Unwritten-Rules

Kevin Towers, We Hardly Knew Thee …

Towers-La RussaIf we’re gonna remember Bo Porter when he’s canned, seems only right to do the same for Kevin Towers. The GM who brought a lot of toughness and not too many victories to the desert as of late was canned Thursday by new boss Tony La Russa.

Towers’ grit-based organizational structure came to prominence last month when the D’Backs drilled Andrew McCutchen, because Pirates closer Ernesto Frieri accidentally hit Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt on the hand a day earlier, breaking a bone. It led to a protracted discussion about how, while an eye-for-an-eye mentality once played well on baseball’s landscape—and despite Towers’ own overt statements to the contrary—things have kind of changed.

That said, La Russa has never been one to shy from grit. He thrives on it, in fact, with an entire book—Buzz Bissinger’s 3 Nights in August—being more or less dedicated to dissecting La Russa’s strategy of drilling other players in response to stuff they or their teammates did.

No, La Russa probably cared more about Towers’ record than his team’s treatment of Andrew McCutchen. The problem for Towers: That hasn’t been strong, either. After two straight .500 seasons, Arizona is 59-81 this year. Towers has traded away Trevor Bauer, Ian Kennedy, Jarrod Parker and Juston Upton, among many others, without getting a whole lot in return. His handling of free-agent signee Brandon McCarthy—who struggled after being instructed against throwing his cutter—drew particular notice once McCarthy joined the Yankees, kickstarted his best pitch and began to dominate again.

(Lest anyone think that La Russa and Towers are pure opposites, check out this story from 2011, in which each man is separately accused of gamesmanship practices that fall someplace between evil-genius and good-for-a-chuckle.)

Now on the hot seat: Gritty Kirk Gibson.

 

Advertisements
Retaliation

Hey, Kevin Towers: the Pursuit of Justice Doesn’t Always Make You Right. Sometimes it Just Makes You a Bully

McCutchen drilledSince taking over the Diamondbacks in 2010, general manager Kevin Towers has aimed to turn his franchise into the rootinist, tootinist, unwritten rules followingest team in the land. He installed noted red-ass Kirk Gibson in the manager’s seat. He went on the radio  and claimed  that “it’s going to be an eye for an eye, and we’re going to protect one another,” adding that “ if you don’t follow suit or you don’t feel comfortable doing it, you probably don’t belong in a Diamondbacks uniform.”

Well, Randall Delgado belongs in a Diamondbacks uniform. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Delgado has barely earned his keep when it comes to good pitching (5.61 ERA over 34 games in relief), but he has to be in Towers’ good graces after Saturday night’s performance. The gap between pleasing one’s superiors and appropriate behavior is where the crux of this story lies.

It started on Friday, when Pirates closer Ernesto Frieri inadvertently hit Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt on the hand. It was unquestionably a mistake—a fastball that sailed inside and barely clipped the batter, who flinched backward a hair too slowly. If D’Backs brass hadn’t decided to retaliate yet at that point, they probably gained clarity when the diagnosis came in: Goldschmidt’s hand was fractured and he’d miss significant time.

The Pirate to bear the retaliatory target was Andrew McCutchen—you hit our best player, we’ll hit yours—and Delgado drilled him in the ninth, after missing with his first offering (which came up and in, but not up and in enough), then sending a decoy breaking ball away. His third pitch, at 95 mph, hit McCutchen sqare in the spine. The outfielder gave no notice to the macho piece of Code saying that drilled batters should act like it didn’t hurt, instead going down as if he’d been shot. (A heater into the backbone will do that to a guy in ways that being drilled in the thigh will not.) On his way to first, he spiked his bat in anger. (Watch it here, including video of the leadup.)

For those who need further proof of intent, when Towers went on his radio diatribe last year, he specifically called out his team’s lack of response when Goldschmidt was hit: “Goldy gets dinged, and no retaliation. It’s like, ‘Wait a minute.’ If Goldy’s getting hit, it’s an eye for an eye. Somebody’s going down or somebody’s going to get jackknifed.” So there.

