Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Verlander’s No-No Beaten By Bunt, and Nobody Seems to Mind

Dyson bunts

It’s a convoluted question, so bear with me: Can the circumstances following a clear violation of the unwritten rules somehow alter how that rule is perceived?

In other words, might the end of a play justify the means?

The play in question is Jarrod Dyson’s bunt in the sixth inning of yesterday’s game against the Tigers, which broke up Justin Verlander’s perfect game.

Such a thing, of course, has long been frowned upon by baseball moralists as disrespectful of a pitcher’s attempt at greatness. To challenge a guy fully, the theory goes, one must do so in a straightforward manner, without trickery or deceit.

The most famous example of this, as outlined in The Baseball Codes, was the bunt laid down by Padres catcher Ben Davis against Arizona’s Curt Schilling in 2001. Davis was San Diego’s 23rd batter of the night but the first—after his ill-executed attempt managed to drop between the mound and second base—to reach safely. Afterward, Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly called the play “chickenshit” and said that Davis “has a lot to learn about how the game is played.”

Part of it was the intrusion on attempted perfection. Part of it was that Davis was a slow-footed catcher for whom bunting and speed were hardly part of his repertoire. Part of it was that the attempt came in the eighth inning, with Schilling only five outs from immortality.

One detail, however, served as adequate cover. The score was 2-0, and Davis had managed to bring the tying run to the plate. No matter how much animosity his bunt engendered in the opposing dugout, it is impossible to ignore the prime directive governing baseball’s unwritten rules: Winning trumps everything, and Davis had given his team its best chance on the day to win. Justification.

The circumstances yesterday in Seattle were somewhat different. Dyson’s bunt came in the sixth inning—early enough, perhaps, to validate it on its own merits. Take it from a different Seattle player, Jarrod Washburn—who pitched for the Mariners for four seasons, through 2009—whose own no-hitter was broken up by a bunt from Tampa Bay rookie Ben Zobrist in 2006. Like Dyson, Zobrist did it in the sixth inning, and it didn’t bother Washburn a bit. “If it was the eighth or ninth, maybe that would have rubbed me the wrong way,” he said at the time, “but bunting is just part of the game, and he was just trying to make something happen.”

Also in Dyson’s favor is that, unlike Davis, speed is an integral part of his game. Still, the play occurred while the Tigers held a 4-0 lead, and Dyson hardly represented the tying run. Sixteen years earlier, Davis could have creditably claimed that winning informed his strategy, but down four runs, Dyson’s rationalization was considerably more specious … save for two little words: And then.

And then, pitching out of the stretch for the first time all night, Verlander walked Mike Zunino. And then Jean Segura collected an infield single to load the bases. And then Ben Gamel scored Dyson with a single to center. And then, after Verlander struck out Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz brought home two more with a double. And then it was 4-3 and Verlander’s day was over. After retiring Seattle’s first 16 hitters, he retired only one of its next six, including Dyson’s bunt. Seattle scored four more against Detroit’s bullpen, and went home with a 7-5 victory.

Regardless of how things may have seemed at the moment Dyson laid down his bunt, there’s no questioning that the effort played a significant role in his team’s victory. Justification.

After the game, Verlander said that he had no problem with Dyson’s strategy. The best summation, however, came from Schilling, in reference to his own spoiled no-hitter all those years earlier. “Unwritten rules or not, you’re paid to win games,” he said in The Baseball Codes. “That’s the only reason you’re playing in the big leagues.”

 

Sign stealing

Can Sign Stealing That’s Not Really Sign Stealing Still Be Counted As Sign Stealing?

Cabrera signs

Standard practice when a team catches an opponent sign stealing is to inform said sign stealers that the jig is up and that it’s time to knock it off. The details therein are up for debate (verbal warnings frequently suffice, though some pitchers prefer to use inside fastballs to deliver the message), but the parameters are fairly universal.

In Houston last weekend, Texas caught Miguel Cabrera, at second base, signaling to the hitter about pitch type. The wrinkle was not that Cabrera was caught, but how he was caught. The guy lacked so much subtlety that he may as well have been shouting across the diamond to hitter J.D. Martinez.

