Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Acuna Drilled For Being Too Hot: When Will Baseball Be Through With Old-School Nonsense?

Acuna drilled

Jose Urena’s first-pitch assassination attempt on Ronald Acuna’s elbow yesterday brought to the fore an interesting tension for traditionalist lovers of old-school baseball, those who beat the drum loudest for playing the game “the right way” while calling for a return to the approach employed by previous generations of ballplayers. These fans yearn for a return to the time before prohibitions against collisions, when men were allowed to play with unbridled ferocity and vigor. Back then, of course, pitchers were allowed to throw the ball wherever the hell they wanted, with scant repercussion. In bygone eras, what Urena did yesterday was downright mainstream.

Acuna is the game’s hottest hitter, homering eight times in eight games prior to yesterday, including five straight, while leading off three in a row against the Marlins with longballs. Urena didn’t give him the chance for a fourth, planting a 97.5-mph fastball—the fastest first pitch he’s thrown all year, and in the 99th percentile of the 2,125 pitches he’s thrown overall, in terms of velocity—into Acuna’s elbow. It was unmistakably intentional.

There used to be a notion about drilling a hitter who was having too much success. The prevailing wisdom held that if a guy was seeing the ball well, that meant he was comfortable. And if a pitcher wants to get a guy out, part of his job is to remove as much of that comfort as he can. Any attention paid to avoiding baseballs, of course, is not attention paid to hitting them.

That’s more or less what Urena said after the game, when he told reporters in a rambling monologue that he was just trying to move Acuna’s feet—to make him less comfortable.

It was hogwash, of course. Urena led the league last year with 14 hit batters. Acuna was his 11th of this season. But the pitcher’s strategy was rooted in history.

In 1954, Joe Adcock set a record with 18 total bases, including four home runs, in a game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. After he doubled again the next day, Clem Labine drilled him.

In 1969, Willie Stargell homered and singled in his first two at-bats against Bob Gibson, and was very intentionally drilled during his third. At least Gibson, probably the most notorious headhunter of the modern era, understood both sides of the dynamic. Once, when teammate Curt Flood demanded retaliation after Don Drysdale drilled him in the ribs, Gibson offered a simple response: “If you had eight hits in a row off me, roomie,” he said in a Newsday account, “I’d hit you, too.”

Hall of Famer Johnny Mize recalled getting hit in the head by pitchers Harry Gumbert and Harry Brecheen. “Were they throwing at me?” he speculated in the classic book, “Baseball When the Grass was Real.” “I don’t know. But one of them was a sinkerball pitcher; the other one was a control pitcher. And on each occasion I’d hit a home run the time before.”

During Don Baylor’s rookie year in 1972, he reached base in his first five at-bats against Andy Messersmith, including a double and a homer. In his sixth, Baylor told The New York Times, Messersmith “didn’t even look in to take a sign from the catcher. He just wound up and hit me in the back. As I’m walking to first, he calls over, “Well, don’t you think it’s about time?”

In 1987, after Andre Dawson hit three homers and a double in two games against the Padres, Eric Show hit him in the cheek with a pitch, requiring 24 stitches. (The teams ended up brawling, and Cubs rookie Greg Maddux responded by drilling Padres catcher Benito Santiago. After Maddux was ejected, his replacement, Scott Sanderson, threw three pitches at Tony Gwynn, missing each time. “Today was the first time in my life that I’ve been scared to go to the plate,” Gwynn said afterward, in the Chicago Sun-Times.)

After that game, Cubs manager Gene Michael typified the difference in attitude between baseball then and baseball now, saying, “Headhunting and drilling somebody are a big difference. When you risk careers and lives, it has no place in baseball.”

Those stories are fun, in part because they describe a game that is barely recognizable today. In the modern game, throwing at a hitter, even well below the shoulders, is always questionable. When the reason for it is as petty as Urena’s—Acuna was having too much success, so he had to go down—it’s downright unconscionable.

There are many reasons for this evolution, none more vital than the fact that, unlike in its heyday, baseball, lagging behind the NBA and NFL in youth demographics, is a sport that needs marketing. More than ever, MLB needs its young stars to do star-like things, and when one of the brightest of them, in the middle of the best run of his career, is senselessly cut down by a meathead pitcher, it diminishes the entire sport.

