Catchers Protect Pitchers, Retaliation

On the Merits of Moving On: Harper and Hunter Try to Make Nice

Harper-Hunter

Harper-Strickland: The Day After played out in San Francisco yesterday, and was noteworthy primarily for just how un-noteworthy it had become. It became that way because the players made it so. Retaliation was nowhere to be found on the field Tuesday at AT&T Park.

In the visitors’ clubhouse before the game, Bryce Harper—fresh off receiving a four-an appeal-reduced three-game suspension—spoke about the hope that both sides could move on from worrying about the past, saying things like, “That’s gonna suck if I get hit again.”

On the Giants’ side, the conversation turned away from pitcher Hunter Strickland (himself suspended for six games) and toward somebody with significantly more effect on the team’s fortunes, a guy who through his own inaction managed to become a focal point of the story.

But Buster Posey didn’t want to talk about it.

His first comment to reporters was, “I just want to focus on playing the game.” Then he ended the interview.

With space to consider the implications, the more it seems that Posey’s actions were deliberate, not delinquent. If that’s so, the primary question becomes whether the catcher knew about Strickland’s intentions in advance, which leads to two primary scenarios:

  • If he did, Posey likely attempted to dissuade the pitcher from hitting Harper, and was subsequently disgusted when Strickland ignored his advice.
  • If he didn’t, Posey was shocked into inaction, less in a too-surprised-to-move sort of way than a let-dude-fix-his-own-mess sort of way.

In the aftermath of the fight Monday night, in the Giants’ postgame clubhouse, Posey sat facing his locker as Strickland approached from the side to talk to him. What they said was private, but Posey never once turned to look at his teammate. It did not lend an impression of understanding or warmth.

On Tuesday, Strickland tried to put it behind him, saying, “I never once questioned or had to question Buster or anyone on this team. We’re here to win ballgames and I don’t look at it any further than that.”

Discussing the fight itself, Harper expressed some relief that Giants players didn’t get to him more quickly, with particular appreciation for San Francisco first baseman Michael Morse, Harper’s teammate in Washington in 2012, Harper’s rookie year. “I’m thankful that Mikey Mo and [Jeff] Samardzija collided, because Samardzija saw blood a little bit, I thought,” he said

Harper used the phrase “I’m very thankful for Mikey Mo” twice more in the conversation.

As for Morse, he said his intention, had he not collided with his teammate (resulting in a concussion that landed him on the 7-day DL), was to grab Harper and pull him the hell away from the pile. He likes the guy—went out of his way to protect him, not hurt him. How that sits with guys like Strickland or Samardzija, both of whom did see blood a little bit, is unknown.

Ultimately, focus on the situation grew so absurd that Harper even went so far as to suggest that baseball might be better off were players more emotionally in-tune. “If [Strickland] did have a problem,” he told reporters, “he could have talked to me during BP about it, said, hey, I don’t like the way you went about it.”

Then, realizing the folly of his suggestion, he sighed, “That’s not human nature, I guess.”

Let’s leave the last word, though, to Posey, with a sentiment that was, literally, his last word before shooing the gathered media away from his locker before Tuesday’s game. “Funny world we live in, isn’t it?” he said.

Indeed.

Catchers Protect Pitchers, Retaliation

Hats Off To (Bryce) Harper: Ill-Considered HBP Spawns Ill-Considered Response to Ill-Considered Mound Charge

 

Harper charges

The guy to watch is Buster Posey.

In the wake of yesterday’s headline-grabbing free-for-all between Bryce Harper and Hunter Strickland, one can learn volumes by watching the Giants catcher.

Sure, Strickland drilled Harper in the hip with as intentional a fastball as can be thrown by a grudge-carrying pitcher.

Sure, his reason—Harper did some staring and some yelling after homering off of Strickland for the second time during the 2014 playoffs—was thin.

Sure, Harper acted like a punk in his own right, throwing his helmet at the pitcher before charging the mound, a decision made all the worse by his wild inaccuracy.