That’s because Cabrera wasn’t stealing signs, he was offering a scouting report.

Cabrera, the first hitter to face Rangers reliever Sam Dyson, was surprised by the number of changeups he saw as Dyson warmed up. That’s because the Tigers had been informed that Dyson is not a changeup-heavy pitcher.

So after Cabrera doubled (having seen only fastballs during his three-pitch at-bat), he let his teammate know what he’d learned, as clearly as possible, repeatedly flashing a changeup sign over his head.

That Cabrera wasn’t picking specific signs lends a patina of innocence to the entire affair. Texas’ middle infielders Elvis Andrus and Roughned Odor—like Cabrera, Venezuelans—helped calm the situation in the moment, and the Tigers burned some calories in the postgame clubhouse explaining that whatever Cabrera was doing out there, he was decidedly not stealing signs.

“If he was stealing signs, he certainly wouldn’t be that blatant about it,” said Detroit manager Brad Ausmus in a Detroit Free Press report. “Miggy was just trying to let the bench know that (Dyson) has a change-up—that was all it was. It was a misunderstanding. He wasn’t stealing signs. I just think Dyson, for some reason, thought he was.”

Well, of course Dyson thought he was. Because that’s what somebody who steals signs looks like.

Yet and still, despite his innocence on that particular charge, Cabrera was nonetheless signaling helpful information to his teammate during game action. He was trying to give an advantage, from the basepath, that a teammate would not have otherwise enjoyed. (For what it’s worth, Martinez struck out swinging … on a changeup. So did the next hitter, Justin Upton.)

Had Cabrera opted simply to wait until either he scored or the inning ended, he could have informed the entire Tigers bench of his realization without so much as an eyebrow being raised in response.

Of course Dyson is allowed to take issue with it. Just because Cabrera’s action was the more innocent of two options doesn’t make it normal.

Retaliation

Message Delivered: Detroit Baits Sano Into Disastrous Reaction

Sano-Boyd

It was obscured over the weekend by the Baltimore Slide Affair, but a moment in Saturday’s Twins-Tigers game slots into the same category. It also offers some lessons for whatever Red Sox player ends up wearing a retaliatory pitch from the Orioles, should such a thing be coming.

Whether or not one agrees with the concept of retaliatory pitches in baseball, one must accept the fact that such things exist, and understand that an appropriate response will go a long way toward maintaining general sanity on the premises. On Saturday, Miguel Sano did not offer an appropriate response, and ended up ejected, then suspended.

It began in the third inning, when Twins reliever Justin Haley drilled Detroit’s JaCoby Jones in the face, knocking him from the game. Jones was subsequently placed on the 10-day disabled list with a lip laceration.

Unlike the pitch in Baltimore, there was no noticeable intent, but—as will likely influence Boston when the Orioles next come to town—conventional tactics mandate a response to HBPs above the shoulders. Prevailing notion holds that even innocent pitchers who can’t control their stuff shouldn’t be throwing up and in. Should they do so, plunking a teammate in response issues a powerful deterrent for similar pursuits in the future.

Which is precisely what happened in Minnesota. Two frames after Jones went down, Twins starter Matthew Boyd threw a fastball behind Sano—below the waist, as deterrent pitches are supposed to be. Had the hitter kept his wits, he would have recognized and accepted the nature of the message: a no-harm-done warning shot indicating the Twins’ displeasure with how things had gone down. Had the hitter kept his wits, he could have kept on hitting.

Instead, Sano took several steps toward the mound, pointing and shouting. When Twins catcher James McCann put him in a protective bear hug, Sano took a swing. (Watch it here.)

Never mind the lack of strategy behind throwing a punch at a guy wearing a catcher’s mask—Sano was quickly tossed. So, strangely, was Boyd, who hadn’t actually hit anyone with a pitch, who hadn’t received a warning to that point, and who likely wouldn’t have gone anywhere had Sano recognized the situation for what it was and calmly allowed the game to proceed.

