Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead

Twin Hacks 3-0, Gets Teammate Plunked, Reminds Us That People Still Pay Attention To This Kind Of Thing

There was some old-school baseball played in Arlington yesterday like we haven’t seen in years.

The setting: Minnesota leads the Rangers 13-5 in the ninth. With one out and nobody on, Texas reliever Shawn Kelly goes 3-0 on Twins right fielder Jake Cave. Cave is feeling good; he’s already punched an RBI double to right field and walked on the night, and has scored two runs. In a season short of personal highlights for him, this has been a good game.

He swung at the next pitch.

Some people decry the anachronistic nature of baseball’s unwritten rules, but there’s no denying the rationale behind some of them. I discussed this one in The Baseball Codes: “The last thing a pitcher wants to do with his team down by a wide margin late in the game is walk batters, which not only suggests unnecessary nibbling but extends a game that players want to end quickly. When a count gets to 3-0 … it’s a near-certainty that the ensuing pitch will be a fastball down the middle.”

As such, hitters are expected to lay back and, in the name of expedience for all involved, allow the pitcher to level the playing field.

That’s not what Cave did.

The second-year player swung at a 90-mph fastball, delivered slower than normal to improve accuracy with the understanding that Cave would not take advantage. Cave responded by smacking a single to right.

Did Kelly notice? He threw three inside pitches to the next hitter, Max Kepler, then drilled him with a fastball. This did not go without mention on the broadcast.

We don’t hear a lot anymore about the rule that limits 3-0 swings in blowout games, but the rationale behind it remains valid. Pitchers are expected to avoid nibbling around the corners when up or down by a lot of runs late in a game. The last thing anybody from either dugout wants to see in a blowout is the pace grinding nearly to a halt while a pitcher tries to finesse the edges. Kelly is 35 years old and in his 11th season. It’s no surprise that he remembers the basics.

The event reminds me of one of my favorite stories from The Baseball Codes, which also involves the Twins. It happened in 2006, in a game in which Minnesota led the Red Sox 8-1 in the eighth inning. With two outs and nobody on base, Torii Hunter drew three quick balls to start his at-bat against Red Sox reliever Rudy Seanez.

The unwritten rulebook does not equivocate at this moment, prohibit­ing hitters in such situations not just from swinging hard, but from swing­ing at all. Hunter did both, and his cut drew appropriate notice on the Minnesota bench. “After he swung I said to him, ‘Torii, you know, with a seven-run lead like that, we’ve got to be taking 3-0,’ ” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “He honestly had not even thought about it.”

“I wasn’t thinking,” admitted Hunter. “I just wanted to do something. I knew a fastball was coming, and if I hit a double or whatever, we could get something going. I was just playing the game. I got caught up in it.” The incident serves to illustrate the depth of the Code’s influence. Hunter was generally aware of the unwritten rules, and except for rare instances of absentmindedness abided by them—while simultaneously disdaining much about their very existence. “Man on second, base hit, and you’re winning by eight runs, you hold him up at third,” he said. “You play soft, and I hate that part of the game. I hate that you don’t keep playing the way you’re supposed to, but you have these unwritten rules that you don’t run the score up on guys. Well, okay, what if they come back? The runs we didn’t score, now we look bad. We don’t think about that. At the same time, those rules have been around a long time, and if you don’t fly by them, you’ll probably take a ball to the head, or near it.

“You don’t want to embarrass anybody, but what’s embarrassment when you’re trying to compete? There’s no such thing as embarrassment. You’re out there to try to win, no matter what the score looks like. Whether it’s 4–3 or 14–3, you’re trying to win. I’ve seen guys come back from 14–3 and win the game 15–14. If I go out there and try not to embar­rass you and you come back and win, I look like the dummy.”

It’s a powerful system that forces an All-Star to override his competi­tive instincts for a code in which he does not believe. If one wants to avoid retribution, one must embrace the unwritten rules; barring that, Hunter learned, an act of contrition can suffice.

After the game, Gardenhire took the outfielder to the visitors’ club­house to speak to Red Sox manager Terry Francona, trying to wipe away the potential for hard feelings. To abide by the unwritten rule that bars opposing players from the locker room, the meeting took place in a rear laundry room in the bowels of the Metrodome. There Hunter informed both managers that he had swung out of inattention, not disrespect.

