Intimidation

Let’s Talk About What To Do When Teams Hit Too Many Home Runs In A Row

Shortly after The Baseball Codes came out, I was asked by a radio guy about my favorite unwritten rule. It was an odd but interesting question—one that somehow, through the five-year process of researching and writing the book, I had never considered. The rule that first popped into my head did so, I think, because it’s quaint and outdated, and paints the long-ago baseball landscape in which it existed as entirely foreign, like some pastoral English countryside. It holds that a player should not swing at the first pitch after back-to-back home runs. Given this week’s power barrage, it seems like an appropriate discussion point.

The idea is one of courtesy. I’ll let Hal McRae explain:

“Look, there have been two consecutive home runs hit. The third batter doesn’t swing at the first pitch. Take the first pitch. Alert the pitcher that you’re not swinging, that you know he’s out there, you respect him, you respect the job that he’s trying to do. So you take the first pitch, saying, ‘I’m not going to try to come up here and try to hit the third consecutive home run.’ After the first pitch it’s okay for you to do your job. . . . Don’t go up there and take a swing from your heels on the first pitch. Get in the box loosely. Let him know, okay, I’m not swinging. I know you’re out there trying to do a job. And I have to do a job, but you’ve just given up back-to-back home runs. So I take the first pitch.”

Early on, the rule actually covered any home run, not only back-to-back jobs. These days, of course, it’s entirely off the table. Hitters swing freely at whatever they see, regardless of circumstance.

Take this week, for instance. We’ve already seen one team hit back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs, and another slug three in a row. As it turned out, of the four Nationals homers off of Padres reliever Craig Stammen on Sunday, the final three came on the reliever’s second pitch. Of the three Diamondbacks to take Phillies right-hander Jerad Eickhoff deep to lead off their game Monday, all went deep into the count.

This is undoubtedly a matter of circumstance more than etiquette. It’s a safe bet that none of the seven hitters considered the above rule. Hell, it’s a safe bet that none of the seven hitters has heard of the above rule. Which is part of what makes it my favorite, the kind of thing left for discussion with old-timers.

That’s not the only thing at play here, though. Numerous teams have hit four straight home runs, but only rarely do they do so against one pitcher, without a reliever being summoned someplace along the way. In fact, Stammen was only the fourth hurler in big league history to bear that weight. “You want to dig a hole, crawl behind the mound and go in that hole and never return every time you give up a home run,” he said in an MLB.com report. “To give up four in a row, just times that by four. It doesn’t feel good. But it’s your job to go out there and make pitches. That’s what I was trying to do. I didn’t do it today.”

The other unwritten rule that comes into play here—which seems nearly as outdated as not swinging at the first pitch following back-to-back jobs—is the idea of making somebody uncomfortable at the plate. This is purely strategic, the power of an inside pitch that moves a hitter’s feet and backs him up in the box. The more a batter has to concentrate on the possibility of avoiding a baseball, after all, the less he can concentrate on hitting.

I discussed this in 2017, when the Nationals (none of them overlapping with the Washington quartet that recently did it again) hit four straight dongs off of Milwaukee’s Michael Blazek. I quoted longtime reliever Bob McClure telling his own story of similar frustration:

“We were in Yankee Stadium one time, and I gave up back-to-back home runs to two left-handers. I’d given up back-to-back home runs before, but not to two lefties. Dave Kingman was up next. [Catcher] Charlie Moore called for a fastball away. He knew better, anyway. He was just going through them all. Fastball away. No. Curveball. No. Changeup. No. Fastball in. No. And then he goes [McClure flicks his thumb from out of his fist, under his index finger, the universal symbol for knock him down]. So I threw it, and it was a good one—it went right underneath him and almost flipped him. He hit the dirt and was all dusty. His helmet was off. He grabbed his bat and his helmet and gets right back in there. I threw him a changeup and he popped up to first base.

The upshot, from McClure: “Back then, we were taught the 0-2 up and in. Home run, next guy: boom! Knock him down.”

That tactic—not hitting a guy, but disrupting his concentration—might have served Stammen well had he chosen to employ it. It certainly couldn’t have hurt. Instead, of the 12 pitches the right-hander threw to the four homer hitters, only one—the second pitch of the entire sequence—ran inside. The Nats seem to have appreciated this.  

