Dealing With Slumps, Superstition

Anything For A Hit: Blue Jays Catcher Chases Success With Razor Power

Danny Jansen is a greedy SOB. The evidence is right there before us.

About a month ago, on June 21, the Blue Jays catcher was batting a woeful .166, with two home runs on the season. Over the next 18 games, however, 17 of which he started, he hit .355 with six homers, raising his average 50 points in the process. Sure, Jansen had gone hitless in the final two of those games, last Wednesday and Thursday, but he’d barely played in one of them and totaled only three at-bats.

Still, the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately nature of his recent hot streak was indelibly compromised. After putting up zeroes in his first three at-bats against the Tigers on Friday—even in the face of an offensive barrage by his team, in a game the Jays would win 12-1—Jansen could take no more. He returned to the clubhouse during the late innings and shaved his mustache.

Whatever works, right? In 1977, Cincinnati’s Dave Concepcion tried breaking out of a slump—to heat up, as it were—by getting into an industrial clothes drier and having teammate Pat Zachary turn it on. Concepcion singed off much of his hair. He also got three hits against the Cubs.

That, though, was mild. In 1993, Reds pitcher Jose Rijo—who’d gone 10 starts without a win—returned to his home in the Dominican Republic during the All-Star break and sacrificed two goats to the Baseball Gods. He’d have normally killed only one, he said, according to The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball, but he “wanted to make sure.” Sure enough, Rijo won his first game back, and went 8-4 in the season’s second half.

Entire organizations have even been known to get in on the act. In 1951, the Indians—trying anything to beat Yankees southpaw Eddie Lopat, who boasted a 30-6 record against them over the course of his career—passed out 15,000 rabbits’ feet to fans, one of whom actually raced onto the field during the game to throw a black cat (or at least a gray kitten) at the pitcher. Cleveland put up five runs in the first inning against Lopat en route to an 8-2 victory. In Lopat’s next start against them, the Indians won, 8-0.

As for Jansen, he explained after the game that he’d done something similar last season in Triple-A. “I was DHing, and I did it,” he said in a New York Post report. “I struck out my first time, and I went in and shaved and got like a couple hits after, so I gave it another shot tonight.”

Sure enough, after going 0-for-3 to that point on the day (and 0-for-his-last-6 overall), Jansen collected a hit in his next at-bat, a seeing-eye single to left that brought home two runs.

Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman was right there with him. “Whatever to get knocks, man,” he said. “He shaved it off, and double-RBI single. Whatever for knocks.”

So okay, maybe totems work. Then again, Jansen has gone only 1-for-10 since that point, bringing his season average back down to .210. Maybe it’s time to grow another mustache.

Celebrations

Stroman’s Celebration Irks Eck, And People Have Opinions

A lot’s being made over Dennis Eckersley’s comments about Marcus Stroman’s on-field celebration on Sunday to close out the sixth inning against Boston, during which the broadcaster called Stroman’s actions “tired.” You know, hypocrisy and all, what with Eck having pretty much set the standard for pitcher gesticulation back in his day. Let’s let Twitter tell the tale.

There’s something to the fact that Stroman’s initial response appears to have been intended for the Boston dugout, but for me, there’s a different takeaway — not from the game itself, or even its aftermath, but from the Tim Anderson affair back in April, when the White Sox slugger infuriated the Royals by hurling his bat following a home run. Asked about it, Stroman was concise: “I could care less if someone pimps a homer off me. I gave it up. Showing emotion is part of the game.”

There it is. Love the guy or hate him, at least he’s consistent. The moment that Stroman takes issue with a home run pimp job, please alert Rob Friedman.

Showing Players Up

Josh Donaldson Whets His Whistle In Toronto, And All Is Okay In The World

Donaldson whistles

For those decrying baseball’s unwritten rules in the wake of last week’s debacle over bunting in Baltimore comes a pleasant measure of where such things actually sit in the modern game. Before going into it, allow me, please, to paint a picture.

The hypothetical year is 1965. Bob Gibson has just given up a home run to Frank Robinson, and is stunned when, after crossing the plate, Robinson turns toward the St. Louis dugout and whistles in delight. Such a display of arrogance and disrespect is all but foreign to a major league ballfield, let alone Gibson’s ballfield.

There’s no way that Robinson avoids Gibson’s fastball in an ensuing at-bat.

Sure, Bob Gibson was one of the most intimidating pitchers ever to play the game, so maybe he’s not a great example. It could have been Mike Caldwell in 1982, or Preacher Roe in 1952, or Wes Ferrell in 1930—three guys picked more or less at random, who combined to pitch 812 innings in the years in question without hitting a single batter. Even then the hitter in question, should he have whistled in such a manner, would have invariably been knocked down, or drilled later by one of the pitcher’s teammates.

Why is this noteworthy? On April 2, Toronto’s Josh Donaldson played the role of Frank Robinson against the White Sox, homering against Reynaldo Lopez, then miming a whistle at the Chicago dugout while hopping back to his dugout. The most noteworthy part about it: The White Sox didn’t care.

There is, of course, some backstory.

