Retaliation, Umpire Warnings

Let’s Talk About Umpire Warnings

Before we get into umpire warnings and how they might or might not be useful, let’s start with Wilmer Font.

Font is the definition of a journeyman pitcher, playing for five teams in a five-season big league career, with one Tommy John surgery and a few minor league campaigns in the middle of everything. In May, the Rays offloaded him to the Mets for next to nothing, at which point Font’s career ERA was 6.51.

Still, he throws with decent velocity, employs five different pitches and can be stretched out as a middle reliever. And in New York, things seem to have changed. Over the last month, Font has racked up a 0.69 ERA in 13 innings across seven appearances. The Mets bullpen has been in shambles, and the right-hander looked ready to pounce on the opportunity to gain some organizational trust.

Until yesterday, anyway. Font was inserted into the sixth inning of a game against the Phillies with runners on second and third and one out, and the Mets holding a 5-2 lead. The first hitter he faced, Jay Bruce, brought home a run with a groundout. The next hitter, Cesar Hernandez, brought home another run with an infield single. The next batter, Maikel Franco, gave the Phillies the lead with a two-run homer. The next batter, Brad Miller, extended the lead with another home run, then clowned his way to first base. In the span of four batters, Font’s ERA jumped from 4.58 to 5.50.

Of course he was frustrated. Maybe that’s why he sent a fastball at Scott Kingery’s head.

Kingery’s crime, of course, was merely hitting behind Franco and Miller. A leap and a shrug by the batter managed to help him deflect the pitch with his shoulder, but the intent was clear. Font put a pitch someplace that no pitcher ever should, and the Phillies were furious.

Enter plate ump Joe West, and the discussion about umpire warnings. West saw the pitch for what it was, but instead of tossing Font he opted for warnings to both benches. The umpire no doubt knew about the recent history between the teams, notable for a game back in April in which the Mets threw at Rhys Hoskin’s head in response to an ill-considered stolen base.

Still, issuing warnings to both teams precluded any sort of response from Philadelphia for an egregious act, never mind that, apart from Miller’s antics while heading toward first base, they’d been entirely clean. Phillies skipper Gabe Kapler was commensurately upset and came out to argue. It took West literally six seconds to toss him.

The increasingly vital Jomboy broke it all down:

As pertains to the Mets, West’s decision to warn Font rather than tossing him had no effect whatsoever on the game, given that Mickey Calloway pulled the reliever anyway. For the Phillies, however, it generated some constraints.

Never mind the idea of retaliation; with a two-run lead in the late innings, any possible head-hunting notions they may have harbored would likely have been tabled until another day anyway. The warning did, however, increase concern among Phillies hurlers about utilizing the inside corner. Kapler noted as much after the game, saying in a Philadelphia Inquirer report, “I felt like it was going to put us at a disadvantage throwing up and in.”

So what’s the right answer? Generally speaking, clued-in umpires tend to delay warnings until an aggrieved party has a chance to respond. Also generally speaking, Joe West is not always considered to be clued in. Overly quick warnings, like West’s on Tuesday, simply delay gratification for those with retaliatory tendencies. This means that instead of bad blood being contained to a single game, it spills into multiple days.

We’ll see if that’s the case with Philadelphia. Given that two Mets have thrown at the heads of their hitters so far this season, it’d be shocking if we don’t see some sort of response … maybe as soon as tonight.

Retaliation

IronPigs Troll Job Backfires, Which Is Less A Reason To Write About It Than Being Able To Put ‘IronPigs’ Into A Headline

This season has already given us one of the great minor league troll jobs in recent memory, and it wasn’t even directed at a specific player or team:

On Monday, we got another, when the Lehigh Valley IronPigs—the Triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies—hit Jacob Rhame where it hurt.

Rhame, of course, was recently featured in these pages for his role in a kerfuffle with Philadelphia’s Rhys Hoskins, which started with Rhame’s head-high fastball and ended with Hoskins blasting a homer against him, then taking a trip around the bases so slow that it made Bengie Molina look like Tim Raines. (Actually, it ended when Rhame was suspended for two games, then sent to the minor leagues. But still.)

