Everybody Joins a Fight

Love Thy Opponent As Thyself, Because What Else Are Baseball Fights For?

Shields hugs

The Perez-Anderson fracas over the weekend gave us visible evidence of players’ adherence to an unwritten rule that is undisputedly less violable than whatever led to the fracas in the first place: Players shall always take the field during a fight.

This doesn’t mean they have to fight, of course—a self-evident truth given the lack of actual fighting during most baseball dustups. Players can emerge as peacemakers, or even just mill about the back of the scrum, trying to look angry.

Or, as in the case of White Sox pitcher James Shields, they can hop about and offer hugs.

As evidenced in the above video, Shields couldn’t wait to get his paws on Kansas City’s Ian Kennedy. Shields, of course, knows many of the Royals from the two seasons he spent in Kansas City, and was teammates with Kennedy in San Diego—so he used bad blood elsewhere on the field to stage an impromptu reunion (he later hugged up on Mike Moustakas).

Here’s to friendships, through good times and bad (which sometimes occur at the exact same moment).

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Showboating

Celebrate Good Times, Come On! (Or Don’t, Depending On Your Perspective)

Salvy n Tim

It seems that there are some growing pains as baseball transitions from The Sport Of Tradition-Gripping Dryness to something a little bit looser. As it turns out, even those known to celebrate from time to time have limits.

On Saturday in Kansas City, Chicago’s Tim Anderson hit a leadoff homer, proceeded to watch it, then unleashed some self-congratulatory invective as he rounded the bases. Royals catcher Salvador Perez took note while recalling that Anderson acted similarly after hitting a pair of home runs on opening day, also against the Royals. As the runner crossed home plate, Perez said something to him about it. Anderson patted him on the chest protector and trotted back to his bench.

Things picked up again in the bottom half of the inning, when Perez reached second base on an error and a two-out walk, at which point he opted to continue the conversation with Anderson. He and the shortstop ended up nose to nose, with teammates spilling out of the dugout to separate them.

“I don’t have any problems with the guy hitting a homer, taking a couple steps, walk two steps and keep running,” said Perez after the game, in a Kansas City Star report. “But when you start to get loud, to say some bad words … I don’t like that. He had to respect my team and my pitcher. We’re professional in here. I don’t like that and he told me at second base, ‘I like to have fun, Salvy, what do you want me to do?’ I was like, ‘OK, we like to have fun too. I like to have fun. You see me every day out there, laughing and having fun every day. But I don’t disrespect your team. I respect your team, too. I hit some homers too, I keep running the bases, I don’t get loud like you.’ That’s the only thing I told him. Keep doing what you’re doing, bro, have fun, but again respect my team. That’s it. So he was mad about that. What you want me to do? I can’t do anything about that.”

(Perez did himself no favors when he also told reporters: “If you’re gonna keep doing that … I’m going to hit you. I’m going to tell the pitcher to hit him. … If you want to fight, let’s fight.” Intentionally drilling an opponent for what is essentially inconsequential behavior will not play well in retrospect should a Royals pitcher actually dot Anderson in a future encounter.)

Anderson, of course, got into it just last week, for similar reasons, with Justin Verlander. The guy likes to celebrate. For his reaction to it, Perez was labeled as a member of “the fun police” by various sources. There are, however, some considerations.

For those in Anderson’s camp who decry the stifling of emotion on a ballfield, let’s take the conversation to its logical conclusion: At what point does celebration become overkill? A classic Barry Bonds pirouette, only while running the bases instead of standing in the batter’s box? Summersaults? Ripping off one’s uniform jersey, like they do in soccer? The question is not aimed at painting false equivalency, but wondering about the point at which a player’s behavior—presuming that none of it is aimed at the opposition—might eventually cross the line, even for those who support that kind of thing. Baseball is obviously more lenient now than it was during past generations, but how lenient is it, really?

I think the answer can be found in what came next, after Anderson’s confrontation with Perez.

Duda’s walk—the play that advanced Perez to second—loaded the bases. The next batter, Abraham Almonte, hit a sharp grounder to shortstop that Anderson booted, allowing Mike Moustakas to score from third. (It was ruled a single, but easily could have been an error. Watch it here.) Alex Gordon followed by stroking a two-run single to center, giving the Royals a 3-1 lead in a game they ended up winning, 5-2.

