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.

 

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Don't Peek, Sign stealing

The Pitcher Is That Way, Sir, Out Toward The Middle of The Diamond

Chapman peeks

While accusations continue to fly in Boston about high-tech sign-stealing espionage, similar gripes arose in Oakland on Wednesday that appear mainly to do with batters peeking at the catcher. Apparently, Moneyball budgets don’t cover Apple watches.

In the second inning, Angels catcher Juan Graterol began a discussion with the hitter, Oakland outfielder Mark Canha, that grew animated enough for plate ump Mike Everitt to separate them. TV cameras picked up Everitt informing LA’s dugout that the catcher suspected A’s players of stealing signs. Canha said later that Graterol told him to quit looking back at his signals, and that the catcher had already delivered a similar message to infielder Chad Pinder.

“I’ve never [peeked] in my career,” Canha said in a San Francisco Chronicle report. “I thought it was just a Scioscia-Angels-Graterol tactic to make young players get uncomfortable, just get in my head. I was just like, ‘OK, play your little games and I’m just going to focus on the task at hand.’ ”

The issue came to a head in the fourth inning, shortly after Oakland’s Matt Chapman stepped into the batter’s box, when he and Graterol went nose to nose. According to Chapman, the second-inning exchange was only the latest example of LA accusing Oakland players both relaying signs from second base and peeking back at the catcher pre-pitch to pick up additional information.

“The catcher kept staring at the hitters as they were digging into the box,” Chapman said. “That’s not a very comfortable feeling having the catcher staring at you. It’s a little disrespectful. So when I got into the box, I just let them know we were not stealing signs and there was no need to be staring at us. He obviously didn’t take too kindly to that.”

It’s a thin argument. Just across the bay, Giants catcher Buster Posey—one of the sport’s headiest players—looks up from the squat at batters’ eyes all the time. Nobody has yet accused him of making them feel bad by it.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia offered a straightforward assessment. “They have a habit of glancing back,” he said about A’s batters. “On a day game or a night game when you can see shadows and a catcher’s head, it’s easy to look back and pick up some locations. So, Juan was just saying, ‘Hey, man, don’t look back.’ ” Given that Scioscia was among the best defensive catchers of his generation, it’s safe to assume that he knows whereof he speaks.

Graterol offered his own version of his conversation with Chapman. “I told him, ‘Don’t peek at the signs,’ because I saw him,” he said. “Chapman told me, ‘We don’t peek at the signs.’ I said, ‘Yes, you did.’ ”  At that point, Everitt stepped between them. When Chapman continued to chirp, he was ejected for the first time in his big league career.

To gauge by the clip above, Chapman was indeed looking backward when he stepped into the box. Maybe it was in response to chatter from his teammates about Graterol giving hitters the evil eye, and he wanted to check it out. Maybe he was peeking for signs or location. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter—because Chapman offered the appearance of malfeasance, he left the Angels little recourse but to believe that was his intent.

Just as the primary responsibility for a team that’s getting its signs nabbed is to change the signs, Graterol had a number of options. He could have set up late in the sequence, once the hitter’s full concentration was on the pitcher. He could have set up early in one spot, and then shifted. He could have slapped his glove on one side of the plate while setting up on the other. Or he could have utilized the most surefire—and dangerous—peeker deterrent: calling for something away while he and the pitcher both understood that the next pitch would be high and tight. The Baseball Codes discussed a 1979 incident in which Rangers pitcher Ed Farmer gave suspected peeker Al Cowens just such a treatment, throwing a high, inside fastball after catcher Jim Sundberg had set up outside. Farmer caught Cowens leaning over the plate, with disastrous results:

The ball crashed into Cowens’s jaw, crumpling him instantly. Pete LaCock, who had been standing in the on-deck circle, was the first member of the Royals to arrive. “His glasses were still on and his eyes were bouncing up and down and I didn’t know if he was still breathing or not,” said LaCock. “I reached into his mouth and grabbed his chew, and right behind it came pieces of teeth and blood. It was an ugly scene.”

“I have to say he was throwing at me, maybe not in the face, but it was intentional,” Cowens said angrily after the game through a wired-together jaw. “That was his first pitch, and the two times before, he was throwing outside. He pitched me so well before. I can’t figure out why he pitched on the outside corner, struck me out, and then hit me.”

Farmer’s reply was equally pointed, though he avoided a direct accusa­tion. “[Cowens] thinks I’m guilty of throwing at him,” he said shortly afterward. “I think he’s guilty of looking for an outside pitch and not moving.” It may not have been the result he intended, but the pitcher felt justified in protecting his own interests. “It’s a fine line out there,” he said. “You don’t want to hurt anybody, but you don’t want anybody to take advantage of you.”

