Sign stealing, Uncategorized

MadBum on the Cubs: ‘They Might Want to Be a Little More Discreet’

MadBum-Heyward

What looked to become a full-blown confrontation yesterday in Scottsdale was quickly defused when Jason Heyward, at the plate for the Cubs, informed an increasingly agitated Madison Bumgarner that he was shouting not toward the mound, but at his own teammate, Dexter Fowler, standing atop second base.

Heyward had just struck out looking on a terrific breaking pitch, and appeared to be frustrated with … something. But why was he yelling at Fowler? The obvious conclusion is that he had received a signal for the upcoming pitch, and that the intel Fowler provided was incorrect. (Watch it here.)

If that was the case, of course, the only thing wrong with the scenario was Heyward’s inability to wait until he and his teammate were off the field to express his displeasure. Coming as it did in the middle of a freaking game, the outburst managed to draw some attention.

“They might want to be a little more discreet about that if you’re going to do that kind of thing,” said Bumgarner afterward in the San Jose Mercury News.

Which is the thing. MadBum, perhaps the game’s premier red-ass, was entirely unwilling to abide Heyward shouting something at him from outside the baseline, but when it came to stealing signs … well, they should have been a little more discreet.

Pinching a catcher’s signals from the basepaths and relaying them to the hitter is an ingrained part of baseball culture. Teams don’t like having their signs stolen, of course, but the most frequent reaction is not to get angry, but simply to change the signs.

For his part, Heyward denied the accusation, saying, “He made a great pitch on me, a front-door cutter, and I’m all, ‘Hey Dex, what’ve you got? Ball or strike?’ … There’s no tipping of signs, believe it or not. It wasn’t going on, especially in a spring training game.”

It’s true that it seems silly to steal signs during an exhibition contest, but spring training is used to hone all aspects of one’s game. Heyward is new to the Cubs, and may simply have been trying to dial in his ability to communicate from afar with various teammates. Even if he wasn’t, it sure looked like he was—and that alone is enough place the Cubs under suspicion around the rest of the league.

An entire chapter was devoted to the topic in The Baseball Codes. Here’s some of it, long but worthwhile:

It started with a thirteen-run sixth. Actually, it started with a five-run fifth, but nobody realized it until the score started ballooning an inning later. It was 1997, a sunshiny Wednesday afternoon in San Francisco. By the end of the game, it was 19–3 Expos, and the Giants—the team at the wrong end of that score—were angry, grumbling that the roster of their opponents was populated by thieves.

San Francisco’s thinking stemmed from the belief that it likely takes more than skill or luck to send seventeen men to the plate against three pitchers in a single inning. There was no disputing the numbers: Mon­treal had six players with three or more hits on the day, and in the sixth inning alone, five Expos picked up two hits apiece, including a pair of Mike Lansing homers. Montreal opened its epic frame with eight consec­utive hits, two shy of the big-league record, and it was a half-hour before the third out was recorded.

San Francisco’s frustration boiled over when manager Dusty Baker spied Montreal’s F. P. Santangelo—at second base for the second time in the inning—acting strangely after ten runs had already scored. One pitch later, the guy at the plate was drilled by reliever Julian Tavarez. Two bat­ters later, the inning was over. “They were killing us,” said Baker. “F.P. was looking one way and crossing over, hands on, hands off, pointing with one arm. I just said, ‘That’s enough. If you are doing it, knock it off— you’re already killing us.’ ”

What Baker was referring to was the suspicion that Santangelo and other members of the Expos had decoded the signs put down by Giants catcher Marcus Jensen for the parade of San Francisco pitchers. From second base a runner has an unimpeded sightline to the catcher’s hands. Should the runner be quick to decipher what he sees, he can—with a series of indicators that may or may not come across as “looking one way and crossing over, hands on, hands off ”—notify the hitter about what to expect. Skilled relayers can offer up specifics like fastball or curveball, but it doesn’t take much, not even the ability to decode signs, to indicate whether the catcher is setting up inside or outside.

