Sign stealing

Fed Up With Complex Signs, Jansen Turns To Little-Used Tactic: The Intentional Balk

In the ninth inning on Friday, with Jason Heyward on second base and the Dodgers holding a 5-3 lead over Chicago, Kenley Jason had had enough. With catcher Russell Martin putting down the type of advanced sequencing used to prevent runners in Heyward’s position from easily reading signs and relaying them to the hitter, LA’s closer grew confused. With one out, he called Martin out for a conversation about his 0-2 selection against David Bote. Then Jensen struck out Bote with a cutter.

That presented options. With a two-run lead and little concern for Heyward, Jansen took the easiest path toward returning to simple signs: He intentionally balked the runner to third — where Heyward’s view toward Martin’s signals would be impeded — making sure to shout his plan to second base ump D.J. Reyburn in advance, to make sure that nothing was missed.  

Jimmy O’Brien, a Yankees-centric blogger who goes by the handle Jomboy, offered an expert and entertaining breakdown:

Believe it or not, this kind of thing has happened before. It’s right there in The Baseball Codes. From the chapter on sign stealing:

Trying to hold a 4–2, ninth-inning lead over Minnesota in 2005, Indians closer Bob Wickman came upon an uncomfortable realization: Michael Cuddyer had been at second base for two consecutive batters, which to the pitcher was an eternity. About two weeks earlier, Wickman had blown a save in Anaheim when Garrett Anderson hit a low outside pitch for a bloop single to drive in Darrin Erstad from second. The stout right­hander was convinced that the only reason Anderson made contact was that the pitch had been tipped by the baserunner. (When faced with Wickman’s accusation, Erstad just smiled. “I guess we’ll never know, huh?” he said.)

Wickman had no inside knowledge that Cuddyer or the Twins had done anything untoward, but he wasn’t about to be burned twice by the same tactic. Rather than take a chance, the pitcher opted for an unortho­dox approach. If Cuddyer was on third base, reasoned Wickman, his view to the catcher would be significantly hampered. So Wickman invented the intentional balk. Before his first pitch to the inning’s fourth hitter, Shan­non Stewart, the right-hander lifted his left leg as he wound up, then froze. After a long beat, he returned to his starting position. “As I did it, I’m thinking to myself, ‘There it is, dude, call it,’ ” said Wickman. Plate umpire Rick Reed did just that, and sent Cuddyer to third. Wickman’s decision was based on perverse logic—given Cleveland’s two-run lead, Cuddyer’s run didn’t matter, but Stewart’s did. Stewart, said Wickman, was “a semi–power hitter, and he possibly could have hit one out on me if he knew what pitch was coming.” It was the first balk of Wickman’s thirteen-year career.

Of course, the pitcher nearly shot himself in the ERA by subsequently walking Stewart, who promptly stole second, giving him the same vantage point from which Wickman had just balked Cuddyer. The pitcher, how­ever, managed to strike out Matt LeCroy on a full count to earn his sixth save of the season. “Some guys couldn’t believe it, but to me as the closer my job is to finish the game without giving up the lead,” Wickman said. “There are so many things that come into play. I’d have no problem doing it again if a guy’s standing there too long.”

I spoke to Wickman about it a couple of years after the fact, and he remained remarkably serious about it all. “When it’s a two-run lead and there’s absolutely zero chance that a shortstop or second baseman is holding the runner on, and you call an inside pitch and see the guy at second going back toward the base, you ask yourself, ‘Why the hell is he going back to second?’ ” he said. “The middle infielders aren’t anywhere near him. He just tipped off where the pitch is going to be.” The pitcher was less worried about stolen signs than stolen location, he told me

“Some guys couldn’t believe it,” he added, “but to me, as the closer, my job is to finish the game without giving up the lead, no matter what the situation.”

Same for Jansen, apparently, who struck out Victor Caratini to end it. All’s well that ends well for inventive closers.

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Showboating

MadBum Gets Angry, Does Some Shouting, Gives Up Dong, Yells At A Guy, Loses Game

For many years, Madison Bumgarner has cultivated an image of being extremely attuned to the unwritten rules of his sport, serving as baseball’s hardline arbiter of on-field behavior. Flip a bat against the cow-punching North Carolinian and you’ll hear about it. Same if you run too slowly around the bases.  

