Cheating, Gamesmanship

Baez’s Attempt To Hug It Out Almost Saved Chicago’s Season

Javy hugs

As the game wore through extra innings last night in Chicago, the Cubs grew increasingly desperate to score. They’d left the winning run stranded at third in the eighth, and had another runner in the ninth they could not advance.

Then, with one out in the 11th, with Javy Baez at second and Daniel Murphy at first, Wilson Contreras topped a grounder to Nolan Arenado at third base. It was a great chance for the rocket-armed fielder to double up the gimpy-legged Contreras—who only moments earlier had precipitated a minutes-long delay when his left calf muscle cramped—and end the inning.

Instead, Baez, baseball’s most creative player, wrapped up Arenado in a bear hug as the tag was applied. It was, on the surface, a friendly gesture, Arenado responding with a smile and a hug of his own. The idea of doubling up Contreras was lost, especially to an umpiring crew who detected no hint of malfeasance from the victim.

It made no difference in the end, as the next batter, Victor Caratini, grounded out to end the inning, and the Rockies went on to win in 13. Had Murphy ended up scoring from second, however, Baez’s hug would have gone down as an indelible moment in what would have been a Chicago victory.

I have a book about the 1981 Dodgers, called They Bled Blue, coming out next March. What jumped out to me in relation to Baez’s hug was a moment from the 1978 World Series that I describe in the introduction. The Dodgers led the series two games to one, and were ahead in Game 4, 3-1, in the sixth inning. Then the Yankees put two men on base—Thurman Munson at second and Reggie Jackson at first—against Dodgers starter Tommy John. That brought up Lou Piniella. From They Bled Blue:

Piniella tapped a humpbacked liner up the middle, which Bill Russell, moving to his left, reached in plenty of time for the putout. The shortstop, however—whose nervous glove had long belied his supreme athleticism—was coming off a season in which he’d finished third in the National League in errors. He nearly made another one here, the ball clanking off his mitt, a miscue that looked inconsequential when it rolled directly toward second base, allowing Russell to snatch it up three steps from the bag and race over to force Jackson for the inning’s second out . . . which is where things got interesting.

With Russell having been in position to catch the ball on the fly, both runners had retreated to their bases of origin. Munson, in fact, made such a belated start toward third that had the shortstop thought to reach to his right upon gathering in the loose baseball, he might well have been able to tag him then and there. Russell didn’t, of course, because there was no need: an accurate relay to first base—which the shortstop provided, firing a bullet to Steve Garvey in plenty of time to retire Piniella—would complete an inning-ending double-play. There was, however, an impediment: Jackson, having backtracked, was rooted in the baseline only steps away from first. As the throw rocketed toward its intended target, Reggie did the only thing he could to extend the inning—he leaned ever so slightly toward right field, his hip jutting out just far enough to deflect the throw, which bounced off him and toward the grandstand alongside the Yankees dugout, allowing Munson to score.

The Dodgers screamed interference. Tommy Lasorda speed-waddled onto the field, tobacco juice dribbling onto his chin as he argued at top volume with umpires Frank Pulli and Joe Brinkman. Pulli, stationed at first, later admitted that his view of the base runner had been obstructed and that he had little idea whether Jackson might have intentionally interfered with the ball. Brinkman said that he’d been looking at second base to call the force-out when the ball hit Reggie . . . or, depending on your rooting interests, when Reggie hit the ball.

The play might have been dirty, but there’s no denying that it was smart. Had Jackson done nothing, the inning would have been over. The frame would similarly have ended had Reggie been called for interference, as he should have been. As it was, though, he got away with it, allowing Munson to close New York’s deficit to 3–2, The Sporting News later calling it “one of the shrewdest and most significant plays” in World Series history. Had Jackson not done what he did, Tommy John—whose previous two starts were a four-hit shutout over Philadelphia in the National League Championship Series and LA’s victory over the Yankees in the first game of the World Series—would have been in the middle of another four-hitter, trying to protect a two-run lead in the late innings. Instead, with the Dodgers clinging to a one-run advantage, Lasorda pulled the left-hander after Paul Blair’s leadoff single in the eighth. Two batters later, reliever Terry Forster allowed a game-tying double to Munson, and the game went to extra innings. New York won it in the 10th, and the Dodgers, instead of being one win from a Series victory, found things knotted at two games apiece. It wrecked them.

The Yankees, of course, went on to win that World Series. Things didn’t work out so well for Baez, but it is likely that his hug was specifically intended to curtail the possibility of Aranado ending the inning with a double-play. If that’s the case, one could—as with Reggie, 40 years earlier— fault his sense of fair play. Just like Reggie, of course, Baez’s was a winning proposition with no attendant downside, and the possible upside of being a game-winner.

There’s a reason he’s one of the savviest players in baseball.

 

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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.

 

Retaliation

Nolan Arenado Does Not Appreciate Your Message Pitch, Sir

Arenado charges

Remember back in 1990, when Dave Stewart threw a no-hitter—and then had it upstaged only a few hours later when Fernando Valenzuela threw a no-hitter of his own?

