Things Get Real in Baltimore: Jays Rookie Hunts Heads, Draws Ire

Marcus Stroman needs to sit down for a while. A long while, probably.

The Blue Jays right-hander took a noble idea—standing up for one’s teammates, the mark of any good team player—and turned it ugly in a hurry on Monday. After Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph apparently stepped on Jose Reyes’ fingers during a bang-bang play at the plate in the fifth inning, Stroman responded during Joseph’s next at-bat, spinning a 92-MPH fastball just behind the hitter’s helmet.  (Watch it all here.)

Plate ump Ted Barrett immediately warned both benches. It was the wrong decision. On one hand, the warning removed Baltimore’s option to respond (in what would hopefully be a more reasoned manner). More importantly, tossing Stroman immediately might have obviated the need for any response at all. (O’s manager Buck Showalter came out to vociferously argue the latter point, as far as Stroman’s lack of ejection.)

“You let your emotions take over and all of a sudden someone’s lying at home plate in a pool of blood with a blow to the head,” said a disgusted Showalter after the game in a Baltimore Sun report. “How really manly do you feel? Was it really worth it?”

Even within baseball there is widespread disagreement over what constitutes a retaliation-worthy offense, and what shape retaliation should take when it’s in the offing. One thing everybody agrees on is that any liberties taken above the shoulders are squarely out of bounds. As former outfielder Dave Henderson said in The Baseball Codes: “I have a rule: You can drill me all you want. But if you throw at my face, it gets personal. I kill you first, then your grandpa, your grandma—I just go on down the list. It gets personal. Batters should get mad. The guys who get hit on the elbow and all that, I have no sympathy for them. Big deal, you got hit. I got hit in the head twice in my career; the other stuff didn’t count.”

Stroman is 23 and having a splendid rookie season for Toronto. As such, he probably feels the need earn his stripes with the veterans on his team, showing them that he has the convictions necessary to protect their collective flank. It’s been the dance of big league pitchers forever; what Stroman lacks is nuance. Never mind that Joseph did nothing wrong; there were still a dozen ways for Stroman to send a message about Reyes’ hurt fingers without putting anybody in harm’s way.

Whether the ball ended up where the pitcher wanted it to, or if it was a message pitch that came a little closer than intended is irrelevant. Showalter nailed it after the game when he said, “If you don’t have the command to throw the ball where you’re supposed to to deliver a message, then you shouldn’t be throwing at all there. It really pushed the hot button with all of us because it certainly wasn’t called for. That was obvious. It was borderline professionally embarrassing.”

Joseph himself clairified the complete disconnect between Stroman’s actions and the mores of the game when he said, “Yeah, there’s a code. Every baseball player knows there’s a code. I’m not the judge here to judge intent or any of that stuff. I’m just glad it didn’t hit me.”

In that, Joseph wasn’t just acting like a ballplayer. He was acting like a human being, which is something to which Marcus Stroman needs to pay some very close attention.

Update (9-17): MLB has ruled: Stroman will sit for six games, pending appeal.

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 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.

Cheating, Clay Buchholz

Arm Butter Accusation Storm Builds in Toronto

buchholz arm
Sportsnet’s Buchholz graphic

It started last week when Dirk Hayhurst—ex-pitcher, sometimes author and current broadcast analyst for the Toronto Blue Jays—unleashed some damning suspicions on Twitter about Boston pitcher Clay Buchholz, who’s currently setting the American League afire with a 6-0 record and 1.01 ERA:

Forget the hair, I just saw video of Buchholz loading the ball with some Eddie Harris worthy slick’em painted up his left forearm. Wow.

It continued when Hayhurst’s colleague, ex-Tigers great and current Blue Jays broadcaster Jack Morris, piled on, telling ESPN Boston that “it was all over his forearm, all over the lower part of his T-shirt, it’s all in his hair,” while in the next breath stipulating that he has no actual proof of impropriety.

It really picked up steam when the video crew at the Rogers’ Centre unleashed some video from Wednesday’s Jays-Sox game, in which the right-hander allowed only two hits to Toronto over seven shutout innings, of Buchholz’s left (non-throwing) arm, glistening with what appears to be something other than sweat. (Hayhurst went on to say that it might be sunscreen mixed with rosin. The Jays’ crew added some talk about Red Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa possibly doing something similar.)

To be expected, Buchholz subsequently denied everything (“Definitely no foreign substances on my arm,” he told, as did Red Sox catcher David Ross (“I know when a pitcher is messing with the ball, he said. “He’s not putting anything on it”).

