Bat Flipping, Retaliation, Showboating

Wednesday’s Lesson In MLB: Try Not To Accidentally Hit Guys With Whom Your Team Is Already Beefing

Perception is everything, and precedent feeds perception. On Wednesday, baseball saw two games with hotly contested hit batters, and while there is a strong possibility that neither was intentional, recent history has led those at the wrong end of the pitches to leap to some obvious conclusions.

Let’s start in Chicago, where the White Sox’ series with Kansas City was already steeped in contention, given that the last time these teams met resulted in a rhubarb over a Tim Anderson bat toss. The Royals have already paid him back for that, so when they did it again on Wednesday—pitcher Glenn Sparkman bouncing a ball off of Anderson’s head—the situation appeared ready to explode.

Except for this: It was the second inning of a 2-1 game, with nobody out and a runner on first. Also, it was a changeup—not the type of heat-seeker ordinarily utilized for nefarious purposes. For what it’s worth, the pitch merely grazed the brim of Anderson’s helmet—a terrible location to be sure, but more indicative of a ball that’s riding up and in than a missile aimed at an earflap.

Anderson seemed to realize all of this. Hell, the pitch didn’t even knock him down. While visibly frustrated, he more or less just stood in the batter’s box, helmetless, staring down Sparkman. Anderson’s lack of response was no doubt abetted by umpire Mark Carlson, who emerged from behind the plate and quickly tossed the befuddled pitcher from the game. (“It was a changeup,” Sparkman can be seen explaining on replays. Even Anderson said later that he felt the pitch was accidental.)

Had the Royals not already targeted Anderson this season, of course, there’s almost no chance that Sparkman would have been tossed. As it is, optics are important and Carlson did not want this game to get away from him. Sometimes it’s hard to be an umpire.

***

In Cincinnati, meanwhile, the game was getting away from the Reds, as Pittsburgh built up a 7-0 lead by the eighth inning. That’s when Pirates reliever Clay Holmes drilled Eugenio Suarez in the hand with a 94-mph fastball. There were some moments of immediate heat—Suarez approached the mound for before being led away by catcher Elias Diaz—but things cooled quickly. X-rays proved negative and Suarez is day-to-day.

“I don’t know if they are going to hit me on purpose,” Suarez said after the game in a MLB.com report. “That’s why I walked up to him and asked him if he hit me on purpose. He said, ‘No. Definitely not.’ I just said I wanted to make sure because I don’t like that pitch up and in, right on my face.”

This is believable. Holmes has walked 15 batters in 15⅔ minor league innings this season, and has issued seven free passes in 13 innings since being called up. Outstanding control does not appear to be his thing.

That didn’t prevent Reds manager David Bell from having a say about what had just gone down. So vehement was he when he came out to argue about the pitch that umpire Jeff Nelson ejected him.

Again, this is where optics matter.

In April, Pirates starter Chris Archer threw a pitch behind Derek Dietrich in response to the slugger taking an unusual amount of time to watch a home run that ended up in the Allegheny River outside PNC Park.

In April 2018, Pittsburgh’s Jameson Taillon broke the selfsame Suarez’s thumb with a pitch, costing the slugger three weeks. Later in the season, Taillon hit Suarez again, this time in the elbow. Never mind that none of the pitches appeared to be intentional, or that as a hitter Suarez could do a better job of turning his back toward inside pitches rather than leaning away from them with his hands exposed—a habit that got Jeff Bagwell’s hand broken in three consecutive seasons. Hitting him again looks bad, so it must be bad.

Bell was fed up by the lot of it. He’d previously instructed his pitchers not to retaliate for such things. That stance may have changed.

“We know they’ll do it,” the manager told reporters after the game in a Cincinnati.com report, explaining his argument with the umpires. “I was doing what I could to protect our players. Clearly, we’re not going to get protected. We’ve got to do whatever we can. We’ve got to take matters into our own hands. It’s unfortunate that our players aren’t going to get protected. That’s been made clear, and we know that team will intentionally throw at people. What are you supposed to think?”

He continued.