Sure, the fight was intense, at least by baseball standards, with Harper and Strickland getting in at least one shot each, even as Giants Michael Morse and Jeff Samardzija cinematically tackled each other while going after Harper.

It all provided some darn good theater on a lazy Memorial Day afternoon. But the person to watch was Posey.

In situations like yesterday’s, a catcher’s primary role is fight-preventer, his duty being to bear-hug an angry batter from behind before damage can be done to the pitcher. Not Posey. Not yesterday.

Harper took four-and-a-half angry steps before deciding to charge the mound. He took five more, plus a whole bunch of pitter-pats, once he started to run. Also, he threw his helmet.

Yet it wasn’t until Harper and Strickland began trading punches that Posey thought to approach the fracas, far too late to stop anything, or to even slow it down. That’s him, mask on, on the outside of the scrum looking in.

Why didn’t Buster do anything from the outset? Probably because he was nearly as annoyed at Strickland as Harper was. Because Strickland was redressing an issue from three seasons ago, in which the only injury was to Strickland’s ego, during a series the Giants won. (“I don’t even think [Strickland] should be thinking about what happened in the first round [of the playoffs],” Harper said after yesterday’s game. “He should be thinking about wearing that ring home every single night.”)

Posey may have been upset because Strickland decided that the time to do something was in the eighth inning of a game in which the Giants trailed by only two runs. (Given Strickland’s short-relief role, he doubtless felt that he had to seize any available opportunity. Harper’s postseason homers off him in 2014 represented the first two times the players ever met. Monday’s was the third.)

Sure, two were out and the bases were empty, but following Harper in the batting order were Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon—not exactly the cast you want to face out of the stretch. Sure enough, singles by Zimmerman and Murphy brought home pinch-runner Brian Goodwin to extend the Nats’ lead.

It was foreseeable. Posey foresaw it. And he knew that if the Nationals are to respond at some point during the series, he will likely be the one wearing the target. And he wasn’t pleased. So he stood there.

“Those are some big guys tumbling around on the ground …” Posey explained after the game in a San Jose Mercury News report. “It’ll be a little dangerous to get in there sometimes.” Uh huh.

Posey had every right to be angry with Strickland. Drilling Harper was a stupid decision at a stupid time. Still, it comes down to this: players are obligated to protect their teammates, no matter how much they may disagree with said teammates’ actions. They can offer chastisement in private, of course (one can only hope that Posey took such a tack with Strickland), but over the course of a season, any decision that frays a ballclub’s brotherhood is markedly unhelpful. When it comes to fights, the prevailing notion is: Protect your guys and sort out the details later. 

To that end, Posey failed. He failed not only Strickland, but every other Giants pitcher who might one day wonder whether Buster might have his back when things get weird.

The thing is, Posey wasn’t even alone. Look at Brandon Crawford trotting in from shortstop in the above clip, as if trying to delay his arrival. Maybe Crawford’s just not a fighter. Or maybe it’s a collective anti-Strickland sentiment, almost as if the guy had been making clubhouse pronouncements about his intention to get Harper, even in the face of veteran teammates advising him against it.

Which, given Strickland’s reputation, wouldn’t be surprising.  It all jumbles together in one inane stew that, no matter which angle one chooses, doesn’t look good for the Giants.

Posey watches

Update (5/30): Fox’s Ken Rosenthal suggests that Posey and Strickland may have had an understanding wherein Posey intentionally lay back to let things play out. This would explain a lot of things. Still, it doesn’t account for Posey’s complete lack of movement (were he prepared to act engaged while not actually engaging, one would expect that he’d try to sell it at least a little), nor the fact that Harper’s charge was decidedly unlikely in the first place.

 

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation

To Swing Or Not To Swing: What To Do With A Meatball When Your Team Is Comfortably Ahead?

Mattingly angry

Don Mattingly is the new uncontested King of Baseball’s Old School.

On Friday, his Marlins got into a benches-clearing dustup with the Dodgers, after reliever Ross Stripling drilled Giancarlo Stanton in the back. At first it appeared to be retaliation for Marlins pitcher A.J. Ramos hitting Brett Eibner, which came two pitches after Cody Bellinger blasted a two-run homer, not to mention that Eibner had already homered earlier in the game. (Watch it here.)

