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.

 

 

 

 

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The Baseball Codes

Yordano Ventura, RIP

yordano-venturaYordano Ventura was killed over the weekend in a car crash in the Dominican Republic. On-field and off, this is tragic. The guy was 25 years old, with a lot of growing still to do.

The right-hander possessed some of the best stuff in baseball, but was still figuring out how to harness it, putting up ERAs over 4.00 in each of the last two seasons. When Ventura was right, though, he was nearly untouchable, highlighted by a 7-1 record with a 2.38 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 68 innings over his last 11 starts of 2015.

The thing about being able to throw 100 mph, though, is that people are going to take issue when that stuff comes too far inside. Which never seemed to bother Ventura very much. As such, he became a prominent face in an increasingly complex transition from whatever baseball’s Code was, to whatever it will be. He celebrated on the mound. He enjoined opponents in battles both verbal and physical. He seemed all too willing to get into it on the field for any reason. No clearer evidence of this exists than his record two Aprils back, when Ventura scrapped with Mike Trout, Brett Lawrie and Adam Eaton—three players on three teams in a span of four starts. Last year’s brawl with Manny Machado furthered the pitcher’s reputation.

Ventura undeniably brought excitement to the sport, but at the same time he gave opponents a blueprint for how to draw his focus away from the task at hand. A run-in with Blue Jays first-base coach Tim Leiper in the 2015 ALCS is a perfect example of a team knowing just how easy it was to get into Ventura’s head. The pitcher’s own teammates appeared to grow weary of his antics, publicly backing him less and less frequently as his rap sheet grew.

The thing about Ventura, though, was that we always wanted to see what came next. His talent was one thing—skill that, if ever fully harnessed, could have made him one of the game’s best pitchers—but to overlook his personality would sell the man short. He was a guy who asked into an area softball game a day after his team lost the World Series. He was a guy who took pleasure in visiting kids’ lemonade stands.

From a baseball standpoint, we’re left mostly with questions. The kid was just starting to mature into whatever he would have become, and getting to watch that process in a player is one of the great joys of baseball fandom. There might have been nobody more emblematic than that in all the sport. When Jose Fernandez passed away too soon, we had a pretty good idea of how great a pitcher he could be. With Yordano Ventura, we were just beginning to find out.

Retaliation, Yordano Ventura

Immovable Object Meets Unstoppable Force: Meatheaded Melee Brings Machado to Mound

Machado-Ventura

When Nolan Ryan was busy scaring the hell out of American League hitters, he made a habit of tamping down the grass in front of home plate before games with his cleat, taking care to stare down the opposing dugout all the while. His message: Don’t you dare bunt on me. Those who chose to ignore him knew all too well what kind of response they’d receive. Ryan’s red-ass reputation preceded him, and hitters were (usually) smart enough to avoid ticking the guy off.

Which is to say, the two guys at the center of yesterday’s Throwdown in B-Town bear some reputations of their own, and consideration of this point could have served both of them well.

Manny Machado has gotten into it with Jonathan Papelbon (spurring the closer’s infamous choke hold on Bryce Harper last year). He’s flipped out at being tagged. Hell, the guy went so far as to take a bat to the head of an opposing catcher.

Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura, meanwhile, has beefed with Adam Eaton. He’s beefed with Brett Lawrie. He’s beefed with Mike Trout. He spurred a beef with Jeff Samardzija. And that was all within a month of each other, last April.

Which is also to say that whereas Nolan Ryan’s opponents knew enough to avoid angering him, when two hotheads stare each other down, it’s all too likely that neither of them have the best interests of their respective teams in mind.

Yesterday’s fracas started in the second inning, when Ventura buzzed Machado inside (raising his hackles, of course) before getting him to fly out to left field on a ball that the hitter at first thought would leave the yard. Machado and his hackles ended up staring down the pitcher, then pimping what turned out to be a wind-killed medium-deep flyball, then screaming at Ventura (and vice versa) before returning to the dugout. (Watch it here.)

Back to reputations. Machado was clearly aware of Ventura’s, and knew what kind of response an unnecessary shouting match might deliver—if only because his manager, Buck Showalter, warned him of it before his fifth-inning at-bat. That’s the best explanation for his decision to charge the mound after the pitcher planted a 99-mph four-seamer into his backside. (Watch the whole thing here.)

