Bat Flipping, Retaliation, Showboating

If You’re Gonna Drill A Guy, At Least Know When To Do It

Anderson plunked

In the wake of yesterday’s coverage of the Let Tim Anderson Play Incident, it seems prudent to follow up with a secondary discussion about pitchers hitting batters. Not whether they should (hot take: they shouldn’t), but, for those whose minds are already made up, when to do so.

On Wednesday, Brad Keller whiffed.

So let’s say a guy, maybe a guy who pitches for the Royals, is miffed that an opponent took some liberties in celebrating a home run against him. Maybe some other guys were chirping about it in his dugout, so this Royals pitcher decides to stand up for The Right Way to Play, and drills his opponent in response.

Let slide for a moment your feelings about the decision. In this scenario it is fait accompli, a resolute act. At this point, once said pitcher cannot be diverted from his course, it would behoove him to drill the offender at a juncture of minimal impact to the game. Ideally, it would happen with two outs and the bases empty, with his team comfortably ahead. Or perhaps first base would be open in a situation in which the hitter might have been intentionally walked anyway. There are various metrics to determine the right time, and reasonable discussions to be had about sufficient size for a lead, etc. If enough of those metrics aren’t met, it should be incumbent upon said pitcher to wait—for an inning, a game, a series or a season—until favorable conditions present themselves.

Brad Keller does not seem much for waiting. In Anderson’s very next at-bat, Keller plunked him in the backside, first pitch. While nobody among the ranks of those who approve of such things should take issue with the placement, the pitch’s timing was a downright disaster.

Anderson was leading off an inning in a tie game. Suddenly, Keller was forced to pitch out of the stretch while worrying about a guy who’d stolen six bases in 16 games. (Or at least Keller would have had to worry about pitching out of the stretch had he not been ejected. Instead, he saddled reliever Ian Kennedy with that task.)

Ultimately it didn’t matter. Kennedy retired the next three hitters in order and Kansas City won the game, 4-3, in 10 innings. But this is all about percentages. Had Anderson (or his replacement, after he was ejected along with Keller) come around to score, costing the Royals a victory, the Twitterverse would have lost its mind. That’s because Keller drilling Anderson when he did was even stupider than Keller drilling Anderson in the first place.

Baseball’s unwritten rules have softened over time, and I’m on the record as saying that, when it comes to retaliatory HBPs, that’s a good thing. But as the mandate to drill opponents recedes, the understanding of when to do so recedes right along with it. Which leaves guys like Keller, determined to get their pound of flesh, with a clearly insufficient understanding about how to do so.

There are no easy answers here. When-to-drill-a-guy lessons don’t come easily in an environment bent on preventing pitchers from drilling guys. (Look no further than Keller being ejected without warning for a fairly benign HBP that didn’t even inspire a mound charge. It might have been a Joe West issue, but there’s no denying MLB’s newfound interest in preventing this kind of thing.)

This is some weird middle ground we’re in. We’ll probably have to wait until a similarly impatient pitcher actually costs his team a game before people begin to acknowledge this in a widespread fashion.

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Bat Flipping, Retaliation, Showboating

In Wake Of Sox-Royals Dustup, Letting The Kids Play Is Turning Into More Of A Headache Than Anybody Imagined

Anderson flips

Last year this would have been a story about Tim Anderson and his celebratory histrionics.

Hell, last year this was a story about Tim Anderson and his celebratory histrionics. Twice.

This year, however, celebratory histrionics come with a perspective. That is, Major League Baseball has putatively endorsed them via its “Let the Kids Play” campaign, which makes things confusing when pitchers respond to said histrionics with disdain.

Pitchers like Kansas City’s Brad Keller, say.

Now, when Anderson does what Anderson is known to do—in this case, vigorously hurl his bat toward his own dugout after launching the 50th homer of his career—we’re conflicted in the aftermath. Letting the kids play seems like a swell idea to fans, to executives and to an unknown portion of ballplayers, but there appears to be a significant percentage of pitchers who disagree.

