For every pitcher-catcher combo trying to figure out the most effective method of circumventing the Astros Way to Play Baseball, Trevor Bauer is here to tell you that your endlessly cycled signs, no matter how complex or arcane, are still no match for the proven system he employed in the Cactus League yesterday.
Facing the Dodgers, Bauer decided to let the hitter know exactly what was coming. He did this via the standard glove signs that pitchers give to catchers during warm-ups. If everything’s public, there’s nothing to steal.
In the top of the fourth inning, Bauer fed Matt Beaty a series of pitches, each preceded by a glove flip. Why Beaty? Maybe because he was the first batter Bauer faced. Or maybe Because because he’d already homered, against Reds starter Sonny Gray, and one thing Bauer likes nearly as much as a soapbox is a challenge. (Bauer made his feelings about Houston’s shenanigans very clear in an interview with The Athletic about two weeks ago.) Beaty ultimately flied out to center field.
The pitcher’s rationale was explained by Derek Dietrich in an in-game interview.
“If you’ve followed baseball this off-season, there’s a little thing going on with sign stealing,” Dietrich said. “Trevor’s not too fond of it, so he figured he’s gonna try something new this season, and he’s gonna start telling batters what’s coming—just, here it comes, try to hit it.”
It’s not quite the same as Nolan Ryan’s strategy during a game in 1973, but it’s in the same ballpark. Unlike Bauer, Ryan didn’t reveal his pitch selection to Tigers in advance, but, concerned about Detroit spies, he devised his own system. Whatever sign Angels catcher Art Kusnyer put down, Ryan ignored it entirely. Instead, he touched the back of his cap to tell Kusnyer that he would be throwing a fastball, the bill if he was going to the curve. As an experiment in subterfuge it worked out okay: Ryan ended up with the second no-hitter of his career.
Would Bauer’s system work in extended use during a regular-season game? Of course not. But if anybody in baseball might try to figure out an efficient reverse-sign a la Ryan, Bauer’s the guy.
It became a national story, propelling a book about baseball’s unwritten rules that had been released only a few weeks earlier waaaaay up the Amazon charts. (Shortly thereafter, The Baseball Codes crested at No. 34 overall, which in my new-author mind was nice, but hey, it’s a good book, so why not? Having since published two more titles, my stance is now more along the lines of Holy hell, did that actually happen?)
It took a while after Rodriguez, but somebody again crossed a mound in noteworthy fashion.
On Sunday, in the fourth inning of the first game of a doubleheader, St. Louis starter Miles Mikolas got Cincinnati’s Freddy Galvis to fly out to center field. It was nondescript: a routine flyball, the second out of what would be a three-up, three-down frame … until Galvis returned to his dugout. Rather than trotting around the mound, he jogged straight over it. It was, after all, in the middle of his straightest path of return.
Mikolas was having none of it.
“I asked him politely to use the grass,” the pitcher recalled after the game in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch report. (What Mikolas actually said, at least according to the lip-reading skills of @Jomboy, was “You walk around that shit. You run around the fucking mound.”)
At this point in the exchange it becomes obvious that Galvis was guilty only of ignorance. At first, he was confused about why he was being shouted at. Then he grew indignant. When Cards catcher Yadi Molina preemptively cut off Galvis’ route to the pitcher, benches and bullpens quickly emptied.
Nothing came of it, of course, the relief pitchers from both
teams only making it about halfway to the infield before things calmed down.
Still, there is plenty to unpack. Mainly: Why should a pitcher even care?
Mikolas offered one avenue of response, saying: “We do a
tremendous job of taking care of that mound—your landing spot, the rubber, kind
of keep it nice for the guys coming out of the bullpen. No one wants to come
out of the bullpen with the mound all chewed.”
The pitcher’s mound is unlike any other space on a baseball diamond. Pitchers use it to literally survey the field from their vantage on high. Braden’s taken some flack for calling the mound the center of the universe, but that’s exactly what he was taught. It’s the point of origin for every play on a baseball diamond, a notion that can, for those who care to run this deep, lend a sacredness to it.
Ultimately, Braden laid down the gauntlet back in 2010, sending a message to Rodriguez through the press: “If he wants to run across the pitcher’s mound, tell him to do laps in the bullpen.”