At Oracle Park on Sunday, however, MadBum revealed a bit too much. Today’s headlines are all about the left-hander’s response to Max Muncy taking him deep (plus Muncy’s response to Bumgarner, which we’ll get to in a bit). Muncy’s homer hurt: he plays for the hated Dodgers, he hit it as the second batter of the game, and the blast carried all the way into McCovey Cove. Before Muncy could even make it to first base, Bumgarner was all over him, chirping about taking too long in the batter’s box. Muncy responded as he circled the bases, and the feud was on.

The main problem with Bumgarner’s red-ass was that there really wasn’t much to get red-assed about, to the point that even Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow, while trying to explain the situation, could describe the hitter’s post-homer steps only as “that little walk.”

After the game, Bumgarner gave a light-hearted recitation for the media about what happened. His comments included snippets like, “I can’t even say it with a straight face, but the more I think about it, I should just let the kids play—but I just … I can’t,” and, in response to a question about the game changing, “They want to let everybody be themselves, then let me be myself. That’s me.”

It’s a continuation of the conversation we’ve been having all year about pitchers who might not be entirely on board with the modern era of officially sanctioned on-field celebrations.

That, though, is not what this post is about. The detail that many reports overlook is what immediately preceded Muncy’s blast. Against Kike Hernandez, the game’s very first hitter, Bumgarner got into a shouting match with plate umpire Will Little about the strike zone, which grew heated enough to draw Little toward the mound. Following some chirping from the Giants bench, the ump issued a cross-field explanation that can easily be read as an informal warning.

This was clearly on Bumgarner’s mind when he missed wide with his first three offerings to Muncy before leaving one up, in the slugger’s wheelhouse.

Baseball history is littered with the corpses of players whose weakness has been discovered by the opposition and subsequently exploited. Perhaps this is Bumgarner’s. Pitching in the ninth inning of the World Series doesn’t seem to faze him nearly as much as some perceived slight by the opposition. This has long viewed by outsiders as a motivational tactic—something to keep the pitcher’s competitive instincts honed. (Lord knows, it’s happened before.) This is supported by the fact that Muncy’s homer was the only run MadBum gave up as part of a fabulous performance. If the pitcher needs swagger to succeed, then swagger he shall deliver.

Still, Bumgarner was done in by his momentary lapse, one disastrous pitch serving as the difference in a 1-0 ballgame.

In the big picture, yelling at a guy is preferable to drilling him, especially for something like this. Also in the big picture, if Bumgarner can figure out a way to keep things a bit more contained—just enough to avoid the occasional slip on a day when he’s clearly dominant—it’d be better for everybody.

Then again, had MadBum been a little less mad, we would never have gotten Muncy’s response: “If you don’t want me to watch the ball, you can get it out of the ocean.” It doesn’t actually make sense, but at least it sounded pretty good in the moment.

Retaliation, Umpires Knowing the Code

That Time When Syndergaard vs. Utley Brought Us ‘Ass In The Jackpot’ In All Its Glory

Syndergaard tossed

Way back in 2016 I wrote about Noah Syndergaard’s ejection against the Dodgers, for a pitch he threw behind Chase Utley in response to Utley’s having broken the leg of shortstop Ruben Tejada during the previous season’s playoffs.

Which brings us to video of umpire Tom Hallion trying to cool the situation, and barely succeeding. (The clip came out last June, but is somehow making the rounds again now. Which is reason enough to dive in with gusto.)

The umpire seems to understand that baseball has a method for delivering retaliation, and even appears receptive to looking the other way. Except, he tells the pitcher, “that’s the wrong time to do it.”

This is where things get confusing. There was one out in the third inning of a scoreless game when Syndergaard threw his pitch well behind Utley. The right-hander had already faced him once, leading off the game, and struck him out. There was also the not-inconsequential detail that the Mets had faced Utley five times, covering 19 plate appearances—including five the previous day—since he’d injured Tejada without so much as a whiff of controversy. If Syndergaard’s timing was wrong, what timing would have been better?

When Terry Collins gets involved, he tells Hallion: “You gotta give us a shot!”

Hallion’s response: “You get your shot. You had your shot right there. … You know the situation, Terry.”