Similar advice could have been utilized by Dylan Bundy last season, or David Bush back in 2010.

Given the ever-increasing incidences of home-run barrages (Washington’s recent quartet came as part of a game that saw 13 longballs), this kind of strategy seems more necessary now than ever. Which doesn’t in any way mean that pitchers will use it, of course.

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Basepath Etiquette, Play Clean

‘Manny Being Manny’ Happened Again, And Like Usual, It Doesn’t End Well For Anybody

Machado's bat III

Was Leo Durocher right? Do nice guys really finish last? As it happens, reputation matters in baseball. Coming readily to mind is Bill Lee’s story about pitching to Al Kaline, late in the Hall of Famer’s career, when the left-hander felt that umpires would give the slugger the benefit of the doubt on anything close. When Lee complained about it, he received an all-time response from the plate ump: “Son, Mr. Kaline will let you know it’s a strike by doubling off the wall.”

Reputations, of course, can work in the opposite direction, as well. Last week The Athletic ran a poll of big leaguers, asking them about which fellow players were overrated, underrated, intimidating and the like. They also asked who was the dirtiest. The results for the latter question weren’t too surprising.


Machado dirty

So when Machado—a guy known for kicking opponents during the playoffs, spiking middle infielders, hitting catchers with backswings, getting annoyed at routine plays and fighting with pitchers for little reason—does something with even a hint of controversy, we can only expect umpires to respond accordingly.

On Tuesday, Machado’s reputation bit him during a routine popup against Arizona. Head down, he nearly collided with Diamondbacks catcher John Ryan Murphy, who was tracking the ball just up the first base line a few steps from the plate. Then Machado tossed his bat gently toward Ryan’s feet. Then Ryan dropped the ball in foul territory. Umpire Bill Welke called Manny out anyway, for interference, a decision that led to Padres manager Andy Green getting tossed when he came out to argue.

Machado’s defenders say that his head was down and he was running toward first in the only lane available to him. They say that he more or less dropped the bat where he would have had Green been nowhere near him. They say that Green had no business dropping a ball that was still very catchable. And they’re right. But it doesn’t mean that the play wasn’t dirty.

The part about nearly bumping the catcher is easily excused. Machado did have his head down before heading up the line, wide of Ryan. If contact was made, it’s just as likely that Ryan ran into Machado as the other way around.

Where Manny put the bat, however, is up for interpretation. For somebody inclined to believe that the guy does not always have the best interests of his opponents at heart, it’s easy to see how he might have meant to place it in an area where the chances of the catcher tripping over it were greatest. After all, he took care to drop it on the opposite side of Ryan, almost reaching around his opponent to do so. He looked up and assessed the situation before acting. Malice aforethought is entirely plausible, and, given Machado’s history, is even likely. When it came to Welke, that’s what mattered.

The interference call was hardly pro-forma. Rule 6.01(a)(10) states in part that “when a catcher and batter-runner going to first base have contact when the catcher is fielding the ball, there is generally no violation.” Perhaps Welke would have called it differently had a different player done it.

But this was Manny Machado, and Manny Machado has a reputation, and Bill Welke knows all about it.

So when an umpire asks himself “What would Manny do?” and the answer is “something he shouldn’t be proud of,” it can’t come as much of a surprise when the subsequent ruling reflects as much.

At this point in his career, Manny has nobody to blame but himself.

Retaliation

Nolan Arenado Does Not Appreciate Your Message Pitch, Sir

Arenado charges

Remember back in 1990, when Dave Stewart threw a no-hitter—and then had it upstaged only a few hours later when Fernando Valenzuela threw a no-hitter of his own?

Wednesday was kind of like that for mound charges.

Tyler Austin’s assault on Boston pitcher Joe Kelly garnered more headlines, but Nolan Arenado’s charge of San Diego pitcher Hunter Renfro came first. Also, it was interesting.

The genesis came on Tuesday, when Rockies pitcher Scott Oberg drilled San Diego center fielder Manuel Margot in the ribs with a 95-mph fastball that pretty clearly lacked intent. (Oberg himself tried to relay as much to Padres coach Glenn Hoffman while he was still in the field.)

Still, the damage was such that Margot was placed on the 10-day disabled list. When it comes to teams harboring grudges, that kind of detail matters.