That’s a passel of old-school drama right there, what with pitchers drilling guys for some combination of teammates’ accomplishments and their own earlier success. But Mattingly’s subsequent explanation brought things to a whole new level.

“They’re up 5-0, swinging 3-0,” the manager said after the game in a Miami Herald report. “If you’re going to swing 3-0 and we got six outs left. … They can say it however they want it, but when you swing 3-0 up 5-0 going into the eighth, you can put it however you want.”

That is some serious throwback action. The 3-0 hitter Mattingly was talking about was Corey Seager, who eventually walked. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts later came out and said that not only did he not think it was a big deal but that it had been his decision, not Seager’s, which, maybe, okay, but taking heat off their players is what good managers do, so who knows.

 

Once upon a time, swinging 3-0 with a big lead late in the game was strict grounds for reprisal. The theory is based on the gentlemanly premise that any pitcher struggling to find the strike zone while his team holds a big lead needs all the help he can get. With the outcome of the contest no longer in question, allowing an opponent to pump a fastball down the heart of the plate in an effort to regain his footing is the least a hitter can do.

Take this quote:

“You’ll never see me hitting 3-0 five runs or more ahead. You don’t cherry-pick on the other team. You don’t take cripples. Three-oh, he’s struggling. He’s got to lay the ball in there. Don’t do it to the man. He’s got a family, too.”

That was from Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, in a New York Times article from 1993. Anderson decried such tactics as “cheap.”

In 2002, Matt Williams swung 3-0 while his Diamondbacks led San Francisco 6-0 in the fifth inning. He wasn’t drilled in response, but he heard about it from Giants manager Dusty Baker across the field.

“I did take exception to that, because [Williams, a former Giant] is one of my boys, and I had him [in San Francisco],” said Baker, looking back on the moment. “I said ‘Hey, man, I thought I taught you better than that. You don’t rub it in. You beat them up, but you don’t rub it in.’ ”

The best example from the not-so distant past doesn’t concern a 3-0 swinger, but the polar opposite. In the ninth inning of a game in 2002, with his team holding a 14-4 lead over the White Sox, Seattle outfielder Mike Cameron opted to watch a 3-0 fastball split the heart of the plate. His manager, Lou Piniella, had long preached against embarrassing opponents, and Cameron felt that taking a rip at such a juncture might do that very thing.

A pertinent detail: Cameron had already hit four homers on the day, and willingly passed up a golden opportunity for historic No. 5. He didn’t even consider it until afterward.

Those days, however, are long gone. Cameron last played in 2011, and his generation appeared to be the last to afford serious merit to the 3-0 rule. Part of it is the idea that modern players want to seize every stat-padding opportunity available, regardless of whether their team needs it to secure a victory. Even more pertinent are the definitions of big lead and late in the game.

Once, four runs were considered to be barely penetrable, and five runs—beyond the reach of a grand slam—were lock-box territory. Then came the juicing of baseballs and players alike, and the sport’s offensive explosion laid waste to prevailing notions about what kinds of leads might actually be safe. Five runs turned into six, then seven, then never enough.

Given Mattingly’s response, things might be regressing. The five-run deficit that so upset the Marlins skipper in the eighth inning offers a key tell. With the abundance of relievers—not only closers, but setup and seventh-inning men—pushing 100 mph, late-inning runs are harder to come by than ever. So maybe Mattingly is on to something, this idea that even a few runs over a game’s late frames are nearer a lock than at perhaps any point in history. The Dodgers’ late-inning guys—Kenley Jansen, Josh Fields and Pedro Baez—have combined for a 1.33 ERA this season. Jansen throws a 95-mph sinker, Fields a 95-mph cutter, and Baez a 97-mph four-seamer.

No wonder Mattingly felt overwhelmed.

Ultimately, embarrassing a pitcher by swinging 3-0 only works if said pitcher, or his team, is actually embarrassed. Of late, that’s been a rarity, but maybe Mattingly is ushering in a new/old era.

