Sign stealing

That Time When The Cubs Were Stealing Signs And The Giants Wanted To Mix Things Up But Couldn’t Because Their Pitcher Was Easily Confused

What with all the brouhaha surrounding the Astros’ banging of a trash can to alert hitters to upcoming pitches, I’m continually reminded about stories I researched for The Baseball Codes. One of them provides a cautionary warning even for teams who recognize when their signs are being illicitly pinched. That’s because no matter how precautious a team might be, they can only take as many preventative measures as their pitcher will allow.

Somehow, Giants ace Sam Jones—who finished second in the Cy Young voting in 1959—got lit up every time he pitched in Chicago that year. Against the rest of the league that season, Jones was 21-12 with a 2.54 ERA, and struck out a batter every 1.25 innings. At Wrigley Field he was 0-3 with an 8.53 ERA and struck out a batter every six innings. It wasn’t long before San Francisco players identified what was behind the discrepancy.

“We just got wise and looked up, and sure enough, in the scoreboard there was a big empty square,” said Giants 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.”

That somebody was Cubs traveling secretary Don Biebel, who earlier that season had been installed as the man in the center-field scoreboard. Armed with binoculars, he signaled hitters by sticking his shoe into an open frame used to post scores. Contrary to McCormick’s recollection, it was the placement of his foot, not the number of feet, that bore a message. To the left of the square meant fastball, to the right a curve. Just an inch or two of sole was all it took.

This system particularly affected Jones, who had trouble handling anything but the simplest signs. This kept Giants manager Bill Rigney from making the signals more complex in an effort to stymie would-be thieves. So he had to deal with it another way.

At age 42, Giants outfielder Hank Sauer was the oldest player in the National League and had spent almost seven of his 15 years in the big leagues as a member of the Cubs. He knew the sort of things that went on at Wrigley Field, and, at 6-foot-4 and 200 lbs., was one of the last guys a traveling secretary hidden in the scoreboard wanted to cross. As the Cubs continued to batter Jones, Rigney sent his slugger to the scoreboard to get some answers.

“Between innings, I saw (first base coach Wes) Westrum and Hank 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 that thing up—I think we’re going to have some company.’ About 10 or 15 minutes later, well, 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 awhile, but when he finally knew he wasn’t going to get in, he turned around and left.”

Part of the reason that the Cubs were able to get away with something so blatant, reasoned Biebel in an MLB.com report, was that “Everybody knew we were getting the signs and we still finished in fifth place.”

The Astros are another story. Two World Series in three seasons will do that for a club. Every day brings new revelations about just how far they’ve been willing to go. Now we just wait for reaction from the league office.

Let The Kids Play, Showboating

MadBum Gets Angry, Does Some Shouting, Gives Up Dong, Yells At A Guy, Loses Game

For many years, Madison Bumgarner has cultivated an image of being extremely attuned to the unwritten rules of his sport, serving as baseball’s hardline arbiter of on-field behavior. Flip a bat against the cow-punching North Carolinian and you’ll hear about it. Same if you run too slowly around the bases.  

At Oracle Park on Sunday, however, MadBum revealed a bit too much. Today’s headlines are all about the left-hander’s response to Max Muncy taking him deep (plus Muncy’s response to Bumgarner, which we’ll get to in a bit). Muncy’s homer hurt: he plays for the hated Dodgers, he hit it as the second batter of the game, and the blast carried all the way into McCovey Cove. Before Muncy could even make it to first base, Bumgarner was all over him, chirping about taking too long in the batter’s box. Muncy responded as he circled the bases, and the feud was on.

The main problem with Bumgarner’s red-ass was that there really wasn’t much to get red-assed about, to the point that even Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow, while trying to explain the situation, could describe the hitter’s post-homer steps only as “that little walk.”

After the game, Bumgarner gave a light-hearted recitation for the media about what happened. His comments included snippets like, “I can’t even say it with a straight face, but the more I think about it, I should just let the kids play—but I just … I can’t,” and, in response to a question about the game changing, “They want to let everybody be themselves, then let me be myself. That’s me.”