Rhame, now with the Syracuse Mets, was called into Monday’s game against Lehigh Valley during the sixth inning, and as he warmed up, the IronPigs’ video board showed a clip not only of Hoskins’ homer, but of his ensuing 34-second trot. Syracuse.com takes it from there:

IronPigs president and general manager Kurt Landes came into the visiting manager’s office and got an earful from Mets manager Tony DeFrancesco after the game. DeFrancesco told Landes the team was upset with the stunt, because whatever happened between the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies last week at Citi Field had nothing to do with what transpired on a field in Allentown, Pa., the following week.

Hitting coach Joel Chimelis said someone needed to be held accountable for showing the video. Landes apologized and said he was unaware the video was going to be shown.

Rhame and DeFranceso did not want to talk about the incident after the game.

In the big-league version, Hoskins punished his assailant with success, by homering off of him. The Mets’ minor-league counterparts did similarly, returning from a one-run deficit for a 7-4 victory, then beating the IronPigs again on Tuesday, 18-5, and Wednesday, 8-2, the latter victory vaulting them into first place. That makes a cumulative 30-7 score since the video was shown.

“They didn’t respect (us), not only the pitcher, they don’t respect us as a team,” said Syracuse outfielder Carlos Gomez (who’s been at the center of an abundance of unwritten-rules related dustups himself) in the Syracuse.com report. “They should not have played that video. We’re all professionals here.”

Did the IronPigs learn their lesson when it comes to trolling the Mets? The IronPigs did not learn their lesson:

Minor league baseball rules.

Retaliation

Head-Hunting Hoskins Hurts Hurler In Long Run

headhunter

It’d be easy to think that the Mets threw at Rhys Hoskins on Tuesday in response to the passel of New York hitters—five in five games, including two a day earlier—drilled by the Phillies over the early part of the season. As is frequently the way with these kinds of things, however, there’s more to the story. There was another trigger, too, far more central to baseball’s unwritten rules.

It happened during the sixth inning of Tuesday night’s game, with the Mets leading, 8-0—the kind of score that mandates its own unwritten rules about piling on. The idea, of course, has to do with restraint from embarrassing an opponent you’re already beating soundly.

There has always been debate about how big a lead is sufficient to take one’s foot off the gas, and at what point in the game it should happen. The Mets clearly felt that eight runs in the sixth was within those boundaries. As such, after J.T. Realmuto singled to center with one out, New York first baseman Pete Alonso opted against holding him on as a matter of professional courtesy. At that point in the game, the Mets were gearing toward ending things as quickly as possible, letting players on both teams get home to regroup and go at it again fresh the following day. Positioning Alonso in the hole, where he could cover more ground, was a step in that direction. The expectation was that the Phillies would not take advantage.

Realmuto took off on the first pitch.

This, according to some in the New York dugout, flew against the code. It’s an interesting dynamic, this idea of not pressing the issue. The impetus is pure—respect for an opponent who’s having a bad day—but its execution can sometimes be confusing. What if the Phillies disagreed that the sixth inning was too early to give up their running game? What if the 12 outs remaining seemed like a reasonable number with which to stage a rally or two? With guys like Hoskins and Bryce Harper in the lineup, scoring batches of runs was not out of the question.

The other possibility is that Realmuto, not being held on and with second base an easy 90 feet away, decided to run of his own accord. Despite nothing happening on the play—Hoskins fouled the ball off and Realmuto returned to first—the Mets were displeased. Rather than opt for a message pitch, they responded with some of the same. After the Phillies went down in order, with Realmuto failing to advance, New York found itself in a similar situation during the bottom half of the frame: Juan Lagares on first base with two outs. With the Phillies also opting against holding the runner, Lagares motored into third base on Robinson Cano’s single, despite the unwritten rule mandating that teams holding huge leads play station-to-station baseball, advancing only one base on a single, two on a double, etc.

Now it was the Phillies’ turn to be angry. New York’s next hitter, Michael Conforto, walked on four pitches, primarily because two of them appeared to have been intentionally thrown up and in. At first base, Hoskins discussed the situation with Conforto.

In a tit-for-tat world of code violations and the responses to them, the ledger appeared to be even. Then, with two outs in the ninth—the Mets having increased their lead to 9-0 on a single that drove in Legares from third (which wouldn’t have happened had he held at second)—Mets reliever Jacob Rhame threw a 97-mph, first-pitch fastball directly at Hoskins’ head. (Watch it here.)

