s team needs to show it will not let opponents continue to use a guy as a dartboard, and there will be consequences.

Thus, when Reds reliever Sam LeCure threw behind Buster Posey in the ninth inning of tonight’s 9-2 Reds win, in obvious retaliation for Dan Otero’s equally obvious accidental drilling of Joey Votto in the seventh, I initially thought it was OK. I figured Votto had been a target lately and LeCure was just doing with the baseball what Hudson did with his language in spring training. So I grabbed the stat sheet to see how many times Votto had been hit this season.

Zero.

The part that makes the least sense is that the Giants’ leadoff batter the following inning was none other than Dan Otero (who was left in to mop up what was by then a hopeless game). Holding an eight-run lead, Reds reliever Jose Arredondo proceeded to strike him out. That was Cincinnati’s best—and some would say, only, as far as justification is concerned—shot at retaliation. That it took another inning and a different pitcher to get it done speaks to darker things. There’s a chance that Arredondo was influenced by Reds starter Matt Latos—so outspoken in his dislike of the Giants that before the game he handed a ball to the Cincinnati broadcasters inscribed with the phrase, “I hate the Giants.” (Latos and San Francisco built up no shortage of animosity in 2010, when the right-hander pitched for San Diego.)

The dugouts were warned, after which Posey got the best kind of revenge: He hit a two-run homer that ended Cincinnati’s bid for a shutout.

Teams play again today. Stay tuned.

Protect Teammates

Sabean Goes Off, People Freak Out

Wow. That’s pretty much the reaction du jour after Brian Sabean unleashed his verbal vengeance on Scott Cousins yesterday. Perhaps it’s that general managers don’t usually talk that way. Perhaps it’s that, more than a week after the incident in which Buster Posey was lost for the season, a guy in a position usually reserved for settling volatile situations has instead served to inflame this one.

A brief recap. In an interview on Giants flagship KNBR yesterday, Sabean said the following:

  • “He chose to be a hero in my mind, and if that’s his flash of fame, that’s as good as it’s going to get, pal. We’ll have a long memory. Believe me, we’ve talked to (former catcher Mike) Matheny about how this game works. You can’t be that out-and-out overly aggressive. I’ll put it as politically as I can state it: There’s no love lost, and there shouldn’t be.”
  • “If I never hear from Cousins again or he never plays another game in the big leagues, I think we’ll all be happy.”
  • “If you listen to the kid’s comments after the fact, he pretty much decided and it was premeditated that if he got a chance, he was going to blow up the catcher to dislodge the ball, And if you watch frame by frame from different angles, he does not take the path to the plate to try to score. He goes after Buster, right shoulder on right shoulder, and to me, that’s malicious.”

(Listen to the entire thing here.)

By referencing Matheny, Sabean was essentially promising retaliation. (Matheny, a catcher whose career was ended by a spate of concussions after too many collisions at the plate, was widely quoted as saying that situations such as this should be settled on the field.)

By calling the play malicious when it clearly was not, by wishing ill upon Cousins, by unleashing what by almost every account is an over-the-top tirade, Sabean has in the minds of most pundits gone too far.

Which may have been precisely his point.

The Giants don’t face the Marlins again until August, at which point Cousins—currently batting all of .159—might not even be on the team. Meanwhile, Sabean has sent an unequivocal message—not just a warning that one takes liberties with the Giants at one’s own risk, but that this type of play is drawing both notice and response.

Since the accident, Sabean has advocated for a reexamination of the rule that allows home plate collisions, especially those such as the one that injured Posey, in which the catcher cedes the baseline in an effort to avoid unnecessary contact. (Sabean, in fact, is not the first GM to get involved with the issue this week; Billy Beane has already instructed Kurt Suzuki to get out of the way and employ sweep tags.)

Baseball will probably opt against enacting any sort of rule change, at least in the short term, so the Giants’ GM is taking the law into his own hands. His volley was a clear message to would-be catcher stalkers: You better be damn sure that’s your only way of scoring, because if it’s not, we’ll be watching.

Sabean will likely be disciplined by MLB for his comments. Sabean likely does not care.

This issue is bigger than the Giants. In this regard, Sabean is taking one for the team—all those within baseball who share his views on the topic.

Did he go too far in his assessment? Absolutely. But did Sabean—who, while notoriously frank, is no dummy when it comes to public relations—feel that was the best way to get his message across?

Almost indisputably.