 

Bat Flipping, Retaliation

Celebratory or Sour: Jose Bautista Has A Bat Flip For Every Occasion

Bautista flips

Because one can never have too much bat flip discussion, and because no bat flip discussion is complete without Jose Bautista, let’s start there.

On Wednesday, Bautista hit an angry home run against Atlanta. He was angry because earlier in the game, Toronto teammate Kevin Pillar, upset at having been struck out on a quick pitch from Jason Motte, shouted a homophobic slur toward the mound, causing benches to empty. (The slur, having violated the unwritten rules of society more than it did the unwritten rules of baseball, is not the point of this post.)

So when Bautista homered a bit later against Eric O’Flaherty, he did this:

As you can see, a bat flip was involved. Also as you can see, the moment was pointedly distinct from Bautista’s other noteworthy flip from the 2015 postseason, which was documented at some length within these pages.

The latter was an expression of joy—satisfaction at having succeeded, monumentally, at an important task.

The former consisted primarily of churlishness. There was little to celebrate—the Blue Jays were down 8-3 when Bautista swung the bat. He tried to stare down the pitcher. He did a weird skip around the bases. There is a difference.

Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki thought so. He had words for Bautista as the runner crossed the plate, and when Bautista stopped to enjoin him, benches emptied for the second time in the game. Afterward, O’Flaherty had some pointed comments. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“That’s something that’s making the game tough to watch lately. It’s just turned into look-at-me stuff, it’s not even about winning anymore. Guy wants to hit a home run in a five-run game, pimp it, throw the bat around – I mean, I don’t know. It’s frustrating as a pitcher. I didn’t see it at the time, but I saw the video – he looked at me, tried to make eye contact. It’s just tired. We’ve seen it from him, though.”

Add to that the fact that Toronto pitchers hit seven batters over the first three games of the series—one of which knocked Freddie Freeman out of action for 10 weeks with a broken hand—and Atlanta was left with an abundance of bad feelings. (The pitch to Freeman was clearly unintentional, a fastball that wasn’t all that far inside, which hit Freeman’s extended top hand as he tried to check his swing.)

Atlanta responded to it all on Thursday, Julio Teheran drilling Bautista in the hip two pitches into his first-inning at-bat. Warnings were issued and everybody moved on. (Allowing players to police their own business, in whatever reasonable form it took, served to diffuse the situation after that point. Bautista and the Jays made a statement of their own by scoring three runs in the inning en route to a 9-0 victory.)

There is something to be said for recent cries that baseball should embrace the passion of its players and allow them to more freely express themselves on the field when it comes to bat flips and other celebratory acts. Unfortunately, that same sentiment is also used to justify poor behavior from egotistical spotlight hogs.

A player exulting after a virtuous performance lends realism to the sport. Showboating out of petulance strips that realism away. Bautista has encapsulated both sides of that argument. On Wednesday, it wasn’t a good look for anybody.

 

Retaliation, Sign stealing

Johnny Cueto Doesn’t Care For Your Sign Stealing, Sir

Cuetto PB

The Dodgers denied it, sort of, but it sure appears that they were stealing signs in San Francisco on Wednesday.

On one hand, it’s not such a big deal. Every team has players who do it and who appreciate when their teammates do it for them. And ultimately, a team getting its signs nabbed is mostly an indication that it needs better signs.

Wednesday, however, had some wrinkles—the most photogenic being Cueto’s response: a head-high inside fastball that eventually led to both benches clearing.

Cueto cutter
The pitch Grandal hit.

It started in the first inning, when, with Justin Turner at second base, Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal golfed an inside cutter off his shoetops into the right-field corner for an RBI double. On one hand, it was the kind of pitch that seems impossible to connect with firmly without knowing it’s coming. On the other hand, Buster Posey was set up middle and slightly away—so there’s no way that Turner was signaling location—and was falling to his knees to block it as Grandal made contact. It’s possible that Posey’s location was a decoy and that the cutter simply sank more than he expected, but if the catcher didn’t know the pitch was coming, how could the hitter?

