Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation

To Swing Or Not To Swing: What To Do With A Meatball When Your Team Is Comfortably Ahead?

Mattingly angry

Don Mattingly is the new uncontested King of Baseball’s Old School.

On Friday, his Marlins got into a benches-clearing dustup with the Dodgers, after reliever Ross Stripling drilled Giancarlo Stanton in the back. At first it appeared to be retaliation for Marlins pitcher A.J. Ramos hitting Brett Eibner, which came two pitches after Cody Bellinger blasted a two-run homer, not to mention that Eibner had already homered earlier in the game. (Watch it here.)

That’s a passel of old-school drama right there, what with pitchers drilling guys for some combination of teammates’ accomplishments and their own earlier success. But Mattingly’s subsequent explanation brought things to a whole new level.

“They’re up 5-0, swinging 3-0,” the manager said after the game in a Miami Herald report. “If you’re going to swing 3-0 and we got six outs left. … They can say it however they want it, but when you swing 3-0 up 5-0 going into the eighth, you can put it however you want.”

That is some serious throwback action. The 3-0 hitter Mattingly was talking about was Corey Seager, who eventually walked. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts later came out and said that not only did he not think it was a big deal but that it had been his decision, not Seager’s, which, maybe, okay, but taking heat off their players is what good managers do, so who knows.

 

Once upon a time, swinging 3-0 with a big lead late in the game was strict grounds for reprisal. The theory is based on the gentlemanly premise that any pitcher struggling to find the strike zone while his team holds a big lead needs all the help he can get. With the outcome of the contest no longer in question, allowing an opponent to pump a fastball down the heart of the plate in an effort to regain his footing is the least a hitter can do.

Take this quote:

“You’ll never see me hitting 3-0 five runs or more ahead. You don’t cherry-pick on the other team. You don’t take cripples. Three-oh, he’s struggling. He’s got to lay the ball in there. Don’t do it to the man. He’s got a family, too.”

That was from Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, in a New York Times article from 1993. Anderson decried such tactics as “cheap.”

In 2002, Matt Williams swung 3-0 while his Diamondbacks led San Francisco 6-0 in the fifth inning. He wasn’t drilled in response, but he heard about it from Giants manager Dusty Baker across the field.

“I did take exception to that, because [Williams, a former Giant] is one of my boys, and I had him [in San Francisco],” said Baker, looking back on the moment. “I said ‘Hey, man, I thought I taught you better than that. You don’t rub it in. You beat them up, but you don’t rub it in.’ ”

The best example from the not-so distant past doesn’t concern a 3-0 swinger, but the polar opposite. In the ninth inning of a game in 2002, with his team holding a 14-4 lead over the White Sox, Seattle outfielder Mike Cameron opted to watch a 3-0 fastball split the heart of the plate. His manager, Lou Piniella, had long preached against embarrassing opponents, and Cameron felt that taking a rip at such a juncture might do that very thing.

A pertinent detail: Cameron had already hit four homers on the day, and willingly passed up a golden opportunity for historic No. 5. He didn’t even consider it until afterward.

Those days, however, are long gone. Cameron last played in 2011, and his generation appeared to be the last to afford serious merit to the 3-0 rule. Part of it is the idea that modern players want to seize every stat-padding opportunity available, regardless of whether their team needs it to secure a victory. Even more pertinent are the definitions of big lead and late in the game.

Once, four runs were considered to be barely penetrable, and five runs—beyond the reach of a grand slam—were lock-box territory. Then came the juicing of baseballs and players alike, and the sport’s offensive explosion laid waste to prevailing notions about what kinds of leads might actually be safe. Five runs turned into six, then seven, then never enough.

Given Mattingly’s response, things might be regressing. The five-run deficit that so upset the Marlins skipper in the eighth inning offers a key tell. With the abundance of relievers—not only closers, but setup and seventh-inning men—pushing 100 mph, late-inning runs are harder to come by than ever. So maybe Mattingly is on to something, this idea that even a few runs over a game’s late frames are nearer a lock than at perhaps any point in history. The Dodgers’ late-inning guys—Kenley Jansen, Josh Fields and Pedro Baez—have combined for a 1.33 ERA this season. Jansen throws a 95-mph sinker, Fields a 95-mph cutter, and Baez a 97-mph four-seamer.

No wonder Mattingly felt overwhelmed.

Ultimately, embarrassing a pitcher by swinging 3-0 only works if said pitcher, or his team, is actually embarrassed. Of late, that’s been a rarity, but maybe Mattingly is ushering in a new/old era.

 

Retaliation, Sign stealing

Johnny Cueto Doesn’t Care For Your Sign Stealing, Sir

Cuetto PB

The Dodgers denied it, sort of, but it sure appears that they were stealing signs in San Francisco on Wednesday.

On one hand, it’s not such a big deal. Every team has players who do it and who appreciate when their teammates do it for them. And ultimately, a team getting its signs nabbed is mostly an indication that it needs better signs.

Wednesday, however, had some wrinkles—the most photogenic being Cueto’s response: a head-high inside fastball that eventually led to both benches clearing.

Cueto cutter
The pitch Grandal hit.

It started in the first inning, when, with Justin Turner at second base, Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal golfed an inside cutter off his shoetops into the right-field corner for an RBI double. On one hand, it was the kind of pitch that seems impossible to connect with firmly without knowing it’s coming. On the other hand, Buster Posey was set up middle and slightly away—so there’s no way that Turner was signaling location—and was falling to his knees to block it as Grandal made contact. It’s possible that Posey’s location was a decoy and that the cutter simply sank more than he expected, but if the catcher didn’t know the pitch was coming, how could the hitter?

No matter.