“We wanted to make sure [Francona] understood,” said Gardenhire. “I went there to let him know that I know the game too. It’s a manager’s responsibility when a player swings 3-0 to make sure the player under­stands that. I wanted him to know we didn’t give a sign for him to swing away, that Torii just made a mistake. I thought that it was good for Torii to explain it to him, so I took him over.”

Francona brushed it off as no big deal, saying that his mind had been wrapped around devising ways for the Red Sox to come back in the final frame and that he hadn’t even noticed. He did, however, express his appreciation for the visit. And the rationale worked. It appeased the mem­bers of the Red Sox who had noticed—there were several—and no bean­balls were thrown the following day.

“You see those types of things and you know it’s being taken care of internally,” said Red Sox pitching coach Al Nipper. “You say, Hey, it’s an honest mistake, it wasn’t something intentional, where the guy’s trying to show you up. We all make mistakes in this game. Ron Gardenhire is a class manager, and that was a true coaching moment for him. . . . I guarantee you, that was a moment he probably didn’t relish to have to do with a vet­eran, but he had to do it.”

In yesterday’s game, Cave, like Hunter, appears to have forgotten the situation before he swung, offering an embarrassed shrug at first base when informed of what he’d just done. Kelly may well have overreacted by drilling Kepler, but the hitter knew exactly why it happened, and trotted down to first base without further incident.

This kind of thing doesn’t come around often, but it sure is fun to examine it when it does.

Celebrations, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Lotta Staring, Lotta Talking, And Just A Touch Of Benches-Clearing Confrontation As Twins-Rays Close Out Season’s First Half

Dozier dances

Before we move into the season’s second half, let’s clear out some pre-All-Star business. Like, for example, what happened in Minnesota over the weekend. It started during Saturday’s game, with the Rays trailing 6-4 heading into the top of the seventh inning. They emerged, two walks, three singles, a triple and a wild pitch later, leading, 9-6. Tampa added five more in the eighth to build the lead to 14-6. It’s what happened in the ninth, though, that drew my attention.

With Minnesota’s rookie utility infielder Willians Astudillo on the mound to save a taxed bullpen, Tampa Bay’s first three hitters went homer, double, single. No problems yet. The Twins led by nine, and were playing station-to-station ball—advancing one base on a single, two on a double, etc.—as teams do in blowouts. (For all the disagreement about when a lead can officially be considered safe, nine runs in the ninth meets every definition … never mind that Minnesota had already cried uncle with the insertion of Astudillo.)

Kevin Kiermaier then scored Smith with a ground ball to first base that was initially mishandled by Ehire Adrianza, who recovered in time to get the out at first but had no hope of making the play at the plate. This was acceptable under the rule of thumb that if no play is imminent—if a runner can go into a base standing up—he should do so. Ten-run lead.

What came next, however, was curious. Daniel Robertson singled on a soft bouncer to center field, and Adeiny Hechavarria never hesitated from second, motoring home with Tampa Bay’s 17th run, taking an extra base when such tactics had long since become excessive. (The Rays’ 18th and 19th runs came shortly thereafter on Jake Bauers’ two-run homer.)

Maybe the Rays were excited by their late-game explosion. Or maybe, as was pointed out via e-mail by longtime reader and avid Rays fan Road Dog Russ, “the Rays don’t feel any lead they have is safe. (Hangs head and sighs.)”

Minnesota players refrained from commenting publicly about it as far as I’ve seen, but if we’ve learned anything about this year’s Twins, it’s that at least a few of them (step on up, Brian Dozier) take the unwritten rules to heart (sometimes in not such productive ways). If I noticed the play from my office in California, the Twins almost certainly noticed it from across the field.

Which leads us to Sunday. While it’s possible that Saturday’s incident is unrelated to what came next—I’ve seen no accounts linking them—carryover is always possible.

With the score tied 4-4 in the seventh and the Twins in a shift against batter Eduardo Escobar, the aforementioned Dozier took an enormous lead off of third base, and, in no danger of being picked off (what with the third baseman being stationed in the shortstop’s spot), began dancing back and forth like a lunatic. It was enough to distract rookie Rays reliever Diego Castillo into a balk, sending a jubilant, fist-pumping Dozier home with the lead run. The play was, by every indication, a response to Twins left fielder Eddie Rosario, who had done something similar from third base on Saturday.

