Bat Flipping, Retaliation

Newsflash: Bat Flips Are a Thing Now

Bat flip

A retaliatory story in nine bullet points:

  • Luis Valbuena flipped his bat after a home run.

Fiers high ball

  • Fiers got suspended five games for it.
  • Fiers should have better things to care about in the modern game than an exuberant home run hitter.
  • Such as his 5.22 ERA, which, let’s face it, is enough to make anybody ornery.
  • The umpires were hasty in issuing warnings following Fiers’ purpose pitch, which precluded the Angels from responding.
  • Not that the Angels had much to respond to, since Fiers clearly wasn’t trying to hurt Valbuena so much as put his own cranky pants on display.
  • Which calls his suspension into question, since drilling the hitter was never part of his intent.

Also: Valbuena keeps on flipping. Were it not for the preceding kerfuffle, it would not even be noteworthy. It’s 2017, the Era of Puig. Time to move on.

 

Retaliation

Tension in Texas: Tempers Flare When They Didn’t Have To. Again.

Napoli steps

Just last week we discussed the importance of understanding baseball’s unwritten rules, regardless of how one feels about them. Minnesota’s Miguel Sano had been thrown at, and missed, yet still made a stink of things and got tossed out of the game.

Yesterday, it happened again. With two outs and nobody on base in the sixth inning, Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. threw a pitch behind Rangers first baseman Mike Napoli. Houston trailed 2-1 at the time, not a great moment for retaliation, but a purpose pitch that sails wide of its mark cedes only one ball in the count, not a free baserunner. And if the pitch had somehow connected, well, Napoli had already homered and singled against McCullers. Not having to face Texas’ No. 5 hitter wasn’t too big a price to pay.

McCullers’ motivation was clear: Rangers starter Andrew Cashner had drilled Jose Altuve in the first inning and Yuli Gurriel in the second. After the pitch sailed behind Napoli, the batter took several angry steps toward the mound, and benches quickly cleared. (Watch it here.)

This is where we get into the importance of knowing what’s actually going on.

In the modern game, it’s a stretch to think that two unintentionally hit batters, guys who took first base without incident and, in Altuve’s case, came around to score, merit response. But McCullers, the son of a former big league pitcher, may have learned to view such things a bit more dogmatically.

So personal was the decision behind his pitch that his catcher, Brian McCann, didn’t give a thought to stopping Napoli’s advance on the mound, which is every catcher’s prime responsibility in such situations. Instead, he turned around to retrieve the wild pitch from the backstop, because it never occurred to him that Napoli might be angry.

McCullers’ was the softest response possible for a teammate being hit, a no-impact nod signifying that the Astros were paying attention. It shouldn’t have elicited a raised eyebrow in the Rangers dugout. Instead, we got statements like these, via MLB.com:

  • “They threw at Napoli on purpose. … They threw behind Napoli’s head.” (Cashner)
  • “I think anytime somebody throws behind a hitter’s head it’s going to create some tension.” (Rangers manager Jeff Banister)

As it turned out, McCullers did not throw behind Napoli’s head. His pitch came in across the lower portion of Napoli’s uniform number, closer to his belt than his shoulders. It was so far behind him that Napoli did not have to move to avoid it.

The craziest statement came from Napoli himself: “I understand how things work. Two of their guys get hit, but all he has to do is put it in my hip and I run down to first base. No one likes 95 [mph] behind their back.”

It seems nuts, but he’s arguing that a guy should have hit him rather than missed him.

Folks get caught up in the heat of a moment, but situations like these continue to prove that the dissolution of baseball’s unwritten rules—the fact that each successive generation of ballplayers understands the Code less thoroughly than its predecessors—is playing out poorly. Because there will always be somebody like Lance McCullers Jr., who learned the game the old-fashioned way, willing to make old-fashioned statements. Instead of seeing them for what they are, many younger ballplayers—and sometimes even a 12-year vet like Napoli—will react poorly and inflame tensions where no inflammation is necessary.

Even if Napoli is innocent of his own intent—a step toward the mound with a word of warning for McCullers, followed by an uneventful trip to first base would not be unheard of—he’s surrounded by far younger players who lack the requisite understanding of what had just happened.

That’s what truly raised the temperature in Houston: Even as Napoli stood near the plate, a bevy of his younger teammates streamed from the dugout and, rather than following the veteran’s lead, escalated the proceedings. (Even some older teammates got in on the act, Shin-Soo Choo leading the charge.)

It could be that the Rangers—11-15 and in last place in the AL West, with five members of the starting lineup (including Napoli himself) hitting  below .205—are at a point where baseball is frustrating enough without guys like McCullers nudging the process along.

