Intimidation, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Carlos Gomez Heard Somthing, Maybe, And Now He’s Mad at Collin McHugh

McHugh confused

Backstory plays an important part in most major league drama, and it’s possible that there’s some we don’t yet know about regarding Monday’s intra-Texas incident between the Astros and Rangers.

Then again, Carlos Gomez was at the center of things, so all bets are off.

Here’s what we do know: Gomez got angry at an inside pitch from Collin McHugh that didn’t come close to hitting him. He got angrier after the next pitch, a strike that he fouled off, staring down McHugh even while stumbling from the batter’s box on his swing. (Watch it here.)

Here’s what we also know: Back on Aug. 31, McHugh drilled Gomez with a first-pitch fastball. It was unintentional—Gomez was leading off the second inning of a 1-1 game—but the batter has apparently held on to it. Or maybe it was the Aug. 12 game, in which Gomez was hit by Francisco Liriano and Mike Fiers. Or maybe it was that benches-clearing incident between the teams on May 1, when Mike Napoli overreacted to a Lance McCullers message pitch that didn’t come close to hitting him.

Or maybe it’s just that the Astros were busy knocking Texas out of the wild-card race. Whatever the answer, Gomez has been hit by 19 pitches this season, putting him on pace to lead the league in any category for the first time in his 11-year career. McHugh didn’t drill him on Monday. He didn’t come close.

According to Gomez’s postgame comments, it was all a game of telephone, with McHugh telling some guy with the Astros that he was going to drill Gomez, and that guy either telling Gomez about it, or telling someone else who told Gomez about it, and … aren’t these adults we’re talking about?

Then again, Gomez is the guy who got into it with current Astro and then-Brave Brian McCann, and with Gerritt Cole. It’s also not the first time he pissed off a team for which he used to play. It clearly doesn’t take much to set him off.

It could even have started here:

Ultimately, it’s difficult to ascribe wide-reaching unwritten-rules themes to somebody who has repeatedly gone off his rocker over the years. Is Carlos Gomez a bit nutty? Probably. Does he have legitimate beef with Collin McHugh? Who knows?

The Rangers close their series with Houston tonight, and end their season on Sunday. Gomez’s contract with the Texas expires after this season, and for all we know he’ll re-sign with Houston.

Don’t count on it, though.

 

 

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Retaliation

A Dish Best Served Over the Left Field Fence

Stanton watches

On Tuesday, Jason Grilli whiffed Giancarlo Stanton to end the game and did a bit of gesturing.

On Wednesday, Stanton remembered—especially after a mammoth homer in the eighth that put the Marlins up, 14-5.

Marlins 22, Rangers 10. Revenge is sweet.

Sign stealing

Can Sign Stealing That’s Not Really Sign Stealing Still Be Counted As Sign Stealing?

Cabrera signs

Standard practice when a team catches an opponent sign stealing is to inform said sign stealers that the jig is up and that it’s time to knock it off. The details therein are up for debate (verbal warnings frequently suffice, though some pitchers prefer to use inside fastballs to deliver the message), but the parameters are fairly universal.

In Houston last weekend, Texas caught Miguel Cabrera, at second base, signaling to the hitter about pitch type. The wrinkle was not that Cabrera was caught, but how he was caught. The guy lacked so much subtlety that he may as well have been shouting across the diamond to hitter J.D. Martinez.

That’s because Cabrera wasn’t stealing signs, he was offering a scouting report.

Cabrera, the first hitter to face Rangers reliever Sam Dyson, was surprised by the number of changeups he saw as Dyson warmed up. That’s because the Tigers had been informed that Dyson is not a changeup-heavy pitcher.

So after Cabrera doubled (having seen only fastballs during his three-pitch at-bat), he let his teammate know what he’d learned, as clearly as possible, repeatedly flashing a changeup sign over his head.

That Cabrera wasn’t picking specific signs lends a patina of innocence to the entire affair. Texas’ middle infielders Elvis Andrus and Roughned Odor—like Cabrera, Venezuelans—helped calm the situation in the moment, and the Tigers burned some calories in the postgame clubhouse explaining that whatever Cabrera was doing out there, he was decidedly not stealing signs.

“If he was stealing signs, he certainly wouldn’t be that blatant about it,” said Detroit manager Brad Ausmus in a Detroit Free Press report. “Miggy was just trying to let the bench know that (Dyson) has a change-up—that was all it was. It was a misunderstanding. He wasn’t stealing signs. I just think Dyson, for some reason, thought he was.”