In that regard, Graterol’s handling of the situation was downright genteel. Regardless, even though it was the final meeting between the teams this season, it’s unlikely that Chapman & co. will take similar liberties—or anything that resembles them—in the future.

 

Gamesmanship, Retaliation

On the Merits of Asking For Time, and Reasoned Responses to Same

Weaver - Seager

Jered Weaver meltdowns tend to be memorable affairs. In 2011 it was a blowout with Detroit, after Carlos Guillen admired a homer while staring Weaver down.

Compared to that, Kyle Seager is a downright choirboy.

In the fifth inning yesterday, Seager did what Seager does, settling into the batter’s box while holding his left hand toward the umpire, asking for time while he adjusted and readjusted himself. It’s standard fare for the third baseman, but Weaver questioned him, and everything stopped. (It’s not like the Weaver hadn’t already faced the guy 35 times over the years. No, wait a minute … it’s exactly like that.) Weaver shouted at Seager. Seager shouted at Weaver. Then the hitter got back into the box and called time again.

So Weaver drilled him.

It was an 83 mph fastball, placed appropriately. Seager wasn’t the only one to get the message; plate ump Brian O’Nora tossed Weaver on the spot.

In Weaver’s defense, he doesn’t get upset over nothing. Back in 2011, Guillen had been the second Tigers hitter to pimp a homer on the day, and was clearly trying to show the pitcher up. Seager is similarly culpable; the fact that he gets away with asking for time with both feet planted firmly in the batter’s box doesn’t mean it should be done. Set feet are a universal signal for let’s play ball, and expecting personally tailored rules is certain to rile some people.

That said, Weaver’s reactions in both situations were poor—and undoubtedly compounded by the fact that he wasn’t pitching well in either game. On Wednesday he’d given up six hits, a walk and three runs in four-and-two-thirds innings, and would likely have topped 80 pitches had he made it to the end of the fifth. Seager was on the money when he told the Los Angeles Daily News, “If you hit me there it was pretty obvious what was going to happen, he was going to be out of the game. I guess he was tired of pitching.”

Score this one for Seager, as well as for the rest of the American League, which now fully realizes that Weaver’s head offers easy access when the chips are down.

Gamesmanship

Location, Location, Location: On Intentionally Positioning Your Argument to Disrupt the Opposition

Scioscia chatsThe beauty of gamesmanship in baseball is the subtle and creative ways in which it can manifest. Wednesday in Chicago it was Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who undertook a discussion he should not have been having, for longer than was necessary and in a location on the field—in front of home plate—that prevented White Sox closer David Robertson from keeping warm in the interim.

Erick Aybar led off the ninth inning of a game in which his team trailed, 2-1, by striking out on a pitch in the dirt. Aybar reacted as if Chicago catcher Tyler Flowers never tagged him (which appears in replays to have been the case) and ran to first base. Plate ump Fieldin Culbreth immediately ruled, however, that Flowers made the tag. The play went to review (which should never have happened, because Flowers’ lack of a throw to first was predicated entirely on Culbreth’s out call), and after the call was upheld Scioscia emerged to argue the point. He stood nearly atop the plate to do so. (Watch it here.) When Robertson finally resumed pitching he allowed two quick singles and an RBI groundout that tied a game the White Sox eventually won in 13.

This is a classic move, which, noted the White Sox broadcast, Billy Martin used to do all the time. And why not? If the Angels manager can easily put the opposition at a disadvantage, why wouldn’t he? I once saw a Scioscia-led Angels team let a warm-up ball escape the bullpen and onto the field of play in the late innings (it rolled to a stop near the plate), thoroughly disrupting the rhythm of a game in which they were struggling. Accident? Possibly. It was a minor moment, but baseball is a game of rhythms, and this was a clear disruption.

It’s also hardly unique.

One of the most noteworthy enactments of such tactics came in the seventh game of the 1926 World Series, when St. Louis pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander was called in from the bullpen to protect a 3-2 lead with the bases loaded and New York’s rookie shortstop, Tony Lazzeri, at the plate. Recognizing the antsiness of the young player, Alexander took his sweet time ambling to the mound, stopping to examine the gloves of center fielder Wattie Holm and shortstop Tommy Thevenow en route. Thoroughly disrupting Lazzeri’s rhythm, Alexander—39 years old and in his 16th big league season—struck him out and saved the victory for the Cardinals.

