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.

 

Retaliation, The Baseball Codes, Tony La Russa

PR Man Tony La Russa Would Like to Sell You on the Merits of Retaliation

La Russa watches

Tony La Russa is one of the most vengeful men baseball has ever known. An entire book, Buzz Bissinger’s “3 Nights in August,” went into great detail about his deliberative process as manager of the Cardinals when it came to figuring out which opponent to have drilled, and when.

On Tuesday, La Russa took a different avenue for retaliation.

It started when Pirates reliever Arquimedes Caminero popped two members of the Diamondbacks in the head—Jean Segura with a 96 mph fastball off the helmet, and Nick Ahmed with an 89 mph splitter off the chin. Both were almost certainly unintentional, and neither player was seriously injured. (In between, Arizona reliever Evan Mashall drilled Pittsburgh’s David Freese on the arm, leading to warnings for both benches, and Caminero’s ejection after hitting Ahmed. Watch it all here.)

In the Pirates broadcast booth, play-by-play man Greg Brown openly discussed La Russa’s history of retaliation, which was already more on the record than any manager in history. La Russa—now Arizona’s chief baseball officer—heard it, and invaded Pittsburgh’s booth to take direct issue. Brown directed the argument away from the microphones so that it would not be broadcast, and then opted against mention it on the air out of respect for La Russa. (Watch Brown discuss the incident here.)

La Russa blew that whole plan out of the water, however, by discussing the incident himself, with AZCentral. His goal was to explain why the Pirates were at fault, any lack of intent on their HBP’s be damned:

“A lot of guys who are pitching in don’t have the ability at this point to command it and it becomes very dangerous,” La Russa said in the article. “The reasoning you get from the other side is they didn’t mean to do it intentionally. If you don’t have command, then that’s intentionally careless.”

He was referring to Pittsburgh’s team philosophy, which has pitchers constantly working the inside edge, and has led the Pirates to leading baseball in hit batters from 2013 to 2015. Diamondbacks broadcasters repeatedly intoned a similar message during the game, decrying what they described as an institutionally reckless approach.

On Wednesday, Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale got right to the organizational talking points, echoing La Russa by telling reporters that Caminero was less at fault for the hit batters than Pittsburgh management.

“I don’t think the kid meant to do it,” he said. “When you put a guy out there that doesn’t have control in that area and you’re trying to pitch in, it’s not something that we can have here. The guy doesn’t have the ability to pitch in certain quadrants of the zone, we don’t do it. It’s almost the fault more of the coaching and the managing than it is the player at that point.”

The D’Backs have some history upon which to build their argument. In 2014, Pittsburgh closer Ernesto Frieri unintentionally broke Paul Goldschmidt’s hand with a pitch. (Arizona responded by drilling Andrew McCutchen in the back.) A year earlier, Pirates starter James McDonald hit Aaron Hill, breaking his hand.

La Russa’s response seems to be a new front in his retaliatory battle. A vengeance fastball to the ribcage might send a message to the opposing clubhouse, but a full-fronted PR battle against an opponent’s organizational philosophy? That’s a new one.

In case anybody doubts La Russa’s intentions, he went on the air with Arizona Sports 98.7 FM on Wednesday morning and discussed the situation further.

“So people are just telling them hey, you can’t just willy nilly throw the ball inside,” he said, via the station’s website. “It’s a real easy formula we’ve used for years: you can’t use us as targets, even if it’s unintentional. If you can’t command the ball inside, don’t throw it up and in — you’ve got to get the ball down. It’s really not that tough, it’s one that we try to enforce, and it’s one I think MLB could be more proactive in enforcing.”

Also, this: “They’ll just keep doing it to you, (and) pretty soon the guy the guy [who keeps getting hit] will not want to go to bat, and how do you win? So you’ve got to use common sense. It’s a competition and guys are going to anything they can to take something away from you.”

Adding that teammates are like family, La Russa said that if somebody slaps one of your family members, “you just slap back.”

