Tag Archives: Chicago Cubs

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]

 

 

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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.

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On the Importance of Occasionally Embracing the Silence

Frenchy fights

This is what happens when catchers start talking to hitters about their retaliatory instincts.

The reason we don’t frequently hear about this situation is that most catchers, based upon some combination of smarts and seasoning, understand that such banter is rarely productive. The brainpower of Cubs catcher’s Willson Contreras is entirely speculative, but his lack of seasoning is beyond question—last night was only the 24-year-old’s 20th game as a big leaguer.

So when, in the eighth inning of Chicago’s game against Atlanta, Contreras followed an inside fastball from reliever Hector Rondon with a lecture to the hitter, Jeff Francoeur, things took a turn, and benches emptied. (Watch it here.)

Some backstory:

It was a long night for Cubs hitters, with Chicago’s Kris Bryant twice being plunked by Lucas Harrell, on a full-count fastball in the fourth, and on a 1-2 curveball in the eighth. The latter, which hit Bryant on the knee and led to his precautionary removal from the game, was Harrell’s final pitch of the night.

Chicago’s problem, if Chicago had a problem, was that right-hander Hunter Cervenka, in relief of Harrell, drilled the first batter he faced, Anthony Rizzo. Every one of the hit batters came with Atlanta trying to protect a 2-0 lead. Intent did not appear to play a part in any of them.

The actual issue wasn’t that Rondon responded with a message pitch to Francouer in the bottom half of the frame—a pitch that, for not coming close to connecting with the hitter should have been entirely unobjectionable—but that Contreras decided to harp about it.

Nobody discussed what was actually said with reporters—the incident’s principals declined to talk, and Cubs manager Joe Maddon said only that “Francouer took exception, which he should not have”—but it’s clear from the video that Contreras had some things to get off his chest before allowing Francouer to get back to hitting.

The entire point of message pitches, as I’ve been led to believe, is that they’re just that: pitches that bear meaning. Francouer was not upset at Rondon’s inside heater, nor should he have been. It was only when the catcher, young buck that he is, decided to lecture him about it that things grew heated. (It’s possible, but far from certain, that Francouer would have accepted a lecture from a more seasoned player.)

Had Contreras let the pitches do the talking—which is, again, their purpose—all would likely have ended calmly. Another lesson in what’s certain to be a season full of them for a young player.

 

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Replay Revenge Rocks Runaway Rally Against Redbirds

 

Maddon

Yesterday, Hardball Talk pointed out something brewing in a next-level unwritten rules controversy: management of the challenge system.

On Tuesday, in the ninth inning of a game in which the Cubs were leading the Cardinals, 8-1, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny ordered his infield to play in—a decidedly unusual move so late in a blowout. Typically, such tactics—things like having first basemen hold runners close—are eschewed when the final result is no longer in question. Pitchers even stop nibbling around the corners, the better to force action and end things quickly.

So why would he do it? ESPN’s Jesse Rogers may have an answer.

During the play in question, Addision Russell—the third batter of the ninth inning—was called out at first after grounding to St. Louis second baseman Kolten Wong. It would have been the inning’s second out.

Instead, Maddon challenged, and Russell was ruled safe. The Cubs went on to score four times, ultimately winning, 12-3. By all appearances, Matheny saw the move as disrespectful. The Code during runaway games is largely aimed at avoiding unnecessary embarrassment for an opponent that’s already been embarrassed enough, the equivalent of a college football team pulling its starters while holding a 35-point lead in the fourth quarter.

Maddon explained his replay process thusly, via MLB.com:

“That validates running hard to first base. Two things could happen there: Maybe [Russell] could hit .300 because of that play, but more than anything, if our minor league players are watching, they see the validation of running hard to first base all the time.”

Both things are true. But a baserunner saying that the bag he swiped late in a May blowout might be the one that allowed him to reach 50 is spurious logic. This isn’t much different.

The Code during a blowout also stipulates the cessation of aggressive tactics, which means station-to-station running: advance only one base on a single, two on a double, etc. Wanting to reward his player for a hit justly earned wasn’t aggressive on Maddon’s part, but the Cubs actions with the very next batter—Javier Baez scored Chicago’s ninth run from second base on a single by Tim Federowicz—were.

Remember, Maddon’s Cubs and the Cards already have some history.

Ultimately, this seems like an issue that should be more or less immune to the unwritten rules. If a guy earns a hit, a guy earns a hit, and his manager looking out for him in that regard is the least he can do. Had Maddon chosen to challenge a play on the basepaths, it’d be a different story. For the time being, however, watching the Cubs and Cards snipe at each other is its own special reward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation, Uncategorized

John Lackey Making Baseball Fun Again for Old-School Pitchers With Anger Issues

Lackey

We’ve spent so much time recently with the concept of making baseball fun again that we seem to have lost sight of those old-school souls hell-bent on preserving on-field propriety and baseball decorum. (Members of the Goose Gossage Home for Aged Cranks, of course, carry with them their own brand of mania and are never far from view, but are rarely active players.)

