Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

The Best Revenge Can Be Found On the Scoreboard

Posey avoids pitch

I’ve long claimed in this space that the best kind of retaliation is the kind that hurts figuratively, on the scoreboard, rather than literally, in, say, the ribcage. In San Francisco, Bruce Bochy seems to be a proponent of the former.

A few days prior to the All-Star break, the Diamondbacks got into it with San Francisco, starting when Jean Segura homered on Jeff Samardzija’s first pitch of the game. When Segura came to the plate an inning later, the right-hander drilled him with a fastball.

Intent was speculative, and highly unlikely. The Giants trailed 2-0, there was a runner on first and only one out. Still, a hit batter is a hit batter, and in the land of Tony La Russa, hit batters frequently merit response.

The first Giant to bat in the bottom half of the inning was Buster Posey. Diamondbacks starter Patrick Corbin nearly hit him in the knee. When Corbin sailed another pitch behind him, warnings were issued.

Bochy roared from the dugout, wondering at top volume why the hell Corbin was being allowed to stay in the game. The skipper was ejected for his protest (watch it here), but it hardly mattered. Posey walked, and the very next batter, Brandon Crawford, tied the score with a home run—the first of what became six unanswered for the Giants, who went on to win, 6-2.

Crawford’s shot, he said afterward in a San Francisco Chronicle report, was borne of motivation: “I don’t want to sugarcoat it—that’s what I went up there to do. I don’t know what they were thinking throwing at Buster twice. That kind of fired me up. When he walked, I wanted to make them pay for doing it.”

More pertinent to the big picture are the divergent approaches taken by the teams. The Diamondbacks, first under guys like Kirk Gibson and GM Kevin Towers, and now under La Russa and manager Chip Hale, have a storied history of exacting revenge at the slightest of provocations. Under Bochy, the Giants tend to approach things with leveler heads.

San Francisco outfielder Gregor Blanco neatly summed up the mindframe after the game, saying that Arizona’s strategy “was not smart baseball right there.”

“When something like that happens,” he said, “we feed off that anger. It shows what we’re capable of.”

That’s the sort of thing that ballplayers are expected to say, but in this case it appears to be true. Samardzija retired 12 of the next 13 batters he faced after the warnings, and the Giants closed the first half with the best record in baseball. (Arizona, perhaps coincidentally, is in last place, 19 games back.) Talent has a lot to do with it, of course, but it’s also a decent example of what a baseball team focusing on the right things actually looks like.

Retaliation, The Baseball Codes, Tony La Russa

PR Man Tony La Russa Would Like to Sell You on the Merits of Retaliation

La Russa watches

Tony La Russa is one of the most vengeful men baseball has ever known. An entire book, Buzz Bissinger’s “3 Nights in August,” went into great detail about his deliberative process as manager of the Cardinals when it came to figuring out which opponent to have drilled, and when.

On Tuesday, La Russa took a different avenue for retaliation.

It started when Pirates reliever Arquimedes Caminero popped two members of the Diamondbacks in the head—Jean Segura with a 96 mph fastball off the helmet, and Nick Ahmed with an 89 mph splitter off the chin. Both were almost certainly unintentional, and neither player was seriously injured. (In between, Arizona reliever Evan Mashall drilled Pittsburgh’s David Freese on the arm, leading to warnings for both benches, and Caminero’s ejection after hitting Ahmed. Watch it all here.)

In the Pirates broadcast booth, play-by-play man Greg Brown openly discussed La Russa’s history of retaliation, which was already more on the record than any manager in history. La Russa—now Arizona’s chief baseball officer—heard it, and invaded Pittsburgh’s booth to take direct issue. Brown directed the argument away from the microphones so that it would not be broadcast, and then opted against mention it on the air out of respect for La Russa. (Watch Brown discuss the incident here.)

La Russa blew that whole plan out of the water, however, by discussing the incident himself, with AZCentral. His goal was to explain why the Pirates were at fault, any lack of intent on their HBP’s be damned:

“A lot of guys who are pitching in don’t have the ability at this point to command it and it becomes very dangerous,” La Russa said in the article. “The reasoning you get from the other side is they didn’t mean to do it intentionally. If you don’t have command, then that’s intentionally careless.”

He was referring to Pittsburgh’s team philosophy, which has pitchers constantly working the inside edge, and has led the Pirates to leading baseball in hit batters from 2013 to 2015. Diamondbacks broadcasters repeatedly intoned a similar message during the game, decrying what they described as an institutionally reckless approach.

On Wednesday, Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale got right to the organizational talking points, echoing La Russa by telling reporters that Caminero was less at fault for the hit batters than Pittsburgh management.