It’s a continuation of the conversation we’ve been having all year about pitchers who might not be entirely on board with the modern era of officially sanctioned on-field celebrations.

That, though, is not what this post is about. The detail that many reports overlook is what immediately preceded Muncy’s blast. Against Kike Hernandez, the game’s very first hitter, Bumgarner got into a shouting match with plate umpire Will Little about the strike zone, which grew heated enough to draw Little toward the mound. Following some chirping from the Giants bench, the ump issued a cross-field explanation that can easily be read as an informal warning.

This was clearly on Bumgarner’s mind when he missed wide with his first three offerings to Muncy before leaving one up, in the slugger’s wheelhouse.

Baseball history is littered with the corpses of players whose weakness has been discovered by the opposition and subsequently exploited. Perhaps this is Bumgarner’s. Pitching in the ninth inning of the World Series doesn’t seem to faze him nearly as much as some perceived slight by the opposition. This has long viewed by outsiders as a motivational tactic—something to keep the pitcher’s competitive instincts honed. (Lord knows, it’s happened before.) This is supported by the fact that Muncy’s homer was the only run MadBum gave up as part of a fabulous performance. If the pitcher needs swagger to succeed, then swagger he shall deliver.

Still, Bumgarner was done in by his momentary lapse, one disastrous pitch serving as the difference in a 1-0 ballgame.

In the big picture, yelling at a guy is preferable to drilling him, especially for something like this. Also in the big picture, if Bumgarner can figure out a way to keep things a bit more contained—just enough to avoid the occasional slip on a day when he’s clearly dominant—it’d be better for everybody.

Then again, had MadBum been a little less mad, we would never have gotten Muncy’s response: “If you don’t want me to watch the ball, you can get it out of the ocean.” It doesn’t actually make sense, but at least it sounded pretty good in the moment.

Retaliation

Bumgarner Dots Braun, Gives Up Grand Slam, Makes Fans Wonder What The Hell’s Going On. Again.

MadBum-Braun

As if we didn’t already know it, Madison Bumgarner reminded us over the weekend that it’s probably best just to let him mutter like an insane person on the mound when he pitches. That’s because if you dare question his mutter-and-fussing, he will quickly transition from old-man-yelling-at-neighborhood-kids-from-his-porch to old-man-throwing-baseballs-at-neighborhood-kids-from-his-porch.

Just ask Ryan Braun.

In the sixth inning of Sunday’s game against the Brewers, MadBum threw a couple up and in to the former MVP. Given that Braun had already hit an RBI double against the lefty and sent another one to the wall in center, Bumgarner was in no mood for a response. When Braun suggested that the pitcher “just throw the ball,” it was more than enough motivation for Bumgarner to do just that.

His next pitch nicked Braun on the elbow. Message sent, I guess.

Then again, that message loaded the bases for the next hitter, Jonathan Schoop, who unloaded them with a grand slam. Given that the Giants led 2-1 before Braun’s at-bat, this was not an ideal outcome for Bumgarner. As the Brewers spilled from the dugout to greet Schoop, many of them took the opportunity to yell at the pitcher and had to be shooed off the field by ump Dan Bellino.

It was, of course, classic Bumgarner. (For previous examples of his exquisite red-assery, look here, here, here, here, here, here or here.)

The pitcher’s irascible farmer act is likeable, I guess, if you’re a Giants fan … except that I am a Giants fan, and this kind of thing rips me up. Stand your ground. Take no guff. Defend teammates. But when a pitcher has to invent conflict in order to motivate himself, and that conflict comes back to bite him and his team, it’s awfully hard to swallow.

Bumgarner’s act can play when he’s an ace. But when the velocity of his four-seamer has dropped nearly two miles per hour, and the pitch has gone from one he uses more than 40 percent of the time to one he uses .1 percent (that’s point one percent) of the time, and the spin rate has plummeted across his repertoire, and he’s given up 11 earned runs over his last two starts … well, when all that happens, these kinds of meltdowns don’t inspire much love from the base.

