Showboating

Puig Does Puig, World Freaks Out

Puig pimps

This is what it looks like when things snowball. Wednesday night, after the Mets intentionally walked a batter to face him, Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig connected for a monster home run, then stood frozen for several long beats to admire it. This should not have come as a surprise. It is what Puig does.

Still, it rankled numerous Mets. As Puig rounded first base, Wilmer Flores had some words for him. Puig turned around, mid-trot, incredulous, offered a quick Fuck you¸ then slowed his trot to a virtual crawl, his 32.1 seconds rounding the bases being the second-slowest time recorded this season. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud offered some additional thoughts as Puig crossed the plate. (We’ve seen that act before, notably when then-Braves catcher Brian McCann literally blocked the baseline to give Carlos Gomez an earful under similar circumstances in 2013.)

What set the Mets’ response apart, however, was what happened after the inning, when New York’s Jose Reyes and Yoenis Cespedes tracked Puig down in the outfield to deliver a protracted screed about appropriate behavior on a baseball diamond.

“I don’t think he knows what having respect for the game is,” Flores told reporters after the game. “I think there’s a way to enjoy a home run. That was too much.”

“Run the bases,” said Reyes in a Newsday report. “Don’t stand up, then walk four or five steps, then run slow. Wow.”

There are many things to unpack here.

What was the anger about, really?

Puig’s tendency to showboat is maddening for many opponents, but it’s also consistent. His display against the Mets, though hardly unique, may have been spurred to excess, at first by the preceding intentional walk, then by Flores’ comment.

Still, Puig is a central character in the mainstreaming of this type of display over recent years. And he’s hardly breaking new ground, either with his actions or in the types of response they solicit.

In 1977, Puig’s homer-pimping forebear, Oscar Gamble, admired a shot against the Yankees for so long that even before he’d even left the box New York catcher Thurman Munson told him, “All right, now you’re going to get drilled.” (The threat was empty; Gamble was not hit in any of the teams’ five remaining games that season.) Several years later, while playing for the Yankees, Gamble did it again, this time against Baltimore. Instead of threats, he—like Puig on Wednesday—was talked to by members of the opposition. “Eddie Murray and some of them other guys came up to me and said, ‘All right now, you’re taking a little too long up there,’ ” said Gamble, looking back. “That’s respect for players. They let you get your little style points in there, and then you have to go on and do what you do.”

Gamble’s displays were influenced by Reggie Jackson, whose coup de grace came in 1981, during a home run trot against Cleveland’s John Denny. Earlier in the game, Denny had thrown a pair of pitches up and in to Jackson before striking him out. When Reggie homered in his next at-bat, he showed his displeasure by pumping his fist toward the pitcher, then moving excessively slowly around the bases and tipping his cap as he trotted. Denny offered an earful for the duration with such invective that when Jackson crossed the plate, instead of heading back to the Yankees dugout he instead turned toward the mound, sparking an all-out fracas. (Among the peacemakers was Gamble, who literally helped lift Jackson over his head and carry him from the field.)

Jackson was himself influenced by one of the great sluggers of the 1960s, Harmon Killebrew, who was likely the first ballplayer to so admire his own handiwork. All of which is to say that Puig is not exactly breaking new ground, here.

Are the Mets angrier about their own play than about Puig?

After the game, Puig hardly seemed like man who had gained insight, saying, “If that’s the way [Flores] feels, it might be a result of them not playing so well.”

It’s harsh but accurate. The Mets, losers of six of their last seven, sat at 31-40, 11.5 games back in the NL East, and had lost three straight to Los Angeles by a combined score of 30-8 while surrendering a dozen homers. Annoyances are more tolerable while winning than they are while doing whatever it is the Mets have done this year.

“It’s frustration from everyone,” Reyes admitted later.

At least Puig is consistent. The Mets, who entered the season with postseason dreams, are not.

Is a lecture better than a fastball to the ribs?

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the exchange was the discourse in the outfield between Puig, Cespedes and Reyes.