People who decry the sport’s unwritten rules as baseless and outdated fail to recognize that the Code shifts with the times—has always shifted with the times—and because something was once acceptable does not make it so today. For those like Keith Hernandez, who uttered the below inanity into a microphone that he knew was live …

… it’s time to realize that the sport you grew up playing is not the same sport that Major League Baseball is trying so carefully to cultivate today. Urena wasn’t playing by the modern version of the unwritten rules, he was playing against them.

There is simply no place in baseball for Jose Urena, or those like him. Suspension—real suspension, not some five-game nonsense under which Urena doesn’t even have to miss a start—is the best way to send a message that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated. If Major League Baseball truly wants its players to recognize that times have changed in this regard, it has to start leading the charge.

Update (8-16): MLB has suspended Urena six games. Way to decidedly not make a stand, baseball.

 

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Retaliation

When Bad Things Happen Because Nitwit Pitchers Respond To Perceived Slights In Ways That Are Detrimental To The Winning Of Games: The Hunter Strickland Experience

Brinson drilled

This is what it looks like when retaliation goes wrong. Or maybe it’s what it looks like when a guy takes things too seriously. Or maybe it’s just what it looks like when one of baseball’s premier chowderheads is allowed to let loose his inner id at multiple touchpoints between mound and clubhouse.

We’re speaking, of course, about the Giants and Marlins, specifically of San Francisco’s chowderheaded closer Hunter Strickland. To get into any of it, of course, necessitates a review of the recent history between these teams.

It may have started with Miami pitcher Dan Straily breaking Evan Longoria’s finger with a pitch on June 14, but that seems specious given that Hunter Strickland does not need external motivation like teammate injures to come completely unhinged. He does that plenty capably on his own. In the ninth inning of that very game, Strickland blew the save when Marlins rookie Lewis Brinson—batting .172—tied things up, 3-3, with a sacrifice fly. (The Giants ended up winning in 16, 6-3.)

Brinson tossesThe closer didn’t like that. The next time he faced Brinson, four days later in San Francisco, he buzzed the rookie’s tower with an up-and-in fastball. Brinson responded with a game-tying single, making him directly responsible for both of Strickland’s blown saves in the span of three appearances. Brinson gave a take-that flip of the bat as he motored toward first, and the Marlins ended up scoring three times against the closer to erase a two-run deficit and win, 5-4. That should have effectively been that.

It wasn’t, of course. Strickland was yanked after giving up three hits and two walks to the six batters he faced, and shared some thoughts with Brinson as he departed the field. Then he proceeded to into a fight with a clubhouse door … which he lost. Strickland, with a broken pinky on his throwing hand, will be out for up to eight weeks.

Because Baseball Men stick up for each other, and because pitchers’ fraternities are strong and frequently mystifying, the following night, Tuesday, Giants starter Dereck Rodriguez drilled Brinson. Maybe we should have expected this, given the proclamation from reliever Mark Melancon that Brinson “was disrespecting the game.” More pertinently, Rodriguez is not only a rookie looking to gain acceptance from his veteran teammates, but is the son of a Hall of Fame catcher who no doubt called his fair share of intentional HBPs. The guy was raised on old-school lessons about how to approach this very kind of scenario.

The thing about old-school approaches, of course, is that they frequently elicit equal-and-opposite responses. So in the process of protecting a hotheaded teammate whose actions toward Brinson (or his own damn pitching hand) were in no way justified, Rodriguez reignited what should have by that point been a dormant feud. This led, an inning later, to Straily drilling Buster Posey. (Frustration could also have played a factor. With one out in the second inning, Straily had allowed more baserunners—six, via two walks, a single, a double and two home runs, one by Posey himself—than outs he’d recorded.)

Since the umpires had issued warnings following Rodriguez’s HBP—to which Marlins skipper Don Mattingly took exception, given that his own pitchers weren’t given a chance to respond—Straily was tossed (as was Mattingly). Giants broadcasters Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper speculated on the air (as per The Athletic) that after Brinson was drilled, Mattingly emerged from the dugout, pointed at Posey and declared, “You’re next.” (Posey later denied that such a thing happened. Watch most of it here.)

