Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation

Chase Utley and New Levels of Dedication to Code Adherence

Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley takes batting practice before NLCS Game 6.So Peter Gammons relayed an anecdote involving a team stealing a base with a big lead, and the opposition sending a message. This tale, however, has a twist:

Coaches tell the story of a game in which the Dodgers had a big lead in the top of the eighth inning when one younger, enthusiastic teammate stole second base, which ticked off the opposition. When [Chase] Utley got to the plate in the ninth, he told the opposing catcher to have the pitcher drill him. Then his teammate would understand there are consequences for showing up the opposition.

This is a terrific tale—a hard-nosed veteran insisting on propriety at his own expense in order to teach a lesson to a young teammate.

The problem is, it doesn’t appear to have happened—at least not according to the details provided. Utley’s been hit by 17 pitches as a member of the Dodgers, and never after an ill-timed stolen base while Los Angeles held a big lead.

The closest match I could find happened last Sept. 12, when Los Angeles led the Yankees Yankees 5-1. With two outs and men at first and third, Howie Kendrick—the runner at first—took off for second. The throw from catcher Brian McCann was wild, allowing Josh Reddick to score from third, making the score 6-1. Andrew Toles then struck out looking.

Utley led off the following frame. Reliever Richard Bleier drilled him.

There are two primary problems here. One is that in the modern era, a four-run lead is hardly considered safe. The other is that the action went down in the third inning. No problem there.

So what happened? Gammons said that Utley asked to be drilled, not that he was drilled. Or, it could have happened in a spring training game. It might even have been while Utley was with the Phillies, the details twisted in the retelling.

But that’s the thing about baseball—tall tales have a way of sticking. Hell, legacies are built upon them. Whether or not Utley’s story actually happened, it could have happened, and that’s enough to bring a smile to one’s face over morning coffee.

Retaliation

Lesson of the Day, 1980 Edition: Don’t Swing at Pitches You’re Not Supposed to Swing At

mcgraw-lopesMore fun historical moments from my New Secret Project. (Try to pick up a pattern as items appear sporadically in this space.) This one’s from the New York Daily News, Aug. 27, 1980, and touches on a retaliation-worthy incident from a previous era:

Don’t invite Davey Lopes and Tug McGraw to the same party.

“There will be a day when McGraw hits,” Lopes said, “and he’ll be dead and you can put that in the newspapers.”

Okay, Dave.

After Dusty Baker’s ninth-inning single had snapped a 4-4 tie in a game the Dodgers went on to win 8-4 Monday night, Philadelphia’s McGraw was trying to intentionally walk Joe Ferguson to load the bases and set up a potential double play. Ferguson, however, had other plans. On the second pitch, he leaned across the plate and lined a two-run single to right.

McGraw was not happy and took out his frustration on shortstop Bill Russell, the next batter. His first three pitches were tight and the fourth one plunked Russell, who charged the mound, starting off baseball’s latest beanbrawl. Lopes was outraged that McGraw would stoop to such a level.

“That was bush,” Lopes said. “He’s got his day coming. I don’t care if it’s eight years from now. I thought he had a little more class. I guess he doesn’t.” …

“It was as plain as the nose on your face that he should have been thrown out and heavily fined,” Lasorda said. “What gives him the right to throw four balls at a guy who has nothing to do with [Ferguson’s hit]?

It should be noted that the Dodgers beat McGraw’s Phillies in the NLCS in both 1977 and 1978, so some degree of intolerance between the clubs would be only natural.

It’s also not surprising that Lopes—the most outspoken player on that Dodgers team—took up the cause with reporters after the game while Russell himself, notoriously reticent, kept quiet.

Also noteworthy is the comment from Lasorda. His outrage was no doubt genuine, but so was the hypocrisy; as a pitcher the guy was famous for knocking down opponents. Even once he became a manager he couldn’t stop getting into fights. As a Giants fan growing up, I hated that guy. As a baseball fan, though, it’s hard not to love him.

 

Sign stealing

Today’s Question: What to do With Spying Eyes?

spy

According to the Dodgers, the Cubs are stealing signs. Also according to the Dodgers, the Dodgers don’t like it.

As evidence, Los Angeles catcher Yasmani Grandal pointed to the eighth inning of Saturday’s Game 1 of the NLCS, when Ben Zobrist reached second base—the perfect location from which to peer in at the catcher’s hands—and Addison Russell’s at-bat changed considerably.

“All the sudden, Russell is not taking good swings at sliders, looking like he’s looking for a fastball and in a certain location,” Grandal said in a Los Angeles Times account. “Did we know Zobrist had the signs and was doing something for it? Yeah, we did. That’s why we do it.”

The “it” to which Grandal referred was a continuous loop of sign changes and mound meetings, the better to stifle would-be thieves.

