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.

 

 

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Sign stealing, The Baseball Codes

Did the Peeking, Pesky Padres Plant a Peeper in Their Park?

Who was the binocular-toting man in the center field batter’s eye at San Diego’s Petco Park yesterday?

A checklist of information:

  •  He was positioned with a direct view into the catcher’s signals.
  • He was spotted while the Padres were at bat, late in a close game against St. Louis.
  • He was wearing a Padres-logoed polo shirt.
  • He was holding GOSHDANG BINOCULARS.

Putting a spy  in the scoreboard would hardly place the Padres in unique company. Most of their peers in the sign-thievery business, of course, are a bit more suave about the endeavor, at least to the point that the visiting catcher doesn’t notice what’s happening from his post behind the plate, more than 400 feet away.

For their part, the Padres offered the only logical explanation short of outing themselves as signal felons, saying the man was part of their ballpark’s security apparatus. San Diego manager Andy Green went so far as to claim that he was the one who alerted plate ump Sean Barber to the guy’s presence, objecting to the possible distraction to hitters caused by his white shirt.

Never mind that Green appears to be telling the truth—the TV broadcast shows Barber and Cardinals catcher Yadi Molina looking toward the Padres dugout before turning their attention to the outfield. It’s much more fun to believe that something shady is going on.

 

Petco CF
The camera well in Petco’s center field.

Sign stealing, of course, carries different tenors within the game, depending on who’s doing it. A runner at second base has relatively free reign to peek in to the catcher’s signals and relay what he wishes to the batter. If he’s caught, the aggrieved team’s usual reaction is to simply change its signs. Occasionally the runner will receive a verbal warning, and even more occasionally an intentionally errant fastball might find its way toward the batter’s box.

That, however, is far different than a team utilizing technology and non-uniformed personnel to do its dirty work from beyond the field of play—a tactic that is against baseball’s actual rules in addition to those of the unwritten variety. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Chicago’s old Comiskey Park was famous for signaling White Sox batters with its exploding scoreboard. Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard Round the World benefited from pilfered signals.

More recent occurrences:

Some of my favorite sign-stealing stories are much older, and took place on the north side of Chicago. From The Baseball Codes:

In 1959, Chicago finished in fifth place even though the team had a spy in the Wrigley Field scoreboard for much of the sea­son. He was traveling secretary Don Biebel, who, armed with binoculars, signaled hitters by sticking his shoe into an open frame used to post scores. Even through the losing, however, the Cubs still managed to arouse suspicion. Most skeptical were the Giants, whose ace, Sam Jones—the runner-up in that year’s Cy Young voting—got lit up every time he pitched in Chicago. (Against the rest of the league that year, Jones was 21-12, with a 2.54 ERA, and struck out a hitter every 1.25 innings; at Wrigley Field, he was 0-3 with an 8.53 ERA, and struck out a hitter every six innings.) It wasn’t long before San Francisco players identified the cause of the discrepancy.

“We just got wise and looked up, and sure enough in the scoreboard there was a big empty square,” said pitcher Mike McCormick. “Same scoreboard they have today, where they hand-place the numbers. There was somebody sitting up there in an empty square—one foot in the win­dow was a fastball, two feet was a curveball, no feet was a changeup. You let a major-league hitter know what’s coming, and he might not hit it all the time, but it certainly makes him a better hitter.”

Jones was particularly affected by the Cubs’ system, said Biebel, because he had trouble handling anything but the simplest signs, which kept Giants manager Bill Rigney from stymieing would-be thieves with a more complicated system. Instead, he dealt with the matter in a different way: six-foot-four, two-hundred-pound outfielder Hank Sauer, who was sent to the scoreboard to get some answers.

“Between innings I saw [first-base coach Wes] Westrum and Sauer and Bill Rigney get over in the corner of the dugout, and they were chatting,” said Biebel. “Sauer went out of the dugout and up the ramp, and I told the groundskeeper who was in the scoreboard with me, ‘You better lock this thing up—I think we’re going to have some company.’ About ten or fifteen minutes later, here comes Sauer along the back fence of the bleachers. He walks all the way out there and he starts pounding on our little door, shouting, ‘Let me in!’ He pounded for a while, but when he finally knew he wasn’t going to get in, he turned around and left.”