Ventura, for his part, should have been more prescient. Know thine enemy and etc. when it comes to things like understanding what it’ll take to set a guy off.

That said, it’s likely that  Ventura knew precisely what he was doing. The right-hander had given up six earned runs in four-and-a-third innings to that point (which didn’t even include a would-be home run by Pedro Alvarez). His was a response borne of frustration and a likely desire to force his own damn exit.

The latter point can be illustrated by the bevy of quotes to emerge from the postgame clubhouses. On Baltimore’s side, Machado’s compatriots were all too eager to back him up. A sampling, via the Baltimore Sun:

  • O’s outfielder Adam Jones: “Manny ain’t at fault for nothing.”
  • Jones, on Ventura: “The talent is all there, but between the ears, there’s a circuit board that’s off balance. I don’t get it.”
  • Showalter: “[It’s] not the first time. Obviously, it must be something that’s OK because [Ventura] continues to do it. It must be condoned. I don’t know.”
  • Showalter again, on the possibility of continuation into today’s game: “Bring it on. Whatever. Bring it on. We’ll handle it. You try not to let one person’s actions speak for a lot of people, but it’s been going on a while with him.”
  • Mark Trumbo: “It’s important for everyone that’s at this level and in the game, period, to go about your business the right way. This isn’t the type of stuff that’s good for the game.”

The Royals were more reticent. Manager Ned Yost was representative when he offered a “Probably” when asked if Ventura’s wild-card nature was grating on his teammates, adding in a Kansas City Star report that “there’s a little frustration when things like this happen, yeah.”

When given the opportunity to defend his pitcher, he said, “I don’t know, that’s something you’re going to have to ask him.” Hardly a ringing endorsement.

“You see the reaction by [Ventura’s teammates],” said Jones, speaking on behalf of the opposition. “They weren’t too happy that he did something so stupid.”

Traditionally, this is the point at which Yost or any number of Ventura’s veteran teammates pulls him aside to talk about how reckless behavior on the mound impacts everybody, and that if somebody was injured trying to break up the fight, or if a Royal is drilled by a retaliatory pitch tonight, it’ll rest on Ventura’s shoulders. That would make sense, except for the fact that those conversations should have happened more than a year ago (and likely did), during the pitcher’s previous spate of madness.

At that point, the guy seemed to have learned his lesson:

Guess it didn’t take.

Ultimately, Baltimore exacted the purest kind of revenge, with the O’s next two hitters following the fracas, Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis, going back-to-back against reliever Chien-Ming Wang, to extend their lead to 8-1.

Here’s hoping that’ll suffice today and preclude any further response from Baltimore, unlikely as that may be.

Update (6/9/16): Machado’s been dinged for his actions: four games and $2,500.

Update II (6/9/16): And now Ventura: nine games, which will effectively cost him one or two starts.

 

Intimidation, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Do the Royals Really Want a Piece of Noah Syndergaard? Why the Hell Would They?

Up and in on Esco

When Newsday reported yesterday that the Royals were still harboring a grudge over Noah Syndergaard’s first-pitch fastball in Game 3 of last year’s World Series, it struck an awkward tone. The teams meet on opening day, and rumors that the Mets have something in store for their opponents (Syndergaard is scheduled to start the second game of the series) raised more questions than it answered.

It’s not that teams and players don’t have long memories, or that they aren’t willing to wait weeks, months and, in some situations, years for retribution. (In his final season as a pitcher—indeed, in his final game—Bob Gibson was unable to retaliate against Pete LaCock for the perceived slight of having hit a grand slam against him. So he waited 15 years until they met in an old-timers’ game, then drilled him in the back.)

The thing about the Royals allegedly being angry, though, is that Syndergaard didn’t do anything wrong.

As a power pitcher, it is his right to establish tone, and the inside fastball is a valid weapon in any pitcher’s arsenal. With his first pitch of the game, the right-hander threw head-high at 98 mph to Alcides Escobar, one of Kansas City’s hottest hitters and a first-pitch swinger.

Thing is, the pitch didn’t come close to hitting Escobar. It didn’t even cross the line of the batter’s box. When catcher Travis d’Arnaud reached up to catch it, his glove shot straight into the sky, not toward the hitter.

And it worked. Escobar, shaken, struck out.

There’s no reason for the Royals to like this kind of tactic, but neither can they decry it as worthy of retaliation. (It’s their option to feed Syndergaard some of the same, but if that was the endgame there was little reason not to do it at the time.)