Well, of course Dyson thought he was. Because that’s what somebody who steals signs looks like.

Yet and still, despite his innocence on that particular charge, Cabrera was nonetheless signaling helpful information to his teammate during game action. He was trying to give an advantage, from the basepath, that a teammate would not have otherwise enjoyed. (For what it’s worth, Martinez struck out swinging … on a changeup. So did the next hitter, Justin Upton.)

Had Cabrera opted simply to wait until either he scored or the inning ended, he could have informed the entire Tigers bench of his realization without so much as an eyebrow being raised in response.

Of course Dyson is allowed to take issue with it. Just because Cabrera’s action was the more innocent of two options doesn’t make it normal.

Retaliation

Tension in Texas: Tempers Flare When They Didn’t Have To. Again.

Napoli steps

Just last week we discussed the importance of understanding baseball’s unwritten rules, regardless of how one feels about them. Minnesota’s Miguel Sano had been thrown at, and missed, yet still made a stink of things and got tossed out of the game.

Yesterday, it happened again. With two outs and nobody on base in the sixth inning, Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. threw a pitch behind Rangers first baseman Mike Napoli. Houston trailed 2-1 at the time, not a great moment for retaliation, but a purpose pitch that sails wide of its mark cedes only one ball in the count, not a free baserunner. And if the pitch had somehow connected, well, Napoli had already homered and singled against McCullers. Not having to face Texas’ No. 5 hitter wasn’t too big a price to pay.

McCullers’ motivation was clear: Rangers starter Andrew Cashner had drilled Jose Altuve in the first inning and Yuli Gurriel in the second. After the pitch sailed behind Napoli, the batter took several angry steps toward the mound, and benches quickly cleared. (Watch it here.)

This is where we get into the importance of knowing what’s actually going on.

In the modern game, it’s a stretch to think that two unintentionally hit batters, guys who took first base without incident and, in Altuve’s case, came around to score, merit response. But McCullers, the son of a former big league pitcher, may have learned to view such things a bit more dogmatically.

So personal was the decision behind his pitch that his catcher, Brian McCann, didn’t give a thought to stopping Napoli’s advance on the mound, which is every catcher’s prime responsibility in such situations. Instead, he turned around to retrieve the wild pitch from the backstop, because it never occurred to him that Napoli might be angry.

McCullers’ was the softest response possible for a teammate being hit, a no-impact nod signifying that the Astros were paying attention. It shouldn’t have elicited a raised eyebrow in the Rangers dugout. Instead, we got statements like these, via MLB.com:

  • “They threw at Napoli on purpose. … They threw behind Napoli’s head.” (Cashner)
  • “I think anytime somebody throws behind a hitter’s head it’s going to create some tension.” (Rangers manager Jeff Banister)

As it turned out, McCullers did not throw behind Napoli’s head. His pitch came in across the lower portion of Napoli’s uniform number, closer to his belt than his shoulders. It was so far behind him that Napoli did not have to move to avoid it.

The craziest statement came from Napoli himself: “I understand how things work. Two of their guys get hit, but all he has to do is put it in my hip and I run down to first base. No one likes 95 [mph] behind their back.”

It seems nuts, but he’s arguing that a guy should have hit him rather than missed him.

Folks get caught up in the heat of a moment, but situations like these continue to prove that the dissolution of baseball’s unwritten rules—the fact that each successive generation of ballplayers understands the Code less thoroughly than its predecessors—is playing out poorly. Because there will always be somebody like Lance McCullers Jr., who learned the game the old-fashioned way, willing to make old-fashioned statements. Instead of seeing them for what they are, many younger ballplayers—and sometimes even a 12-year vet like Napoli—will react poorly and inflame tensions where no inflammation is necessary.

Even if Napoli is innocent of his own intent—a step toward the mound with a word of warning for McCullers, followed by an uneventful trip to first base would not be unheard of—he’s surrounded by far younger players who lack the requisite understanding of what had just happened.

That’s what truly raised the temperature in Houston: Even as Napoli stood near the plate, a bevy of his younger teammates streamed from the dugout and, rather than following the veteran’s lead, escalated the proceedings. (Even some older teammates got in on the act, Shin-Soo Choo leading the charge.)