Cespedes, after all, is a poster child in his own right when it comes to showboating. For him to deliver a lecture on the subject indicates no small amount of transgression on Puig’s part. According to Reyes, Puig had no idea what was on the Mets’ mind when the New York duo tracked him down in the outfield.

“He didn’t even know what he did,” Reyes told reporters. “He continued to say to me and Cespedes, ‘What did I do? What did I do wrong?’ Wow. If you don’t know what you did wrong, you’ve got problems.”

Puig was so unable to handle the heat that he did not even look at Cespedes while his countryman grew increasingly animated during the conversation. Instead, he looked at Reyes, standing silently nearby. When it came time for Reyes to speak, he kept his message simple. “Man, you have to be better than that,” he told Puig. “You have to make people respect you as a player.”

It’s a noble notion, but to judge by early results, it didn’t take.

“[Cespedes] told me to try to run a little bit faster and gave me some advice,” said Puig in a New York Post report. “I don’t look at it that way.”

Is it a cultural divide?

Much has been written about players from Latin America and the stifling nature of baseball’s unwritten rules. Let players have fun out there has become a regular refrain on baseball blogs, and it’s not entirely wrong. The ability to distinguish exuberance from disrespect is vital when it comes to integrating increasing numbers of foreign players into America’s pastime.

But when Puig says things like this

We are not understood. We have to adapt. There are things we are not used to doing in our countries. When you keep doing things wrong, people get tired; I even got tired myself. There should not be so many rules. You just have to do your job and let people have fun, which is what I was doing in 2013. They’ve wanted to change so many things about me that I feel so off. I don’t feel like the player I was in 2013.

… it feels like an excuse. He has gone from the runner-up Rookie of the Year in 2013 to a guy the Dodgers have been actively shopping for multiple seasons now. His batting average has dropped from .319 to its current .244. Even though Puig is on pace to set a career high in homers (he currently has 13), his slugging percentage and OPS are far below what they were during his first two campaigns. He has been consistently injured, and was even farmed out to Triple-A Oklahoma City for a month last year. This is not simply a matter of his team stifling his celebratory nature.

In fact, it’s worth asking whether the opposite might be true. Might Puig, without the onslaught of attention for his bat flips and home run watching, without the lectures from opponents and teammates alike, without the array of distractions caused by his own on-field behavior, maybe be a better player than he currently is?

The question is unanswerable, unless Puig himself proves it one way or another.

What are we left with?

Strip everything else away—the caveats about internal frustration and Puig’s established behavior and all the prior precedence—and the lone question remaining is, Were the Mets right to get upset?

The answer is yes. The answer is yes because Puig’s display on Wednesday was not about exuberance or about some unknown entity trying to stifle his essential nature. The answer is yes because Puig had malice aforethought in everything he did during the play. He was pissed that the Mets walked Joc Pederson to face him. He was pissed because Flores scolded him at first base, and d’Arnaud did it again at the plate. His action was intended to show the Mets up, and that’s exactly how the Mets took it. Puig wasn’t celebrating, he was gloating.

It’s the difference between the first historic example above, in which Oscar Gamble was wrapped up in the wonder of being Oscar, and the second, in which an angry Reggie Jackson could not find enough ways to display his loathing of the opposition.

There is a distinction, and it is important. On Wednesday, the Mets understood it. To judge by his reaction, Puig never will.

Retaliation

Scratch Those Premature Obituaries, Baseball’s Unwritten Rules Are Alive and Well

 

RamosII

We’ve spent a long time—years now—wondering whether baseball’s unwritten rules, the sport’s code of conduct, were slowly meeting an inexorable irrelevance. Bats are flipped, celebrations are celebrated, and teams mostly go about their merry ways, unperturbed by the spectacle.

Fair enough. If that’s how big leaguers are playing it, that’s how things are. This blog isn’t bent on prescription of the sport’s unwritten rules so much as documentation of how they’re enacted by those who matter.