“When someone is messing with your livelihood, your career, who knows? You’ve got to protect yourself. Clearly, we’re not going to get protected by the umpires or the league. That’s been made clear. Our players need to do whatever they need to do protect themselves. I’ll back them whatever that is. For some reason, we think it’s OK to throw at people. For whatever reason, that was OK many years ago, and we’re still living some rules that I don’t know about—that it’s OK to intentionally throw at our players. The umpires think it’s OK. The league thinks it’s somewhat OK. Somebody’s going to get hurt. We need to take as many measures as possible. Ours need to do whatever they need to do to stick up for themselves, protect themselves. They protect themselves, their career.”

Bell has already proved to be angry about this topic to the point of incoherence. Still, the closest the Reds came to a response yesterday was when reliever Raisel Iglesias threw an up-and-in, 97-mph fastball to Bryan Reynolds with an 0-2 count, before eventually striking Reynolds out.

What we’re left with is increasingly high tension. Bell has thrown down one gauntlet. Pirates broadcaster John Wehner threw down another on Pittsburgh radio, when he came down on Dietrich, of all people, for his homer-watching ways: “I can’t stand him. … I don’t understand why you have to do that. It’s different if you’re a Hall of Fame player, you’re a 60-homer guy, you’re an established guy. Nobody ever heard of him before this year.”

Wehner also referenced Dietrich’s grandfather, Steve Demeter, a longtime minor league coach in the Pirates system, who he said “is rolling in his grave every time this guy hits a home run. He’s embarrassed of his grandson.”

Let’s ignore for a moment the very old-school notion of players earning whatever leeway they’re afforded by the sport’s unwritten rules; Wehner seems completely oblivious of the sea change that’s occurred around baseball as pertains to celebrations.

However much they angered the Pirates and Royals, displays like Dietrich’s and Anderson’s are entering the mainstream, to the point of approval from MLB’s own marketing department. Pitchers have the right to try and put a damper on them, but that tactic does not appear to be working very well as a method of dissuasion.

At least Royals-White Sox and Reds-Pirates matchups, despite the meat-headedness therein, are far more interesting now than they were at the beginning of the season.

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Retaliation

David Bell Didn’t Like What Chris Archer Did To The Point That He’s No Longer Making Sense

Bell argues

Reds manager David Bell got to talking with reporters on Tuesday about his team’s Let-the-Kids-Play fight with the Pirates, for which he was ejected and ultimately suspended, and unfortunately for those following along, his comments didn’t make a whole lot of sense. All quotes from the Dayton Daily News:

  • “[Derek] Dietrich clearly didn’t do anything wrong because he wasn’t ejected or suspended. If MLB has a problem with what Derek did then there needs to be a rule against what he did.”

There is a rule against what he did—it’s unwritten, and it’s been around for about as long as baseball itself. We have recently been lulled into thinking that it’s no longer enforced, which seemed to be fine until we realize that  guys like Chris Archer still inhabit pitcher’s mounds. MLB promotional slogans aside, the reality is that some players still don’t appreciate showboating. Dietrich can pimp any homer any way he’d like; he just has to cop to the possibility that he’ll piss somebody off in the process.

To Bell’s other point, a lack of prohibition against a given act in the rulebook doesn’t automatically make that act acceptable. Had Dietrich, unprovoked, decided to approach the Pittsburgh bench and spit tobacco juice onto Clint Hurdle’s cleats, he wouldn’t have broken any rules. He’d still be an asshole, though.  

  • “I had one intention [in coming out to argue the call] and that was to defend our team and to defend our hitter and to get Archer ejected.”

Never mind that that’s technically three intentions. Trying to get Archer ejected without a warning for throwing a pitch that didn’t come close to hitting a batter is, to put it exceedingly mildly, a stretch.

  • “I felt my only course of action was to get their pitcher ejected for intentionally trying to hurt our player.”

It’s unclear how throwing a ball below the belt and well behind a hitter in any way constitutes intent to injure. By this point in the conversation Bell is in full-fledged protect-my-guy mode, and appears to be spitting out whichever authoritarian argument reaches his brain first.

  • “Whether they throw at their heads or their backs or their legs, it is all the same to me. For that to be OK, or even somewhat acceptable that it wasn’t at his head, to me that is a very dangerous approach.”

This is where Bell really goes off the rails, because drawing false equivalences can be downright dangerous. What Archer did was clearly not the same as throwing at an opponent’s head. What Archer did was not even the same as drilling a guy in the ribs. Any modern pitcher who intentionally rifles a ball above somebody’s shoulders becomes an automatic pariah among his peers, and rightly so. Chris Archer does not remotely fit that bill, at least to judge by his approach to Dietrich.

