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.

 

Unwritten-Rules

Knee-gate Revisited

Rosy's knee

Last week we examined Adam Rosales’ knee plant atop second base, which was called out by Rays shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera as violating some sort of unwritten rule pertaining to middle infielders. Never having heard of it, I took an unofficial survey of as many infielders as I could find when I was at the Oakland Coliseum last weekend.

Okay, it was only two. And one of them plays third base. Still.

“If his knee’s not in the way and he’s not trying to do it, then he’s not trying to do it,” said A’s third baseman Brett Lawrie (who’s had his own dose of slide-related drama this year). “If you’re on top of the bag but there’s still room to slide, that’s okay. Everything’s fine.”

A’s coach and longtime middle infielder Mike Gallego offered a different—though not contradictory—perspective. The difference between tags today and those of previous generations, he said, is replay.

“Back in the day with the old sweep tag, if the ball beats the runner the umpire is calling him out, no question,” he said. “Now, you have to literally put the tag on the play, so you might see guys blocking the base a little bit more to make sure they get the tag on the runner. It’s changing.”

It’s true. Prior to replay, runners never complained about being called out if the ball beat them to the base, even if the tag had already come and gone. Now, the necessity to position themselves not just to make a tag, but to hold it, is paramount. It only follows that they’ll have to at least occasionally brace themselves in ways about which previous generations would have been less tolerant. Not a direct correlation to Rosales’ situation, but worth mentioning.

The early verdict: Both Lawrie and Gallego mentioned that planting a knee next to the bag is preferable than doing so on top of it, for reasons that Cabrera enumerated after jamming his fingers. They also said that things happen in a bang-bang play, and what Rosales did was hardly objectionable. (Hell, first basemen like Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell were known for applying pile-driving tags on pickoff throws as a means of reminding the runner about the cost of doing business. Tag etiquette can be a complex affair.)

I’ll continue to ask around as the season progresses. Updates as events warrant.

Unwritten-Rules

Knee, Meet Fingers. Fingers, Knee. Chat Amongst Yourselves

Rosy's kneeAfter having paid particular attention to baseball’s unwritten rules since I started researching The Baseball Codes in 2005, I’ve compiled what seems like a pretty comprehensive set. On Saturday, Asdrubal Cabrera may have informed me of a new one.

Diving back into second base on a pickoff attempt, Cabrera jammed his fingers into the knee of Rangers second baseman Adam Rosales, and got up shoving. (At first blush it appeared to be because Rosales inadvertently leaned on him with an off-balance elbow, but that had nothing to do with it. Watch the play here.)

After the game, Cabrera said, in an MLB.com report: “He put a knee onto second base. I’ve played both sides, second and short, and I know that’s not fair to put a knee on the base.”

At the very least, Cabrera was correct in his assessment that, had Rosales’ knee not been planted atop the base, his fingers would have remained blissfully unjammed.

Rosales’ general demeanor is among the best in all of baseball, and there’s no question that whatever he did was done unintentionally. Still, it begs the question—especially with the accusation flying from one infielder to another—was he out of line?

More to follow …

Gamesmanship

Give Adrian Beltre His Due … Down to the Penny

Beltre batGamesmanship is terrific.

In the late 1960s and early-’70s, Rico Carty hit exceedingly well against Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis—a .341 lifetime batting average with four homers in 41 at-bats. In response, Ellis tore a dollar bill in half and gave one part of it to a Braves clubhouse attendant to pass along to Carty. Ellis’ intention: Get another hit off me and I’ll give you the other half. That’s not how Carty took it. The slugger’s response, according to Ellis in Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball: “Rico said he was going to kill me, because I put the voodoo on him. I didn’t know. And dig this: I loaded the bases, and hit Rico on the hand, broke his finger, and he swore that was a voodoo!”

On Friday, Adrian Beltre handled a similar situation so much better. Beltre broke three bats while going a soft 0-for-3 against Angels right-hander Garrett Richards. Afterward, he sent the pitcher an invoice—a bill on an actual invoice form—for $300. At the bottom he wrote, “Cash only, no checks.”

