Retaliation

With Springtime Tit-For-Tat, Pirates and Rays Already In Midseason Form

Spring Training

Spring training has long been a place to settle old scores. Want to drill a guy without repercussions to your regular-season ERA? Save it for March. Just this morning I saw a tweet from @RememberWhenMLB …

… about one of the very first topics I covered upon launching this blog back in 2010. Zito did what he had to do, Fielder took it in stride, and everybody moved along their merry ways.

Baseball was different then; retaliation for personal expression is far less expected now than it was even a decade ago. This is a good thing. But just because someone like Zito is less likely to throw at someone like Fielder in the modern version of spring training doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen.

Just ask the Pirates.

In a game between the Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay yesterday, two Rays pitchers—Ryne Stanek and Oliver Drake—hit Pirates batters in the early going. Unless there’s some yet-to-be-publicized bad blood (unlikely given that the last time these teams  played each other in the regular season, 2017, none of the four principals—the batters who got hit or the pitchers who hit them—were even on their respective rosters), those pitches were purely accidental. Because of course they were. It’s the only reasonable explanation.

For Pirates pitcher Clay Holmes, it didn’t matter. The right-hander responded by drilling Pirates infielder Willy Adames. (He later denied intent, which is itself believable given that the primary knock on Holmes is his control.) For Rays manager Kevin Cash, however, Holmes’ motivation was clear. “Are you happy?” he yelled across the field from his dugout after the pitch connected.

Holmes, a 26-year-old who made it into 11 games last year in his first season in the big leagues, understands that the best way to curry favor in one’s clubhouse is to stand up for one’s teammates in any way necessary. While the scope of the word “necessary” can shift from player to player, there’s no mistaking that with one simple fastball, the right-hander established that the Pirates have at least one guy among their ranks unwilling to tolerate abuse (whether real or perceived) to his teammates.

Never mind that it’s ludicrous to send a message about mistake pitches thrown during a period in the schedule when ballplayers are mainly trying to work out winter kinks. (Hell, Drake’s a non-roster invitee who started his appearance with six straight balls.)

Plate ump Bill Welke actually warned both benches, to ensure that the foolishness went no further. “It’s weird in spring training,” said a baffled Adames after the game, in a Tampa Bay Times report. “You’re not expecting that.”

Nossir, you’re not. We’re now faced with the dual possibilities of A) This going away quickly because who really cares, and B) It’s still only spring training, so if Cash or any of his charges wants to respond, they have massive latitude to do so. Let’s hope it’s the former.

[H/T Road Dog Russ]

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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.

Retaliation

Retaliatory Smackdown Comes Back To Bite Pirates

Musgrove drills

Wait for it.

That’s a prime directive when it comes to baseball retaliation, instructing pitchers hell-bent on drilling a guy to delay their vengeance until the time is right. What that means, of course, is up for interpretation, and sometimes players interpret wrong.

Joe Musgrove is one of those guys.

In the top of the seventh inning, Arizona’s Braden Shipley buried a 96-mph fastball into the top of Josh Harrison’s shoulder blade, just missing his head. The blow eventually knocked Harrison from the game. Shipley then sent another fastball near Austin Meadows’ head before getting him to fly out to center field.

That was enough for Musgrove, who responded in kind in the bottom half of the frame. What the Pirates right-hander had working in his favor was a 5-0 lead, plus the fact that he’d given up only four hits and no walks to that point. Musgrove was cruising, and so felt little need to wait until two were out, as is standard operating procedure in these types of situations.

He drilled leadoff hitter Chris Owings (appropriately, below the belt), and everything went immediately to hell. Musgrove then wild-pitched Owings to second. Nick Ahmed singled in Owings, cutting Pittsburgh’s lead to 5-1. Shipley, hitting for himself, reached on a throwing error by third baseman David Freese (who inexplicably rushed his throw), and that was all for Musgrove. Reliever Edgar Santana was greeted with an RBI single by Daniel Descalso. Now the score was 5-2. One out later, Jake Lamb hit a three-run homer, tying the game. Arizona scored four more in the eighth to win it, 9-5.