“We are literally paranoid when it comes to men on second and they are trying to get signs,” he added. “We know who is getting the signs. We know what they’re doing. We know what they do to get it. In the playoffs, one relayed sign could mean the difference between winning the World Series and not getting there.”

Ignore for a moment whether there’s any difference between literal paranoia and figurative paranoia. Are the Dodgers so certain that Zobrist and the Cubs are spying on them? Zobrist assures us otherwise.

It seems likely that he’s obfuscating, if only because it doesn’t take a hardball savant—even somebody unable to decode a catcher’s signs—to signal location. Former infielder Randy Velarde once looked at me like I was half an idiot when I asked him about the ease of relaying stolen signs from second base. “It’s the easiest thing in the world,” he said. “I’m amazed that everybody doesn’t do it.”

Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter. The barest suspicion of such chicanery should prompt the very response the Dodgers appear to be embracing—cloaking their signs in any way possible. What said response does not include is getting angry at the Cubs … and the Dodgers seem to be fine on that front, as well.

Changing signs can be as easy as swapping out the indicator, or the sign after which the actual sign takes effect. Maybe it’s the sign following the second signal for fastball. Maybe it’s based on the count (a 2-0 pitch would trigger the second sign in a series, while a 3-2 count would trigger the fifth, etc.). It could be the number of signs a catcher puts down rather than the signs themselves. The possibilities are limitless.

The only trick is to not make things so complicated that the pitcher gets confused. (Giants pitcher Sam Jones, for example, killed the National League in 1959, going 21-12 with a 2.54 ERA everywhere but Wrigley Field. In Chicago, of course, the Cubs’ practice of stealing signs from the scoreboard led to an 0-3 mark with for Jones with an 8.53 ERA. Why didn’t the Giants just switch up their signs like the Dodgers have recently done? Jones had trouble recognizing all but the simplest signals.)

Stealing signs from beyond the field of play is illegal, of course, not to mention frowned upon from a moral standpoint, while stealing signs from the basebaths—as Zobrist is accused of doing—is widely considered acceptable practice. (At least up until one is caught, at which point an increased degree of subtlety is expected). There are red-asses through the history of the game partial to on-field accusations (one example from spring training of this year seems to reinforce the idea that the Cubs might really be into this type of thing), but the low-key approach Los Angeles is taking—calling it out in the press is a surefire way to make sure everybody’s paying attention—is the right one.

Ultimately, the Dodgers are also displaying another sort of best practice. The ultimate recourse available to a team whose signs have been pilfered is to switch ’em up, then go win ballgames. Which is exactly what Los Angeles is doing.

Retaliation

On the Glory of Red-Assery and the Origins of Motivation

madbum-puig

Does Madison Bumgarner like Yasiel Puig? He yelled at him in 2014 over a bat flip. Later on he hit him—clearly accidentally—and benches cleared.

Monday gave us more of the same. Puig grounded out to end the seventh, and when the players’ paths crossed, MadBum all but lost it. “Don’t look at me!” he yelled at the startled hitter over and over, even as Bumgarner himself initiated a staredown. Puig responded in kind and, again, benches emptied.

Maybe Puig was giving Bumgarner the stink eye, maybe he wasn’t. It didn’t matter either way—the left-hander was clearly looking for some extra-curricular action.

Bumgarner was fired up, having just finished his seventh inning of one-hit, no-walk, 10-strikeout ball in a must-win game, after having put up a 5.30 ERA over his previous six starts. This was clearly an extension of that, and it seems to have worked—right up until Bruce Bochy decided to pinch-hit for the pitcher the very next inning (to keep him out of harm’s way from a retaliatory fastball?) after which San Francisco’s bullpen blew another ninth-inning lead).

Bumgarner has gotten into it over the years with the likes of Wil Myers, Jason Heyward, Delino Deshields, Jesus Guzman and Carlos Gomez. There are few common threads between them save for the pitcher’s perpetually red ass. Somehow, none of those confrontations extended past the shouting phase.

This is simply how Bumgarner motivates himself, and it seems to pay pretty good dividends. Does it make him an asshole? Sure. Does he gave two snots about that? Not one freaking bit.

To the Dodgers’ credit, they had some fun with it the next day:

Puig himself even went so far as to sign a shirt, including the sentiments “#PuigYourFriend” and “I like you,” before sending it to Bumgarner in the Giants clubhouse.

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead

To Bunt or Not to Bunt: Is That Even a Question Anymore?

 

wee-willie-keeler

Today’s topic sits at the core of baseball’s unwritten rules, but amid the recent thunderstorm of bat flips and other erstwhile celebration it seems to have gotten a bit lost: Don’t run up the score on an opponent.