So why, one might ask, would the Royals still be holding on to it all these months later? The answer, at least according to K.C. manager Ned Yost, is, they’re not.

“Our retribution,” he said in the Kansas City Star, “was winning the World Series.”

Similar sentiments were echoed around the clubhouse.

Edinson Volquez: “There’s nothing wrong with what he did last year.”

Former Met Dillon Gee: “I’ve been here all spring, and I don’t think I’ve really heard anybody even bring up the Mets.”

The best reason to believe the Royals is because the report that sparked the controversy was so unbelievable in the first place. Newsday’s Marc Carig cited “multiple industry sources” as the basis of his report, whatever that means, but on its face the story was little more than shit stirring on a slow news day.

In this regard, Yost is already on his game, offering more pointed insight than any journalist could offer.

“Some buffoon writes something,” he said, “and you guys are gonna jump like little monkeys in a cage for a peanut.”

 

Intimidation

Take That, Royals … But Only Once

Up and in on Esco

Noah Syndergaard started Game 3 of the World Series by going up and in to leadoff hitter Alcides Escobar. The Royals grew irate. Syndergaard later described it as trying to set tone. The Royals decried the action as misguided headhunting. Syndergaard said that anybody who has a problem with it “can meet me 60 feet, six inches away.”

Syndergaard was correct in his justification … and wrong in his execution.

It is a pitcher’s prerogative to prevent hitters from getting comfortable in the batter’s box. His primary tool in this regard is the ability to move their feet with inside fastballs, preventing them from diving over the plate for outside stuff on later occasions. Nolan Ryan was a master at this. It worked out pretty well for him.

To judge by Game 3, however, Syndergaard is not that guy. He accomplished his goal of establishing a presence against the hottest leadoff hitter on the planet—a guy known for swinging at first pitches—and then completely failed to maintain it. Escobar struck out, but came back an inning later and singled to center field. The two hitters behind him in the first inning doubled and singled. The Royals scored once in the first and twice in the second. If intimidation was Syndergaard’s endgame, it was a pretty bad night.

Which is understandable. Anybody who throws as hard as Syndergaard must be wary of the implications of missing too far inside. That fear even hampered Ryan for a time, and he had to overcome it to reassert his dominance.

It’s not difficult to see the allure of intimidation. Syndergaard’s first pitch (which, contrary to reactions on the KC bench, did not come close to hitting the batter; watch the whole thing here) set Alcides up perfectly for two straight curveballs—the first of which froze him for a called strike, the second of which he fouled off. That, in turn, set him up for a fourth-pitch four-seamer at 99 mph, which Escobar had no hope of catching up with for strike three.

That was it for Syndergaard’s intimidation. So why were the Royals so upset?

Ballplayers tend to look at aggressive tactics, be they inside pitches or assertive slides, through a similar lens. Players who thrive on ferocious play, for whom it is a regular part of their approach, are granted more leeway in this regard than guys who break it out only when it suits them. It’s one explanation for why so few batters ever charged Ryan; they may have been scared of him, but they also knew that pitching inside was how he operated, and that nothing they could do in response would change that.

Syndergaard’s pitch caught the Royals by surprise. Only when such tactics are no longer startling will an opponent ever accept them as anything approaching standard practice.

Sign stealing

Signing Off: Were the Jays’ Eyes Pryin’, or Was Cueto Battered Into Paranoia?

Cueto stares

They say that a poor workman blames his equipment after something goes wrong. On Tuesday, Johnny Cueto was as poor a workman as he has ever been, allowing six hits, four walks and eight earned runs over just two innings pitched. Afterward, he did the baseball equivalent of blaming his equipment.

As relayed by teammate Edinson Volquez, Cueto’s rationale for his meltdown had something to do with Toronto stealing signs, both from the basepaths and from the furthest reaches of the Rogers Centre. It’s convenient, anyway, because there’s some history there.

In 2011, the Yankees openly accused Toronto of hustling signs from beyond the outfield fence, going so far as to have their catcher flash complex, highly coded signals to the pitcher, even with the bases empty (a situation that, with no chance of a baserunner peering in, teams usually keep things simple). New York’s aggrieved catcher at the time was none other than Russell Martin, who is, of course, the current Blue Jays catcher, and who has not said anything about it of late.