Then again, after the game Napoli addressed the rivalry between the teams from Texas. “That’s how it should be,” he said. “There’s too much, people that are friends, and talking before the game, buddy-buddy. I remember coming up, if we were playing that night, it was time to get down and play a tough game and do what you have to do to win. It’s what it should be.”

Maybe he gets it after all.

Bat Flipping, Showboating

Carlos Gomez: A Little Dab’ll Do Ya

Gomez dabs

Now that flipping a bat is no longer noteworthy, we might see new directions in personal expression being forced to the fore. And if ever there was a player to take self-salutation on a baseball diamond to unexplored levels, it’s Carlos Gomez. The guy was born for this stuff.

First, though, the bat flip. Those who do it, like Gomez, claim it’s within their celebratory rights as ballplayer, a virtual extension of their swing. There’s something to this. It’s what made Jose Bautista’s flip during last season’s playoffs so damn memorable.

There are limits, however, on what can reasonably be claimed as an extension of one’s swing. By the time a batter leaves the box, and certainly by the time he rounds first base, in-the-moment exuberance should be in the rear-view. Anything he does after that point can be viewed as a calculated act, and justifiably seen by the other team as beneath their dignity as opponents.

So what to make of the fact that Carlos Gomez dabbed as he crossed the plate following a spring training home run yesterday?

At this point, who knows?

Sure, Gomez flipped his bat, though not in particularly grand fashion by modern standards. To his credit, he hustled his way around the bases. And then … the dab. (Watch it here.)

True, it took only a moment, and Gomez was gone back to the dugout. It was so quick as to be easily missed (the broadcasters didn’t mention it as it happened), and the same Braves who had a thing or two to say to Gomez about similar topics back in 2013 didn’t seem to mind, at least to judge by their reactions on the field.

Ultimately, it comes down to the question of what constitutes a celebration, and whether the baseball equivalent of a touchdown dance is making its way into the mainstream. While watching Gomez, it was impossible for me to not think about Cam Newton—and however one feels about Newton probably goes a long way toward informing how one feels about Gomez doing something similar.

Or not. I am a fan of Newton and his celebrations. They are perfectly at home on a football field, where personal celebration is pervasive for anything from a QB sack to a short burst for a first down at midfield.

Baseball, though, is different. Part of the beauty of the sport’s unwritten rules is that they’ve served as a perimeter defense for the look-at-me attitude that has come to dominate other sports.

This is not to say that there is no place for such a thing in baseball, but when celebrations become contrived, they grow trite. And when they grow trite, they quickly become tired. Which is something, since Bryce Harper recently used that very wordtired—to support the opposite viewpoint, in describing a sport that does not favor such displays.

Still, it can be used here in equal measures to describe whatever it was Gomez did. His action originated less in the moment than as locker room-hatched scheme, the endgame for one of baseball’s biggest spotlight hogs to elbow his way into just a little more screen time.

Gomez is an exciting player, and merits some leeway when it comes to celebrating his feats. As a critic, I’m happy to grant him that much. When he ignores those feats, however, in favor of celebrating the mere existence of Carlos Gomez—the baseball equivalent to two thumbs pointed backward to the name on the rear of his jersey—he displays a degree of narcissism to which I have a tough time subscribing.

Update (3-29): Gomez managed to earn some bonus points, because when you’re pissing off Rob Dibble, there’s a decent chance that you’re doing something right.

 

Managers Play their Best Lineups

Thou Shalt Play Thy Best in September, Even If Thou Doest Stink to Yon Heavens

Lineup card

At least one of baseball’s unwritten rules is time sensitive, broken out only in the final days or weeks of a season, primarily by managers of mediocre teams. It’s an issue of sportsmanship-based lineup construction, hinging on the fact that simply because your team has little to play for, the opposition isn’t necessarily in the same boat.

Which leads to differing points of view. Does a manager field his best players when facing teams still in the playoff hunt, as a courtesy to those they’re battling for postseason berths, or can he keep trotting out prospects, the better to gauge what he’ll have to work with next season?

Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon is firmly in the former camp, playing his regular starters in this week’s series against the playoff-hungry Astros at Safeco Field. (Little matter; Houston took two of three.)

Elsewhere in the American League West, however, things played out differently. Last week the A’s called up Barry Zito for a nostalgia-heavy, swan-song start against Tim Hudson and the Giants. The lefty getting shelled for six hits and four runs over two innings made little difference to the big picture, what with both teams effectively out of the playoff chase.

When Zito’s turn came around yesterday, however, there he was again, making what was likely his final major league start. This time, however, his opponent was the Angels, battling Houston for a wild card spot. The Astros had just come off of three games against Seattle’s best (discounting the fingernail issue that sidelined James Paxton and Taijuan Walker’s innings limit, which would likely have sidelined both even had Seattle had something to play for), and now their primary opponent for a playoff berth got to tee off against Zito?