  • “I don’t know what those [unwritten] rules are. All I know is this is pretty simple—our hitter hit a home run and didn’t do anything against major league rules or the umpire’s rule or anybody’s else’s rules. But everybody in the ballpark knew he was going to have to stand up there and possibly get hit with a fastball, maybe hit in the head and done damage.”

Waitaminute. If everybody in the ballpark knew that retaliation was imminent, Dietrich must have done something pretty obvious to inspire it. One needn’t approve of Archer’s response to acknowledge this reality.

David Bell is well respected around the sport, deservedly so, and I agree with him that pitchers have no business seeking physical retribution for an act so simple as showboating. But that’s an awfully high horse he’s decided to mount in Dietrich’s defense—so high that he appears to have lost all contact with what’s actually happening below. Defending his players is part of the guy’s job, but over the last couple of days Bell may have been throwing himself into his work with just a touch too much vigor.

Retaliation

Pirates, Reds Argue Whether We’re Actually Ready To Let The Kids Play

Puig fights

So it seems that we’re now talking in matters of degrees. We’re going to let the kids play and flip themselves silly and celebrate in all sorts of ways that would have gotten them drilled by a previous generation of pitchers, and baseball is going to be better for it.

At least until somebody acts exactly like MLB has promoted in its own promotional campaigns and we’re reminded that red-assed pitchers maybe don’t watch too many commercials and somebody does something stupid and we’re right back to where we started.

We’re talking of course, about Pittsburgh’s Chris Archer in the role of the Red-Ass, and Cincinnati’s Derek Dietrich in the role of the Kid (never mind that he’s 29, only six months younger than Archer—a marketing slogan is a marketing slogan), and Yasiel Puig as the enforcer of a player’s right to showboat. (Who better, amiright?)

A quick recap: In the second inning of yesterday’s game, Dietrich yammed a monster homer clear into the Allegheny, then stood in the box watching it for what even by let-the-kids-play standards seemed like an exceedingly long time.

Pittsburgh catcher Francisco Cervelli was the first to express displeasure, waiting as Dietrich crossed the plate to deliver some words of rapprochement, to which the runner did not respond. (According to Puig, Cervelli also warned that retaliation was coming, which, if true, surely played no small part in what was to come.)

Archer continued his team’s messaging during Dietrich’s next at-bat, sending a pitch to the backstop, just behind the hitter’s rear end. Dietrich barely had to flinch to avoid it. Plate ump Jeff Kellogg immediately warned both benches. This is where things got interesting.

While Dietrich was downright passive in his response, Reds manager David Bell tore from the dugout to argue the warning, followed closely by a number of Reds players and coaches, notably Puig. Almost instantly, fists were thrown. (Again: notably Puig.) Cincinnati’s Bell, Puig and reliever Amir Garrett were ejected, as were Pittsburgh’s Felipe Vazquez and Keone Kela.

There’s a lot to unpack here. On one hand, Archer delivered a clear and harmless message, sent well behind the batter, below his belt. Annoying maybe, but hardly impactful. (“When someone is throwing at someone, they are trying to inflict pain or possibly hurt someone or send a message,” Dietrich said after the game, overblowing the details by a considerable margin.)

On the other hand, it was clear hypocrisy on Archer’s part, the idea being that a pitcher like him—a showboat in his own right—has no business getting angry when an opponent dishes out some of his own. And make no mistake: Archer’s emotional displays are prevalent to the point that his own team released a promo video about them before the game.

Or, take Bell, whose argument with Kellogg was that by acting so quickly, the umpire denied the Reds a chance to respond. Unless his argument was that Archer should have been ejected without warning. Either of which are nonsense, given that it was the Reds who started it, and that Pittsburgh’s answer didn’t even involve drilling a guy. What did Bell want to do? Escalate the situation by having one of his pitchers hit a Pirate? Send a similar message without fear of ejection? To what end?

Ultimately, of course, it won’t matter. If Bell or any member of his team is bent on responding, they’ll have no problem waiting until the next time the teams meet at the end of May. It’d be stupid, but that’s their prerogative.