Mikolas has Braden as precedent, and Braden had plenty of precedent of his own. A sampling:
Bert Blyleven: “I used to really get pissed if a guy flew out, say, and he came back and stepped on my mound. I used to say something to some of the hitters. Just don’t run on my mound. That was my mound that day.”
Jamie Quirk: “Stay clear of the mound. It’s his area; don’t try to run across it or toward him. Just go back to your dugout and stay clear. That’s just courtesy of doing things the right way.”
Dave Roberts: “That’s his office, his domain. To run across it is disrespectful.”
Jim Price: “I’ve seen that happen, and then there was retaliation.”
Bob Gibson: “(Steve) Carlton and I shared one pet peeve relating to the office [the term Carlton used to refer to the mound]. We hated when hitters crossed behind it on their way back to the dugout. We took down names.” (From Stranger to the Game.)
It’s tough to fault Galvis for not knowing what he’s never been taught. Upon hearing about it from the opposition, however, it would have been a better look for him and the Reds both had he quietly gone about inquiring in his own dugout whether Mikolas might actually have a point. Manager David Bell—the son and grandson of former big leaguers—would be a great place to start.
The reality, of course, is that many big leaguers have likely done precisely the same thing, unnoticed because the pitchers whose mounds they crossed either didn’t notice themselves or didn’t bother to make an issue out of it.
So I don’t much mention bat flipping much in this space anymore because the bat flip is becoming so thoroughly integrated within the fabric of baseball that calling it out within the context of the unwritten rules is akin calling out curveballs or double plays — things that happen as a standard part of baseball practice.
Sometimes, however, a flip just cries out for attention. With that, feast your eyes on Ronald Acuna Jr.
This is fun on a few levels. It was a two-run shot that tied the game, 3-3, in the ninth. Also, he hit it off of Amir Garrett, spurring some obvious jokes, after last week’s events, about Garrett going after Acuna in response. Also, it gave us a clear distinction between the Let The Kids Play generation and the kind of non-celebration for which old-school fans continue to pine.
That’s because Acuna’s blow wasn’t actually a walk-off. The Braves couldn’t push across their necessary fourth run until it was too late, and lost in the 10th when Cincinnati’s Tucker Barnhart hit a three-run homer of his own … and did this — which is to say, not much — to celebrate:
(For a better look at Barnhart’s non-pimp job, go here.)
There are a couple of things to consider. Barnhart’s blast may have been close enough to the wall that he had initial doubts that it was gone. Plus, the game was in Atlanta, negating any desire to celebrate in front of the hometown fans. Also, like Acuna’s homer, it wasn’t a game-winner; the Reds still had to close things out in the bottom half of the frame.
Still, Acuna is only 21 years old, falling well within Elvis Andrus’ delineation that the Kids we want to Let Play be under 30. Then again, Barnhart is 28, so who the hell knows about anything anymore?
Ultimately, Acuna’s celebration left nobody worse for the wear: He was happy, the fans were happy and his teammates were happy, at least for a while. And the Reds were so unaffected by it that they came back to win the damn game. Seems like we’ve reached some semblance of balance in baseball’s new celebratory order … until another red-assed pitcher decides to get grumpy about something or other and we have to have the same discussion all over again.
There’s a lot to read into this. Kela’s obvious head-hunting—not to mention his admission of it after the fact—is seen in the league office as more offensive than Amir Garrett literally rushing the Pirates’ dugout to throw punches. Ten games is no small matter, but neither is a pitcher reckless enough to target an opponent’s head. (The fact that Kela had just emerged from a team-issued suspension after an altercation with a Pirates employee, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, does not speak well to his general temperament.)
Ultimately, displays like Garrett’s are exceedingly rare. Displays like Kela’s, unfortunately, are not. Good on the league office for sending this particular message.
Hughes’ suspension seems like an attempt to keep things even-handed, even though his came in below the waist.
Bell’s suspension—earned for returning to the field following an ejection with malevolence aforethought—was expected. Hurdle’s—for his team’s “multiple intentional pitches thrown at [Derek] Dietrich this season”—was not. Looks like Joe Torre has officially had his fill of Pittsburgh’s tendencies when it comes to targeting opponents.