Wednesday was kind of like that for mound charges.

Tyler Austin’s assault on Boston pitcher Joe Kelly garnered more headlines, but Nolan Arenado’s charge of San Diego pitcher Hunter Renfro came first. Also, it was interesting.

The genesis came on Tuesday, when Rockies pitcher Scott Oberg drilled San Diego center fielder Manuel Margot in the ribs with a 95-mph fastball that pretty clearly lacked intent. (Oberg himself tried to relay as much to Padres coach Glenn Hoffman while he was still in the field.)

Still, the damage was such that Margot was placed on the 10-day disabled list. When it comes to teams harboring grudges, that kind of detail matters.

On Wednesday, the Padres drilled Trevor Story in the first inning, and the Rockies responded by drilling Hunter Renfro in the second. (Both pitches came in two-out situations that would suggest the pitchers had some inclination toward the results they achieved.)

Things came to a head in the third, when Padres right-hander Luis Perdomo ran directly counter to his team’s rock-steady plan of pitching Nolan Arenado away, instead sending a fastball directly at his ribs—as clear a response to Margot’s drilling as could be imagined. Arenado avoided the pitch, barely, then wasted no time in lighting out to get him a piece of pitcher. A backpedaling Perdomo tried to blunt the charge by tossing his glove at the furious batter, which, apart from being highly comical, sort of worked—the glove missed, but so did Arenado, and the fight ended up like so many others, with lots of shoving and not much in the way of actual brawling.

The teams meet again, also in Colorado, on April 23.

 

Don't Cross the Pitcher's Mound, Infield Etiquette

Play Ball! … no, wait … okay, Play Ball!

Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw called it “disrespectful,” but really it was more thoughtless than anything.

The lefthander was preparing to pitch to the first batter of yesterday’s game against Colorado, Charlie Blackmon, when plate ump Quinn Wolcott put up his hand to pause the action. Rockies starter Tyler Anderson had taken some extra warmup tosses in the bullpen and was slowly walking back to the dugout along the sideline. Wolcott wanted the field cleared before the game began.

Kershaw couldn’t believe it. He lifted his palms in disbelief, then paced his way off the back of the mound, standing in the infield grass, arms akimbo, while Anderson departed.

“That was one of the more disrespectful things I’ve been a part of in a game,” the pitcher said after the game. “I really didn’t appreciate that. The game starts at 7:10. It started at 7:10 here for a long time. Just go around or finish earlier. That wasn’t appreciated, for sure. Not going to say any more—I’ll get in trouble.”

If it seems like a high-strung reaction for a few seconds’ worth of delay, it might be—but it’s justified. Kershaw, like most great pitchers, is a creature of focus and timing. When he’s in the process of going through routines both mental and physical to begin a game, any interruption can present a derailment. Sure enough, the first three Rockies reached base, on a walk and two singles. Kershaw denied that Anderson’s sojourn had anything to do with it, and, after surrendering only one run in getting out of the jam, he settled down to give up only four hits and one run over the next six, striking out 10 in the process.

At issue is a ballplayer’s territory, and how decorum prevents opponents from encroaching upon it. Hitters, for example, never walk between the pitcher and the catcher en route to the batter’s box. When necessary, they walk around, behind the umpire. It’s an easy thing to overlook from the grandstand, but the sanctity of the space is inviolable. That path belongs to the pitcher, at least while he’s holding a baseball, and everybody understands it.

When Alex Rodriguez trod atop the mound on his way back to the dugout after flying out in 2010, the pitcher he crossed, Oakland’s Dallas Braden, gave him an earful. At the time, people wondered what the problem was, but for anyone paying attention the answer was obvious—the pitcher’s mound is sacred, and any invasion is insufficiently deferential to the guy trying to do his job there.

(Sidenote: I covered that very topic in The Baseball Codes, for a chapter that was cut prior to printing for space considerations. In it, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts—a Giants outfielder when I talked to him—said, “That’s his office, his domain To run across it is disrespectful.”)

Anderson denied intent, telling reporters that he “didn’t mean any disrespect” and that he was surprised that Wolcott didn’t allow the game to begin. But the delay interfered with Kershaw’s process, whatever it may have been. The pitcher was within his rights to be annoyed.

Kershaw expended 27 pitches in that first inning, which was almost certainly a factor in his failure to reach the eighth. That might have been one reason for his postgame rant. Even more so, I’m guessing, was Anderson’s simple lack of etiquette. The guess here is that retaliation of any sort will be unnecessary—we’ll never see something like that again from a Rockies pitcher, at least not at Dodger Stadium.

 

 

Retaliation

Spring Drill Exchange in Arizona Sets Tone for D-Backs

Wade Miley
Mr. Miley

There are benefits to blanket warnings that your team will no longer tolerate opposing pitchers throwing at your players. Say it enough, and back it up once or twice, and maybe people will believe it to be true.

