Pitch Tipping

Was Tipping Pitches To Blame For Severino’s Awful ALDS Start?

Severino

They’re saying now that Luis Severino’s dismal start against the Red Sox in Game 3 of the ALCS—you know, the one that Boston ended up winning, 16-1—may have been compromised by tipped pitches.

According to Fancred’s John Heyman, various Yankees heard “chatter” about it from folks around the Red Sox. (Important to note that Heyman used the word “people,” not “players.”) The possibility was noted on the Red Sox broadcast by Lou Merloni, and Jackie Bradley Jr. was caught on camera, in the dugout, calling for a fastball moments before Severino delivered one.

The idea is that Severino did something in his pre-pitch setup, or even during the course of his delivery, that gave Red Sox hitters advance notice of what he was about to throw. We’ve covered the topic in this space before, regarding Johan Santana, Ben Sheets and Matt Moore, among other instances. The Baseball Codes itself has an entire section on pitch tipping, including the following passage:

Hall of Fame spitballer Burleigh Grimes was done in by his cap. Although he shielded the ball with his glove to keep hitters from knowing whether or not he was preparing for a spitter, members of the Phillies realized that the brim of his hat—visible above the top of his glove—would rise when he opened his mouth to spit, and laid off the ensuing pitches. It worked beautifully, at least until the pitcher wised up and got a bigger cap.

Picking up tells can be a veritable art form, with master practitioners noticing things about a player that escape even their most astute. Bob Turley, for example, in addition to being a great sign thief, could also pick up tells better than almost anybody in the game.

“When (Connie Johnson) starts his windup, he’ll move his foot to the other end of the rubber if he’s going to throw his screwball,” he once told Mickey Mantle, as reported in Baseball Digest. “Billy Pierce always wore a long, heavy sweatshirt, no matter how hot it was. When he went into his glove to grip a fastball, you would see the back of his wrist. When he was going to throw a curve, he would get deeper in there and you would not see his wrist. Early Wynn, when he pitched from the stretch, where were his hands before he threw? If he was going to throw a knuckleball, they were at his belt. For a fastball, he’d come up under his chin. Slider, around his nose. Curve, up at his forehead. Jim Bunning altered his windup a little depending on what he was going to throw.”

If this is true it gave the Red Sox a huge advantage, allowing them to lay off as Severino’s devastating slider sailed outside the strike zone. On one hand, this is supported by fact: According to CBS Sports, Boston hitters offered at only six of the pitcher’s 15 sliders on the day, a 40-percent rate that’s lower than the 47.2-percent rate he posted during the regular season. On the other hand, if one Red Sox hitter had swung just once more at one of those pitches, the offer rate against him would have been effectively the same as it had all season.

Still, Severino virtually abandoned the pitch toward the end of his outing, throwing only two sliders across the final nine hitters he faced. That left him with only a fastball and a changeup, and as we’ve long since learned, fastball pitchers—no matter how potent the fastball—have a difficult time surviving in the big leagues without a potent breaking pitch to accompany it.

Whether the right-hander was actually tipping is up for debate. Severino’s splendid first half—a 2.10 ERA with 132 strikeouts against only 26 walks, and six homers allowed with a 15-2 record over 17 starts in the season’s first three months—contrasts starkly with his final three months: 5.20 ERA, 88 whiffs and 20 walks, 13 homers over 15 starts, a 9-6 record. But here’s the thing: Hitters were waving at his slider at almost exactly the same rate all season. By this metric, anyway, Severino’s late-season failures had nothing to do with him fooling them less. The fact that he lost nearly a mile-per-hour off his fastball between his June peak and October might have more to do with it, or that his slider’s movement across the strike zone steadily decreased as the season wore on.

The Yankees, of course, aren’t talking, and neither are the Red Sox. Trade secrets like this are valuable commodities, after all. One thing to be certain of, however, is that if Severino was tipping, the Yankees will be all over it this off-season, and come spring training the righty will have something to work on in addition to his regular regimen.