Maybe La Russa’s canny, maybe he’s crazy. Maybe he’s both. The sport he loves is changing beneath his feet, moving away from the hard edges of intimidation and retribution, and toward the let’s-make-baseball-fun-again generation of bat flips and promo ops. Whether La Russa is willing to acknowledge these things is almost beside the point. Everything he’s said in recent days is based on inherent truths of competitive sports, regardless of whether the people hearing it agree with him.

The trick now is figuring out how to implement it all within the modern landscape. When it comes to guys like La Russa—at the top of his organizational food chain, who can do pretty much whatever the hell he wants—the question matters less on a day-to-day basis than in big-picture form. That’s why the messages he’s sending seem more a matter of selling the public on his approach. Yep, La Russa and his crew are waging a PR campaign on behalf of a team’s right to drill its opponents.

“Intimidation is an important part of sports,” he said on the radio. “People will try to intimidate you, if you back off you’re easier to beat. The game has a way of handling itself.”

Now we’re left to see how the rest of baseball responds.

Retaliation

On the Whys, Whens and Hows of Drilling an Ace

Arrieta drilled

Depending on one’s perspective, Tony Watson’s decision to drill Jake Arietta last night was either supremely rational or patently ludicrous, depending on which details you want to focus.

Watson’s Pirates were losing a do-or-die wild card game, the 4-0 score mattering far less than the fact that Arietta had meticulously dismantled their offense, batter by batter, pitch by pitch. The Pirates couldn’t touch him, and they knew it. This is a bad reason to throw a fastball at the opposing pitcher.

But …

Arietta had hit two batters himself—catcher Francisco Cervelli in the fifth, and Josh Harrison in the sixth. Neither was intentional, the former coming against the inning’s leadoff batter, the latter coming on an 85-mph breaking ball which put two men on with one out and Andrew McCutchen at bat.

The you-hit-my-guy-so-I’ll-hit-your-guy ethos is reptilian and outdated, especially when Arrieta went out of his way to explain to Cervelli that he had been hit accidentally. Also, intentionally gifting an opponent baserunners during an elimination game is usually a bad idea, pretty much regardless of the score.

But …

Arietta had twice come up and in to batters in addition to the two men he hit. Because his control was superb throughout the game (he walked nobody), this was a clear indication that he was taking excessive liberties with inside pitches, content with a margin of error that included an occasional hit batsman. (His postgame explanation that “balls were slick” was hogwash.) Pittsburgh had every right to dissuade him of this idea—especially when it comes to future meetings.

And …

The Pirates are still sore about the semi-dirty takeout slide Chicago’s Chris Coghlan laid on Pirates shortstop Jung Ho Kang last month, knocking him out for the season. If that was Watson’s primary motivation, Coghlan (who did not play Wednesday) is the guy who should have been in the crosshairs. Even for the revenge-minded, that’s the kind of thing that can wait for an appropriate time.

But …

At least Watson did the deed properly, drilling Arrieta below the belt. “The butt’s perfect,” the pitcher said afterward in an ESPN report.

Also …

Ultimately, the benches would not have cleared had Arrieta simply headed to first base—which he should have done, given the circumstances. It was only when he stopped, stared down Watson and started to jaw—the point at which the chance of a physical confrontation rose to realistic levels—that his teammates streamed out to protect him. (As per usual, it was fairly uneventful … save for this.)

And …

Arrieta got his own dose of revenge, stealing second on the very next pitch. It was the first steal that Arietta had so much as attempted as a professional. “That was awesome,” he said in USA Today.

And so …

Ultimately, it’s all rubbish. Were the Pirates hell-bent on avenging Kang, they could have waited until next season. If they wanted to show Arrieta that they did not appreciate his liberties with the inside corner, the seventh inning of an elimination game was not the time to try to affect change. Ultimately, this was little more than frustration bubbling over in a way that does not reflect well on the Pirates.

The playoffs are not a time for vendettas. Pittsburgh now has about five months with which to consider that notion.

Retaliation

On the Merits of Appropriate Response, and the Response to That Response

ColeA measure of how far baseball has come—for better and worse—was on display Tuesday in Detroit. On one hand, the you-hit-my-guy-so-I’ll-hit-yours mentality so prevalent in past generations has become rare enough for modern occurrences to make a bit of a splash.