White Sox first base coach Daryl Boston has for several years used an actual whistle to get the attention of his outfielders when he wants to reposition them from the dugout. He also toots it to celebrate good plays, behavior that has not gone unnoticed around the league. Before the game, Donaldson was talking to White Sox hitting coaches Todd Steverson and Greg Sparks, for whom he played in the A’s system, and mentioned that he’s not a particular fan of Boston’s whistle.

Of course, this information was relayed to the coach, and of course the coach responded via whistle—“a little peep-peep” is how Boston put it in a SportsNet report—at Donaldson when he stepped into the on-deck circle during the game.

So, after homering, Donaldson felt free to do what he did. And Boston loved it.

“I got a kick out it because I didn’t find it disrespectful at all,” the coach said. “The downside of it is I may have got caught on video laughing after us giving up a home run. That’s the one thing I felt bad about. But other than that, it’s all in fun.”

The following day, Donaldson used Too$hort’s “Blow the Whistle” as his walk-up song.

All in fun, indeed. There is still a place for players who hew to the serious business of respecting each other, but there are moments in the modern game like never before, when one can cut loose and simply have fun without fear of thin skin or repercussions. The Puerto Rico team showed us that implicitly in last year’s World Baseball Classic, and MLB appears to be following right along, to varying degrees.

Look no farther than Donaldson for evidence. “The whole time I was [blowing the whistle] to [Boston] he had the biggest smile on his face,” he said. “It was good and I’m glad—you always hear about these unwritten rules of baseball and all that jazz—well, I think you’re starting to see some of that change in a positive manner. Not to where I’m trying to disrespect them or they’re trying to disrespect me. We’re out there having fun and competing against each other.”

If there’s an actual quibble here, it’s with Boston, not Donaldson. Various members of the Kansas City Royals have already taken issue with his whistle practice, and it’s not beyond the pale to think that other opponents might also consider celebratory whistling to be juvenile and rude. Even in the modern embrace-the-celebration landscape, a coach with a whistle does seem a bit odd. Mostly, though, it serves to recall a story from The Baseball Codes, concerning the ability of former New York Yankees pitcher Bob Turley to quickly decipher an opposing catcher’s signs while stationed in the first-base coach’s box:

Turley’s relay system was simple—he’d whistle whenever a pitch was different from the last one. Hitters would start every at-bat looking for a curveball, and if a fastball was coming, so was Turley’s whistle. He’d then stay silent until something else was called. The pitcher was so good that when he went on the disabled list in 1961, manager Ralph Houk wouldn’t let him go home, instead keeping him with the team to decipher pitches. (Roger Maris, in fact, hit his sixty-first home run of 1961 on a pitch he knew was coming because third-base coach Frank Crosetti, doing his best Turley imitation after watching the pitcher for years, whistled in advance of a fastball.)

Eventually, people began to catch on. Among them was Detroit Tigers ace Jim Bunning, who grew increasingly angry as Turley whistled and the Yankees teed off during one of his starts. Finally, with Mickey Mantle at bat, Bunning turned to Turley in the first-base coach’s box and told him that another whistle would result in a potentially painful consequence for the hitter. Sure enough, Turley whistled on Bunning’s first pitch, a fast­ball at which Mantle declined to swing. With his second offering, Bun­ning knocked Mantle down. The on-deck hitter, Yogi Berra, could only watch in horror. When it was his turn to bat, Berra turned toward the mound, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted, “Jim, he’s whistling, but I ain’t listening.”

 

 

Bat Flipping, Retaliation

Celebratory or Sour: Jose Bautista Has A Bat Flip For Every Occasion

Bautista flips

Because one can never have too much bat flip discussion, and because no bat flip discussion is complete without Jose Bautista, let’s start there.

On Wednesday, Bautista hit an angry home run against Atlanta. He was angry because earlier in the game, Toronto teammate Kevin Pillar, upset at having been struck out on a quick pitch from Jason Motte, shouted a homophobic slur toward the mound, causing benches to empty. (The slur, having violated the unwritten rules of society more than it did the unwritten rules of baseball, is not the point of this post.)

So when Bautista homered a bit later against Eric O’Flaherty, he did this:

As you can see, a bat flip was involved. Also as you can see, the moment was pointedly distinct from Bautista’s other noteworthy flip from the 2015 postseason, which was documented at some length within these pages.

The latter was an expression of joy—satisfaction at having succeeded, monumentally, at an important task.

The former consisted primarily of churlishness. There was little to celebrate—the Blue Jays were down 8-3 when Bautista swung the bat. He tried to stare down the pitcher. He did a weird skip around the bases. There is a difference.

Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki thought so. He had words for Bautista as the runner crossed the plate, and when Bautista stopped to enjoin him, benches emptied for the second time in the game. Afterward, O’Flaherty had some pointed comments. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“That’s something that’s making the game tough to watch lately. It’s just turned into look-at-me stuff, it’s not even about winning anymore. Guy wants to hit a home run in a five-run game, pimp it, throw the bat around – I mean, I don’t know. It’s frustrating as a pitcher. I didn’t see it at the time, but I saw the video – he looked at me, tried to make eye contact. It’s just tired. We’ve seen it from him, though.”