Anderson’s confrontation last week against Verlander ended with him getting picked off of second base at a point in which the pitcher was on the ropes and the White Sox desperately needed baserunners. This one ended with the Royals scoring three runs that might have remained off the board had Chicago’s shortstop been less distracted.

And there it is: Anderson’s shtick will eventually become too much, even for his most ardent supporters, when it begins to interfere with his team’s chances to win baseball games. Based on the above examples, he may already have reached that point.

 

Showing Players Up

Verlander Wins Word Battle, Then Wins Game

White Sox confusion

The idea of celebrating on a ballfield has gained significant traction over recent seasons, including just last week when we discussed the topic as pertains to Francisco Lindor.

Action picked up again on Friday, when White Sox third baseman Tim Anderson did some on-field celebrating to which Justin Verlander took exception. Generally speaking, this would paint Verlander as a crotchety old man (which, at age 35 he may well be), but as is the case with many things that happen under the Code, details matter.

As it turns out, Verlander was somewhat concerned about the unwritten rules, but more so about some inane baseball on the part of his opponent.

Anderson’s first celebration came after he broke up Verlander’s no-hitter in the fifth inning with a single through the left side of the infield. He clapped his hands and pointed toward his dugout upon reaching first base.

So far, so good. His team was down, 5-0, he was on base and trying to pump up his teammates. This is not unheard of in the modern era.

Then, on a 3-0 pitch to Omar Narvaez, Anderson broke for second, and celebrated again when he reached safely—never mind the fact that the pitch was ball four and the runner could have walked into second. (He was not credited with a steal.)

This is what irked Verlander.

“He steals on 3-0 in a 5-0 game, that’s probably not great baseball,” Verlander said afterward in a Houston Chronicle report, elucidating basic baseball concepts for reporters. “Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. But he celebrated that, though. And it’s like ‘Hey, I’m not worried about you right now. It’s 5-0, I’m giving a high leg kick, I know you can steal. If I don’t want you to steal, I’ll be a little bit more aware of you. But I’m trying to get this guy out at the plate.’ ”

Celebrating a good play is accepted behavior. What about celebrating a boneheaded play? Verlander had words for the runner, which he later said were aimed toward letting Anderson know he was being “a little overaggressive.” Some in the blogosphere have blasted Verlander’s sensitivity toward the Code; few have given him credit for strategy.

So prodded, Anderson took off for third on the 1-0 pitch to the next hitter, Adam Engel. Verlander picked him off with a throw to third, leading Anderson to backpedal toward second. Basepath confusion ensued, with two White Sox runners ending up at the base. Jose Altuve tagged Narvaez out.

“Stealing third in a 5-0 game with two guys on in an inning where I was clearly struggling—I walked a guy on four pitches and went 1-0 to the next guy—and I pick you off on an inside move after the way he had kind of been jubilant about some other things, I was just as jubilant about that,” Verlander said. The pitcher made sure to thank Anderson for giving him an out, which further angered the Chicago infielder.

“I could care less,” Anderson said afterward about his confrontation. “I’m out just playing and having fun. If he took it to heart, so what?”

That’s a terrible answer. Go play slow-pitch softball to have fun. Show up to a major league ballpark and help your team win games, which involves holding focus. Celebrating an ill-considered stolen base while your team is down five runs falls under that heading. So does taking issue with one of the sport’s headiest pitchers, who has clearly and correctly called you out for employing some stupid strategy.

Point, Verlander.

 

 

 

Showing Players Up

Josh Donaldson Whets His Whistle In Toronto, And All Is Okay In The World

Donaldson whistles

For those decrying baseball’s unwritten rules in the wake of last week’s debacle over bunting in Baltimore comes a pleasant measure of where such things actually sit in the modern game. Before going into it, allow me, please, to paint a picture.

The hypothetical year is 1965. Bob Gibson has just given up a home run to Frank Robinson, and is stunned when, after crossing the plate, Robinson turns toward the St. Louis dugout and whistles in delight. Such a display of arrogance and disrespect is all but foreign to a major league ballfield, let alone Gibson’s ballfield.

There’s no way that Robinson avoids Gibson’s fastball in an ensuing at-bat.

