No-Hitter Etiquette

So What’s an Inside Pitch Between Friends?

Scherzer no-noDid he or didn’t he? Is Jose Tabata a perfect-game-spoiling ruiner of all things good, or a baffled hitter in a long string of baffled hitters to face Max Scherzer on Saturday? Was he leaning into the pitch, or drawing away from the pitch? Is the dress blue and black, or white and gold?

These are questions based on intent and situation. Tabata, of course, was hit by a pitch with one out to go in Scherzer’s would-be perfect game. Does a batter do anything possible to reach base so late in a game—which, at 6-0, has been all but lost—in which his teammates had not really come close? Is getting hit by a pitch to break up a perfect game anything like bunting to break up a no-hitter?

The answer is easy: Of course it isn’t. Tabata didn’t lean into the pitch. He watched a breaking ball that didn’t break as expected, and drew back his elbow—into the path of the ball as it turned out—far too late to make a difference. (Watch it here.)

Far more interesting is the question of insertion. It is fair under certain circumstances to question a manager for inserting a top-flight player into a blowout game for the sole purpose of spoiling a no-hitter. Tabata was pinch-hitting, but in this case somebody had to—the spot in the order belonged to reliever Vance Worley. So, given that the Nationals were already the presumptive victors, was Pirates manager Clint Hurdle under any obligation to utilize a lesser bench player? Would it have been more appropriate to call upon somebody like Corey Hart, who has more at-bats than Tabata this season but is hitting 90 points lower?

Nope. Leave it to Hurdle’s predecessor in Pittsburgh, Jim Leyland, to explain the situation. I spoke to him in 2010, when he was managing the Detroit Tigers, about his decision to pinch-hit Ramon Santiago with two outs in the ninth inning against Chicago’s Matt Garza, who was pitching his own no-hitter. Detroit was losing, 5-0, and Leyland admitted to me that winning the game no longer factored into his strategy. (Santiago flied out to end it. Detroit’s starting pitcher that day: Max Scherzer.)

Knowing you’re not going to win, at what point do you let the guy have his no-hitter?
I don’t think you ever say that. I don’t ever say that.

No matter what the score, you’d send up your pinch-hitters?
Yeah, absolutely. I don’ think you ever say, “Let the guy have his no-hitter.” That’s not the way the game is played. If I’m going to say that, I might as well go home. That sends the wrong message to the people who paid for a ticket. I learned that from my parents—you get what you earn.

We play every game and compete until the end. There are 27 outs in a game, and you try to utilize all of them. It doesn’t matter what the score is. You have to understand the situation. Even if it’s 10-1 in the ninth inning, you might send someone up there to save a guy a tough at-bat against a tough pitcher, or a bench guy might be playing in the game the next day, so you want to get him an at-bat to help him track the ball a little bit. A lot of things go into it—it’s not cut-and-dried.

And then:

We’re paid to compete until the last out, regardless. That’s what we do for a living. Garza pitched a no-hitter, and I tip my cap to him. But when Verlander pitched his no-hitter against Milwaukee, he earned it, and he was supposed to earn it. That’s just the way things go.

You don’t want a no-hitter pitched against you. Everybody’s talking about how you should just let him have it. Well, no you shouldn’t. Nobody wants to be that team. Detroit hadn’t had a no-hitter pitched against it in years. I didn’t want to be the guy from Detroit who finally got no-hit.

All fair points. I take some issue with the idea of pinch-hitting for a position player at that point—when a loss is all but assured—in a potentially historic game. It’s a point at which everything reverts to the status quo. Defensive alignments should be left alone, as should lineups. Even umpires should shade their calls with an eye toward the feat at hand, ruling in the favor of history on plays close enough for debate. Jim Joyce blowing an out call at first base during Armando Galarraga’s would-be perfect game is a prime example. Another came in 1972, when, with Cubs pitcher Milt Pappas 26 outs into his own perfect game, plate ump Bruce Froemming ruled that a full-count pitch, close enough to argue, was a ball. (Pappas retired the following batter to complete the no-hitter.) Unlike that instance, there was no space for interpretation with Scherzer’s HBP—there was only one call for the umpire to make.