 

“That’s how the game is played,” said Musgrove after the game, straddling the line of self-incrimination in an MLB.com report. “You’re willing to go out and hit somebody, you’ve got to be willing to deal with what might come with that, putting the leadoff runner on base, especially late in the game like that. You don’t want to start a rally.”

At least his manager had his back. “You play the game and you protect your teammates,” said Clint Hurdle. “It’s been going on for 135 years or so.” (It also appeared that the umpires had the pitcher’s back, failing to issue warnings after Musgrove drilled Owings in clear retaliation.)

The fateful HBP was actually one of five in the game, two coming from Arizona relievers, and three from Musgrove. Save for the final one, to which the pitcher all but admitted, intent behind the preceding four is strictly conjecture. Even if Shipley’s two pitches (the fateful one to Harrison, and the nearly fateful one to Meadows) were strictly accidental, the idea of a pitcher taking liberties around the head with a blazing fastball over which he has little control is rightly infuriating to opponents. Calmer pitchers than Musgrove have been inspired toward retaliation by less.

This actually has been a theme of sorts around the Pirates clubhouse of late. Two weeks ago, Anthony Rizzo took out Pittsburgh catcher Elias Diaz with a wide slide. After reliever Richard Rodriguez didn’t so much as pitch inside to Rizzo during his next at-bat, Musgrove took things into his own hands the following day, barreling into Cubs second baseman Javier Baez with a retaliatory slide into second.  “Trust me, we’ve talked about it,” said Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon in the Athletic. “We’ve had internal discussions.”

Taillon spent a few minutes after the game discussing the merits of retaliation. He doesn’t necessarily speak for the Pirates as a whole, but as of right now he’s the guy going on the record in any kind of depth.

“They can say the ball slipped, but it’s not our job to judge intent,” he said. “All I can tell you is J-Hay [Harrison] gets pitched in a lot. And even if it’s not on purpose, J-Hay gets hit way too much. I get sick of seeing him get spun around up there—sick of it. Something needs to be done by the staff, and Joe did it for us.”

That, of course, doesn’t much matter in the face of the ensuing meltdown by Pittsburgh’s bullpen.

“I don’t really know what’s going on inside their dugout, but if it was retaliation, it certainly cost their pitcher a couple of runs and it might have cost them a win,” Arizona manager Tory Lovullo said in an Arizona Republic report. “We were lying flat and dormant and being dominated by him, and I felt like it gave our dugout a lot of energy.”

That much is certain. Musgrove might not change a thing if he had it all to do over again, but given the results of his approach, it’s tough to deny that one can never be too careful in this type of situation.

Basepath Retaliation, Collisions, Retaliation

Pittsburgh Responds To Rizzo Takeout: You Slide Into Mine, I’ll Slide Into Yours

Musgrove slides

They were back at it in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the Cubs and Pirates coming to a head over the second questionable slide in a three-game span. This time it was the Pirates hitting the dirt, as pitcher Joe Musgrove powered into second with a blatantly late slide in an effort to disrupt a double play. (Watch it here.)

This time it was Javy Baez on the receiving end, and though the slide did no damage, he wasn’t pleased. Musgrove leaped so late that he landed virtually atop the bag, his momentum carrying him straight past it. In so doing he violated two of the four tenets of Rule 6.01(j), which we’ve heard an awful lot about recently. It reads:

 

If a runner does not engage in a bona fide slide, and initiates (or attempts to make) contact with the fielder for the purpose of breaking up a double play, he should be called for interference under this Rule 6.01. A “bona fide slide” for purposes of Rule 6.01 occurs when the runner: (1) begins his slide (i.e., makes contact with the ground) before reaching the base; (2) is able and attempts to reach the base with his hand or foot; (3) is able and attempts to remain on the base (except home plate) after completion of the slide; and (4) slides within reach of the base without changing his pathway for the purpose of initiating contact with a fielder.