Pitch to Braun, not at Braun. Win baseball games, not arguments. Be a badass, not a bully. There is success to be found there, if only Bumgarner chooses to look.

 

Showing Players Up

Who Needs MadBum? Hundley Joins SF’s Pick-On-Puig Parade

Puig n Hundley

Bobby Thomson vs. Ralph Branca it ain’t, but this thing Yasiel Puig has going on with the Giants sure makes for some compelling theater. Up till now it’s mostly been beefs with Madison Bumgarner. On Tuesday, catcher Nick Hundley got involved. The theme, however, seems consistent: The Giants apparently want Puig to play the game the right way.

With two outs and nobody on in the seventh inning, and the Giants nursing a 1-0 lead, Puig fouled off a 1-1 slider from lefthander Tony Watson. Spinning from the batter’s box, he angrily snatched at his bat, clear frustration over missing a pitch—which, indeed, came in flat and hittable—that he felt he should have handled. A curse word was uttered.

Hundley didn’t like it. According to Puig, the catcher told him to “stop complaining and get back into the box.”

Puig did not take kindly to the sentiment, Hundley did not take kindly to Puig’s lack of taking kindly, Puig shoved the catcher, and benches emptied. A couple of Puig slaps to Hundley’s mask was about it for the physicality (excepting Hundley’s dramatic, if inadvertent, takedown of Dodgers coach George Lombard), but given the participants, none of it came as too much of a surprise.

Could Hundley have let the display go? Of course. Puig’s action wasn’t in any way directed toward the Giants. He spun away from the mound and was clearly talking to himself, not the opposition.

Could Puig have reacted a bit more calmly to the catcher? Let his own postgame statement—“When I got into his face he told me to also get out of his face, so that’s when I got upset”—answer that question.

More pertinently, the question raging this morning involves the notion that the Giants have somehow become baseball’s one-stop fun-police shop for play-the- right-way baseball. Maybe this is true, but up until yesterday it was almost entirely a Bumgarner-driven affair. Hell, just a night earlier the pitcher appeared to take exception when Puig offered a similar display of frustration in the batter’s box. Perhaps this is why Hundley was particularly sensitive to it on Tuesday. “It doesn’t happen with other teams, and it doesn’t seem to happen when we’re in San Francisco,” Puig told reporters after the game. “It usually seems to happen when we’re here, and I’m not going to let them act like that in our house.” (Puig might be right, but MadBum has had plenty of issues with plenty of other guys, too.)

Maybe it’s Puig himself. Maybe the most polarizing guy on the Dodgers, the King of the Bat Flippers, has simply become a personification in San Francisco of the Giants’ most bitter rivalry, a stand-in for the concept of Dodgerdom at large. Bumgarner aside, San Francisco players don’t seem to be a particularly uptight bunch, so perhaps Puig is just a straw man who the Giants (or some among their ranks) have propped up to help focus their competitive nature.

Whatever it is, it certainly hasn’t hurt—with a 2-1 victory, San Francisco has now taken two straight in Dodger Stadium, and sits only three games back of LA, and five out of first place. The teams play again tonight, then close the season with three games in the Bay Area.

 

Retaliation

When Bad Things Happen Because Nitwit Pitchers Respond To Perceived Slights In Ways That Are Detrimental To The Winning Of Games: The Hunter Strickland Experience

Brinson drilled

This is what it looks like when retaliation goes wrong. Or maybe it’s what it looks like when a guy takes things too seriously. Or maybe it’s just what it looks like when one of baseball’s premier chowderheads is allowed to let loose his inner id at multiple touchpoints between mound and clubhouse.

We’re speaking, of course, about the Giants and Marlins, specifically of San Francisco’s chowderheaded closer Hunter Strickland. To get into any of it, of course, necessitates a review of the recent history between these teams.

