Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation

Baseball Man Steals With Eight-Run Lead; Opposing Baseball Man Confused, Miffed

ThouShaltNotSteal

Perhaps the oldest of baseball’s age-old unwritten rules concerns the point at which a team should take its foot off the gas and coast in to victory. Nearly everybody agrees that cessation of aggressive tactics—stolen bases, bunting for hits, sacrifice flies—is appropriate at some point in a blowout. Consensus on what that point is, however, in terms of either score or inning, is difficult to come by.

On Sunday, Arizona rookie reliever Braden Shipley used his mound-top pulpit to lobby for an eight-run lead in the fifth as designated markers.

How he did so represented some serious throwback attitude. With Minnesota leading the Diamondbacks, 12-4, and two outs in the fifth, Twins outfielder Byron Buxton reached first and found himself repeatedly retreating to the bag under a hail of pickoff attempts.

They didn’t work. Buxton swiped his 22nd base of the season. That he never scored did little to appease Shipley.

When Minnesota next batted, the pitcher waited to act until he’d retired the first two batters. That brought up Chris Gimenez, who had already singled, doubled and homered. A cycle may have been improbable for a man who’d accrued only one triple to that point in his nine-year big league career, but he had at least given himself a chance … until Shipley took it away. The right-hander’s first pitch fastball drilled Gimenez in the ribs.

It was classic execution. The problem with classic execution, of course, is that it is by definition outdated, and the way baseball is currently set up harbors little space for that kind of mindset. Even more egregious was that the purity of Shipley’s old-school attitude was undermined entirely by what appears to be a significant misunderstanding of the way this particular rule is supposed to work.

While it’s acceptable to decry a base stolen by a team holding an eight-run lead, mainstream thought holds that to do so before the seventh inning  is premature.

Furthermore, were Shipley truly set on traditional parameters, he had no business trying to keep Buxton close at first base. After all, if one is to decry aggressive offensive tactics during a blowout, it’s only fair to forgo aggressive defensive tactics as well. While facing a lead so insurmountable as to expect cessation of steals, a defense would ordinarily play its first baseman in the hole, even with a runner at first, with the expectation that said runner will not take advantage. (This strategy stirs up its own controversy, the heart of which involves a team giving itself a defensive advantage—better positioning for the first baseman—at absolutely no cost. But that’s a topic for another post.)

Finally, in situations like this, circumstances count. Target Field is the fourth-most homer-friendly ballpark in the big leagues this season, and Minnesota’s bullpen is surrendering more than five runs per game, fifth-worst in the American League. Closer Brandon Kintzler has been outstanding, but the rest of the bullpen has ranked between adequate and awful, presenting a decent opportunity for a comeback-seeking club.

A quick recap:

  • It was early in the game.
  • Shipley worked hard to hold Buxton close to first base.
  • The Twins’ ballpark plays small.
  • The Twins’ bullpen ain’t real good.

Gimenez was within his rights to be angry over the drilling, but chose instead to take it like a pro. “It’s baseball,” he said after the game in a 1500ESPN report. “If he had thrown at my face we might have had some issues, but he did it the right way.”

Right way or no, the pitch begat a response. In the seventh, Minnesota reliever Ryan Pressly came inside to D’Backs shortstop Adam Rosales, drawing a warning to both benches from plate ump John Tumpane. (For reasons unclear—his guy got to hit a batter, their guy did not—Arizona manager Torey Lovullo argued the point and was subsequently ejected.)

Leave it to Gimenez to put everything in perspective. “It is what it is,” he said after the game. “Hopefully it’s a learning experience for everybody involved. Obviously, it’s a younger pitcher on the mound as well, maybe not quite understanding the situation.” Gimenez pointed out that he and Shipley, both alums of the University of Nevada-Reno, are friendly. “No hard feelings at all,” he said. “That’s baseball.”

Later in the day, Shipley was optioned to Triple-A Reno. It probably had nothing to do with his response to Buxton, but that, too, is baseball.

 

 

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Retaliation

Message Delivered: Detroit Baits Sano Into Disastrous Reaction

Sano-Boyd

It was obscured over the weekend by the Baltimore Slide Affair, but a moment in Saturday’s Twins-Tigers game slots into the same category. It also offers some lessons for whatever Red Sox player ends up wearing a retaliatory pitch from the Orioles, should such a thing be coming.