 

Baez knew that Musgrove’s slide wasn’t by the book, and as the pitcher started back toward Pittsburgh’s dugout, let him know about it. Things hardly grew heated—Baez gently put a hand on the Musgrove’s hip in a “there, there” kind of way—and though benches cleared, players never came close to fighting.

 

For a blog about unwritten rules, we’ve sure spent a lot of time recently on the written ones. Still, there’s an awful lot of subtext here. Musgrove’s slide was about much more than hard-nosed baseball—it was about retaliation for Anthony Rizzo’s disputed takeout of Pittsburgh catcher Elias Diaz on Monday. Musgrove admitted as much, telling reporters after the game: “I was trying to go in hard like their guy did. [Baez] should’ve got out of the way, I guess.”

Not enough? The pitcher elaborated.

“We’re not trying to fight anybody here,” he said in an MLB.com report. “We’re not trying to cause any problems, but you blindside our catcher when he’s got no chance to defend himself … That’s something that I feel like is part of baseball. I don’t think he was happy that I went after their guy or anything like that, but yeah, you try to pick up your teammates where you can. I didn’t hurt him. I easily could have made a dirty slide, but I feel like I made a clean slide and went in hard.”

It’s a simple message. The cleanliness of Musgrove’s slide is up for debate, but his claims about not wanting to injure anybody are valid. Baez himself believed them, telling reporters after the game: “I’m not saying it was a bad slide, but he just went hard. I asked him, ‘What was that about?’ He said, ‘Sorry,’ and the conversation was over.”

Musgrove sent a message, to the Cubs and his own team alike, that plays like Rizzo’s will be answered. It was a canny decision. As a pitcher, Musgrove easily could have conveyed the sentiment with a message pitch, but by going slide-for-slide, he was able to provide tangible support for his teammates in an aboveboard fashion.

Musgrove—a third-year pitcher trying to establish himself after coming over from Houston in the Gerrit Cole trade—earned a measure of clubhouse standing with seven innings of one-run ball on Wednesday. He may have earned even more with his slide.

Collisions

Rizzo’s Romp: Old-School Play In A New-Era Sport Leaves Many People Angry

Rizzo slides

In this kinder, gentler MLB, we’re facing what has become a string of uncomfortable conversations about basepath etiquette, delineating not only what is legal, but what is right. It started in April, when a wide slide into second by New York’s Tyler Austin took out Red Sox shortstop Brock Holt and, after a retaliatory strike, led to a full-fledged brawl on the Fenway Park infield.

Monday’s slide into the plate by Anthony Rizzo was quieter than that, if only because the Pirates chose not to retaliate. Rizzo had come home on a bases-loaded grounder to shortstop, and took out the right ankle of Elias Diaz, despite the catcher having already made the putout and cleared the box as he prepared to fire the ball to first base to complete the double play. The ensuing throw went wild, allowing Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber to score on the error. Diaz remained on the ground for a while, clutching at his leg, but did not leave the game.

On the one hand, this is classic baseball. Double-plays are meant to be broken up, and Rizzo did nothing untoward in terms of raising his spikes or barreling into the catcher. His slide kept him within easy reach of the plate and was textbook clean. It unfolded exactly as intended, impacting Diaz enough to disrupt the throw.

On the other hand, Rizzo had only one reason to be where he was: taking out the catcher. Because Diaz had cleared out appropriately, ceding the entire plate to the runner, Rizzo had to deviate from his route (defined as the path taken by a runner directly to the next base) to force impact. Rizzo had been approaching the plate from the foul side of the baseline before veering toward the catcher. This is in direct violation of Rule 6.01(j), which says that a runner must “slide within reach of the base without changing his pathway for the purpose of initiating contact with a fielder.”

 

After initial review, the slide was ruled to be within the boundaries of the rulebook, but MLB announced yesterday that it should have been interference, which would have wiped the runs from the play off the board. (Given that the Pirates were shut out in what became a 7-0 game, it was hardly the difference in victory and defeat.)

What we’re left with is the gray area between rules and interpretation of those rules. Catcher safety came to the forefront with Scott Cousins’ collision with Buster Posey back in 2011, and has only grown more pronounced since then. Why does it keep happening?