There’s also the idea that, according to the unwritten rules, the aggrieved party in this type of situation dictates his team’s response. Had Dietrich made a mad dash for the mound, it would have made sense for his teammates to follow. But Dietrich didn’t do a thing. When Bell came out to argue, Puig seized the opportunity, vaulting the dugout rail to confront Archer on the field. Puig, of course, has never been much for the unwritten rules. This alone will earn him a suspension.

If you really want to get into the woods, examine the postgame sentiments of Vazquez, one of those ejected. “[Dietrich] shouldn’t have done that,” he said in a Pittsburgh-Post Gazette report. “That’s against the principles. If you do something like that you’re going to pay for it. We’re trying to play the game the right way by respecting it. Joey [Votto] can do it because he’s been here a long time. But a guy like him isn’t supposed to do that. He hasn’t earned the right. It was a little too much. We all knew it was going to be far but you’re not supposed to wait until the ball hits the ground to start running. You aren’t supposed to do that.”

The idea of veterans earning various rights not granted to their less-seasoned contemporaries is ages-old in baseball and, if expressed 20 years ago, wouldn’t be surprising. But in a landscape where an abundance of voices are calling for freer reign—to let the kids play—it’s an odd message. By Vazquez’s logic, the kids should be hamstrung, just like they always were, remaining reserved in their actions until such time as they’re sufficiently tenured to loosen up. That is, until they’re no longer kids.

Then again, Vazquez (née Rivero), as a Venezuelan national, is taking a decidedly counter approach to that espoused by a great many Latino players, who generally tend to default toward more celebratory practices, not fewer.

Ultimately, did Dietrich learn any lessons? To judge by the homer he hit six innings later, almost to the same spot as the first, no. He stood and admired that one, too.

The best thing to come out of this was @stormchasernick’s response to Cut4’s suggestion about art.

Reds-Pirates, May 27. Mark it on your calendars.

Update, 4-09-19: Archer has been suspended for five games, Puig for two and Bell for one. The Archer penalty in particular, which will only force him to bump back a start for a day or two, shows that MLB viewed his actions as relatively inconsequential. Which makes sense, given that he didn’t come close to hitting anybody.

Update, 4-11-19: David Bell’s talking, but he’s not making much sense.

Retaliation

Votto Visits Venomous Vibes Upon Retaliatory Reliever

Votto

In an old-fashioned game of payback in Washington on Saturday, Joey Votto drew the short straw.

It began in the sixth inning, when Reds righty Austin Brice plunked Bryce Harper in the knee. It was completely unintentional, what with being an 82-mph curveball and all, and would have meant less had Harper not departed the following inning with a team-described “stinger.”

It would almost certainly have drawn less notice had Cincinnati’s next pitcher, Jesus Reyes, not opened the seventh by drilling Washington catcher Spencer Kieboom. This one was a 96-mph sinker, but was even more clearly unintentional than Brice’s pitch, given that it was Reyes’ big league debut and Kieboom was the first batter he’d ever faced.

Once, two of mine—even unintentionally—meant one of yours. It was showdown baseball, prevalent in a long-gone era when message pitches, even those aimed toward the head, were accepted tactics. That brand of baseball hasn’t been played in a long while, but it was revisited on Saturday by Nats reliever Ryan Madson, who responded to Brice and Reyes by drilling Cincinnati’s best player, Joey Votto, just above his right knee. The situation was perfect—there were two outs with nobody on, the Nationals led by four, and Votto presented an obvious target. Madson’s weapon: a 96-mph fastball.

 

Votto got up slowly, and had some words for the pitcher as he hobbled to first base. Madsen, who at least drilled the hitter below the belt, paid no attention, not even looking Votto’s way. Upon reaching first base, Votto amped up the volume, shouting some easily lip-readable epithets toward the mound.

Afterward, Madsen offered standard platitudes about the pitch being a mistake. He also said, believably, “I never want to hurt a guy, never.” Votto didn’t say anything, departing the ballpark before reporters were let into the clubhouse.

If there is to be a response, it didn’t happen on Sunday, in a game that never held more than a two-run differential—hardly an occasion to cede free baserunners. (Votto did finally comment on the situation, though, saying in the Cincinnati Enquirer: “Getting hit is a part of the game. Once you step into that box, you accept that getting hit could very well be part of the process.”)

If either team wants to continue this, it’ll have to wait until next season.