A tickled Richards offered a signed bat in response, his inscription indicating hope that the token covered his obligation.

It wasn’t voodoo, but it was an instant classic.

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

The Air is Hot, Smart or Not, Deep in the Heart of Texas

Lewis shoutsSo this is what the ruination of baseball’s unwritten rules looks like. People keep marginalizing them, shunting them to the corner, labeling those who play by their merits as kooks and haters of fun. What we’re left with, at least in part, is this: Ballplayers, both red-assed and traditionalist, playing less by moral imperative than by half-formed opinions based on a system they don’t appear to fully understand.

Case in point: Rangers starter Colby Lewis, who on Saturday lit into Toronto’s Colby Rasmus (in the rare and wondrous Battle of the Colbys) for daring to lay down a bunt late in the game while the Blue Jays sat on a huge lead.

Except that it was only the fifth inning. And the score was 2-0. Oh, Colby Lewis.

The section of the unwritten rulebook that Lewis was attempting to channel was the one that dictates avoidance of running up the score late in games. It’s a simple matter of respecting one’s opponent enough to keep from embarrassing him … but that doesn’t have much relevance to whatever happened in Toronto. Just as Astros manager Bo Porter was ludicrous when he exploded over a first-inning Jed Lowrie bunt back in April, Lewis is ludicrous now.

Rasmus bunted because—here’s the pertinent part—his run mattered. Lewis was upset that Rasmus had taken advantage of a defensive shift designed to stop him from hitting. Now that such shifts are gaining traction even as the Code is losing it, we’re faced with an awkward intersection: Is there a moral component to playing straight-up against the shift with the fact that it presents an obvious weakness (nobody playing down the third base line) to exploit? The closest example I can conjure is the first baseman who plays off the bag despite a runner being on base late in a blowout game, with the expectation that the runner will hold anyway. He wants the defensive advantage of playing in the hole, and expects that his opposition will not take similar advantages of their own.

But those who think that situation is reasonable do so because of the lopsided score. In a close game, if a defense wants to gain the advantage of an extra defender on the right side of the infield, it has no business taking exception should a batter exploit that weakness. Which is not only what Rasmus did, but which is what every hitter with speed should do, at least on occasion.

Lewis had words for Rasmus on the field (watch it here) and after the game explained just what was going on. “I told [Rasmus] I didn’t appreciate it,” Lewis said in an MLB.com report. “You’re up by two runs with two outs and you lay down a bunt. I don’t think that’s the way the game should be played. I felt like you have a situation where there is two outs, you’re up two runs, you have gotten a hit earlier in the game off me, we are playing the shift, and he laid down a bunt basically simply for average.”

Lewis’ criteria for judgment was that once Rasmus reached base, he didn’t try to steal and get himself into scoring position. “That tells me he is solely looking out for himself, and looking out for batting average, and I didn’t appreciate it,” he said, digging himself into a dangerous rabbit hole of inanity. Left unexplained: If in Lewis’ mind the game situation dictated that Rasmus wasn’t allowed to bunt, the question isn’t whether the pitcher’s head would have exploded had Rasums stolen a base, but how violently.

Hell, Curt Schilling didn’t take offense when Ben Davis bunted against him to ruin his perfect game in 2001. That’s because, like the game in Toronto, the score was 2-0 and a baserunner could have made a difference.

Or one could look in another direction: When Jarrod Saltalamacchia bunted to break up a perfect game against Oakland’s A.J. Griffin in 2012, he was barely faulted for it by Oakland manager Bob Melvin, not because the score was close but because Melvin had put on a shift similar to the one Texas used on Saturday. “I probably should have had the third baseman in,” said Melvin at the time.

Ultimately it’s up to players to recognize what is and isn’t appropriate, and to be damn sure they’ve been aggrieved should they get their jocks in a bunch over a given play. The Code is a powerful part of baseball’s social fabric, but only when it’s leveraged properly. Because the facts of the matter don’t back him up, all Colby Lewis is left with is a bunch of hot, angry air.

Unwritten-Rules

On Successful Homecomings and Misread Grins: The Tale of the Trying Smile, by Ian Kinsler

GrinslerAh, respect. She is a vexing mistress.