What this means in baseball terms is the cessation of aggressive play while holding a big lead late in a game. Players in such situations still try to get hits and score runs, of course—they just don’t take chances to do so. Mostly this means playing station-to-station, advancing only one base on a single, two on a double, etc. The rule also discourages things like stolen bases and sacrifices.

The pertinent question is less about whether one should do such a thing than when it should happen—what constitutes the definition of big lead and late?

The Baseball Codes offers a quick-hit array of opinions on the matter:

  • “It used to be that [running with] anything more than a four-run lead was wrong, and you’ve got to be careful with that.”—Tony La Russa
  • “When I was playing, if you had a four-run lead it was a courtesy not to run. But you can do that now.”—Ozzie Guillen
  • “Once I had you by five runs and you couldn’t tie me with a grand slam, that was it.”—Sparky Anderson
  • “I was always taught you shut it down at five runs after six.”—Dusty Baker
  • “Five runs in the sixth, I’m not stopping there. We get into the sev­enth inning, then I’ll start chilling a little bit.”—Ron Washington
  • “We play [to shut it down] if you’re up seven runs in the seventh inning.”—Jim Slaton
  • “From the seventh inning on, if one swing of the bat can tie you up, it’s game on,” said ex–first baseman Mark Grace in 2006. “If it’s 4–0, you have Jason Schmidt on the mound, and he’s only given up one hit, you still go for it if Ray Durham gets on base in the eighth inning. Now, if it’s 6–0, you’re in territory where you might get a player hit in the brain in response.”

That list was first published in 2010, and already it seems so, so quaint.

Take, for example, yesterday’s Dodgers-Diamondbacks game. Los Angeles starter Kenta Maeda had given up only one hit through six as his team built an 8-0 lead, but with two on and nobody out, he did this:

maeda-bunts

Additional details: The game was played in pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium, limiting the big-comeback potential held by numerous bandboxes around the league. Dodgers starters had gone at least six innings in each of the previous two games, so their bullpen wasn’t particularly hurting. Maeda had thrown only 86 pitches. The lead seemed about as safe as a lead could be, yet there was Maeda, laying one down.

Was this kosher? My gut screamed “No!”—but I’m willing to admit that my gut is rooted in 1954 as far as these things go. It’s now okay to toss a bat for something so simple as a sacrifice fly, so perhaps it’s also okay to chase runs while up by eight and with every incidental factor leaning in your favor. Hell, Vin Scully said as much during the broadcast, and who am I to question the legend?

One thing that hasn’t changed is the question about how much is too much. Is eight runs now the limit? Ten? Twelve? In the sixth inning or the eighth?

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the diversity of opinion. I haven’t run any recent polls of big league managers, but it’s a fair certainty that there’s hardly unanimity on the subject. Even more certain is that, while four runs were once the limit, the current number is much, much higher. That is, if there even is an upper limit.

There must be a reason, after all, that this hasn’t been much of an issue recently. Bunt away, boys.

[H/T Uzzy]

 

Retaliation, Umpires Knowing the Code, Uncategorized

Syndergaard Handles His Business, Gets Manhandled by Ump in Response

Syndergaard tossed

And we’re back to discussions about timing.

Two weeks ago, talk concerned the Rangers’ extended wait to retaliate against Jose Bautista. Saturday, it was Mets starter Noah Syndergaard.

Much of the conversation had to do with whether Syndergaard deserved to be ejected for throwing a pitch behind Chase Utley. The pitch, a fastball,  flew so wide that Utley didn’t even flinch to try to avoid it. It was almost certainly a response to Utley’s devastating takeout of Ruben Tejada during last season’s playoffs. Also, it was entirely harmless, though plate ump Adam Hamari—who had clearly been prepped on preceding events—failed to see it that way.

Other parts of the conversation had to do with Utley’s handling of things. After finishing the at-bat against reliever Logan Verrett by striking out, he offered the best response possible—he homered twice, including a grand slam, in what became a 9-1 victory at Citi Field.

Which brings us back to timing. Saturday was the fifth meeting between the teams this year, and the eighth overall (counting the postseason) since Utley broke Tejada’s leg. This leaves us with an overarching question: why now?

Utley was omitted from the lineup for Game 3 of the NLDS, the one following the mishap, and New York pitchers opted against taking their frustrations out on other Dodgers. He pinch-hit in the deciding Game 5, but that was a one-run playoff game, which trumped any thoughts of retaliation.

This year’s meetings looked like this:

  • May 9: Utley gets two at-bats, both with the Mets trying to protect a 4-2 lead.
  • May 10: Every one of Utley’s four at-bats comes with the game tied.
  • May 11: Utley comes up four times, with the game tied or New York leading by no more than two runs.
  • May 12: Utley bats in the first inning with the game tied; in the second inning with the Dodgers leading, 4-0 (and hits a solo homer); and in the fifth and seventh innings with the Dodgers leading 5-0.
  • May 27: All of Utley’s at-bats come with the Mets holding no more than a three-run lead, until the eighth, when he hits in a 5-1 game (and strikes out).
  • May 28: Syndergaard drills him.

