Slide properly

Slide On Down: Baseball’s Newfound Sensitivity Problem When It Comes To The Basepaths

Sogard slides IIWho’d have guessed that the primary unwritten-rules-related topic of Major League Baseball 2018 wouldn’t be bat flips or even retaliatory pitches, but guys sliding into bases? In the modern world of fielder safety, we’ve reached the point that players are managing to get offended even on properly executed slides.

First case in point: Last Friday in Milwaukee, the slide of Brewers infielder Eric Sogard was cut off prematurely when Cardinals shortstop Yairo Munoz, shifting over to field the throw, impeded his progress. It was a clean play all around—these things sometimes happen—yet feelings nonetheless managed to get scuffed. Sogard got up talking (“The first words that came out of my mouth,” he told reporters after the game, “were ‘are you all right?’ “), Munoz got up angry, and within moments the benches had emptied.

Harrison slidesThen on Tuesday, Pittsburgh’s Josh Harrison slid forcefully into second base, upending Mets second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera. The slide was legit, and Cabrera didn’t seem to take offense—but New York pitcher Jeurys Familia did, starting a shouting match with Harrison that, like Sogard’s play in Milwaukee, drew both teams onto the field.

These follow a questionable slide already executed this season by Roughned Odor in Anaheim, tit-for-tat slides in Pittsburgh, a dustup over a slide in Wrigley Field, and a slide that left the Yankees and Red Sox brawling on the Fenway Park infield. Collectively, it’s served to illustrate the unintended consequence of Major League Baseball’s recent efforts to insure the safety of catchers and infielders via ever more restrictive regulations against impact. The tighter the rules, after all, the more likely it is that somebody will violate them … and the more likely that defenders will imagine violations where none exist.

Once, of course, it was legal to crash into any base in whatever way a runner saw fit, short of standing up to take a guy out. Hal McRae was the king of high barrel rolls into second base, knocking fielders backward with such viciousness that the play was eventually outlawed with an injunction that is now informally known as the Hal McRae rule. Even recently, however, low barrel rolls were seen as acceptable, none more exemplary than Alex Rodriguez’s slide into second that took out Jeff Kent’s knee in 1998. Kent was decidedly displeased, but on the whole, critics viewed the play as clean.

An example of barrel-rolling from the 1972 World Series, via SB Nation. Poor Dick Green.

After Don Baylor crashed into Cleveland second baseman Remy Hermoso in 1974 (a late feed from shortstop Frank Duffy had left Hermoso directly in Baylor’s path while awaiting the throw)—a blow that knocked the infielder out of action for nearly four months—Orioles manager Earl weaver had to convince Baylor that the play was clean, and that such collisions were simply part of the game. It was the only time in Baylor’s 19-year career, he said later, that he ever felt bad about taking out an infielder in such a manner.

Former Rangers manager (and career infielder) Ron Washington once explained to me that, as a coach, an appropriate response to such a play was not anger toward the opposition but better protection for one’s own infielders. “I told my guys to protect your ass at all times,” he said. “Don’t go across that bag on a double-play, lollygagging. You go across that bag with two things in mind: I’m gonna turn this sucker, and if anybody gets in my way I’m gonna blow him apart [low-bridging a throw, forcing the runner to hit the dirt to avoid it]. … I don’t care how simple the play is, you get yourself in a position of protection, because you never know.”

No longer. Dave Nelson talked about this very topic in an interview for The Baseball Codes in 2006, when he was a coach for Milwaukee.

“I’ll give you a good example,” he said. “Carlos Lee went into Todd Walker last year, hard, clean. Put Walker out of the game, hurt his knee. So one of my players, Russell Branyan says, ‘That’s a dirty play.’ And I said, ‘What? That’s not a dirty play. He went in there clean and hard.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but according to today’s standards, that’s dirty, because nobody does it.’ I said, ‘That’s the problem—nobody does it.’ He didn’t go out there to hurt him, he went out there to take him out of the double play. This is guys’ mentality today. This is how they think.”

That was before baseball implemented its current spate of rules.

I examined this evolution a couple years back, well before the current spate of basepath-related issues. What’s changed since that time is further restrictions on what players can legally do. Now, it seems, anything outside the proscribed guidelines—and sometimes well within them—is spurring players to anger. It goes a long way toward illustrating the effect of inherent competitiveness on a constrained landscape. The window for what is considered to be appropriate behavior in this regard is more diminutive than ever (even while the window for appropriate behavior as pertains to celebrations has been thrown wide open). Ballplayers have gained a new layer of entitlement, and damned if they’re not going to leverage it for all it’s worth.

