“At least the Reds are trying”

2019-12-03 MikeMoustakasGeorgeBrett

Mike Moustakas (8) sharing a World Series win commemoration with Hall of Famer George Brett. The Reds hope Moustakas helps them to a Series in the next four years.

It’s not that he’ll be the biggest off-season free agency signing, but Mike Moustakas landing four years and $64 million from the Reds made quite a bit of noise to open the week. On the surface, the Reds seem to be shifting into win-now gear, after remaking their starting rotation last year. Below it?

It may prove a mixed bag. May.

“The Cincinnati Reds finished twelfth in the National League in on-base percentage (OBP) in 2019, ahead of two teams in strong pitchers’ parks and the underpowered Miami Marlins,” writes Smart Baseball author Keith Law for ESPN. “So of course, the Reds just committed four years to a 31-year-old hitter without a position who has posted a .320 or better OBP twice in seven full seasons in the majors.”

Law thinks, therefore, that Moustakas might have fit “a lot of clubs” but not the Reds. They needed an upgrade at the plate, finishing twelfth, too, in 2019 runs scored despite their delicious home hitters’ park. And whenever Moustakas played in Great American Ballpark until now, he wasn’t exactly a game buster: he’s hit a buck ninety-eight with a .578 OPS in the big bat-embraceable park to date.

The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark demurs from Law: he thinks the Reds “love the bat, love the fit and love the edge this guy plays with. They’re not more talented than the Cardinals, Brewers or Cubs as currently constituted. But in the times we live in, we should all be applauding any team that is trying to win. It sure beats the alternative.”

As a Brewer in 2019, Moustakas posted a career-high .845 OPS, a career-second .329 OBP, and a career-second 270 total bases. He also hit the second-highest season home run total of his career (35) and was able to drive in the second-highest number of runs in any of his nine seasons. The Reds like power and reaching base about equally, but Moustakas gives them far more of the former.

Since it looks as though Eugenio Suarez has a vise grip on the Reds’ third base job the plan seems to be shifting Moustakas to second base. Not a terrible thought, since he’s played the position before and shaken out as about the league average in the 47 games he did play there. He won’t injure them around the keystone.

He’s had an odd journey to this deal. When he first hit free agency, nobody but his incumbent Royals seemed to want him—and he settled for a single-season $6.5 million deal with the team he helped win two pennants and a World Series. And they traded him to the Brewers in 2018 while they were at it. He looked good enough for the Brewers to want him back; last winter’s mostly dead market turned into a single season and $10.5 million.

But the Reds are also buying a player who earns respect in his clubhouses, takes a few burdens off his managers that way, and also fits with manager David Bell’s penchant for double switching when the games get hot and tight, and a two-position infielder is a fine fit for it.

Banking on Moustakas’s power (he doesn’t walk much, he can be double play prone, and he has little basepath speed despite a satchel full of basepath smarts), defensive steadiness, and personality—including his postseason experience (two World Series, three League Championship Series, and this year’s wild card game)—may show the Reds mean business for 2020. And since they say they’re willing to spend a little more, Moustakas won’t be the only card the play this winter.

“When a team spends to sign a good player to aid their chances to win, it merits acknowledgment, if not applause,” writes another Athletic scribe, Andy McCullough. “At least the Reds are trying. And at least Moustakas got paid.” Right there that could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The 1919 Reds, grand theft victims

This essay was first published 18 December 2018; a different version appeared in the Society for American Baseball Research’s Black Sox Scandal Research Committee Newsletter later that month, and I still thank editor Jacob Pomrenke—perhaps the most passionate reviewer of the scandal the nation has—for his kindness in accepting it. It also formed the basis of a lecture I gave to SABR’s Las Vegas chapter in January—with a replica 1919 Reds hat resting proudly on my head.

On today’s centenary of the ill-fated 1919 World Series’s final game, I republish the original, with one or two time-appropriate alterations, in the continuing if feeble hope that the 1919 Reds will receive their due at last as legitimate World Series champions despite the Black Sox shenanigans.

1919Reds

They wuz robbed: the 1919 Reds. (Hall of Famer Edd Roush stands second from left, top row.)

It’s difficult to feel sorry for a franchise whose history includes fifteen trips to the postseason, ten pennants and five World Series championships, even if they’ve spent the past six seasons in the pits of the National League Central. Difficult, but not impossible.