No matter.

When Grandal next came up, Cueto responded with a message pitch that, while high and inside, the hitter didn’t have to move to avoid. Posey, however, having called for something low and away, was unable to adjust in time to stab the ball, which sailed to the backstop and allowed the runner at third, Chase Utley, to score.

After Grandal flied out to end the inning two pitches later, he began jawing at Cueto, pointing at his head in a clear gesture of having not appreciated the location of Cueto’s previous offering.  Cueto jawed right back. That’s when players from both teams streamed onto the field.

Afterward, Grandal alluded to other instances that may have aroused Cueto’s suspicion, which involved Grandal not only receiving signs, but sending them. “It caught me by surprise,” the catcher said in an MLB.com report, speaking of the conversation he had with Cueto during the pitcher’s third-inning at-bat. “I’m trying to get a walking lead because I’m slow. He thought I was giving out signs.” This could only have happened after Grandal’s sign-aided* double in the first, which was the only time he reached base all day. (Don’t forget that Cueto has some experience with this type of thing. At least the players also managed to iron out their differences during the conversation, each offering apologies for their behavior according to post-game recollections from each of them.)

Grandal also denied that he had known what was coming earlier in the inning. “Making contact [on the double] has nothing to do with knowing it was coming,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have swung at it if I had known where it was.”

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was less guarded, all but admitting Cueto’s suspicions. “He obviously didn’t appreciate if we were doing something like that,” he said in a San Francisco Chronicle report. “If we were, that’s a part of the game.”

Ultimately, Roberts is correct. The Dodgers have every right to steal whatever signs they can, just as Cueto has every right to inform them in safe and reasonable ways that he’s on to their shenanigans.

“He said, ‘Sorry for the misunderstanding. Let’s just move on,’ ”said Cueto after the game in an AP report, recounting his third-inning chat with Grandal in the batter’s box. “I’m not going to use that as an excuse, but they were relaying signs.”

Ultimately, it wound up just as multiple instances of mixed communication have ended up this season—worse than it needed to be, thanks to a substandard understanding about how things are supposed to work. (Examples of this abound.)

If Cueto had any clue about the game situation, he’d never have intentionally thrown a pitch that had a chance to get by Posey with a runner at third base. (If history teaches us anything, it’s that this type of thing is simply how Cueto responds to certain situations.)

If Grandal had recognized that Cueto’s contact-free message message could have effectively ended the tension right there, he might have kept his mouth shut.

But these players, like so many of their colleagues, have forgotten (or never learned) the deeper meaning behind some baseball actions, or the responsibility inherent in performing them. The result was another unnecessary conflagration spurred by players who were just a little confused about the proper response to things that in previous generations were considered normal.

* Maybe.

 

Retaliation, Umpires Knowing the Code

When Bad Things Happen to Good Pitchers … At Least Pitchers With Good Intentions

Gausman

When it comes to baseball’s unwritten rules, it’s often imperative that umpires are apprised of any history that might play into potential confrontation between teams. Frequently this helps. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Wednesday fit into the “doesn’t” category.

As the Red Sox and Orioles took the field, everybody around baseball—fans, players, coaches and all levels of management—knew about what had gone down between them. Also, more importantly, what had the potential to go down.

Commissioner Rob Manfred was sufficiently concerned, arranging, along with MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, a pregame conference call with Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter of the Orioles, and Dave Dombrowski and John Farrell of the Red Sox. In so doing, he put everybody on both sides on notice, and effectively provided plate umpire Sam Holbrook an extra-heavy mallet with which to hammer out the peace.

In an ideal world, the threat of action on the umpire’s part would have been enough. In retrospect, it might actually have sufficed, and yet we do not live in an ideal world. Because in the second inning, Baltimore’s Kevin Gausman hit Xander Bogaerts.

In a vacuum, the play would barely have registered. Gausman had faced only five batters. He’d been erratic, throwing only eight of his 20 pitches on the day for strikes. The fateful pitch was a 76 mph curveball—the last weapon of choice for somebody with vengeance on his mind. Given that Gausman was working under the hottest lights imaginable for such a thing, Bogaerts could not have been hit less intenationally.