“[McCann] touched me with his glove and I reacted,” Sano said after the game, in an MLB.com report. “It was a glove to the face. They were supposed to eject McCann, too, but I saw they didn’t eject him.”

Sure enough, McCann’s glove rose toward Sano’s face as the catcher drew him close. It wasn’t a swing though, and should hardly have been enough to spur Sano into the action he took.

Sano doesn’t need to like the concept of baseball retaliation. It is, in many instances, a brutal process. But the logic is impossible to miss: A pitch thrown at a team’s star in response to something one of his teammates did might inspire a conversation with said teammate about knocking it the hell off in the future. Had Sano recognized as much, he’d have saved himself a bunch of trouble.

The word “rules” is right there in the term “unwritten rules.” This weekend showed us the importance of players understanding them, if only for their own long-term benefit.

 

 

 

Retaliation

Do Only Certain Pitchers Get to Throw Inside? Depends on Who You Ask

bauer-drills-martinez

Question of the day: When do unintentionally hit batters become a big problem?

For people like Tony La Russa, the answer can be “almost immediately.” Others offer a modicum of leeway  should a pitch accidentally sail.

We saw this earlier in the year, when Pirates pitchers—who have a reputation for working the inside corner—unintentionally popped a couple Diamondbacks. La Russa, never long on patience for that type of thing, questioned whether maybe pitchers who don’t have the best control should avoid trying to bust fastballs in on hitters’ hands.

This weekend saw more of the same, courtesy of Trevor Bauer. On Sunday against the Tigers, Cleveland’s right-hander knocked the helmet from the head of Ian Kinsler, in addition to plunking Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. None of the pitches looked good, but unless Bauer is extremely competent at feigning concern, neither were they intentional. (Game situation alone confirms as much. Cabrera’s HBP, in the first inning, put a runner into scoring position. Kinsler was the leadoff hitter in the third. Martinez was drilled with the bases loaded. Watch it all here.)

Perhaps it would have been easier for Detroit to tolerate had the price been less steep. Kinsler suffered dizzy spells after the game. Martinez crumpled to the ground in agony, then went 0-for-3 after choosing to stay in the game.

Bauer cringed on the mound after hitting Kinsler, and tried to apologize after the inning and again after the game. It wasn’t nearly enough.

“If you can’t command the ball inside, you’ve got to maybe not go inside,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus after the game, echoing La Russa in an MLB.com report. “This is the big leagues, and if you’re going to hit guys in the head and the kneecap then something’s got to give.”

What gave on Sunday was Tigers starter Derrick Norris throwing a pitch behind Rajai Davis in response to Kinsler’s beaning, at which point both benches were warned. (One thing the umps couldn’t stop was Justin Upton’s message-laden pimp-and-glacial-home-run-trot-combo in the fifth.)

So who’s right? Bauer, or any other pitcher, can’t be expected to simply give up a portion of the strike zone on the basis that he’s a bit wild on a given day. Pitching out of fear is a terrible strategy for winning ballgames.

Then again, when players are falling left and right at the hands of a pitcher who has no idea where the ball is headed, it’s understandable that flames will be fanned.

Ultimately, it’s why baseball has penalties for being wild. Walks and hit batters mean baserunners, and too many baserunners mean that a pitcher’s not long for an outing. Bauer gave up six earned runs in 5.2 innings, which isn’t so surprising considering the other details of his day. And that’s pretty much the best result that Detroit could hope for in an otherwise bleak situation.

[H/T to Uzzy]

Retaliation

On the Merits of Appropriate Response, and the Response to That Response

ColeA measure of how far baseball has come—for better and worse—was on display Tuesday in Detroit. On one hand, the you-hit-my-guy-so-I’ll-hit-yours mentality so prevalent in past generations has become rare enough for modern occurrences to make a bit of a splash.

On the other hand, the instincts that players once used to automatically rationalize that kind of behavior have atrophied. Such tactics now lead to full-bore freakouts … or at least baseball’s version of them.