Collins was, of course, talking about a repercussion-free shot, not one in which one of his aces gets tossed in the third inning after throwing only 33 pitches. The best guess here is that Hallion didn’t mean a word he was saying, and was just trying to cool the situation as quickly as possible.

The most vital part of the conversation—and this cannot be understated—came when Hallion broke out the phrase that has since gained him infamy: “Our ass is in the jackpot.” Twice.

The situation is old, the insight is new, and spring training is in full swing. Welcome back to baseball, everybody.

They Bled Blue

The First Review Is In For My New Book

TBB cover smallMy next book, They Bled Blue—about the 1981 Dodgers—isn’t out until June 4, but the first review is already in, from Kirkus. There’s some good stuff in there: “While less vaunted than the 1927 or 1961 New York Yankees, the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers produced enough fireworks to deserve significant attention, and Turbow delivers the goods. … A skillful mixture of biographies, on-field action, and behind-the-scenes baseball politics in a story with a happy ending for Dodger fans.”

It was an exceedingly weird year for an overachieving team with an abundance of compelling story lines. It was also a joy to write.

Pre-order now at Amazon or, even better, at your local independent bookseller.

Sign stealing

Did The Dodgers Take Advantage Of Stolen Signs In Game 2? It Sure Seems Like It

Manny signals

There are lots of reasons to dislike Manny Machado. Stealing signs isn’t one of them.

It’s not that he doesn’t steal signs. To the contrary, according to a piece by Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller, Machado is an active sign stealer, and the Red Sox know all about it.

Just don’t hate him for it, because that kind of action puts him firmly in baseball’s mainstream.

According to Miller, during the fourth inning of Wednesday’s Game 2 in Boston, Machado, on second base, went through a series of gyrations that signaled to the hitter, Kike Hernandez, what kind of pitch was about to be delivered. From that vantage, of course, Machado had a clear view into the signs catcher Christian Vazquez was giving to David Price, and relayed them appropriately to the plate. Hernandez hung in for nine straight pitches, giving his teammate plenty of opportunities.

From Bleacher Report:

As Price was coming set, Machado, leading off from second, would place his hands on his hips. Then, just before each pitch, Machado would begin a series of motions: touching his helmet with either his right or left hand, sometimes then touching or pulling the script on his jersey afterward and other times grabbing or touching the thigh/groin area of his pants.

Red Sox pitching coach Dana LeVangie caught on to it right away, and was primed to visit the mound to inform Price about it. The left-hander, however, ended up striking out Hernandez, and the coach opted against interfering with his momentum. With the score 1-1, it was a gamble.

The next batter, Yasiel Puig, made Boston pay. Machado signaled him from the start, just as he had with Hernandez, and Puig slapped Price’s first pitch into center field for a single to bring home Machado and give LA the lead.

“I saw Manny the entire time,” said LeVangie after the game. “I knew what he was doing.”

This kind of stuff happens constantly, and is rarely cause for alarm. Mostly it just means that the team being pilfered needs better signs.

The Dodgers alone have been on the receiving end of things that have blown up to the point that the media took notice at least twice over the last few seasons, and have at least once been accused.

The Baseball Codes offers an entire chapter on sign stealing, which opens with an incident from a game in 1997 in which the Expos beat the Giants 19-3. From that passage:

San Francisco’s frustration boiled over when manager Dusty Baker spied Montreal’s F. P. Santangelo—at second base for the second time in the inning—acting strangely after ten runs had already scored. One pitch later, the guy at the plate was drilled by reliever Julian Tavarez. Two bat­ters later, the inning was over. “They were killing us,” said Baker. “F.P. was looking one way and crossing over, hands on, hands off, pointing with one arm. I just said, ‘That’s enough. If you are doing it, knock it off— you’re already killing us.’ ”

Former Boston pitcher Al Nipper described the sentiment like this: “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.”

It doesn’t even have to be that complicated. All a baserunner has to do to be effective is signal location—where the catcher’s setting up. If the pitcher hits his spot, the batter has a profound advantage. Not that the Red Sox were angered by Machado’s efforts, per se.

