Collisions, Evolution of the Unwritten Rules, Slide properly

Collision Course: The State Of Baseball, 2018

Dietrich dustup

This is a story about baseball’s rulebook, and also about baseball’s unwritten rulebook. One, it turns out, feeds the other.

Yesterday, Marlins left fielder Derek Dietrich, racing home on a single, was easily beaten by the throw from Cubs right fielder Ben Zobrist. With his only hope at scoring being to dislodge the ball from the catcher, Dietrich plowed into Victor Caratini, just as generations before him have done.

Actually, it was a fair step milder than in previous generations, the collision being mostly arms, not even forceful enough to knock Caratini from his feet. Still, this is the no-contact era of major league baseball, a place where, following Scott Cousins’ takeout of Buster Posey back in 2011, the target on catchers’ backs was institutionally removed. This is a time in which a late slide from Tyler Austin—a slide that once wouldn’t have so much as raised an eyebrow in the opposing dugout—led to fisticuffs in New York.

So, when Dietrich took liberties with Caratini, Caratini responded in kind. The dugouts quickly emptied, and though the most significant moment of the resulting skirmish involved Kris Bryant tickling former teammate Starlin Castro, the event is worthy of exploration.

MLB rule 6.01(i)(1) instructs that any catcher ceding the baseline—standing in front of the plate and relying on a swipe tag to make the putout—is in safe waters: “A runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate), or otherwise initiate an avoidable collision.”

Dietrich did not deviate from his pathway because he did not have to: Caratini was planted firmly atop the line while awaiting the throw—going firmly against Rule 6.01(i)(2), which clarifies that “unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score.”

In this case, it appeared to be unwitting: Upon receiving the ball, Caratini turned to make the requisite swipe tag before realizing that he had overshot his positioning and was reaching into foul territory, away from the plate. He quickly drew his glove back into the runner.

It left Dietrich little choice about contact. The runner’s ensuing shove was purely elective, of course, though it was a far cry from the devastation possible had he opted to lower his shoulder. Dietrich even tried to make nice by tipping his cap to the catcher before Caratini got into his face.

We’re left with this: Victor Caratini is 24 years old and was playing in his 51st big league game. Posey-era rules are all he’s ever known. With little basis from which to understand the rationality of Dietrich’s decision, the catcher reacted angrily at being shoved, and a play that should barely have registered soon bordered on fisticuffs.

The sport’s unwritten rules can be seen in similar light. Take the aforementioned Yankees-Red Sox brawl back in April. On one hand, the Red Sox were overly sensitive about a slide that a generation earlier wouldn’t have drawn much notice. On the other, the slide was clearly outside of baseball’s recently established parameters, and Austin should have been prepared for the response that he received.

Ultimately, neither side had much clue about how to handle what was, before now, a fairly standard baseball situation, and things ended badly. They ended badly because many players no longer understand the intentions behind much of the Code, and react instinctively rather than rationally. It’s what enables sensitivity about the personal nature of an action that is not at all personal.

These are the unintended consequences of the sanitation of the sport. There are clear benefits—fewer collision-based injuries and a decline in retaliatory beanballs—but there are also growing pains. Yesterday’s collision was only one of them, with more certain to follow.

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Gamesmanship, Sign stealing

Baez Blocks Basepath, Stuns Suspected Sign Stealer

Baez blocks

Javier Baez has made inventive baseball a hallmark of his short career. Usually, this involves doing wondrous things with his glove. On Sunday it was by using his head in an especially curious way. In the era of the defensive overshift, this was maybe the overshiftiest move of all.

In the third inning of a game in Colorado, Baez suspected that DJ LeMahieu—the runner at second base—was relaying signs to the hitter, Nolan Arenado. Usually, this isn’t much of a problem; signs are easy to change once such suspicions arise, and a brief word to the suspected thief almost inevitably curtails the activity, at least for a while.

Baez, however, took another tack, literally positioning himself between runner and plate while catcher Victor Caratini was dropping down signals, before bouncing back to his regular spot prior to the pitch. The idea was to block LeMahieu’s view. Unsurprisingly, LeMahieu wasn’t too thrilled with the idea, especially after Baez began talking loudly about it after Arenado struck out.

“I said, ‘See the difference when they don’t know the signs,’ ” Baez recalled after the game, in a Chicago Tribune report, “and then [LeMahieu] said something,” Baez said. “He told me, ‘Then change the signs.’ ” Umpire Vic Carapazza eventually had to step in to calm things down.