In this case, the answer appears to reside with the Cubs themselves. Rizzo’s slide was clearly illegal—MLB itself said as much—but was it dirty? Various members of Chicago’s roster and front office seem to think otherwise. “The catcher’s gotta clear the path,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon told reporters. “You have to teach proper technique. He’s gotta get out farther, he’s gotta keep his foot on the plate clear, because that’s absolutely what can happen.”

There is no way to deny that the catcher cleared out. It’s right there on video. Even Rizzo did not dispute that Diaz ceded the entire baseline. It’s part of a manager’s job to take heat for his players, and maybe that was Maddon’s endgame, but his comment makes no sense.

Also, it was only his opening salvo. Later, the manager tried to shift the conversation from player safety to Rizzo’s reputation.

“For that group out there that believes Anthony is dirty in any way, shape or form, that’s my biggest concern about this rule,” Maddon said on Tuesday. “Because all of a sudden, either it’s an announcer or a fan base or somebody that believes Anthony did something dirty. It’s only because the catcher fell down. I mean, seriously, that’s all that was about. And that’s such a bad interpretation of all of that.”

It’s only because the catcher fell down is among the most ludicrous pieces of baseball analysis ever presented in earnest by an informed source. Diaz fell down because Rizzo went out of his way to take him down. Feel free to debate the merits of Rizzo’s slide, but don’t blame it on Diaz.

Maddon’s comments might be more easily taken as defense of his player had the slide been a lone blip on Rizzo’s radar. Instead, it seems to be a pattern. Last year, he took out San Diego catcher Austin Hedges in similar fashion (while trying to score, not to break up a double play), and encountered similar sentiments about dirty play from the viewing public—but not from his team’s management. Maddon went on record, repeatedly, defending the slide.

 

 

Which cuts to the heart of the issue. Rizzo’s takeout of Diaz was called dirty by people all the way up to the league office, yet he earned support for it from both Maddon and Cubs GM Theo Epstein. Unless the league steps in with penalties (unlikely) or the Pirates step up with retaliation (also unlikely, despite calls for it from the local press), why on earth would Rizzo change this facet of the game, especially when he’s lauded for it inside his clubhouse?

Maddon went so far as to call baseball’s catcher-safety rule “nebulous with regards to interpretation,” but there’s nothing nebulous about Rizzo drifting from his baseline to take out Diaz. Any team that encourages its players in that direction is treading a dangerously ignorant line.

Adherents to baseball’s unwritten rules are frequently labeled as out of touch with modern culture. This, though, is an instance of an old-school acolyte going out of his way to be anachronistic. Joe Maddon really ought to know better.

Bat Flipping, Don't Call out Opponents in the Press

Hurdle Frustrated by Baez’s Frustration, Word Battle Ensues

Baez flips

And here I was, thinking that the new world order had been firmly established. The Puig-ization of baseball, wherein players can more freely express themselves on the field—usually in the form of bat flips—had already taken hold when the Puerto Rico team showed us exactly how much fun that kind of thing could be during their second-place run in last year’s World Baseball Classic.

As it happened, the second baseman for Puerto Rico, Javier Baez, also plays for the Chicago Cubs. Last week, he went a bit homer-crazy against Pittsburgh, hitting four longballs across the series’ first two games. That wasn’t what set off Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, however, so much as the second baseman’s response to popping up with a runner in scoring position—which itself included a bat flip. It was borne out of frustration, of course, after which Baez made scant effort to run toward first. (Watch what little of it was captured in the telecast here.)

Hurdle was peeved enough to address it the following day, not only as pertained to Baez, but to the Cubs organization as a whole. Among his comments, as reported by the Athletic:

“When a player does something out of line, there are one or two guys who go to him right away and say, ‘Hey, we don’t do that here. What are you thinking when you do that? Do you know what that looks like?’ ” Hurdle said. “Sometimes, guys don’t understand what it looks like. Usually, you’ve only got to show them once or twice what it looks like and they really don’t want to be that guy anymore. . . .