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Retaliation

What Price Respect?: CC Sabathia’s Half-Million-Dollar Pitch Speaks Volumes

CC drills 'em

In the world of pro sports, money frequently equates to respect. In major league baseball, a team coming up with big contract dollars for a player shows—in the eyes of an abundance of those players—that he is respected. Alternatively, if a team presents budget constraints during negotiations, it shows that they do not. Look no further than escalating salary clauses that guarantee a player will sit at a given rank among the highest-paid in his sport; they are less concerned with how much a player makes than that he rates highly among his peers. It’s an easy way to insure more money, of course, but it also insures respect.

Which is what makes CC Sabathia’s decision yesterday all the more remarkable. For a moment, anyway, money didn’t equal respect in baseball. Quite the opposite.

In the sixth inning, two frames from triggering a half-million-dollar contract bonus in his final start of the season, Sabathia opted to stand up for his teammates by drilling a member of the opposition. With warnings already in place from an earlier incident, the pitcher knew he’d be tossed for it. He didn’t care.

In question was a fastball thrown a half-inning earlier by Rays right-hander Andrew Kittredge, at Yankees catcher Austin Romine—as obvious as a retaliatory pitch can be. It was ostensibly in response to the compounding numbers of Tampa Bay players being drilled by New York pitchers. On Tuesday, Luis Severino hit Tommy Pham. On Wednesday, Masahiro Tanaka hit Kevin Kiermeir, fracturing his foot. Yesterday, one inning prior to Kittredge’s response, Sabathia hit Jake Bauers. None of those drillings appear to have been intentional—Sabathia’s pitch was an 87-mph two-seamer that broke in on the hitter’s hands—but at some point it’s tough to criticize a team for wanting to respond.

The primary problem with Kittredge’s pitch lay in its execution—it was a first-pitch fastball fired directly at the ear hole of the Romine’s helmet, which the hitter barely managed to avoid. Most ballplayers are willing to tolerate retaliatory tactics within certain parameters, none of which include pitches thrown above the shoulders; there is no more universally loathed tactic in all the sport. The offering was so blatant that plate ump Vic Carapazza immediately warned both benches.

This is what Sabathia had to consider as he stewed in the dugout while the Yankees batted.

It’s extremely rare that an athlete has such clear and diametrically opposed options available during the course of play. Sabathia could have ignored Kittredge’s pitch, or even just brushed a Rays hitter back in response, and still have been able to cash in. Instead, he followed what he considered to be the correct path. With the score 11-0, timing didn’t matter at all. This is why, with his first pitch of the following inning, Sabathia drilled Rays catcher Jesus Sucre in the backside. He was immediately tossed, as he knew he would be, his bonus money all but forfeited on the spot.

CC Sabathia is 38 years old and an 18-year veteran. He came back to the Yankees this season on a one-year contract offered as much to secure his leadership as his pitching. With first-year manager Aaron Boone at the helm, the left-hander was expected to be a stabilizing force in the clubhouse.

This, then, is what leaders do.

Some people decry the idea of drilling a batter intentionally under any circumstance. In many instances—in response to some sort of celebration, for example, or whatever else can be considered as showing up an opponent—this is a majority opinion even within big league clubhouses. But when a pitcher deliberately puts one of your own in peril—and without question, that’s what Kittredge did to Romine—players demand response. There’s an element of macho posturing to it, but it’s more that. It is a tangible consequence of a team taking liberties with an opponent, a tactic that forces the offending squad to confront their conduct and, ideally, to act differently in the future. Hell, it’s the same thing that inspired Kittredge in the first place, except that unlike Sabathia his response was outside the boundaries of accepted behavior.

That Sabathia has earned more than $250 million over the course of his career in no way means that he sees $500,000 as anything less than a significant amount of money. It was a sacrifice on his part, made willingly and without complaint in the name of respect and clubhouse standing.

If the Yankees want to do the right thing, they’ll pay him anyway.

Retaliation

Giancarlo Has A Long Memory, And Why The Hell Shouldn’t He?

Stanton flipped

Is there an unwritten rule for PTSD?