The Cubs had been wondering about potential sign theft since the fifth inning of Saturday’s game, when the Rockies scored five runs on four two-out hits, every one of them coming with a runner at second.

There are a couple of things at play here. One is that this kind of thing goes on all the time. Whether LeMahieu was signaling pitch type or location—or even if he wasn’t signaling anything at all—standard procedure for the Cubs would simply have been to switch things up. It’s not a complicated process; the only thing that needs to change is the indicator—the sign telling the pitcher that the next sign is the one that counts—which can be done between every pitch if need be. Hell, teams can base signs on the count (on a 3-1 pitch, the fourth sign is live), the score or the inning. Catchers can switch to pumps, with the number of signs given being the key, not the signs themselves. Hell, during Nolan Ryan’s second no-hitter, he didn’t take any signs at all. Suspecting the opposing Tigers of foul play before the game even began, he called his own pitches for catcher Art Kusnyer, touching the back of his cap for a fastball, and the brim for  a curve.

The other thing to consider is simple decorum. By positioning himself between LeMahieu and the plate, Baez may have been able to interfere with some sign pilfering (though even that rationale is suspect given that the runner was four inches taller and could shift in either direction for a better view), but he also interfered with the playing of actual baseball. Jimmy Piersall was once tossed from a game for running back and forth while playing in the outfield as a ploy to distract Ted Williams at the plate. Was this so different?

Ultimately, the runner’s behavior was well within baseball norms. Baez’s was not. It’s not against the rules, as far as I can tell. Rule 6.04(c) states, “No fielder shall take a position in the batter’s line of vision, and with deliberate unsportsmanlike intent, act in a manner to distract the batter.” Though there’s nothing similar in play as pertains to baserunners, Baez’s tactics ran counter to the spirit of sportsmanship. There are countless other ways to deal with sign thieves that don’t interfere with the playing of actual baseball.

Next time this happens, Baez should avail himself of any, or all, of them.

 

Bat Flipping, Don't Call out Opponents in the Press

Hurdle Frustrated by Baez’s Frustration, Word Battle Ensues

Baez flips

And here I was, thinking that the new world order had been firmly established. The Puig-ization of baseball, wherein players can more freely express themselves on the field—usually in the form of bat flips—had already taken hold when the Puerto Rico team showed us exactly how much fun that kind of thing could be during their second-place run in last year’s World Baseball Classic.

As it happened, the second baseman for Puerto Rico, Javier Baez, also plays for the Chicago Cubs. Last week, he went a bit homer-crazy against Pittsburgh, hitting four longballs across the series’ first two games. That wasn’t what set off Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, however, so much as the second baseman’s response to popping up with a runner in scoring position—which itself included a bat flip. It was borne out of frustration, of course, after which Baez made scant effort to run toward first. (Watch what little of it was captured in the telecast here.)

Hurdle was peeved enough to address it the following day, not only as pertained to Baez, but to the Cubs organization as a whole. Among his comments, as reported by the Athletic:

“When a player does something out of line, there are one or two guys who go to him right away and say, ‘Hey, we don’t do that here. What are you thinking when you do that? Do you know what that looks like?’ ” Hurdle said. “Sometimes, guys don’t understand what it looks like. Usually, you’ve only got to show them once or twice what it looks like and they really don’t want to be that guy anymore. . . .

“Where is the respect for the game? [Baez] has hit four homers in two days. Does that mean you can take your bat and throw it 15-20 feet in the air when you pop up, like you should have hit your fifth home run? I would bet that men went over and talked to him, because I believe they’ve got a group there that speaks truth to power.” . . .

“There is entitlement all over the world. Sometimes, when you have a skill, you can feel special and you don’t get what it looks like. Most of the time here, we try to show our players what it looks that. And that’s usually enough.”

As it happened, members of the Cubs—reliever Pedro Strop, in particular—did pull Baez aside for a little dugout chat. We know this because Baez admitted to it while apologizing publicly for his actions after the game.

“You know what I really got out of today and what I learned?” he told reporters, as reported by NBC Chicago. “How ugly I looked when I got out today on that fly ball. I tossed the bat really high, I didn’t run to first base. One of my teammates came up to me, and he said it in a good way, and he said, ‘You learn from it.’ After I hit that fly ball and tossed the bat really high, I was kind of mad about it. Not because of the fly ball, just the way I looked for the kids and everybody that follows me. That’s not a good look. So I learned that from today.”