What Scioscia did on Wednesday was just as shrewd, and no less objectionable. Robertson called Scioscia “bush league” afterward, but if the White Sox are to take umbrage with anybody, it’s Culbreth, who could have ended the conversation before it began (arguing reviewed calls is grounds for ejection) or at least moved it away from the plate. Hell, either Robertson or Flowers could have requested as much. Scioscia even walked away from the plate for the second half of the discussion, and Robertson still didn’t throw a warmup.

The White Sox ended up winning the war, but that particular battle was all Mike Scioscia.

Gamesmanship

Give Adrian Beltre His Due … Down to the Penny

Beltre batGamesmanship is terrific.

In the late 1960s and early-’70s, Rico Carty hit exceedingly well against Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis—a .341 lifetime batting average with four homers in 41 at-bats. In response, Ellis tore a dollar bill in half and gave one part of it to a Braves clubhouse attendant to pass along to Carty. Ellis’ intention: Get another hit off me and I’ll give you the other half. That’s not how Carty took it. The slugger’s response, according to Ellis in Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball: “Rico said he was going to kill me, because I put the voodoo on him. I didn’t know. And dig this: I loaded the bases, and hit Rico on the hand, broke his finger, and he swore that was a voodoo!”

On Friday, Adrian Beltre handled a similar situation so much better. Beltre broke three bats while going a soft 0-for-3 against Angels right-hander Garrett Richards. Afterward, he sent the pitcher an invoice—a bill on an actual invoice form—for $300. At the bottom he wrote, “Cash only, no checks.”

A tickled Richards offered a signed bat in response, his inscription indicating hope that the token covered his obligation.

It wasn’t voodoo, but it was an instant classic.

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]

Teammate Relations

Alex Johnson, RIP

Alex JohnsonWord just came down that longtime outfielder and 1970 AL batting champ Alex Johnson passed away Saturday at age 72 after battling cancer. He was the subject of a brief chapter in The Baseball Codes that didn’t make the final cut, mostly because it neither celebrates the game nor does it do much to explain attitudes about the unwritten rules. Still, it revisits a long-forgotten incident back in the days when baseball was undeniably less constrained than the modern iteration.

Don’t carry guns in the clubhouse. This should be an obvious rule. So when, on June 13, 1971, Alex Johnson accused Angels teammate Chico Ruiz of threatening him in the clubhouse with a pistol, people’s ears perked up. It was just the latest episode in a protracted soap opera of controversy that seemed to embody Johnson’s career, but even so, this was noteworthy.

For his part, Johnson was no stranger to clubhouse altercations. He scrapped with a variety of teammates, including a drawn-out brawl with Angels outfielder Ken Berry, and was saved from a braining at the hands of teammate Clyde Wright only when other members of the Rangers raced to disarm the pitcher of the stool he was about to swing.

Chico Ruiz, however, was different. Johnson and Ruiz had been close friends since their two-year stint together on the Cincinnati Reds in the late 1960s. Johnson had enlisted Ruiz as godfather to his daughter. But in 1971, for reasons his teammates had trouble discerning, Ruiz became a target for Johnson’s barbs. It became a regular occurrence around the Angels locker room that year to hear Johnson berating Ruiz with profanity and insults.

On that June day, both players served as pinch-hitters against the Senators, and had each repaired to the clubhouse prior to game’s end. This is where Johnson claimed that things got dangerously weird. With nobody to corroborate his story, however, and with Ruiz denying everything, an already disgruntled media turned even further against Johnson. One fed-up teammate said that if Ruiz did have a gun, his only mistake was not pulling the trigger. Shortly thereafter, Los Angeles Times columnist John Hall wrote that at least three players were “carrying guns and several others are known to have hidden knives—to use as protection in case of fights among themselves.”

Three months later, in a grievance hearing to challenge the club’s suspension of Johnson (which stemmed less from his accusation against Ruiz than a string of belligerent encounters with teammates and consistent incidents of failure to hustle), Angels general manager Dick Walsh finally admitted that Johnson’s allegations were valid and that Ruiz had, indeed, waved a pistol in his direction. This didn’t do much to help Johnson’s already diminished reputation, but it managed to lend a new layer of dysfunction to the Angels clubhouse.

Ultimately, things didn’t go well for either man. Johnson played his final game of the season on June 24, then was traded to the Indians. Ruiz, after being released during the winter, drove his car into a sign pole in the early morning hours of Feb. 9, 1972, and was killed instantly. Johnson was one of the few ballplayers to attend the funeral.