“I don’t think the kid meant to do it,” he said. “When you put a guy out there that doesn’t have control in that area and you’re trying to pitch in, it’s not something that we can have here. The guy doesn’t have the ability to pitch in certain quadrants of the zone, we don’t do it. It’s almost the fault more of the coaching and the managing than it is the player at that point.”

The D’Backs have some history upon which to build their argument. In 2014, Pittsburgh closer Ernesto Frieri unintentionally broke Paul Goldschmidt’s hand with a pitch. (Arizona responded by drilling Andrew McCutchen in the back.) A year earlier, Pirates starter James McDonald hit Aaron Hill, breaking his hand.

La Russa’s response seems to be a new front in his retaliatory battle. A vengeance fastball to the ribcage might send a message to the opposing clubhouse, but a full-fronted PR battle against an opponent’s organizational philosophy? That’s a new one.

In case anybody doubts La Russa’s intentions, he went on the air with Arizona Sports 98.7 FM on Wednesday morning and discussed the situation further.

“So people are just telling them hey, you can’t just willy nilly throw the ball inside,” he said, via the station’s website. “It’s a real easy formula we’ve used for years: you can’t use us as targets, even if it’s unintentional. If you can’t command the ball inside, don’t throw it up and in — you’ve got to get the ball down. It’s really not that tough, it’s one that we try to enforce, and it’s one I think MLB could be more proactive in enforcing.”

Also, this: “They’ll just keep doing it to you, (and) pretty soon the guy the guy [who keeps getting hit] will not want to go to bat, and how do you win? So you’ve got to use common sense. It’s a competition and guys are going to anything they can to take something away from you.”

Adding that teammates are like family, La Russa said that if somebody slaps one of your family members, “you just slap back.”

Maybe La Russa’s canny, maybe he’s crazy. Maybe he’s both. The sport he loves is changing beneath his feet, moving away from the hard edges of intimidation and retribution, and toward the let’s-make-baseball-fun-again generation of bat flips and promo ops. Whether La Russa is willing to acknowledge these things is almost beside the point. Everything he’s said in recent days is based on inherent truths of competitive sports, regardless of whether the people hearing it agree with him.

The trick now is figuring out how to implement it all within the modern landscape. When it comes to guys like La Russa—at the top of his organizational food chain, who can do pretty much whatever the hell he wants—the question matters less on a day-to-day basis than in big-picture form. That’s why the messages he’s sending seem more a matter of selling the public on his approach. Yep, La Russa and his crew are waging a PR campaign on behalf of a team’s right to drill its opponents.

“Intimidation is an important part of sports,” he said on the radio. “People will try to intimidate you, if you back off you’re easier to beat. The game has a way of handling itself.”

Now we’re left to see how the rest of baseball responds.

Retaliation

Break Out the Red Cards: Dodgers and D’Backs at it Again

Turner drilledSo the Dodgers and Diamondbacks are drilling each other. Welcome to baseball season.

In a continuation of the bad blood we’ve seen between these teams over recent years—the lowlight being a protracted brawl at Dodger Stadium in 2013, followed by some shameful disrespect after Los Angeles beat the D’Backs in the playoffs a few months later—the teams went tit-for-tat-for-tit-for-tat on Monday, in a Cactus League game that saw four hit batters and four ejections.

This is becoming something of a spring tradition for Arizona, which made sense in recent years given the perpetual macho posturing of General Manager Kevin Towers. But Towers is out this year, canned shortly after Tony La Russa took over. Thing is, La Russa’s own track record when it comes to eye-for-an-eye justice is no softer than that of Towers—he’s just a bit more judicious in how he talks about it.

Each of Monday’s incidents can be broken down piecemeal (watch ’em all over at CBSsports.com), but can be summarized in a few key points:

  • Intent seems almost incidental here. After Chris Anderson drilled Mark Trumbo in the first inning, Arizona’s response was pro forma.
  • Because, of course it was. Tony La Russa’s in charge. The king is dead. Long live the king.
  • The fact that the drilling was done largely by a bunch of farmhands is one explanation for their collective lack of control, but so too can it be used to explain intent. What better way to garner attention in a system that favors on-field justice than to mete out some of your own?
  • Both managers denied everything. This is their job, regardless of veracity. “We wouldn’t start something in spring training, said Don Mattingly in an MLB.com report, “and if we did, never around the head.” [Emphasis mine.]
  • Spring training is the time to settle old scores on both personal and institutional levels. When the games don’t count, extra baserunners don’t matter. The Diamondbacks in particular have some history with using this detail to their nefarious advantage.