Celebrations, Showing Players Up

Javier Baez Is In No Mood For Your Gesticulations, Mr. Pitcher

Baez v Garrett

Turnabout is fair play. The shoe’s on the other foot. Something about geese and ganders. When a player like Javier Baez takes exception to an opponent’s display of emotion on the field, one can’t help but think about such phrases. Also, hypocrisy.

On Saturday, Reds reliever Amir Garrett whiffed Baez to close out the top of the seventh, and grew somewhat animated on his way down the hill, loosing what Cubs manager Joe Maddon later called “a Lion King’s type of roar.”

There is, of course, some history. On May 18, 2017—one day short of one year earlier—Baez touched Garrett for a grand slam at Wrigley Field, and did just a touch of home run pimping.

As is the way of big leaguers, Garrett has a long memory and an overt willingness to respond in kind. Baez didn’t appreciate it. Following his strikeout, he and the pitcher had words, and benches emptied. The surprising part about it is that Baez, the guy behind this:

… and this:

… and oh hell yeah this:

… even took the time to consider his opponent’s reaction.

Baez (and some of his teammates) pointed out after the game that Cubs celebrations are strictly intramural, and not in any way directed at the opposition. So how about Garrett, a guy also known to occasionally show some emotion on the mound? Even if the pitcher’s Lion Kinging was directed at Baez (which it was probably was), there’s plenty of gray area when it comes to Baez’s own roaring. At some point, when a player is simply howling into the wind, it becomes difficult to draw too many distinctions.

Mostly, this seems like protracted frustration drawn quickly to the surface. At the time of the incident, Baez was 2-for-his-last-22, with nine strikeouts. The slugger has hit only .226 since April 26, watching his batting average fall from .310 to .265 in the process, with a meager .410 slugging percentage. He hasn’t drawn a walk since April 11. Suffice it to say that he’s in no mood for these types of shenanigans.

None of that, however, is particularly relevant. Javier Baez has rightly become a prominent face in the Let Ballplayers Celebrate movement, which is predicated on playing with emotion. Even if some of his points about Saturday’s game have merit, the overall optics of a guy like that calling out a response like Garrett’s doesn’t do much to further the cause.

Garrett himself said it perfectly after the game, in a Chicago Tribune report: “You dish it, you have to take it.”

 

Swinging 3-0, The Baseball Codes

Wayback Machine: Dealing With Code Violations in a Bygone Era

Darrel ThomasIn researching a project unrelated to baseball’s unwritten rules, I came across an item that was too good to not share.

May 25, 1979: In the sixth inning of a game against the Reds, Dodgers second baseman Davey Lopes drilled a three-run homer. Trouble was, the Dodgers led by 12 runs at the time, and he swung at a 3-0 pitch to hit it. The blast gave Los Angeles a 17-2 lead.

This, of course, was a clear violation of the unwritten rules. From The Baseball Codes:

The last thing a pitcher wants to do with his team down by a wide margin late in the game is walk batters, which not only suggests unnecessary nibbling but extends a game that players want to end quickly. When a count gets to 3-0 … it’s a near-certainty that the ensuing pitch will be a fastball down the middle. The unwritten rulebook does not equivocate at this moment, prohibit­ing hitters in such situations not just from swinging hard, but from swing­ing at all.

There’s also the factor of rubbing it in while running up the score. In the modern game, of course, such actions are no longer universally seen as an unequivocal sign of disrespect. Baseball is entertainment, the thinking goes, and nothing is more entertaining than a well-struck ball. The rule still exists, but more players than ever opt out of recognizing it.

In 1979, however, such was not the case. Two innings after Lopes’ homer, Cincinnati reliever Dave Tomlin fed him four straight inside pitches. None of them connected, but after the fourth, Lopes, irate, threw his bat into the air and hollered toward the mound.

It was enough to draw players from both dugouts, even as Lopes angrily stalked toward first base. No fight appeared forthcoming until Dodgers utilityman Derrel Thomas—a perpetual wild card when it came to baseball propriety—decided to take a swing at Cincinnati’s Rick Auerbach, spurring numerous scuffles. This, far more than Lopes’ action, spurred the Reds to action.

Before the next day’s game, Cincinnati players decided to draw names of the Dodgers out of a hat, representing their assignments in the eventuality of another fight.

Every slip of paper said the same thing: Derrel Thomas.

(Thomas started the following day in center field, without incident.)