That the hitter was able to duck out of the way helped prevent the situation from exploding, but only some. The delivery of a fastball above the shoulders is never acceptable in modern baseball, especially in response to an event that already appeared to have been answered. (For those who point to the dual HBPs the previous day as potential impetus, both were clearly unintentional. One loaded the bases, and the other, with the bases already loaded, drove in a run.)

Hoskins, angry, took a step toward the mound, triggering players from both dugouts to prepare to charge. Plate ump Scott Barry, however, quickly took control of the situation, issuing blanket warnings. Hoskins ended up walking on six pitches, every ball outside the strike zone coming in high and inside. He gave Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud an earful while making his way to first base.

“I don’t get it,” said Bryce Harper after the game, in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I understand that two of their guys got hit yesterday, but, I mean, if it’s baseball and you’re going to drill somebody, at least hit him in the ass. Not in the head. You throw 98, it’s scary now. You could kill somebody. Lose your eyesight. That’s bigger than the game.”

It’s possible that Rhame was wild, as he claimed after the game—although that sort of denial is standard fare—especially given that he walked two of the four batters he faced, with 10 of his 19 pitches coming in outside the strike zone. Even if this is true, however, he’d find few defenders in Philadelphia’s clubhouse.

“He didn’t miss up and in or out and up to a lefty the rest of the inning, so I’ll let you decide,” said Hoskins after the game. “But I understand baseball. They got hit a couple of times yesterday.”

If there’s a happy ending to this story, it’s that Hoskins was able to exact retaliation of his own, homering in the ninth inning of Wednesday’s game, against Rhame of all people.

That was the first part of his revenge. The second part was a glacially slow trot around the bases—at 34.2 seconds, the slowest in the five years since Statcast has been tracking such things. (It is also the longest such circuit in the history of TaterTrotTracker, which ceased tracking tater trots in 2016, save for one by Luke Scott, who was injured as he rounded the bases.)

To Rhame’s credit, he calmly rolled with the insult.

“He got me,” the pitcher told reporters after the game. “If I make a better pitch, he doesn’t get to run the bases. It’s his job, man. I’m not really thinking about any of that. … Going through my mind is, I shouldn’t throw one right down the middle to him. That’s about it.”

This will hopefully be it for this episode of Bad Blood Central, NL East Edition. The Mets and Phillies next meet in late June.

Update (4-26): Rhame has been suspended for two games.

Cheating, Pine Tar

Things Getting Grippy In Philly For Thor

Syndergaard

We officially have our first pine-tar incident of the young season. Less of an incident, actually, than a series of suppositions borne by conspiracy theorists who are parsing two seconds’ worth of potentially incriminating tape like it’s the Zapruder film. Starring Thor.

That’s because on Monday night in Philadelphia, Noah Syndergaard appeared to dab the first two fingers of his pitching hand into the heel of his glove while on the mound, the reason for doing so—at least according to the Internet—being to apply a foreign substance to his fingertips.

It makes sense. On cold or wet nights, pine tar is a pitcher’s best friend—not to lend an advantage per se, but simply to restore whatever grip may have been lost to the conditions. Monday night in Philly saw 50-degree weather and 24-mph winds at first pitch. Things only got colder from there.

Generally speaking, hitters don’t mind a bit of pine tar around a pitcher’s mound now and again. Giving a guy who throws as hard as Syndergaard—whose four-seamer averaged almost 99 mph on Monday—an extra measure of control certainly has merit. (Then again, it can also lend snap to breaking balls, and Syndergaard’s were working nicely on Monday, to the tune of nine strikeouts in five innings—four of which came on sliders and one on a curveball.)

The issue, as pertains to Syndergaard, seems largely to be … well, let’s leave it to Philadelphia first baseman Rhys Hoskins, who explained things about as clearly as they can be explained.

“As a hitter, with a guy that throws as hard as he does, I would rather him be able to feel the ball than not,” Hoskins said in a Delco Times report. “But I think there’s some unwritten rules. Just don’t make it so obvious. Obviously that was what [Michael] Pineda did a couple of years ago, that was quite obvious. But as long as it’s not obvious … I guess? I don’t know. It makes you wonder.”