So: Did they mean it, either of them? Ultimately it doesn’t matter. Multiple gauntlets were thrown on Monday, and multiple responses offered. For a couple of teams that already didn’t like each other coming into the game and which play each other 19 times this season, this portends for more interesting dynamics in 2015.

Unwritten-Rules

Kevin Towers, We Hardly Knew Thee …

Towers-La RussaIf we’re gonna remember Bo Porter when he’s canned, seems only right to do the same for Kevin Towers. The GM who brought a lot of toughness and not too many victories to the desert as of late was canned Thursday by new boss Tony La Russa.

Towers’ grit-based organizational structure came to prominence last month when the D’Backs drilled Andrew McCutchen, because Pirates closer Ernesto Frieri accidentally hit Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt on the hand a day earlier, breaking a bone. It led to a protracted discussion about how, while an eye-for-an-eye mentality once played well on baseball’s landscape—and despite Towers’ own overt statements to the contrary—things have kind of changed.

That said, La Russa has never been one to shy from grit. He thrives on it, in fact, with an entire book—Buzz Bissinger’s 3 Nights in August—being more or less dedicated to dissecting La Russa’s strategy of drilling other players in response to stuff they or their teammates did.

No, La Russa probably cared more about Towers’ record than his team’s treatment of Andrew McCutchen. The problem for Towers: That hasn’t been strong, either. After two straight .500 seasons, Arizona is 59-81 this year. Towers has traded away Trevor Bauer, Ian Kennedy, Jarrod Parker and Juston Upton, among many others, without getting a whole lot in return. His handling of free-agent signee Brandon McCarthy—who struggled after being instructed against throwing his cutter—drew particular notice once McCarthy joined the Yankees, kickstarted his best pitch and began to dominate again.

(Lest anyone think that La Russa and Towers are pure opposites, check out this story from 2011, in which each man is separately accused of gamesmanship practices that fall someplace between evil-genius and good-for-a-chuckle.)

Now on the hot seat: Gritty Kirk Gibson.

 

Retaliation, Tony La Russa

La Russa’s All-Star Snubs Have Cincy Clubhouse Crying Foul

Johnny Cueto: Still not an All-Star.

Remember when Brandon Phillips called the Cardinals “little bitches,” and in the ensuing fight Johnny Cueto kicked Jason LaRue onto the disabled list for nearly the final two months of the 2010 season, effectively ending his career?

So does Tony La Russa, who proved Sunday that baseball retaliation can take myriad shapes.

There’s no way to prove it, of course, short of La Russa admitting as much, but the ex-manager, picking reserves for the National League All-Star team, conspicuously left Phillips and Cueto off the roster.

Both are worthy of inclusion; then again, the guys La Russa ended up picking are also fine choices. That wasn’t good enough for Reds manager Dusty Baker.

“A snub like that looks bad,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “Johnny and Brandon were at the center of a skirmish between us and the Cardinals. Some of the Cardinals who aren’t there anymore are making some of the selections.”

Joey Votto chimed in as well, saying that he was “frustrated” and “disappointed.” Cueto took things a step further, adding “I don’t if know the manager of All-Star Game is pissed at me because I went out with one of his girlfriends.” (Stay classy, Johnny Cueto.)

Snubs happen every year, of course—which is probably where this discussion would have ended had La Russa himself not spoken up, telling the Enquirer that Baker was “attacking my integrity” and that “no way am I going to penalize anybody for any kind of past history.”

Which would have been fine, except that La Russa then tried to justify his position by pointing out that Cueto will be pitching on the Sunday prior to the game. In 2010, MLB implemented a rule stating that pitchers who start on the Sunday before the All-Star break are to be replaced on the roster. This year, they changed it a bit. From the new collective bargaining agreement, as reported by the Enquirer: Any pitcher who starts a game the Sunday prior to the All-Star Game “shall have the option to participate,” but “will not be permitted to pitch for more than one inning” and can set his own pitch count.

Well, then. It’s difficult to believe that La Russa was not made aware of this.

The manager is within his rights to pick whoever he wants, and to leave off those players he’d rather avoid over several days in Kansas City. But like the pitcher who admits to hitting a batter intentionally, La Russa now has more questions to answer than he would have otherwise.

Part of me thinks this is all intentional, and that La Russa’s just looking for a little extra excitement now that he’s retired. Either way, it’ll be difficult for any of the Reds to respond once he’s returned to his post-career life promoting animal welfare. Which is probably just how he wants it.

Retaliation, Tony La Russa

Yes, There’s a Chance that Tony La Russa, Baseball’s Resident Expert on Retaliation, May Soon Get Even More Verbose on the Topic

They say retirement softens people. It remains to be seen whether Tony La Russa might fall into this category, but in the short term, his newfound freedom seems to have loosened his lips.