After the Pirates-Mets game in which Josh Harrison was upbraided by Jeurys Familia for a perfectly acceptable slide, the Pittsburgh infielder took a reasoned approach to the situation.

“Apparently he said, ‘Play the game the right way,’ ” Harrison told reporters after his dustup with Familia. “If you go back and look at the footage, I think I played the game the right way. Didn’t touch the guy, broke up a double play without hurting the guy or touching the guy. At the end of the day, I think that’s playing the game the right way.”

It is. Here’s hoping that the rest of baseball can come to recognize as much before too much longer.

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Don't Call out Opponents in the Press, Retaliation

Pham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am: Cards Slugger Upset Over Cub Comments, HBP (Maybe Not in That Order)

Phammed

Losing to the Cubs offers indignities aplenty for St. Louis.

Yielding the pennant-clinching victory to Chicago, as the Cardinals did on Wednesday, is downright mortifying. Doing so at home only makes the suffering worse. Having what seemed like half the stadium cheering for the visitors was downright brutal.

Hearing Ben Zobrist talk beforehand about how the Cubs “intend to clinch there” and how “it’s going to be very satisfying” was enough to make at least one player angry.

Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham was especially pointed in his response to Zobrist’s comments. “He better not ask me how I’m doing on the field,” Pham told reporters. “I don’t want to be his friend. He said he’s going to come here and pop bottles or all that stuff. Don’t say hi to me on the field then.”

It would have been easier to brush aside as surface drama had Pham not been drilled in the ribs on Tuesday, then talked after the game about how “it was definitely on purpose.” The HBP had less to do with his comments, he said, than with Kris Bryant being drilled earlier in the game by a Carlos Martinez fastball that approached 100 mph. (The only thing keeping him from charging the mound, Pham said in a CBS report, was that “I don’t make enough money right now to face a suspension.”

 

He might be right about the motivation. Pham himself had hit a monster homer an inning earlier to give St. Louis a 5-1 lead, and when Bryant came up, two were out with a runner at third. Avoiding the reigning NL MVP with a base open is rarely a bad option.

Then again, Bryant was hit with a 2-2 pitch, which brought Anthony Rizzo to the plate. Moreover, Martinez was all over the place. The pitch before the one that drilled Bryant went wild, allowing Mike Freeman to advance. Then Martinez walked Rizzo to load the bases. Then he walked Wilson Contreras to bring home a run.

The teams played yesterday with little drama beyond Chicago’s champagne celebration (as Zobrist had predicted). With St. Louis battling for the NL’s final wild-card spot, nothing funky should go down when the teams meet tonight for the final time this season, except maybe in the case of a blowout.

Still, drama sure is fun.

[H/T: Christopher C.]

Cheating, Pine Tar

Stick Around, Why Don’t You?: Yadi’s Magic Chest Protector Draws Attention in Unwanted Ways

Molina sticky ball

Pee Wee Reese would load up spitballs for Don Drysdale, away from the watchful eye of umpires.

Yankees catcher Elston Howard was said to have sharpened the buckles on his shin guards, which he used to gouge baseballs as he drew back his arm for return throws to the pitcher.

Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills kept an emery board in his glove with which to scuff balls before returning them to the mound. Reds shortstop Davey Concepcion was rumored to have a bent eyelet on his glove’s heel for much the same purpose.

There were first basemen who put tacks in their gloves and third basemen who put Vaseline on their palms to offer assistance in the same, surreptitious vein.

So should we be surprised, really, if Yadier Molina is doing something similar for his pitchers?

That’s the simplest explanation for what happened yesterday, when a pitch from Brett Cecil bounced in front of the plate and ended up adhered to Molina’s chest protector as the increasingly frantic catcher looked around for the lost baseball. Application of pine tar helps pitchers increase the movement of breaking pitches (which Cecil’s offering was), but it also tends to make things … sticky.

(Watch the whole thing here.)

Yadi knows exactly what happened. So does Cecil. So, likely, does Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, himself a former catcher. When asked about it after the game, however, they offered little more than a collective Huh?