That’s what it had to be, after Mike Fiers hit Giancarlo Stanton in the upper arm on Monday. It was obviously unintentional—runners were at the corners with one out in the third inning of a 1-1 game, and the right-hander had little interest in loading the bases for Gleyber Torres, who leads baseball’s best offensive team in slugging.

That the pitch didn’t hurt Stanton—it bounced off his arm shield—didn’t prevent some overt feelings on his part. It was Fiers, after all, who drilled Stanton in the face in September 2014, breaking bones and ending his season. Stanton has worn a face-guard extension on his helmet ever since.

So Stanton reacted with a response natural to somebody who’s been triggered: He got angry.

Lingering in the batter’s box, the slugger yelled, “Get it over the plate,” at Fiers, among other choice terms. Fiers, treating the incident as he would any other mistake pitch, wanted no part of unnecessary drama. He shouted something back about not meaning to do it, with the tension lasting just long enough to draw both teams to the edges of their dugouts before Stanton finally ambled down to first.

“I’m not trying to stir this up, that just is what it is, obviously,” Stanton said after the game in an MLB.com report. “Anything like that that happens, no matter how many years it is, I’m not going to be happy. I’m not going to just walk to first and be OK, but it is what it is.”

For his part, Fiers had been deeply apologetic after drilling Stanton the first time around, both to the media and via Twitter.

Monday, though, he was markedly less reticent.

“The way [Stanton] handled it, I think it was kind of childish,” the pitcher told reporters after the game. “Anybody knows I’m not throwing at him. He’s gonna act how he’s gonna act. It kind of shows his character, because obviously I wasn’t throwing at him.”

Rather than charge the mound, Stanton retaliated in the most effective fashion possible, waiting until the sixth inning, when he pounded an 0-2 Fiers curveball into the left field bleachers, punctuating the feat by taking four slow steps out of the batters box on his way to first, flipping his bat, then pointing at the mound upon crossing the plate.

Some memories die hard. Now we get to see how long Fiers’ last. The teams next play in late August.

 

Retaliation

Oscar Gamble, RIP

Oscar GambleThe passing of good baseball men is starting to pile up. Just a day after terrible news about Kevin Towers, we learned that longtime outfielder Oscar Gamble has died at age 68.

I spoke to Oscar for The Baseball Codes, during which he told an excellent story about being drilled. It took place on April 18, 1976, when he was with the Yankees, in the third inning of a game against Minnesota. Graig Nettles had just connected for a two-out single against Bert Blyleven to bring home Roy White and give New York a 3-2 lead. Gamble was the next batter:

“Back then, if somebody in front of you hit a home run, you knew you were going to get drilled. I remember a lot of times that happened.

“This one was unexpected because Graig didn’t hit a home run, just a little broken-bat blooper—but I got drilled anyway. It knocked the wind out of me. That happened a lot to me in that kind of situation back then, and most of the time the guy threw at the bottom part of you. They weren’t head-hunting or anything like that. It was accepted in those days.

“When you get the wind knocked out of you, you can’t move. I was out there leaning on the bat—the bat was holding me up. It was one of them situations where you might charge the mound, but you couldn’t because you couldn’t breathe. It hits you right in the upper part of the stomach, where all that wind is. A lot of guys on my team knew it was intentional and were hollering, ‘Go get him! Go get him!’ I’m going, ‘I can’t even move. Hold me from falling . . .’ ”

Gamble eventually made it down to first base, and played the rest of the game. Blyleven and Minnesota won, 5-4, but the Yankees eventually made it to the World Series that season, where they lost to Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine.

RIP, Oscar Gamble.

Sign stealing

Red Sox and Binocs and Smart Watch, Oh My

Them Apples

Three facts as pertain to today’s news:

  • Sign stealing in baseball is ages-old. It’s why signs exist in the first place: Teams constantly attempt to get the drop on the opposition’s communication.
  • Sign stealing in baseball is tolerated. Pretty much every team does it to some degree, with the understanding that if somebody breaks your code, the appropriate response is more or less to simply change your signs.
  • Sign stealing in baseball, as meets the above definitions, is a pursuit undertaken strictly from the field of play, with the naked eye. When teams branch out to video feeds and spyglasses in scoreboards it becomes an entirely different beast. At that point, the thievery is breaking not just the players’ unwritten code, but actual MLB rules.