“Oh, it’s clean,” LaVangie said. “It’s baseball. If you’re not hiding your stuff with a runner on second base and you’re giving them a free view, that’s on you, the pitcher and the catcher. It’s up to the pitcher and catcher to manage that and to us to oversee it and make sure we’re going about it the right way.

“We see this all the time. Not just him, with everyone. We are very respectful of all this, and it’s a big part of who we are and what we try to manage. As far as our pitching staff, we want to make sure we control those guys at second base and [that] they’re not stealing our signs. We’re changing our signs constantly, every pitch. Typically, every one of our pitchers will change every pitch.”

This isn’t as difficult as it might seem. Teams usually use an indicator sign to notify the pitcher that whatever comes next is the one he should pay attention to. Changing signs can be as simple as changing the indicator. Still, it’s a layer of subterfuge that teams would rather not have to take.

We’re now at the point at which both teams have a decision to make. Dusty Baker summed up the Dodgers’ end when he was discussing the Giants-Expos incident from back in ’97. “Stealing signs is part of the game—that’s not the problem,” he said. The problem is, if you get caught, quit. That’s the deal. If you get caught you have to stop.”

In a few hours we’ll see if the Dodgers do stop. If they don’t, just as Baker insinuated, that’s the point at which real problems might arise.

Basepath Etiquette

Machado Adds Another Line To An Already-Packed Cheap-Shot Resume

Machado collides

Manny Machado is a dirty player.

He’ll insist otherwise, saying things like, “I play baseball,” and “that’s just baseball” and “call it what you want.”

Those are all comments he made when questioned about the latest episode in a career filled with dubious behavior, after he rammed into the right leg of Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar while crossing the bag on a groundout in last night’s Game 4 of the NLCS. Aguilar was positioned with his heel over the inside of the base, yet left plenty of room for the runner to pass. It is a play that Machado—and every player who has ever played baseball, all the way down to tee-ball leagues—has made repeatedly. Instead, he took the inside lane and plowed into Aguilar’s calf, appearing to kick the fielder as he passed. Had Aguilar’s spikes been planted firmly, it could have resulted in serious damage. The first baseman had words for Machado, Machado had words back, and the dugouts emptied with no small degree of confusion.

Ultimately, no blows were thrown and the only thing hurt was Machado’s reputation—which was hardly sterling to begin with. Hell, I was inspired to call the guy “among the most reckless, hard-headed and downright dangerous players in the game” way back in 2014.

Sadly, this type of play has come to define Machado’s career, which should otherwise be defined by on-field heroics befitting one of the sport’s best players. Recent reports have focused on plays earlier in this series in which Machado was docked for grabbing at the leg of Brewers shortstop Orlando Arcia on a slide into second (a doubly stupid effort given that Cody Bellinger would have been safe at first regardless, but was called out as penalty for Machado’s deviance). This following a similar (if slightly less egregious) Machado slide that was not penalized, mainly because Arcia did not try to complete the play.

That was Monday. It doesn’t take much digging to add to the list of Machado’s dirt:

The Brewers are aware of all of this. Standard protocol in this type of situation mandates a bland public response no matter how much a team might be seething, even if that team ends up doing something about it on the field. Machado’s actions have gotten so out of hand, however, that Milwaukee players opted to deliver some unvarnished truth to whoever would listen.

Christian Yellich, in part: “He is a player that has a history with those types of incidents. One time is an accident. Repeated over and over again. It’s a dirty play. It’s a dirty play by a dirty player. I have a lot of respect for him as a player but you can’t respect someone who plays the game like that. it was a tough-fought baseball game. It has no place in our game. We’ve all grounded out. Run through the bag like you’ve been doing your whole life like everybody else does.”

There’s also this:

Travis Shaw weighed in: “Dirty play. You saw the replay. He can say all he wants that he didn’t do it, but it’s pretty obvious he meant to do it. He’s shown it multiple times throughout his career. I mean, it’s just a dirty play. A kick to his leg right there. It was not by mistake.”

Even the Dodgers’ own Orel Hersheiser, on the team’s postgame show, offered a ruthless assessment, saying, “It’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing to himself. It’s embarrassing to the game,” and adding, “I wish he wouldn’t kick first basemen.”