If the runner is correct, the batter’s advantage can be profound. Brook­lyn Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen, who was as proud of his ability to steal signs from the opposing dugout as he was of his ability to manage a ball club, said that the information he fed his players resulted in nine extra victories a year.

Baker sent a word of warning to the Expos through San Francisco third-base coach Sonny Jackson, who was positioned near the visitors’ dugout. Jackson tracked down Santangelo as the game ended and informed him that he and his teammates would be well served to avoid such tactics in the future. More precisely, he said that “somebody’s going to get killed” if Montreal kept it up. The player’s response was similarly lacking in timidity. “I just told him I don’t fucking tip off fucking pitches and neither does this team,” Santangelo told reporters after the game. “Maybe they were pissed because they were getting their asses kicked.”

The Giants’ asses had been kicked two nights in a row, in fact, since the Expos had cruised to a 10–3 victory in the previous game. It was while watching videotape of the first beating that Baker grew convinced some­thing was amiss, so he was especially vigilant the following day. When Henry Rodriguez hit a fifth-inning grand slam on a low-and-away 1-2 pitch, alarm bells went off in Baker’s head. Former Red Sox pitcher Al Nipper described the sentiment like this: “When you’re throwing a bas­tard breaking ball down and away, and that guy hasn’t been touching that pitch but all of a sudden he’s wearing you out and hanging in on that pitch and driving it to right-center, something’s wrong with the picture.” The Expos trailed 3–1 at the time, then scored eighteen straight before the Giants could record four more outs.

Baker knew all about sign stealing from his playing days, had even practiced it some, and the Expos weren’t the first club he’d called out as a manager. During a 1993 game in Atlanta, he accused Jimy Williams of untoward behavior after watching the Braves’ third-base coach pacing up and down the line and peering persistently into the San Francisco dugout.

For days after the drubbing by Montreal, accusations, denials, veiled threats, and not-so-veiled threats flew back and forth between the Giants and the Expos. Among the bluster, the two primary adversaries in the bat­tle laid out some of the basics for this particular unwritten rule.

Santangelo, in the midst of a denial: “Hey, if you’re dumb enough to let me see your signs, why shouldn’t I take advantage of it?”

Baker: “Stealing signs is part of the game—that’s not the problem. The problem is, if you get caught, quit. That’s the deal. If you get caught you have to stop.”

 

Bryce Harper, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, Uncategorized, Unwritten-Rules, Washington Nationals

Bryce Harper and Sergio Romo: Secretly Simpatico?

Keep calm

For a while, it seemed like yesterday would belong to Bryce Harper’s views about baseball’s unwritten rules.

Then Goose Gossage opened his mouth. In what appears to be coincidental timing, the Hall of Fame reliever unloaded to ESPN about noted bat-flipper Jose Bautista being “a fucking disgrace to the game,” among other choice sentiments that ran directly counter to Harper. Gossage, of course, is his generation’s It-Was-Better-When-I-Played standard-bearer, the guy to turn to for strident opinions.

His comments came in response to a benign question about new Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman, and quickly veered not only to slamming Bautista, but to complaints about how “fucking nerds” who “don’t know shit” are ruining the game from front-office positions, that “fucking steroid user” Ryan Braun gets ovations in Milwaukee, and that modern relievers are too focused on pitch counts and not enough on the game itself.

Gossage, a world-class griper, was simply doing what he does best.

He would have been easier to dismiss had not Giants reliever Sergio Romo—one of the game’s free spirits, a guy loose enough to rock this t-shirt at the Giants’ 2012 victory parade—himself dismissed Harper later in the day.

“Don’t put your foot in your mouth when you’re the face of the game and you just won the MVP,” Romo said about Harper in a San Jose Mercury News report. “I’m sorry, but just shut up.”

In response to Harper’s comment that baseball “is a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself,” the reliever offered a succinct takedown.