Whether or not one agrees with the concept of retaliatory pitches in baseball, one must accept the fact that such things exist, and understand that an appropriate response will go a long way toward maintaining general sanity on the premises. On Saturday, Miguel Sano did not offer an appropriate response, and ended up ejected, then suspended.

It began in the third inning, when Twins reliever Justin Haley drilled Detroit’s JaCoby Jones in the face, knocking him from the game. Jones was subsequently placed on the 10-day disabled list with a lip laceration.

Unlike the pitch in Baltimore, there was no noticeable intent, but—as will likely influence Boston when the Orioles next come to town—conventional tactics mandate a response to HBPs above the shoulders. Prevailing notion holds that even innocent pitchers who can’t control their stuff shouldn’t be throwing up and in. Should they do so, plunking a teammate in response issues a powerful deterrent for similar pursuits in the future.

Which is precisely what happened in Minnesota. Two frames after Jones went down, Twins starter Matthew Boyd threw a fastball behind Sano—below the waist, as deterrent pitches are supposed to be. Had the hitter kept his wits, he would have recognized and accepted the nature of the message: a no-harm-done warning shot indicating the Twins’ displeasure with how things had gone down. Had the hitter kept his wits, he could have kept on hitting.

Instead, Sano took several steps toward the mound, pointing and shouting. When Twins catcher James McCann put him in a protective bear hug, Sano took a swing. (Watch it here.)

Never mind the lack of strategy behind throwing a punch at a guy wearing a catcher’s mask—Sano was quickly tossed. So, strangely, was Boyd, who hadn’t actually hit anyone with a pitch, who hadn’t received a warning to that point, and who likely wouldn’t have gone anywhere had Sano recognized the situation for what it was and calmly allowed the game to proceed.

“[McCann] touched me with his glove and I reacted,” Sano said after the game, in an MLB.com report. “It was a glove to the face. They were supposed to eject McCann, too, but I saw they didn’t eject him.”

Sure enough, McCann’s glove rose toward Sano’s face as the catcher drew him close. It wasn’t a swing though, and should hardly have been enough to spur Sano into the action he took.

Sano doesn’t need to like the concept of baseball retaliation. It is, in many instances, a brutal process. But the logic is impossible to miss: A pitch thrown at a team’s star in response to something one of his teammates did might inspire a conversation with said teammate about knocking it the hell off in the future. Had Sano recognized as much, he’d have saved himself a bunch of trouble.

The word “rules” is right there in the term “unwritten rules.” This weekend showed us the importance of players understanding them, if only for their own long-term benefit.

 

 

 

Bench Jockeying, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Staredown in the Twin Cities Reminds Us What Sensitive Creatures We’ve All Become

Donaldson stares

Blue Jays MVP Josh Donaldson—after getting targeted by pitches twice against the Twins over the weekend—garnered attention yesterday by decrying baseball’s unwritten rules as a matter of personal safety.

The direct quote, via SportsNet.ca:

“Major League Baseball has to do something about this. They say they’re trying to protect players. They make a rule that says you can’t slide hard into second base. They make a rule to protect the catchers on slides into home. But when you throw a ball at somebody, nothing’s done about it. My manager comes out to ask what’s going on and he gets ejected for it. That’s what happens. I just don’t get the point. I don’t get what baseball’s trying to prove. If I’m a young kid watching these games, why would I want to play baseball? Why? If I do something well or if somebody doesn’t like something that I do, it’s, ‘Oh, well, I’m gonna throw at you now.’ It doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Donaldson’s issues started with the third pitch of Saturday’s game—a called strike with which he disagreed. When he grounded to short on the very next pitch, Donaldson slowed down before reaching first base, according to the Toronto Sun, at which point Twins bench coach Joe Vavra yelled “nice hustle.”

When Donaldson returned verbal fire, plate umpire Toby Basner, thinking the comment had been directed at him, ejected the third baseman.

In the first inning of Sunday’s game, Donaldson hit a mammoth home run to straightaway center field. Instead of immediately returning to his own dugout, however, he took a couple steps toward the Twins bench on the first base side of the field, staring daggers all the while. (Watch it here.) His explanation: “I looked right at the guy who chirped me yesterday and got me thrown out, I was letting him know I was coming to play today. Don’t comment on the way I play. It’s not your business how I play. I’m not on your team. If someone has a problem with the way I play, my manager or teammates will say something to me, not the other team.”