(Worth noting: Goldschmidt was hit three times in 2013, all without response, all with Wade Miley on the mound for Arizona. Was Miley talked to? To judge by his egregious use of force this spring, yes.)

After the game, McCutchen took issue less with the drilling itself than with its details. “Retaliation is going to happen in this game, but there is a right way to do it,” he said in an MLB.com report. “They had plenty of chances. First inning, do it. Perfect time: one out, guy on second base. Get it over with. But they wanted to wait it out, wait until the ninth, second and third.”

Indeed, Arizon had first base open with one out and McCutchen at bat in the first inning. It is a tailor-made circumstance for those with pain on their minds. Trouble is, Gibson had a similar situation in June—first base open against the Brewers—and when he used it to drill Ryan Braun, it ended up costing his team the game.

So he waited. Even if Arizona’s need to retaliate is highly questionable, the method of execution Gibson chose is not. The game was tied in every one of McCutchen’s preceding at-bats, when allowing a baserunner in the name of vendetta would not just be wrong, it would have been even stupider than what the D’Backs ended up doing.

Gibson’s act might have played well when he was starring for the Tigers in the 1980s, but the game has changed. That kind of response to a clearly benign situation is no longer acceptable. McCutchen gets huge credit for not charging the mound, but that’s a possibility—if now a downright likelihood, and not just with the Pirates—if Arizona pitchers continue their reckless ways.

 

Retaliation

Spring Drill Exchange in Arizona Sets Tone for D-Backs

Wade Miley
Mr. Miley

There are benefits to blanket warnings that your team will no longer tolerate opposing pitchers throwing at your players. Say it enough, and back it up once or twice, and maybe people will believe it to be true.

Of course, should your pitcher, under said blanket, hit somebody unintentionally, cries of innocence tend to fall on deaf ears.

This is part of what made last week’s HBP exchange between the Diamondbacks and Rockies so confusing. Perhaps Arizona pitchers are training up their tough-guy attitude, which would help explain Wade Miley putting a fastball into Troy Tulowitzki’s calf on Wednesday.

It sure seemed like retaliation, coming as it did after  Rockies farmhand Tommy Kahnle hit Arizona’s Mark Trumbo in the back—which itself came after Diamondbacks GM. Kevin Towers said on his local radio show last October that “Come spring training, it will be duly noted that it’s going to be an eye for an eye,” and that pitchers who don’t agree “probably don’t belong in a Diamondbacks uniform.”

Unless there’s some unknown beef between Kahnle—whose lack of control has contributed to his never having pitched above the Double-A level—and Trumbo, the initial volley was almost certainly a case of a misplaced pitch. Was Miley out to prove that his team won’t tolerate wildness from farmhands?

But Towers’ statement—along with the facts that Miley has excellent control and Tulowitzki is an obvious retaliatory target—eliminates the perception that the drilling was a mistake. Even if the drilling was a mistake.

It was almost certainly a mistake when, later in the game, Arizona pitcher Jimmie Sherfy—a 22-year-old whose career consists of 17 1/3 innings at or below A-ball—hit Colorado’s Michael McKenry. Again, however, thanks to Towers’ decree, it didn’t matter. The Rockies responded in kind, right-hander Raul Hernandez throwing a pitch behind Jesus Montero in the eighth, at which point plate ump Doug Eddings finally saw fit to warn both dugouts.

It barely matters that Towers followed up his initial statement to clarify that he wasn’t in support of hitting guys on purpose, but rather if “our hitters are being made uncomfortable at the plate, we need to be the same way.” He added that his point was “about pitching inside effectively with purpose.”

Yeah, but still. Damage done.

Spring training is a great place to settle old scores—atone for injustices of the past when the games don’t count and tee times await those who get thumbed from ballgames early. Turning it into a proving ground for new scores, however, is reckless. Tulowitzki left that game and had not returned to the lineup as of the end of last week.