In the wake of one such tit-for-tat exchange with Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Detroit designated hitter Victor Martinez did the unthinkable in baseball circles—he publicly vented, going so far as to drop the “R”-word.

“I have no respect for no one on that team, including [Pirates pitcher Gerrit] Cole and their coaching staff,” he said in a Detroit Free Press account.

It started when Justin Verlander hit Starling Marte with a pitch in the fourth inning. It was clearly unintentional: a 1-2 count, a runner on first and the Tigers were losing, 3-0. Regardless, Cole—who has a history of paying attention to the Code—responded by drilling Martinez in the ribs during the very next frame.

This is what set the DH off.  “If they think that Verlander hit Marte with a 1-2 count—he was battling that at-bat—if they really think we did it on purpose, they’re playing the wrong sport,” he said.

Martinez is probably correct, even while overlooking the obvious point that Verlander’s intent likely didn’t matter. Cole appears to be a guy who embraces the old-school mentality of teammate protection, which is so outdated to have become cliché: You hit my guy so I’ll hit yours, and maybe you won’t take so many liberties with the inside corner next time. The fact that four Pirates players had been hit over the previous three games may well have factored into Cole’s decision to put his foot down.

This is not to say that Cole acted appropriately. But speaking personally as somebody who disagrees with the tactic of drilling an opponent simply to make a statement, I still have to appreciate a pitcher looking out for his guys.

Verlander himself responded by drilling the next batter he faced, Pedro Alvarez, on the thigh—at which point both dugouts were warned.

“I think in baseball there’s always been that, if someone deserves to be thrown at, I think a lot of times when it’s done the proper way it’s over after that,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said in the Free Press. “And it’s true. If it’s done the right way, both teams at the end say, all right, it’s over.”

Was it over? Various members of the Pirates clubhouse were dismissive of Martinez’s comments (“I wasn’t aware he was the voice of reason,” said Clint Hurdle in the Free Press), and the DH was drilled again yesterday, by reliever Jared Hughes, with an 89-mph fastball, in a situation that screamed for intent: The Pirates led 9-2 in the eighth inning, Martinez isn’t exactly Billy Hamilton on the basepathes and his role as a baserunner barely registered.

Today’s game went by cleanly until the ninth, when, with Pittsburgh leading 5-3 and first base open, Tigers reliever Bruce Rondon drilled Francisco Cervelli, who had opened the scoring with a fourth-inning homer. Martinez ended things by grounding out to first.

The rest of the story remains to be seen.

Sign stealing

Everybody Needs Somebody, Even in the Center Field Bleachers: Victor Martinez, Chris Sale is Looking at You

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Stealing an opponent’s signs from the basepaths won’t exactly be met with a smile and warm handshake, but neither will it elicit too many bad feelings—especially if the thief knocks it off once the jig is up.

Nipping them from beyond the field of play via spyglass or binoculars, however …well, that’ll get ’em every time.

On Wednesday it sure did. Chicago’s Chris Sale appeared in every way to be convinced that something was happening beyond the center field wall at Comerica Park. During the course of the game he pointed toward center field in anger and he pantomimed binoculars from the bench and, most notably to the would-be beneficiary of allegedly stolen signs, he drilled Victor Martinez to fully express his dissatisfaction with the situation.

In the cases of hitters being drilled for perceived slights (“I don’t like how you flipped your bat after that home run”), critics of such old-school retaliation are standing on solid ground. This, though, is different. If Sale was correct, Martinez and his team were benefitting at Sale’s expense via shady and illegal practices that would otherwise be beyond discipline. Sale wasn’t talking afterward, but a well-placed fastball is the time-tested and very effective behavior-correction method of choice.

Some pertinent details: Martinez is hitting .517 with three homers in 29 career at-bats against Sale (including a .647 mark in 17 at-bats in 2013). Nobody who has faced the left-hander that much has done better. But those numbers are home and road both, and it’s a safe assumption that Martinez is not getting signs from the stands on the road, at least on a regular basis. (Oh, what a story it would be if he was.) Still, when the pitcher at the wrong end of those numbers is a perennial Cy Young contender, it’s easy to see how he might think something is up.