On the other hand, the instincts that players once used to automatically rationalize that kind of behavior have atrophied. Such tactics now lead to full-bore freakouts … or at least baseball’s version of them.

In the wake of one such tit-for-tat exchange with Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Detroit designated hitter Victor Martinez did the unthinkable in baseball circles—he publicly vented, going so far as to drop the “R”-word.

“I have no respect for no one on that team, including [Pirates pitcher Gerrit] Cole and their coaching staff,” he said in a Detroit Free Press account.

It started when Justin Verlander hit Starling Marte with a pitch in the fourth inning. It was clearly unintentional: a 1-2 count, a runner on first and the Tigers were losing, 3-0. Regardless, Cole—who has a history of paying attention to the Code—responded by drilling Martinez in the ribs during the very next frame.

This is what set the DH off.  “If they think that Verlander hit Marte with a 1-2 count—he was battling that at-bat—if they really think we did it on purpose, they’re playing the wrong sport,” he said.

Martinez is probably correct, even while overlooking the obvious point that Verlander’s intent likely didn’t matter. Cole appears to be a guy who embraces the old-school mentality of teammate protection, which is so outdated to have become cliché: You hit my guy so I’ll hit yours, and maybe you won’t take so many liberties with the inside corner next time. The fact that four Pirates players had been hit over the previous three games may well have factored into Cole’s decision to put his foot down.

This is not to say that Cole acted appropriately. But speaking personally as somebody who disagrees with the tactic of drilling an opponent simply to make a statement, I still have to appreciate a pitcher looking out for his guys.

Verlander himself responded by drilling the next batter he faced, Pedro Alvarez, on the thigh—at which point both dugouts were warned.

“I think in baseball there’s always been that, if someone deserves to be thrown at, I think a lot of times when it’s done the proper way it’s over after that,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said in the Free Press. “And it’s true. If it’s done the right way, both teams at the end say, all right, it’s over.”

Was it over? Various members of the Pirates clubhouse were dismissive of Martinez’s comments (“I wasn’t aware he was the voice of reason,” said Clint Hurdle in the Free Press), and the DH was drilled again yesterday, by reliever Jared Hughes, with an 89-mph fastball, in a situation that screamed for intent: The Pirates led 9-2 in the eighth inning, Martinez isn’t exactly Billy Hamilton on the basepathes and his role as a baserunner barely registered.

Today’s game went by cleanly until the ninth, when, with Pittsburgh leading 5-3 and first base open, Tigers reliever Bruce Rondon drilled Francisco Cervelli, who had opened the scoring with a fourth-inning homer. Martinez ended things by grounding out to first.

The rest of the story remains to be seen.

No-Hitter Etiquette

So What’s an Inside Pitch Between Friends?

Scherzer no-noDid he or didn’t he? Is Jose Tabata a perfect-game-spoiling ruiner of all things good, or a baffled hitter in a long string of baffled hitters to face Max Scherzer on Saturday? Was he leaning into the pitch, or drawing away from the pitch? Is the dress blue and black, or white and gold?

These are questions based on intent and situation. Tabata, of course, was hit by a pitch with one out to go in Scherzer’s would-be perfect game. Does a batter do anything possible to reach base so late in a game—which, at 6-0, has been all but lost—in which his teammates had not really come close? Is getting hit by a pitch to break up a perfect game anything like bunting to break up a no-hitter?

The answer is easy: Of course it isn’t. Tabata didn’t lean into the pitch. He watched a breaking ball that didn’t break as expected, and drew back his elbow—into the path of the ball as it turned out—far too late to make a difference. (Watch it here.)

Far more interesting is the question of insertion. It is fair under certain circumstances to question a manager for inserting a top-flight player into a blowout game for the sole purpose of spoiling a no-hitter. Tabata was pinch-hitting, but in this case somebody had to—the spot in the order belonged to reliever Vance Worley. So, given that the Nationals were already the presumptive victors, was Pirates manager Clint Hurdle under any obligation to utilize a lesser bench player? Would it have been more appropriate to call upon somebody like Corey Hart, who has more at-bats than Tabata this season but is hitting 90 points lower?