Pineda, of course, is remembered for getting caught using pine tar while with the New York Yankees in 2014, and then, only two weeks later, getting caught using it again, this time in far more spectacular fashion.

Hoskins’ confusion about the subject is understandable given the nebulous nature of enforcement. Pitchers across baseball use foreign substances, particularly pine tar, especially early and late in the season during inclement weather. Opponents almost inevitably look the other way, at least partly because they likely have pitchers on their own staffs doing similar things, with the expectation that bad behavior will be curtailed at least temporarily as a matter of goodwill should a perpetrator get caught. “Most pitchers are using it,” said an anonymous Mets player in defense of Syndergaard, in the New York Post. “Check every reliever that comes in there and you will find it.”

That’s hyperbole, but probably not by much. When Detroit’s Mike Fiers tossed a no-hitter against Los Angeles in 2015, he did so with a shiny substance that many took for pine tar adhered to his glove. Dodgers players knew all about it and didn’t say a thing. When Kenny Rogers was caught with pine tar on his hand during the 2006 World Series, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa didn’t even have him ejected, wanting only to make sure that  the pitcher’s hands were clean (literally and figuratively) and that the cheating stopped. When Clay Bucholz was caught with slick stuff loaded onto his arm in 2014, his opponents—despite what seemed like the entire mediasphere piling on—refused to indict him. Bucholz was never checked, and everything proceeded more or less apace. Even the instances in which players are called out tend to back up this mindset. After Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez had Brewers reliever Will Smith tossed from a game in 2015, all he said afterward was, “Every pitcher does it—just hide it better next time.”

Hell, Pineda himself was outed by the Red Sox only after they’d carefully warned him via public comments about being so obvious about it, before he went out and did it again anyway.

This all might be why nobody on the Phillies called out Syndergaard in an official capacity during the game, leaving comments by Hoskins and manager Gabe Kapler (“Everybody becomes more aware,” he said afterward. “You just pay closer attention to it, that’s all”) to serve notice that Thor will have to play it straighter the next time around.

***

For a fuller look at what various substances can do, and how various pitchers feel about them, see the piece I wrote a few years back for SportsIllustrated.com, or Dirk Hayhurst’s compendium at Deadspin.

Retaliation, Umpires Knowing the Code

That Time When Syndergaard vs. Utley Brought Us ‘Ass In The Jackpot’ In All Its Glory

Syndergaard tossed

Way back in 2016 I wrote about Noah Syndergaard’s ejection against the Dodgers, for a pitch he threw behind Chase Utley in response to Utley’s having broken the leg of shortstop Ruben Tejada during the previous season’s playoffs.

Which brings us to video of umpire Tom Hallion trying to cool the situation, and barely succeeding. (The clip came out last June, but is somehow making the rounds again now. Which is reason enough to dive in with gusto.)

The umpire seems to understand that baseball has a method for delivering retaliation, and even appears receptive to looking the other way. Except, he tells the pitcher, “that’s the wrong time to do it.”

This is where things get confusing. There was one out in the third inning of a scoreless game when Syndergaard threw his pitch well behind Utley. The right-hander had already faced him once, leading off the game, and struck him out. There was also the not-inconsequential detail that the Mets had faced Utley five times, covering 19 plate appearances—including five the previous day—since he’d injured Tejada without so much as a whiff of controversy. If Syndergaard’s timing was wrong, what timing would have been better?

When Terry Collins gets involved, he tells Hallion: “You gotta give us a shot!”

Hallion’s response: “You get your shot. You had your shot right there. … You know the situation, Terry.”

Collins was, of course, talking about a repercussion-free shot, not one in which one of his aces gets tossed in the third inning after throwing only 33 pitches. The best guess here is that Hallion didn’t mean a word he was saying, and was just trying to cool the situation as quickly as possible.

The most vital part of the conversation—and this cannot be understated—came when Hallion broke out the phrase that has since gained him infamy: “Our ass is in the jackpot.” Twice.

The situation is old, the insight is new, and spring training is in full swing. Welcome back to baseball, everybody.