Update (June 3): The Giants just released this statement (note the explanation sans apology):

This is a very emotional time for the Giants organization and our fans. We lost for the season one of our best players to a serious injury and we are doing everything we can to support Buster Posey through this very difficult time. We appreciate Scott Cousins’ outreach to Buster Posey and to the Giants organization.

Brian Sabean’s comments yesterday were said out of frustration and out of true concern for Buster and were not meant to vilify Scott Cousins. Brian has been in contact with Florida Marlins General Manager Larry Beinfest to clarify his comments and to assure him that there is no ill-will toward the player. He has also reached out to Scott Cousins directly.

The issue of catcher safety is a complicated one. There are a number of differing opinions around the circumstances of last week’s collision and about what baseball should do to prevent serious injuries in the future. This issue goes far beyond last week’s incident as there have been a number of recent collision-involved injuries.

We have been in contact with Joe Torre, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president for baseball operations, and have asked for a thorough examination of this issue for the health and safety of all players.

We intend to move beyond conversations about last week’s incident and focus our attention on Buster’s full recovery and on defending our World Series title.

– Jason

Buster Posey, Running Into the Catcher, Scott Cousins

Posey Leveled. Is a Clean Hit a Retaliation-Worthy Offense?

You be the judge: Did Scott Cousins go out of his way to hit Buster Posey?

By now, you’ve either seen the replay or willfully avoided it. In the 12th inning of Wednesday’s game between the Giants and the Marlins, Scott Cousins came barreling home with what he hoped would be the winning run. Giants right fielder Nate Schierholtz fired a strike that would have nailed the runner had catcher Buster Posey held onto the ball.

Posey did not hold onto the ball. Cousins, unaware of this, leveled him.

It was a split-second play, Cousins reacting as he was taught—to initiate contact with the catcher in hopes of dislodging the baseball. His approach was standard, and his hit was clean.

As with many plays involving baseball’s codes, however, there is a caveat: Posey was positioned perfectly, toward the pitcher’s mound, just up the line. He did not block the plate before he had the ball (which would have given Cousins unlimited leeway to do whatever he had to). The runner was offered a clear path to the dish—a tactic enacted specifically to avoid unnecessary contact. (Watch the play here.)

The result: a broken leg and torn ankle ligaments for the Giants’ most indispensable player, who will be out of action indefinitely.

The question in the wake of this devastating news is whether Cousins’ slide was appropriate. As is true with many sections of the Code, there are multiple ways to answer.

Yes, Cousins’ takeout was appropriate. It’s the hard-nosed approach ballplayers should take when trying to score on a contested play. It is, argue many within the game, as close as a play comes to embodying the competitive spirit of baseball. A collision at the plate is, without question, the most exciting moment in a given game.

Then again, if Cousins could have scored without contact, why not do it that way? (Take, for example, last year’s collisions involving Angels catcher Bobby Wilson and Indians catcher Carlos Santana, each of whom was run over by vicious hits; because they both were blocking the plate without the ball, repercussions for the baserunners were minimal.)

“Is it a cheap shot?” asked Giants manager Bruce Bochy on Giants’ flagship KNBR (as reported by the San Jose Mercury News). “It depends who you’re talking to. They happen all the time, home-plate collisions. I think he thought the ball was going to beat him. He decided to go at Buster and try to knock it loose, that’s what it looked like to me. But there was a lane for him.” (Listen to it here.)

Bochy knows this drill well. He was a big league catcher for nine seasons, a manager for 17. He has been blown up by baserunners, and understands that it’s part of a catcher’s job description. But it’s also part of his current job description to protect his guys. As such, he called for baseball to examine the rule regarding home-plate collisions.

He’s not the only one.

“You leave players way too vulnerable,” Posey’s agent, Jeff Berry, told ESPN’s Buster Olney. “I can tell you Major League Baseball is less than it was before [Posey’s injury]. It’s stupid. I don’t know if this ends up leading to a rule change, but it should. The guy [at the plate] is too exposed.

“If you go helmet to helmet in the NFL, it’s a $100,000 fine, but in baseball, you have a situation in which runners are [slamming into] fielders. It’s brutal. It’s borderline shocking. It just stinks for baseball.”

Berry took his complaints to Joe Torre, who heads up on-field operations for MLB.

Whatever Torre decides, as the rules currently stand, actions like Cousins’ are entirely permissible. After watching replays, several members of the Giants spoke out in defense of the Florida outfielder. “We think it was (a clean hit),” said Freddy Sanchez in the Mercury News. Added Schierholtz, “It’s part of the game. There’s really no right way to take a hit.”