Catchers can legally apply pine tar to their shin guards, the better to increase their ability to grip the ball. It’s legal because catchers have no interest in making their own throws do funky things, and on cold or wet nights grip can be vital. Salvador Perez was outed for this very thing during the 2015 World Series, and the news barely made a ripple. Had Molina offered an excuse somewhere along those lines it would have made some sense. Instead, he said this:

“Do I put anything on my chest protector? No. That’s a dumb question.”

Which leads to the clear impression that he’s covering something up on behalf of his pitcher. Cecil didn’t comment, because Cecil took off after the game without speaking to reporters.

Upon being removed from Molina’s chest the ball left a white smudge—a clear indicator for sleuths around the ballpark. But because Cubs manager Joe Maddon never requested that the ball, Molina or Cecil be checked by the umpires, the game continued apace and everybody went on their merry ways.

If Cecil was cheating, he has a rich history of pitchers to emulate. Over just the last two seasons, Mike Fiers was accused of using pine tar during a no-hitter, Brian Matusz was suspended for hiding a foreign substance on his arm and Brewers reliever Will Smith was busted for similar reasons. There was also, of course, the infamous Michael Pineda affair, which came in two parts.

What’s left now, mostly (unless somebody in the know decides to talk) is for Cecil to knock off any extracurricular activities until the heat dies down. Same for Molina. Because, really, nobody around baseball really cares about pitchers using pine tar (there are likely some on every team who do) until the moment that public attention forces them to decry cheaters cheaters and their cheating ways.

Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

The Cardinal Way is Now Officially a Thing

Cashner

Maybe Andrew Cashner hates the Cardinals. Maybe he just struggles with command. But on July 21, pitching for San Diego, he drilled Matt Holliday in the nose, opening a nasty cut but doing no thorough damage. Yesterday, Cashner’s team had changed but his strategy had not.

In his first start after being traded to Miami, he got right back at it, running an inside fastball that hit Aledmys Diaz on the hand, an injury that eventually forced Diaz from the game.

It made no difference that Cashner was wearing a different uniform when he plunked Holliday. Patterns of abuse—even unintentional abuse—do not go unnoticed in organizations in which Tony La Russa has let his presence. A half-inning after the right-hander drilled Diaz, Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez plunked Giancarlo Stanton in the back. Message sent.

With Cashner’s pitch to Holliday on July 21 having come in above the shoulders, dangerously close to doing real damage, it’s little surprise that the Cardinals—whether Martinez was acting on his own or nudged from above—chose to react. The sight of blood will do that, and it’s likely that some in the St. Louis clubhouse had considered retaliation even before Diaz was hit. (The pitch to Holliday a week-and-a-half earlier had been Cashner’s last of the game, in the final game of the series, and a one-run score never allowed for future response on the Cardinals’ part.)

Talking about it later in an MLB.com report, Cashner theorized that it’s “kind of the ‘Cardinal way’ over there.” (St. Louis skipper Mike Matheny said he didn’t “have a thought or anything else” to offer about the exchange.)

The pertinent issue here involves which scores have been settled, because the Cardinals clearly have long memories when it comes to this type of thing.

It’s safe to assume that their response to Cashner wiped his slate clean. Is the same true when it comes to his ex-team, the Padres? We’ve already heard from La Russa that retaliation can be triggered merely by an opponent’s philosophy, if said philosophy involves pitching inside. (For what it’s worth, San Diego doesn’t appear to pitch inside more or less than anybody else, their collective HBPs hovering right around league average.) They don’t face the Cardinals again until next season.

If nothing else, we have one clear takeaway. When a club like St. Louis takes issue with a pitcher, a change of uniform or the removal of facial hair hardly provides sufficient disguise. If Cashner does something similar again the next time he faces the Cards, it won’t matter who he’s pitching for. Retaliation is all but assured.

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Replay Revenge Rocks Runaway Rally Against Redbirds

 

Maddon

Yesterday, Hardball Talk pointed out something brewing in a next-level unwritten rules controversy: management of the challenge system.

On Tuesday, in the ninth inning of a game in which the Cubs were leading the Cardinals, 8-1, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny ordered his infield to play in—a decidedly unusual move so late in a blowout. Typically, such tactics—things like having first basemen hold runners close—are eschewed when the final result is no longer in question. Pitchers even stop nibbling around the corners, the better to force action and end things quickly.

So why would he do it? ESPN’s Jesse Rogers may have an answer.