The Giants, of course, denied any sort of intent behind Rodriguez’s pitch (which couldn’t have looked more intentional), but denial is part of the game. Just ask Joe Musgrove, who was recently docked $1,000 for admitting to just such a tactic in a game against Arizona.)

That Posey absorbed the blow and the Giants won help obscure the not-insignificant detail that San Francisco’s best player was thrown at for reasons that could have been avoided entirely had his team not opted to respond on behalf of a meathead pitcher who’d artificially escalated tensions in the first place. Had Posey been injured, a hefty portion of the blame could have been put on the Giants themselves.

There is much to admire about baseball’s old school. There’s even a place for appropriate response when an opponent’s recklessness puts somebody into physical peril. But the tactic of defending a teammate who merits no defense—while well-established through baseball’s annals—is one tenet that could stand to be revisited.

Update (6/21): Straily was suspended for five games, Mattingly one.

Collisions, Evolution of the Unwritten Rules, Slide properly

Collision Course: The State Of Baseball, 2018

Dietrich dustup

This is a story about baseball’s rulebook, and also about baseball’s unwritten rulebook. One, it turns out, feeds the other.

Yesterday, Marlins left fielder Derek Dietrich, racing home on a single, was easily beaten by the throw from Cubs right fielder Ben Zobrist. With his only hope at scoring being to dislodge the ball from the catcher, Dietrich plowed into Victor Caratini, just as generations before him have done.

Actually, it was a fair step milder than in previous generations, the collision being mostly arms, not even forceful enough to knock Caratini from his feet. Still, this is the no-contact era of major league baseball, a place where, following Scott Cousins’ takeout of Buster Posey back in 2011, the target on catchers’ backs was institutionally removed. This is a time in which a late slide from Tyler Austin—a slide that once wouldn’t have so much as raised an eyebrow in the opposing dugout—led to fisticuffs in New York.

So, when Dietrich took liberties with Caratini, Caratini responded in kind. The dugouts quickly emptied, and though the most significant moment of the resulting skirmish involved Kris Bryant tickling former teammate Starlin Castro, the event is worthy of exploration.

MLB rule 6.01(i)(1) instructs that any catcher ceding the baseline—standing in front of the plate and relying on a swipe tag to make the putout—is in safe waters: “A runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate), or otherwise initiate an avoidable collision.”

Dietrich did not deviate from his pathway because he did not have to: Caratini was planted firmly atop the line while awaiting the throw—going firmly against Rule 6.01(i)(2), which clarifies that “unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score.”

In this case, it appeared to be unwitting: Upon receiving the ball, Caratini turned to make the requisite swipe tag before realizing that he had overshot his positioning and was reaching into foul territory, away from the plate. He quickly drew his glove back into the runner.

It left Dietrich little choice about contact. The runner’s ensuing shove was purely elective, of course, though it was a far cry from the devastation possible had he opted to lower his shoulder. Dietrich even tried to make nice by tipping his cap to the catcher before Caratini got into his face.

We’re left with this: Victor Caratini is 24 years old and was playing in his 51st big league game. Posey-era rules are all he’s ever known. With little basis from which to understand the rationality of Dietrich’s decision, the catcher reacted angrily at being shoved, and a play that should barely have registered soon bordered on fisticuffs.

The sport’s unwritten rules can be seen in similar light. Take the aforementioned Yankees-Red Sox brawl back in April. On one hand, the Red Sox were overly sensitive about a slide that a generation earlier wouldn’t have drawn much notice. On the other, the slide was clearly outside of baseball’s recently established parameters, and Austin should have been prepared for the response that he received.

Ultimately, neither side had much clue about how to handle what was, before now, a fairly standard baseball situation, and things ended badly. They ended badly because many players no longer understand the intentions behind much of the Code, and react instinctively rather than rationally. It’s what enables sensitivity about the personal nature of an action that is not at all personal.

These are the unintended consequences of the sanitation of the sport. There are clear benefits—fewer collision-based injuries and a decline in retaliatory beanballs—but there are also growing pains. Yesterday’s collision was only one of them, with more certain to follow.