 

We had this conversation less than two weeks ago, when Pittsburgh’s Chris Archer—a known showboat himself—expressed displeasure with Derek Dietrich’s decision to pimp his homer by throwing a ball behind Dietrich in an ensuing at-bat. It was an old-school response that would have drawn little attention a generation ago … or maybe even last season.

But when the league itself encourages Anderson’s kind of behavior, the entire circumstance gets cloudy. That’s because the issue of respect is hardly one of clear delineation.

Are some bat flips okay, but others not? Anderson’s was less insouciant toss and more angry spike. Did that somehow cross an ever-shifting line? Had he not turned toward his dugout—or, more pertinently, turned his back toward the Royals dugout—would it have been better received?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. There’s bound to be a transition period between one epoch and another, and right now we’re stuck in a place where some players feel disrespected by some actions that many people—including baseball officials, apparently—would like to see more of. So when Brad Keller feels disrespected (or is sticking up for teammates who feel disrespected), there’s bound to be a reaction regardless of corporate messaging.

Yesterday it was a fastball to Anderson’s backside in his ensuing at-bat. Things did not end well. Anderson started yelling, but, restrained by catcher Martin Maldonado, never approached the mound. Still, dugouts and bullpens emptied, and tempers flared when White Sox manager Rick Renteria shouted for the Royals to clear the field, inflaming Kansas City bullpen coach Vance Wilson. Anderson, Renteria, Keller and Royals bench coach Dale Sveum were ejected.

 

 

 

 

 

In the aftermath, we’re left wondering two things: How many players still care about this kind of stuff, and how long will that last?

The Royals have at least two of them on their roster. “Keller did the right thing,” the pitcher’s teammate, Hunter Dozier, said after the game in a Chicago Sun Times report. “He aimed for the lower body. Hit him. It should just be like ‘OK, go to first and move on.’ It shouldn’t have been as big of a situation as it was.”

Dozier is spelling out the party line from a previous generation, offering instructions that, while once status-quo, are now … well, who really knows?  Dozier is 27. Keller is 23. Despite their old-school sensibilities, they seem an awful lot like the kids who the commissioner wants to let play.

This shift is clearly not going as smoothly as baseball’s PR machine would have liked. We’re stuck in a place where, when bat flipping becomes the new normal, showboats like Anderson have to up the ante simply to draw attention to themselves. Bigger antics. More vicious tosses. Sentiments like the one Renteria espoused after the game—“You want [Anderson] to not do that? Get him out”—might make sense to the vast majority of the population, but the key here is that upping the ante rarely sits well with pitchers, some of whom are bound to respond.

Ten days ago it was Chris Archer. Yesterday, it was Brad Keller. So long as hitters continue to push the celebratory envelope, there will always be a pitcher willing to respond.

Our only problem is that we continue to be surprised by it.

Update 1 (4-19): If you’re gonna drill a guy, at least know when to do it.

Update 2 (4-20): There was some incredulity in the immediate aftermath that Anderson was tossed from the game, given his primary role as victim. We later found out that it was due to language so severe that he was eventually suspended for a game.

Retaliation

K.C.’s Baltimore Jacks Leave Bundy With Hungry Heart

Bundy jacked

I’d like to recall something that happened a couple weeks ago, which serves as a barometer for where baseball is, in relation to where it used to be.

On May 8, Baltimore starter Dylan Bundy gave up a single to Kansas City’s first batter of the game, then coughed up three straight homers, walked two guys, and gave up another jack. Seven hitters, seven runs and 15 total bases surrendered without recording an out. It was by any measure among the worst performances in baseball history.

The question here: Beyond simply pitching better, should Bundy have done anything differently?

Once, the obvious response would have been for Bundy to knock a hitter or two down—if not drill them outright— somewhere amid that chain of carnage. Some small examples:

  • 1944, St. Louis vs. Cincinnati. Walker Cooper, Whitey Kurowski and Danny Litwhiler hit consecutive homers against Clyde Shoun. Shoun knocked the next batter, Marty Marion, on his backside with an inside pitch.
  • After Cleveland scored three runs in the first inning and eight in the second against three Twins pitchers in 1975, Minnesota reliever Mark Wiley opened the third by drilling Rick Manning in the leg.
  • In 1985, Bob McClure gave up two homers to the A’s in the span of six batters, which struck the southpaw as especially egregious given that both were hit by left-handers. His first pitch sent the next batter, Dave Kingman, sprawling.

