Don't Call Out Teammates in the Press

On the Importance of Knowing One’s Clubhouse Standing Before a Public Rant, Miguel Montero Edition

Safe!

The Washington Nationals had themselves a time on the basepaths yesterday, stealing seven bases in a 6-1 victory over the Cubs without being caught. Major league steals leader Trea Turner swiped four. (Watch all seven here.)

While this might ordinarily be an opportunity for some introspection, catcher Miguel Montero was having none of it. After the game, he said this, in an ESPN report:

“That’s the reason they were running left and right today, because [starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, against whom every base was stolen] was slow to the plate. Simple as that. It’s a shame it’s my fault because I didn’t throw anyone out. It really sucked, because the stolen bases go on me. But when you really look at it, the pitcher doesn’t give me any time, so yeah, ‘Miggy can’t throw anyone out,’ but my pitchers don’t hold anyone on.”

Montero is frustrated, and rightfully so. Arrieta is tied for the NL lead in stolen bases allowed, with 15 this season, and ranked fifth with 23 last year. His outing was the latest example of ongoing issues when it comes to the Cubs holding runners close. Still, it doesn’t much explain the fact that starting catcher Wilson Contreras has thrown out 34 percent of attempted thieves—well above the 28-percent league average—while Montero (whose pop time of 2.11 seconds is the second-worst in baseball) has thrown out just one of 31.

An aging backup catcher singling out a Cy Young winner as a source of blame is never a good look. By denying his own responsibility in the matter, Montero did himself no favors when it comes to his clubhouse standing.

Sure enough, Anthony Rizzo went on the radio this morning and confirmed as much.

The Cubs confirmed it further shortly thereafter, in even more concrete terms. They cut Montero.

Examples of this type of tone-deaf behavior can be found throughout baseball history, and they rarely end well. (We won’t even count the finger-pointing of former White Sox pitcher Jamie Navarro, which came in such abundance that in 1999 the Chicago Sun-Times once devoted an entire feature story to it.)

In the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 1939 World Series, Cincinnati right fielder Ival Goodman couldn’t catch up with a ball that fell for a triple, which led to the winning run scoring for the Yankees. After the game, Paul Derringer—the pitcher who gave it up—lit into the fielder. “If you got no guts, get out of there,” he screamed. “That was the most gutless effort I’ve ever seen.” The words sparked a clubhouse fistfight between the two, recalled Bill Werber in Memories of a Ballplayer. New York went on to sweep the Reds.

Against Houston in 1968, Willie Mays took off from first base on a single to left field by Jim Ray Hart. Expecting Mays to stop at second, Astros left fielder Dick Simpson took his time getting to the ball—a window that Mays exploited by racing through to third. Cutoff man Bob Aspromonte couldn’t believe it, fielding the throw and turning to glare toward Simpson in disbelief. This was in some ways even more damaging than slagging his teammate to the press; Mays saw another opening and didn’t slow down, motoring home from first on an error-free single.

In 2001, the Detroit Tigers called a clubhouse meeting to address the fact that not everybody joined a fight spurred when Kansas City’s Mike Sweeney charged the mound after being drilled by Jeff Weaver. The reason more Tigers didn’t have the pitcher’s back: Weaver had recently and publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the run support he’d received during starts. “When you’ve only got two or three guys fighting behind you, it kind of irks you the wrong way,” the pitcher said afterward in the Detroit Free Press.

Ain’t that the truth. Just ask Miguel Montero, should he ever make it back to a big league clubhouse.

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Retaliation

How Not to Approach the Concept of Retaliation: L.A. Story Ends Very, Very Badly

Dodgers-DBacksSome will blame baseball’s unwritten rules, the sport’s ingrained system of on-field justice, for last night’s disgraceful display at Chavez Ravine. They will decry the eye-for-an-eye mentality, the brutal delivery of fastballs and the ugly results of the punch-throwing scrum in the seventh-inning.

What they will not acknowledge is that baseball’s unwritten rules exist precisely to avoid this kind of confrontation. Because Tuesday night’s throwdown between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks was a study in what not do during the course of a baseball game as it pertains to baseball’s Code.

  • Retaliation for an incidental drilling—especially one so incidental that it required umpire intervention to confirm that it even happened—is simply not necessary. This was the state of affairs after Cody Ross was grazed by a Zack Greinke pitch in the fifth inning.
  • Even if what happened next was retaliation for Ross, it would at least give Ian Kennedy a reason for his actions, no matter how insufficient. In the sixth inning, the D-Backs right-hander ignored the tenet mandating that one never drill a batter intentionally above shoulder level, and hit Yasiel Puig in the nose with a 92-mph fastball. Puig remained on the ground for several minutes while trainers attended to him.  (Watch it here.)
  • Greinke responded an inning later by hitting Miguel Montero between the numbers. Usually, when catchers are hit in a retaliatory fashion, it is because they called for the pitch that made the retaliation necessary in the first place. In Montero’s case, had Kennedy’s pitch to Puig hit the catcher’s glove it would have ended up below the knees. (Watch it here.)
  • Regardless, that blow should have ended hostilities. Kennedy drilled a Dodger in a wildly inappropriate manner, and Greinke responded according to the Code. It wasn’t enough to settle Kennedy down, however. In the bottom half of the seventh, he threw his first pitch to Greinke—another 92-mph fastball—directly for the head. Greinke ducked and the ball glanced off his upper shoulder.
  • Usually, benches clear when an aggrieved hitter—somebody who has just been hit or knocked down—takes issue with the pitcher. Ron Washington once described the situation this way, back when he was the third-base coach for the A’s and Frank Thomas, the team’s designated hitter, had been drilled by Ted Lilly. “We all saw what happened, but Frank took it calmly, so we took it calmly,” he said. “If Frank had taken it with an uproar, we’d have taken it with an uproar. We have to wait for the reaction of the guy who it happened to. If Frank had charged him, there would have been a fight. If Frank had raised some hell going down to first base, we’d have raised some hell. But Frank took it calmly and went on down there, the umpire checked everything, and we played baseball.”