Houston manager A.J. Hinch took things in stride. “Anybody at this level deserves to be here in my eye,” he said in the Houston Chronicle. “You manage your own team and handle your own business.” (Zito gave up four hits and four walks over four innings, but the Angels only scored twice against him and the A’s ended up winning, 8-7.)

Teams aren’t always as forgiving as Hinch. From a post I wrote in 2011:

In 2004, going into the season’s final series, the Giants and Houston were tied for the wild card lead with 89-70 records. The Astros closed with three home games against Colorado, while the Giants visited Los Angeles.

Suffice it to say that members of the San Francisco clubhouse took note when Rockies manager Clint Hurdle trotted out a series-opening lineup featuring six rookies—Aaron Miles, Clint Barmes, Garrett Atkins, Jorge Piedra, Brad Hawpe and JD Closser.

The Giants managed to take two of three from the Dodgers, but it wasn’t enough; the Astros swept punchless Colorado.

“All we needed was for Houston to lose one game,” said then-Giants reliever Matt Herges. “We were watching that, yelling, ‘This is a joke.’ We couldn’t stand Clint Hurdle after that.”

Hurdle wasn’t alone in his thinking. (“Goddammit, if I’m that far out of the pennant race, the players I was playing weren’t worth a shit, anyway,” Jim Leyland told me when he was managing the Tigers. “You might as well take a chance and look at some new players for next year.”) Still, the majority opinion holds that such situations are best avoided. Hurdle got an extra look at a bunch of prospects, at a very real cost to the pennant race. McClendon could have spent the games against Houston evaluating prospects for next year, but recognized that he still has three more games against Oakland with which to do that.

And no, Barry Zito will not start any of them.

 

Bat Flipping

Even The Tolerant Have Little Use For Gusto When Down By Nine

Gomez shoutsCarlos Gomez is at it again. The man who was called out by Brian McCann more visibly than perhaps anybody, ever, was at it again on Tuesday—against McCann’s new team, the Yankees, no less. (The catcher wasn’t on the field for this one, though.)

Start with an RBI double in the first, in which Gomez tossed his bat and held his hands high, then dove recklessly into second, nearly taking out second baseman Brendan Ryan, who was striding away from him, toward the outfield.

Follow with a popup in the sixth, on a pitch near Gomez’s ankles, after which he slammed his bat to the ground in frustration. The New York dugout was all over him as he trotted to first. Gomez, never one to shy from confrontation, jawed back—he could be seen shouting “Shut up” on the replay—and benches quickly emptied. (No punches were thrown.)

On one hand, Gomez has long since made clear who he is and what he does, in which light it was obvious that his actions had nothing specifically to do with the Yankees. On the other hand, even tolerant teams can grow grumpy when down 9-0, as New York was at the time of Gomez’s histrionics. The same mindframe that warns against things like aggressive baserunning and pitchers nibbling when holding a large lead is true here, as well. In those moments, streamlining the process is a priority, and Gomez was not playing by those rules.

In addition to McCann, Gomez has blustered at Gerrit Cole and Joe Mauer and Ian Desmond. The guy is clearly going to have his say. Teams keep trying—and failing—to teach him lessons. Wonder who’s going to learn first?

Cheating, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, No-Hitter Etiquette, Pine Tar

Did Fiers Cheat? Should Anyone Care?

Fiers glove

Mike Fiers’ no-hitter on Friday was as notable for his opponents’ reactions as for the event itself. Any no-hitter offers a significant degree of intrigue, but this one gained steam when the television broadcast appeared to show a shiny substance on Fiers’ glove in the ninth inning, assumed to be pine tar.

Rather than bemoan their fate at the hands of a possible cheater, however, the Dodgers took the appropriate path, issuing credit where it was due and downplaying any semblance of controversy.

“I don’t want to take anything away from his night,” Carl Crawford told the Los Angeles Times. Don Mattingly said, “I think it sounds like you’re whining if you look at it and talk about it,” and added (without accusation) that pine tar use is more or less accepted unless it’s “blatantly obvious.” (Fiers, for his part, denied everything.)

Regardless of whether Fiers was using a banned substance, those in the Los Angeles clubhouse know that they have pitchers among their own ranks who do that very thing—as does every club in baseball. And if every club does it, it’s not such a catastrophe. And if it’s not such a catastrophe, why paint it as such? Mattingly respected Fiers’ feat for what it was, exactly as he should have done.

Well played, Dodgers.