During the play in question, Addision Russell—the third batter of the ninth inning—was called out at first after grounding to St. Louis second baseman Kolten Wong. It would have been the inning’s second out.

Instead, Maddon challenged, and Russell was ruled safe. The Cubs went on to score four times, ultimately winning, 12-3. By all appearances, Matheny saw the move as disrespectful. The Code during runaway games is largely aimed at avoiding unnecessary embarrassment for an opponent that’s already been embarrassed enough, the equivalent of a college football team pulling its starters while holding a 35-point lead in the fourth quarter.

Maddon explained his replay process thusly, via MLB.com:

“That validates running hard to first base. Two things could happen there: Maybe [Russell] could hit .300 because of that play, but more than anything, if our minor league players are watching, they see the validation of running hard to first base all the time.”

Both things are true. But a baserunner saying that the bag he swiped late in a May blowout might be the one that allowed him to reach 50 is spurious logic. This isn’t much different.

The Code during a blowout also stipulates the cessation of aggressive tactics, which means station-to-station running: advance only one base on a single, two on a double, etc. Wanting to reward his player for a hit justly earned wasn’t aggressive on Maddon’s part, but the Cubs actions with the very next batter—Javier Baez scored Chicago’s ninth run from second base on a single by Tim Federowicz—were.

Remember, Maddon’s Cubs and the Cards already have some history.

Ultimately, this seems like an issue that should be more or less immune to the unwritten rules. If a guy earns a hit, a guy earns a hit, and his manager looking out for him in that regard is the least he can do. Had Maddon chosen to challenge a play on the basepaths, it’d be a different story. For the time being, however, watching the Cubs and Cards snipe at each other is its own special reward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Intimidation, The Baseball Codes

Yadier Molina Has a Message for You, Pitchers

molina_pushups_med_i7mol65c

In St. Louis yesterday, Phillies reliever Brett Oberholtzer knocked down catcher Yadier Molina with an inside pitch at the knees. Molina, having pitched forward to avoid it, ended up face down in the dirt, over the plate, bat still in his hand. Then he did some push-ups. (Watch it here.)

You can’t intimidate me.

Most hitters opt for less representational manifestations of that kind of message, opting simply to get back into the batter’s box as if nothing had happened. Frank Robinson would actually move closer to the plate. But push-ups?

You can’t intimidate me.

Pete Rose made a point of sprinting to first base after being hit by a pitch, to prove that not only could he not be intimidated, he also couldn’t be physically hurt. Guys like Stan Musial and Ted Williams took pleasure in abusing pitchers who threw too far inside, following knockdowns with extra-base hits. Just last year Andrew McCutchen set precedent for Molina, doing push-ups of his own after being knocked down in a game against Cincinnati, and then hitting a double.

The notion of anti-intimidation has a rich history in baseball, never more prominently enacted than by Jackie Robinson early in a career in which opposing pitchers made him one of the most tested batters in big league history. In his excellent book, Baseball’s Great Experiment, Jules Tygiel described a game from 1946, when Robinson still played for the minor league Montreal Royals:

Paul Derringer, a thirty-nine-year-old former major league hurler who had won 223 games over his fifteen-year career, faced Robinson in an April exhibition game. The Kentucky-born player told [Montreal manager Clay] Hopper that he would test the black athlete. The first time Robinson came to the plate, Derringer hurled a fastball at his head. “He knocked him down all right,” said Hopper, “Forced him to put his chin right in the dirt.”

Robinson stepped back in and Derringer threw a second pitch that headed at him and then broke sharply over the inside corner. Robinson lashed the ball on a line over the third baseman’s head for a single.

Two innings later, Derringer again decked Robinson. This time the angry batter drove the next pitch into left-center for a triple. After the game Derringer confided to Hopper, one southerner to another, “Clay, your colored boy is going to do all right.”

And Molina? On the pitch following his batter’s-box calisthenics, he singled into center field. Even if Oberholtzer’s knockdown was unintentional, Molina sent a powerful message to the rest of the league.

You can’t intimidate me.

 

Retaliation

Carnage in Chicago, But it Ain’t Joe Maddon’s Fault

Rizzo drizzoThere are lots of ways to look at the weekend’s incidents in Chicago, which resulted in six hit batters, four ejections, an in-dugout apology, some strategic rethinking about ages-old Code courtesy that’s long been questioned but never usurped, and a one-sided war of words waged by Cubs manager Joe Maddon.