Sure, Bob Gibson was one of the most intimidating pitchers ever to play the game, so maybe he’s not a great example. It could have been Mike Caldwell in 1982, or Preacher Roe in 1952, or Wes Ferrell in 1930—three guys picked more or less at random, who combined to pitch 812 innings in the years in question without hitting a single batter. Even then the hitter in question, should he have whistled in such a manner, would have invariably been knocked down, or drilled later by one of the pitcher’s teammates.

Why is this noteworthy? On April 2, Toronto’s Josh Donaldson played the role of Frank Robinson against the White Sox, homering against Reynaldo Lopez, then miming a whistle at the Chicago dugout while hopping back to his dugout. The most noteworthy part about it: The White Sox didn’t care.

There is, of course, some backstory.

White Sox first base coach Daryl Boston has for several years used an actual whistle to get the attention of his outfielders when he wants to reposition them from the dugout. He also toots it to celebrate good plays, behavior that has not gone unnoticed around the league. Before the game, Donaldson was talking to White Sox hitting coaches Todd Steverson and Greg Sparks, for whom he played in the A’s system, and mentioned that he’s not a particular fan of Boston’s whistle.

Of course, this information was relayed to the coach, and of course the coach responded via whistle—“a little peep-peep” is how Boston put it in a SportsNet report—at Donaldson when he stepped into the on-deck circle during the game.

So, after homering, Donaldson felt free to do what he did. And Boston loved it.

“I got a kick out it because I didn’t find it disrespectful at all,” the coach said. “The downside of it is I may have got caught on video laughing after us giving up a home run. That’s the one thing I felt bad about. But other than that, it’s all in fun.”

The following day, Donaldson used Too$hort’s “Blow the Whistle” as his walk-up song.

All in fun, indeed. There is still a place for players who hew to the serious business of respecting each other, but there are moments in the modern game like never before, when one can cut loose and simply have fun without fear of thin skin or repercussions. The Puerto Rico team showed us that implicitly in last year’s World Baseball Classic, and MLB appears to be following right along, to varying degrees.

Look no farther than Donaldson for evidence. “The whole time I was [blowing the whistle] to [Boston] he had the biggest smile on his face,” he said. “It was good and I’m glad—you always hear about these unwritten rules of baseball and all that jazz—well, I think you’re starting to see some of that change in a positive manner. Not to where I’m trying to disrespect them or they’re trying to disrespect me. We’re out there having fun and competing against each other.”

If there’s an actual quibble here, it’s with Boston, not Donaldson. Various members of the Kansas City Royals have already taken issue with his whistle practice, and it’s not beyond the pale to think that other opponents might also consider celebratory whistling to be juvenile and rude. Even in the modern embrace-the-celebration landscape, a coach with a whistle does seem a bit odd. Mostly, though, it serves to recall a story from The Baseball Codes, concerning the ability of former New York Yankees pitcher Bob Turley to quickly decipher an opposing catcher’s signs while stationed in the first-base coach’s box:

Turley’s relay system was simple—he’d whistle whenever a pitch was different from the last one. Hitters would start every at-bat looking for a curveball, and if a fastball was coming, so was Turley’s whistle. He’d then stay silent until something else was called. The pitcher was so good that when he went on the disabled list in 1961, manager Ralph Houk wouldn’t let him go home, instead keeping him with the team to decipher pitches. (Roger Maris, in fact, hit his sixty-first home run of 1961 on a pitch he knew was coming because third-base coach Frank Crosetti, doing his best Turley imitation after watching the pitcher for years, whistled in advance of a fastball.)

Eventually, people began to catch on. Among them was Detroit Tigers ace Jim Bunning, who grew increasingly angry as Turley whistled and the Yankees teed off during one of his starts. Finally, with Mickey Mantle at bat, Bunning turned to Turley in the first-base coach’s box and told him that another whistle would result in a potentially painful consequence for the hitter. Sure enough, Turley whistled on Bunning’s first pitch, a fast­ball at which Mantle declined to swing. With his second offering, Bun­ning knocked Mantle down. The on-deck hitter, Yogi Berra, could only watch in horror. When it was his turn to bat, Berra turned toward the mound, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted, “Jim, he’s whistling, but I ain’t listening.”