Then Monday happened. Fastballs flew at batters, some intentional, some not, some difficult to ascertain. But they elicited response. Oh, did they elicit.

In San Francisco, Diamondbacks starter Taijuan Walker drilled Buster Posey in the helmet. It was the first inning, there was a runner on second and Walker had already faced the Giants once this season without incident. So unless something happened back on April 5 that irked Walker something fierce while going entirely unnoticed by the media on hand, the pitch was clearly a mistake.

Still, it was a 94 mph fastball that knocked the Giants’ best player from the game and landed him on the 7-day disabled list.

Until recently, this would have unquestionably merited response, be it a pain-inducer (fastball to the ribs) or a warning shot (brushback). In the current version of Major League Baseball, of course, nothing is typical as regards the unwritten rules. Things are calmer, more relaxed. Vendettas are strictly an old-school affair.

So it seemed only normal when Walker escaped unscathed. Neither of his subsequent at-bats were ideal for retribution—with one out and nobody on in the third, he hit a fly ball to right field; in the fifth, with two outs, a runner on second and the Giants leading 3-0, he whiffed—but neither were they unacceptable.

From there, though, things grew interesting. In the eighth inning, Giants starter Matt Moore plunked David Peralta in the back. Then, in the first inning of yesterday’s game, Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija plunked Arizona’s cleanup hitter, Paul Goldschmidt, in the backside—the ages-old response of “your best hitter for our best hitter.”

Bochy refused to discuss Samardzija’s pitch, and offered up an interestingly vague comment about Moore’s, saying in a San Jose Mercury-News report that “a pitch got away from him—I’ll leave it at that.”

Despite a pro forma post-game denial about wanting to pitch Goldschmidt inside, Samardzija had clear intentions for his target. Because the pitch was professionally delivered—into the posterior, nowhere near the head—the slugger took it without complaint. He knew the drill.

Why hadn’t it been Walker? Could be many reasons, though none resonate so firmly in a close game as not wanting to forgo an easy out by drilling the pitcher when one can send as firm a message against a far more dangerous hitter. Why Samardzija and not Moore? Might be a matter of personality, or the fact that the severity of Posey’s injury wasn’t known until after Moore’s game had ended.

***

Across the country, Phillies pitcher Edubray Ramos entered a tie game in the eighth inning and threw a one-out fastball well over the head of Asdrubal Cabrera. It didn’t come close to making contact, but was enough to elicit warnings from plate ump Alan Porter, and the subsequent ejection of Phillies manager Pete Mackanin for arguing a hair too vociferously. (Watch it here.)

The backstory seems pretty obvious. Ramos last faced Cabrera in September while gunning for his first big league save. Cabrera wrecked it, then did this:

Retaliating for a game-winning celebration is some old-school mentality. And here’s the thing: for all the noise coming out of the World Baseball Classic about how Latin players like to celebrate their achievements on the field, Ramos—a native Venezuelan—was having none of the exuberance of one of his fellow countrymen. Or maybe that latter detail offers another wrinkle to their relationship about which we aren’t yet aware. Whatever it was, it stuck in the pitcher’s craw.

So there it is: On the West Coast, a passel of Americans participated in all-American retaliatory daisy chain; on the East Coast, two Venezuelans did the same. (Worth noting is that Ramos’s teammate, Odubel Herrera—another Venezuelan—is a bat-flipping savant, while Mackanin, Ramos’ manager, is himself no fan of the flips.)

The unwritten rules may be inexorably changing, but it all serves to show that one should never place too big a bet on who their champion might be.

New York Mets, New York Yankees, Retaliation, Sign stealing, The Baseball Codes

Lots of Drama in Showdown between Big Tex and the Mets

Teixeira screams

Mark Teixeira sure knows how to get under guys’ skin. Sometimes it mandates hollering at them after being hit by a pitch. Sometimes it’s more or less just standing around near second base.

It’s rivalry week in New York, , and Teixeira got things off to a rollicking start yesterday by homering against Mets starter Steven Matz in the second inning, then yelling at him after the lefty plunked him in his next at-bat.