There was a point to those reactions beyond simple frustration. If a team is clearly comfortable in the batter’s box—as was the case against Bundy, and in all three examples above—it behooves the pitcher to disrupt the emerging pattern. This doesn’t mandate hitting anybody, of course, so much as making an opponent move his feet to avoid an inside pitch. In two of the above examples, this is precisely what happened. Marion’s at-bat ended with a popup to shortstop, Kingman’s with a popup to short right field. The hitter after Manning, George Hendrick, struck out. Bundy, however, kept pumping strikes, even as those strikes were getting hammered, and the result was self-evident.

Hell, Manning’s manager back in ’75 was the man with the reddest ass in the history of baseball, Frank Robinson. What did he think of Wiley plunking his guy? “When you’re getting your ass kicked, you’ve got to do something like that,” Robinson said in Making of a Manager.

That era has passed. Intentionally placed inside fastballs are frowned upon like never before. It does not even occur to many pitchers that disrupting a hitter’s comfort zone is actually a viable strategy. We saw it last year when the Nationals went deep four times in the span of five batters against Milwaukee. We saw it in 2010, when four straight Diamondbacks homered against Brewers right-hander Dave Bush.

For the clearest distinction between then-and-now responses, look to 1963, when Angels pitcher Paul Foytack gave up four consecutive jacks to Cleveland in a game that inspired a passage cut from the final draft of The Baseball Codes:

In a 1963 game, Foytack, a Los Angeles Angels pitcher in his 10th big league season, allowed consecutive home runs to Cleveland’s Woody Held, Pedro Ramos and Tito Francona. They were the fourth, fifth and sixth homers the right-hander had given up on the day. To make matters worse, Ramos was the opposing pitcher, sported a .107 batting average, and it was his second round-tripper of the game. Foytack had had about enough, and decided to knock down the next batter, rookie Larry Brown. But even that didn’t work out too well.

Foytack’s first offering tailed over the plate, and Brown hit the Indians’ fourth straight homer. It was the first of his career, and made Foytack the first pitcher in major league history to give up back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs.

“Today,” said Foytack a few years back, “if you throw close to a guy, they want to take you out.”

There’s a lot to be said for this latest, gentlest iteration of baseball. Some of the things that are getting lost, however, are actually pertinent to the playing of quality baseball. 

Everybody Joins a Fight

Love Thy Opponent As Thyself, Because What Else Are Baseball Fights For?

Shields hugs

The Perez-Anderson fracas over the weekend gave us visible evidence of players’ adherence to an unwritten rule that is undisputedly less violable than whatever led to the fracas in the first place: Players shall always take the field during a fight.

This doesn’t mean they have to fight, of course—a self-evident truth given the lack of actual fighting during most baseball dustups. Players can emerge as peacemakers, or even just mill about the back of the scrum, trying to look angry.

Or, as in the case of White Sox pitcher James Shields, they can hop about and offer hugs.

As evidenced in the above video, Shields couldn’t wait to get his paws on Kansas City’s Ian Kennedy. Shields, of course, knows many of the Royals from the two seasons he spent in Kansas City, and was teammates with Kennedy in San Diego—so he used bad blood elsewhere on the field to stage an impromptu reunion (he later hugged up on Mike Moustakas).

Here’s to friendships, through good times and bad (which sometimes occur at the exact same moment).

Showboating

Celebrate Good Times, Come On! (Or Don’t, Depending On Your Perspective)

Salvy n Tim

It seems that there are some growing pains as baseball transitions from The Sport Of Tradition-Gripping Dryness to something a little bit looser. As it turns out, even those known to celebrate from time to time have limits.

On Saturday in Kansas City, Chicago’s Tim Anderson hit a leadoff homer, proceeded to watch it, then unleashed some self-congratulatory invective as he rounded the bases. Royals catcher Salvador Perez took note while recalling that Anderson acted similarly after hitting a pair of home runs on opening day, also against the Royals. As the runner crossed home plate, Perez said something to him about it. Anderson patted him on the chest protector and trotted back to his bench.