As detailed in The New York Times, the Yankees recently filed a complaint with the league office—complete with video evidence—which began an inquiry into Boston’s sign-stealing practices at Fenway Park. What investigators found: the Red Sox had a clubhouse-bound employee pick up opposing catchers’ signals via a video feed, then transmit them to assistant trainer Jon Jochim in the dugout via an Apple watch. Jochim relayed the information to players.

The first piece of evidence New York cited occurred during the first game of a series in August, when Boston went 5-for-8 with runners at second base. Whereas players in that position are generally seen as having a good vantage point to peer into a catcher’s signals on their own, in this case they were relaying signs from the bench.

Where this story takes a turn away from the legions of similar such pursuits across baseball history is that the Red Sox admitted culpability (while insisting that manager John Farrell and GM Dave Dombrowski knew nothing about the scheme).

For those who might interpret this as a symbol of illegitimacy to Boston’s lead in the American League East, well … it’s complicated. Stolen signs haven’t helped Chris Sale or Drew Pomeranz become dominating starters, and they didn’t help Rick Porcello win the Cy Young Award last year. Without knowing exactly when the Red Sox started the practice (the Times reported that it had been in place for “at least several weeks”), they are just about league average when it comes to batting average, and are dead last in home runs. They actually average more runs on the road than they do at home (4.79 per game vs. 4.66). There’s also the fact that, even though Boston went 5-for-8 with runners at second on Aug. 18 to arouse New York’s suspicions, Red Sox hitters subsequently went 4-for-16 in identical situations over the series’ final two games, hardly the stuff of intrigue.

My own lingering question is that, with New York’s signs available in the dugout, why the Red Sox waited until a runner was at second base to relay them. Not only did this limit Boston’s opportunities, but placed the Red Sox at far greater risk of being caught. Much simpler would have been a verbal system such as the one Hank Greenberg enjoyed in Detroit in the 1940s, in which “All right, Hank” indicated a fastball, and “Come on, Hank” meant a curve. Other iterations have included shouts of encouragement using either a player’s first name or last name to mean different things, or a simple whistle, which Yankees pitcher Bob Turley used to notify his teammates that an upcoming pitch would be different than the one preceding it.

The Red Sox responded by filing their own complaint against the Yankees, who they claimed were stealing signs at Yankee Stadium via a TV camera from the YES Network.

The history of such pursuits is legion:

  • In the 1950s, the “exploding scoreboard” at Comiskey Park housed not only a platform from which an employee with binoculars could spy on the opposing catcher, but a hidden light—visible from the plate and the home dugout, but not from the visitors’ side of the field—that flashed in accordance with the upcoming pitch.
  • Pitchers Bob Feller and Bob Lemon, Hall of Famers both, helped set up a relay system in Cleveland in 1948 using a military-grade gun sight that Feller brought back from World War II. With it, the Indians won 19 of their final 24 games (all but four of them at home) to force a one-game playoff with the Red Sox for the AL pennant (which the Indians also won, even though it was played in Boston).
  • In 1959, the Cubs placed traveling secretary Don Biebel and a pair of binoculars inside the Wrigley Field scoreboard. Biebel would signal hitters by placing his feet into an open frame.
  • Also, of course, the Shot Heard ’Round the World.

More recently, the Blue Jays were accused repeatedly, by numerous opponents, of similar activity at the Rogers Centre, to the point that ESPN commissioned an expansive expose on the practice.

The Phillies drew the ire of multiple teams—including the Yankees, in the World Series—for their alleged ballpark shenanigans. It didn’t help that, in 2010, their bullpen coach was caught on the field with binoculars.

In 2014, Chris Sale accused Victor Martinez and the Tigers of having somebody in center field.

The Padres have had (probably baseless) accusations thrown their way, as have the Marlins.