About a month after that, ESPN’s Amy Nelson dropped a bombshell article in which various opposing players detailed what they suspected was a complex system to relay signs within the Rogers Centre. It hinged on a guy in a white shirt, who, from the center field bleachers, would put his arms over his head for any pitch but a fastball, tipping hitters off.

The following year, Baltimore’s Jason Hammel made similar insinuations.

Baseball’s Code, of course, stipulates that while any potential sign filching from within the field of play is acceptable (provided that a player knocks it off once he’s caught), any advantage gained from a telescopic lens beyond the outfield fence is strictly verboten. (This is also against baseball’s actual rules.) The accusations against Toronto have lain dormant for a while, although to go by Cueto, ballplayers have continued to be vigilant about the possibility when traveling north of the border. (For what it’s worth, Royals manager Ned Yost and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred both dismissed the likelihood of such shenanigans.)

Just as hitters swear the ability to discern when a pitcher has thrown at them intentionally, many pitchers claim to sense when things aren’t adding up during a given inning. “When you’re throwing a bas­tard breaking ball down and away, and that guy hasn’t been touching that pitch but all of a sudden he’s wearing you out and hanging in on that pitch and driving it to right-center, something’s wrong with the picture,” said former Red Sox pitcher Al Nipper in The Baseball Codes.

Of course, when a pitcher struggles as much as Cueto did, he’ll seek to rationalize it almost by default. It’s the paradox of the battered pitcher: If one is going well, there’s no need to call out possible sign stealing, but when one gets one’s teeth kicked in, it looks like nothing so much as a desperate hunt for excuses.

Maybe Cueto was on to something. Then again, none of the Royals were complaining of stolen signs a day later, after winning, 14-2.

Unwritten-Rules

To Bunt or Not to Bunt, That is the Question

Hosmer

Lee Judge of the Kansas City Star just came out with the best, most reasoned piece on baseball’s unwritten rules in some time. It’s not because he staunchly defends them—to the contrary, he concludes that players should be allowed to aggressively chase stats any way they can, even during the course of a blowout, a position with which I disagree—but because he presents a comprehensive look into expectations during lopsided games.

In so doing, Judge refers to an Aug. 24 game between Kansas City and Baltimore, in which the Royals scored seven runs in the sixth inning to take a five-run lead. The key moment was Eric Hosmer coming to the plate for the second time in the inning, after all seven runs had scored … and trying to bunt for a hit. The Orioles were not happy about it, and expressed as much from their dugout.

The answer to whether Hosmer was right or wrong is what makes baseball’s Code so variable, and so difficult to understand by those not paying close attention. To wit:

  • While most agree that aggressive tactics like stolen bases and hit-and-runs should be abandoned during the late innings of blowouts, the definitions of how much and when have shifted over time. Only a few years ago, amid the steroid-fueled chaos unleashed upon box scores nightly, a five-run lead in the sixth would have barely registered. Now, however, with offense down, it now appears to be back in play.
  • Another thing that’s changed over the last few years is the prevalence of the defensive shift. Does the fact that Baltimore was playing the majority of its infield on the right side of the diamond—giving itself a clear defensive edge—negate Hosmer’s mandate to play non-aggressive baseball, which includes bunting for hits? The Orioles were playing like run prevention still mattered, and if their lack of willingness to give up aggressive defensive tactics has to carry some weight.
  • It’s not unlike the defense giving itself an advantage by failing to hold a runner at first during a blowout, knowing that, based on the Code, he won’t take off for second. The inequity of being able to play the first baseman in the hole rather than having him tethered to the bag, even while insisting that the opposing team not take advantage of it, is wildly lopsided. (The compromise position, as Judge points out, is to play the first baseman back, but not all the way back.)
  • Numerous factors are involved in the designation of what lead is too big and what point in the game is too late, including geography and bullpen availability. A big lead in San Francisco is far more sound than a big lead in a bandbox like Philadelphia. Similarly, if a team does not have its full complement of relievers available to protect a lead, it may try to pile on more than it otherwise would. As is usual in these types of situations, communication is paramount; letting the opposition know that one’s decision to eschew the Code is reasoned and not personal can go a long way toward avoiding bad blood.

Ultimately, I agree with Hosmer and Judge: Regardless of circumstance, if a team is willing to put on a defensive shift, it must be prepared to deal with the consequences of that shift. Run at will, boys.