So what happened? If the Mets were inclined to retaliate, the obvious situations would have been on May 12 and one at-bat on May 27. There’s little chance that Terry Collins would order such a thing from on high (he’s already gone on the record against perpetuation of grudge matches), so deductive reasoning says that the pitchers Utley faced—Bartolo Colon and Sean Gilmartin in the former game, Jerry Blevins in the latter—simply had no stomach for this type of confrontation.

Deductive reasoning also says that Syndergaard probably did.

Still, there’s no getting around the duration between Utley’s perceived offense and Syndergaard’s response. The pitcher himself probably acknowledged as much with his weapon of choice—a non-contact fastball so far off its mark that Utley would have had a tough time throwing himself into it to earn an HBP.

In other words: perfect. Message sent, no harm done.

Except that Hamari refused to play along. Usually, we’re stuck with clueless umpires whose lack of boning up on prior history between teams leads to some tense moments. This was the opposite of that. Had Hamari taken even a moment to consider the events as they happened, he would have leveled a warning and both sides would have likely considered things even.

Chalk this one up as a win for the Dodgers, both literally and figuratively.

No-Hitter Etiquette, Uncategorized

What Price Glory?

Stripling

Talk surrounding the decision of Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts to pull Ross Stripling from the middle of a own no-hitter on Friday was based largely on the fact that he was a rookie. Stripling, sure—but also Roberts.

Stripling was making his first major league start. He was at 100 pitches when pulled, after having maxed out at 78 pitches through spring training. He missed all of 2014 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and spent last season making his way back.

These are valid concerns. Perhaps if Roberts had more than four games under his belt as a big league skipper at the time, people wouldn’t have been quite so vociferous with their objections.

Then again, he did break an unwritten rule … or at least a portion of one. The overarching theory has to do with not changing anything during a no-hitter, from the defensive alignment behind a pitcher to the spots on the bench occupied by his teammates. This also covers the pitcher himself, although when a guy is going that well he is usually beyond consideration of being removed.

It’s all just superstition, of course, and it’s not like managers hadn’t done this kind of thing before.

In 2010, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire pulled Kevin Slowey after seven innings of no-hit ball after the right-hander , who had just skipped a start due to elbow soreness, had thrown 106 pitches.

Only eight days later, Rangers manager Ron Washington pulled Rich Harden from a no-hitter, in his first start back off the DL, after 111 pitches. Other instances abound:

  • 1997: Pittsburgh’s Francisco Cordova departed after 121 pitches and nine innings of no-hit ball against the Astros.
  • 1991: Atlanta’s Kent Mercker left after six no-hit innings, in his second start of the year following 44 relief appearances, none of which were longer than two frames.
  • 1991: Anaheim’s Mark Langston went seven innings (98 pitches) against the Mariners in his first start of the season, after throwing only 16 innings during spring training due to a lockout.
  • 1975: Oakland’s Vida Blue was removed after the fifth on the season’s final day, a timeframe predetermined by manager Alvin Dark in an effort to keep the pitcher fresh for the playoffs.
  • Manager Preston Gomez actually pulled the trick twice, once with the Padres in 1970 (removing Clay Kirby, who trailed, 1-0 at the time), and again in 1974 with the Astros, pulling Don Wilson (who also trailed, 2-1).

Those examples, however, carry less weight than one instance that should have been included on this list. On June 30, 2012, Mets manager Terry Collins succumbed to popular (and historical) sentiment, and allowed pitcher Johan Santana to complete an eight-inning no-hitter. Lending weight to his decision was that it was the first in Mets’ history. Unfortunately, it took the lefthander 134 pitches to do it.

Santana had missed the entire previous season after shoulder surgery, and Collins had him on a strict 115-pitch limit … right up until history came calling. Santana pulled it off, but at a cost: He made five more starts that season, losing them all while compiling an astounding 15.63 ERA. He was shut down that August and hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since.

In light of that detail, pulling Stripling was the logical choice. Perhaps Roberts could have left him in a few batters longer, but, with the guy’s control deserting him—he walked the final batter he faced—it seemed obvious that relief help would be needed at some point. And if that was the case, why keep him in any longer than necessary?

It wasn’t only Roberts who felt this way. Giants manager Bruce Bochy defended his counterpart, saying in an Associated Press report that “It’s the kid’s first start and they have to take care of him … You have to look after his health, and that’s what they were doing.” Even Stripling’s father offered up support for the decision.

Superstition is great, but players’ careers are far more important. Roberts made the right call.