Schierholtz, of course, was once on the other side of the equation, when he plowed into China’s catcher during the 2008 Olympics.

Nobody was more clear on the propriety of the event than Cousins himself, who was reportedly in tears upon hearing that Posey might be lost for the remainder of the season.

“It’s a baseball play,” he said in the Palm Beach Post. “It’s part of the risk of being a catcher. We’re trying to win games also. I’m not going to concede the out by any means, not in that situation, not ever. I’m on this team to help do the little things to help this team win a game and if that means going hard and forcing the issue on the bases because I have speed, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

On a micro level, the question now is: Should the Giants retaliate?

The answer is as complex as the issues leading up to the question. The play was clean. From a long view it was also unnecessary, but in the moment it’s tough to begrudge Cousins the decision he made.

Cousins did not play in Wednesday’s series finale, and a 1-0 score prevented any batters from being intentionally hit.

Cousins said he called Posey twice, and plans to send him a written apology. It might not be enough. If the Giants do seek revenge, it will be typical fare: Sometime during the teams’ next meeting, Aug. 12-14 in Florida, Cousins will be drilled in the ribs, thigh or backside. It will be small payback for the loss of Posey, who will almost certainly not have returned by that point, but it will have satisfied the Code’s requirement. When a player of Posey’s stature gets injured on a questionable play, payback is frequently part of the response.

Perhaps the definitive comment came from Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow, via the San Francisco Chronicle:

I hate what happened last night, but it was a clean play. The law of the land. It was a hard, aggressive play, and hell, it won the game (7-6) for them. What, you change the rules so no contact is allowed? No way to do that.

Tell you what, though. When I pitch against that guy (Cousins), I drill him. Oh, yeah, I’m smokin’ him. That’s legal, too, last time I checked.

Then again, should the Giants opt to let it slide, it will likely fail to make waves. This may be one of those instances in which the victim’s reaction dictates his teammates’ response: If Posey is angry, fastballs will undoubtedly fly in August. If, as a catcher, he appreciates Cousins’ clean intentions, that outcome is far less certain.

– Jason

Retaliation, Ted Lilly

There’s a New Sherrif in Town … and his Name is Lilly

Through the array of baseball’s frontier justice so far this young season, the game has seen one unquestioned king of bad-assery, one primary purveyor of retaliation.

Raise your hand if the first name that came to mind in that regard was Ted Lilly.

Lilly has taken the lead from the No. 3 slot in the Dodgers rotation to single-handedly ensure that nobody takes liberties with his ballclub.

Tim Lincecum hit ex-teammate Juan Uribe twice, on separate occasions. (The second time, during the sixth inning of a tie game, was Lincecum’s final pitch of the night and was clearly unintentional.)

Lilly’s response: Pitching the following day, he hit Buster Posey in his first two at-bats the following day.

Warnings were issued after the second one, and although Giants manager Bruce Bochy had to be ordered back into the dugout by umpire Greg Gibson, no retaliation was in the offing. Posey had no comment afterward on the intent of the pitches; Lilly said he was just trying to pitch “hard in on (Posey’s) hands.” Of course he was.

(For what it’s worth, Lilly didn’t walk a hitter that night, and has averaged only five hit batters per season over the course of his career. Posey opted for legal retaliation after the second drilling, swiping second base for the first regular-season steal of his career.)

Last Monday, Braves pitcher Tim Hudson put a 91 mph fastball behind Jerry Sands’ head, after Sands had doubled and hit a sacrifice fly in his first two at-bats of the game—and his career—all the while serenaded by Dodger Stadium chants of “Je-RRY, Je-RRY.”

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez later admitted that the pitch was meant to send a message to the surging rookie, but came in higher than intended. Hudson gestured apologetically toward the Dodgers dugout after throwing it.

Lilly’s response: The next inning, he threw a ball behind Nate McLouth. Still, after the game, Hudson sent Sands a make-peace offering—a signed baseball. Sands accepted it, calling it a “classy move.” Lilly was hardly so forgiving.

When asked if he was protecting Sands, he said, via MLB.com: “More than that, I guess, I was disappointed with the pitch Huddy threw. All of you guys know he’s as good as it gets keeping the ball down.”

Lilly’s making $33 million over three years from the Dodgers. He was brought in to stabilize the rotation. Looks like he’s giving it some guts, as well.

– Jason