In the sixth inning, Minnesota’s Phil Hughes responded by throwing one pitch that just missed Donaldson’s hip, and another behind his back. The intent was obvious. Jays manager John Gibbons, after vigorously arguing for Hughes’ ejection, was instead ejected himself.

At the core of his argument, Donaldson has a legitimate beef. In the modern landscape, non-baseball activities—like, say, a few moments’ worth of dugout stare-down—virtually never merit physical retribution.

What Donaldson received, however, was decidedly not physical retribution. No pitch hit him, and, given that Donaldson himself used Hughes’ excellent control to support his claims of intent, things seemed to play out the way Hughes wanted them to.

There are a couple of takeaways here. One is that the incident that so upset Donaldson—Vavra riding him from the bench—illustrates just how thin ballplayers’ skin has grown over recent generations. Bench jockeying was once an art form, with insults hurled as much to distract the target as anything else.

In the 1922 World Series, Giants manager John McGraw’s dugout-borne insults distracted Babe Ruth into a 2-for-17 slide—his worst Fall Classic ever. Hell, even Ruth’s called shot in the 1932 World Series was apparently a gesture meant to silence the bench jockeys in Chicago’s dugout, not to predict the homer he was about to hit.

Leo Durocher once rode opposing pitcher Claude Passeau so hard that upon being removed from the game, instead of handing the ball over to his manager, the pitcher fired it at Durocher, in the Brooklyn dugout.

No less a name than Mickey Mantle was so hounded by the Washington Senators that he failed to run out what became a double-play grounder, distracted to the point that he thought the lead out was the third of the inning.

Those, of course, are long-ago examples. Serious bench jockeying died out in the 1960s and ’70s. Still, “nice hustle” seems timid enough to ignore. Donaldson labeled it as the Twins “picking a fight from the bench,” but in reality, his decision to return fire—and subsequently getting tossed for it—is entirely on him. That’s precisely the result a good bench jockey is looking for.

The other part of the equation involves the pitches themselves.

“They’re putting my job in jeopardy,” Donaldson groused, invoking the gruesome face shot taken by Giancarlo Stanton in 2014. “What if he hits me in the neck right there? What if he hits me in the eye?”

Had Hughes hit him in the neck or the eye, Donaldson’s point would be unassailable. Even had Hughes drilled him in the time-tested fashion of planting one into his hip or thigh, or had he missed above the shoulders, Donaldson would have a legitimate gripe.

But a message pitch—even two of them—that fails to connect is not worth this level of vitriol. You mess with us, Hughes told Donaldson and the Toronto bench alike, and we’ll mess right back. It was a non-contact exchange of ideas, and that’s the sort of thing that helps keep baseball lively.

 

Bat flips, Retaliation, Showboating

On Measured Responses, and Why Every Slight Doesn’t Have to Equal Retaliation

Ration won the day again.

Wednesday, Cleveland second baseman Jose Ramirez homered against the Twins, admired it for a long while, then flipped his bat in the direction of Minnesota’s dugout. This was noteworthy less for the flip itself—which by now has become somewhat commonplace among the big league ranks—than for the reaction from the Twins dugout. Manager Paul Molitor stood on the top step and told Ramirez to “get the fuck off the field.” Catcher Kurt Suzuki lurked alongside, offering similar sentiments. (The gif above, via Deadspin, shows it all. Watch the full clip here.)

They had good reason to be angry. The balance of respect did not fall into Ramirez’s favor:

  • Ramirez celebrated his 23rd birthday only two weeks ago, while the guy he showed up, Ricky Nolasco, is 32 and a 10-year vet.
  • It wasn’t like he hit a bomb; his blast failed to clear the first row in right field and bounced back onto the grass.
  • Most importantly, the Twins Cleveland led 7-1 before he swung, and 10-1 afterward.

As best anybody could figure, Ramirez was upset with the fact that Minnesota had just intentionally walked Jason Kipnis to face him—a by-the-book move—and was letting off some steam.

Afterward, Nolasco threatened that Ramirez “will get his,” and the baseball media swarmed. Talk of retaliation has been at something of a fever pitch following last week’s episode of Papelbon Madness. Molitor himself was visibly pissed, and folks couldn’t wait to see what the manager would do.