Castillo’s next pitch to Escobar came in at 101 miles per hour, low and inside, but not close enough to cause the hitter to so much as move his feet. When Escobar backed out of the box to collect himself, Twins third baseman Daniel Robertson yelled at him to step back in. That was pretty much that: Benches cleared, and hostilities were on. (As usual, no punches were thrown.)

 

“I wasn’t upset with the pitcher,” Escobar said after the game in an MLB.com report. “I never said anything to the pitcher or the dugout. I got upset and frustrated with Robertson, the third baseman. I didn’t know why he was yelling at me. The previous pitch before everything happened, it was kind of close to me. I wasn’t upset about that either. Robertson just started opening his arm and yelling stuff at me, which I couldn’t hear very well. That’s why I got frustrated.”

Escobar had been hit by a pitch an inning earlier. According to various Rays, after Castillo’s inside pitch, Twins reliever Ryan Pressly began shouting from the dugout that Tampa Bay had put a target on Escobar. Rays manager Kevin Cash began heatedly shouting across the field for somebody in Minnesota’s to shut the fuck up.

After the game, Robertson explained that he felt Escobar was trying to stare down the pitcher, and had done the same to reliever Ryan Yarbrough following an inside pitch earlier in the game. The fact that he also called Escobar “a good dude,” and pointed out that they both like to eat at Fogo de Chao doesn’t much mask the fact that getting upset over the way a player looks at somebody is ridiculous. Brazilian-style meat may build bridges, but this ain’t that.

(Robertson’s exact explanation: “When Castillo went down and low on [Escobar’s] ankles, he stared at him again. There was already a lot of chatter going on as far as the balk that happened right before that. Everyone was yelling at each other. He was looking back up at our pitcher again, and I just told him, ‘Hey, quit staring at our pitcher. Nobody’s trying to hit you; just get back in the box and hit.’ That’s about it, man. Then he kind of came back at me.”)

Escobar struck out on the next pitch, at which point Robertson was still talking. The hitter again took exception, this time as he walked past the Twins dugout, and again benches cleared. This time Escobar was ejected.

There’s a lot of fault to go around. Dozier did a mess of hollering all the way down the line as he was sent home on that balk, but he never directed it toward the pitcher or Tampa Bay’s dugout. If the Rays don’t like stuff like that, their best bet is to avoid balking in runs.

If Escobar was rattled by an inside pitch that was closer to being a strike than it was to hitting him, he’ll either need to fix that mentality or find a new line of work.

Kevin Cash decided that it was a good idea to repeatedly curse at his opponents. If he’s legitimately wondering why things got heated, there are a number of people he can see about that.

If David Robertson is really able to get bench-clearingly annoyed at the way an opponent looks at his teammate, he’d make an awesome nightclub bouncer, but might be a touch too sensitive for his sport of choice.

Also, don’t score from second on a single while up by double digits in the ninth. Who knows? That might have solved everything right there.

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation

Profar Learns The Hard Way That Some Teams Are Sensitive Creatures When It Comes To Stolen Bases

Profar drilled

Perhaps the trickiest of baseball’s unwritten rules has to do with when to take one’s foot off the gas pedal.

Everybody agrees that it’s bad form to pile on when sitting on a big lead late in a game, with aggressive tactics like stealing bases. It’s just that nobody can seem to agree upon when that point is.

Once, a four-run lead was considered somewhat safe. That was a long time ago. As offense has increased over the years, so has the margin. Now, it’s upward of six or more.

The precise number hinges on numerous factors—primarily how far along the game is, but also things like the strength of a team’s bullpen and its ability to come back from a given deficit. A four-run lead in the ninth is generally considered to be safer than a six-run lead in the fifth.

All that being said, seven runs seems about right as a point at which to call off the big dogs. Just like a football team putting in second-teamers when sitting on a five-touchdown margin, teams can reasonably be expected to cool it on overt scoring attempts while holding such a big lead. Players still try to get hits and score runs, of course, but at some point tactics trend toward station-to-station baseball—runners taking one base on a single, two on a double, etc. If a play necessitates a slide, then it’s probably best not to attempt it.

On Saturday, Jurickson Profar stole a base while the Rangers held a seven-run lead over Minnesota. In his next at-bat, Twins reliever Addision Reed threw two pitches inside, then drilled Profar in the leg with the third. (Watch it here.)

Which is where we get to mitigating circumstances. For one, Profar had already been hit twice on the day, his contested steal coming after the second HBP. For another, it was only the fourth inning, by any count too early in the game to consider shutting things down.