This season was the centenary of the Cincinnati Reds’ first National League pennant and World Series triumph, and it’s not unfair to say few outside Cincinnati might have cared. But you should. Too much commentary focused on the guys they beat in the 1919 World Series. Understandable, but patently unfair. To the Reds. The thrill of victory never smelled so much or so without warrant like the agony of defeat.

You know too much, not enough, or both about the Black Sox. You may know the mythology saying the White Sox untainted by the Eight Men Out would have just annihilated the poor little Redsies who just weren’t enough to withstand a feeding attack from the South Side sharks. That’s a lie equal to one president not having had sex with that woman and a thrice-removed successor having the largest inaugural crowd of all time.

The Reds’ golden age was the 1970s of the Big Red Machine. Five division titles, four pennants, back-to-back World Series conquests, over that decade’s first seven years. Franchises would kill for a piece of that. But the Machinists had no single season winning percentage better than the 1919 Reds. The 1919 edition’s .686 winning percentage was better than those White Sox (.629) and any team in their decade except the 1912 Boston Red Sox. (.691.)

Before anyone suspected foul play, the 1919 White Sox were 8-5 favourites to win the Series overall but 2-1 underdogs for the first two games in Redland Field. (The park would be re-named Crosley Field in 1934.) White Sox manager Kid Gleason trumpeted what he considered the greatest hitting team that yet played a World Series. Reds manager Pat Moran made a prediction that proved too chilling in due course: “If we beat [White Sox pitcher Eddie] Cicotte in the first game, we ought to win the Series.”

Cicotte, of course, hit the Reds’ second baseman Morrie Rath with the second pitch of the bottom of the first, the signal to the gamblers that the fix was on. But Cicotte would have entered that game suspect even without joining the fix. He suffered shoulder and arm miseries at the end a 306.6 inning, 29-win season. (If you’ve seen the dubious film version of Eight Men Out, you remember the scene in which Cicotte’s suspect shoulder and arm received a linament rubdown from his wife.)

The White Sox entered the Series with two great starting pitchers (Cicotte, fellow Black Sox Lefty Williams), a third (Hall of Famer Red Faber) missing in action thanks to injuries, and a rookie (Dickey Kerr, one of the Clean Sox) who looked like a comer both starting and out of the bullpen but whom observers in the moment considered a kind of wild card. The Reds entered with five solid, healthy starters: Hod Eller, Ray Fisher, Jimmy Ring, Dutch Reuther, and Slim Sallee. Gleason went into the Series on the shorter end of the pitching stick, even without Cicotte and Williams corrupted. Moran had the luxury of being able to rotate his arms—none of which was particularly overworked compared to Cicotte and Williams (297 innings)—reasonably.

Is one way to measure a team their second-half season’s performance? If so, and if  you’ll pardon the expression, you should have put your money on the Reds based on that. They went 47-19 in their second half. The White Sox went 41-26. The Reds finished nine games ahead of the second-place New York Giants; the White Sox finished three and a half ahead of the second-place Cleveland Indians.

Another measure is how they did against fellow contenders in their league. The Reds went 38-22 on the season against three other contenders (the Giants, the Chicago Cubs, the Pittsburgh Pirates); the White Sox went 35-25 against three others (the Indians, the New York Yankees, the Detroit Tigers). In September alone, the Reds faced other contenders ten times and went 8-2; the White Sox, twelve times, going 6-6.

On the regular season the White Sox out-hit the Reds but weren’t that much better at scoring. The White Sox averaged 4.8 runs per game but the Reds averaged 4.1. And the opposition averaged 2.9 runs against the Reds but 3.8 runs against the White Sox. It’s easy to figure out: The Reds out-pitched the White Sox. Entering the Series, the White Sox pitching staff had a 3.04 earned run average and a 2.88 fielding-independent pitching rate. (FIP: your ERA when defense is removed from the equation.) The Reds staff had a 2.23 ERA and a 2.81 FIP. The Reds were a little bit better at crafting their own pitching luck.

The 1919 White Sox shut the other guys out fourteen times and got shut out seven times. The bad news for the 1919 Reds: they were shut out fourteen times—but the good news is, they shut the other guys out 23 times. The closer you look, the less the White Sox look like predators and the Reds like prey.

It wasn’t just the tainted White Sox who came up short at the Series plate, Shoeless Joe Jackson to one side. Leadoff hitter Nemo Liebold hit .056 with two walks and one hit in the set. Hall of Famer Eddie Collins, another of the Clean Sox, undermined his own reputation as a money player when he hit .226 with a single run batted in. Collins’ Series average was two points above the team’s.