Hurdle is entitled to his opinion. He’s an old-school guy, a former catcher who learned to play the game under a structure wherein deviation from the norm constitutes something other than “the right way.” Every one of his sentiments was valid, but in making them public, the manager ignored another of baseball’s unwritten rules: Keep personal spats out of the media. Instead, Hurdle teed up Maddon for an all-time response, as part of a 17-minute media session prior to the following day’s game. The Cubs skipper, via the Athletic:

“It reveals you more than it reveals the person you’re talking about. I’ve always believed that. So whenever you want to be hypercritical of somebody, just understand you’re pretty much revealing yourself and what your beliefs are more than you are being critical or evaluating somebody. Because you have not spent one second in that person’s skin. . . .

“It’s just like people making decisions about Strop based on [the way he’s] sporting his hat, or Fernando Rodney. I think most of the time when you hear commentary—critical commentary—it’s really pretty much self-evaluation. It’s about what you believe. It’s about your judgmental component.

“I thought Javy did a great job in his response. I was very proud of him, actually. Like I said the other day, first of all, I didn’t see him throwing the bats. I missed that completely. But we’ve talked about it. His response and the fact that he owned up to it, my God, what else could you possibly want out of one of your guys?” . . .

“I did not see it coming at all. Clint and I have had a great relationship. I’ve known him for many, many years. I don’t really understand why he did what he did. You’d probably maybe want to delve into that a little bit more deeply on his side.

“But I do believe in not interfering with other groups. I’ve commented post-fights. Maybe I’ve incited a few things when it came to things I didn’t like on the field, when it came to injury or throwing at somebody. I’ve had commentary and I don’t deny that I have.

“But to try to disseminate exactly what I think about a guy on another team based on superficial reasons, I’ll never go there. I don’t know the guy enough. I’m not in the clubhouse with him. I don’t have these conversations. I don’t know what kind of a teammate he is. I don’t know any of that stuff, so I would really be hesitant.”

The modern era presents a different landscape than the one in which Hurdle rose through baseball’s ranks. Look-at-me moments across American sports began in earnest with the 24-hour news cycle, and have been driven into the relative stratosphere by a player’s ability to garner hundreds of thousands of follows and likes on social media, where it can literally pay to have a presence.

There’s also the fact that Hispanic influence in Major League Baseball is strong and getting stronger. Nothing I’ve seen has indicated bias on Hurdle’s part, but the Athletic’s Patrick Mooney made an interesting point as pertains to the Pittsburgh manager: “Let’s be honest: Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester are great players who sometimes show bad body language and we don’t hear about how they’re not showing proper respect for the game.”

In light of Hurdle’s “entitlement all over the world” comment, this rings especially true.

So where do we go from here? Ideally, everybody learns to keep things in perspective, and move along as innocuously as possible. Javier Baez has already started to do just that.

“To be honest, I got a lot of things I can say right now,” he said via Yahoo, in response to Hurdle’s comments, “but I don’t control what’s out there, what people talk about me. I’m just gonna keep playing my game.”

 

Evolution of the Unwritten Rules

Baez Wags, Puig Grins, All is Well With Baseball

Baez wags

In an otherwise dispiriting game for the Cubs last night, second baseman Javier Baez at least gave us this, the culmination of a play in which Yasiel Puig tried to stretch a base hit off the left-field wall in Wrigley into a double.

 

(Watch the whole thing here.)

It’s an undeniably fabulous moment, the reasons for which show exactly how far baseball has come in this regard. Baez knows exactly who he’s dealing with, and how his response will be taken—that there’s no chance Puig will cry “disrespect” in response. The runner does not disappoint, grinning once he realizes what’s happening.

Here it is from another angle:

This, then, is where baseball is headed, a game in which players making great plays are able to mess around with each other in mutually beneficial ways. To call it showboat-on-showboat crime would be inaccurate, because it’s not a look-at-me moment in any way. Far from a post-homer pimp—something which Joe Maddon is decidedly against—it is instead a means for Baez to connect with a like-minded colleague and make the game a little bit more fun for everybody.

Had it been Madison Bumgarner sliding into second, of course, Baez’s finger wag would have been way out of line (and he’d have heard about it in some potentially painful ways), but that’s the point. Bumgarner is among a shrinking cadre of red-asses who maintain that old-school is the only way to play the game.

In reality, however, there is ever more space for players like Baez, who simply glow with the joy of baseball—and allow others to do the same.

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.]

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 Montero.

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.