Of course, should your pitcher, under said blanket, hit somebody unintentionally, cries of innocence tend to fall on deaf ears.

This is part of what made last week’s HBP exchange between the Diamondbacks and Rockies so confusing. Perhaps Arizona pitchers are training up their tough-guy attitude, which would help explain Wade Miley putting a fastball into Troy Tulowitzki’s calf on Wednesday.

It sure seemed like retaliation, coming as it did after  Rockies farmhand Tommy Kahnle hit Arizona’s Mark Trumbo in the back—which itself came after Diamondbacks GM. Kevin Towers said on his local radio show last October that “Come spring training, it will be duly noted that it’s going to be an eye for an eye,” and that pitchers who don’t agree “probably don’t belong in a Diamondbacks uniform.”

Unless there’s some unknown beef between Kahnle—whose lack of control has contributed to his never having pitched above the Double-A level—and Trumbo, the initial volley was almost certainly a case of a misplaced pitch. Was Miley out to prove that his team won’t tolerate wildness from farmhands?

But Towers’ statement—along with the facts that Miley has excellent control and Tulowitzki is an obvious retaliatory target—eliminates the perception that the drilling was a mistake. Even if the drilling was a mistake.

It was almost certainly a mistake when, later in the game, Arizona pitcher Jimmie Sherfy—a 22-year-old whose career consists of 17 1/3 innings at or below A-ball—hit Colorado’s Michael McKenry. Again, however, thanks to Towers’ decree, it didn’t matter. The Rockies responded in kind, right-hander Raul Hernandez throwing a pitch behind Jesus Montero in the eighth, at which point plate ump Doug Eddings finally saw fit to warn both dugouts.

It barely matters that Towers followed up his initial statement to clarify that he wasn’t in support of hitting guys on purpose, but rather if “our hitters are being made uncomfortable at the plate, we need to be the same way.” He added that his point was “about pitching inside effectively with purpose.”

Yeah, but still. Damage done.

Spring training is a great place to settle old scores—atone for injustices of the past when the games don’t count and tee times await those who get thumbed from ballgames early. Turning it into a proving ground for new scores, however, is reckless. Tulowitzki left that game and had not returned to the lineup as of the end of last week.

If Miley was throwing at Tulo, he was out of line. If the pitch legitimately got away from him, he can thank his GM for causing the rest of us to doubt that to be true.

(H/T to Troy Renck, who shares his own terrific insight at the Denver Post.)

Deke Appropriately

Now You See it, Now You Don’t: The Weekend of Phantom Tags

ChiSox dekeWe’ve discussed the concept of deking in this space for some time, under the auspices that improper execution by middle infielders can be dangerous. (A last-minute phantom tag, for example, delivered when a baserunner doesn’t expect it, can lead to late and awkward slides.)

Rarely, however, do we see two perfectly executed dekes in the same weekend that both lead to game-ending double plays.

On Saturday, Michael Cuddyer, representing the tying run for the Rockies, was on first base with one out in the ninth inning, and took off running. The hitter, Nolan Arenado, popped the pitch into short center field, but all Cuddyer saw was Padres second baseman Jed Gyorko acting like he was fielding a throw from the catcher. When center fielder Alexi Amarista made the catch, it took only an easy throw to double Cuddyer off first. (Watch it here.)

On Sunday in Baltimore, the Orioles had runners at the corners with one out in the ninth, down 4-2 to the White Sox. Chris Dickerson, inserted as a pinch-runner at first base, ran on an 0-2 pitch that batter Brian Roberts popped up behind first, in foul territory. Chicago shortstop Alexi Ramirez lit to the bag as if to field a throw, spurring Dickerson into a head-first slide. Second baseman Leury Garcia made the catch while Dickerson was still at second; though he probably had time to run it over himself, he flipped the ball to first baseman Jeff Keppinger for the game’s final out. (Watch it here.)

The similarity on both plays: Neither runner looked in to see where the baseball was going.

”I didn’t peek and it ended up in the one place where you’re not going to get that awareness reaction from the infielders,” Dickerson said in an AP report. ”Especially Ramirez with the deke. That pretty much got me. I assumed there was a ground ball hit behind me, and he was going to first because I was already there.”

Catchers will occasionally deke runners into easing up by acting as if no throw is coming before fielding the ball and making an unexpected tag. Outfielders have been known to act as if they have a bead on a ball that ends up landing nowhere near them, in order to keep a runner near his base. In 1958, members of the Cubs bullpen went so far as to deke Giants outfielder Leon Washington by collectively acting as if a ball hit by Tony Taylor had rolled under their bench, while it was actually some 45 feet away, in a rain gutter. (By the time Wagner realized what was happening, Taylor had circled the bases.)

Infielders, however, hold nearly absolute dominion over the tactic. (For an extended rundown on the idea, focusing primarily on Lonnie Smith’s basepath adventure in the 1991 World Series, see chapter 9 of The Baseball Codes.) Rarely, however—if ever—have we seen such wildly successful execution delivered so definitively in such a short amount of time.