“Where is the respect for the game? [Baez] has hit four homers in two days. Does that mean you can take your bat and throw it 15-20 feet in the air when you pop up, like you should have hit your fifth home run? I would bet that men went over and talked to him, because I believe they’ve got a group there that speaks truth to power.” . . .

“There is entitlement all over the world. Sometimes, when you have a skill, you can feel special and you don’t get what it looks like. Most of the time here, we try to show our players what it looks that. And that’s usually enough.”

As it happened, members of the Cubs—reliever Pedro Strop, in particular—did pull Baez aside for a little dugout chat. We know this because Baez admitted to it while apologizing publicly for his actions after the game.

“You know what I really got out of today and what I learned?” he told reporters, as reported by NBC Chicago. “How ugly I looked when I got out today on that fly ball. I tossed the bat really high, I didn’t run to first base. One of my teammates came up to me, and he said it in a good way, and he said, ‘You learn from it.’ After I hit that fly ball and tossed the bat really high, I was kind of mad about it. Not because of the fly ball, just the way I looked for the kids and everybody that follows me. That’s not a good look. So I learned that from today.”

Hurdle is entitled to his opinion. He’s an old-school guy, a former catcher who learned to play the game under a structure wherein deviation from the norm constitutes something other than “the right way.” Every one of his sentiments was valid, but in making them public, the manager ignored another of baseball’s unwritten rules: Keep personal spats out of the media. Instead, Hurdle teed up Maddon for an all-time response, as part of a 17-minute media session prior to the following day’s game. The Cubs skipper, via the Athletic:

“It reveals you more than it reveals the person you’re talking about. I’ve always believed that. So whenever you want to be hypercritical of somebody, just understand you’re pretty much revealing yourself and what your beliefs are more than you are being critical or evaluating somebody. Because you have not spent one second in that person’s skin. . . .

“It’s just like people making decisions about Strop based on [the way he’s] sporting his hat, or Fernando Rodney. I think most of the time when you hear commentary—critical commentary—it’s really pretty much self-evaluation. It’s about what you believe. It’s about your judgmental component.

“I thought Javy did a great job in his response. I was very proud of him, actually. Like I said the other day, first of all, I didn’t see him throwing the bats. I missed that completely. But we’ve talked about it. His response and the fact that he owned up to it, my God, what else could you possibly want out of one of your guys?” . . .

“I did not see it coming at all. Clint and I have had a great relationship. I’ve known him for many, many years. I don’t really understand why he did what he did. You’d probably maybe want to delve into that a little bit more deeply on his side.

“But I do believe in not interfering with other groups. I’ve commented post-fights. Maybe I’ve incited a few things when it came to things I didn’t like on the field, when it came to injury or throwing at somebody. I’ve had commentary and I don’t deny that I have.

“But to try to disseminate exactly what I think about a guy on another team based on superficial reasons, I’ll never go there. I don’t know the guy enough. I’m not in the clubhouse with him. I don’t have these conversations. I don’t know what kind of a teammate he is. I don’t know any of that stuff, so I would really be hesitant.”

The modern era presents a different landscape than the one in which Hurdle rose through baseball’s ranks. Look-at-me moments across American sports began in earnest with the 24-hour news cycle, and have been driven into the relative stratosphere by a player’s ability to garner hundreds of thousands of follows and likes on social media, where it can literally pay to have a presence.

There’s also the fact that Hispanic influence in Major League Baseball is strong and getting stronger. Nothing I’ve seen has indicated bias on Hurdle’s part, but the Athletic’s Patrick Mooney made an interesting point as pertains to the Pittsburgh manager: “Let’s be honest: Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester are great players who sometimes show bad body language and we don’t hear about how they’re not showing proper respect for the game.”

In light of Hurdle’s “entitlement all over the world” comment, this rings especially true.

So where do we go from here? Ideally, everybody learns to keep things in perspective, and move along as innocuously as possible. Javier Baez has already started to do just that.

“To be honest, I got a lot of things I can say right now,” he said via Yahoo, in response to Hurdle’s comments, “but I don’t control what’s out there, what people talk about me. I’m just gonna keep playing my game.”

