Don't Call out Opponents in the Press, Retaliation

Pham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am: Cards Slugger Upset Over Cub Comments, HBP (Maybe Not in That Order)

Phammed

Losing to the Cubs offers indignities aplenty for St. Louis.

Yielding the pennant-clinching victory to Chicago, as the Cardinals did on Wednesday, is downright mortifying. Doing so at home only makes the suffering worse. Having what seemed like half the stadium cheering for the visitors was downright brutal.

Hearing Ben Zobrist talk beforehand about how the Cubs “intend to clinch there” and how “it’s going to be very satisfying” was enough to make at least one player angry.

Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham was especially pointed in his response to Zobrist’s comments. “He better not ask me how I’m doing on the field,” Pham told reporters. “I don’t want to be his friend. He said he’s going to come here and pop bottles or all that stuff. Don’t say hi to me on the field then.”

It would have been easier to brush aside as surface drama had Pham not been drilled in the ribs on Tuesday, then talked after the game about how “it was definitely on purpose.” The HBP had less to do with his comments, he said, than with Kris Bryant being drilled earlier in the game by a Carlos Martinez fastball that approached 100 mph. (The only thing keeping him from charging the mound, Pham said in a CBS report, was that “I don’t make enough money right now to face a suspension.”

 

He might be right about the motivation. Pham himself had hit a monster homer an inning earlier to give St. Louis a 5-1 lead, and when Bryant came up, two were out with a runner at third. Avoiding the reigning NL MVP with a base open is rarely a bad option.

Then again, Bryant was hit with a 2-2 pitch, which brought Anthony Rizzo to the plate. Moreover, Martinez was all over the place. The pitch before the one that drilled Bryant went wild, allowing Mike Freeman to advance. Then Martinez walked Rizzo to load the bases. Then he walked Wilson Contreras to bring home a run.

The teams played yesterday with little drama beyond Chicago’s champagne celebration (as Zobrist had predicted). With St. Louis battling for the NL’s final wild-card spot, nothing funky should go down when the teams meet tonight for the final time this season, except maybe in the case of a blowout.

Still, drama sure is fun.

[H/T: Christopher C.]

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Retaliation

How Many HBPs is Too Many HBPs? (Answer: Four)

Happ drilled

The general question of the day: When is retaliation necessary?

The specific question of the day: Is retaliation necessary when none of your batters have been hit on purpose?

The more-specific question of the day: Is retaliation necessary when lots of your batters have been hit, even if none of them were intentional?

The White Sox answered that question yesterday after Cubs starter John Lackey drilled four among their ranks—three of them in the fifth inning alone. Jose Abreu was hit twice, staring down Lackey after the second one until plate ump Lance Barksdale stepped between them.

There was almost certainly no intent behind any of the pitches, given that they clipped their targets rather than bore into them, not to mention that the fifth-inning spate loaded the bases. It mattered little to the South-siders. In the bottom of the frame, Sox reliever Chris Beck missed Cubs second baseman Ian Happ with his first pitch, and drilled him in the thigh with his next one.

It was enough for Barksdale to issue warnings, which effectively ended retaliation for the day. (Watch it here.)

So the answer, as evidenced by this game, is that, yes, retaliation is an option, even when nothing intentional has gone down. But why?

The Cubs’ scouting report had Lackey pitching aggressively inside, especially against free swingers like Matt Davidson, one of Chicago’s four HBPs, who already has 115 strikeouts on the season. After the game, Lackey himself said, “You look at numbers, it’s a pretty extreme-swinging team. You’ve got to go to some extreme zones.”

The White Sox were being abused, and Beck planting one into Happ was their most unequivocal method of indicating an unwillingness to take any more. After Barksdale’s warning, pitches ceased to be thrown recklessly inside. (It didn’t hurt that Lackey was pulled one pitch after hitting his final batter.)

Lackey himself agreed with the retaliation (“If I’m pitching on the other side, I’m probably hitting somebody”), as did Cubs manager Joe Maddon (“Their retribution was obvious. I had no argument.”)

 

Ultimately, Lackey is responsible for the well-being of his teammates when he’s on the mound. If his actions inspire an opponent to take a shot at one of them, he has to weigh the merits of continuing his course, and what kind of cost that might exact within his own clubhouse. Then he has to deal with Happ or any other Cub that wears one as a matter of recourse. This is the crux of much retaliatory strategy.

After the game, Lackey went so far as to apologize to his teammate, offering to buy the rookie something to make up for it.

What, really, could Happ do? “Hopefully it’s something nice,” he said in an MLB.com report.

And the cycle continues.

 

 

Don't Call Out Teammates in the Press

On the Importance of Knowing One’s Clubhouse Standing Before a Public Rant, Miguel Montero Edition

Safe!

The Washington Nationals had themselves a time on the basepaths yesterday, stealing seven bases in a 6-1 victory over the Cubs without being caught. Major league steals leader Trea Turner swiped four. (Watch all seven here.)