On Wednesday, the Padres drilled Trevor Story in the first inning, and the Rockies responded by drilling Hunter Renfro in the second. (Both pitches came in two-out situations that would suggest the pitchers had some inclination toward the results they achieved.)

Things came to a head in the third, when Padres right-hander Luis Perdomo ran directly counter to his team’s rock-steady plan of pitching Nolan Arenado away, instead sending a fastball directly at his ribs—as clear a response to Margot’s drilling as could be imagined. Arenado avoided the pitch, barely, then wasted no time in lighting out to get him a piece of pitcher. A backpedaling Perdomo tried to blunt the charge by tossing his glove at the furious batter, which, apart from being highly comical, sort of worked—the glove missed, but so did Arenado, and the fight ended up like so many others, with lots of shoving and not much in the way of actual brawling.

The teams meet again, also in Colorado, on April 23.

 

Sign stealing

Wood Barks, Green Leaves and Seasons Turn: Dodgers, Padres Engage in Sign-Stealing Dustup

 

Wood barks

When it comes to things like sign stealing, one can frequently assume that ill will between teams is the result of a hot-headed player who doesn’t fully understand the dynamics of the situation. Signs are stolen all the time, at which point the primary response can be summed up with the phrase, “We’d better change our signs.”

When a runner at second base is too obvious in the practice, his aggrieved victim is within rights to call him out, either verbally or via a warning pitch. Either way, it’s then time for the relayer’s team to cool things off for a while. They weren’t subtle enough, they’d been caught, and laying low is a noncontroversial stance.

When the hot-heads in question are the adults in the room, however, things take on a whole different look.

Yesterday in San Diego the managers got into it, with Andy Green of the Padres and LA’s Dave Roberts both being ejected over an argument about stolen signs.

At issue: In the bottom of the first, Dodgers starter Alex Wood took issue with Padres left fielder Jose Pirela, who he thought was signaling the hitter, Manuel Margot, from second base. Wood turned around and suggested (in salty language) that Pirela should cease and desist. The reaction was reasonable—far preferable to Wood drilling Margot for the perceived infraction. Early in the game as it may be, at that point it was up to Pirela and the Padres to knock off their shenanigans for a while.

Wood’s warning—“If you keep giving away location, I’m going to fucking drill you”—was overheard by second base umpire D.J. Reyburn, after which plate ump Greg Gibson issued warnings to both benches, likely to head off further action from Wood. (This seems like an overreach. If Wood wanted to handle the situation with a fastball, he likely would have done so against Margot. Watch Wood’s reaction here.)

Both managers came out for an explanatory meeting before the start of the second inning, at which point various ideas were exchanged. Green felt that Wood should have been tossed, a patently ludicrous idea, and offered some pointed criticism of the pitcher as he turned toward the dugout. (Both managers declined to recount his exact verbiage.) Roberts responded, racing toward Green and bumping him in the process. Benches had to empty to separate the men. Possibly noteworthy is the fact that Roberts spent five seasons as a Padres coach before moving to the Dodgers when San Diego’s managerial job went—without Roberts getting so much as an interview—to Green.

This is where both managers were tossed. Their postgame comments to reporters serve to illustrate their respective positions:

  • Green: “I think the No. 1 thing I took issue with was the threat on the mound from their pitcher to our player that he was going to drill him, with some expletives mixed in. It’s unacceptable, and I don’t think there’s anyone on our club that’s going to tolerate that and just yield to that. I voiced how I felt about what their player had done … and I said it probably dripping with a little bit of sarcasm.”
  • Roberts: “I was just wanting to get his attention. I probably got too emotional, but I think we all care about our players. When things are said about your player, I think you get a little bit more sensitive to it.”
  • Wood: “I just thought they were giving location. I’ll never know if they were or they weren’t. … I didn’t mean to overreact if that’s how it came across. I just got caught up in the moment.” (This itself is dubious. Wood’s suspicion had to have been stout to elicit such a reaction. And if the Padres were signaling location, it would have been a simple matter for Dodgers catcher WHO to simply set up a little bit later.)
  • Padres starter Clayton Richard: “It’s nice to be in this fraternity of baseball players where there are so many legitimately tough people involved, because it’s such a grind, physically and mentally, to go through a season. Unfortunately, there’s a few guys that act fake-tough when they’re given an opportunity.”