Biebel was good for more than stealing signs, of course. He was also proficient in catching opponents who were doing it. In 1960, Braves pitchers Bob Buhl and Joey Jay were dressed in street clothes and sta­tioned in the Wrigley Field bleachers with a pair of binoculars, lounging in the sun as if they had just popped in from a North Side apartment. The pair vigorously waved their scorecards whenever a breaking ball was on its way, and Biebel caught them immediately. “It was easy to spot them,” he said. “I knew who they were. You have a good view in that scoreboard, and back then the bleachers were pretty empty.” Biebel informed the dugout of his discovery, and ushers soon escorted the pair from their seats.

Those Cubs, of course, were terrible. Stealing signs, it seems, only served them to lose by a few fewer runs than they might have otherwise.

Are the Padres in that kind of company? Who knows? It sure is fun to think about it, though.

 

Retaliation

Boys Will Be Boys, But This Takes Things to a Whole New Level

Norris-Pagan

Angel Pagan didn’t want to step in somebody’s discarded gum, so he snatched it from the batter’s box and tossed it backward … directly at Padres catcher Derek Norris. Norris was not pleased. Words ensued. (Watch it here.)

Some points:

  • Who wants to step in another person’s gum? Pagan said later that he was not trying to hit Norris, although he exercised less-than-elegant aim.
  • Norris got upset, but it wasn’t like Pagan went all Marichal on his ass. It was gum.
  • A quick “Whups, my bad” by Pagan could have gone a long way toward general amelioration.
  • These are the same basic lessons we teach our second graders.

Case in point:

The real reason the incident merits attention in this space, however, has nothing to do with playground etiquette. The real reason this incident merits attention in this space is that Padres closer Craig Kimbrel, on the mound at the time, used it as a teachable moment, sending his very next pitch up and in on the hitter.

The takeaway: Pitchers are the schoolyard equivalent of a cross between bully and principal. Kimbrel’s fastball was effectively a timeout levied upon Pagan for behavior unbecoming a big leaguer. Or an 8-year-old. Don’t let it happen again. Next time: detention.

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

When Unwritten Rules Collide: Proper Shift Etiquette During a No-No

You don’t break up a no-hitter with a bunt. It’s a cornerstone of baseball’s unwritten rules. I’m giving you my best as a pitcher, and I expect your best as a hitter, the theory goes, and with this much on the line, ticky-tack small-ball tricks hardly count as anyone’s best.

Except for one caveat: If it’s a close game, everything’s in bounds. If your team needs a baserunner, then by golly you go out and become that baserunner the most effective way you know how.

On Monday, the Padres added another caveat to the list. With Andrew Cashner working a no-no one out into the fifth, Dominic Brown pushed a bunt down the left field line. Nobody came close to making a play, and Brown was on with a single. It was only a 1-0 game, and as the possible tying run Brown had every right to do what he did.

Especially when the Padres put on the freaking shift.

Which brings us to No-Hitter Etiquette Exception No. 2: If You Don’t Want a Guy to Get a Hit, Try to Avoid Making the Process Unduly Easy for Him.  That this is the Padres—at this point known primarily as the only franchise never to throw a no-no—makes it all the worse. Since the Padres came on the scene in 1969, they’ve been at the wrong end of nine of them. The Dodgers have thrown two this season.  The St. Louis Terriers, who played in the Federal League in 1914-15, have a no-hitter to their name. But not the Padres.

And still, manager Bud Black put on the shift. When Brown bunted the ball down the third base line, it was fait accompli.  Alexi Amarista was the closest guy to it as it rolled down the line, and he was playing shortstop. At the very least, Black was defying the baseball gods by ignoring another no-hitter rule: Don’t change anything up—not a spot on the bench between innings, not a guy warming up in the pen, and especially not an overt defensive assignment.

Which brings us to the third rule the Padres broke. That would be, Don’t Complain When Somebody Exploits your Shift During a No-Hitter. Especially When it’s 1-0. Cashner was visibly displeased on the mound, but settled down to end the inning. (He eventually gave up a second hit, to Marlon Byrd.) There was some dugout grumbling and the fans booed wildly. (Which is not to say that everybody in the home clubhouse was crying. “This is baseball,” said catcher Rene Rivera in an MLB.com report. “If you’re going to give a guy that side of the infield, why not take your hit?”)

It brings to mind that only two seasons ago, Jarrod Saltalamacchia also bunted against a shift to break up a no-hitter, which, like this one, was a fine thing to do. It also brings to mind that earlier this season, Colby Lewis got upset when somebody bunted to break up his no-hitter in the fifth inning, despite it being a perfectly acceptable thing to do. What it really brings to mind, though, is the most famous no-hitter-destroying bunt in history, which also involved the Padres, though in 2001 it was one of their own doing the bunting. And Ben Davis didn’t even bunt into a shift when he did it.