People came out for Buchholz. Dennis Eckersley told Morris to “zip it,” and Jerry Remy defended him on the air. Cliff Lee discussed his own innocent accumulation of sweat and rosin. Tim Hudson had some fun with the situation.

People came out against Buchholz. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci discussed details about what he feels is a fishy situation, and ESPN’s David Schoenfield compared the break on Buchholz’s pitches to those on offerings nearly 30 years ago from notorious ball scuffer Mike Scott. (He also quoted from The Baseball Codes, so credit to him on that one.)

What does it all mean? Nothing, almost literally. The Blue Jays haven’t accused Buchholz of impropriety. Neither has any other team. Umpires have yet to check him. The accusations are based on TV footage that can be realistically explained any number of ways.

It appears to be a Kenny RogersTony La Russa-type situation. When  the Fox TV crew spotted Rogers with an unusual brown spot on his palm during his start in the 2006 World Series, it became national fodder—especially when video evidence showed the same brown spot during his previous postseason appearances. Instead of having the umpires check Rogers, however (knowing that if they found a foreign substance, he’d be ejected and likely suspended), Cardinals manager La Russa merely asked them to make sure he washed his hands. From The Baseball Codes:

In the face of this World Series controversy, the Gam­bler did the only thing he could reasonably do—he cleaned his hand and continued to pitch well. Fifteen postseason shutout innings with an obvi­ous foreign substance were followed by seven shutout innings without it. Alleged pine tar or no alleged pine tar, the Cardinals, who scratched out only two hits against Rogers in eight innings, fared no better than the Yan­kees or the A’s had in earlier rounds.

The primary question was, why did La Russa not come down harder? A variety of theories surfaced, one of which gained particular traction: Pitchers cheat in Major League Baseball. Not all of them, but enough to touch every clubhouse in some way. La Russa’s own pitcher, Julian Tavarez, had been busted for using pine tar only two seasons earlier, and suspended for 10 days. La Russa called it “an example of bullshit baseball.”

La Russa, the theory held, had kept quiet because he was reluctant to travel this particular road on behalf of his own pitchers, who would undoubtedly come under increased scrutiny. No less an authority than Buchholz accuser Jack Morris weighed in, telling the Detroit Free Press that “Tony’s been through a lot himself, so I don’t think he wanted to push that enve­lope.” (An entire chapter was devoted to this particular situation in The Baseball Codes.)

So even if the Blue Jays did recognize something askew about Buchholz on the mound, they may well have opted (and continue to opt) to keep it to themselves. This could be equally true for every other team in the league, regarding every other pitcher in the league. Rare is the guy like Davey Johnson, who just doesn’t give a crap.

Chances are that Buchholz will dial back whatever it is he’s doing (even if it’s legal, he’ll likely strive to make it less suspicious), and that the entire situation will blow over within the week, assuming he does not get uncharacteristically blown out of his next start.

Which is as it should be. Most folks around the big leagues view cheating as largely acceptable, so long as the cheaters knock it off (at least for a while) once they’re caught. Buchholz’s arm butter, legal or otherwise, is no exception.

Drew Hutchison, Kevin Youkilis, Retaliation

The Professor is In: Youkilis Offers Impromptu Code Lecture at Home Plate for Toronto Rookie

When it comes to the unwritten rules, the primary takeaway from Sunday’s game between the Red Sox and Toronto was not Boston starter Daniel Bard hitting two members of the Blue Jays within the span of three batters, nor Toronto pitcher Drew Hutchison drilling two Boston hitters, ostensibly in response.

Those were noteworthy events, sure, but Toronto’s 5-1 victory anointed a new king of the Code—a guy who not only knows how things are supposed to work and is willing to abide by the rules even when it’s his own hide on the line, but has the presence of mind and the strength of character to give impromptu instruction, on the field, to his opponent.

Ladies and gentlemen, Kevin Youkilis.

The third baseman was hit high on the shoulder during his sixth-inning at-bat, and if he didn’t know it was coming, he was at least ready for the possibility. Based on his reaction, he took no umbrage with getting drilled, but was irate over the pitch’s location, too near his head.

Youkilis spun toward the mound, pointed toward his hip, and yelled at Hutchison to “keep it down.” He then gathered his batting helmet and made his way to first base. The closest he came to rubbing the spot was when he pointed to it in response to the Boston trainer’s question about where he had been hit. (Watch it here.)