While this might ordinarily be an opportunity for some introspection, catcher Miguel Montero was having none of it. After the game, he said this, in an ESPN report:

 

“That’s the reason they were running left and right today, because [starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, against whom every base was stolen] was slow to the plate. Simple as that. It’s a shame it’s my fault because I didn’t throw anyone out. It really sucked, because the stolen bases go on me. But when you really look at it, the pitcher doesn’t give me any time, so yeah, ‘Miggy can’t throw anyone out,’ but my pitchers don’t hold anyone on.”

Montero is frustrated, and rightfully so. Arrieta is tied for the NL lead in stolen bases allowed, with 15 this season, and ranked fifth with 23 last year. His outing was the latest example of ongoing issues when it comes to the Cubs holding runners close. Still, it doesn’t much explain the fact that starting catcher Wilson Contreras has thrown out 34 percent of attempted thieves—well above the 28-percent league average—while Montero (whose pop time of 2.11 seconds is the second-worst in baseball) has thrown out just one of 31.

An aging backup catcher singling out a Cy Young winner as a source of blame is never a good look. By denying his own responsibility in the matter, Montero did himself no favors when it comes to his clubhouse standing.

Sure enough, Anthony Rizzo went on the radio this morning and confirmed as much.

The Cubs confirmed it further shortly thereafter, in even more concrete terms. They cut the catcher.

Examples of this type of tone-deaf behavior can be found throughout baseball history, and they rarely end well. (We won’t even count the finger-pointing of former White Sox pitcher Jamie Navarro, which came in such abundance that in 1999 the Chicago Sun-Times once devoted an entire feature story to it.)

In the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 1939 World Series, Cincinnati right fielder Ival Goodman couldn’t catch up with a ball that fell for a triple, which led to the winning run scoring for the Yankees. After the game, Paul Derringer—the pitcher who gave it up—lit into the fielder. “If you got no guts, get out of there,” he screamed. “That was the most gutless effort I’ve ever seen.” The words sparked a clubhouse fistfight between the two, recalled Bill Werber in Memories of a Ballplayer. New York went on to sweep the Reds.

Against Houston in 1968, Willie Mays took off from first base on a single to left field by Jim Ray Hart. Expecting Mays to stop at second, Astros left fielder Dick Simpson took his time getting to the ball—a window that Mays exploited by racing through to third. Cutoff man Bob Aspromonte couldn’t believe it, fielding the throw and turning to glare toward Simpson in disbelief. This was in some ways even more damaging than slagging his teammate to the press; Mays saw another opening and didn’t slow down, motoring home from first on an error-free single.

In 2001, the Detroit Tigers called a clubhouse meeting to address the fact that not everybody joined a fight spurred when Kansas City’s Mike Sweeney charged the mound after being drilled by Jeff Weaver. The reason more Tigers didn’t have the pitcher’s back: Weaver had recently and publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the run support he’d received during starts. “When you’ve only got two or three guys fighting behind you, it kind of irks you the wrong way,” the pitcher said afterward in the Detroit Free Press.

Ain’t that the truth. Just ask Miguel Montero, should he ever make it back to a big league clubhouse.

Bat Flipping

Kris Bryant Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Bat Flips

Bryant headshot

Kris Bryant went on Chicago radio station 670 The Score on Tuesday and discussed bat flipping. While being careful to say that he’s not offended when others do it, and adding that it’s good to “add more of that fun to the game,” he also said this:

If [you hit a home run] halfway up the video board, that’s it, that’s enough of a disgrace for the pitcher that you don’t need to add anything to it. You crushed a home run, you felt good about it. He felt bad about it. And it’s good.”

It’s all personal opinion, of course. In baseball’s new bat-flip-tolerant landscape, pitchers have little call to get upset by the practice. But Bryant drove to the heart of the anti-showboat mentality: Put your head down and act like you’ve been there before. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

[H/T Big League Stew]

 

 

Bat Flipping, Retaliation, Veteran Status

Arrieta Already in Midseason Form, Calls Out Bat-Flippers Across the Land

That’s Jake Arrieta Tuesday, on Chicago’s ESPN 1000.

We’ve heard so much recently about bat flipping and showboating and personal expression—just two days ago Yasiel Puig modeled his latest flip for a spring training crowd …

Puig flip

… that it’s nice to hear something from the other side.

Forget for a moment that intentionally planting a fastball into a young player’s ribs is no longer a viable means of response, or that Arrieta himself has bristled at such treatment. The pitcher’s point is as much about veteran status as anything.

Which is valid. For as long as baseball’s had unwritten rules, one of them has been You earn what you get. Players who have walked the walk get more leeway than fresh-faced rookies, and justifiably so. Back in 1972, Mudcat Grant summed up the sport’s salary structure by saying, “Baseball underpays you when you’re young, and overpays you when you’re old.” The same holds true for respect. In the eyes of many veterans, those who haven’t earned their big league stripes have no business acting as if they run the place.

For a guy like Arrieta, this includes showboating at the plate.

While I disagree with the sentiment of visiting physical peril on the opposition, I love that somebody is willing to recognize a merit-based hierarchy within the sport’s structure. No participation trophies here. You earn what you get.

