Feud for thought

2019-09-15 NoahSyndergaard
Noah Syndergaard isn’t exactly being a prima donna when he insists throwing to Tomas Nido behind the plate is both his preference and better for him.

One of the first baseball legends I can remember reading about as a child is the 1927 feud between Pirates outfielder Kiki Cuyler and manager Donie Bush in 1927. I read about it in a pulp early 1966 paperback called Baseball’s Unforgettables, which had the ink-painted heads of Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax on the front jacket and cartoon baseball images—several of also which illustrated the chapters—surrounding them.

The way I read it in that book, Bush “stubbornly and foolishly” held a grudge against Cuyler for refusing a lineup shift out of his number three slot to bat second. Not to mention that the feud between the two may have cost the pennant-winning Pirates the World Series. And neither is entirely true.*

In his first season as strictly a manager (he’d been a player/manager for the 1923 Washington Senators), Bush wasn’t thrilled about the usually mild-mannered Cuyler’s defiance. But if Baseball’s Unforgettables quoted Cuyler as pleading, “Don’t do it, Skip, it’s a jinx for me,” Cuyler himself had a different take: as The Sporting News quoted him in his 1950 obituary, Cuyler didn’t think his kind of freer swinger really belonged in a lineup slot demanding more precise contact hitting.

According to Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders, the argument didn’t do Cuyler any favours with Bush, but it came to a head not over the batting order but over a potential double play. On 6 August 1927, running from first, Cuyler elected not to slide into second on a double play attempt because he thought he had a better chance of obstructing the relay throw to first by arriving standing up.

The Pirates lost the game and fell three behind the Cubs. Bush didn’t buy Cuyler’s reasoning over the running play. Maybe marrying that to the batting order dispute prompted Bush, at last, to bench Cuyler for the rest of the season (save one early September game) and the Series. Then, the Pirates traded Cuyler to the Cubs after the season.

The legend became that benching Cuyler cost them the Series. The legend is bunk. Cuyler wasn’t the Pirates’ best player in 1927; the Hall of Famer wasn’t even their tenth-best player. (The two best the Pirates had in ’27: Hall of Fame outfielder Paul Waner and pitcher Ray Kremer.) The Pirates went 34-18 after the Cuyler benching to win the pennant. But the only team on the planet who could beat the 1927 Yankees might be the 1998 Yankees, if not this year’s Astros.

The worst thing the feud did was to alienate Donie Bush with the Pirates’ fan base. Cuyler was popular enough that Bush couldn’t recover his public image in Pittsburgh, and he resigned in August 1929. He’d have 65 years in baseball total before his death in 1972 while scouting for the White Sox.

My revisiting the Cuyler-Bush feud was instigated by the current apparent debate between Noah Syndergaard and the Mets. Syndergaard isn’t the first pitcher to think about having a particular catcher working with him or even about having a personal catcher. But the issue amplified Friday night.

That’s when Syndergaard took three shutout innings and a 1-0 Mets lead against Clayton Kershaw into the fourth, with Wilson Ramos behind the plate. After a leadoff groundout, Syndergaard and Dodgers star Cody Bellinger wrestled to a ten-pitch walk. Corey Seager singled Bellinger to third at once; then, A.J. Pollock singled through the right side of the infield to score Bellinger, and Gavin Lux, a rookie September call-up, smashed a three-run homer.

Syndergaard worked the fifth the better to keep Mets manager Mickey Callaway from having to turn to his rickety bullpen too soon. It didn’t keep the Dodgers from piling five more on at that bullpen’s expense. And it re-opened the question of whether Syndergaard should get to throw to his preference, backup catcher Tomas Nido, instead of regular catcher Ramos.

There were those who thought (and probably still think) that Syndergaard wrestling with the Mets over his catchers is going to be one more reason for the Mets to put him on the trading block at last after the season ends. There are those who thought (and probably still think) that forcing Syndergaard to throw to a catcher with whom he’s not comfortable may cost the Mets a by-now-too-slim shot at the postseason.