As for Brown, he said afterward that he wouldn’t have bunted had it been the ninth inning, but in the fifth all bets are on the table. It showed good awareness of the rules, though it probably won’t buy him any goodwill from the Padres fans who were ignorant enough to boo him in the first place.

 

Deke Appropriately

Now You See it, Now You Don’t: The Weekend of Phantom Tags

ChiSox dekeWe’ve discussed the concept of deking in this space for some time, under the auspices that improper execution by middle infielders can be dangerous. (A last-minute phantom tag, for example, delivered when a baserunner doesn’t expect it, can lead to late and awkward slides.)

Rarely, however, do we see two perfectly executed dekes in the same weekend that both lead to game-ending double plays.

On Saturday, Michael Cuddyer, representing the tying run for the Rockies, was on first base with one out in the ninth inning, and took off running. The hitter, Nolan Arenado, popped the pitch into short center field, but all Cuddyer saw was Padres second baseman Jed Gyorko acting like he was fielding a throw from the catcher. When center fielder Alexi Amarista made the catch, it took only an easy throw to double Cuddyer off first. (Watch it here.)

On Sunday in Baltimore, the Orioles had runners at the corners with one out in the ninth, down 4-2 to the White Sox. Chris Dickerson, inserted as a pinch-runner at first base, ran on an 0-2 pitch that batter Brian Roberts popped up behind first, in foul territory. Chicago shortstop Alexi Ramirez lit to the bag as if to field a throw, spurring Dickerson into a head-first slide. Second baseman Leury Garcia made the catch while Dickerson was still at second; though he probably had time to run it over himself, he flipped the ball to first baseman Jeff Keppinger for the game’s final out. (Watch it here.)

The similarity on both plays: Neither runner looked in to see where the baseball was going.

”I didn’t peek and it ended up in the one place where you’re not going to get that awareness reaction from the infielders,” Dickerson said in an AP report. ”Especially Ramirez with the deke. That pretty much got me. I assumed there was a ground ball hit behind me, and he was going to first because I was already there.”

Catchers will occasionally deke runners into easing up by acting as if no throw is coming before fielding the ball and making an unexpected tag. Outfielders have been known to act as if they have a bead on a ball that ends up landing nowhere near them, in order to keep a runner near his base. In 1958, members of the Cubs bullpen went so far as to deke Giants outfielder Leon Washington by collectively acting as if a ball hit by Tony Taylor had rolled under their bench, while it was actually some 45 feet away, in a rain gutter. (By the time Wagner realized what was happening, Taylor had circled the bases.)

Infielders, however, hold nearly absolute dominion over the tactic. (For an extended rundown on the idea, focusing primarily on Lonnie Smith’s basepath adventure in the 1991 World Series, see chapter 9 of The Baseball Codes.) Rarely, however—if ever—have we seen such wildly successful execution delivered so definitively in such a short amount of time.

Hidden Ball Trick

Now You See It, Now You Don’t: On Making Baseballs Disappear

hidden ballTim Lincecum no-hit the Padres on Saturday, but a day earlier the same teams showed us something that might be even more rare.

After Pablo Sandoval doubled with two outs in the top of the fifth, Padres shortstop Evreth Cabrera ended up with the ball, and while nobody was watching, tucked it away in his glove. Sandoval, preparing for the ensuing pitch, took his lead off second—and Cabrera pounced.

Hidden-ball trick!

Cabrera did everything right, catching Sandoval completely unawares. Problem was, second-base ump Laz Diaz had allowed a timeout request, so the ball was not actually in play. Also, because pitcher Sean O’Sullivan was standing on the mound at the time, the play would have been rendered illegal even had time not been called. Sandoval was allowed to remain at second.

Still, one can hardly fault Cabrera for his effort. “I’m trying to do something to get out of the inning, something different,” he said in an MLB.com report.

Said longtime big leaguer Rex Hudler: “The hidden ball trick is not against the unwritten rules. You’re trying to get an out. I never did pull it off in the big leagues, although I wanted to a few times.”

Cabrera’s effort called to mind a similar effort by Philadelphia shortstop Steve Jeltz in 1986. He had the ball, showed it to the nearest infield umpire, and picked the runner, Curt Ford of the St. Louis Cardinals, cleanly off second base. The only problem was that Phillies catcher John Russell, unaware of what was going on across the diamond, requested time out, which plate ump John McSherry granted just as the infielder was racing to apply the tag. Because the ball was no longer in play by the time Jeltz reached Ford, the runner, like Sandoval, was allowed to return to second.

