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.

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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.

 

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

Scratch Those Premature Obituaries, Baseball’s Unwritten Rules Are Alive and Well

 

RamosII

We’ve spent a long time—years now—wondering whether baseball’s unwritten rules, the sport’s code of conduct, were slowly meeting an inexorable irrelevance. Bats are flipped, celebrations are celebrated, and teams mostly go about their merry ways, unperturbed by the spectacle.

Fair enough. If that’s how big leaguers are playing it, that’s how things are. This blog isn’t bent on prescription of the sport’s unwritten rules so much as documentation of how they’re enacted by those who matter.

Then Monday happened. Fastballs flew at batters, some intentional, some not, some difficult to ascertain. But they elicited response. Oh, did they elicit.

In San Francisco, Diamondbacks starter Taijuan Walker drilled Buster Posey in the helmet. It was the first inning, there was a runner on second and Walker had already faced the Giants once this season without incident. So unless something happened back on April 5 that irked Walker something fierce while going entirely unnoticed by the media on hand, the pitch was clearly a mistake.

Still, it was a 94 mph fastball that knocked the Giants’ best player from the game and landed him on the 7-day disabled list.

Until recently, this would have unquestionably merited response, be it a pain-inducer (fastball to the ribs) or a warning shot (brushback). In the current version of Major League Baseball, of course, nothing is typical as regards the unwritten rules. Things are calmer, more relaxed. Vendettas are strictly an old-school affair.

So it seemed only normal when Walker escaped unscathed. Neither of his subsequent at-bats were ideal for retribution—with one out and nobody on in the third, he hit a fly ball to right field; in the fifth, with two outs, a runner on second and the Giants leading 3-0, he whiffed—but neither were they unacceptable.

From there, though, things grew interesting. In the eighth inning, Giants starter Matt Moore plunked David Peralta in the back. Then, in the first inning of yesterday’s game, Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija plunked Arizona’s cleanup hitter, Paul Goldschmidt, in the backside—the ages-old response of “your best hitter for our best hitter.”

Bochy refused to discuss Samardzija’s pitch, and offered up an interestingly vague comment about Moore’s, saying in a San Jose Mercury-News report that “a pitch got away from him—I’ll leave it at that.”

Despite a pro forma post-game denial about wanting to pitch Goldschmidt inside, Samardzija had clear intentions for his target. Because the pitch was professionally delivered—into the posterior, nowhere near the head—the slugger took it without complaint. He knew the drill.

Why hadn’t it been Walker? Could be many reasons, though none resonate so firmly in a close game as not wanting to forgo an easy out by drilling the pitcher when one can send as firm a message against a far more dangerous hitter. Why Samardzija and not Moore? Might be a matter of personality, or the fact that the severity of Posey’s injury wasn’t known until after Moore’s game had ended.

***

Across the country, Phillies pitcher Edubray Ramos entered a tie game in the eighth inning and threw a one-out fastball well over the head of Asdrubal Cabrera. It didn’t come close to making contact, but was enough to elicit warnings from plate ump Alan Porter, and the subsequent ejection of Phillies manager Pete Mackanin for arguing a hair too vociferously. (Watch it here.)

The backstory seems pretty obvious. Ramos last faced Cabrera in September while gunning for his first big league save. Cabrera wrecked it, then did this:

Retaliating for a game-winning celebration is some old-school mentality. And here’s the thing: for all the noise coming out of the World Baseball Classic about how Latin players like to celebrate their achievements on the field, Ramos—a native Venezuelan—was having none of the exuberance of one of his fellow countrymen. Or maybe that latter detail offers another wrinkle to their relationship about which we aren’t yet aware. Whatever it was, it stuck in the pitcher’s craw.

So there it is: On the West Coast, a passel of Americans participated in all-American retaliatory daisy chain; on the East Coast, two Venezuelans did the same. (Worth noting is that Ramos’s teammate, Odubel Herrera—another Venezuelan—is a bat-flipping savant, while Mackanin, Ramos’ manager, is himself no fan of the flips.)

The unwritten rules may be inexorably changing, but it all serves to show that one should never place too big a bet on who their champion might be.

Retaliation

On the Glory of Red-Assery and the Origins of Motivation

madbum-puig

Does Madison Bumgarner like Yasiel Puig? He yelled at him in 2014 over a bat flip. Later on he hit him—clearly accidentally—and benches cleared.

Monday gave us more of the same. Puig grounded out to end the seventh, and when the players’ paths crossed, MadBum all but lost it. “Don’t look at me!” he yelled at the startled hitter over and over, even as Bumgarner himself initiated a staredown. Puig responded in kind and, again, benches emptied.

Maybe Puig was giving Bumgarner the stink eye, maybe he wasn’t. It didn’t matter either way—the left-hander was clearly looking for some extra-curricular action.

Bumgarner was fired up, having just finished his seventh inning of one-hit, no-walk, 10-strikeout ball in a must-win game, after having put up a 5.30 ERA over his previous six starts. This was clearly an extension of that, and it seems to have worked—right up until Bruce Bochy decided to pinch-hit for the pitcher the very next inning (to keep him out of harm’s way from a retaliatory fastball?) after which San Francisco’s bullpen blew another ninth-inning lead).

Bumgarner has gotten into it over the years with the likes of Wil Myers, Jason Heyward, Delino Deshields, Jesus Guzman and Carlos Gomez. There are few common threads between them save for the pitcher’s perpetually red ass. Somehow, none of those confrontations extended past the shouting phase.