In this case, sending up Tabata to hit for the pitcher was the right move. Hurdle played it properly, Tabata did nothing wrong (Scherzer admitted as much) and the baseball world was deprived of a historic feat under appropriate circumstances.

Walk Around the Catcher on the Way to the Plate

Scuff the Dirt, Bryce, but Make Sure to Watch Where you Walk

Bryce Harper drew some attention Saturday when he intentionally (and repeatedly) scuffed the Braves logo that had been imprinted in the dirt behind the plate at Turner Field in Atlanta. On one hand, it was just a bit of gamesmanship, intended to get Atlanta’s goat. On the other he was clearly disrespecting the home team. Ultimately, the gesture was so minor that it should serve as fuel for Braves fans, but not the Braves themselves.

It did bring to mind, however, an interesting piece of Code which might be the single most arcane and widely followed, both at the same time. While other antiquated unwritten rules, like “Don’t swing at the first pitch after back-to-back homers” have fallen nearly entirely off the map, this one, while just as quaint, continues to be ubiquitous. Harper himself was following it, even as he set about being bratty to the Braves.

It’s a simple one: Don’t walk between the pitcher and the catcher when you’re going up to hit—walk around. This almost never causes a commotion, because it’s almost never done. It’s as close to instinctive on the baseball landscape as the unwritten rules can get.

“It’s just bad etiquette to walk in front of the catcher,” said former A’s infielder and current A’s analyst Shooty Babbit. “It’s like breaking the rhythm of the game. You want to creep into the batter’s box; you don’t want to create any attention. You don’t want to give them any more incentive to get you out.”

Dusty Baker learned about it from Hank Aaron when he was coming up with the Braves. “He taught us to walk behind the umpire all the time,” he said. “Not so much for the rhythm of the game, but that it’s their territory, not yours.” Baker talked about the action showing respect for both catcher and umpire.

A poll of current major leaguers would probably draw more blank stares than anything, but one would be hard-pressed to find a guy who makes a practice of doing anything else.

Basepath Retaliation

Takeout Order: One Second Baseman, With a Side of Sour Grapes

Desmond + GomezCarlos Gomez has taken heat in this space for everything from pimping to excessive pimping to his inability to handle criticism. Yesterday Gomez again managed to clear the bases over something he did … but this time he was in the clear. Maybe a guy’s reputation can precede him, after all.

In the eighth inning against the Nationals, Gomez was hit on the left arm by reliever Taylor Hill, making his big league debut. The next batter, Lyle Overbay, grounded a double-play ball to shortstop Ian Desmond, who tossed to second baseman Kevin Frandsen on the pivot. Frandsen just managed to get the throw off before Gomez, barreling in hard and fast, took him out with an aggressive slide. This is the kind of thing one does after one has been hit, a message to the other team that such liberties have not escaped notice.

The slide was clean. The message was sent. The inning was over.

Desmond, however, took offense. As his teammates headed toward their dugout, the shortstop stopped for a chat with an incredulous Gomez. Things got sufficiently animated for the benches to clear, though nobody came close to throwing a punch. To judge by the players on the field, Desmond was the only red ass among them. (Watch it here.)

“I just told him I didn’t agree with the way he slid into second base with a seven-run lead,” Desmond said after the game in an MLB.com report. “I’ve defended that guy in a lot of clubhouse arguments. I respect the way he plays the game, but I’ve got no respect for that. If he thinks he got drilled on purpose by our pitcher making his Major League debut … to take it out on a guy who’s grinded his butt off to make a Major League career in Kevin Frandsen … In a World Series game, you slide like that. In a seven-run-differential game, there’s no time for that.”

On that point, Desmond is nuts. Gomez was responding to being hit—a reaction that is independent of circumstance, lopsided score or not. He responded with a clean, aggressive play, in the way that baseball players have always responded to similar events with clean, aggressive plays. On the Nationals broadcast, in fact,  color man (and former player) F.P. Santangelo called it, even as Hill was delivering the double-play pitch to Overbay: “If I’m in the middle infield right now and I’m turning a double play on a ground ball, heads up Kevin Frandsen.”

