Dealing With Records

Red Sox Play Petty In Failed Attempt To Deny Minor His Strikouts

Baseball has a long history of acknowledging superlative performances from the opposing dugout, but precedent be damned, things in Arlington got downright wacky last night.

The moment that has gained the most notice was the decision by Rangers first baseman Ronald Guzman to allow a popup, tapped some 30 feet down the line, to drop untouched in foul territory. Ceding an easy putout brought the count on the batter, Chris Owings, to 1-2, and put pitcher Mike Minor in position for a strikeout.

And Mike Minor’s strikeouts are what this story is all about.

Minor, 31, has been pitching in the big leagues since 2010, and despite three campaigns in which he topped 30 starts, and two more in which he topped 25, he had never until yesterday reached 200 strikeouts in a season. It was a stated goal of his, statistical affirmation that he’d fully returned from the torn labrum that cost him two full big league seasons. He went into his final start of the year on Thursday needing nine punchouts to reach that plateau.

The Red Sox were having none of it.

The left-hander started strong, whiffing two of the first three batters he faced, striking out the side in the third, and tacking on one more K in each of the fourth, fifth and seventh innings. That put Minor at eight on the day, one away from his mark.

The problem for him lay mainly with Boston’s other at-bats. The Red Sox put up three runs in the fourth on three singles and a double, and two more in the seventh on homers by Jackie Bradley Jr. and Chris Owings, the latter of which tied the game, 5-5. Ordinarily, this would have been more than enough for Rangers manager Chris Woodward to remove Minor, who’d thrown 98 pitches. Given that both teams have long since been eliminated from playoff contention, however, the most notable achievement on the table for either club on Thursday was Minor’s strikeout mark. The lefthander remained in the game.

For some reason, though, Boston was adamant that he not reach his goal. This is different than being at the wrong end of a no-hitter or losing a playoff clincher, outcomes that bear at least some degree of ignominy. Two hundred strikeouts in a season can be personally relevant to the pitcher who throws them, but it’s hardly a sign of statistical dominance. Minor ranks 10th in the American League in strikeouts, more than 100 behind Gerrit Cole. Precisely nobody outside of the Minor household should care about who he set his mark against.

Bizarrely, the Red Sox cared.

With Minor on the verge of No. 200, Boston’s first three batters of the seventh inning all swung at the first pitch they saw. This included the home runs by Bradley and Owings. It could be happenstance, or it could be the beginnings of a conspiracy to deny the pitcher his milestone.

The Rangers regained the lead with two runs in the bottom of the seventh, after which Minor, sitting on 117 pitches, returned to the mound. He’d thrown that many in a game exactly once in his career, back in 2013, prior to his shoulder issues. But 200 strikeouts meant more to him than the game meant in the standings, and his manager had rope to offer.

For the second straight inning, the Red Sox responded by swinging at the first pitch they saw in every at-bat. Brock Holt grounded out softly to first. Gorkys Hernandez grounded out to shortstop. Bradley Jr. popped up to short. The latter two pitches were well outside the strike zone, but Boston players seemed determined to make contact, even to the detriment of actually getting, you know, hits. They were sacrificing their own success on the pyre of denying Mike Minor a bit of statistical satisfaction. Hell, Minor said that after Holt was retired he looked toward the Rangers dugout and laughed.

“I haven’t seen a three-pitch inning, I don’t think in my career, to be honest,” said Woodward in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram report.

That was the nice way to put it. A more accurate description would have been to call the Red Sox classless. It’s a move that indicates some prior history between Minor and somebody in the Boston clubhouse or the team at large—an unknown grudge that needed tending. What that is, if it exists, has yet to surface. If nothing exists, the Red Sox look all the worse.

Minor was now at 120 pitches. There was no way he was coming out of the game. At this point for the Rangers, it was a matter of principal.

“I said, ‘You’re going back out,’ ” Woodward recalled, as reported in the Athletic. “If they want to do that, you’re going back out. … If they would have been grinding and having long at-bats, he was probably one long at-bat away [from removal].”