On Wednesday, John Lackey reminded us that even to some who still play the game, the old school is still a thing.

In the second game of a doubleheader against San Diego, the Cubs starter gave up only one run, on a fifth-inning homer to Christian Bethancourt. It was enough to lose 1-0, but what really irked the right-hander was when Bethancourt stood in the box and watched the ball fly.

“You better fucking run!” Lackey screamed as the hitter rounded the bases.

That’s some good drama right there. Lackey upped the ante after the game, when he referenced the teams’ next meeting, in late August. “How many home runs does he have?” Lackey asked reporters, via the Chicago Tribune. Told that the blow against him was Bethancourt’s third of the season, the pitcher was concise. “I have a long memory,” he said. “He’ll learn.”

(See Bethancourt’s pimp and Lackey’s reaction over at Deadspin.)

Lackey, of course, is no stranger to this type of reaction, drilling Tampa Bay’s Matt Joyce for similar reasons, for example, when Lackey pitched for the Boston Red Sox in 2013. Also, Francisco Cervelli in 2011. Also, Derek Jeter (for different retaliatory purposes) in 2010.

Lackey is 37 years old and in his 14th big league season. He’s set in his ways. He’s also one of the rare guys left in the game willing to talk openly about drilling somebody for the crime of bruising his ego.

That kind of move is increasingly dubious in the modern baseball landscape, but Lackey is old and ornery. And, odious as it may be to the public at large, for guys like that, plunking upstart youngsters may well constitute their own version of making baseball fun again.

 

 

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MadBum on the Cubs: ‘They Might Want to Be a Little More Discreet’

MadBum-Heyward

What looked to become a full-blown confrontation yesterday in Scottsdale was quickly defused when Jason Heyward, at the plate for the Cubs, informed an increasingly agitated Madison Bumgarner that he was shouting not toward the mound, but at his own teammate, Dexter Fowler, standing atop second base.

Heyward had just struck out looking on a terrific breaking pitch, and appeared to be frustrated with … something. But why was he yelling at Fowler? The obvious conclusion is that he had received a signal for the upcoming pitch, and that the intel Fowler provided was incorrect. (Watch it here.)

If that was the case, of course, the only thing wrong with the scenario was Heyward’s inability to wait until he and his teammate were off the field to express his displeasure. Coming as it did in the middle of a freaking game, the outburst managed to draw some attention.

“They might want to be a little more discreet about that if you’re going to do that kind of thing,” said Bumgarner afterward in the San Jose Mercury News.

Which is the thing. MadBum, perhaps the game’s premier red-ass, was entirely unwilling to abide Heyward shouting something at him from outside the baseline, but when it came to stealing signs … well, they should have been a little more discreet.

Pinching a catcher’s signals from the basepaths and relaying them to the hitter is an ingrained part of baseball culture. Teams don’t like having their signs stolen, of course, but the most frequent reaction is not to get angry, but simply to change the signs.

For his part, Heyward denied the accusation, saying, “He made a great pitch on me, a front-door cutter, and I’m all, ‘Hey Dex, what’ve you got? Ball or strike?’ … There’s no tipping of signs, believe it or not. It wasn’t going on, especially in a spring training game.”

It’s true that it seems silly to steal signs during an exhibition contest, but spring training is used to hone all aspects of one’s game. Heyward is new to the Cubs, and may simply have been trying to dial in his ability to communicate from afar with various teammates. Even if he wasn’t, it sure looked like he was—and that alone is enough place the Cubs under suspicion around the rest of the league.

An entire chapter was devoted to the topic in The Baseball Codes. Here’s some of it, long but worthwhile:

It started with a thirteen-run sixth. Actually, it started with a five-run fifth, but nobody realized it until the score started ballooning an inning later. It was 1997, a sunshiny Wednesday afternoon in San Francisco. By the end of the game, it was 19–3 Expos, and the Giants—the team at the wrong end of that score—were angry, grumbling that the roster of their opponents was populated by thieves.

San Francisco’s thinking stemmed from the belief that it likely takes more than skill or luck to send seventeen men to the plate against three pitchers in a single inning. There was no disputing the numbers: Mon­treal had six players with three or more hits on the day, and in the sixth inning alone, five Expos picked up two hits apiece, including a pair of Mike Lansing homers. Montreal opened its epic frame with eight consec­utive hits, two shy of the big-league record, and it was a half-hour before the third out was recorded.

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.’ ”

What Baker was referring to was the suspicion that Santangelo and other members of the Expos had decoded the signs put down by Giants catcher Marcus Jensen for the parade of San Francisco pitchers. From second base a runner has an unimpeded sightline to the catcher’s hands. Should the runner be quick to decipher what he sees, he can—with a series of indicators that may or may not come across as “looking one way and crossing over, hands on, hands off ”—notify the hitter about what to expect. Skilled relayers can offer up specifics like fastball or curveball, but it doesn’t take much, not even the ability to decode signs, to indicate whether the catcher is setting up inside or outside.