We’ll know soon enough whether the former proves true, but the latter? The Mets’ postseason chances went from new and much improved with that magnificent post-All Star break run to strikingly slim after losing one too many key contests despite a .600+ record in each of July, August, and September thus far.

What really ruined their postseason chances was their horrible, drama-dominant April through June. They looked like a Mess, acted like it often enough, and still have a few things from those three months returning to bite them in the butts just a little too often even in the middle of their second-half success.

Callaway remains under a white-hot microscope over his tactical missteps and strategic vision-challenges. Saturday’s next-to-the-eleventh hour shutout win against the Dodgers, 3-0, magnified it, when he was forced to pinch hit for one of his few relief jewels, Seth Lugo, with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth, where he could have double-switched Ramos out after the backstop ended the seventh and kept Lugo’s lineup slot eight slots away from arriving.

He got lucky with pinch hitter Rajai Davis, who hadn’t had a base hit since late August and took an 0-for-10 string to the plate. Davis yanked Dodger reliever Julio Urias’s 1-2 changeup down the left field line to clear the pads. And he said afterward that he didn’t want to leave the Mets without Ramos’s bat in the lineup.

There’s part of the issue. Ramos has been one of baseball’s hottest hitters since the All-Star break. Nido by comparison can’t hit with a hangar door. But have a look at how Syndergaard—and Cy Young Award defender and 2019 candidate Jacob deGrom—pitch when Ramos or Nido are their catchers:

To Wilson Ramos: G ERA BAA XBH K K/BB K/IP K/G
Jacob deGrom 19 2.68 .209 24 145 5.0 1.3 7.6
Noah Syndergaard 16 5.20 .258 32 97 4.4 1.0 6.1
To Tomas Nido: G ERA BAA XBH K K/BB K/IP K/G
Jacob deGrom 11 1.88 .202 18 91 7.0 1.2 8.3
Noah Syndergaard 10 2.45 .217 20 63 3.3 0.9 6.3

Syndergaard’s -2.75 ERA differential when throwing to Nido instead of Ramos bears out his argument in favour of Nido on purely pitching/defense terms. DeGrom’s differential is -0.80. DeGrom to Ramos still has a Cy Young Award-caliber 2.68 ERA. Syndergaard looks like a Cy Young Award-caliber pitcher with Nido behind the plate and like a Sayonara Award-caliber pitcher with Ramos behind the plate.

Syndergaard strikes batters out just a shard more often than he walks them with Ramos than he does with Nido—but he strikes them out a speck less throwing to Nido than to Ramos.

DeGrom is simply a better pitcher almost regardless of who’s behind the dish for him; you could send bullpen coach (and ex-major league pitcher) Ricky Bones behind the dish and deGrom will pitch like a Cy Young Award winner. If he’s striking out 8.3 hitters a start with Nido behind the plate, assuming deGrom’s average seven innings per start continues, he’s still striking out 7.6 per start with Ramos behind the plate.

While I was at it, I looked up the Mets’ other starters. Zack Wheeler’s ERA is 3.03 lower with Ramos behind the plate than with Nido. Marcus Stroman, who pitched his first truly quality start as a Met Saturday, has a -0.20 differential when throwing to Nido. It may not make a great difference if Stroman throws to Ramos.

(Where’s Steven Matz, you ask? Easy: Matz only threw to Nido once this season, in a relief appearance against the Phillies just before the All-Star break. You can leave Matz with Ramos behind the plate safely, especially with Matz’s turnaround second half. Matz in the second half has a 2.52 ERA and an 8.5 K/9 rate, both far above his first-half struggling. Matz-Ramos is one battery you don’t want to break up.)