By now, Minor was fully cognizant of Boston’s strategy. He opened the top of the ninth by feeding Sandy Leon a 64-mph knuckle-curve that bounced three feet in front of the plate, all but daring the hitter to swing at slop. (Leon did not swing.) The next pitch, a changeup, was more to Leon’s liking, and he flied out to left, “preserving,” wrote Chris Thompson at Deadspin, “Boston’s petty attempt at dishonorably denying an opposing player an honest shot at a strikeout.”

This is where Guzman’s dropped popup came into play. Had he caught it, Minor would have had one out remaining, against a team determined to not strike out. Instead, Owings—who on the first pitch of the at-bat had taken a called strike that barely touched the high, outside part of the zone (a gift to Minor from plate ump C.B. Bucknor, perhaps?)—was faced with a two-strike count.

If there were questions about Bucknor’s priorities with the first pitch to Owings, they were resolved with the fourth, a 1-2 changeup that lolled in at 86 mph, high and well inside. Owings took it. Bucknor, calling bullshit on Boston’s tactics, rung him up anyway.

Minor got his 200th whiff of the season on his 126th pitch of the game, and was immediately pulled. Jose LeClerk came on to get the final out (another strikeout, natch, this one on five pitches), and Rangers won, 7-5.

Afterward, Red Sox manager Alex Cora offered the weakest line of the night, criticizing Guzman’s ignored popup by saying, “I’m just happy our guys are playing the game the right way.”

No, the Red Sox were not playing the game the right way. There are lots of examples through baseball history of players and teams yielding to an opponent in deference to a feat that said player was actively trying to achieve. As recounted in The Baseball Codes, in a meaningless game in 1968, Denny McLain fed Mickey Mantle a requested meatball to let him pass Jimmy Foxx on the all-time home run list. It’s why Brooks Robinson played deep against Bobby Richardson on the final day of the 1959 season, allowing him to bunt for a necessary base hit that would raise his season batting average to .300. (Richardson turned down the offer, swung away and went 2-for-3 on the day to end at. 301.)

There are also examples of players being less gracious. Closer to the Red Sox’ mentality was A’s pitcher Johnny Babich, who in 1941 vowed to end Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak by retiring him in his first at-bat, then walking him every subsequent time he came to the plate. (DiMaggio neutered the plan by singling his first time up.) Or Orioles manager Paul Richards, who, in 1961, with Roger Maris down to his final chance to tie Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in 154 games, brought in closer Hoyt Wilhelm to face him in the ninth inning of a meaningless game in which the Orioles trailed, under threat of fine if he threw anything but knuckleballs. Maris struck out.

Which is not to suggest that the Red Sox should have done anything approaching McLain or Robinson. Nobody would have thought twice had they taken their at-bats against Minor straight up. Hell, that’s all we expect out of ballplayers. Instead, Boston players willingly sacrificed their own best chances in order to deny an opponent a special moment. It was petty, it was beneath them, and it was beneath baseball. Or it should have been, anyway.

Be better, Red Sox.

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Dealing With Records

Wainwright Grooves, Jeter Pounces, Twitter Snarks. Come on, People

wainwrightSo Adam Wainwright grooved a fastball to Derek Jeter in the All-Star Game. Some are saying he was abiding by the unwritten rules when he did so. Others think he simply rolled over to let Jeter have his way. Still others say he disrespected Jeter, for crying out loud, not giving him credit for being able to get around any longer on a real major league pitch.

Jeter was the game’s first American League hitter, and Wainwright’s first pitch to him was in the dirt. His second was a 91-mph fastball down the pipe, which Jeter lashed into the right-field corner for a double.

“I was going to give him a couple of pipe shots,” Wainwright told reporters, describing a fastball grooved for the hitter’s pleasure. “He deserved it.”

Yes, Wainwright laid in in there, fat and succulent, despite his ensuing half-hearted denials aimed at stemming a growing and faux controversy. Yes, he had every right to do what he did. More than that, he should be lauded for it.