What of Jackson? His cumulative Series hitting line argues against him going into the tank, but his game-by-game performance looks more suspect. In his best single game at the plate all set long, Game Eight, he had two hits, three runs batted in, two runs scored including on a third inning home run, but the White Sox were blown out, 10-5, to lose the Series. The homer was Jackson’s first hit in the game, and he came to the plate with the White Sox already down, 5-0. Uh!-oh.

Even before White Sox first baseman Chick Gandil and shortstop Swede Risberg instigated the World Series fix, and found both the gamblers and the teammates to execute it, the White Sox and the Reds had a critical difference. The White Sox were riddled with dissension not all of which was provoked by frustrations real or imagined with their owner. They were wracked by clashes between more- and lesser-educated players and by spells of discomfort with new manager Gleason.

Collins played on the Philadelphia Athletics teams that ruled the earlier parts of the decade that the Red Sox didn’t, which went a long way toward fostering the presumed American League superiority. He once said those A’s “believed in teamwork and cooperation. I always thought you couldn’t win without those virtues until I joined the White Sox.”

The 1919 Reds believed as he did. Susan Dellinger, Ph.D., granddaughter of the Reds’ Hall of Fame center fielder Edd Roush, revealed in Red Legs & Black Sox: Edd Roush and the Untold Story of the 1919 World Series that those Reds liked their own new manager Moran, liked each other, played hard, and thought of team first. They mentored each other when need be, made a powerful point of making newer players feel at home, and, on the field, as Dellinger wrote, “No one cared who was on third. If he wore the Reds insignia, just get him home.”

Their morale withstood only one threat, Dellinger exhumed, when Roush finally told Moran of whisperings he’d heard that gamblers tried to get to one or two Reds pitchers. Moran called a team meeting prior to Game Eight. The scheduled starting pitcher, Hod Eller spoke up. He’d run off a gambler who tried to buy him off for the game. Then he pitched the distance in the Series-ending blowout.

“Doesn’t everybody say the dream is nonsense? Didn’t everybody say the Reds couldn’t possibly win?” wrote Damon Runyon after the Reds’ Game One win. (The article is collected in the splendid Guys, Dolls, and Curveballs: Damon Runyon on Baseball.) “Experts, ballplayers, and fans—didn’t they all laugh at Cincinnati’s fall pretensions as they have laughed every year for many years? Cincinnati will tell you that they did.”

Didn’t they tell you Pat Moran’s ball club was made up of castoffs of baseball, and that it was just a sort of baseball joke compared to the million dollar club that represents Chicago?

Cincinnati will tell you they did. Cincinnati never tires of the telling, in fact. But all the time they were telling these things about the Reds, Cincinnati was secretly dreaming a great dream that was realized at Redland Field this afternoon, with 30,000 pop-eyed breathless Cincinnati people looking on.

The castoffs of baseball proved better than the sum of their parts and the million dollar club proved worse in more ways than one.

George F. Will had it right when he once described most of the Eight Men Out as “more dumb than dishonest,” a valedictory that doesn’t apply to the ringleaders Gandil and Risberg. Or, to reserve third baseman Fred McMullin, who stumbled upon their plot in its planning and threatened to expose it unless they cut him in on the profit. (Remember, too, that if the gamblers double-crossed the Black Sox, Gandil may have double-crossed his own co-conspirators; he’s said to have kept the bulk of the money the gamblers paid them.)

Will also said of the commissioner baseball selected in the scandal’s immediate wake, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, that he “delivered rough justice, perhaps more rough than just,” when it came to the game-wide malignancy that enabled the Black Sox. Landis was not faultless, including and especially the de facto perpetuation of baseball’s segregation. (He neither ruled formally nor spoke publicly but it was understood he wouldn’t sanction baseball’s integration so long as he held office.) But if he applied an overweight hand to baseball’s original gambling scandal, it was featherweight compared to the cancer the game needed to eradicate.

Jackson made two terrible mistakes, perhaps out of intimidation from the too-rough/too-tumble Risberg. (“Swede,” he told those investigating the World Series fix, “is a hard guy.”) He accepted an envelope Lefty Williams was ordered to deliver to him, containing $5,000, rather than say thanks but no thanks. And, he delayed his oft-discussed attempt to dispose of it and advise team officials what was up.

