Retaliation

Baseball in August: Same as in April, it Seems

Jays-RoyalsCheez. A fella heads out of the country for a few weeks, and everything goes straight to hell. A little distance can lend a lot of perspective, however, and coming home to a slew of drama pretty much confirms the points I’ve always made: In baseball, respect is paramount, safety is vital and red-assery is growing thinner—and more noteworthy—than ever.

Some takeaways:

  • Run-of-the-mill bat flips no longer count as showboating, which leaves no space for pitchers to get peeved in response. Although his behavior was marginally acceptable for sixth-graders, San Diego’s Dale Thayer was out of line in tossing his gum at Giants catcher Hector Sanchez following a pimp-heavy grand slam, and Padres reliever Shawn Kelly went full nutter by coming inside twice—with intention—to Sanchez three innings later in further response. (This wasn’t even the first gum-related incident between the teams this season.) Mainstream behavior can not, by definition, be taken personally. Get over it, pitchers.
  • This works in both directions for the Giants, as Madison Bumgarner—owner of perhaps the reddest ass in the big leagues—hollered at Delino Deshields for hollering at himself after he popped out against the lefthander. MadBum has a bit of history with this kind of thing. Fabricated drama is the worst kind of drama.
  • Style points count when it comes to retaliation. Under appropriate circumstances, there is a place for pitchers to retaliate on behalf of drilled teammates, but how they do it counts as much as anything. Rockies reliever Christian Friederich hitting Kolten Wong near his head in response to teammate D.J. LeMahieu being drilled by St. Louis starter Carlos Martinez was patently unacceptable. Like all pitchers, Friederich has some leeway in letting teammates know he has their welfare in mind, but doing it with such little regard for the opposition paints him as a goon. (At least when Arizona’s Dominic Leone drilled Christian Yellich in response for David Peralta being unintentionally hit in the head by Jose Fernandez, he did it appropriately, hitting him—however unnecessarily—in the posterior.)

All of this pales, of course, to Royals-Blue Jays. Because Royals-Blue Jays never disappoints. There was tit-for-tat retaliation, starting when Royals pitchers drilled Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki, and brushed back Donaldson in two different at-bats for good measure. Aaron Sanchez hit Alcides Escobar in response, and was summarily ejected. (Watch it all here.) The Royals spent the early part of the season picking fights with seemingly everybody in the American League, but the particulars of the skirmish were far less interesting than the extracurriculars.

First was the back-and forth chirping. Donaldson said afterward that he was happy Volquez was not tossed, what with him being “pretty good hittin’.” Volquez said that Donaldson was “Crying like a baby.” It continued on Twitter, where Jose Bautista said he “lost a lot of respect” for Ned Yost, at which Yordano Ventura called Bautista “a nobody” in a since-deleted Tweet.

The most intriguing part of the action came from plate ump Jim Wolf, who issued warnings after Donaldson was hit. Thing was, he opted not to eject anybody either time Donaldson was brushed back, or when Tulowitzki was hit—with the Blue Jays in the cross-hairs every time—but tossed Sanchez in the only instance of a Toronto pitcher coming too far inside all day. The Blue Jays went to lengths to elucidate that imbalance, but ultimately it was a matter of judgement calls, which, when it comes to the unwritten rules, is a key to quality umpiring. Grant Brisbee broke it down over at SBNation:

* Was Volquez really so mad at Donaldson that he was going to risk ejection in the third inning of a close game? If so, why didn’t he actually hit him after buzzing him around the head, if he had already committed to it? Probably not intentional, unless it he meant it in a move-him-off-the-plate kind of way, not a die-die-die kind of way.

* Why would Ryan Madson wait until the seventh pitch of an at-bat, with a two-strike count and a runner on second in a close game, to hit someone who was never involved? Probably not intentional.

* Madson’s 2-2 pitch to Donaldson in the next at-bat was timed poorly, to say the least. It buzzed his face again, but the situation again suggests it was a pitch that got away. Two runners already on, in a game the Royals still thought they could win? That’s not the place where pitchers want additional runners, especially if there’s a risk of ejection behind it. Especially considering the Blue Jays never retaliated to that point. Probably not intentional.

* Aaron Sanchez came in, waited until there were two outs and no one on, and plunked a Royal. Probably intentional, and he was tossed.

There’s value in umpires having the leeway to judge the merit of baseball actions. Viable strategy exists in making a hot hitter like Donaldson less comfortable in the box, and if a pitch thrown intentionally inside misses a bit and hits a guy, that’s a justifiable cost of doing business. Wolf deserves credit for recognizing this. The rest of his decisions can be similarly defended.