Things picked up again in the bottom half of the inning, when Perez reached second base on an error and a two-out walk, at which point he opted to continue the conversation with Anderson. He and the shortstop ended up nose to nose, with teammates spilling out of the dugout to separate them.

“I don’t have any problems with the guy hitting a homer, taking a couple steps, walk two steps and keep running,” said Perez after the game, in a Kansas City Star report. “But when you start to get loud, to say some bad words … I don’t like that. He had to respect my team and my pitcher. We’re professional in here. I don’t like that and he told me at second base, ‘I like to have fun, Salvy, what do you want me to do?’ I was like, ‘OK, we like to have fun too. I like to have fun. You see me every day out there, laughing and having fun every day. But I don’t disrespect your team. I respect your team, too. I hit some homers too, I keep running the bases, I don’t get loud like you.’ That’s the only thing I told him. Keep doing what you’re doing, bro, have fun, but again respect my team. That’s it. So he was mad about that. What you want me to do? I can’t do anything about that.”

(Perez did himself no favors when he also told reporters: “If you’re gonna keep doing that … I’m going to hit you. I’m going to tell the pitcher to hit him. … If you want to fight, let’s fight.” Intentionally drilling an opponent for what is essentially inconsequential behavior will not play well in retrospect should a Royals pitcher actually dot Anderson in a future encounter.)

Anderson, of course, got into it just last week, for similar reasons, with Justin Verlander. The guy likes to celebrate. For his reaction to it, Perez was labeled as a member of “the fun police” by various sources. There are, however, some considerations.

For those in Anderson’s camp who decry the stifling of emotion on a ballfield, let’s take the conversation to its logical conclusion: At what point does celebration become overkill? A classic Barry Bonds pirouette, only while running the bases instead of standing in the batter’s box? Summersaults? Ripping off one’s uniform jersey, like they do in soccer? The question is not aimed at painting false equivalency, but wondering about the point at which a player’s behavior—presuming that none of it is aimed at the opposition—might eventually cross the line, even for those who support that kind of thing. Baseball is obviously more lenient now than it was during past generations, but how lenient is it, really?

I think the answer can be found in what came next, after Anderson’s confrontation with Perez.

Duda’s walk—the play that advanced Perez to second—loaded the bases. The next batter, Abraham Almonte, hit a sharp grounder to shortstop that Anderson booted, allowing Mike Moustakas to score from third. (It was ruled a single, but easily could have been an error. Watch it here.) Alex Gordon followed by stroking a two-run single to center, giving the Royals a 3-1 lead in a game they ended up winning, 5-2.

Anderson’s confrontation last week against Verlander ended with him getting picked off of second base at a point in which the pitcher was on the ropes and the White Sox desperately needed baserunners. This one ended with the Royals scoring three runs that might have remained off the board had Chicago’s shortstop been less distracted.

And there it is: Anderson’s shtick will eventually become too much, even for his most ardent supporters, when it begins to interfere with his team’s chances to win baseball games. Based on the above examples, he may already have reached that point.

 

The Baseball Codes

RIP Dave Nelson

Dave Nelson cardBrewers analyst Dave Nelson, who played in the big leagues for 10 years, was an All-Star in 1973, and served as a major league coach for 14 seasons, passed away today. Nelson was a firecracker of a player, stealing 94 bases between 1972 and 1973, but he was an even better interview. He was easily one of the most informative players I talked to for The Baseball Codes, spending the better part of an hour with me in the visitors’ dugout at AT&T Park before a Giants-Brewers game.

Herein are some of the best stories he told that day:

“I almost got into a fight in the major leagues one year because I stole home when we had a four-run lead in the seventh inning. It was against Blue Moon Odom, who was with the White Sox then. Paul Richards was their manager. I was playing for Kansas City, and Whitey Herzog was my manager. I stole home because Odom wasn’t paying attention, and he got all upset and said the next time he faced me he was going to hit me in the head. I’m saying, ‘Wait a minute. Did I do anything wrong?’ I was always taught was that managers would like to have at least a five-run lead going into the ninth inning, so at least they know a grand slam can’t beat them. We had a four-run lead, but this was the seventh inning and the White Sox had an awesome offensive team.