Third baseman Buck Weaver wanted no part of the fix or its payoffs. He also wanted nothing to do with being a rat against his friends, some of whom were anything but. That seemed more important than aborting the fix, which Weaver could have done by exposing what he knew. If there was a concerted cover-up of the fix, by White Sox officials at minimum, delaying its revelation and resolution by at least a year, Weaver’s silence left room for a cover-up in the first place.

Jackson’s playing record is considered Hall of Fame worthy. But the guileless outfielder (illiterate he was, but guileless doesn’t mean stupid) was never elected on the (oft-forgotten) couple of times he did appear on the Baseball Writers Association of America Hall of Fame ballots. It’s not unreasonable to say his Hall worthiness married to his banishment inspired subsequent movements to convince baseball’s government to reinstate him and enable his Hall election, whatever the details behind his Black Sox status.

Don’t think that just because the White Sox were riddled by factionalism, and that even some of the Clean Sox were rough and tumble, it means the Reds were a roster full of saints. But several Reds including Roush, Eller, and outfielder Greasy Neale believed the Series was played mostly straight at least between Games Three and Six—because, they said in various ways, the gamblers double-crossed the fixers and the fixers didn’t get all the money they were promised. It neither mitigated the Black Sox nor eroded the myth of the Reds’ comparative modesty.

Seventy years after that World Series came Pete Rose, banished from baseball for violating Rule 21(d)—the rule against betting on baseball, the rule instigated by the gambling corruptions that climaxed with the 1919 Series fix and its eventual exposure and affirmation. You can say many things about Rose, but guileless isn’t one of them. And the very real prospect of his election to the Hall of Fame despite his banished status prompted the Hall itself, an entity not actually operated or governed by Major League Baseball, to rule against baseball’s ineligible being eligible for Hall election.

A nation whose citizens empathise with victims real or imagined should hark heartily to the real victims of baseball’s two most notorious gambling scandals. The first compromised the integrity of the Reds’ first World Series winners through no fault of their own. The second cost the Reds a franchise icon and manager through all fault of his own.

(This year’s Reds didn’t get to play this year’s White Sox in interleague play. Kind of a shame, too. Try to imagine today’s baseball administration dealing with that during this particular centenary season.)

It would have been simple enough for baseball to spend 2019 giving the 1919 Reds their long, long overdue. The evidence says they could have beaten those White Sox in a straight, no chaser Series.  Baseball can’t give them a Series do-over but it can give them the championship legitimacy they deserve. Metaphysically and temporally, the 1919 Reds wuz robbed.

 

“This is how we play [fornicating] baseball!”

2019-08-03 DerekDietrich

Cincinnati’s Derek Dietrich ducking the Keone Kela fastball that would have put a hole in his head otherwise but did light the wick that ignited Tuesday night’s rumble.

With one remark after the dustup settled, the game ended, and the Pirates finished blowing out the Reds, 11-4, Tuesday night, Pirates pitcher Keone Kela exposed himself the jerk of the week. He also restored attention yet again to the continuing inanities within baseball’s so-called unwritten rules.

Because it was Kela who re-ignited tension between those two teams that climaxed in one of the most sanity-challenged brawls baseball’s seen in recent seasons. Over something that exploded but was presumed settled in the season’s second week.

Few pitchers like to admit they’re up to something when one of their services dusts, brushes back, hits, or nearly decapitates a hitter. Kela not only wanted to send Derek Dietrich a fresh message in the eighth inning Tuesday night, he had no intention of covering it up.

“People could say it’s overdue,” Kela said after the basebrawl game. “At the end of the day this is baseball, and I have to protect my teammates. I have to do what I feel is right. Not only that, you have to pitch in. That’s part of this game.”

Protect his teammates against what? A mammoth home run hit over three months earlier? As if Dietrich’s 7 April shot into the Allegheny River could re-ignite, fly back out of the river, and keep flying in all the weeks to follow until it hit one or another Pirate in the face? Either someone whacked Kela with the proverbial stupid stick or he thinks everyone else listening to him forgot to have their bolts tightened.

Chris Archer—a man who isn’t exactly unknown for celebrating here and there whenever he strikes a hitter out—sent one behind Dietrich’s back, first pitch, close enough to his head, the next time Dietrich batted after that river shot. The benches and pens emptied at once. Reds outfielder Yasiel Puig tried taking the entire Pirate roster on by himself.