That said, tossing Volquez at the first incident after warnings were issued would have circumvented a lot of the ensuing drama—and there’s value in that, too. Hell, with the abundance of judgement calls going Kansas City’s way in this one, it may have been a preferable tactic from the outset. That’s only in retrospect, of course. In a vacuum,  ejecting a player for an unintentional (if poorly timed) pitch is of little benefit to anybody.

At the very least, it all made for entertaining reading once I returned to the home office. If the Royals and Blue Jays play each other again this season, it’ll be in the playoffs. But there are still nearly two months to go—plenty of time for some quality drama.

Advertisements
Don't Incite the Opposition

Another Start and More Bad Blood: Yordano Ventura Is At It Again

Maybe Yordano Ventura just isn’t a people person.

There was his run-in with Mike Trout. There was his run-in with Brett Lawrie. Yesterday he had a run-in with Adam Eaton. Three players, three teams, three temper tantrums, one full-on brawl and ejections from multiple games. It’s still April.

Things kicked off yesterday in Chicago when Ventura hit Jose Abreu with a pitch in the fourth inning, and Chris Sale “responded” by hitting Mike Moustakas in the fifth. (“Responded” is in quotes because the bullet fired was an 86-mph changeup. The thing about message pitches is that they’re intended to send a message. Changeups do not serve as such. Sale touched 98 mph earlier in the game. That would have sent a message.)

Things started poorly for these teams on opening day. Jeff Samardzija hit Lorenzo Cain, Cain emphatically stating later that it was intentional, owing to it being the next pitch after Samardzija gave up a home run. Two days later the teams traded shots, Jose Quintana drilling Cain and Danny Duffy responding with a pitch behind the head of Adam LaRoche.

The chirping continued on Thursday, with Samardzija—still ticked off about the Cain incident?—apparently offering verbal barbs after Christian Colon lined into a double play (Alex Gordon getting caught off second) in the top of the seventh.

With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Ventura induced a comebacker from Adam Eaton. According to Ventura, Eaton yelled something on contact. Ventura fired back after catching the ball, looking directly at the hitter and saying “Fuck you” before tossing the ball to first base. Eaton took steps toward the pitcher, benches emptied and fists started flying—the most prominent combatants being Samardzija and Cain in an almost certain holdover from opening day. (Watch it all here.)

Ventura, Cain and Edinson Volquez were tossed from Kansas City, Samardzija (who was not pitching) and Chris Sale (who was) from Chicago. Ultimately, though, this is on Ventura. What Eaton may have yelled at him—or whether he yelled at all—is incidental. Had Ventura kept his cool, so too would everybody else on the field. He expressed contrition after the game, but the guy has verbally engaged with hitters in three straight starts, and four starts into his season he has yet to be removed by Ned Yost, despite throwing zero complete games. (Twice he’s been ejected and twice departed with cramps.) Sure, the Royals have been hit 17 times this season, while drilling only five men themselves, but this is no way to go about a course correction.

The primary thing Ventura has done is expose a glaring weakness in his game. The guy has some of the best stuff in the American League; if an opponent can avoid it simply by riling the pitcher up and getting him ejected, that’s what they’ll do. It’s no different than Ventura exploiting a guy who can’t hit curveballs by feeding him nothing but.

Growing up is inevitable, even for young hotheads. Ventura has accelerated his own timeline.

[Gif via Deadspin]

Retaliation

On the Merits of Standing Up for One’s Teammates While Simultaneously Understanding When to Leave Well Enough the Hell Alone

Herrera's heat

You get your shot and then it’s done. This is a cornerstone tenet of baseball’s unwritten rules. If an opponent upends you—hits your batter, takes out your infielder—you have an opportunity to make things right. Singular. After that shot, hit or miss, you move on. That’s what makes baseball’s code functional, and its functionality is what has allowed it to persevere.

On Friday, Oakland’s Brett Lawrie took out Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar with a late, awkward—and, say some, dirty—slide. On Saturday, Yordano Ventura planted a 99 mph fastball into his ribs. Ventura had his shot, and it should have settled the score.

It didn’t.

Bad blood lingered in the Royals’ clubhouse, particularly from Escobar himself; the shortstop, day-to-day with a sprained and bruised knee, was outspoken in calling the play below board. (Lost in the errata of the aftermath was the fumbled text apology that Lawrie insists he sent to Escobar via a phone number given to him by Eric Hosmer, which Escobar just as firmly insists he never received. Who knew how differently things might have played out had Esco been appropriately placated to begin with.)

