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, Uncategorized

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, Uncategorized

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.

Retaliation, Uncategorized

The Best Kind of Revenge

Panik mashes

On Saturday, Rays starter Matt Moore put a 92 mph fastball directly into Joe Panik’s helmet. (Watch it here.)

It was, without question, unintentional. It came in the top of the fifth, there was nobody out, and Tampa Bay was clinging to a 3-1 lead. Also, the bases were loaded.

That is how Panik came to drive in San Francisco’s second run of the game.

The blow was severe—as is any head shot—but wasn’t enough to knock Panik from the game. It also wasn’t severe enough to merit a retaliatory fastball from any of the six Giants pitchers who followed. (That the DH was in play to protect Moore may have been a factor, but given San Francisco’s general reticence when it comes to that type of behavior, a payback HBP wouldn’t have been expected anyway.)

Panik authored his team’s response himself, hitting a tie-breaking homer in the ninth against Tampa Bay’s previously unhittable closer, Alex Colome, which won the game for the Giants. (Watch it here.)

Now that’s what retaliation is supposed to look like.

 

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.

Don't Swing on the First Pitch After Back-to-Back Home RUns, Uncategorized, Unwritten-Rules

Swing, Battah Battah, and Don’t Be Deterred By Back-To-Back Bombs

Buster's blast

With all the recent talk about bat flipping and fist pumping and making baseball fun again for a generation of players more concerned with self-expression than how that expression might be interpreted, it’s easy to lose sight of some of the more nuanced facets of the Code.

Once upon a time, players were expected to feel empathy for a struggling opponent. It’s a direct relative of the don’t-pile-on ethos that leads football and basketball teams to pull their starters late in blowout games. Take your foot off the pedal when extra gas is no longer useful to your cause. Make things easy. Show some respect.

Pertinent to this story is the concept of not swinging at the first pitch following back-to-back home runs. The idea is to give a struggling pitcher a small window of opportunity—a freebie pitch with which to regain his bearings.

“Someone would always pull you to the side and say, ‘Look, there have been two consecutive home runs hit—the third batter doesn’t swing at the first pitch,’ ” said Hal McRae in an interview for The Baseball Codes, talking about his time coming up with Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in the early 1970s. “Take the first pitch. Alert the pitcher that you’re not swinging, that you know he’s out there, that you respect him and you respect the job that he’s trying to do.”

Which brings us to yesterday. The Giants led Milwaukee, 7-3, at the start of the eighth inning. Then Denard Span hit a three-run homer. The next hitter, Joe Panik, followed with a solo shot. With an 11-3 lead and the two guys ahead of him having just homered, Buster Posey got a first-pitch fastball from pitcher Ariel Pena, 92 mph and over the plate. He mashed it over the fence in center field, ending Pena’s night. (Watch it here.)

Was Posey wrong? Of course not.

The reality is that the aforementioned piece of Code, while among the noblest of baseball’s unwritten rules, had its detractors even during McRae’s day. Batters are paid to hit the ball, a status that does not change late in blowout games, and many did not want to be deprived of that opportunity. In the modern game, of course, with the Code so thoroughly diminished, the rule seems downright quaint … if it seems like anything at all.

The reality is that Posey didn’t break the rule because Posey probably didn’t know the rule. Nor should he have, necessarily. He intended no disrespect with his swing, and by all accounts none was taken in the Milwaukee dugout. (Hell, the next hitter, Hunter Pence, also swung at the first pitch he saw, although that was against a new pitcher.)

So what’s the point of a rule that few people know about, nobody follows, and which wasn’t universally popular even in its heyday?

Maybe it’s the simple act of knowing it. Knowing that it exists, and that once a time there were players who abided by it. It offers a window not only into baseball’s past, but into its soul, a reminder that even if the ideals that drove a different generation are no longer worth of imitation, they’re still worthy of veneration.

The game has moved on, and that’s okay. It sure is nice to remember where it came from, though.

[Thanks to @BaseballRuben for the heads-up.]