Cheating

Todd Frazier, Master Magician, Makes Baseballs Appear Out Of Thin Air

Frazer dives

On Monday in Los Angeles, Mets third baseman Todd Frazier barreled into the stands along the third base line to make a spectacular catch of a foul ball. He returned to the field, held it aloft, absorbed the “out” call from umpire Mark Wegner, and tossed the ball into the stands.

It was, of course, a sham. Frazier muffed the catch as he hit the seats, out of view of both Wegner and the TV cameras, but had the wherewithal to grab another ball nearby, made of white rubber, which he subsequently displayed as proof of his catch. Upon returning it to the crowd, Frazier effectively erased all evidence of his malfeasance. Only through the crack reporting of SportsNet New York were we even able to discern that something untoward had taken place.

So: Was Frazier cheating? In baseball, where this kind of ploy has longstanding history, the answer is an unqualified no. George Bamberger summed it up neatly when he said, “A guy who cheats in a friendly game of cards is a cheater. A pro who throws a spitball to support his family is a competitor.”

There is plenty a competitor can do to fool an umpire. Outfielders hold aloft balls they know they’ve trapped. Batters who haven’t been hit by inside pitches jump back in feigned pain. Even Frazier’s tactic of switching baseballs isn’t original.

During the second inning of a spring training game in 1966, San Francisco’s Jim Ray Hart smashed a drive to the wall at Phoenix Municipal Stadium; in trying to chase it down, Cubs center fielder Byron Browne crashed into the wall. Despite the ball having bounced far away from the collapsed fielder, Browne somehow—without moving from his spot—picked it up and threw it to shortstop Don Kessinger, who relayed it to third base ahead of the hard-charging Hart. Umpire Mel Steiner called the runner out.

Players in the Giants dugout found the play to be curious. Willie Mays, paying close attention, quickly identified the problem. “He threw the wrong ball!” he yelled. “The wrong ball!”

In fact, Browne had gathered up a ball that had somehow gone uncollected from the outfield after batting practice, which happened to lie within arm’s reach of where he’d landed. Were it a regular-season game, perhaps he wouldn’t have attempted this. Were it a regular-season game, perhaps his teammates wouldn’t have tried quite so hard to cover it up. As it was, left fielder George Altman, while running over to check on Browne, pocketed the real ball.

At the behest of Giants manager Herman Franks, the umpires began a search of Cubs players. Behind his back, Altman passed the ball to second baseman Glenn Beckert, who in turn shoved it into the pocket of trainer Joe Proski.

When plate ump Stan Landes compared the grass-stained practice ball with which the putout was made with the spotless white one that was eventually confiscated from Proski, he sent Hart back to second with a ground-rule double.

“All I know is that I hit the fence and bounced away and there was a ball right there, so I threw it,” Browne said after the game in an AP report. Altman similarly admitted to his coverup with the real baseball, telling reporters that “I didn’t know what to do with it, so I put it in my pocket.”

As for the current imbroglio, Frazier admitted on Wednesday to his indiscretion, calling it “unbelievable.”

“I was flabbergasted that I even got away with it,” he told reporters. “It was one of those things where any third baseman—or any player—trying to win, if there’s a ball in front of you, you try to play it out. You do it as a little kid with your dad and mom, or your buddy down the street.”

Or in front of a stadium full of people and TV cameras. Either way, that’s baseball.

Slide properly

Slide On Down: Baseball’s Newfound Sensitivity Problem When It Comes To The Basepaths

Sogard slides IIWho’d have guessed that the primary unwritten-rules-related topic of Major League Baseball 2018 wouldn’t be bat flips or even retaliatory pitches, but guys sliding into bases? In the modern world of fielder safety, we’ve reached the point that players are managing to get offended even on properly executed slides.

First case in point: Last Friday in Milwaukee, the slide of Brewers infielder Eric Sogard was cut off prematurely when Cardinals shortstop Yairo Munoz, shifting over to field the throw, impeded his progress. It was a clean play all around—these things sometimes happen—yet feelings nonetheless managed to get scuffed. Sogard got up talking (“The first words that came out of my mouth,” he told reporters after the game, “were ‘are you all right?’ “), Munoz got up angry, and within moments the benches had emptied.