Nope. Leave it to Hurdle’s predecessor in Pittsburgh, Jim Leyland, to explain the situation. I spoke to him in 2010, when he was managing the Detroit Tigers, about his decision to pinch-hit Ramon Santiago with two outs in the ninth inning against Chicago’s Matt Garza, who was pitching his own no-hitter. Detroit was losing, 5-0, and Leyland admitted to me that winning the game no longer factored into his strategy. (Santiago flied out to end it. Detroit’s starting pitcher that day: Max Scherzer.)

Knowing you’re not going to win, at what point do you let the guy have his no-hitter?
I don’t think you ever say that. I don’t ever say that.

No matter what the score, you’d send up your pinch-hitters?
Yeah, absolutely. I don’ think you ever say, “Let the guy have his no-hitter.” That’s not the way the game is played. If I’m going to say that, I might as well go home. That sends the wrong message to the people who paid for a ticket. I learned that from my parents—you get what you earn.

We play every game and compete until the end. There are 27 outs in a game, and you try to utilize all of them. It doesn’t matter what the score is. You have to understand the situation. Even if it’s 10-1 in the ninth inning, you might send someone up there to save a guy a tough at-bat against a tough pitcher, or a bench guy might be playing in the game the next day, so you want to get him an at-bat to help him track the ball a little bit. A lot of things go into it—it’s not cut-and-dried.

And then:

We’re paid to compete until the last out, regardless. That’s what we do for a living. Garza pitched a no-hitter, and I tip my cap to him. But when Verlander pitched his no-hitter against Milwaukee, he earned it, and he was supposed to earn it. That’s just the way things go.

You don’t want a no-hitter pitched against you. Everybody’s talking about how you should just let him have it. Well, no you shouldn’t. Nobody wants to be that team. Detroit hadn’t had a no-hitter pitched against it in years. I didn’t want to be the guy from Detroit who finally got no-hit.

All fair points. I take some issue with the idea of pinch-hitting for a position player at that point—when a loss is all but assured—in a potentially historic game. It’s a point at which everything reverts to the status quo. Defensive alignments should be left alone, as should lineups. Even umpires should shade their calls with an eye toward the feat at hand, ruling in the favor of history on plays close enough for debate. Jim Joyce blowing an out call at first base during Armando Galarraga’s would-be perfect game is a prime example. Another came in 1972, when, with Cubs pitcher Milt Pappas 26 outs into his own perfect game, plate ump Bruce Froemming ruled that a full-count pitch, close enough to argue, was a ball. (Pappas retired the following batter to complete the no-hitter.) Unlike that instance, there was no space for interpretation with Scherzer’s HBP—there was only one call for the umpire to make.

In this case, sending up Tabata to hit for the pitcher was the right move. Hurdle played it properly, Tabata did nothing wrong (Scherzer admitted as much) and the baseball world was deprived of a historic feat under appropriate circumstances.

Gamesmanship

If a Hitter Calls Time and Nobody Hears Him, Did He Make a Sound?

Quick pitch!

Kevin Slowey quick-pitched Sean Rodriguez on Monday. Sean Rodriguez did not approve … especially after he struck out. He had words for Slowey after the inning, and then again at the start of the next inning.

The devil here is in the details. Rodriguez asked for time … but did so after Slowey had begun his windup. Plate ump Chad Fairchild did not grant it and called a strike on the pitch. That last fact has everything to do with the hitter’s poorly timed request—and Fairchild’s option to deny poorly timed requests—and little to do with Slowey. Hell, baseball seems desperate to speed up its games. Let’s celebrate the guys who appear willing to help. (Watch it all here.)

“If you want to take it out back, meet me in the parking lot,” Rodriguez told the pitcher, outing himself as a rock-headed bully. The quote was relayed in an MLB.com report by Phillies first base coach Juan Samuel, who was himself ejected, along with Pirates third base coach Rick Sofield, after the two got into their own shouting match following the altercation. Neither Slowey nor Rodriguez was tossed from the game.

