Intimidation, Retaliation

Chapman Goes Top Shelf, Twice; Cleveland Not Intimidated

Nick Swisher
Nick Swisher: Not delighted.

Head-high fastballs from Cincinnati pitchers were the order of the holiday weekend. First came Johnny Cueto on Sunday, riling up Chicago’s David DeJesus. A day later, Aroldis Chapman sent a 100 mph offering past—and well above—Nick Swisher, all the way to the screen. He followed that with an equally hot pitch that ran considerably closer to Swisher’s noggin.

Swisher can be seen on the telecast repeating the phrase, “Don’t do that” to the pitcher. After he flied out to left field, Swisher and Chapman exchanged words as he passed by the mound on his way back to the dugout. (Watch it all here.)

“The first one I saw go by and I was like, ‘Wow, that was pretty quick,'” Swisher said in a USA Today report. “And then that second one was a little too close for comfort—100 mph at someone’s head? Let’s be honest. That’s not exactly the best thing.”

Reds manager Dusty Baker wrote it off to wildness—“Is that the first time you’ve seen Aroldis throw one to the screen?” he asked—but it’s also plausible that it was Chapman’s version of strategic intimidation. (Last season Chapman struck out 122 while walking 23. Wildness does not appear to be an integral part of his makeup.)

Yes, even guys with 100-mph fastballs like to give themselves an extracurricular edge now and again. Just ask Nolan Ryan.

The first game in which Bobby Grich ever faced the flame-throwing strikeout king, in 1973, he laced a ball down the right-field line and made the mistake of verbally urging it to stay fair. The ball went foul, however, and Ryan ensured that Grich remembered the at-bat by putting his next pitch, a Chapman-esque fastball, up near his head. “I got the message,” Grich said.

During his rookie season, B.J. Surhoff took a big swing against Ryan, and ended up on his back as a result of the right-hander’s next offering. Mike Devereaux, same thing. Mike Aldrete bunted against him and was subsequently knocked down on consecutive pitches. Milt Thompson bunted and was hit in the ribs. Doug Jennings faked a bunt and was drilled. After avoiding an inside pitch, Bert Campaneris motioned for the pitcher to throw it over the plate, and was rewarded by being hit in the knee. The list goes on and on.

The purpose, primarily, was to keep the opposition uncomfortably on its toes. “The intimidation factor,” said Chris Speier, who wracked up 45 plate appearances against Ryan over the years, “was so high.”

“Quite honestly, there were a lot of guys who wouldn’t even play against [Ryan],” said Jerry Remy. “They’d just bail out. It was funny when you saw the lineups—there were a couple guys who, when he was pitching, you knew would not be in that lineup. They’d come down with a mysterious illness. I think because he was the most intimidating pitcher in the league.”

Dusty Baker not only acknowledged that syndrome, but labeled it: “Ryanitis.” It’s still unclear whether his closer is trying to foster his own brand of Chapmanitis, but it’s as good an explanation as any.

The modern game, however, holds far less tolerance for those willing to place a ball near a hitter’s head than it did during Ryan’s era.

Swisher handled things well, not even moving his feet before re-setting after the first wild pitch, then responding to the second one by putting good wood on a ball that was ultimately caught at the wall. The Indians as a team comported themselves accordingly when interviewed after Monday’s game, and on Tuesday responded on the field, with starter Zach McAllister drilling Brandon Phillips in the ribs in the fifth inning, an apparent response to Chapman’s antics.

Intimidation, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.

“You’re only intimidated if you allow yourself to be,” said Andy Van Slyke, about his showdowns with Ryan. “It’s really that simple. If he hit me, I’d go take first base and steal second base and tell him to go fuck himself. That’s how you’ve got to play this game.”

Bill Hall, Nick Swisher, Slide properly, Tsuyoshi Nishioka

It’s Been a Bad Week for Takeout Slides, at Least as far as Middle Infielders are Concerned

How much is too much, and when is enough when it comes to takeout slides? These questions were asked multiple times and with no firm answer in Houston and New York last week.

Start with Bill Hall. Was flying into Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez on a play at second base, as the Astros second baeman did Friday, too much? It was certainly aggressive. Ramirez, firmly planted behind and to the left of second base as he attempted to turn a double-play, provided a stationary target as Hall went out of his way to take him out. (Watch it here.)

That, however, is what players are taught to do—interrupt the fielder at any cost, so long as it’s clean. And Hall’s slide was clean, if a touch late. He went in feet first and spikes down, with one clear purpose: prevent the double-play. That he went out of his way—but not too far out of his way—to do it falls well within the definition of getting the job done.

“Clean play? Dirty play? That’s hard to tell unless it’s very obvious,” said Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez in the Palm Beach Post. “He came hard but he was in range. He was touching the base. That’s the way he plays and that’s the way it should be—play hard.”

Hall ended up going shin-to-shin with Ramirez, knocking them both down for several minutes. Hall returned to the game; Ramirez sat out until Tuesday.

A day prior, Nick Swisher of the New York Yankees took out Twins second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka in a similar play, with far graver consequences. Swisher’s slide—like Hall’s, off the base and intended to break up the double-play—broke the second baseman’s fibula, just six games into his big league career. (Watch it here.)

The reason both infielders were hurt is that neither of them jumped. Ramirez fielded the throw in an awkward place coming from the shortstop position and had to adjust; Nishioka might simply never have learned any difference.

Twins broadcaster Dan Gladden, who spent a year playing in Japan (winning the Japan Series with the Yomiuri Giants in 1994), was quoted in the Minneapolis Star Tribune talking about the dearth of such tactics in that country.

“When I got over there I told them, ‘I don’t slide to the bag. We are taught to break up double plays,’ ” he said. “The coach told me, ‘We expect the Americans to play that way.’ ”

Swisher went so far as to visit Nishioka in the X-ray room at Yankee Stadium to offer a personal apology for the inadvertent injury. Nishioka told him there was no apology necessary. And that was it. No retaliatory strikes the following day. No bad blood resulting from a hard, clean play.

The same can not be said for the Marlins. Ramirez was injured far less severely than Nishioka, but despite the fact that he publicly exonerated Hall—“My opinion is he was trying to break up a double play,” he said in the Post. “He told [Marlins infielder Greg] Dobbs that he was sorry but … he was trying to do his job.”—his teammates clearly had a score to settle.

Saturday’s game was too consistently close to consider a retaliatory strike, but on Sunday, with a 6-1 lead in the seventh inning, Edward Mujica drilled Hall in the hip. The intent was clear; Mujica has hit only three guys over the course of his six-year career and walks almost nobody. His control is exquisite. He was quickly ejected.

Ramirez being the face of his franchise certainly had something to do with it. The fact that he has a history of calling out Marlins pitchers for lack of retaliatory response may also have factored in. (Then again, Mujica was with San Diego during that particular tirade, and may have been entirely ignorant of it.)

Had Hall been out of line with his slide, with a barrel roll or some other questionable tactic—in other words, had he deserved the response—it might have ended there. As it was, Houston reliever Anuery Rodriguez stood up for his guy by plunking Gaby Sanchez in the ninth. This one was easy to see coming; Rodriguez is a rookie with a double-digit ERA. His performance on the field is not winning much respect from his teammates, so he felt the need to earn it in a different capacity. He, too, was ejected. (Watch both ejections here.)

The Marlins and Astros meet once more this season, in July. There’s no reason for renewed hostilities at that point—but then again there rarely is. Stay tuned.

– Jason