Machado himself, as he did following his injury to Norris in 2014, nonchalanted the entire affair, telling ESPN’s Pedro Gomez after the game, “His foot was on the bag. I kind of tripped over him a little bit. That’s just baseball.” He reportedly apologized to Aguilar, but neither player would discuss anything that was said between them.

All in all, it’s a terrible and enduring look for one of baseball’s superstars. Even Brewers manager Craig Counsel got into the act, responding to a question about whether Machado went beyond the grounds of playing hard by saying, “I don’t think he’s playing all that hard.”

This, of course, dovetails with Machado’s other NLCS controversy, in which he failed to run out a grounder and then told Ken Rosenthal, “Obviously I’m not going to change, I’m not the type of player that’s going to be ‘Johnny Hustle,’ and run down the line and slide to first base and … you know, whatever can happen. That’s just not my personality, that’s not my cup of tea, that’s not who I am.”

This being the playoffs, the only way a Brewers pitcher will offer up a retaliatory strike is in a game that is well out of hand, and even that is unlikely. If anything, they are far more likely to wait until next season, probably during spring training when games don’t matter. Even if they do, it is almost certain to have no affect on Machado’s future behavior, which seems beyond outside governance.

Until then, these teams will keep battling, hopefully in a way that doesn’t put anybody in unnecessary peril.

Update 10-17: MLB agrees, and has fined Machado an undisclosed amount.

Showing Players Up

Who Needs MadBum? Hundley Joins SF’s Pick-On-Puig Parade

Puig n Hundley

Bobby Thomson vs. Ralph Branca it ain’t, but this thing Yasiel Puig has going on with the Giants sure makes for some compelling theater. Up till now it’s mostly been beefs with Madison Bumgarner. On Tuesday, catcher Nick Hundley got involved. The theme, however, seems consistent: The Giants apparently want Puig to play the game the right way.

With two outs and nobody on in the seventh inning, and the Giants nursing a 1-0 lead, Puig fouled off a 1-1 slider from lefthander Tony Watson. Spinning from the batter’s box, he angrily snatched at his bat, clear frustration over missing a pitch—which, indeed, came in flat and hittable—that he felt he should have handled. A curse word was uttered.

Hundley didn’t like it. According to Puig, the catcher told him to “stop complaining and get back into the box.”

Puig did not take kindly to the sentiment, Hundley did not take kindly to Puig’s lack of taking kindly, Puig shoved the catcher, and benches emptied. A couple of Puig slaps to Hundley’s mask was about it for the physicality (excepting Hundley’s dramatic, if inadvertent, takedown of Dodgers coach George Lombard), but given the participants, none of it came as too much of a surprise.

Could Hundley have let the display go? Of course. Puig’s action wasn’t in any way directed toward the Giants. He spun away from the mound and was clearly talking to himself, not the opposition.

Could Puig have reacted a bit more calmly to the catcher? Let his own postgame statement—“When I got into his face he told me to also get out of his face, so that’s when I got upset”—answer that question.

More pertinently, the question raging this morning involves the notion that the Giants have somehow become baseball’s one-stop fun-police shop for play-the- right-way baseball. Maybe this is true, but up until yesterday it was almost entirely a Bumgarner-driven affair. Hell, just a night earlier the pitcher appeared to take exception when Puig offered a similar display of frustration in the batter’s box. Perhaps this is why Hundley was particularly sensitive to it on Tuesday. “It doesn’t happen with other teams, and it doesn’t seem to happen when we’re in San Francisco,” Puig told reporters after the game. “It usually seems to happen when we’re here, and I’m not going to let them act like that in our house.” (Puig might be right, but MadBum has had plenty of issues with plenty of other guys, too.)

Maybe it’s Puig himself. Maybe the most polarizing guy on the Dodgers, the King of the Bat Flippers, has simply become a personification in San Francisco of the Giants’ most bitter rivalry, a stand-in for the concept of Dodgerdom at large. Bumgarner aside, San Francisco players don’t seem to be a particularly uptight bunch, so perhaps Puig is just a straw man who the Giants (or some among their ranks) have propped up to help focus their competitive nature.

Whatever it is, it certainly hasn’t hurt—with a 2-1 victory, San Francisco has now taken two straight in Dodger Stadium, and sits only three games back of LA, and five out of first place. The teams play again tonight, then close the season with three games in the Bay Area.