It may have started with Miami pitcher Dan Straily breaking Evan Longoria’s finger with a pitch on June 14, but that seems specious given that Hunter Strickland does not need external motivation like teammate injures to come completely unhinged. He does that plenty capably on his own. In the ninth inning of that very game, Strickland blew the save when Marlins rookie Lewis Brinson—batting .172—tied things up, 3-3, with a sacrifice fly. (The Giants ended up winning in 16, 6-3.)

Brinson tossesThe closer didn’t like that. The next time he faced Brinson, four days later in San Francisco, he buzzed the rookie’s tower with an up-and-in fastball. Brinson responded with a game-tying single, making him directly responsible for both of Strickland’s blown saves in the span of three appearances. Brinson gave a take-that flip of the bat as he motored toward first, and the Marlins ended up scoring three times against the closer to erase a two-run deficit and win, 5-4. That should have effectively been that.

It wasn’t, of course. Strickland was yanked after giving up three hits and two walks to the six batters he faced, and shared some thoughts with Brinson as he departed the field. Then he proceeded to into a fight with a clubhouse door … which he lost. Strickland, with a broken pinky on his throwing hand, will be out for up to eight weeks.

Because Baseball Men stick up for each other, and because pitchers’ fraternities are strong and frequently mystifying, the following night, Tuesday, Giants starter Dereck Rodriguez drilled Brinson. Maybe we should have expected this, given the proclamation from reliever Mark Melancon that Brinson “was disrespecting the game.” More pertinently, Rodriguez is not only a rookie looking to gain acceptance from his veteran teammates, but is the son of a Hall of Fame catcher who no doubt called his fair share of intentional HBPs. The guy was raised on old-school lessons about how to approach this very kind of scenario.

The thing about old-school approaches, of course, is that they frequently elicit equal-and-opposite responses. So in the process of protecting a hotheaded teammate whose actions toward Brinson (or his own damn pitching hand) were in no way justified, Rodriguez reignited what should have by that point been a dormant feud. This led, an inning later, to Straily drilling Buster Posey. (Frustration could also have played a factor. With one out in the second inning, Straily had allowed more baserunners—six, via two walks, a single, a double and two home runs, one by Posey himself—than outs he’d recorded.)

Since the umpires had issued warnings following Rodriguez’s HBP—to which Marlins skipper Don Mattingly took exception, given that his own pitchers weren’t given a chance to respond—Straily was tossed (as was Mattingly). Giants broadcasters Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper speculated on the air (as per The Athletic) that after Brinson was drilled, Mattingly emerged from the dugout, pointed at Posey and declared, “You’re next.” (Posey later denied that such a thing happened. Watch most of it here.)

The Giants, of course, denied any sort of intent behind Rodriguez’s pitch (which couldn’t have looked more intentional), but denial is part of the game. Just ask Joe Musgrove, who was recently docked $1,000 for admitting to just such a tactic in a game against Arizona.)

That Posey absorbed the blow and the Giants won help obscure the not-insignificant detail that San Francisco’s best player was thrown at for reasons that could have been avoided entirely had his team not opted to respond on behalf of a meathead pitcher who’d artificially escalated tensions in the first place. Had Posey been injured, a hefty portion of the blame could have been put on the Giants themselves.

There is much to admire about baseball’s old school. There’s even a place for appropriate response when an opponent’s recklessness puts somebody into physical peril. But the tactic of defending a teammate who merits no defense—while well-established through baseball’s annals—is one tenet that could stand to be revisited.

Update (6/21): Straily was suspended for five games, Mattingly one.

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Belt’s (Sort-Of) Bunt Breaks Up No-No, Everybody Remains Calm

Belt bunts

We have another entry in the bunting-to-break-up-a-no-hitter category only a short way into the season: Brandon Belt did it on Tuesday to ruin Patrick Corbin’s no-no in the eighth inning. It was completely aboveboard, for a host of reasons:

  • It was a swinging bunt, not a squared-up affair. Arizona manager Torey Lovullo called it a check-swing, but it looked to me more like a clear push toward the left side.
  • It would have been okay even if it was the buntiest of squared-up bunts, given that the game was scoreless and Belt represented the go-ahead run.
  • The reason Belt so wanted to push the ball to the left side was that, like Minnesota before them, the Diamondbacks had put on an extreme right-side shift against him. It paid off for them earlier in the game, when Belt grounded out to third baseman Daniel Descalso, positioned to the right side of second base, in the third inning. Descalso was positioned similarly in the eighth. It didn’t work out so well the second time around.