The rest of the suspensions—plus fines for Trevor Williams, Joey Votto and Phillip Ervin—are an effort by the Commissioner’s office not just to take a stance against fighting, but against fighting between these particular teams.
“The incidents between these two Clubs remain a source of concern, and it’s reflected by the level of discipline we are handing down today,” said Torre in a statement.
Keone Kela told the truth. Among the ranks of big league pitchers, this is virtually unheard of when discussing message pitches. It’s the closest the guy got to respectable yesterday.
“The reason I went up and in was strictly, one, to show my intent with my pitch, and to pretty much let Dietrich know that I didn’t necessarily agree with the way things went down,” Kela said following a brawl-marred game between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
“Dietrich,” of course, is Derek Dietrich, Reds outfielder and season-long Pirates antagonist. The up-and-in in question, in the seventh inning of yesterday’s Pirates-Reds game, was a 97-mph fastball that flew past Dietrich’s head and sparked the wildest brawl in the big leagues this season. It was only the latest chapter in what’s become baseball’s most prominent blood feud.
The bad vibes between the teams dates back at least to 2012, but yesterday’s episode tracks to an April 7 game in Pittsburgh, when benches cleared after Chris Archer sailed a pitch behind Dietrich’s backside, a clear response to the pimp-job the hitter did after homering earlier in the game.
In 12 games this year, reported Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer, the two teams have racked up 15 ejections and nine hit batsmen while facing each other, largely due to the Reds’ belief that Pittsburgh pitchers consistently and intentionally target their hitters.
Kela has a funny way of showing intent. When Archer wanted to send a message back in April, he did it with a pitch below the belt. Yesterday, Kela went for the head. At that point, Cincinnati’s anger, already established, could not be contained. Joey Votto yelled into the Pirates dugout from his position at first base. Manager David Bell came out to vigorously argue balls and strikes with plate ump Larry Vanover, and was ejected. In the ninth, reliever Jared Hughes—who, as a former member of the Pirates, knows whereof he pitches—officially responded to Kela’s would-be beanball by hitting Starling Marte in the posterior with a fastball.
Reds reliever Amir Garrett topped them all, getting into a shouting match with Josh Bell in the ninth inning, then all but telling coach Jeff Pickler, as they were standing on the mound, that he was going to go and fight the Pirates. Then he handed over the baseball and did that very thing.
What mandates examination here is not strictly Kela’s terrible decision about how best to execute his message, although that certainly plays a part. (Somehow, he wasn’t tossed for the pitch, and ended up striking Dietrich out.) It’s that Pittsburgh has made such behavior integral to their game plan. Earlier today, Bill Baer of NBC Sports compiled a list of Pirates brawls over the last few years. It’s not short.
The Pirates have explained it away as an organizational approach, wanting their pitchers dominate the inside corner. That, of course, leads to unintentional HBPs, which make the intentional ones—of which there have been plenty—seem all the worse. (Pittsburgh is tied for second in the National League in batters hit, one behind Miami. Cincinnati is well below league average, at 36.) Then there are those that come in above the shoulders.
“It’s a shame that [the Pirates’ head-hunting] is allowed, and they’re able to get away with it,” Reds manager David Bell—who went after Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle during yesterday’s fight, though he was unable to effectively reach him—told the Athletic. “They celebrate it. They support it. They clearly allow it. I don’t know if they teach, but they allow it. It’s dangerous. … That has been going on all year. It’s bigger than baseball at this point. People you care about, their health is put jeopardy and nothing is done about it. We suffer for it.”
They will continue to suffer for it. So many underhanded shenanigans went down during the course of the battle, highlighted by Garrett’s dugout charge, that both teams would be justified in feeling that they had things for which to retaliate.
Nothing went down during the follow-up meeting between the teams on Wednesday (apart from pregame handshake snubs by each manager), but the Pirates and Reds meet again twice more, once in August and once to close the season in September. Smart money is on more fireworks.
As for Kela, telling the truth will get him what it gets every truth-telling head-hunter: a suspension. It’ll be one of the few moments to come from yesterday’s events that makes any sense.
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?”
“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.