Of far more interest was what happened in the seventh, when Mets reliever Hansel Robles got a little nutty about Teixeira’s presence at second base, overtly accusing the bemused Yankee of stealing signs.

First things first. Matz got off to a rocky start, having already given up three runs on five hits and a walk when Teixeira came up with two outs in the second inning and two men on base. The slugger quickly added three more runs to Matz’s line with an opposite-field homer into the right-field bleachers.

Matz remained in the game and quickly settled down, retiring the next eight hitters he faced … until Teixeria came up again, at which point he hit him in the shin. The hitter was incredulous. “You’ve got to be kidding!” he screamed toward the mound, inspiring both dugouts to empty despite no moves being made to fight. (Teixeira shouted all the way to first base, drawing an escort from Mets catcher Rene Rivera, but the exchange was so relatively tame that the relievers only half-heartedly filtered from the bullpens, wandering barely past the warning track before heading back in. Watch it all here.)

Although Teixeira didn’t address it directly, Matz’s rookie status likely played into the first baseman’s response. Speaking with the YES Network after the game, Teixeira called him “a good kid” while saying “when you miss a pitch that bad right after I hit a home run, you’re going to get a reaction.” Matz himself addressed the issue, saying in a New York Post report that, “Me being a rookie I can understand why he was mad.’’

The evening’s headliner, however, was Teixeira’s seventh-inning exchange with Robles. The reliever, having given up a single, a double and two walks among the first six batters he faced, was pitching to Starlin Castro with the bases loaded, Teixeira on second, with two outs in the seventh, when he came a bit unhinged.

Whatever Teixeira was doing as a baserunner was taken by Robles, and possibly Rivera, to be signaling the catcher’s signs and/or location to Castro. The pitcher glared toward second, telling Teixeira precisely what was on his mind. In response, Teixeria made an effort to live up to the accusations, mock-signaling the plate by overtly touching different parts of his face.

Castro reached on an RBI infield single, and Robles was removed. As the pitcher returned to the dugout, he had a cross-field conversation with Teixeria (by that time standing at third), about his suspicions. Guilty or not, Teixeria’s response was perfect: a smile and a point to his own helmet, indicating his presence in Robles’ head.

“That’s not the way you play baseball,” Robles said afterward in an MLB.com report. “You have to play baseball as a man.”

In that, Robles is wildly mistaken. Stealing signs is, and has long been, an accepted part of the game. The reliever was within his rights to call out Teixeira for any perceived indiscretions, but that’s pretty much where it had to stop. At that point, it’s up to Teixeira to knock off whatever it was he was doing (he denied the accusation in a New York Times report, saying only that “I was breathing”). Even more importantly, it’s up to the Mets to change their signs (a simple task, even mid-inning). Most of all it’s up to Robles to move right along with the task at hand, retiring the hitter.

That’s not what happened. Teixeira, seeing the discord, pounced. Just as Gaylord Perry had great success making people think he was throwing a spitter, even when he was not throwing a spitter—especially when he was not throwing a spitter—because Teixeira got Robles to think about sign stealing, he managed to distract him at least somewhat from pitching to Castro.

Afterward, Teixeira denied stealing signs, but was on the mark with the rest of his analysis.

“I’ve never gotten inside of someone’s head just by standing there,” he said. “That’s a talent, I guess. Listen, if you think I have your signs, just change them. That’s part of the game. I try not to do it a lot. I don’t like it, trying to steal signs. If you think I have them, then change the signs. Don’t try to challenge me to a duel.”

That pretty much sums it up. The next pitcher, Josh Edgin, walked Teixeira home, and the Yankees won, 9-5. The teams meet tonight for the final time this season. Teixeira’s misdeeds, if they existed, do not merit further response unless they continue unabated. With the way things went yesterday, however, who knows?

Retaliation, The Baseball Codes, Umpires Knowing the Code

Syndergaard Handles His Business, Gets Manhandled by Ump in Response

Syndergaard tossed

And we’re back to discussions about timing.