While managing the Cardinals last season, La Russa was in no position to discuss the detailed merits of various incidents that were widely construed to be retaliation on the part of the St. Louis pitching staff. Now that he’s beyond repercussions from the commissioner’s office, however, state secrets may be beginning to spill.

It started Friday, when La Russa opened up a bit about a game last year in which Cardinals reliever Jason Motte drilled Ryan Braun, an inning after the Brewers had—unintentionally, by all indications—hit Albert Pujols. Looking back, the ex-manager said, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that it had been his “responsibility” to respond.

It shouldn’t be all that surprising, really. Even at the time of the incident, La Russa pressed the boundaries of what he could get away with, saying, “We threw two balls in there real good just to send a message. If he ducks them, it’s all over and we don’t hit him.” If anybody in baseball has a deeper love of eye-for-an-eye on-field justice, he has yet to be found.

Heck, an entire book—Buzz Bissinger’s Three Nights in August—is devoted to intricate detail about La Russa’s inner machinations as he pondered whether or not response was merited in various situations. To believe the book, the guy likes to ponder. A lot.

La Russa has yet to go into too much detail about anything untoward, and his consideration for a VP post within Major League Baseball could well change everything, but at the very least, Friday gave us an inkling about what it could be like should the reigning master of retaliation ever decide to truly speak freely on the topic.

We can only hope.

– Jason

Jason Motte, Retaliation, Ryan Braun, Tony La Russa

Hey Jered Weaver, this is Where Message Pitches are Meant to be Delivered

Ryan Braun: not happy with the way things played out.

As far as retaliation goes, it was awkward, it was ugly and if it wasn’t embarrassing to more than one party, then by all rights it should have been.

But at least it got the job done, within the boundaries of reason.

In the bottom of the seventh inning last night, Cardinals reliever Jason Motte wanted to deliver a message to Milwaukee. Brewers reliever Takashi Saito had drilled Albert Pujols a half-inning earlier, in his tender left wrist. It was clearly unintentional, as the rising fastball hit Pujols only after the hitter pulled his hands in to his chest and was spinning toward the backstop.

Sometimes intent doesn’t make a lick of difference. When Pujols goes down, reparations are frequently in order.

Never mind that it was a 7-7 score; when Ryan Braun led off the home half of the inning, Motte got right to it. And whiffed. Braun evaded Motte’s 98 mph inside fastball, which should, for practical purposes, have ended the hostilities. The pitcher had his shot and missed his mark.

This was plate ump Rob Drake‘s moment to step in and put an end to things. Players frequently appreciate some leeway when it comes to umpires’ warnings, at least to the point that each side is allowed their due shot. Drake, however, missed that mark by a mile.

Allowed a second chance, Motte drilled Braun in the ribs with a 97 mph four-seamer. Braun looked stunned after the first effort; when the second one found purchase without a peep from Drake he was downright flabbergasted.

Even at that point, Motte failed to get booted. (He did end up hitting the showers, but only because Tony La Russamade a pitching change. Based on La Russa’s history with these things, it seems likely that Motte started the inning solely because has the best fastball on the team, with the plan being to pull him after one hit batter. “We threw two balls in there real good just to send a message,” the skipper said afterward, in a semi-denial. “If he ducks them, it’s all over and we don’t hit him.”)

Only after Milwaukee skipper Ron Roenicke came out for a chat with Drake—presumably to fill the ump in on all he was missing—were warnings issued to both benches. (It was odd timing on Roenicke’s part; unless he was looking to get Motte retroactively bounced from the game, his discussion served little purpose beyond costing his own pitchers a chance to respond on Braun’s behalf.)

“That was ridiculous,” said Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “We didn’t hit Albert Pujols on purpose. Are you kidding me? In that situation? If we wanted to put him on base, we would have walked him. That’s ridiculous. . . . We shouldn’t get punished for something we weren’t trying to do on purpose. Look at the situation. If we were getting beat by a lot or we were beating them by a lot and that happens, maybe we did it on purpose.  I mean, come on. We weren’t trying to hit anybody. It’s unbelievable.”

Lucroy is entitled to his opinion, but it’s tough to fault a pitcher for protecting his superstar. That Milwaukee’s best player led off the next inning made the timing perfect. That Motte was given two chances by an apparently clueless ump, however, is worth getting ticked off about. If the situation has anything working in its favor, it’s that, unlike Jered Weaver and Carlos Carrasco, Motte came nowhere near his target’s head.

The teams meet again today, then again at the end of the month.

– Jason