As the field cleared, Gomez even earned a pat on the back from Washington manager Matt Williams, who knows a thing or two about playing the infield. Hardly the stuff of vendettas.

It’s Desmond’s right to get upset at seeing one of his teammates taken out, but it’s also his responsibility to know the rules of the game as they pertain to propriety. Hiding behind a 9-2 deficit as an excuse to vent frustration is just weak sauce.

Unwritten-Rules

Desmond Slams Bat, Wins Hearts and Minds With Response to Slamming Bat

Even as I have come to accept the new world order of bat flips and assorted other stylings, I now appreciate more than ever those who recognize their own decorum, even when—especially when—they haven’t done much of anything wrong. Ladies and gents, your anti-Machado: Ian Desmond.

Desmond, a home run away from the cycle last night in San Francisco, slammed his bat down in frustration after flying out to left field of Yusmerio Petit. Because the frustration was strictly personal—the Nats led 9-2 at the time—Desmond may have thought better of it, and apologized after the game.

“For the record, I probably shouldn’t have slammed my bat,” he said in a Washington Post report. “If Petit hears about this or sees this, I apologize. That was pretty bush league. But I was kind of caught up in the moment. You don’t get that opportunity often.”

Today’s lesson: A little cognizance goes a long way. Kudos to Desmond.

[Thanks to @lawrence_s for the tip.]

Jayson Werth, Retaliation

Darling on Werth Drilling: ‘Boy, Was That Obvious’

Werth drilledWhy Frank Francisco drilled Jayson Werth on Thursday is not yet clear. That it was intentional—and stupid—was obvious to at least three people: Werth, Bryce Harper and Mets broadcaster Ron Darling.

It came with no outs in the eighth inning, on a 3-0 fastball, after Francisco had already allowed doubles to the first two batters he faced, extending Washington’s lead to 5-2. (The Nats ended up winning, 7-2. At this point, frustration is as good a guess as any when it comes to pinpointing Francisco’s motivation.)

Werth knew it was intentional when it happened. So, apparently did plate ump Anthony Recker, who, despite the fact that Werth made no move toward the mound, grabbed the barrel of his bat as he lingered near the plate, staring at Francisco.

“Boy, was that obvious,” said Darling on the broadcast. “For you folks at home—and you hear me all the time say, ‘That wasn’t intentional’—well, this one was intentional.”

Darling was then asked by broadcaster Gary Cohen why Francisco would drill a batter in that situation.

Darling’s reply: “Because he’s a fool.” (Watch it here.)

Werth wouldn’t comment after the game, but handled things in the moment, taking out shortstop Reuben Tejada moments later with an aggressive slide at second base. Harper, who reached on a fielder’s choice, did something similar to second baseman Daniel Murphy.

(The idea was summed up by Bob Brenly in The Baseball Codes: “I’ve gotten on first base when I’ve been hit by a pitch and told the first baseman, ‘If there’s a ground ball hit I’m going to fuck up one of your middle infielders, and [pointing to the mound] you can tell him that it was his fault.’ That’s a way you can get them to police themselves. A pitcher drills somebody just because he feels like it, and if one of the middle infielders gets flipped out there he’s going to tell the pitcher to knock it off. Ultimately, that’s all we want anyway—just play the game the right way.”)

“That was total B.S. what Francisco did there,” said a scout in attendance, in a Washington Post report. “Almost got his shortstop’s ankle broken.”

Sure enough, Nationals pitchers never retaliated. If Werth’s slide wasn’t enough for them, they’ll have to wait until next year to address the issue, because the teams don’t meet again this season.

Update (9/16): At least one Mets pitcher wasn’t too pleased.

(H/T BLS)

Retaliation, spring training

Welcome to Spring Training: Phils and Nats Get Testy Early

HalladayGiven that spring training is the prime time for ballplayers to catch up on outdated retribution—the games don’t count, and who really cares if somebody gets tossed—it’s a bit surprising we haven’t seen more of it this month. Then again, we’re only a week in.

The concept managed to hit its stride yesterday in Clearwater, when the Nationals and Phillies continued what has been a cycle of mutual antagonization that started last year, when Cole Hamels happily drilled Bryce Harper in a welcome-to-the-big-leagues moment, then confessed as much afterward.