If Arrieta and like-minded pitchers come off as stodgy in the process of voicing their opinions, so be it. All players shouldn’t be treated the same, just as people in any workplace environment in any industry shouldn’t be treated the same. In an ideal world, those who deserve promotion get promoted. And those who make too much noise with insufficient accomplishments to their name merit their own response.

What that response looks like is up for interpretation, but in this instance I’m kind of wild about that aspect of baseball’s old guard.

 

Earning respect, Umpire Relations

Rizzo Rapid to Render Respect

rizzo

Whether or not one agrees with their implementation, the underlying nature of baseball’s unwritten rules—respect each other and the game at large—is difficult to quibble with. We saw one of its most basic elements yesterday, courtesy of Anthony Rizzo.

In an at-bat earlier in the game, Chicago’s first baseman had incorrectly assumed ball four from Pedro Baez, but as he was heading toward first base plate ump Angel Hernandez informed him that, no,  it was actually a strike.

There’s no indication that Hernandez was upset with Rizzo, but the hitter took it upon himself during his next at-bat, when the game paused for a mound conference, to make sure everything was square between himself and Hernandez. Watch for yourself:

On one hand, there’s self-preservation involved in the strategy. The more an umpire likes a player—or, more pertinently, the less he doesn’t like a player—the better the chances that close calls will go that player’s way. More important, however, is the basic decency of the gesture. There was a chance that Hernandez read something in Rizzo’s actions that Rizzo did not intend, so Rizzo took care of it as soon as he could.

“I don’t like showing up the umpires,” he said after the game. “They’re out here working their tails off 162 like we are. … I just let him know that, hey, my fault there. I probably should have waited a little longer and not just assumed that it was a ball.”

Turns out that a little bit of introspection suits ballplayers nicely.

[H/T Hardball Talk]

 

 

Sign stealing

Today’s Question: What to do With Spying Eyes?

spy

According to the Dodgers, the Cubs are stealing signs. Also according to the Dodgers, the Dodgers don’t like it.

As evidence, Los Angeles catcher Yasmani Grandal pointed to the eighth inning of Saturday’s Game 1 of the NLCS, when Ben Zobrist reached second base—the perfect location from which to peer in at the catcher’s hands—and Addison Russell’s at-bat changed considerably.

“All the sudden, Russell is not taking good swings at sliders, looking like he’s looking for a fastball and in a certain location,” Grandal said in a Los Angeles Times account. “Did we know Zobrist had the signs and was doing something for it? Yeah, we did. That’s why we do it.”

The “it” to which Grandal referred was a continuous loop of sign changes and mound meetings, the better to stifle would-be thieves.

“We are literally paranoid when it comes to men on second and they are trying to get signs,” he added. “We know who is getting the signs. We know what they’re doing. We know what they do to get it. In the playoffs, one relayed sign could mean the difference between winning the World Series and not getting there.”

Ignore for a moment whether there’s any difference between literal paranoia and figurative paranoia. Are the Dodgers so certain that Zobrist and the Cubs are spying on them? Zobrist assures us otherwise.

It seems likely that he’s obfuscating, if only because it doesn’t take a hardball savant—even somebody unable to decode a catcher’s signs—to signal location. Former infielder Randy Velarde once looked at me like I was half an idiot when I asked him about the ease of relaying stolen signs from second base. “It’s the easiest thing in the world,” he said. “I’m amazed that everybody doesn’t do it.”

Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter. The barest suspicion of such chicanery should prompt the very response the Dodgers appear to be embracing—cloaking their signs in any way possible. What said response does not include is getting angry at the Cubs … and the Dodgers seem to be fine on that front, as well.

Changing signs can be as easy as swapping out the indicator, or the sign after which the actual sign takes effect. Maybe it’s the sign following the second signal for fastball. Maybe it’s based on the count (a 2-0 pitch would trigger the second sign in a series, while a 3-2 count would trigger the fifth, etc.). It could be the number of signs a catcher puts down rather than the signs themselves. The possibilities are limitless.

The only trick is to not make things so complicated that the pitcher gets confused. (Giants pitcher Sam Jones, for example, killed the National League in 1959, going 21-12 with a 2.54 ERA everywhere but Wrigley Field. In Chicago, of course, the Cubs’ practice of stealing signs from the scoreboard led to an 0-3 mark with for Jones with an 8.53 ERA. Why didn’t the Giants just switch up their signs like the Dodgers have recently done? Jones had trouble recognizing all but the simplest signals.)

Stealing signs from beyond the field of play is illegal, of course, not to mention frowned upon from a moral standpoint, while stealing signs from the basebaths—as Zobrist is accused of doing—is widely considered acceptable practice. (At least up until one is caught, at which point an increased degree of subtlety is expected). There are red-asses through the history of the game partial to on-field accusations (one example from spring training of this year seems to reinforce the idea that the Cubs might really be into this type of thing), but the low-key approach Los Angeles is taking—calling it out in the press is a surefire way to make sure everybody’s paying attention—is the right one.

Ultimately, the Dodgers are also displaying another sort of best practice. The ultimate recourse available to a team whose signs have been pilfered is to switch ’em up, then go win ballgames. Which is exactly what Los Angeles is doing.