That didn’t stop the Twins from crying foul—literally, from their dugout—to the point that Profar expected the drilling he eventually received.

“I thought it was after the fifth inning that you shut it down,” Profar said after the game in an MLB.com report. “They almost came back at the end. They thought it was bad. It is what it is. It’s baseball, I’ll learn from it.”

It’s unclear what Profar thinks he’ll learn, since he’s spot-on about everything else. The Twins, down 9-2 at the time he stole the base, scored the game’s final four runs and brought the tying run to the plate before losing, 9-6.

For evidence that Minnesota did not actually deem it too late in the game, know only that they were still holding Profar on prior to his contested steal. If a team expects an opponent to play by blowout tactics, they themselves should, too. In this case, that would have involved playing first baseman Logan Morrison in the hole, with the understanding that Profar would not take advantage by stealing the base. This did not happen. (Nor should it have, given that it was the fourth inning.)

“The thought process between the unwritten rules of the game is not clearly defined,” said Twins manager Paul Molitor after the game in a Dallas News report. “What I might think and what he might think might be different things. I was surprised that [Profar] ran with the score the way it was, when he did. And getting hit there was something that Banister felt wasn’t appropriate.”

The likely reason that Bannister felt it wasn’t appropriate is because it wasn’t appropriate. A lack of clear definition when it comes to this stuff doesn’t override the fact that the fourth inning is too freaking early under nearly any imaginable circumstance to take offense at something like a stolen base. The Twins aren’t presenting a good look, here, and not for the first time this season.

Despite expressed displeasure from manager Brian Bannister, the Rangers opted not to retaliate. At least somebody in this story possesses a clear head about these things.

Bat Flipping, Home run pimping

Just In Case You Missed It: Carlos Gomez Hit A Game-Winning Home Run

Gomez dances

It’s been a busy week, and I didn’t want to let more time pass before hitting up the many moods of Go-Go .

Carlos Gomez, of course, is no stranger to this space. Last year, he got mad at Colin McHugh for not hitting him. In 2015 he got into it with Madison Bumgarner. And remember that time he pissed off Brian McCann so badly that the catcher wouldn’t let him score on a home run?

Gomez has also been known to get into it with the opposition over various bat flips (games against the Twins, Pirates and Yankees come quickly to mind), and he will occasionally dab following home runs. His reputation is such that even when he makes defensible plays, he still seems to get into trouble.

So when Gomez unloads the mother of all home-plate celebrations, should it really come as a surprise?

On Sunday, the outfielder for the Tampa Bay Rays hit a game-winning home run, flipped his bat, raised his arms, turned his back to the pitcher, peered into the Rays dugout, stuck out his tongue, and preened his way around the bases, culminating with what he later called “the Ray Lewis [dance]” over his final steps to the plate. Even by Gomez’s own standards, and even in the new-school world where celebrations are more acceptable than ever, this one drew notice.

There are a couple of ways to view this. One is that Gomez is never satisfied, and that even in an era of celebratory acceptance which he himself helped bring about, he’s just going to keep pushing the envelope no matter what.

The other involves some context. Not so long ago, the sight of teams spilling out of the dugout to mob a player who’d just scored the winning run was limited to playoff-clinchers. Now, it happens with pretty much every walk-off. In that light, it’s tough to judge an individual player for ramping up his own response to the same situation. Gomez’s antics might have been over the top, but they could hardly have been directed at the Twins, given that the Twins were either in their dugout, or headed there, for the bulk of his circuit.

“If enjoying and having fun in baseball is bad,” Gomez said later in a Tampa Bay Times report, “I’m guilty.” He made sure to clarify that he wasn’t staring down the opposition but his own team, nor looking at the flight of the ball in the standard home run-pimp pose. There’s also the fact that the outfielder had been slumping so badly—a .158 batting average and .276 slugging percentage leading into the game—that he snapped a bat over his knee in frustration in an earlier plate appearance.

One doesn’t have to like Gomez’s act, but it’s impossible to deny that he is now part of baseball’s mainstream. There’s also an ironclad retort to those scolding him with the idea that he should act like he’s been there before. Gomez is 32 years old and in his 12th big league season, and Sunday’s walk-off homer was the first of his career.

Celebrators gonna celebrate, and Carlos Gomez is gonna lead the way.