“So before the next game I was running in the outfield because we were getting ready to take batting practice. Their pitchers were running on the left field line. I’m running toward center from right, and Odom stopped running and began to yell at me, saying that he was going to hit me in the head. So I went up to him and asked, ‘Hey, what’s your problem?’ He said, ‘You showed up me and my team.’

“So I went over to Paul Richards, who was their manager, and I asked him, ‘Did I embarrass your team? Because I don’t think I did anything wrong.’ He said, ‘Dave, you didn’t do anything wrong. It was a great play on your part.’ I had already asked Whitey Herzog about it, and Whitey said it was a great play. But if Paul Richards thought it was a bad play, I was going to apologize to him. But he said, ‘No, that was great. It was Blue Moon’s fault for not paying attention to you. You can’t assume anything in this game.’

“We almost got into a fight over that. I always try to win, but I don’t want to do anything dirty to win.”

***

“One of my greatest thrills was playing against Mickey Mantle. By the time of my rookie year, Mantle was playing first base because his knees were bad. I’m leading off for the Indians in a game against the Yankees, and I push-bunt a ball between the pitcher and Mickey for a base hit. I was walking back, thinking, ‘Boy, what a great thing I did,’ and Johnny Lipon, our first base coach, says, ‘Dave, you don’t bunt on Mick out of respect.’ I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s right. He can’t move, but he’s a great player. So I’m standing on first base, and I’m thinking Mickey is going to say, ‘If you ever do that to me again I’m going to pinch your head off,’ or something like that. But he pats me on the butt and says, ‘Nice bunt, rook.’ I look at him and say, ‘Well, thanks, Mr. Mantle.’ Underneath my breath I said, I’ll never do that again. I was just thinking about how I want to get on base. I never thought about how revered this guy was.

“Later in the game he hits a bullet toward second base. I dive to field it and throw him out. He says, ‘Hey rook—give me a break, would you?’ ”

***

“In the old days, a manager would say, ‘I want you to knock this guy down. I want you to drill him.’ Billy Martin would say it. I remember in 1975, playing a game with the Rangers during spring training when Bill Virdon was managing the Yankees. Billy was our manager. We had hit Elliot Maddux, and I’m coming up to face a former teammate of mine, Denny Riddleberger. I just kind of knew that I was going to get drilled or knocked down because I was leading off the next inning. Well, the pitch came, and—boom!—knocked me down. It was good, old-fashioned chin music, and I hit the ground. So I said, okay, it’s all over and done with.

“Well, the next pitch—foom!—almost hit me in the head. I got up and I charged the mound. And Denny stood there and just looked at me and dropped his hands and said, ‘Dave, I’m sorry—I was ordered to do it.’ So what could I do? I can’t hit this guy. He’s my buddy, plus he was saying that he was ordered to do it. He had to save face. If your manager tells him to drill somebody or knock him down, then you’d better do it.

“So now there’s yelling and screaming going around, and Bill Virdon comes out and says, ‘That’s right, I told him to do it. How about that?’ I said, ‘Well, you’re the guy I ought to swing at!’ and I took a swing at him. He was a ways away from me, with some people between us, so I never made contact. He’d probably have tore me up. That guy was strong, boy.

“So I got kicked out of the game and all that stuff, but the funny thing about it was that later that year I had surgery on my ankle that was going to put me out until August. We had this charity golf tournament in Arlington Texas, and I was riding around in a golf cart. The Yankees had an off-day, and Bill Virdon was playing in that tournament. He sees me and says, ‘You’re a scrappy little guy, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘I just don’t like being thrown at. I have to defend myself, because if people throw at me and I don’t say anything about it, then they’re going to continue to do it. I just want people to know that I’m not going to take it.” He said, ‘Well, that’s the way to go.’ ”

***

“One time, playing against the Milwaukee Brewers in 1974, Bob Coluccio was the hitter. He hits a double, the throw comes in to me at second base, I tag him and Bill Kunkel, the umpire, says, ‘Safe!’ I said to Bob, ‘Hey, why don’t you step off the bag and let me clean the dirt off of it.’ He steps off, and BOOM. It wasn’t the hidden ball trick or anything like that. He steps off the base, I tag him and the umpire calls him out. He kind of laughed about it, but when he went to the dugout, his manager, Del Crandall, jumped all over him.