If the runner is correct, the batter’s advantage can be profound. Brook­lyn Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen, who was as proud of his ability to steal signs from the opposing dugout as he was of his ability to manage a ball club, said that the information he fed his players resulted in nine extra victories a year.

Baker sent a word of warning to the Expos through San Francisco third-base coach Sonny Jackson, who was positioned near the visitors’ dugout. Jackson tracked down Santangelo as the game ended and informed him that he and his teammates would be well served to avoid such tactics in the future. More precisely, he said that “somebody’s going to get killed” if Montreal kept it up. The player’s response was similarly lacking in timidity. “I just told him I don’t fucking tip off fucking pitches and neither does this team,” Santangelo told reporters after the game. “Maybe they were pissed because they were getting their asses kicked.”

The Giants’ asses had been kicked two nights in a row, in fact, since the Expos had cruised to a 10–3 victory in the previous game. It was while watching videotape of the first beating that Baker grew convinced some­thing was amiss, so he was especially vigilant the following day. When Henry Rodriguez hit a fifth-inning grand slam on a low-and-away 1-2 pitch, alarm bells went off in Baker’s head. Former Red Sox 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.” The Expos trailed 3–1 at the time, then scored eighteen straight before the Giants could record four more outs.

Baker knew all about sign stealing from his playing days, had even practiced it some, and the Expos weren’t the first club he’d called out as a manager. During a 1993 game in Atlanta, he accused Jimy Williams of untoward behavior after watching the Braves’ third-base coach pacing up and down the line and peering persistently into the San Francisco dugout.

For days after the drubbing by Montreal, accusations, denials, veiled threats, and not-so-veiled threats flew back and forth between the Giants and the Expos. Among the bluster, the two primary adversaries in the bat­tle laid out some of the basics for this particular unwritten rule.

Santangelo, in the midst of a denial: “Hey, if you’re dumb enough to let me see your signs, why shouldn’t I take advantage of it?”

Baker: “Stealing signs is part of the game—that’s not the problem. The problem is, if you get caught, quit. That’s the deal. If you get caught you have to stop.”

 

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On the Whys, Whens and Hows of Drilling an Ace

Arrieta drilled

Depending on one’s perspective, Tony Watson’s decision to drill Jake Arietta last night was either supremely rational or patently ludicrous, depending on which details you want to focus.

Watson’s Pirates were losing a do-or-die wild card game, the 4-0 score mattering far less than the fact that Arietta had meticulously dismantled their offense, batter by batter, pitch by pitch. The Pirates couldn’t touch him, and they knew it. This is a bad reason to throw a fastball at the opposing pitcher.

But …

Arietta had hit two batters himself—catcher Francisco Cervelli in the fifth, and Josh Harrison in the sixth. Neither was intentional, the former coming against the inning’s leadoff batter, the latter coming on an 85-mph breaking ball which put two men on with one out and Andrew McCutchen at bat.

The you-hit-my-guy-so-I’ll-hit-your-guy ethos is reptilian and outdated, especially when Arrieta went out of his way to explain to Cervelli that he had been hit accidentally. Also, intentionally gifting an opponent baserunners during an elimination game is usually a bad idea, pretty much regardless of the score.

But …

Arietta had twice come up and in to batters in addition to the two men he hit. Because his control was superb throughout the game (he walked nobody), this was a clear indication that he was taking excessive liberties with inside pitches, content with a margin of error that included an occasional hit batsman. (His postgame explanation that “balls were slick” was hogwash.) Pittsburgh had every right to dissuade him of this idea—especially when it comes to future meetings.

And …

The Pirates are still sore about the semi-dirty takeout slide Chicago’s Chris Coghlan laid on Pirates shortstop Jung Ho Kang last month, knocking him out for the season. If that was Watson’s primary motivation, Coghlan (who did not play Wednesday) is the guy who should have been in the crosshairs. Even for the revenge-minded, that’s the kind of thing that can wait for an appropriate time.

But …

At least Watson did the dead properly, drilling Arrieta below the belt. “The butt’s perfect,” the pitcher said afterward in an ESPN report.

Also …

Ultimately, the benches would not have cleared had Arrieta simply headed to first base—which he should have done, given the circumstances. It was only when he stopped, stared down Watson and started to jaw—the point at which the chance of a physical confrontation rose to realistic levels—that his teammates streamed out to protect him. (As per usual, it was fairly uneventful … save for this.)

And …

Arrieta got his own dose of revenge, stealing second on the very next pitch. It was the first steal that Arietta had so much as attempted as a professional. “That was awesome,” he said in USA Today.

And so …

Ultimately, it’s all rubbish. Were the Pirates hell-bent on avenging Kang, they could have waited until next season. If they wanted to show Arrieta that they did not appreciate his liberties with the inside corner, the seventh inning of an elimination game was not the time to try to affect change. Ultimately, this was little more than frustration bubbling over in a way that does not reflect well on the Pirates.

The playoffs are not a time for vendettas. Pittsburgh now has about five months with which to consider that notion.

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