Nothing was done about it last season (Hamels batted three times in his next start against Washington, once with first base open, and wasn’t so much as brushed back), but relations between the clubs are still running sensitive. Under normal circumstances, Stephen Strasburg hitting Chase Utley in the back ankle wouldn’t elicit much protest—it’s hardly the location to do any sort of damage, not to mention that Strasburg is still working out winter kinks. That it came from the Nationals, however, seemed to strike a chord.

Roy Halladay subsequently threw a pitch behind Tyler Moore (not ordinarily a prime target but by that point in the game the most veteran player remaining for the Nats). Afterward, the right-hander offered the usual platitude about having lost his grip, but then went into a fairly extended dialog about just what that kind of pitch can mean to a club.

“We do need to protect our guys to an extent,” he said in a Phillies.com report. “I’m not saying that’s what happened. It slipped, but I think that’s important. We’ve had a lot of guys hit over the years. I think as a staff we need to do a good job of protecting those guys. Spring training, I don’t think you’re necessarily trying to do it, but it wouldn’t have been the worst thing had it got him after getting one of our good guys.”

There’s also the fact that, according to a deadpanning Halladay, “Chase suggested drilling a few guys this year so I might mix that in.”

It may have been a joke, but it was rooted in reality, as Utley confirmed.

“I think we’re all fighting for the same thing,” he said. “We all want to win. I think, as a hitter, the more uncomfortable you are the more difficult it is to hit. But getting hit is part of the game.”

As for Halladay’s motivation, the action may have served two purposes. One was to reinforce to the defending division champs that the Phillies will not be pushed around this season. Another, even more likely, was to send a message to his own clubhouse, especially after the comments he and Jonathan Papelbon made about Philadelphia’s lack of leadership.

Agree or disagree with his plan of attack, Halladay is, without doubt, leading. The message has been sent; the next six months will tell us whether it’s been received.

(Via Yahoo.)

Bunting for hits

Retiring Schneider Brings to Mind a Small Slice of Baseball Mayhem

Brian SchneiderBrian Schneider retired yesterday. A backup for most of his 13-year career, he was never a star, but saw enough action to make an impression.

The following excerpt from The Baseball Codes was reported primarily because I watched it unfold from the press box at AT&T Park, and was duly amazed. The moment involved Schneider, in the on-deck circle, being drilled by a foul ball and knocked out of the game.

That, in itself, is unusual, but the story surrounding it—including the aftermath—brought increasing levels of intrigue. Schneider was only a bit player, but it bears retelling:

In 2006, the Washington Nationals limped into San Francisco with a MASH unit where their catching corps should have been. Starting catcher Brian Schneider suffered a debilitating lower-back strain in Los Angeles a day earlier, and backup Matt LeCroy had been released eleven days previous. That left only one player on the roster with catching experience—Robert Fick, primarily a first baseman who had caught in 132 games over eight previous big-league seasons.

In the fourth inning, however, it all came apart. Fick, on first after sin­gling, tore rib cartilage diving back to the bag on a pickoff throw. Had there been another catching option for Nationals manager Frank Robin­son, Fick would have come out of the game immediately. As it was, Fick’s injury prevented him from swinging a bat, but he was still able to squat and catch, so he stayed in.

The single had been part of a five-run rally that gave Washington a 6–1 lead. But after catching the bottom of the fourth, Fick was in such serious pain that Schneider volunteered to come off the bench, bad back and all, to take over. He made it as far as the on-deck circle, where he was prepar­ing to bat in Fick’s spot with two outs in the fifth. Within moments, how­ever, Nationals hitter Damian Jackson lined a foul ball directly into Schneider’s right wrist, giving him injuries in two places and sending him back to the dugout. There was no other option—Fick had to bat for him­self. Which leads to a question: What does a hitter do when he can’t swing a bat?

The answer: He bunts. It was Fick’s only alternative, short of watching every pitch he saw. There were two problems, however. One was that Fick pushed his first bunt attempt foul, leaving him standing at the plate and awaiting the next pitch from San Francisco starter Noah Lowry. The other was that neither Fick nor anyone else in the Nationals dugout told the Giants what was going on. All Lowry saw was a player bunting after a five-run rally that broke the game open. He drilled Fick with his next pitch.