 

 

Earning respect

Point and Shoot: Do Not Take Liberties With Trevor Bauer

Bauer points

Considering that the majority of baseball’s unwritten rules have to do with showing respect on the field, and considering that inside fastballs are the response of choice for too many pitchers should said respect insufficiently materialize, what Trevor Bauer did yesterday was downright delightful.

Consider: After Chicago’s Avisail Garcia yapped at the pitcher upon fouling off a curveball, Bauer yapped right back. There was nothing inciting to his conversation, just a public urging for the hitter to step back into the box, the better to settle things like men. Once the battle was won, Bauer concluded with a dismissive point toward the dugout.

After the game, the pitcher described the incident:

He likes to run his mouth. You start sitting there talking, ‘Oh, they don’t throw me fastballs. Why do they just throw me breaking balls?’ He’s said it before. Not sure he knows that the rules of this game say you can throw whatever pitch you want. He started yapping at me. I threw him a first-pitch slider. He fouled it off, stared right at me, said something while he was nodding his head, like I’m right on you or something. I told him, ‘If you’re that confident, step back in the box. Let’s go. Get back in the box. And then he fouled off a pitch—another one that he should have hit. It was right down the middle and he missed it. And then he looked at me and started nodding again. So I threw him a curveball. He swung and missed. I decided to remind him of the rules of the game. Three strikes, you’re out. You can go sit back in the dugout. To his credit, he took it like a champ. He put his head down, he shut his mouth and he walked himself back to the dugout. Good for him.

The upshot: Victors—especially those who didn’t fire the first shot—get to dictate terms. There’s no shame in not being able to hit Trevor Bauer’s curveball. If that’s the case, however, don’t go out there and act like you can.

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.

 

 

Pitch Tipping

Lesson From the Cactus Leauge: Tip Your Waitstaff, Not Your Pitches

John DanksJohn Danks wasn’t much good for the White Sox last year … or in 2014 … or in 2013, for that matter. His new catcher thinks he knows why.

Early in spring training, Dioner Navarro told the lefthander that he’d been holding his glove in different positions during his delivery, depending upon whether he was throwing a fastball or a breaking ball, according to a report from CBS Chicago. Hitters noticed. “We fixed it,” Danks said, “and it has not been an issue since.”

Prior to this season, when Navarro was a member of the Rays, Cubs and Blue Jays, he was 11-for-26 against Danks, including three home runs. Seems like he’s noticed something in the southpaw’s delivery for a while.

Pitch-tipping, of course, is a fairly common occurrence. Should a player notice a hitch in a pitcher’s delivery, word quickly spreads around the league. Navarro was hardly the only hitter to benefit from Danks’ mistakes.

There’s a section on pitch-tipping in The Baseball Codes, which discusses a number of players who were forced to alter their delivery to better hide their intentions. A segment that was edited out of the final copy lends further detail to the phenomenon:

Hall of Fame spitballer Burleigh Grimes was done in by his cap. Although he shielded the ball with his glove to keep hitters from knowing whether or not he was preparing for a spitter, members of the Phillies realized that the brim of his hat—visible above the top of his glove—would rise when he opened his mouth to spit, and laid off the ensuing pitches. It worked beautifully, at least until the pitcher wised up and got a bigger cap.

Picking up tells can be a veritable art form, with master practitioners noticing things about a player that escape even their most astute. Bob Turley, for example, in addition to being a great sign thief, could also pick up tells better than almost anybody in the game.

“When (Connie Johnson) starts his windup, he’ll move his foot to the other end of the rubber if he’s going to throw his screwball,” he once told Mickey Mantle, as reported in Baseball Digest. “Billy Pierce always wore a long, heavy sweatshirt, no matter how hot it was. When he went into his glove to grip a fastball, you would see the back of his wrist. When he was going to throw a curve, he would get deeper in there and you would not see his wrist. Early Wynn, when he pitched from the stretch, where were his hands before he threw? If he was going to throw a knuckleball, they were at his belt. For a fastball, he’d come up under his chin. Slider, around his nose. Curve, up at his forehead. Jim Bunning altered his windup a little depending on what he was going to throw.”

Should Danks continues to improve, it’ll be nothing but good for the White Sox and his career. He’ll always have to ask himself, however, why nobody said anything to him sooner.

[Via Hardball Talk]