The thing is, Sale went 1-0 with a 1.88 ERA in two starts at Comerica Park last season, and this year struck out 10 while giving up one run in six innings in his only start there. So it’s clearly not a team-wide thing that has the guy riled. And, frankly, team-wide things are pretty much all that’s on the public record when it comes to this kind of activity.

In May, the Braves all but accused the Marlins of signaling hitters via their scoreboard. In 2011, the Yankees said that the Blue Jays were doing it from the Rogers Centre … and so did the Red Sox … and the Orioles. Whatever came of it? Not a whole lot. Even with damning evidence, when Phillies coach Mick Billmeyer was caught training binoculars on Rockies catchers in 2010, it elicited nothing more than a light warning from MLB’s home office.

And so Sale took action on his own. By the looks of it, the rest of his team was keyed to the moment, as well. From an MLB.com report:

In the first inning Wednesday, with Ian Kinsler on second and two outs, Ventura made a rare early visit to the mound. Sale threw two pitches outside of the zone and then intentionally walked Martinez.

Martinez stepped to the plate in the third with runners on first and second and two outs, and struck out swinging. On the last fastball to Martinez, catcher Tyler Flowers set up inside but the deciding pitch landed high and away. That pitch sequence followed two visits to the mound by Flowers and Sale taking a couple of looks back toward center. After the strikeout, Sale turned toward right-center field and tipped his cap. That was followed by a wave in the same general direction.

During the argument in the sixth, Sale appeared to reference Martinez’s “guy out there,” and Martinez said after the game that White Sox right fielder Avisail Garcia told his one-time teammate during the scrum that the White Sox suspected sign stealing. Sale claimed postgame Wednesday that his hat tip was to a fan who was wearing him out during his pregame bullpen session, but Sale was unavailable for comment prior to Thursday’s contest. The left-hander was excused by the team for the game for personal reasons.

Perhaps one day he’ll talk about what was tipping him off, and the possibility exists that it was all just an elaborate ruse to throw at Martinez simply because the hitter’s protracted success against him finally got under his skin. Either way, evidence suggests merely that Martinez is just a very good hitter who likes the kind of stuff Sale throws.

Hell, he’s hitting .556 in 18 career at-bats against Colby Lewis, and Lewis hasn’t even bothered to drill him once.

 

Unwritten-Rules

On Successful Homecomings and Misread Grins: The Tale of the Trying Smile, by Ian Kinsler

GrinslerAh, respect. She is a vexing mistress.

Ian Kinsler, reluctantly departed from his career-long home in Arlington after an off-season trade with Detroit, returned for the first time yesterday as a member of the visiting team. He promptly took former Rangers teammate Colby Lewis deep.

And what did he do? He gave a little wave to his pals in the Rangers dugout. He couldn’t suppress a smile as he went around the bases. There was no animosity here; this was friendly stuff—a we’re-in-different-uniforms-but-I-still-like-you-mooks moment. To everybody, it seems, but Lewis. (Watch it here.)

Give the pitcher some leeway—he had just put his team in a first-inning hole and ended up taking the loss with a mediocre outing, and now boasts a 5.94 ERA on the season after missing all of last year due to elbow and hip injuries. His team has as many wins as the Astros. He deserves to be frustrated. But to take that personally? (If anybody possibly could, it would be Rangers GM Jon Daniels. But Lewis?)

“I guess ‘disappointed’ is the best word to describe it,” the pitcher said after the game in an MLive report.

There are lots of legitimate gripes in baseball about improper displays of respect, which can be dealt with in any number of time-tested ways. Lewis obviously wants other players, particularly those he knows personally, to be sensitive to his struggles. But Kinsler himself described the trip to Arlington as “my return home” (which was more than metaphor: his house and family are still there), and talked after the game about being “lucky enough to square one up.” If he lacks any respect for Lewis, he did a pretty good job of hiding it.

There was no showboating here, nothing intended to call extra attention to Kinsler. It was just a guy soaking in a moment. Lewis should have let him have it.