The pitcher understood the situation, knew that Jeter is a once-in-a-generation player. Dominating on the field is one thing, but Jeter has captured the public’s attention and affection in a way so wholesome as to seem downright anachronistic. Becoming the enduring face of baseball’s enduring franchise is no easy task. Wainwright understands this, and in Jeter’s final All-Star Game, responded as he saw fit. His first move was to step off the mound when Jeter was introduced, to give the Captain an extra moment of mass adoration. His next was to tee one up for the guy. It was an exhibition game; give the man his glory.

Those who misguidedly blame the unwritten rules for the moment are half right. There is precedent for Wainwright’s action, and that precedent does fall within the sport’s unwritten rules, but there is nothing to dictate such a course of action. Had the right-hander pitched Jeter as he would any other batter (or like he would have had the contest counted in the standings)—had he struck him out with a two-seamer in the dirt—not a player in baseball would have cried foul.

An entire chapter in The Baseball Codes—Responding to Records—deals with the topic. Wainwright’s action was more along the lines of Responding to Legacies, but the concept is the same. An excerpt:

Tigers pitcher Denny McLain always had a soft spot for Mickey Mantle, having idolized him as a boy growing up in Chicago. When they met at Tiger Stadium in September 1968 the two were at opposite ends of their careers, McLain peaking en route to thirty-one wins and both the Cy Young and MVP awards, while Mantle was nine days from retirement. The great slugger’s previous home run, almost a month earlier, had him tied with Jimmy Foxx on the all-time list with 534.

Before the game, McLain decided to do his hero a favor. Recalled Tigers catcher Jim Price, “Denny told me, ‘Let him hit one.’ ” Price relayed the good news when Mantle stepped into the batter’s box, at which point the Yankees star extended his bat over the plate to indicate just the spot in which he’d like to see a pitch. McLain delivered, and Mantle connected for a homer. Said Price, “Denny stood out there on the mound and clapped.” Mantle had his milestone, and McLain had his joy.

Properly dealing with records—either one’s own or someone else’s— has long been a part of the Code. It’s why Yankees outfielder Tommy Henrich laid down a curiously timed ninth-inning bunt to avoid a possible double play, assuring Joe DiMaggio another chance to extend his hitting streak in 1941. (DiMaggio did.)

It’s also why, when Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson went into the final day of the 1959 season needing a hit in his first at-bat to push his average to .300, manager Casey Stengel informed him that since the Yankees didn’t have a single .300 hitter on the roster he’d be immediately removed from the game should it happen, to avoid falling below the mark in ensuing at-bats. It’s also why members of that day’s opponent, the Bal­timore Orioles, took up the cause: Brooks Robinson informed Richardson that he’d be playing deep in case the hitter found appeal in bunting; pitcher Billy O’Dell offered to groove pitches; and catcher Joe Ginsberg verbally called for pitches instead of dropping down signs. Umpire Ed Hurley even got in on the act, offering that, if Richardson could “just make it close,” things would go his way. Said Richardson, “There couldn’t have been a more complete fix on.” (The fix might have been on, but it wasn’t complete. Richardson doubled in his first at-bat, refused Stengel’s entreaties to leave the game, went 2-for-3, and ended up at .301.)

Since we’re on a string of Yankees-related events, we can also turn to Whitey Ford, who ended up facing former teammate Billy Martin, one of his best friends in the game, about six weeks after Martin had been traded from New York to Kansas City. It was the eighth inning and the Yankees were leading, 10-3. From Ford’s book, Slick:

I threw him a big slow curve and he took it for a strike. I got the ball back and said to him, “Same thing.” I wanted him to hit it for a single or double, but I threw another big slow curve and he wrapped it around the left-field foul pole for a home run. Now he was prancing around the bases, the son of a bitch. When I saw him prancing like that, I was sorry I did it.

Ford’s action came as a favor to a friend in a situation that wouldn’t cost his team. Wainwright’s was a nod to the sanctity of baseball in an exhibition game that didn’t count for anything other than pride (and, stupidly, home-field advantage in the World Series). It’s a shame more of the public isn’t appreciating it as such. The man was pitching in a showcase to the most super of any superstar his generation will produce. With one pitch, he acknowledged all of it, every bit.