“I’m pretty sure if someone has enough money,” he responded, “he can find another job if this is really tired.”

Thing is, Romo and Harper actually seem to agree about most of what they said. Romo is himself demonstrative on the mound, showing more emotion while pitching than perhaps anybody in Giants history. He took care to note, however, the difference between excitement and impudence.

“As emotional and as fiery as I am, I do my best not to look to the other dugout,” he said. “I look to the ground, I look to my dugout, to the sky, to the stands. It’s warranted to be excited. But there is a way to go about it to not show disrespect, not only to the other team but the game itself.”

With those four sentences, Romo cut to the heart of the issue. Contrary to those trying to position this as a cross-coast battle of wills, Harper did not say much to contradict that sentiment.

Baseball’s unwritten rules have changed markedly over the last decade. There is more acceptance of showmanship now than at any point in the sport’s history, and scattershot blasts from the likes of Goose Gossage will not slow that momentum. Because the Code has changed, however, does not mean that it is failing.

The real power of the unwritten rules lies in the maintenance of respect—between teams, within clubhouses and, as Romo went out of his way to note, for the game itself. This core value has not eroded at all.

What has changed over time is ballplayers’ ability to distinguish displays of emotion from displays of disrespect. When the mainstream decides  that bat flips are an acceptable form of self-expression, they no longer have the power to offend.

The reason this hasn’t already gained universal acceptance is that not all bat flips (used here as a proxy for any number of emotional displays) are equal. Bautista’s display during last season’s playoffs was magnificent. Some bats are flipped, however, not with celebration in mind, but in an effort to denigrate the opposition. It might, as Romo noted, include a staredown of the pitcher (as Harper himself has been known to do). It might be some extra lingering around the box, or a glacial trot around the bases. At that point, the method of the opposition’s response—which includes the option of not responding at all—becomes a valid concern.

Romo talked about this distinction, and its importance to the game. Surprisingly, so did Harper.

The MVP noted that Jose Fernandez “will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist.” Because Harper doesn’t take it as a sign of disrespect, Harper doesn’t care. And if Fernandez does not intend it as such, nobody else should, either. (Worth noting is that Fernandez learned an important lesson in this regard early in his career.)

The main fault with Romo’s diatribe was that he inadvertently piggybacked it atop Gossage’s inane old-man ramblings. Still, he lent some nuance to a discourse which sorely needs it, and perhaps inadvertently pointed out that he and Harper have more in common than either of them might otherwise believe.

Ultimately, the question seems to be less “Can’t we all just get along?” than “Why haven’t we figured out that we’re getting along already?”

Unwritten-Rules

Shout it From the Rooftops, Shout it From the Mountain, Just Don’t Shout it Near MadBum

Gomez confused

There was a lot of shouting at Carlos Gomez in Milwaukee on Wednesday. Some of it was from Madison Bumgarner. Most was from Gomez himself.

It started when Gomez fouled off a pitch he felt he should have drilled. He whirled outside the batter’s box and screamed at himself loudly enough to be picked up on the TV broadcast. (Watch it here.)

Bumgarner did not approve. The pitcher glared at Gomez, then fed him an inside pitch—it didn’t come close to hitting him, but conveyed an unmistakable message. Gomez popped out on the lefty’s next offering, also inside. Bumgarner had some words for him as he headed back to the dugout.

Really, though, this story is about Gomez’s postgame comments. Had he not said this, on MLB.com

Who does that guy think he is, Bumgarner? I never scream at anybody when they miss a pitch and he screams at himself, or they make a pitch and be happy. I never say anything. So you put a good swing and they’re looking at you like you’re a piece of (garbage). Tell that (guy) to throw the ball and don’t worry about my thing. That (guy) was looking at me like I’m an idiot. So you worry about pitching. I worry about hitting. I don’t care what you do. You can strike me out and do whatever you want. That doesn’t bother me. But a professional, like the guy thinks he (is), you throw the pitch and the hitter can do whatever he wants. I missed a pitch. . . . I was (upset) because I waited for that pitch and I’m supposed to hit it and I missed it. I was (mad) at myself, so he can’t be looking at me. He’s not my dad.