An aggrieved and injured player is enough to motivate disquiet in a clubhouse. The fact that to that point in the season the Royals had been hit by 13 pitches but had only hit three themselves could also have played a part.

There is no need for those numbers—hit batters on your side vs. how many your own team has hit— to be equitable, but a wild imbalance in that ratio can serve as an indicator for position players about whether their pitching staff is appropriately guarding their best interests. Were there ill will on the Royals in that regard, Ventura at least partially righted the ship with one blow.

Lawrie took it in stride, ambling to first base without protest, even as the pitcher (already frustrated by having given up five runs in the inning) did his best to spark confrontation by following the runner down the line. Umpire Jim Joyce ejected Ventura on the spot. For the second day in a row the benches emptied. (Watch it here.)

Baseball’s code indicates that at this point the score was even, both teams debt-free. That’s not what happened.

In the first inning on Sunday, Scott Kazmir hit Lorenzo Cain in the foot. Both benches were warned, and Ned Yost and pitching coach Dave Eiland were ejected for arguing the issue. (Watch it here.) Were the pitch intentional it would have been entirely out of line, and the fact that Kazmir’s control for the rest of the game was spot-on does not reflect well on him in this regard. Still, a foot is hardly the target of choice for a pitcher with retaliation on his mind, not to mention that there was little reason for Kazmir to extend hostilities.

Debate about Kazmir’s motivation lasted until the eighth inning, until Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera wiped away thought of everything that came before, with two pitches that became the talk of the afternoon. With two outs and nobody on—and with Oakland holding a 2-1 lead, no less—the right-hander started Lawrie high and tight with a 100 mph fastball. His second pitch was equally blinding, and sailed behind the batter so close that even on replay it is difficult to see where it missed. Like Ventura a day earlier, Herrera was tossed. As if there was any doubt about the pitcher’s intentions, he began walking toward the clubhouse almost before plate ump Greg Gibson tossed him. (Watch it here.)

It still wasn’t enough. On his way off the field, Herrera looked toward the A’s dugout and pointed at his head. He later said that he was trying to say Think about what happened, but many in the A’s clubhouse took it as a threat to come closer next time. There is no more clear-cut violation of the unwritten rules than to threaten to throw at a player’s head, and if there was anybody in green and gold willing to give the Royals the benefit of the doubt, Herrera’s pantomime effectively cemented their opinions in the opposite direction.

Things could have ended after Lawrie was drilled on Saturday. They could have ended early Sunday, had the Royals ignored Kazmir’s fastball of debatable intentions. Now, though, the bad blood between these teams will be front and center when they meet again in June. It’ll be interesting to note whether the Royals’ HBP ratio will have changed by that point, but it probably won’t matter; the A’s are an outlier to them, and vice versa, and no amount of Royals whispering by Billy Butler is going to change things. This one will play out on the field.

Update (4-21-15): And repercussions have been repercussed. Herrera gets five games, Ventura a fine.

Retaliation, Slide properly

Down and Dirty: The Different Responses to a Takeout Slide

You hit my guy so I’ll hit your guy. Retaliation is the oldest story in baseball. Friday saw two similar events—middle infielders being taken out by aggressive slides—handled in different ways.

In Boston, Pablo Sandoval went out of his way to wipe out Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop. In Kansas City, Brett Lawrie did similarly with Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar. Both were trying to break up double plays. The primary difference was the response.

The Orioles stayed cool, and two innings later—during Sandoval’s next at-bat—their pitcher, Ubaldo Jimenez, made it clear that such behavior would not be tolerated, planting a fastball into the third baseman’s shoulder blade. (Watch it here.) Jimenez took it upon himself to remind the aggressor that such actions have repercussions, and that taking liberties with an Oriole—any Oriole—carries repercussions. That kind of HBP may not deter Sandoval or the Red Sox from such actions in the future, but they will at the very least pause to consider it.

Lawrie’s takeout of Escobar with a late, awkward slide was a bit different in that Escobar was injured and had to be helped off the field. (It wasn’t even a good baseball play, as Lawrie would have been safe had he gone directly into the bag. Watch it here.) Rather than wait for a more formal response, benches cleared immediately, though no punches were thrown. That it was a tie game in the seventh inning precluded any notions a Royals pitcher may have had toward responding; similarly, Lawrie next batted in the ninth inning with the Royals protecting a two-run lead.

Headline fodder for the Jimenez incident was his immediate ejection by plate ump Jordan Baker, without warning and while having allowed no hits. The fact that it was only the fourth inning mitigates the latter item, but there is no way around the fact that Jimenez’s ejection was without merit. He handled a baseball play in a peer-vetted baseball way. A warning would have been more prudent, with Baker even holding the option to delay until Boston could itself respond. Regardless, the Orioles had their say, and both teams were able to move on.