“I thought it was unbelievable, ridiculous,” said Lowry. “Sometimes during a game, emotions take over. The emotions were already there, and to add that icing on the cake. . . . There comes a point where you have to draw the line and say, ‘Hey, have respect for me, have respect for the game.’ ”

It wasn’t until afterward that the left-hander found out about Fick’s ribs (the injury was enough to send the would-be catcher to the disabled list the next day) and the various maladies of Washington’s other catchers, and he felt terrible. Had there been some communication—Fick telling Giants catcher Todd Greene about his predicament, and Greene relaying that information to Lowry, perhaps—might it have made a difference?

“Yeah, of course,” said the pitcher. “Knowing he was hurt would have been a completely different story. . . . When I heard about why he was doing it I felt like a jerk. But, not knowing, you just play the game the way you know how to play it.”

Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Jayson Werth, Swinging 3-0

Some Leads are Insurmountable; Others are Insurmountable Only for the Cubs

Opinions about when it is and isn’t appropriate to play aggressively—stealing bases, say, or swinging 3-0—vary widely. When you’re the Chicago Cubs and are in the midst of getting pummeled, repeatedly, by the best team in the National League, it only makes sense that sensitivities might be a bit raw.

The game in question was the capper following three straight Nationals victories over Chicago, by a cumulative score of 22-7—“one of the biggest butt-whippings” Cubs manager Dale Sveum said he’d ever received. Ultimately, it served mainly to add misery to a season which at that point had the Cubs on pace to lose 102 games.

In the series’ fourth game, on Thursday, it took only four innings for Washington to build another substantial lead, 7-2, so when Jayson Werth swung at a 3-0 pitch with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth, it was enough to officially drive Cubs bench coach Jamie Quirk into an extreme state of annoyance.

From the dugout, he started “screaming out obscenities” toward Washington third-base coach Bo Porter, according to umpire Jerry Layne in the Chicago Tribune, a situation the umpire felt “was inappropriate” and “caused everything.”

“Everything” began with Porter approaching the Chicago bench and screaming right back at Quirk. That escalated to both dugouts emptying onto the field. (Watch it here.)

“You’re up 7-2,” said Cubs catcher Steve Clevenger. “You don’t swing 3-0.”

There’s truth to the statement, but its timing is straight out of the 1960s. The last time the fifth inning was utilized as a yardstick for when to stifle an attack, it was a pitcher’s league. They were the days of Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson, long before offenses exploded in a spate of expanded rosters and juiced balls and tiny ballparks and BALCO-fueled hitters. Today, the fifth inning sounds downright quaint.

Then again, this is the Cubs. The line for when to call off the dogs is malleable, depending on a team’s bench and bullpen, the freshness of its starting pitcher, the state of its offense. With the Cubs, for whom a two-run deficit might seem like an unbridgeable chasm, perhaps five runs, and only four innings to score them, is a  lot.

We’ve already established that their emotions are raw, which explains why reliever Lendy Castillo threw at Bryce Harper to lead off the the sixth. That set Harper off on his own shouting jag, and the dugouts emptied again. (Watch it here.)

Harper nailed it in his postgame comments, saying in the Tribune, “I’d be pretty ticked off if I was getting my teeth kicked in all week, too.”

Nationals manager Davey Johnson proved to be tone deaf earlier this season when it came to a different facet of the game’s propriety, but on this particular issue he was pretty much spot-on.

“We’re in a pennant race, we’re going to swing 3-0, we’re going to do everything,” he said in the Washington Post. “We ain’t stopping trying to score runs. Certainly a five-run lead at that time is nothing. I think it was the bench coach’s frustration in us handing it to them for a couple days. If they want to quit competing and forfeit, then fine. But we’re going to keep competing. I don’t know why they’re getting on about swinging 3-0. Their first baseman [Anthony Rizzo] swung 3-0 in the first inning. What’s the difference with the bases loaded in the fifth with only a five-run lead and two outs?”

At this point in the game’s history, not much. “Only” a five-run lead is exactly that, even against the Cubs. One would hope that next time they display a bit more pride.