… then we wouldn’t be talking about the incident today.

The reality is that Gomez is no stranger to controversy. Like his brawl with Gerrit Cole in 2014. And his showdown with Brian McCann in 2013. And his confrontation with Joe Mauer in 2010. The guy has his moments.

So then does Bumgarner, who lit into Yasiel Puig last season for flipping his bat, and into Juan Guzman in 2013 for much the same reason. It wasn’t even the first time he dug into an opponent for self-flagellation; Alex Guerrero did a disgusted pirouette after flying out to right field against the Giants earlier this season, and MadBum had a few things to say.

The takeaway: Bumgarner is one of baseball’s noted red-asses, and whether or not you like it, at least he’s consistent. He’s not settling any stupid, made-up scores by drilling guys, so in that capacity he’s fine. And baseball needs a few curmudgeons to keep things spicy.

Gomez, for all his fire, has the right to be annoyed, but he should also come to expect it. Bumgarner’s not his dad, but he does make his own rules when he’s on the mound. Gomez doesn’t have to like them, but he’d be well served to understand that things are probably not going to go any other way.

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 Incite the Opposition

Shout it From the Mountaintops, Just Don’t Shout it at Me: The Hunter Strickland World Series Experience

 

Prior to Wednesday, Hunter Strickland hadn’t had a good postseason in terms of results. On Wednesday he didn’t do much when it came to composure, either. Calling out the opposition is rarely a good idea this time of year.

Fine. Strickland was yelling at himself after giving up another playoff homer, this one to Omar Infante. But with self-flagellating macho displays of anger must come the understanding that said displays might sometimes be misread by, say, an innocent catcher who just happens to be trotting by on account of he was on base when the homer was hit.

Salvador Perez was incredulous. Strickland was a boor. Perez wondered if Strickland was talking to him. Strickland told him to kindly return to the dugout, sprinkling some less-nice words into the sentiment. Perez’s teammates emerged from the dugout in order to have his back. Strickland’s teammates more or less stayed put, while Buster Posey mostly settled for looking annoyed. Perez’s team won the game, Strickland’s did not. (Watch it all here.)

“He’s a really intense kid,” said Bruce Bochy afterward. “That’s probably an area he’s going to have to keep his poise.” Well, duh.

Internalization is good; considering your own role within a given negative experience can lead to positive behavioral changes and emotional growth. But even though that’s ostensibly what Strickland did, that’s not really what Strickland did. Really, he just turned into a rage monster. It started with himself, but soon enough found purchase in passersby, and collateral damage started to pile up.

This is not a good look for a guy whose stuff has put him in the “future closer” conversation. Closers are the guys who take things calmly, who are able to move on from a situation, good or bad, game to game and moment to moment. Getting into unnecessary shouting matches during the World Series does not exactly fit the bill.

[Image via CJ Fogler]

 

 

Retaliation

When is a Pitch at the Shoetops not a Pitch at the Shoetops? When it’s a Shot Across the Bow, Apparently

A little history can go a long way. All it takes is an ill-timed HBP and a few words in response from either side, and a poorly placed mistake thereafter can blow up into a full-scale bench clearer.

Add to that ingredient list the Giants and Dodgers fighting for the top spot in the NL West, and one’s margin for error gets that much thinner.

First, the history. On May 9, Yasiel Puig homered off Madison Bumgarner and flipped his bat. He flipped his bat because flipping his bat is what Yasiel Puig does. It had as much to do with Bumgarner as it did with Ian Kennedy, Josh Collmenter, Jordan Lyles and Jacob Turner, the four guys Puig homered against prior to taking Bumgarner deep.

It didn’t make a bit of different to the 6-foot-5 North Carolinian, who started hollering at Puig and went so far as to approach him between third base and home plate. From that moment on, coverage of the rivalry seemed obliged to reference the dustup at every available opportunity.