That Hutchison had a mandate to retaliate in the first place was questionable—though well within the boundaries of reason—given that Bard had never been more wild. The first batter he hit, Yunel Escobar, loaded the bases; the second, Edwin Encarnacion, drove in a run. Bard also issued five bases on balls over the course of one-and-two-thirds innings, along with five earned runs on just one hit. He managed to throw all of six fastballs for strikes. The guy was obviously not making any kind of statement short of the fact that he may well prefer working out of the bullpen, but Encarnacion was sufficiently hurt after being hit on the hand to be pulled from the game before his next turn at bat.

Hutchison saw fit to stand up for his mates—an impressive display for a guywho six weeks ago was working in Double-A. Things could have ended after he hit Kelly Shoppach—Boston’s first hitter after the dual drillings in the third. It’s likely that when Encarnacion left the game in the fifth that further action appeared merited to the pitcher.

“I was trying to go away,’’ Hutchison said after the game, denying intent. “I tried to put a little bit extra on it and I just missed. That’s it.’’

Where this all ends up is Daniel Bard. Because Youkilis expected his drilling, he no doubt pins its point of origin squarely on his teammate. Hutchison’s message was on point—Don’t hit our batters, and we won’t hit yours—and Boston heard it loud and clear. Ten more Blue Jays came to the plate after Youkilis was drilled, and they all emerged unscathed.

As if Bard wasn’t feeling enough pressure to perform, he now has this to chew on, as well.

Sign stealing, Toronto Blue Jays

Somebody Else Has Accused the Blue Jays of Stealing Signs from the Rogers Centre

Another year, another pitcher making veiled accusations that the Blue Jays are stealing signs from the far reaches of the Rogers Centre.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Some of the accusations aren’t veiled at all.

The latest came from Orioles starter Jason Hammel, who gave up nine hits and four runs over 6.2 innings Wednesday in a 4-1 loss at Toronto. He entered the game with a 6-1 record and 2.78 ERA, having allowed three home runs all season. Wednesday, he gave up four.

“They’re a very potent offense and if you don’t make your pitches down they’re going to get them out,” Hammel said in a Baltimore Sun report. “They were taking some pretty big hacks on my breaking stuff too, which leads me to believe it was something else. It is what it is. I need to keep the ball down.”

Last August, ESPN ran a fairly extensive piece detailing a man in a white shirt who would signal upcoming pitches to the plate from the stands. The Yankees also had some things to say about possible shenanigans north of the border.

The rule here is simple: If a team is stealing your signs from within the field of play, it means mostly that you need better signs. (The Orioles were themselves accused of this somewhat recently.) But if the theft is being done via spyglasses or TV monitors (which is against the actual rules, not just the unwritten ones), it’s game on.

A quick look at the stats doesn’t helpToronto’s cause.

As a team, the Blue Jays are hitting .262 with a .471 slugging percentage and .803 OPS at home, where they’ve hit 42 homers in 828 at-bats. On the road, those numbers are .231/.369/.660, with 30 homers in 937 at-bats. Edwin Encarnacion has 12 homers and a .311 batting average in 25 home games, but is batting .243 with 5 homers in 26 games on the road. Last year the Blue Jays hit 10 points higher at home than on the road, with 20 more homers.

Meanwhile, Toronto’s team ERA is more than a quarter-run better at home than on the road—3.98 to 4.26—so it’s not like visiting teams are experiencing that same type of success inToronto.

Then again, Jose Bautista is playing significantly better away from the Rogers Centre. Either he’s an indicator that nothing is amiss, or he doesn’t like to receive stolen signs.

“When you’re locating your fastball, you’re going to give up some home runs there, but the swings they were taking on he breaking stuff, it was pretty amazing to me,” Hammel said. “I don’t think you can take swings like that not knowing they’re coming. I don’t know. That’s all I can say.”

In Toronto’s defense, all four of their homers Wednesday came on fastballs.

ESPN’s man in white is apparently no longer anyplace to be seen, but the methods a team can use to pilfer and relay signs via in-stadium technology is virtually limitless. From The Baseball Codes:  Indicators range from the digital clock at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium (“You know the two vertical dots which separate the hour from the minutes?” asked groundskeeper George Toma. “One dot for a fastball, two for a curve”) to dummy TV cameras reportedly placed in center-field wells at places like Candlestick Park and Dodger Stadium that would signal hitters with phony “on air” lights.

So it’s not like teams haven’t done this before. The difference is, the others all stopped—or at least the accusations against them did. That hasn’t been the case in Toronto, and we’re left wondering how far the organization is willing to go to win a baseball game.

Retaliation, Shin-Soo Choo

Opening Day + Extra Innnings = Beanball Drama in Cleveland

The season’s first lesson on sensitivity awareness was given yesterday in Cleveland, when benches emptied after Shin-Soo Choo was forced to duck under a head-high fastball from Toronto reliever Luis Perez in the 15th inning.