In Missouri, things are far less clear. Escobar will likely miss several games, and while players and manager Ned Yost publicly agreed that there was likely nothing malicious in Lawrie’s slide, this will remain an item of potential contention until further notice.

[gifs, respectively, via Deadspin]

Intimidation

When to Get Upset Over a Line Drive Up the Middle (Hint: Never)

This is the line between messages sent and messages received. In this case the message was intended for the sender’s own team, but as is often the case when dealing with lunkheads, that didn’t matter a bit to Yordano Ventura.

Heading into the sixth inning Sunday, Kansas City was hammering the Angels and Royals starter Ventura had given up only one hit. With one out, he threw a fastball up and in to Mike Trout, then took offense when Trout drilled the next pitch up the middle, about a foot over Ventura’s head … as if even the league’s best hitter has that kind of bat control.

As Trout settled in at first, the pitcher took several steps in his direction, a display of anger that the incredulous Trout seemed not to comprehend. Trout eventually came around to score on Albert Pujols’ double, upon which he popped up from his slide and implored the on-deck hitter, Matt Joyce, to keep up the momentum.

This is where Ventura proved himself as either unfailingly brave or unflinchingly stupid. Six feet tall and a rail-thin 180 pounds, Ventura gives up two inches and 55 pounds to his opponent. In proximity to the Angels slugger from his position backing up the play, he again started to vibe on Trout—this time for his exuberance—and was quickly whisked away by catcher Salvador Perez, who is clearly smart enough to serve as the brains for two people. (Watch it here.)

If Ventura got into anybody’s head, it was his own. The pitcher suffered a mysterious calf cramp on the very next play, allowing Joyce to reach first base when he was unable to cover the bag, and was removed from the game.

If Ventura and Trout have any history, it isn’t yet clear. (Trout had one hit and one walk against the right-hander in five plate appearances prior to Sunday.) Until that point, Trout … and the rest of the baseball world … are left to wonder just how much more red Ventura’s ass can get.

[gif via Deadspin]

Retaliation

This is No Way to Kick Off a Season, Fellas

Duffy goes head-huntingThis is what happens when a perennial doormat becomes the defending American League champion. The Royals are all of two games into their season, and already its clear: People are paying attention.

On Monday, White Sox pitcher Jeff Samardzija hit two Kansas City batters. One of them, Lorenzo Cain, was convinced that his was intentional, and complained at some length to the assembled media afterward. On Wednesday, Chicago’s Jose Quintana continued the assault, drilling Cain with a four-seam fastball on the first pitch he saw in the first inning.

With compounded damages over two games, It’s tough to begrudge the Royals a response. The one they chose, however, left a lot to be desired: Danny Duffy threw a second-inning pitch behind the head of Chicago DH Adam LaRoche.

On one hand, it looked like a clear warning: The pitch was far enough away that the batter barely had to flinch to avoid it. (Watch it here.)

On the other hand, there is no more certain way to fire up a major league ballclub than to place a ball above shoulder level in the vicinity of one of its batters. Duffy should have been ejected on the spot. Instead, both benches were warned against further shenanigans.

There were two outs in the inning and nobody on base when Duffy threw that pitch. He had retired all five men he’d faced to that point. LaRoche, who looked on incredulously as Duffy reset on the mound, then doubled to right, and went to third on Gordon Beckham’s infield single. Tyler Flowers brought them both home with a three-run homer. “It doesn’t take much to get us fired up,” said Eric Hosmer afterward, in an MLB.com report.

Learning no lessons from his counterpart on the mound, White Sox starter Jose Quintana offered a response of his own, drilling Mike Moustakas in the thigh an inning later. (He somehow avoided ejection, despite the prior warning.) Cain followed with a single, and Eric Hosmer followed with a homer of his own. Just like that, a two-run deficit became a one-run lead. Duffy and Quintana each paid for their transgressions by ging up five runs over five innings on the day. Kansas City won, 7-5, on an eighth-inning homer by Cain, no less.

Ballplayers should be allowed a modicum of retaliation. It serves as a tool to enable an aggrieved party to move on from a tender moment. If both sides accept that being drilled in the thigh is an appropriate response for a given infraction, so be it.

Danny Duffy, however, should know better than to put a pitch where he did. These teams will see a lot of each other in the coming season, and a line has been drawn as to where at least one of the combatants is willing to take things. By all indications, we’re only getting started.