So when Bumgarner hit Puig in the foot with a cutter on Tuesday, it was hardly in a vacuum. The pitch couldn’t have looked less intentional, coming as it did with deep, downward bite on a 1-2 count in the game’s first inning. Considering the pair’s history, Puig and Bumgarner could both have reacted with a bit more suave, which would have immediately relegated the incident to the noted-for-later category. Instead, Puig looked toward the mound in disbelief. Bumgarner said, “What are you looking at?” Puig stepped toward the pitcher. Bumgarner threw down his glove to welcome his opponent. And that was it. Benches cleared, though no punches were thrown and nobody was ejected.

Bumgarner didn’t even want to dignify talk of intent after the game. “He’ll know if it’s on purpose,” he afterward in an MLB.com report. “I’ll make sure of that.”

Matt Kemp avenged his teammate one out later, driving Puig in with a homer to give the Dodgers a 3-1 lead (following Justin Turner’s solo shot leading off the inning). Bumgarner responded in kind with a homer of his own in the third, for which he pumped his arm after rounding first base.

This wasn’t Marichal-Roseboro. It wasn’t even Lilly-Posey. But the ongoing acrimony between Bumgarner and Puig is not going away, nor likely is Puig’s showboating that started it all (in the pitcher’s mind, anyway). If benches could clear over something as clear-cut as this, you can bet that it’ll happen again.

The teams meet 18 times next year.

 

Bat flips, Showboating

Flipping Out: The Response to What is now Officially a Common Occurrence

Puig-MadBum

So baseball has come to this: the Puig vs. the anti-Puig, forces within the game tugging in opposite directions of what is considered to be acceptable behavior. Puig need not even be present, representing as he does the New World Order of celebration for celebration’s sake, in the face of the game’s long tradition of shunning such displays.

On Friday, in a game at Dodger Stadium, Puig played himself, flipping his bat with no small degree of nonchalance following a sixth-inning home run. The role of anti-Puig was played by Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner, the man who had pitched the baseball.

Mad Bum did not like Puig’s act. Even as the ball flew toward the left field bleachers, Bumgarner strolled down the mound toward the third base line, and waited. When Puig passed, he gave him a piece of his mind. Puig responded accordingly. (Watch it here.)

Bumgarner, it appears, is late to the game on the whole New World Order thing. On the Puig Scale, the bat flip barely registered. The flip didn’t say “I’m so great for hitting that home run against you” so much as simply “I’m so great.” Whether you’re a new-school proponent saying that Puig and his ilk are exactly what baseball needs, or an old-school curmudgeon saying that the likes of Puig will be the ruination of Cartwright’s game, there’s no denying one thing: Whatever he did had nothing to do with Madison Bumgarner.

Puig flips because Puig flips. In the current landscape of home-plate scrums following interleague victories in June, this is simply the way things are. Puig’s actions have not been corrected, because the groundswell to correct them simply does not exist. The Baseball Gods have spoken.

The unwritten rules exist in flux, after all, and adapt to the times. This has always been the case. Once, Don Drysdale could knock down Willie Mays for digging into the batter’s box, and Mays would respond with nothing more severe than, “I better not do that next time.”

A pitcher with Drysdale’s mentality would not survive long in today’s game, shunned for his actions not just by fellow players but by the league itself. Not so Puig.

I am a fan of neither his bat flips, nor his attitude in general. But I am cognizant enough to recognize a shifting tide, and what Puig is doing now falls within baseball’s mainstream. He himself has pushed it there.

So when Madison Bumgarner gets upset with that sort of action, as if that sort of action was somehow directed toward him, he’s simply wrong. It’s Puig being Puig, and, like it or not, it’s now baseball being baseball.

Bumgarner, for his part, already had the best possible response at his disposal. He and the Giants beat Los Angeles, 3-1.

Progress.