It could be that the Rangers—11-15 and in last place in the AL West, with five members of the starting lineup (including Napoli himself) hitting  below .205—are at a point where baseball is frustrating enough without guys like McCullers nudging the process along.

Then again, after the game Napoli addressed the rivalry between the teams from Texas. “That’s how it should be,” he said. “There’s too much, people that are friends, and talking before the game, buddy-buddy. I remember coming up, if we were playing that night, it was time to get down and play a tough game and do what you have to do to win. It’s what it should be.”

Maybe he gets it after all.

Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Odor Hit With Eight-Game Suspension

The suspension has been levied: eight games and $5,000 to Rougned Odor for his part in Sunday’s fisticuffs. (He says he’ll appeal.)

That part’s not surprising. Throwing a punch like is almost certain to merit a minimum of eight games.

What is surprising is that Odor threw it at all. Not because he doesn’t have the temperament for it. As Deadspin told us yesterday, “Rougned Odor’s been a shit for a long time.”

It’s surprising because of this:

Baseball’s unwritten rules are decried in some circles as juvenile and outdated, and in many cases those criticisms are valid. One thing that people on both sides of the aisle can agree on, however, is that blatant hypocrisy is rarely a good look. For a guy with a history of takeout slides to jump up swinging after receiving one himself doesn’t speak well to Odor’s character.

The main question is, as somebody who’s done this numerous times over the course of his short career, why didn’t anybody give him a dose of the same in response before now? (If they have, and if he reacted differently, that too is worth examination.)

One thing’s for certain: Every team in baseball now knows an express route into Odor’s head. All they need to do to get him off his game is go into second base a little bit hard. Don’t be surprised to see more of the same when the stage grows large.

Basepath Retaliation, Jose Bautista, Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Does Anybody Even Know What Baseball’s Unwritten Rules Are, Anymore?

We’ll get to questions about propriety and merit and the very nature of baseball’s unwritten rules in good time.

First, though, why’d the Rangers wait so long to do it?

Before the season started, the enduring questions regarding the rivalry between Texas and the Blue Jays had to do with the Rangers’ response to Jose Bautista’s world-beating bat flip during the teams’ ALDS showdown last October, and whether retaliation was imminent.

Matters seemed to be settled after the teams went an entire series at Toronto’s Rogers Centre in early May without so much as a peep. In the series finale, Bautista came to bat—twice—with his team leading 11-1. Let sit for a moment whether retaliation was even merited; if ever there was a place to enact it, it was right there, with no concern about an extra baserunner affecting the game’s outcome.

Bautista emerged unscathed. That should have closed the book on the incident. Should have, but didn’t.

On Sunday, Rangers reliever Matt Bush—making only his second big league appearance after a decade-long career nosedive—may have been trying to earn credibility points with his new teammates when he planted a fastball into Bautista’s ribcage.

It makes little sense why that pitch would bear any degree of intent. Texas had its chances back in Toronto. Bush was not with the Rangers at the time of Bautista’s perceived slight. The score was 7-6, and Bautista, leading off the top of the eighth, represented the tying run. And yet.

It was the final meeting of the season between the teams, and likely Bautista’s final at-bat of the game. Drilling him then left virtually no chance for recourse. “To me, it was gutless,” said Jays manager John Gibbons afterward, in an ESPN report. “The other 29 teams, they come at you right away, but to wait until the end, it just sort of tells you something.”

At that point, Bautista’s primary tool was the one he ended up using: a message-laden slide.

Forced to run by Justin Smoak’s grounder, Bautista launched himself late, at the legs of second baseman Rougned Odor. It was textbook, Bautista landing on the base instead of in front of it, undercutting Odor’s feet. According to the Code, it was clean—spikes down and centered. A million guys have made a million similar retaliatory slides over the years, the vast majority of which have been accepted by the opposition as nothing more than the price of doing business.

We are, however, in a new era, even beyond the rise of the Let’s Make Baseball Fun Again generation. It is a time of basepath sanity, where fielders’ safety is the subject of rulebook legislation. Bautista’s slide had nothing to do with fielders’ safety.

It probably didn’t matter either way to Odor, who would likely have come up swinging, regardless.