It made no difference. The game had, somewhat surprisingly, begun without warnings, and Holbrook opted against issuing one to Gausman. Instead, he ejected him from the game, in the process becoming the poster child for brain-locking umpires who make shortsightedly stupid calls.

The Orioles were stunned. Gausman signaled furiously that it had been a breaking pitch that failed to break, and nothing more. Catcher Caleb Joseph spiked his mask and had to be physically separated from Holbrook. Adam Jones ventured all the way in from center field to protest, and was eventually tossed when he kept yapping following a fifth-inning at-bat.

So the Orioles had to go to their bullpen three outs into the game. Even though they were fortunate to squeeze seven innings out of Richard Bleier (making his first appearance of the season after being called up from Triple-A Norfolk) and Ubaldo Jimenez, they will be pitching shorthanded in the bullpen for days to come. Also, they lost, 4-2.

We’ve seen pitchers tossed for similarly little. We’ve seen instances in which clueless umpires didn’t do enough to staunch a potentially volatile situation. But as we learned Wednesday, it’s not just the information an umpire’s given, it’s how he uses it that matters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Retaliation

Obsess Much? Time For Red Sox To Let Go Of Machado’s Slide

Sale-Machado

The theme of the last two weeks has been Pitchers Throwing Behind Hitters Who Don’t Seem to Understand That Pitchers Who Throw Behind Them Haven’t Actually Hit Them. 

The recent pitches in question have come in both above the shoulder (bad) and below (better). Either way, outrage abounded.

The upshot is that purpose pitches are precisely that: pitches that serve a purpose, delivering messages about unappreciated behavior on the part of the opponent. The takeaway in this corner, generally speaking, is that a pitch behind a guy, away from his head, which poses no danger to his physical well-being, should not inspire the kind of misguided rage that we saw last week.

Then came yesterday. Chris Sale threw behind Manny Machado. Manny Machado was unhappy.

Unlike some of the preceding examples of misplaced animosity, he had every right to be.

The Red Sox were angry when Machado spiked Dustin Pedroia on April 21. They responded on April 22, first when Eduardo Rodriguez threw three pitches at Machado’s knees, all of which failed to connect, then another one, from reliever Matt Barnes, behind his head.

It is reasonable to expect that the first dose of retaliation should have mitigated whatever karmic debt Machado incurred with his slide, and that Barnes cleaned up any leftover crumbs with his ill-conceived follow-up. If the Red Sox wanted to drill Machado, they had their shot—two of them—and they blew it. The expiration date on their justified rage had passed.

Boston did not see it that way.

Which leads to the question: What was Chris Sale’s goal? Did he want to drill Machado, but, like his teammates before him, miss? Did he simply want to send what has becoming an increasingly common message that the guys in his clubhouse haven’t forgotten about what the guy in the other clubhouse did? Was it somehow about Mookie Betts, who had been hit by a pitch a day earlier?

No matter the answer, to what freaking end?

Assuming that the pitch was related to the Pedroia play, Machado already knows that the Red Sox, or at least certain players among their ranks, don’t like him. He knows that what he did continues to sit poorly with Boston’s roster. The Red Sox have gone through great pains to inform him of this. Sale’s pitch lent no additional degree of understanding.

Perhaps it’s Machado’s ongoing insistence that his slide was entirely above board. Maybe it’s aggrieved reaction to being thrown at the first time. Regardless, the Red Sox refuse to let it go.

To Machado’s credit, he handled his rage beautifully, saving it for a profanity-laced postgame rant for the ages. On the field, he simply took his base and later hit a monster home run.

The Red Sox have gone from good-guy victims in this drama to out-of-control vengeance monsters in the span of a week. The theme of recent message pitches across the league—hitters need to understand them better in order to better process the messages therein—has flipped entirely. This time it’s pitchers who need to understand when and how to end what at this point seems like an endless string of retaliatory actions.

It’s not a good look, for the Red Sox or for baseball.