Add to that the fact that Toronto pitchers hit seven batters over the first three games of the series—one of which knocked Freddie Freeman out of action for 10 weeks with a broken hand—and Atlanta was left with an abundance of bad feelings. (The pitch to Freeman was clearly unintentional, a fastball that wasn’t all that far inside, which hit Freeman’s extended top hand as he tried to check his swing.)

Atlanta responded to it all on Thursday, Julio Teheran drilling Bautista in the hip two pitches into his first-inning at-bat. Warnings were issued and everybody moved on. (Allowing players to police their own business, in whatever reasonable form it took, served to diffuse the situation after that point. Bautista and the Jays made a statement of their own by scoring three runs in the inning en route to a 9-0 victory.)

There is something to be said for recent cries that baseball should embrace the passion of its players and allow them to more freely express themselves on the field when it comes to bat flips and other celebratory acts. Unfortunately, that same sentiment is also used to justify poor behavior from egotistical spotlight hogs.

A player exulting after a virtuous performance lends realism to the sport. Showboating out of petulance strips that realism away. Bautista has encapsulated both sides of that argument. On Wednesday, it wasn’t a good look for anybody.

 

Retaliation

Rays’ Reaction to HBP: Isolated Incident, or is This What Baseball Looks Like?

Bautista stares

Aaaaaand we’re back. After a flurry of retaliation talk surrounding the Red Sox and Orioles last week, we got some fireworks north of the border yesterday. Or at least a sparkler or two.

It started on Saturday, when Toronto’s Joe Miangini hit Rays outfielder Steven Souza in the hand with a pitch. It was almost certainly unintentional—a running, letter-high fastball that Souza failed to spin away from. The pitch was tight, but not egregiously so. Not to mention that the Jays led by only three, and with one out and the heart of Tampa Bay’s order coming up, it was no time to cede free baserunners.

That Souza had to be removed from the game on Saturday and then, despite X-rays coming back negative, sat out on Sunday, might have provided Archer’s motivation to respond. On Sunday,  the right-hander threw a fastball behind Jose Bautista, hip high. From the looks of it, he could well have been aiming at the batter but missed his spot. (Watch it here.)

As retaliation is concerned, below the waist is the way to go … but was it remotely necessary? Miangini’s pitch was accidental and in no way reckless. He wasn’t taking unnecessary liberties with Tampa Bay players. His behavior did not merit addressing.

Which is the point of purpose pitches, even those that intentionally miss their targets. If Archer was trying to show teammates that he’s looking out for their well-being, a response to something actually nefarious, or at least willfully negligent, would be in order. What he gave us on Sunday was not that.

Bautista gave Archer a long staredown at the plate, then had some words for him after flying out to right field. Plate ump Jim Wolf issued a warning after the pitch, curtailing further such liberties.

Perhaps that was the end of it. Because Archer didn’t actually hit Bautista, that should be the end of it. But maybe we’re sliding into a new world order in baseball—which is actually an old world order in baseball—where retaliation for offenses that shouldn’t even register, a pendulum swing away from the influx of free-wheeling bat flippers, is the new way of doing business.

Maybe that’s the case, but hopefully not.

 

Retaliation

Temperatures Top Out in Toronto Over Tepid Toss

happ-headly

Yesterday we had a nice, nuanced discussion about the propriety of infield dekes, with multiple viewpoints weighing in on a play Jung Ho Kang made on Sunday. It was a reminder about why baseball’s unwritten rules are fun and valuable, and how they can affect the execution of the game on a very real level.

Then the Yankees and Blue Jays started throwing baseballs at each other, and all that goodwill went to hell.

It started with New York’s Luis Severino hitting Josh Donaldson in the first inning Monday with a clearly unintentional fastball that grazed the hitter’s elbow. Blue Jays starter J.A. Happ nonetheless responded an inning later by throwing a pitch behind Chase Headly, and then hit him in the hip with his next offering. (Watch it here.)

What was the point? For the Blue Jays to show that they will not abide pitchers coming inside to their MVP candidate? Even for those who see such a response as entirely justified, Happ had his chance and he missed. Hitting Headly at all is weak sauce, but to take another shot after the first one failed is even worse.

It also set some damaging precedent. Responding to Happ, Severino went after Justin Smoak in the bottom of the inning, but, like Happ, missed. Then, also like Happ, he finished the job a pitch later. (Watch it here.) All told, the events inspired two benches-clearing incidents in which punches were thrown. Severino and New York manager Joe Girardi were ejected.

Unless there’s some backstory about which I’m unaware, there’s little place in the game anymore for Happ’s sort of reaction—brutality for brutality’s sake—to an unintentional HBP.

It was an old-school and outdated approach to Code enforcement, but at least we had Mark Teixeira to lend some new-school levity to the proceedings. After tying the game with a solo homer in the ninth, and celebrated like this:

He said later that it was the first time he’d ever flipped a bat.

It was the final meeting between the teams this season. Here’s hoping they’re able to start the 2017 season with fresh eyes.

Update (9-27): Looks like the Baseball Gods have spoken.