Belt bunts sort of

Unlike Minnesota, nobody on Arizona’s side of the field seemed to take umbrage with Belt’s tactics following the D’Backs’ 1-0 victory. “Unfortunately we play a shift, we play an aggressive overshift and you saw what happened,” said Lovullo after the game, blaming himself, not Belt, in an MLB.com report.

This year we’ve already seen Cleveland bunt against the shift during a one-hitter and the Angels bunt against Cleveland during a no-hitter, which follow last year’s incidents involving Justin Verlander and Gio Gonzalez.

The good news is that, save for a few profoundly sensitive players in Minnesota, nobody really thought twice about any of these situations.

As for Belt, he continued to be a thorn in Arizona’s side on Wednesday night.

Retaliation, spring training

Dyson Deals, Davis Ducks: Spring Dustup Has Giants, A’s in Midseason Form

Dyson-Hundley

Intent is everything. If a pitcher wants to hit a batter, and then hits that batter, you can be certain that the batter knows what happened, and why.

When the pitcher didn’t mean to do it, though, things are usually different. Balls slip, plans go sideways, and sometimes hitters have to wear one just because that’s the way the game sometimes works. For the most part, everybody understands this and moves right along without devoting too much energy to the proceedings.

Usually.

Spring training is, by design, a place for players to work the winter kinks out of their games, so it should come as little surprise when the occasional fastball gets away from the occasional pitcher and ends up someplace it oughtn’t. Such a thing happened yesterday, and the A’s weren’t at all pleased.

Giants reliever Sam Dyson didn’t even have to hit the batter, Oakland slugger Khris Davis, to ignite anger. He only brushed him back with something high and tight.

Then again, Dyson had just given up three straight hits, including a double, an RBI single, and a two-run homer to Franklin Barreto, before Davis came to the plate, so perhaps the pitcher was acting in frustration. Ultimately, whether he meant it doesn’t really matter. The plausibility of intent was undeniable, and optics are everything when it comes to this kind of stuff.

Davis immediately had words for Dyson, and Giants catcher Nick Hundley had words for the A’s dugout. Dyson ended up rocked for four runs in two-thirds of an inning.

So a maybe-he-meant-it-but-probably-he-didn’t HBP went from nothing to something based on Davis’ reaction to Dyson, and Hundley’s ensuing reaction to Davis’ teammates. Things grew further inflamed when Roberto Gomez, the pitcher to follow Dyson, hit the first batter he faced, A’s prospect Ramon Laureano, on the hand. At that point intent ceased to matter. The Giants were officially throwing at Oakland, and Oakland felt the need to respond.

The mantle was taken up by right-hander Daniel Gossett, who got into 18 games for the A’s last year as a rookie and is hoping to land a rotation spot this season. After retiring the first four batters he faced, he planted a fastball into the back of Orlando Calixte, inspiring umpire Mike DiMuro to warn both benches against further such displays.* Calixte appeared to want a piece of the pitcher after scoring on Jarrett Parker’s double, but was instead directed to the dugout with no small urgency by teammate Mac Williamson.

Afterward, Giants manager Bruce Bochy didn’t want to talk about the confrontations, and A’s manager Bob Melvin dismissed the entire affair with the sentiment, “Boys will be boys.”

The Giants and A’s face each other six times this (and every) season (and once more in a split-squad game on Saturday), but this kind of thing will almost certainly be left behind in Arizona.

* When it comes to Gossett and Laureano alike, there’s no better way for a new pitcher to earn respect in a clubhouse than by standing up for his teammates. And there’s no more obvious way to stand up for teammates than a well-timed message pitch in response to some perceived injustice.