 

Deke Appropriately

On the Nature of Dekes and What Constitutes Underhanded Baseball

kang-dekes

In Pittsburgh on Sunday, Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang saw Bryce Harper motoring toward third with a clean triple, even as the throw from right fielder Josh Bell soared above two relay men and wide of the base. Faced with the possibility of Harper scoring on the overthrow, Kang did what he thought necessary—he applied a phantom tag.

Such a play, known as a deke (short for “decoy”), has long been a staple of major league baseball. In it, a fielder acts as if a play he has no chance of making is in front of him, so as to slow or stop a runner who might otherwise advance to the next base. The most prominent deke ever came during Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, when Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch helped prevent Atlanta’s Lonnie Smith, at first base, from scoring on a double into the gap by pretending the blast never left the infield. Such a ploy can only work if the runner has no idea where the ball actually is, of course, but in that instance Smith did not. The run he failed to score cost his team dearly in a 1-0 loss. (The incident is discussed in depth in The Baseball Codes.)

The play was totally legit, and was likely the difference in Minnesota’s victory. However, it is not the type of deke we’re discussing today.

There is a difference between Knoblauch’s deke—and the panoply of plays like it that are seen around baseball all the time—and what Kang did to Harper. Smith paid no price outside of tarnished pride and a run off the scoreboard. Harper, however, was not so lucky. That’s because Kang’s decision to throw his glove down came so late in the play that the runner had no choice but to force himself into an ill-timed and awkward slide. (Watch it here.)

Such a play was described in The Baseball Codes:

A number of players have been injured by ill-timed or unnecessary dekes, which leads to an unwritten rule about when it is and isn’t appropriate to use the maneuver. Infielders throwing down phantom tags at the last possible moment can cause awkward slides, and the potential for damage is very real. “If a guy is stealing, you don’t pretend the throw is coming,” said second baseman Craig Grebeck. “If he’s coming in standing up and you all of a sudden look like the catcher is throwing the ball, a late slide can tear up an ankle or a knee.”

That’s exactly what happened to Gene Clines in 1973. Clines, a fourth-year outfielder with the Pirates, was on first base in a game against San Diego; with a full count on the hitter, he took off for second. The pitch was taken for ball four, but instead of simply strolling to second, Clines— who never peeked homeward to assess the situation—proceeded full speed ahead. Padres shortstop Derrel Thomas waited until Clines was nearly atop the base, then inexplicably threw his glove down as if a late throw were about to arrive. Clines, flustered, went into a hurried slide and badly injured his ankle. “That play right there cost me a lot of time,” he said, still angry at the thought more than three decades later. “I never fully recovered for the rest of that year.” Clines, batting .291 going into the game, missed three weeks, and hit just .227 in the two months thereafter.

Sure enough, Harper jammed his thumb on the play, and left the game shortly thereafter.

Pertinent point: Gene Clines was a coach under Dusty Baker for six years in San Francisco and another four in Chicago. Now Baker manages the Nationals, and through his close friend knows all too well the dangers of a poorly thrown deke.

Washington pitcher A.J. Cole responded during Kang’s next at-bat by throwing a pitch well behind the hitter at shoulder-blade level. (Whether Baker ordered it is highly doubtful, based on his track record.)

Because Kang ducked as the pitch flew behind him, the pitch looked like it came in head-high. The Pirates took great and understandable exception to Cole’s message, and benches quickly emptied. (Watch it here.)

The dustup served to distract from the far more interesting discussion about the grey area of infield decoys. The clear difference between Kang’s tag and that of Derrel Thomas decades earlier is that there was clear benefit to Kang’s strategy—holding Harper at third. If he could have put down his deke in a timely fashion, giving Harper enough space to undertake a regular slide, it would have been fine.

Kang appeared to have had time to have done this, even after identifying the overthrow. Barring that, however, he still had another option:

Don’t do anything at all. Which is exactly what he should have done.

Update (9-27): Deking is wrong, but drilling is punishable. Cole just drew a five-gamer.