While both managers can be cited for rash behavior, they can also be commended for fulfilling one of a manager’s most essential duties: standing up for his players. Roberts defended Wood, and then lost his mind a little when the pitcher was insulted. Green took anger directed at one of his players and made it his own business, handling things (rightly or wrongly) the way a good boss should.

That’s the good part. The bad part is leaders of men, who are supposed to be setting examples, acting like little kids.

The rest of the game, a 10-4 Dodgers victory, was played without incident.

Unwritten-Rules

No Need to Upset MadBum – He Covers That Quite Nicely Himself, Thank You

MadBum-Myers

What does it mean when a notorious red-ass acts down to his reputation? By inventing slights at which to react angrily, is he upholding the unwritten roles, or violating them?

Madison Bumgarner might know, but he’s not telling.

Bumgarner, of course, is the guy who got into it with Jason Heyward in March, who got into it with Delino DeShields last July, who got into it with Carlos Gomez last May, who got into it with Yasiel Puig in 2014—twice—and who got into it with Jesus Guzman in 2013.

Agree with them or not, at least the above instances involved clear-cut impetus for his red-assery. On Tuesday the lefthander was at it again, for reasons that nobody could quite fathom.

Bumgarner struck out Padres first baseman Wil Myers to end the third inning, then, as he was walking back to the Giants dugout, decided to about-face and shout Myers down. Myers, incredulous, told him to knock it off, and benches briefly emptied. (Watch it here.)

Why?

“It was hard to tell whether Myers offended him by calling timeout, or taking too long to get in the box, or even taking too healthy a cut, by the pitcher’s reckoning, while striking out,” wrote Andrew Baggarly in the San Jose Mercury News.

Bumgarner himself did little to explain the situation, saying only that “I just wanted to be mad for a minute.”

To be fair to Bumgarner, self-motivation is an important tactic in sports. If irrational anger is what he needs to compete at peak levels—and he threw a complete-game five-hitter, so maybe it is—more power to him, so long as nobody gets hurt. (MadBum even went so far as to make up with Myers when he reached first base after a ninth-inning walk.)

That said, the Code is built around respect for one’s opponent. Bumgarner, in inventing reasons to get upset at Myers, seems to be in short supply of it. Whether this is “playing the game the right way” any more than Puig’s bat flip which set off the pitcher back in 2014 is up for interpretation, but with every outburst it appears to be less and less so.

Home run pimping, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

John Lackey Making Baseball Fun Again for Old-School Pitchers With Anger Issues

Lackey

We’ve spent so much time recently with the concept of making baseball fun again that we seem to have lost sight of those old-school souls hell-bent on preserving on-field propriety and baseball decorum. (Members of the Goose Gossage Home for Aged Cranks, of course, carry with them their own brand of mania and are never far from view, but are rarely active players.)

On Wednesday, John Lackey reminded us that even to some who still play the game, the old school is still a thing.

In the second game of a doubleheader against San Diego, the Cubs starter gave up only one run, on a fifth-inning homer to Christian Bethancourt. It was enough to lose 1-0, but what really irked the right-hander was when Bethancourt stood in the box and watched the ball fly.

“You better fucking run!” Lackey screamed as the hitter rounded the bases.

That’s some good drama right there. Lackey upped the ante after the game, when he referenced the teams’ next meeting, in late August. “How many home runs does he have?” Lackey asked reporters, via the Chicago Tribune. Told that the blow against him was Bethancourt’s third of the season, the pitcher was concise. “I have a long memory,” he said. “He’ll learn.”

(See Bethancourt’s pimp and Lackey’s reaction over at Deadspin.)

Lackey, of course, is no stranger to this type of reaction, drilling Tampa Bay’s Matt Joyce for similar reasons, for example, when Lackey pitched for the Boston Red Sox in 2013. Also, Francisco Cervelli in 2011. Also, Derek Jeter (for different retaliatory purposes) in 2010.

Lackey is 37 years old and in his 14th big league season. He’s set in his ways. He’s also one of the rare guys left in the game willing to talk openly about drilling somebody for the crime of bruising his ego.

That kind of move is increasingly dubious in the modern baseball landscape, but Lackey is old and ornery. And, odious as it may be to the public at large, for guys like that, plunking upstart youngsters may well constitute their own version of making baseball fun again.