All of which is to say that this is nothing new. If you haven’t heard about repercussions from those other incidents, you likely won’t remember the fallout from this one either. Assuming that the Red Sox knock it off, you can expect it to quietly disappear.

 

Bunt appropriately, Bunting for hits, Gamesmanship, Taking Advantage of Injury

CC Sabathia Still Has Issues With Boston’s Bunting

Nunez bunts

America is a place where people in prominence can claim ludicrous things and then, after others have pointed out said ludicrousness, double down on their bad ideas. Freedom.

On Thursday, it was CC Sabathia’s turn. Remember just last week when he made the specious, if not downright addled claim that because he was returning from a knee injury, the Red Sox had no right to bunt against him?

If anybody tried to explain to him what a flawed position he was taking, they did a poor job of it. Yesterday, Sabathia again faced the Red Sox, and again the Red Sox did some bunting—starting with the game’s second hitter, Eduardo Nunez, who laid one down in front of the plate, which Sabathia pounced upon … and then threw wildly for an error. “That’s my game,” said Nunez, who also bunted against the pitcher last week, in a Providence Journal article. “You can’t take away my game.”

The strategy proved effective beyond the reach of the bunt itself, when a rattled Sabathia walked the two guys following Nunez in the order, throwing only two strikes in the span of 10 pitches. The pitcher buckled down to escape the jam, then yelled toward the Red Sox dugout as he left the field, explaining in R-rated terms how he felt about their strategy. After the game he said, via a New York Daily News report, that the Red Sox were “scared,” and that “they just think I’m a bigger guy who can’t field my position.”

Well, yes. To which an appropriate response could entail multiple suggestions, primary among them: Figure out how to field your position, or learn to deal with the consequences. Sabathia’s knee is “not my problem,” said Nunez, adding, “If I have to bunt four times in a row, I’d do it. I don’t care if he’s mad or not.”

With last week’s round of complaints, the pitcher effectively offered an open invitation for opponents to get inside his head by bunting. When the Red Sox took him up on it, he responded by channeling a senior citizen chasing neighborhood kids off his lawn.

“I’m an old man,” groused the 37-year-old. “They should want to go out and kick my butt.”

Yes and no. The problem with kicking the butt of an effective pitcher is that alternative paths are sometimes the best route to success. Sabathia earned the victory on Thursday with six innings of one-run ball, and has now won all four of his starts against Boston this season. The Red Sox are obligated to find more effective methods against him.

During the Revolutionary War, the British complained that American forces wouldn’t fight them in formation—a tactic that almost certainly would have led to defeat. With this in mind, why would any team approach Sabathia in his own chosen manner, unless they concurred that it was the best approach?

The Red Sox are being paid to win baseball games, and satisfying the skewed morals of a crotchety pitcher has nothing to do with winning baseball games.

Freedom. Get off my lawn.

 

Appropriate Retaliation, Retaliation

Dustup In D-Town Offers a Primer on a Host of Unwritten Rules

Cabrera-Romine

The Yankees-Tigers Brawl of the Century on Thursday presented a grab-bag for the ages of unwritten rules, some justified, some not, some executed to precision, some decidedly less so. Among the things we saw:

  • Hitting a guy in response to his success: In the fourth inning, Gary Sanchez blasted his fourth home run of the three-game series. In the fifth inning, Tigers starter Michael Fulmer drilled Sanchez with a 96-mph fastball. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that it was unintentional—Fulmer recently returned to action after recovering from ulnar neuritis that disrupted his touch, and was shaking his hand in discomfort after releasing the pitch, before the ball even connected. Sanchez did not appear inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, glaring toward the mound on his way to first base.
  • Responding to a hit teammate: When Miguel Cabrera stepped in to face reliever Tommy Kahnle in the sixth, the right-hander had already struck out the inning’s first two hitters. Cabrera, however, is Detroit’s biggest threat, and thus the surest target for a payback pitch in response to Fulmer. Kahnle delivered, sending a fastball behind Cabrera’s back. The intent was obvious; plate ump Carlos Torres ejected Kahnle without a prior warning. Yankees manager Joe Girardi was similarly tossed when he emerged to argue the decision.
  • History matters: On July 31 at Yankee Stadium, Kahnle hit Mikie Mahtook in the helmet. Though the pitch seemed unintentional, Fulmer responded by plunking Jacoby Ellsbury. Benches were warned and tempers remained calm … for the moment.
  • As goes the aggrieved party, so goes his team: Cabrera was not immediately agitated, but soon got into an animated conversation with Tigers catcher Austin Romine, which ended up in wild punches and both teams converging onto the field in brawling clusters. Cabrera and Romine were ejected.