 

Showboating, Unwritten-Rules

Puerto Rico Ama A Francisco Lindor: A Celebratory Lesson

Lindor trots

I’ve referenced 2017’s World Baseball Classic twice in posts this season, and it’s only April. Today is the third—and most pertinent. Francisco Lindor hit a home run yesterday, then effectively paraded his way around the bases, skipping, waving his arms and inciting the crowd. Afterward, he publicly apologized for potentially offensive behavior.

As with most things, details matter.

The WBC was terrific because it showed us a Puerto Rico national squad that was unafraid, within the context of the way baseball is played on the island (and throughout much of Central America), to show some emotion on the field. Though the occasional American red-assed stick-in-the-mud took issue with this, it was generally seen as a good thing.

Lindor was on that Puerto Rico team. Last night’s game was held in Puerto Rico, against the Twins at San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

Of course Lindor celebrated.

Such is the reach of baseball’s unwritten rules—especially the part held up by American red-assed stick-in-the-muds—that Lindor recognized after the fact that his antics might not have been appreciated by the opposing team. Thus, we got this:

That Cleveland was playing the Twins was unfortunate, given Minnesota’s collective, ludicrous, unwritten-rules-inspired groan at a perfectly reasonable bunt earlier in the season. If any team would take issue with a hometown kid playing by hometown rules after succeeding in front of his hometown fans, it’d be these guys, right?

As it turns out: not so much.

Credit to Lindor for sensitivity with this issue, and relieved acknowledgement that everybody involved seemed content to let him have this particular moment.

Update, 4-18: The Twins agree: Lindor was a-ok.

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

Dozier Doubles Down on Blowout Bunt Talk

Dozier

Brian Dozier wants to explain himself.

After invoking baseball’s unwritten rules in ridiculous ways on Sunday to defend his disenchantment with the fact that an opponent had the audacity to bunt against the Twins’ shift, he felt some clarity was in order. So he continued to talk.

It all had to do, he said on Monday, with the fact that Baltimore had, an inning earlier, failed to hold Minnesota’s Ryan LeMarre on base after he’d singled in the ninth. The game situation—a 7-0 twins lead—was nearly identical the one that Dozier found so offensive only moments later.

“When they didn’t hold our runner on, they conceded to the fact they didn’t want us to steal, so we didn’t steal,” Dozier said in a Pioneer Press report. “We could have very easily stolen and put up more runs, so therefore in return you don’t bunt. That’s what everybody is missing in this whole thing.”

It’s an interesting point. In Dozier’s reading, the Orioles tacitly approved late-game blowout tactics by not holding LeMarre close to first, thereby giving themselves a defensive advantage by positioning first baseman Chris Davis in the hole rather than tethering him to first base. Adhering to the Code, LeMarre stayed put, and did not attempt to steal.

It was a classic example of straightforward blowout tactics, fanciness stripped out in favor of straight-up baseball designed to push the pace and end things quickly. The point that Dozier seems to have missed is that Minnesota’s shift against Sisco was not that. Positioning three fielders to the right side of second base is anything but straight-up baseball, and if the Twins felt that the game situation was insufficient to dissuade them from doing so, they had no business complaining that the game situation was insufficient to dissuade Sisco from responding.

Bill James, meanwhile, made an equally ludicrous suggestion on the opposite side of the argument:

Ignore for a moment the idea of suspension for the outspoken members of the Twins, because James’ suggestion doesn’t apply here. Sisco wasn’t trying to win the game, he was trying to beat the shift, down seven runs with the bases empty and two outs to go. There’s value in that, even during a blowout. If Sisco wants to leverage the bunt as a means of getting teams to stop shifting on him, a lopsided score should not interfere with an opportunity to do so. It had little to do with winning.

As for James’ idea of MLB implementing thought police, it’s pure fantasy, and he knows it. It’s analogous to the idea of automatically suspending pitchers who throw at batters, which would lead to a number of issues, none bigger than the impossibility of determining intent. Who in baseball would want to be charged with containing that morass? With that in mind, under James’ proposed rule, what kind of comments would be okay for players to make, and who would judge the gray area, and how would a team’s fan base react to a star player being suspended for having thoughts?

In a league where good vibes rule and the commissioner would love nothing more than for every ounce of drama to be contained to the field, this suggestion would blow up in fabulous and unexpected ways. James doesn’t strike me as the type to say sensational things simply to garner attention, but this statement certainly qualifies.