On Tuesday, Greinke did take it calmly. It was his teammates—led by Puig—who escalated things from that point, racing from the dugout and quickly getting physical. (Watch it here.) The rest of the action was described succinctly by Nick Piecoro of the ArizonaRepublic:

Reliever J.P. Howell charged at Diamondbacks assistant hitting coach Turner Ward and nearly flipped him over a railing near the on-deck circle. Puig appeared to land a tomahawk swing on Diamondbacks’ bench player Eric Hinske. Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire looked apoplectic as he exchanged words with Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson and third-base coach Matt Williams. Even Dodgers manager Don Mattingly got in on the action, wrestling Diamondbacks bench coach Alan Trammell to the ground.

Only two things happened as they should have. First was Dodgers catcher Tim Federowicz jumping in between Montero and Greinke after the former was drilled in the seventh. (It was the inability of the Dodgers’ other catcher, A.J. Ellis, to do that very thing that allowed Carlos Quentin to reach the mound during the April brawl that ended with Greinke’s collarbone broken.) The other was Greinke, on first base after being drilled, responding by trying to take out Arizona shortstop Didi Gregorius with a hard slide at the front end of an attempted double-play—just like they used to do in the old days. (Greinke ended up getting a no-decision in the Dodgers’ 5-3 victory. Watch it here.) Ultimately, the primary takeaway from this unfortunate state of affairs was that Ian Kennedy threw two pitches at opponents’ heads in a two-inning span. The guy has already proven willing to harbor ill-will against the Dodgers, throwing two pitches at Clayton Kershaw last season in response to a year-old grudge. Even more pertinent is the fact that he seems to enjoy this kind of thing. Last year he led the National League with 14 hit batters, even with otherwise good control—he walked only 55 over more than 200 innings. The Dodgers will get theirs, at some point. In the interim, MLB will certainly  step in and get some of its own. Had the unwritten rules worked as intended, none of it would have been necessary.

Update (6/14): Suspensions have been handed down. As expected, Ian Kennedy got the worst of it.

Rookie Etiquette, Trevor Bauer

Well, Duh: Miguel Montero probably knows the Padres’ hitters ‘a little bit better’ than Trevor Bauer

The Arizona Republic recently estimated that Diamondbacks pitchers shake off catcher Miguel Montero three or four times per game. Tuesday, however, was not like most games.

That’s because rookie Trevor Bauer—making only his second big league start—shook off the signs, said Montero, on “almost every pitch.”

That said, it was only 3 1/3 innings’ worth of almost-every pitches. Then again, giving up six hits, four walks and seven runs to San Diego necessitated 80 offerings from Bauer. Shaking off even a quarter of them would have made for an astounding number, for no reason more glaring than the fact that Montero is a seven-year vet with more than 4,000 innings behind the plate.

Bauer is unconventional, from his preparatory practices to his delivery, which is  all angles and torque. It doesn’t stop there. From the Republic:

While most pitchers try to pitch down in the strike zone, he prefers to work up in the zone. In the past couple of years, Bauer has worked to learn and incorporate a pitch-sequencing theory called “Effective Velocity,” a way of attacking hitters that aims to disrupt timing.

If there are benefits to Effective Velocity, they weren’t apparent Tuesday afternoon. In fact, Bauer might have inadvertently personified an ongoing disagreement between the old and new schools over whose methodoligy is more effective. It’s a tiny sampling, of course, but a  21-year-old just out of college appears to have put his think-tank strategy to the test at the expense of leveraging wisdom from a guy who knows the game.

There’s something to be said for execution (if Bauer doesn’t hit his spots, it doesn’t matter what kind of strategy he employs), but beyond that is the Code and its mandate that young players defer to veterans, at least until such time as they’re able to carry a significant portion of the load on their own.

Montero opted not to blast Bauer afterward, talking about the youngster’s talent and promise. Still,  he added, “I would like him to get a little trust in me. . . . I don’t have all the answers, but I probably know [the Padres’ hitters] a little bit better [than Bauer].”

For a guy carrying the old-school end of the argument, Montero’s response was anything but. For an example of real old-school when it comes to this stuff, turn to the the Red Sox clubhouse in 1967, after rookie pitcher Sparky Lyle, 22, shook off catcher Elston Howard—at age 38, a nine-time All-Star and the 1963 AL MVP—not once, but twice during the course of an at-bat, throwing sliders instead of fastballs, both out of the strike zone, en route to issuing a base on balls.

After the game, Carl Yazstrzemski cornered Lyle in the clubhouse. “I want to know one thing,” Yaz said to the rookie, as recounted by Lyle in The Bronx Zoo. “How can a guy who’s been in the big leagues two weeks shake off a guy who’s been catching fourteen years?”

To make sure the point wasn’t lost, manager Dick Williams then promised a $50 fine every time Lyle shook off Howard from that point on.

Bauer should be so lucky.