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter, No-Hitter Etiquette

Dee Gordon Swings Away Because of No-Bunting-During-a-No-Hitter Rule, Gets a Hit Anyway

Gordon hits

Baseball’s unwritten rules have a pervasive role in the fabric of the sport, helping to maintain a degree of respect and decorum. That part is good. But sometimes they’re just stupid.

Take yesterday. In the sixth inning of the Nationals-Marlins game, with Washington’s Gio Gonzalez throwing a no-hitter, Florida’s Dee Gordon thought about trying to bunt for a hit.

Typically, this is a no-no. We’ve already looked back this season at the infamous Ben Davis bunt that broke up Curt Schilling’s perfect game in 2001.

Except that Davis was a slow-footed catcher who had never bunted for a hit in his life. Gordon is second in the National League with 38 steals, a player for whom bunting is an essential tool. Also, it was a 1-0 game and Gordon represented the tying run.

“My game is to bunt,” Gordon said in a Miami Herald report, discussing his consternation over the unwritten rules. “I didn’t know if I could bunt or not. I was kind of in a weird situation for myself.”

Gordon didn’t bunt. Instead, he struck out. When he came up again in the ninth, Gonzalez’s no-hitter was still intact. Gordon didn’t even consider bunting.

Instead, he slashed a single to left field, Code be damned.

Retaliation

A Dish Best Served Over the Left Field Fence

Stanton watches

On Tuesday, Jason Grilli whiffed Giancarlo Stanton to end the game and did a bit of gesturing.

On Wednesday, Stanton remembered—especially after a mammoth homer in the eighth that put the Marlins up, 14-5.

Marlins 22, Rangers 10. Revenge is sweet.

Don't Showboat, Retaliation

Breaking: Yasiel Puig Doesn’t Like Inside Pitches

Puig jacknifes

On Friday, Yasiel Puig homered twice against the Marlins. On Saturday, the first pitch he saw arrived fast and inside. He didn’t appreciate the coincidence.

It may have been exactly that—a coincidence—but Puig wasn’t about to abide by shenanigans from Miami starter Jose Urena, real or imagined. Even though the pitch didn’t hit him, he took angry steps toward the mound before Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, followed by players from both teams, intervened.

Here’s the thing: Puig didn’t like the possibility that an opponent might be sending a message about his prior success against them. That’s fair. What he’s discounting is that, following his second homer a night earlier—a go-ahead three-run shot—he did no small amount of showboating.

Sometimes teams don’t appreciate that.

Whether Urena intended to send a message doesn’t really matter to this particular argument. More than anybody, Puig is responsible for the widespread acceptance of batter’s box theatrics around baseball. He’s a bat-flip early-adopter, a guy so unremitting in the practice that pitchers, unable to tamp it out of existence, simply came around to accepting it as standard practice.

But if a guy like that wants to play that way, he has to be aware that some old-school holdouts might still take offense. Urena might be one of them. Or, as the pitcher said after the game, his two-seamer might simply have sailed a bit too far inside. If it’s the latter, there’s no reason for Puig to consider it. If it’s the former, Puig has to be aware that he himself was Urena’s muse.

(Marlins manager Don Mattingly denied any connection to an earlier kerfuffle between the teams. Even Dodgers manager Dave Roberts weighed in on Urena’s side, saying in an MLB.com report, “No one likes to be crowded, but [you have] to understand that there wasn’t intent, and it’s clear to me that there was no intent.”)

 

 

After the game, Urena told reporters that Puig “Got like a little baby” about the pitch. He was correct. Irrespective of Urena’s intentions, Puig—and any player at his end of the showboat spectrum—has to understand that such behavior will occasionally come at a cost. If said cost is being drilled, the decision to react may be justified. If the cost is simply having to jackknife out of the way, and then getting to hit from ahead in the count, Puig should grow the hell up.

Growing up seems to be a persistent problem for the guy. In this case it hardly mattered, as Urena lasted only three innings and the Dodgers won, 7-1. LA’s 3-2 win on Sunday featured no run-ins of note.

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.