While no hitter in baseball would react well to an inside pitch above his shoulders, Choo was particularly sensitive. He missed six weeks last season after having his thumb broken by a pitch. He had been drilled earlier in Wednesday’s game by Ricky Romero. So when he was forced to the dirt by Perez in the 15th, he responded by jumping up and taking angry steps toward the mound, spurring the benches to empty. (Watch it here.)

Which is where intent comes into the equation.

Perez’s pitch arrived after warnings had already been issued by plate ump Tim Welke in the fourth, after Cleveland’s Justin Masterson came inside twice against Kelly Johnson, apparent retaliation for Choo’s HBP an inning earlier.

Perez was Toronto’s seventh pitcher of the day. That left one guy in the pen—closer Sergio Santos—to go the rest of the way, were Perez ejected, in a game that looked as if it might never end. There were two possibilities for Perez’s motivation—he’s a baseball imbecile, with no shred of insight into the appropriate time to respond to something; or the pitch simply got away from him.

The smart money’s on the latter; Welke’s certainly was. Despite the earlier warnings, Perez was not ejected, and it’s not difficult to see why.

Even Choo came around to that viewpoint, saying after the game in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “I was hit by a pitch last year and broke my thumb. Maybe that’s why I’m sensitive right now. But I know it’s part of the game. Pitchers have to go inside. I understand it.”

And so we move on. Teams play again Saturday; we’ll see how Toronto reacts once the timing is right.

– Jason


Hayhurst Takes Notes in the Clubhouse, Gets Offended When People Take Exception To his Taking of Notes in the Clubhouse

So Dirk Hayhurst got hazed. In an interview with the Toronto Star, the former big league pitcher—and author of The Bullpen Gospels and Out of My League, which comes out later this month—expresses dismay at the reaction of some of his Blue Jays teammates when it came to his role as a part-time writer:

But then you had guys that were jackasses. And every team has them. These are the guys that look at baseball as a religious thing, and you never break the code. And nobody knows where the code came from, but you just can’t break it. So here comes Dirk Hayhurst, fringy guy on a search for meaning and purpose and maybe big-league fame if I could get it, and I’m just writing down stories and asking big, uncomfortable questions about the validity of our existence as ballplayers, and guys were not happy about that. And as long as you’re playing well, they’re not going to call you out about it, and I was pitching well. But then I got hurt and the gloves came off, and it was like, “Dirk, you need to apologize to the team. You need to bring everybody together and tell them you’re out of line for what you’re doing.”

He goes on to quote anonymous teammates who told him that he was making the team uncomfortable by writing about his baseball experience.

Well, of course he was.

Hayhurst should know more than most about the insular nature of a big league clubhouse, how even players who are media-friendly—by no means in the majority—frequently keep their distance from the press.

He should also know that a clubhouse is sacrosanct in the minds of its occupants. It’s the one place they can be loud, loose and raunchy, as ballplayers are, with nobody to judge them because nobody outside the team knows the true depth of what goes on.

Hayhurst must understand that an insider who starts to take notes, regardless of his intentions, will invariably make his teammates uncomfortable. Never mind that The Bullpen Gospels—a fine book, it should be mentioned—hardly burned any bridges. Hayhurst was tactful and respectful with his execution, telling stories in which nobody (save occasionally for Hayhurst himself) came out much the worse for wear.

Still, if he had no inkling that his literary aspirations would be interpreted poorly by at least some of his teammates—and that a few guys is all it takes to turn a clubhouse—he was willfully ignorant. A squeaky-clean publication record doesn’t count for a whole lot in a group that doesn’t count reading as one of its favorite pursuits.

Jim Bouton went through similar travails after Ball Four came out, but by that point he was a former 20-game winner very close to the end of his career. Hayhurst, in contrast, had pitched all of 10 big league games prior to that season in Toronto, with a 9.72 ERA. Stars get away with things that average players do not, and veterans have more leeway than rookies; Hayhurst was neither star nor veteran.

Hayhurst’s mistake was in approaching the situation rationally, as a normal human being would. He expected that because he was open about his plans, and made his work public for teammates to review, that he would subsequently be afforded a modicum of leeway, and that his literary endeavors would not affect his clubhouse standing.

Had Hayhurst approached the situation from the perspective of a ballplayer—not an intellectually inquisitive one, like himself, but an overgrown kid who gets to live the frat-house life into his 20s and 30s, and whose natural enemy is anyone who might impede upon his unique lifestyle—he might have been more cautious. At the very least, he wouldn’t have been surprised at the reaction he ultimately received.

– Jason