Maybe we should look at the walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) when each catcher is behind the plate for deGrom and Syndergaard:

To Wilson Ramos G IP H BB WHIP
Jacob deGrom 19 114.0 87 29 1.02
Noah Syndergaard 16 97.0 96 22 1.22
To Tomas Nido G IP H BB WHIP
Jacob deGrom 11 72.0 53 13 0.92
Noah Syndergaard 10 66.0 52 19 1.07

It might have made plenty of sense if the Mets had spent more time reviewing the actual performance papers and decided that, yes, it would be smart to start Tomas Nido every time Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard pitch. And, with the need for Ramos’s live bat as profound as it is, switch Ramos into those games after lifting deGrom or Syndergaard.

Dreaming, you say? This season, Ramos is hitting .314 when the games are late and close—and he’s hitting a whopping .379 with a 1.003 OPS in high leverage. And, yes, that’s mostly thanks to his bristling second half at the plate. Now, try to imagine the outcome of more than a few games if Nido was sent out to start with deGrom and Syndergaard regularly, and Ramos got switched into those games after those two pitchers were lifted.

Curiously, deGrom pitched a gem Saturday with Ramos behind the plate and outpitched Dodgers Cy Young candidate Hyun-Jin Ryu while he was at it: three hits and eight strikeouts in seven innings; nineteen called strikes and eleven swinging strikes; and, a 2-to-1 ground ball to fly ball rate.

But remember that even with Ramos catching him deGrom pitches like the ace he is. Syndergaard, who’s almost as talented, needs every break he can get. You can say Syndergaard is responsible for executing pitches, and you’d be right, of course. But ponder this, as New York Post writer Joel Sherman does:

Kershaw is the best pitcher of his generation and when he was Syndergaard’s age, he insisted on throwing to A.J. Ellis, a light-hitting backup. A main task of a manager is putting players in position to succeed—and that is not happening currently with Syndergaard.

Syndergaard’s not exactly being a prima donna by insisting he’s better off with Nido than with Ramos behind the plate. Kershaw, a Hall of Famer in waiting, really, wasn’t the first to think about personal catchers and he won’t be the last. And a lot of pitchers have credited their success to one or another particular catcher.

Hall of Famer Whitey Ford once said throwing to Hall of Famer Yogi Berra made him the pitcher he became. And those pesky statistics also bear out that every Yankee pitcher not named Ford when Berra was the regular Yankee catcher pitched better throwing to Berra than at any other time in their entire careers.

(You want to argue success? With Yogi as their regular catcher, the Yankees won nine pennants and seven World Series including five straight despite pitching staffs composed mostly of pitchers who shone as Yankees but were comparative non-topics elsewhere.)

That’s not quite the same as the personal catcher concept, of course, but it’s not something to dismiss too readily.

Tim McCarver had a fine playing career but a lot of it included being Steve Carlton’s preference behind the plate. Charlie O’Brien and then Eddie Perez were a lot more valuable to the Braves because Greg Maddux preferred pitching to one and then the other when the one left as a free agent. Those catchers weren’t exactly in Berra’s league but a pair of Hall of Famers must have known and seen something, right?

You can’t really say that obstinance over who catches whom will sign the Mets’ 2019 death warrant if they don’t make even the wild card play-in game. Of course, if by some alchemy the Mets do sneak into the second wild card and play the likely first card-winning Nationals in the play-in game, they should be broiled and basted if they send anyone not named Nido out to catch either deGrom or Syndergaard in that game.

No Syndergaard-vs.-Mets feud will cost the Mets. Any more than a Kiki Cuyler-Donie Bush feud really cost the 1927 Pirates. Those Pirates won the pennant without Cuyler down the stretch, but they were done in in the World Series by an immovable threshing machine. These Mets will have done themselves in with a first half that, for all their second-half perseverance, still seems like the insurmountable burden.


* Baseball’s Unforgettables also managed to get the spelling of Donie Bush’s name wrong—the book spelled it “Donnie.”

Born Owen Joseph Bush, his original nickname as a Tigers shortstop was Ownie, which teammate Ed Killian got changed to Donie based on Killian describing a pitch on which Bush struck out as a “donie” pitch, “donie” happening to rhyme with Bush’s original nickname. Teammates picked up on it—and began calling him Donie Bush.

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