  • Fight honorably: Every player is expected to appear on the field during a baseball fight, filling one of three acceptable roles: active combatant, peacemaker or bystander. Two actions are patently disallowed: remaining in the dugout and cheap-shotting an opponent. New York catcher Gary Sanchez, leaping from scrum to scrum, began punching Tigers who were helplessly wedged beneath piles of players. Nothing will sully a player’s reputation around the league quicker than this, and Sanchez is certain to feel its impact in the future—both in terms of impending suspension and treatment by the opposition.

  • Teammates protect each other: During the first fight, Detroit’s Victor Martinez actually cozied up to Sanchez. Normally this type of interaction between opponents would not be an issue, but this happened after Sanchez’s below-board tactics during the fight, about which multiple Tigers were aware. Castellanos attempted to explain this to Martinez in the Detroit dugout, with an assist from Justin Verlander. The pitcher said something Martinez didn’t like, then dismissively walked away. Martinez had to be restrained from going after him. After the game, comments were forthcoming from none of them.

  • Teammates protect each other, Part II: The rule mandating that everybody join the party includes relievers, which meant that the bullpens of each team got in some decent cardio on the day.

  • Keep retaliation below the shoulders: With the game tied 6-6 in the seventh, Yankees reliever Dellin Betances drilled James McCann in the helmet with a 98-mph fastball. The batter was not seriously hurt, but the Tigers were irate, and, even given the possibility that it was unintentional, benches again cleared. Betances was ejected, as was Yankees bench coach and acting manager Rob Thomson. Somehow, New York’s replacement pitcher, David Robertson, hit the very next batter, John Hicks, in the hand.
  • Never cop to anything: In the top of the eighth, Detroit’s Alex Wilson drilled Todd Frazier in the thigh. While Fulmer had been quick to deny intent about his own hit batter (“I’m not the type of guy who’d hit a guy for hitting a home run. Especially down one run. I have more dignity than that,” he said) Wilson was different. He told reporters after the game that he didn’t believe either Betances or Robertson had drilled anybody intentionally, but that he nonetheless felt the need to respond. It was “pretty obvious what had to happen,” he said in a Detroit Free Press report, adding, “You’ve got to take care of your teammates sometimes. With me, if hitting a guy in the leg is what I have to do, then that’s what I did. Fortunately for me, I know where my pitches are going and I hit a guy in the leg today to take care of my teammates and protect them. It is what it is.” Suspensions are likely for many of the day’s participants, and certain for Wilson.

  • A manager’s role is to keep his players in line and restore order as quickly as possible: After the game, Joe Girardi accused Tigers manager Brad Ausmus of yelling “fuck you” at one of the Tigers, adding, “Come on, Brad, what is that?”

This was some ugly stuff. Whether or not Fulmer drilled Sanchez for riding a hot streak, it sure appeared that way. Cabrera appeared to accept that as Detroit’s best player, he was the one chosen to pay the price. Had either he or Romine been better able to keep their cool (oh, to know what was said that started it all), the entire affair would likely have failed to escalate.

Stuck in the middle was Andrew Romine, Austin’s brother, a bench player for the Yankees, who did his best to separate combatants on the field. (Oh, to know what was said at the family dinner after the game.)

Suspensions are certainly forthcoming, no player more deserving than Betances, for throwing all-world heat anywhere near a hitter’s head, or Sanchez, for dishonorable fighting.

The teams won’t meet again until next season. We’ll see then just how long some memories are.