Appropriate Retaliation, Retaliation

This Weekend’s Lesson in Facing Failure: Drilling A-Rod Isn’t the Answer

Oberholtzer tossed

The act of a pitcher hitting a batter on purpose is inherently divisive. Some (mostly outside the game) see it as an outdated form of brutality that lost all reasonable claims to relevance the day that Don Drysdale … or Bob Gibson … or Nolan Ryan retired. Others maintain that it helps keep order in the sport, and that its underlying purpose—to maintain respect among baseball’s ranks—is utterly justified.

But everybody, no matter how divided of opinion or dogmatically entrenched in their respective camps, can agree that Brett Oberholtzer acted like a punk on Saturday.

Houston’s 25-year-old starter, in his third major league season, had a rough go of it against the Yankees. He gave up a double to the first batter he faced, Brett Gardner, then walked a guy, then walked another guy. With one out, Brian McCann touched him for a grand slam. Five batters, four runs.

His second inning wasn’t much better. After getting a quick out, Gardner again touched Oberholtzer for a double, then scored on Chris Young’s home run. At that point, the young pitcher had several options. He could turn toward grit, and steel himself to make the best of a bad situation. He could turn toward optimism, and the self-belief that absence of success in the past does not necessarily equate to absence of success in the future. He could have just gone into auto-pilot mode and thrown whatever the hell his catcher called, consequences be damned.

Oberholtzer chose instead to drill the next hitter, Alex Rodriguez. So blatant was the intention that plate ump Rob Drake tossed him immediately. The pitcher submitted fully to the fact that he was simply unable to get anybody out, and gave in to his basest levels of frustration. (Watch it here.)

Such action was not always viewed so negatively. Back when pitchers went after hitters with relatively impunity, players paying for teammates’ success was commonplace. “In 1974 I was playing for the Yankees, and I hit behind Graig Net­tles the whole month of April,” said first baseman Mike Hegan in The Baseball Codes. “And Graig hit eleven home runs. And I was on my back eleven times. That’s just the kind of thing that happened. I got up, dusted myself off, and got ready to swing at the next pitch. It’s just what you do.”

For a more in-depth tale, we turn to Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure, who talked about his time as a lefty reliever with the Milwaukee Brewers in the mid-1980s:

“We were in Yankee Stadium one time, and I gave up back-to-back home runs to two left-handers. I’d given up back-to-back home runs before, but not to two lefties. And [6-foot-6, 210-pound slugger] Dave Kingman was up next, and I remember [catcher] Charlie Moore calling for a fastball away. He knew better. I shook him off. He went through them all. Fastball away. No. Curveball. No. Changeup. No. Fastball in. No. And then he goes [flip sign, indicating a knockdown pitch]. I nod. I threw it and it was one of those real good ones—it went right underneath him and almost flipped him. He was all dusty and his helmet was over here and he was grabbing his bat and his helmet, and he gets right back in there. I threw him a changeup and he popped up to first base. And as he made the out, he rounds first base and is coming toward the mound. I’m trying to get my glove off, because I’m figuring to myself, if I’m going to die I’m getting the first punch in. And he came right up to the dirt and then just went around it. He pointed at me and said, ‘There’ll be another day, young man,’ and just kept on going. I saw him about 10 or 12 years after that said, ‘Dave, do you remember that incident?’ He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘No.’ Just like that.

“What I’m saying is that back then, we were taught: Home run, next guy: boom! Knock him down.”

The modern landscape is different, of course. Even with increased awareness that hit batsmen are of little benefit to the game at large, had Oberholtzer utilized the lessons of his forebears and simply knocked Rodriguez down rather than hit him, he would have received no more than a warning.

Instead, he begged out of a game in which he stunk, in the most obvious way possible. No longer able to face his own failure, he emptied his aggression onto an opponent, and paid the price.

“I’m going on the record and saying that’s not how we operate around here,” said Houston manager A.J. Hinch in an MLB.com report. “Obviously for all the adrenaline that goes on at the beginning of the game when we’re getting down, we don’t operate that way, we won’t operate that way. It’s not a reflection of anyone around here, including [Oberholtzer]. The Yankees know, I’ll make sure Alex knows. There’s no place in our game for that kind of activity.”

So little place that after the game, Oberholtzer was optioned to Triple-A Fresno.

The ultimate takeaway was elucidated by Hinch the following day, when he informed reporters that he had reached out to Yankees manager Joe Girardi to make sure that those in the New York clubhouse understood that things had been handled internally, and that nobody bore more ill-will against Oberholtzer’s act than the Astros themselves. In so doing, he cut to the core of baseball’s unwritten rules, and what makes them special.

It was, he said in the Houston Chronicle, “important to respect the opponent and let them know your perspective, and they would do the same. That’s a general respect that goes across baseball.”