In 1968, umpire Emmitt Ashford inserted himself even more firmly into a would-be play, obliviously calling time—of his own accord, not because anybody requested it—just as Baltimore first baseman Boog Powell was about to catch Yankee Joe Pepitone off the bag. When questioned by the upset Orioles about his motivation, he said, “Boog’s got the ball and he forgot to call time. I’m just trying to be helpful.”

More on the topic from The Baseball Codes:

“A lot of people thought the hidden ball trick was kind of a chickenshit play,” said longtime big leaguer Steve Lyons, “but my feeling always was, Pay attention.” Lyons’s favorite situa­tion in which to utilize the strategy was on tight double plays, when all eyes were on the first-base umpire to see whether he’d call the runner safe or out. Because many first basemen naturally hop off the bag toward the pitcher, said Lyons, “all you have to do is take three more steps, give [the pitcher] a little nod, hang on to the ball, turn around, and come back to first base. Guys get off the base too early all the time.”

Third baseman Matt Williams was one of his era’s foremost practition­ers of the trick, going so far as to induce runners off the base. With the Giants in 1994, Williams pretended to give the ball to pitcher Dave Burba, then returned to his position and asked the runner, Dodgers rookie Rafael Bournigal, if he “could clean the bag off.” The runner gra­ciously stepped aside, which Williams immediately made him regret. “The intent was not to embarrass anybody or to pick on anybody,” he said after pulling the trick against Royals rookie Jed Hansen three years later. “But you want to win, and we needed to win that game.”

At least he got that much out of it. Lyons said that in the minor leagues he once pulled off the play at first base on consecutive days, against the same baserunner, Carlos Martinez. “He was probably pissed off, but the embarrassment when you actually get caught overrules everything,” he said. “You get caught, you’re embarrassed, you start walking back to the dugout. He was big enough to pinch my head off if he wanted to.”

Lyons once hid the ball so well that baserunner Scott Fletcher wasn’t the only one completely snookered—so was the umpire, who called the runner safe on the play. “I got in a pretty good argument over that one,” said Lyons. “I said, ‘Do you think I’m stupid enough to pull the hidden-ball trick, have everybody in the entire ballpark not know that I have the ball, fool every player on both my team and their team, fool the guy who’s on first base, and then tag him before he’s off the bag? Do you think I’m that dumb?’ And what I didn’t realize until that point was that I didn’t really give the umpire a shot to know I had the ball. In fact, I fooled every­body. It’s a little unfair to have him make the right call on that play if he doesn’t know I have the ball, so after that I tried to make sure that they did. It’s pretty hard to try to hide the ball from everybody in the world and still show it to the umpire and say, hey, I’ve got it here, keep your eyes open—but that’s what I tried to do.”

Don't Showboat, Juan Guzman, Retaliation

Guzman Takes a Spin Down the Line, Giants Respond

Guzman drilleOn Tuesday, Jesus Guzman belted an eighth-inning, two-run, pinch-hit homer against Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt to give the Padres a 4-3 lead. This excited him.

He watched the blast. He walked down the line. He held his bat. Eleven steps from the plate he spun 180 degrees, still moving toward first, and, with his back to the pitcher, bellowed toward his teammates in the first-base dugout.

Clearly, the Giants were not amused. How clear became evident during Guzman’s first at-bat on Wednesday, when Madison Bumgarner threw his first pitch waist-high and behind the batter. Guzman shouted toward the mound and pointed his bat at Bumgarner, all while taking the slow steps of a man with no intention of trading punches. (Bumgarner, however, veritably tore down the mound to establish a closer confrontation, and was restrained by on-deck hitter Yasmani Grandal and plate ump Tony Randazzo.)

Although dugouts emptied, each bench was warned and order was quickly restored. (Watch it all here.)

“I was enjoying the home run with my teammates,” Guzman said of his Tuesday night blast, in an MLB.com report. “I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful of their team.”

That may well be true, but even the greenest big leaguer, let alone a guy with four years’ experience—who, by the way, came up with the Giants in 2009 and was a teammate of Affeldt’s—should realize that such a display will almost inevitably be taken poorly.

Bumgarner’s response—a warning shot across the bow, as it were—got the point across: Think for a moment before doing something like that against us again. (Bumgarner, for his part, left his postgame response to the phrase, “There’s no need to comment on that.”)

Ultimately, however, it was Guzman who held the retaliatory trump card. Leading off the seventh against Bumgarner in a 1-1 game, he crushed a home run deep down the left field line. (Watch it here.)

This time he faced the appropriate direction, and ran every step of the way.