Ian Kinsler, reluctantly departed from his career-long home in Arlington after an off-season trade with Detroit, returned for the first time yesterday as a member of the visiting team. He promptly took former Rangers teammate Colby Lewis deep.

And what did he do? He gave a little wave to his pals in the Rangers dugout. He couldn’t suppress a smile as he went around the bases. There was no animosity here; this was friendly stuff—a we’re-in-different-uniforms-but-I-still-like-you-mooks moment. To everybody, it seems, but Lewis. (Watch it here.)

Give the pitcher some leeway—he had just put his team in a first-inning hole and ended up taking the loss with a mediocre outing, and now boasts a 5.94 ERA on the season after missing all of last year due to elbow and hip injuries. His team has as many wins as the Astros. He deserves to be frustrated. But to take that personally? (If anybody possibly could, it would be Rangers GM Jon Daniels. But Lewis?)

“I guess ‘disappointed’ is the best word to describe it,” the pitcher said after the game in an MLive report.

There are lots of legitimate gripes in baseball about improper displays of respect, which can be dealt with in any number of time-tested ways. Lewis obviously wants other players, particularly those he knows personally, to be sensitive to his struggles. But Kinsler himself described the trip to Arlington as “my return home” (which was more than metaphor: his house and family are still there), and talked after the game about being “lucky enough to square one up.” If he lacks any respect for Lewis, he did a pretty good job of hiding it.

There was no showboating here, nothing intended to call extra attention to Kinsler. It was just a guy soaking in a moment. Lewis should have let him have it.

 

A.J. Pierzynski, No-Hitter Etiquette

Darvish Nearly Perfect From the Mound. The Guys Behind the Plate, Not So Much

AJP tossedDon’t change anything during the course of a no-hitter. By now, that much should be obvious. Players don’t change spots on the bench between innings. Managers don’t make unnecessary substitutions (except for those who do). The mere appearance of a reliever warming up in the bullpen can be enough to send the superstitious into fits of nervous twitching.

Monday, however, brought us something entirely new in the realm of not mixing things up, and it only makes sense that the delivery person was A.J. Pierzynski.

Yu Darvish, working on a perfect game in the sixth, threw a 2-2 breaking ball to Jonathan Villar, which Pierzynski thought was strike three, but which plate ump Ron Kulpa judged to be too low. The fact that the catcher leapt from his crouch and took a step toward the dugout before hearing Kulpa’s ruling earned him no favors.

Darvish walked Villar on the next pitch, giving the Astros their first baserunner, and Pierzynski was none too pleased. After the game, Kulpa explained what happened. As reported by MLB.com:

“Pierzynski didn’t like the pitch that I [called for a ball]. We had words about the [2-2] pitch. And then [Darvish] walked [Villar] on the very next pitch and [Pierzynski] continued to argue on the pitch before. And so he got ejected.” (Watch it here.)

Talk about changing things up. Game action was interrupted while Ron Washington came out to argue and backup catcher Geovany Soto raced to put on his gear. Suddenly Darvish was throwing to a different target. The right-hander denied that any of this had to do with the home run he gave up to catcher Carlos Corporan two frames later (indeed, Soto has caught 10 of Darvish’s 22 starts this season, so lack of familiarity is not a problem), but history is not on his side: Only twice has a pitcher thrown to more than one catcher during the course of a complete-game no-hitter—Ken Holtzman in 1969 and Larry Corcoran in 1880.

The question now becomes one of blame. Did Kulpa have too quick a trigger finger, especially considering the enormity of the situation? Should Pierzynski have played it cooler, knowing what was at stake?

The answer to both questions is a resounding yes. Had either of them shown just a skosh more restraint, it’s possible that the baseball world would be celebrating Darvish right now even more than it already is.

“Absolutely, you feel bad for the guy,” said Pierzynski afterward. “You feel bad for the pitcher and you feel bad for everybody associated with it. Because they don’t happen a lot and when you get that close, you really want to try to get them done. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.”

(For what it’s worth, Darvish came within one batter of a perfect game at the same ballpark in April. Some feel he was jinxed in that one, too.)