Two weeks ago, talk concerned the Rangers’ extended wait to retaliate against Jose Bautista. Saturday, it was Mets starter Noah Syndergaard.

Much of the conversation had to do with whether Syndergaard deserved to be ejected for throwing a pitch behind Chase Utley. The pitch, a fastball,  flew so wide that Utley didn’t even flinch to try to avoid it. It was almost certainly a response to Utley’s devastating takeout of Ruben Tejada during last season’s playoffs. Also, it was entirely harmless, though plate ump Adam Hamari—who had clearly been prepped on preceding events—failed to see it that way.

Other parts of the conversation had to do with Utley’s handling of things. After finishing the at-bat against reliever Logan Verrett by striking out, he offered the best response possible—he homered twice, including a grand slam, in what became a 9-1 victory at Citi Field.

Which brings us back to timing. Saturday was the fifth meeting between the teams this year, and the eighth overall (counting the postseason) since Utley broke Tejada’s leg. This leaves us with an overarching question: why now?

Utley was omitted from the lineup for Game 3 of the NLDS, the one following the mishap, and New York pitchers opted against taking their frustrations out on other Dodgers. He pinch-hit in the deciding Game 5, but that was a one-run playoff game, which trumped any thoughts of retaliation.

This year’s meetings looked like this:

  • May 9: Utley gets two at-bats, both with the Mets trying to protect a 4-2 lead.
  • May 10: Every one of Utley’s four at-bats comes with the game tied.
  • May 11: Utley comes up four times, with the game tied or New York leading by no more than two runs.
  • May 12: Utley bats in the first inning with the game tied; in the second inning with the Dodgers leading, 4-0 (and hits a solo homer); and in the fifth and seventh innings with the Dodgers leading 5-0.
  • May 27: All of Utley’s at-bats come with the Mets holding no more than a three-run lead, until the eighth, when he hits in a 5-1 game (and strikes out).
  • May 28: Syndergaard drills him.

So what happened? If the Mets were inclined to retaliate, the obvious situations would have been on May 12 and one at-bat on May 27. There’s little chance that Terry Collins would order such a thing from on high (he’s already gone on the record against perpetuation of grudge matches), so deductive reasoning says that the pitchers Utley faced—Bartolo Colon and Sean Gilmartin in the former game, Jerry Blevins in the latter—simply had no stomach for this type of confrontation.

Deductive reasoning also says that Syndergaard probably did.

Still, there’s no getting around the duration between Utley’s perceived offense and Syndergaard’s response. The pitcher himself probably acknowledged as much with his weapon of choice—a non-contact fastball so far off its mark that Utley would have had a tough time throwing himself into it to earn an HBP.

In other words: perfect. Message sent, no harm done.

Except that Hamari refused to play along. Usually, we’re stuck with clueless umpires whose lack of boning up on prior history between teams leads to some tense moments. This was the opposite of that. Had Hamari taken even a moment to consider the events as they happened, he would have leveled a warning and both sides would have likely considered things even.

Chalk this one up as a win for the Dodgers, both literally and figuratively.

Intimidation, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Do the Royals Really Want a Piece of Noah Syndergaard? Why the Hell Would They?

Up and in on Esco

When Newsday reported yesterday that the Royals were still harboring a grudge over Noah Syndergaard’s first-pitch fastball in Game 3 of last year’s World Series, it struck an awkward tone. The teams meet on opening day, and rumors that the Mets have something in store for their opponents (Syndergaard is scheduled to start the second game of the series) raised more questions than it answered.

It’s not that teams and players don’t have long memories, or that they aren’t willing to wait weeks, months and, in some situations, years for retribution. (In his final season as a pitcher—indeed, in his final game—Bob Gibson was unable to retaliate against Pete LaCock for the perceived slight of having hit a grand slam against him. So he waited 15 years until they met in an old-timers’ game, then drilled him in the back.)

The thing about the Royals allegedly being angry, though, is that Syndergaard didn’t do anything wrong.