Harrison slidesThen on Tuesday, Pittsburgh’s Josh Harrison slid forcefully into second base, upending Mets second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera. The slide was legit, and Cabrera didn’t seem to take offense—but New York pitcher Jeurys Familia did, starting a shouting match with Harrison that, like Sogard’s play in Milwaukee, drew both teams onto the field.

These follow a questionable slide already executed this season by Roughned Odor in Anaheim, tit-for-tat slides in Pittsburgh, a dustup over a slide in Wrigley Field, and a slide that left the Yankees and Red Sox brawling on the Fenway Park infield. Collectively, it’s served to illustrate the unintended consequence of Major League Baseball’s recent efforts to insure the safety of catchers and infielders via ever more restrictive regulations against impact. The tighter the rules, after all, the more likely it is that somebody will violate them … and the more likely that defenders will imagine violations where none exist.

Once, of course, it was legal to crash into any base in whatever way a runner saw fit, short of standing up to take a guy out. Hal McRae was the king of high barrel rolls into second base, knocking fielders backward with such viciousness that the play was eventually outlawed with an injunction that is now informally known as the Hal McRae rule. Even recently, however, low barrel rolls were seen as acceptable, none more exemplary than Alex Rodriguez’s slide into second that took out Jeff Kent’s knee in 1998. Kent was decidedly displeased, but on the whole, critics viewed the play as clean.

An example of barrel-rolling from the 1972 World Series, via SB Nation. Poor Dick Green.

After Don Baylor crashed into Cleveland second baseman Remy Hermoso in 1974 (a late feed from shortstop Frank Duffy had left Hermoso directly in Baylor’s path while awaiting the throw)—a blow that knocked the infielder out of action for nearly four months—Orioles manager Earl weaver had to convince Baylor that the play was clean, and that such collisions were simply part of the game. It was the only time in Baylor’s 19-year career, he said later, that he ever felt bad about taking out an infielder in such a manner.

Former Rangers manager (and career infielder) Ron Washington once explained to me that, as a coach, an appropriate response to such a play was not anger toward the opposition but better protection for one’s own infielders. “I told my guys to protect your ass at all times,” he said. “Don’t go across that bag on a double-play, lollygagging. You go across that bag with two things in mind: I’m gonna turn this sucker, and if anybody gets in my way I’m gonna blow him apart [low-bridging a throw, forcing the runner to hit the dirt to avoid it]. … I don’t care how simple the play is, you get yourself in a position of protection, because you never know.”

No longer. Dave Nelson talked about this very topic in an interview for The Baseball Codes in 2006, when he was a coach for Milwaukee.

“I’ll give you a good example,” he said. “Carlos Lee went into Todd Walker last year, hard, clean. Put Walker out of the game, hurt his knee. So one of my players, Russell Branyan says, ‘That’s a dirty play.’ And I said, ‘What? That’s not a dirty play. He went in there clean and hard.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but according to today’s standards, that’s dirty, because nobody does it.’ I said, ‘That’s the problem—nobody does it.’ He didn’t go out there to hurt him, he went out there to take him out of the double play. This is guys’ mentality today. This is how they think.”

That was before baseball implemented its current spate of rules.

I examined this evolution a couple years back, well before the current spate of basepath-related issues. What’s changed since that time is further restrictions on what players can legally do. Now, it seems, anything outside the proscribed guidelines—and sometimes well within them—is spurring players to anger. It goes a long way toward illustrating the effect of inherent competitiveness on a constrained landscape. The window for what is considered to be appropriate behavior in this regard is more diminutive than ever (even while the window for appropriate behavior as pertains to celebrations has been thrown wide open). Ballplayers have gained a new layer of entitlement, and damned if they’re not going to leverage it for all it’s worth.

After the Pirates-Mets game in which Josh Harrison was upbraided by Jeurys Familia for a perfectly acceptable slide, the Pittsburgh infielder took a reasoned approach to the situation.

“Apparently he said, ‘Play the game the right way,’ ” Harrison told reporters after his dustup with Familia. “If you go back and look at the footage, I think I played the game the right way. Didn’t touch the guy, broke up a double play without hurting the guy or touching the guy. At the end of the day, I think that’s playing the game the right way.”

It is. Here’s hoping that the rest of baseball can come to recognize as much before too much longer.