“So now he comes back out as I’m running off the field after the third out, and he says, ‘You embarrassed me and my team, and I’m going to kick your butt.’ He says, ‘You better watch out when I come in to second base.’

“I said, ‘I didn’t embarrass your team, you did—for being stupid enough to step off the base.’

You try to do anything you can to win, as long as it’s not trying to embarrass somebody or do something dirty. But that’s just . . . that’s just playing baseball.”

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation

Bruce Rondon: Protector of the Code, or Just an Asshole?

Moose drilled

The scene: Tiger Stadium last Wednesday, the ninth inning of a blowout win by the Royals. Lorenzo Cain, on second base, races home on a single to left field by Eric Hosmer, making the score 14-2.

The problem? Baseball’s unwritten rules mandate that aggressive tactics be waylaid late in lopsided games. This means, among many other things, that baserunners play station-to-station ball, advancing one hit on a single, two on a double, etc.

Cain did not abide, and Tigers reliever Bruce Rondon responded by drilling the next guy, Mike Moustakas, in the thigh with a 99-mph fastball. Benches cleared, and Rondon was tossed by plate ump D.J. Reyburn.

Once, this type of response would have barely raised an eyebrow on the opposing bench, so clear-cut was the idea of holding one’s ground in a blowout. In the modern game, of course, things are different. It would not have been surprising had the Tigers overlooked such action entirely.

Not Rondon, though, who didn’t even offer a courtesy miss outside the zone in order to offer some plausible deniability before drilling Moustakas. His first pitch to the hitter ran inside. The second pitch nailed him. Moustakas was decidedly unhappy, not quite charging the mound but not going to first base either, as he lit into Rondon verbally.

There is yet a mitigating factor at play here. One segment of baseball intelligencia holds that station-to-station baseball in a blowout is a fine rule of thumb, but if there will be no play at a given base then a runner has every right to advance. Take it from no less an authority than former Rangers manager Ron Washington, who said: “If you have to slide, you don’t go. If you can go in standing up, then it’s okay. You don’t stop playing the game. That ain’t showing anybody up, playing the game.”

As an example, take another game played by the Royals, an inconsequential contest against Seattle in 2001. In the eighth inning, Royals third-base coach Dave Myers decided to hold speedster Charles Gipson at third base because KC held a nine-run lead. “I knew Gipson could score,” Myers theorized after the game, “but he’d have to slide to be safe. Had the right fielder bobbled the ball, then I would have sent Gipson. Then it would have been their fault that he scored.”

On Wednesday in Detroit, Cain scored standing up. Left fielder Justin Upton never even made a throw.

It’s possible that Rondon is a latent code-warrior, sticking up for moral propriety on the ballfield (even as he ignored the fact that Detroit had ceded the play). Or he could just be a hothead who let his temper get away from him. This is the guy who got sent home for “lack of effort” in 2015, a move widely supported by his teammates, and who got farmed out for several months this April. On Wednesday, Rondon was upset at being inserted into a blowout. He was upset at surrendering a single to Cain, and the subsequent balk call that allowed Cain to advance to second. He was upset at giving up another hit, to Hosmer. He was upset that his ERA was 10.50.

Maybe—maybe probably—the pitcher’s actions had nothing to do with the Code and everything to do with taking out his frustrations on whoever was unlucky enough to be standing in the batter’s box at the time. Royals pitcher Danny Duffy nailed it after the game when he said, in an MLB.com report, “If [Rondon] doesn’t want to compete in a situation that’s not sexy, they should just send his ass home.”

Two days later the pitcher gave up three runs in one-third of an inning to blow a lead against Houston. His ERA now stands at 12.41 and, with acts like the one Wednesday doing litttle to help Rondon’s cause, Duffy’s suggestion may well come to pass.