This is simply how Bumgarner motivates himself, and it seems to pay pretty good dividends. Does it make him an asshole? Sure. Does he gave two snots about that? Not one freaking bit.

To the Dodgers’ credit, they had some fun with it the next day:

Puig himself even went so far as to sign a shirt, including the sentiments “#PuigYourFriend” and “I like you,” before sending it to Bumgarner in the Giants clubhouse.

Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

The Best Revenge Can Be Found On the Scoreboard

Posey avoids pitch

I’ve long claimed in this space that the best kind of retaliation is the kind that hurts figuratively, on the scoreboard, rather than literally, in, say, the ribcage. In San Francisco, Bruce Bochy seems to be a proponent of the former.

A few days prior to the All-Star break, the Diamondbacks got into it with San Francisco, starting when Jean Segura homered on Jeff Samardzija’s first pitch of the game. When Segura came to the plate an inning later, the right-hander drilled him with a fastball.

Intent was speculative, and highly unlikely. The Giants trailed 2-0, there was a runner on first and only one out. Still, a hit batter is a hit batter, and in the land of Tony La Russa, hit batters frequently merit response.

The first Giant to bat in the bottom half of the inning was Buster Posey. Diamondbacks starter Patrick Corbin nearly hit him in the knee. When Corbin sailed another pitch behind him, warnings were issued.

Bochy roared from the dugout, wondering at top volume why the hell Corbin was being allowed to stay in the game. The skipper was ejected for his protest (watch it here), but it hardly mattered. Posey walked, and the very next batter, Brandon Crawford, tied the score with a home run—the first of what became six unanswered for the Giants, who went on to win, 6-2.

Crawford’s shot, he said afterward in a San Francisco Chronicle report, was borne of motivation: “I don’t want to sugarcoat it—that’s what I went up there to do. I don’t know what they were thinking throwing at Buster twice. That kind of fired me up. When he walked, I wanted to make them pay for doing it.”

More pertinent to the big picture are the divergent approaches taken by the teams. The Diamondbacks, first under guys like Kirk Gibson and GM Kevin Towers, and now under La Russa and manager Chip Hale, have a storied history of exacting revenge at the slightest of provocations. Under Bochy, the Giants tend to approach things with leveler heads.

San Francisco outfielder Gregor Blanco neatly summed up the mindframe after the game, saying that Arizona’s strategy “was not smart baseball right there.”

“When something like that happens,” he said, “we feed off that anger. It shows what we’re capable of.”

That’s the sort of thing that ballplayers are expected to say, but in this case it appears to be true. Samardzija retired 12 of the next 13 batters he faced after the warnings, and the Giants closed the first half with the best record in baseball. (Arizona, perhaps coincidentally, is in last place, 19 games back.) Talent has a lot to do with it, of course, but it’s also a decent example of what a baseball team focusing on the right things actually looks like.

Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Cueto Goes Gunslinger: A Lesson on the Merits of Retaliation

Cueto-Franco

We’ve been thinking a lot about baseball retaliation this season—what it means in the modern landscape, and when (and if) it’s ever justified. We’ve thought about it so much, in fact, that one of our most noted bat-tossers had to clarify the idea of “a baseball play,” distinguishing between game action and sideline stupidity, and how a hard slide into a red-ass Rangers infielder should not lead to fisticuffs.

On the other end of the spectrum is Diamondbacks exec Tony La Russa, noting that retaliation is merited even in some cases of unintentional HBPs, should a pitcher with shaky command insist on working the inside edge—a tactic he decried as “intentionally careless.”

Which brings us to Johnny Cueto.

Yesterday in San Francisco, Phillies starter Aaron Nola was terrible, giving up 10 hits and five earned runs over 3 1/3 innings. Also, he hit three batters along the way. Nola is known for his outstanding control (indeed, he didn’t walk a batter against the Giants), but, given his awful June (he became the first Phillies pitcher since 1982 to go four straight starts with fewer than four innings pitched, during which he put up a 15.23 ERA), it’s difficult to mistake any of his mistakes as intentional.

His first and second HBPs, in the first and third innings, each loaded the bases. His third came one batter after his second, and drove in a run. Two of the three came on curveballs.

It mattered little to Cueto. Granted a 5-1 lead with two outs in the top of the fourth, the right-hander planted a fastball into the ribs of cleanup hitter Maikel Franco. Intent was obvious, and plate umpire Doug Eddings immediately warned both benches against further hijinks. (Watch it here.)

We can debate the merits of Cueto’s actions (while making note that the guy has some history with this kind of thing), but more pertinent to this conversation are the consequences.

Cueto, who had allowed one hit prior to drilling Franco, walked the next batter and then gave up back-to-back singles, scoring two runs. An inning later he gave up two singles, a double and a walk, leading to two more runs and a 5-5 score. In the sixth, the Giants having taken a 6-5 lead, Cueto gave up a leadoff homer to Odubel Herrera, costing himself a decision in what otherwise could have been his 12th win. It was his worst start of the season.

Did hitting Franco have anything to do with it?

After the game, Cueto denied intent, then blamed his downturn on Eddings having shrunk the strike zone. Giants manager Bruce Bochy was more clear-eyed, noting that Cueto looked rattled after the warning.

If there is an enduring lesson here, it is that any pitcher who decides to take up for his teammates in such a fashion—whether or not his teammates actually desire such a thing—must be able to withstand whatever repercussions come his way.

On Sunday, that was not Johnny Cueto, who by every reasonable interpretation should have known better.