If Miley was throwing at Tulo, he was out of line. If the pitch legitimately got away from him, he can thank his GM for causing the rest of us to doubt that to be true.

(H/T to Troy Renck, who shares his own terrific insight at the Denver Post.)

Kevin Towers, Retaliation

When Hot Talk Radio Blows Up: D-Backs GM on the Softness of His Pitchers

Kevin TowersKevin Towers did a lot of things with his weekly show on KTAR 620AM in Phoenix on Tuesday.

He showed why open discussion of baseball’s unwritten rules from an insider’s perspective can a bad idea.

He illustrated the gap between a normal response to a situation, and a baseball response.

And, in case any doubt remained, he proved conclusively that he holds some old-school opinions when it comes to this kind of thing.

In discussing the team’s lack of retaliation last season when provoked—on the same day that he fired D-Backs pitching coach Charles Nagy, no less—Towers intoned that he expected more from his pitchers when it comes to keeping the opposition honest.

“Come spring training, it will be duly noted that it’s going to be an eye for an eye and we’re going to protect one another,” he said. “If not, if you have options, there’s ways to get you out of here and if you don’t follow suit or you don’t feel comfortable doing it, you probably don’t belong in a Diamondbacks uniform.”

Towers referenced his team’s 8-1 loss to the Dodgers on Sept. 9, specifically the behavior of some Los Angeles players as they celebrated a six-home-run game in their dugout. It did not make him feel respected.

“I was sitting behind home plate that game and when it showed up on the Diamondvision of stuffing bananas down their throats, I felt like we were a punching bag,” he said. “Literally, if I would have had a carton of baseballs, I would have fired them into the dugout from where I was sitting behind home plate.”

Because, you know, in his sport, justice is meted out by throwing baseballs at a guy.

He went on to describe a moment later in the month when first baseman Paul Goldschmidt was drilled, but Arizona pitchers did not respond. Towers: “Goldy gets dinged, and no retaliation. It’s like, ‘Wait a minute.’ If Goldy’s getting hit, it’s an eye for an eye. Somebody’s going down or somebody’s going to get jackknifed.” (As noted by Hardball Talk, Wade Miley was the pitcher all three times Goldschmidt was drilled last season.)

It made for captivating radio. It also earned the GM national attention, and not in a good way. Yesterday he circled back to clarify that “going down” and getting “jackknifed” are distinct from getting drilled. (Which is true, even if it’s difficult to square with his personal inclination to throw baseballs at the Dodgers.)

“I’m not saying hit players on purpose,” he said in an MLB.com report. “I’m saying if our hitters are being made uncomfortable at the plate, we need to be the same way; we need to make the opposing hitters uncomfortable at the plate and pitch in with purpose and take that inner third away.”

He cited an instance in which the Padres retaliated for a batter hit by Arizona closer Heath Bell by throwing inside to Aaron Hill.

“The bat went up in the air and it knocked him off his feet,” Towers said. “I said, ‘You know what, that’s baseball.’ They weren’t trying to hurt Aaron Hill. They were protecting their player. It was pitched in with purpose to send a message. I applaud that, and that was from the other club. It’s the way baseball is played. He ended up getting him out on the outer half because he took away the inner half.”

Ultimately, it’s a stretch for an old-school baseball guy to expect that most people outside the game will understand his perspective on the subject (especially if he devolves into prattle about throwing knockdown pitches from the stands). One of Towers’ problems, of course, is that even the people within his own organization didn’t seem to understand him. He wasn’t pleased with Kirk Gibson’s lack of response when players were thrown at this season, and the topic played a role in his dismissal of Nagy.

The idea of retaliatory pitches can be debated all day and into tomorrow, but Towers’ comments planted him within the baseball mainstream. The unwritten rule he broke was in talking about it in anything other than platitudes to begin with.