The rest of the story involves details, mostly:

  • Bautista absorbed a solid right hook from Odor, definitely in the 99th percentile of effective baseball punches, but still managed to keep his feet.
  • It turns out that Odor is quietly (or not so quietly) one of the premiere red-asses in the game.
  • Ejections for Bautista, Odor, Josh Donaldson, and Rangers coach Steve Bueschele.
  • Bush was allowed to remain in the game, but when asked afterward about the pitch in question, offered a telling no-comment.
  • Toronto exacted retaliation of its own in the bottom half of the inning with the time-tested tactic of drilling Bautista’s counterpart on the Rangers, Prince Fielder. Again the benches emptied, though no punches were thrown.
  • Subsequent ejections for Toronto pitcher Jesse Chavez and coach DeMarlo Hale.

In the aftermath of it all, we’re left with numerous questions. Most pertinent to this space has to do with the unwritten rules themselves. Although Bautista’s slide fell well within the boundaries of traditional Code tactics, it’s difficult to tell anymore whether traditional Code tactics—especially as they pertain to takeout slides—are even viable. Before, it was primarily middle infielders who didn’t appreciate them. Now, the league office has officially taken steps to legislate them out of the game. This likely means that baserunners are going to have to find new methods of conveying their grievances … or, more pragmatically, will have to learn to get over their grievances more quietly.

There’s also a bit of hypocrisy at hand. In the game’s aftermath, Bautista unloaded with both barrels at Rangers management, saying in the Toronto Star that “It shows a little bit of the apparent lack of leadership that they have over there when it comes to playing baseball the right way.”

Only last October, Bautista himself sparked a play-the-right-way controversy, only then he was on the other side of the debate, baseball traditionalists decrying his bat flip and its ensuing acclaim. To play both sides like that—to demand propriety only when it suits you—seems disingenuous.

There is, however, more to it. “Baseball plays are supposed to be taken care of by baseball plays,” Bautista also said yesterday. And he’s correct. A bat flip is not a baseball play. Drilling a batter is. So is taking out a fielder. The latest version of the Code mandates that non-baseball plays are largely exempt from retaliation. This is not what happened on Sunday.

Perhaps we’re facing another sea change with all of this, which is something we won’t know until we see players’ responses to coming contentions. Water has a way of finding its level.

Ultimately, amid the philosophical hand-wringing, we’re left with one primary concrete question: Why’d the Rangers wait so long to do it?

Update (5/17): Odor’s been clipped for eight games and outed as a hypocrite.

Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Internalizing a Horrible Outing Takes Different Shapes for Different People, or: Emotional Atunement Might Not Be For Everybody

Mariners Rangers

Two games in, and we got beef. For the Mariners, it’s entirely justified.

Reliever Tom Wilhelmsen—with Seattle for the first five seasons of his career, but as of last November a member of the Rangers—did not have a good game. After entering in the eighth inning with his team trailing, 4-2, he did this:

  • First batter, Robinson Cano: first-pitch homer.
  • Second batter, Nelson Cruz: double.
  • Third batter, Kyle Seager: double.
  • Fourth batter, Seth Smith: first-pitch homer.

For his encore, the frustrated right-hander drilled the inning’s fifth hitter, Chris Ianetta, with his first pitch. The 94-mph fastball, which ran straight into Ianetta’s hamstring, was as clear a message of frustration as can be delivered on a ballfield. (Watch it here.)

Ianetta stormed to first base, screaming toward the mound as Seattle’s dugout tentatively emptied. The most noteworthy part of the scrum was each team’s manager shouting F-bombs at the other.

This in itself is noteworthy inasmuch as Mariners manager Scott Servais is in his first year at the helm of a big league club and may well have seen this as an excuse to set tone, letting his team know that he’s looking out for them in every facet of the game. Texas skipper Jeff Bannister, even more fiery during the confrontation, is in his second year and likely felt similarly.

There’s little to justify Wilhelmsen’s action. It was once acceptable baseball practice to drill a guy for his teammates’ success. Hell, it took far less provocation than two homers and two doubles. The modern game, however, is less tolerant of violent  acts, and the weak sauce ladled out by Wilhelmsen has become patently unacceptable. (Umpire  Marvin Hudson agreed, ejecting the pitcher.)

At least Wilhelmsen handled things as well as he could after the game without crossing the line of actually admitting to anything. When he was asked whether anything in particular angered Ianetta, he managed to say, “Probably the fact that I hit him,” with a straight face.

Yep. Lotta baseball left to play this season.