As a power pitcher, it is his right to establish tone, and the inside fastball is a valid weapon in any pitcher’s arsenal. With his first pitch of the game, the right-hander threw head-high at 98 mph to Alcides Escobar, one of Kansas City’s hottest hitters and a first-pitch swinger.

Thing is, the pitch didn’t come close to hitting Escobar. It didn’t even cross the line of the batter’s box. When catcher Travis d’Arnaud reached up to catch it, his glove shot straight into the sky, not toward the hitter.

And it worked. Escobar, shaken, struck out.

There’s no reason for the Royals to like this kind of tactic, but neither can they decry it as worthy of retaliation. (It’s their option to feed Syndergaard some of the same, but if that was the endgame there was little reason not to do it at the time.)

So why, one might ask, would the Royals still be holding on to it all these months later? The answer, at least according to K.C. manager Ned Yost, is, they’re not.

“Our retribution,” he said in the Kansas City Star, “was winning the World Series.”

Similar sentiments were echoed around the clubhouse.

Edinson Volquez: “There’s nothing wrong with what he did last year.”

Former Met Dillon Gee: “I’ve been here all spring, and I don’t think I’ve really heard anybody even bring up the Mets.”

The best reason to believe the Royals is because the report that sparked the controversy was so unbelievable in the first place. Newsday’s Marc Carig cited “multiple industry sources” as the basis of his report, whatever that means, but on its face the story was little more than shit stirring on a slow news day.

In this regard, Yost is already on his game, offering more pointed insight than any journalist could offer.

“Some buffoon writes something,” he said, “and you guys are gonna jump like little monkeys in a cage for a peanut.”

 

Intimidation

Take That, Royals … But Only Once

Up and in on Esco

Noah Syndergaard started Game 3 of the World Series by going up and in to leadoff hitter Alcides Escobar. The Royals grew irate. Syndergaard later described it as trying to set tone. The Royals decried the action as misguided headhunting. Syndergaard said that anybody who has a problem with it “can meet me 60 feet, six inches away.”

Syndergaard was correct in his justification … and wrong in his execution.

It is a pitcher’s prerogative to prevent hitters from getting comfortable in the batter’s box. His primary tool in this regard is the ability to move their feet with inside fastballs, preventing them from diving over the plate for outside stuff on later occasions. Nolan Ryan was a master at this. It worked out pretty well for him.

To judge by Game 3, however, Syndergaard is not that guy. He accomplished his goal of establishing a presence against the hottest leadoff hitter on the planet—a guy known for swinging at first pitches—and then completely failed to maintain it. Escobar struck out, but came back an inning later and singled to center field. The two hitters behind him in the first inning doubled and singled. The Royals scored once in the first and twice in the second. If intimidation was Syndergaard’s endgame, it was a pretty bad night.

Which is understandable. Anybody who throws as hard as Syndergaard must be wary of the implications of missing too far inside. That fear even hampered Ryan for a time, and he had to overcome it to reassert his dominance.

It’s not difficult to see the allure of intimidation. Syndergaard’s first pitch (which, contrary to reactions on the KC bench, did not come close to hitting the batter; watch the whole thing here) set Alcides up perfectly for two straight curveballs—the first of which froze him for a called strike, the second of which he fouled off. That, in turn, set him up for a fourth-pitch four-seamer at 99 mph, which Escobar had no hope of catching up with for strike three.

That was it for Syndergaard’s intimidation. So why were the Royals so upset?

Ballplayers tend to look at aggressive tactics, be they inside pitches or assertive slides, through a similar lens. Players who thrive on ferocious play, for whom it is a regular part of their approach, are granted more leeway in this regard than guys who break it out only when it suits them. It’s one explanation for why so few batters ever charged Ryan; they may have been scared of him, but they also knew that pitching inside was how he operated, and that nothing they could do in response would change that.

Syndergaard’s pitch caught the Royals by surprise. Only when such tactics are no longer startling will an opponent ever accept them as anything approaching standard practice.