Like Buck Showalter before him, however, Molitor sided with modern baseball reason. Instead of inflaming tensions by reacting to a perceived slight with tangible retaliation, he instead chose to do nothing. The Twins are a game back in the wild-card hunt, and have better things to worry about. Last night’s game—the teams’ final meeting this season—featured no hit batters.

Perhaps this is the new way of things, an enlightenment that dictates jackoff showboaters unworthy of undue attention.

Yesterday, Jeremy Affeldt announced his retirement with a bylined piece at SI.com in which he discussed the “recent trend of ‘look at me’ machismo,” writing, “Yes, let’s celebrate the game of baseball, and, if warranted, celebrate our on-field accomplishments with genuine shows of emotion. When you smack a double into the gap to take the lead in the eighth inning, by all means, pump your fist and praise your maker in the sky. But when you flash self-congratulatory signs after a meaningless first-inning single—or, even worse, a walk—you’re clowning yourself and not representing your club or your teammates very well.”

The notion is perfect—humble while acknowledging reality, accepting of changing times while refuting the kind of hubris that’s gained recent popularity. It’s noteworthy, however, for the fact that it followed something else Affeldt wrote: “I played the game the right way—not necessarily in compliance with some antiquated and silly ‘code.’ ”

Affeldt is right—the antiquated part of the Code is silly. But the stuff that governs the majority of big league ballplayers has evolved along with the rest of the game. It continues to mandate, as Molitor indicated from the top step of the visitors’ dugout in Cleveland, that respect be given an opponent. It also says now, in ways that would have been viewed as foreign a generation ago, that hard-line responses are not always necessary.

There’s always the chance that Molitor was simply abiding by game flow on Wednesday. The Twins didn’t lead by more than a run until the ninth inning, and could not afford to cede baserunners to their opponents. They always have the option of picking up the string against Ramirez again next season.

Here’s hoping that’s not the case.

Retaliation

The Fine Art of Negotiation, Baseball Edition: How to Keep Your Hitters From Getting Drilled

win-winBaseball retaliation is generally considered to be a you-hit-my-guy-so-I’ll-hit-your-guy proposition, designed either to curtail unwanted activity from the other team or to make some sort of macho statement. Many decry it as unnecessary, and say that the game would be better if it didn’t exist.

Sunday we saw a story of what it takes for a pitcher—an old-school pitcher with retaliation on his mind—to not only acknowledge that point of view, but to agree with it. The story comes from FanGraphs’  David Laurila, who got it from Astros bench coach and former Orioles manager Dave Trembley.

It dates back to September 2007, and a game in which Baltimore pitcher Daniel Cabrera found himself distracted by Coco Crisp, dancing back and forth while taking his lead from third base. Distracted, Cabrera ended up balking the run home, then grew angry. The right-hander’s next pitch, to Dustin Pedroia, came in head high. This infuriated the Red Sox, and served to clear the dugouts.

When no retaliation occurred the next day under the watch of Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka (or the string of relievers who followed after he was knocked out in the third), Josh Beckett—Boston’s starter for the series finale—decided to take matters into his own hands.

“[Beckett] is old-school, and Cabrera popped Pedroia for no reason, so I knew one of our guys was going to get it,” said Trembley in Laurila’s account. “[Nick] Markakis, [Brian] Roberts … somebody was going to get it.”

Instead, Trembley approached Red Sox manager Terry Francona with a proposition. From FanGraphs:

“I called Tito,” he said. “I said, ‘If I tell you that I’m going to suspend Cabrera, will you tell me none of my guys are going to get thrown at?’ He said he’d get back to me. When he called back, he said, ‘Are you sure you’re going to suspend Cabrera?’ I said that I was. I’d talked to [general manager] Andy MacPhail and Cabrera was going to miss a start—we were going to take his money.

“Beckett pitched the next day and didn’t hit anybody. If I hadn’t called Tito, one of our guys would have gotten drilled, and deservedly so. Cabrera had a reputation and a problem with Boston and New York. Whenever they hit home runs against him, he’d hit somebody. To this day he’ll tell you he wasn’t throwing at Pedroia, but everybody on the team knew he did. An incident like that can get ugly.”

For somebody to work within the system as Trembley did is both remarkable and honorable, not to mention pragmatic. It leads one to wonder why more managers don’t take that tack.