(Slowey, on the other hand, had this to say: “It surprises me to be that upset, and challenging somebody to a physical altercation hardly seems like the best way to resolve your frustrations. I was kind of taken by surprise at his animosity after his at-bat. I know the kind of guy that he purports to be. That surprised me that that would be his choice of words and reaction. I guess I understand the frustration of a singular failure. It’s a game of failures. But to react that way to me was very surprising.” Altercation. Animosity. Purports. Look at the big brain on Kevin. Bully? Who knows. Rock-head? Definitely not.)

Spring training is traditionally a time for players to settle old scores, under circumstances in which they feel free to drill opponents with relative impunity since the games do not count in the standings. It is not, however, an environment to invent new scores, especially ones that are probably your own fault to begin with.

Retaliation

Intent is One Thing, Results are Another: Garza Doubles Down on McCutchen, is Tossed

 

Under the Respect is Earned section of the Code, Milwaukee’s Matt Garza picked some bad timing to drill guys during Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh.

Of course, it was only bad timing if he did it by accident. And technically he only hit batter, singular, but did it twice. Because that batter was Andrew McCutchen—not only the brightest star north of the Monongahela, but the guy at the center of enormous controversy last month for a remarkably similar situation—all eyes were on the Brewers right-hander.

In a vacuum, neither episode looked particularly bad. Garza first hit McCutchen in the back with a fastball in the third inning, on a 1-2 count and with two outs and nobody on in a scoreless game. But this was not a vacuum. The Pirates and Milwaukee went at it earlier this season when Pirates starter Gerrit Cole took exception to some extra exuberance by Carlos Gomez following a triple (result: yelling, punches, four suspensions). Last month, McCutchen was hit by a retaliatory pitch from Arizona reliever Randall Delgado, resulting on his first-ever trip to the disabled list. The ingredients were perfect for a combustion.

Pittsburgh’s Edison Volquez offered a response by sending a belt-high pitch inside to Ryan Braun, leading off the following inning. It wasn’t retaliation so much as a caution. We noticed. Don’t let it happen again. Plate ump Marty Foster agreed, taking the pitch as impetus to warn both benches.

The next time McCutchen came up, in the fifth, there were again two outs and nobody on. Again the count was 1-2. Again, Garza drilled him with a fastball, this time on the elbow. The evidence against Garza when it came to inent: He has has always had good control, before Saturday having hit only two batters all year, in 160 innings. The evidence in his favor: He was throwing a shutout and had little point in hitting an opponent a second time, especially after warnings had been issued, not to mention his team’s increasingly desperate bid to make up ground in the National League wild card race. There was also the fact that McCutchen leaned slightly into the pitch, trying to protect the outer part of the plate.

No matter. The pitcher was tossed, starting a parade of six relievers that eventually secured a 1-0 victory. The ejection likely precluded response from the visibly agitated Pirates, and at the very least kept manager Clint Hurdle in the dugout. (“”If he doesn’t get tossed, then I do,” he said in an MLB.com report. “Somebody is going to leave.”)

Afterward, Garza did not hold back his displeasure with the situation.

“If people think I hit McCutchen on purpose, with a 1-2 count in a game like this, then you’re just an idiot, OK?” he said. “Because a game like this, a starter doesn’t go after a guy like that. It’s a [1-2] count and I’m trying to pitch inside. Guy leans in, it hits him on the elbow, that’s my day.”

After the second HBP, McCutchen—who had thrown his helmet down in anger after getting drilled—tried to exact some immediate revenge of the most lasting kind, by stealing second base. He was thrown out to end the inning.

In the end, the fact that both of Garza’s pitches were uninitentional, in addition to the fact that he’d already been disciplined in an official capacity, likely ended things there. On Sunday,

On Sunday, Pittsburgh reliever Tony Watson hit Aramis Ramirez with two outs and one on in the ninth inning of a 1-0 game, a situation that, like both of Garza’s, would have made no sense to do anything on purpose. Outside of an increasingly unlikely playoff meeting, the teams won’t see each other again until next season.