Start with Maddon, whose reasonable explanations for everything that happened did little to mask that he spent the weekend playing both sides of the debate, as aggrieved victim and as innocent perpetrator, depending on whether his team was being drilled or doing the drilling. Chicago’s Dan Haren plunking Matt Holliday in the helmet? An accident, and don’t dare insinuate otherwise. Cards reliever Matt Belisle drilling Anthony Rizzo? As clearly telegraphed a hit as a hit ordered by Tony Soprano, whose name Maddon dropped in his postgame press conference. Never mind that Rizzo leads baseball in being hit by pitches, or that Belisle was still knocking off rust in only his second appearance since June after returning from elbow issues. (Watch Haren and Belisle’s pitches here.)

Maddon, however, didn’t want to hear it. (“Of course not,” he said, when asked about Belisle’s pitch possibly being unintentional. “That is ridiculous.”)

There are facts to back up the manager’s viewpoint, of course. Haren obviously did not mean to drill Holliday, but these are the Cardinals, whose institutional need to settle scores is so ingrained as to have been described in detail in the book Three Nights in August. (The focus of that book, Tony La Russa, has since moved on, but Mike Matheny has maintained the brand in a reasonable fashion.)

And that pitch Belisle threw sure looked intentional, aimed directly at its mark from the moment it left his hand. Haren, in fact, spent two seasons under La Russa in St. Louis, and knew enough to apologize to Rizzo after hitting Holliday for the HBP he was all but certain was coming. “They always police things like that …” Haren said in an MLB.com report, saying that the Cardinals view retaliation as an intimidation tactic. “They might take it to the extreme a little bit with that stuff. I think everyone understands it. I guess at least they didn’t throw at his head.”)

The real intrigue became with the warning Maddon issued at the close of his diatribe: “We don’t start stuff, but we will finish stuff.”

That became clear on Saturday, when Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong was hit twice (angrily spiking his bat after the second one, from reliever Fernando Rodney; watch it here). After warnings were issued, Cubs closer Hector Rondon furthered the tension by drilling pinch-hitter Greg Garcia to open the ninth, earning ejections for himself and Maddon.

“Obviously, we’re not trying to [hit anyone],” said Maddon, after the game.

Well, no. Not so obviously.

The denial of any intent for any action that can be justifiably read as antagonistic is part of the Code. But even were Maddon telling the truth, he had to realize that the chutzpah involved is overwhelming. Actually, he did.

“I know nobody wants to believe me,” he said. “You’re not going to believe me, all the Cardinal nation. God bless you, you’re not going to want to believe me, and I get it. There’s no way for me to sit here and even attempt to ameliorate your concerns. None of that was intentional, it just happens, it’s part of the game. Go ahead, lay it on me, man, I’m OK with it.”

Rondon drilled Garcia with a 96-mph fastball while his team held a four-run lead. Rodney is already known to go after people. It’s easy to explain away any one of Chicago’s three drillings that occurred after Maddon’s promise to “finish stuff,” but such blanket whitewashing is a stretch.

Perhaps it’s an indication that the Cubs are growing up as a franchise, that the mighty Cardinals finally see them as a threat and are responding in kind by breaking out big-boy tactics. It wouldn’t be a first. Chicago’s newfound success can be seen in Maddon’s own strategies; with his team in the heart of the wild-card chase the manager made clear his intention of placing the unwritten rules in a secondary position to winning games. In the eighth inning on Friday, he shut down his running game despite the Cardinals opting not to hold runners on first, on account of Chicago’s five-run lead. Maddon ended up having to warm up closer Hector Rondon in the ninth, on a day he would have liked to rest him entirely, and made it clear that he regretted the decision.

“The next time they [don’t hold our runners on base], we’re going to run,” he said. “I want everybody to know that. I never read that particular book that the Cardinals wrote way back in the day. I was a big Branch Rickey fan, but I never [read] this book that the Cardinals had written regarding how to play baseball. If you play behind us, and we’re up by five points in the ninth, we’re running. And you have every right to do the same thing.”

Sunday’s series closer featured no big leads for either team to exploit. It also featured no hit batters. For those of you scoring at home, it was the final time during the regular season that these teams will face each other. So be sure to mark your 2016 NL Central calendars for some quality Code-based action.