Then again, maybe some of them do, but we just don’t hear about it. Trembley’s story is not so dissimilar from another incident involving Francona and the Red Sox, which was featured in The Baseball Codes. Pick up the action in a 2006 game between Boston and the Twins, which Minnesota led 8-1 in the bottom of the eighth. With two outs and nobody on base, the batter was Torii Hunter, who worked the count against Red Sox reliever Rudy Seanez to 3-0:

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, as it did with Hunter, it’s a near-certainty that the ensuing pitch will be a fastball down the middle.

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.”

[Thanks to reader Shawn Y. for the heads-up.]

Don't Showboat

Pimping in Twin Cities Sparks Iffy Tiff

Donaldson riled

They showed us what not to do in Minnesota on Wednesday. Then they showed us again … and again.

Oakland’s Josh Donaldson led off the anti-exhibition in the 10th inning by admiring his deep fly ball, which landed just outside the left-field foul pole.

He compounded matters by striking out on the next pitch, a 2-2 slider from Minnesota left-hander Glen Perkins, for the third out of the inning. At the end of his exaggerated follow-through, Donaldson flipped his bat end over end toward the visitors’ dugout, and prepared to take the field. (Watch it here.)

Perhaps Perkins would have tolerated the flip without the foul-ball pimping. Perhaps he would have let the pimping slide without the flip. As it was, he took the time to inform Donaldson exactly how he felt about both ends of the equation, yelling toward the plate as he descended the mound. Donaldson came right back with words of his own, and the benches quickly cleared. No punches were thrown.

“The dude struck me out, pretty good pitch, I flipped my bat and I hear him barking at me,” said Donaldson in an MLB.com report. “I look up and he says something, points his finger. … I don’t feel like I disrespected him at all. I’m out there trying to win a game for our team and he’s trying to win a game for his team. I don’t know what it was all about. I’ve never even spoken to the guy.”

By referencing his own bat flip, it’s pretty clear that Donaldson knows exactly what it was all about. In case there was any question, Perkins put it quickly to rest.

Asked by reporters after the game if Donaldson had admired his foul ball, the pitcher was succinct. “He did—I think everyone saw that,” he said. “He hit it a long way. But I’m strict, too. I’m not big on that.”

It’s unlikely that this will merit further visitation from either of the aggrieved parties, but in case it does, the teams wrap up the series this afternoon.

Don't Showboat

Today’s Lesson in Minor League Etiquette: Don’t Pimp if You Play for the Twins

Miguel Sano
Miguel Sano

Regardless of how you feel about baseball’s unwritten rules—and there are many who decry the eye-for-an-eye mentality of retaliatory HBPs—it is difficult to quibble with the sentiment at their core: enforcement of respect on a baseball diamond. Respect for one’s opponents. Respect for one’s teammates. Respect for the game.

In this regard, the Twins are proving to be an exemplary organization.

Big league ballclubs tolerate flashy displays by their players all the time, because picking one’s battles becomes an increasingly relevant pursuit when it comes to emotionally fragile superstars who are locked into multiyear deals. This leaves it up to the opposition to settle the score. Hence, the aforementioned retaliatory HBPs.

The period before these players reach multimillionaire status, however, presents a fertile time during which to instill appropriate work habits. Which the Twins appear to be doing.

On Tuesday, for example, Miguel Sano, playing for the team’s Double-A club in New Britain, hit a long home run, then watched it, then settled into a glacial home run trot that saw him take 29 seconds to round the bases. He did it against a Portland pitcher, Bobby Lanigan, who had until only recently been his teammate.

It was not the first time that Sano, the third-ranked overall prospect in the minor leagues according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, has encountered such trouble. In April, he hit a grand slam while playing for Single-A Fort Meyers, then overtly flipped his bat. Later in the game, the opposing pitcher threw a fastball at his head in response. Sano reacted to that message with more of the same, homering during the at-bat, then pumping his fist and shouting toward his team’s dugout.

It seems that the Twins have seen enough. Sano was pulled from the game following his display against Portland, and has not seen the field since.

“Just a normal player-development decision,” said Twins farm director Brad Steil in the Pioneer Press. “We have discipline for all sorts of things that we do. This is one of them. He’s not going to play for a few games.”

Critics can decry the concept of retaliatory pitches ad nauseum, but if every organization approached things as proactively as the Twins have handled this situation, there would be far less call for them in the first place.

Update (7/28): After four games, he’s back.

(H/T Hardball Talk.)