When Grandal next came up, Cueto responded with a message pitch that, while high and inside, the hitter didn’t have to move to avoid. Posey, however, having called for something low and away, was unable to adjust in time to stab the ball, which sailed to the backstop and allowed the runner at third, Chase Utley, to score.

After Grandal flied out to end the inning two pitches later, he began jawing at Cueto, pointing at his head in a clear gesture of having not appreciated the location of Cueto’s previous offering.  Cueto jawed right back. That’s when players from both teams streamed onto the field.

Afterward, Grandal alluded to other instances that may have aroused Cueto’s suspicion, which involved Grandal not only receiving signs, but sending them. “It caught me by surprise,” the catcher said in an MLB.com report, speaking of the conversation he had with Cueto during the pitcher’s third-inning at-bat. “I’m trying to get a walking lead because I’m slow. He thought I was giving out signs.” This could only have happened after Grandal’s sign-aided* double in the first, which was the only time he reached base all day. (Don’t forget that Cueto has some experience with this type of thing. At least the players also managed to iron out their differences during the conversation, each offering apologies for their behavior according to post-game recollections from each of them.)

Grandal also denied that he had known what was coming earlier in the inning. “Making contact [on the double] has nothing to do with knowing it was coming,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have swung at it if I had known where it was.”

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was less guarded, all but admitting Cueto’s suspicions. “He obviously didn’t appreciate if we were doing something like that,” he said in a San Francisco Chronicle report. “If we were, that’s a part of the game.”

Ultimately, Roberts is correct. The Dodgers have every right to steal whatever signs they can, just as Cueto has every right to inform them in safe and reasonable ways that he’s on to their shenanigans.

“He said, ‘Sorry for the misunderstanding. Let’s just move on,’ ”said Cueto after the game in an AP report, recounting his third-inning chat with Grandal in the batter’s box. “I’m not going to use that as an excuse, but they were relaying signs.”

Ultimately, it wound up just as multiple instances of mixed communication have ended up this season—worse than it needed to be, thanks to a substandard understanding about how things are supposed to work. (Examples of this abound.)

If Cueto had any clue about the game situation, he’d never have intentionally thrown a pitch that had a chance to get by Posey with a runner at third base. (If history teaches us anything, it’s that this type of thing is simply how Cueto responds to certain situations.)

If Grandal had recognized that Cueto’s contact-free message message could have effectively ended the tension right there, he might have kept his mouth shut.

But these players, like so many of their colleagues, have forgotten (or never learned) the deeper meaning behind some baseball actions, or the responsibility inherent in performing them. The result was another unnecessary conflagration spurred by players who were just a little confused about the proper response to things that in previous generations were considered normal.

* Maybe.

 

Don't Cross the Pitcher's Mound, Infield Etiquette

Play Ball! … no, wait … okay, Play Ball!

Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw called it “disrespectful,” but really it was more thoughtless than anything.

The lefthander was preparing to pitch to the first batter of yesterday’s game against Colorado, Charlie Blackmon, when plate ump Quinn Wolcott put up his hand to pause the action. Rockies starter Tyler Anderson had taken some extra warmup tosses in the bullpen and was slowly walking back to the dugout along the sideline. Wolcott wanted the field cleared before the game began.

Kershaw couldn’t believe it. He lifted his palms in disbelief, then paced his way off the back of the mound, standing in the infield grass, arms akimbo, while Anderson departed.

“That was one of the more disrespectful things I’ve been a part of in a game,” the pitcher said after the game. “I really didn’t appreciate that. The game starts at 7:10. It started at 7:10 here for a long time. Just go around or finish earlier. That wasn’t appreciated, for sure. Not going to say any more—I’ll get in trouble.”

If it seems like a high-strung reaction for a few seconds’ worth of delay, it might be—but it’s justified. Kershaw, like most great pitchers, is a creature of focus and timing. When he’s in the process of going through routines both mental and physical to begin a game, any interruption can present a derailment. Sure enough, the first three Rockies reached base, on a walk and two singles. Kershaw denied that Anderson’s sojourn had anything to do with it, and, after surrendering only one run in getting out of the jam, he settled down to give up only four hits and one run over the next six, striking out 10 in the process.

At issue is a ballplayer’s territory, and how decorum prevents opponents from encroaching upon it. Hitters, for example, never walk between the pitcher and the catcher en route to the batter’s box. When necessary, they walk around, behind the umpire. It’s an easy thing to overlook from the grandstand, but the sanctity of the space is inviolable. That path belongs to the pitcher, at least while he’s holding a baseball, and everybody understands it.

When Alex Rodriguez trod atop the mound on his way back to the dugout after flying out in 2010, the pitcher he crossed, Oakland’s Dallas Braden, gave him an earful. At the time, people wondered what the problem was, but for anyone paying attention the answer was obvious—the pitcher’s mound is sacred, and any invasion is insufficiently deferential to the guy trying to do his job there.

(Sidenote: I covered that very topic in The Baseball Codes, for a chapter that was cut prior to printing for space considerations. In it, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts—a Giants outfielder when I talked to him—said, “That’s his office, his domain To run across it is disrespectful.”)

Anderson denied intent, telling reporters that he “didn’t mean any disrespect” and that he was surprised that Wolcott didn’t allow the game to begin. But the delay interfered with Kershaw’s process, whatever it may have been. The pitcher was within his rights to be annoyed.

Kershaw expended 27 pitches in that first inning, which was almost certainly a factor in his failure to reach the eighth. That might have been one reason for his postgame rant. Even more so, I’m guessing, was Anderson’s simple lack of etiquette. The guess here is that retaliation of any sort will be unnecessary—we’ll never see something like that again from a Rockies pitcher, at least not at Dodger Stadium.

 

 

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.