Message sent, however dubious. It got Archer a five-game, not a five-start suspension. The Reds fumed especially because all Archer provoked otherwise was an umpire warning to both sides, instead of an immediate dispatch, since nobody with functioning eyes could possibly miss the meaning of a pitch behind the head of a hitter who’d played “Wade in the Water” on his dollar the previous time up.

The Reds got the best revenge of all that time when Dietrich batted again in the eighth and hit one that traveled only as far as the right field seats. They can’t all be splash hits. And that should have been the end of it once and for all. Except that nobody sent the Pirates the memo.

If you can consider it good news, neither Archer nor Kela waited as long as then-Giants reliever Hunter Strickland once waited to drill Bryce Harper over a pair of division series bombs. If you think Kela sending a message over an almost three-month old incident is ridiculous, you should have heard what they called Strickland hitting Harper in the hip with the first pitch of an inning almost three years later.

Kela never faced Dietrich until Tuesday night. He also has the nerve to suggest he’s being made an example for simply being honest, receiving a ten-game suspension for his role in opening Tuesday’s festivities. Kela should consider himself fortunate that a ten-game siddown-and-shaddap is all he got.

But he doesn’t. He actually has the nerve to appeal the sentence. If baseball’s discipline chief Joe Torre still has a shred of intelligence, he’ll rule, “Appeal denied.” For once in its life baseball government sends a powerful message. A starting pitcher getting a five-game suspension gets, basically, nothing. A relief pitcher getting ten games hurts an awful lot more.

On Tuesday night, home plate umpire Larry Vanover issued warnings to both sides after Kela bent Dietrich, who jerked back to save himself a hole in the head, before striking him out to retire the side. A few Reds including Joey Votto had a few sweet nothings to chirp toward Kela.  “You’re a pussy, bro. That’s pussy shit,” Votto hollered. “[Fornicate] off!” Kela appeared to chirp back. “This is how we play [fornicating] baseball!”

Reds manager David Bell got himself ejected later in the eighth after arguing a questionable strike call against Puig. Reds reliever Jared Hughes decided for himself what the warnings didn’t mean when he drilled Starling Marte on the first pitch when Marte batted in the top of the ninth. Hughes was ejected promptly and Amir Garrett was brought in to relieve him.

After getting Pirates shortstop Kevin Newman to ground out, he threw pinch hitter Jose Osuna so meaty a two-seam fastball that Osuna probably had no choice but to make a three-run homer out of it. Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson, managing in Bell’s stead, came to the mound to take the ball.

As Johnson arrived, a Pirate or two including pitcher Trevor Williams chirped toward Garrett, who had some choice words, expletive included, in reply to Pirates first baseman Josh Bell at least. Then, as if hearing a starter’s pistol only he could hear, Garrett jolted Johnson, the Reds, and everyone else in Great American Ballpark when he charged the Pirates dugout, fists swinging, greeted by a swarm of Pirates intent on burying him alive.

The Reds looked so jolted by their man’s charge that it took them a few moments before they finally swarmed the Pirates’ swarm. This time, Puig came a little late to the party, from his right field position, but his initial intent seemed to be getting Garrett the hell out of there, in one piece if possible.

In an irony that’ll be talked about most of the rest of the season, Puig wasn’t even a Red anymore: the news broke minutes before Garrett’s charge that he was going to the Indians in a three-way deal that brought the Reds talented but tortuous pitcher Trevor Bauer and sent Padres bombardier Franmil (The Franimal) Reyes to the Tribe. Puig didn’t yet know he was standing up for technically former teammates.

Come Thursday, after whatever dust settled from the new single trade deadline doings Wednesday, there came the word of who was being punished how, beyond Kela’s ten-game sentence:

Garrett—eight games, for charging the Pirate dugout like a bull.

Osuna—five games, for whatever he was doing during the rumble near the dugout.

Hughes—three games for drilling Marte.

Pirates pitcher Kyle Crick—three games for, presumably, swinging fists.

Puig—three games, likewise, for “aggressive actions,” probably because he returned to the pile after seeming to depart after trying to extract Garrett.

Bell—six games, for being foolish enough to return to the field and join the party after he’d been ejected over the Puig strike call.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle—two games, not just over the Tuesday night scrum but because one of his pitchers was stupid enough to throw at Dietrich again after another did it in April.

Except for Hurdle, who began serving his sentence Friday, they’re all appealing.

There’s a perverse dignity in Kela’s comment upon receiving his ten-game suspension. “Me being honest, I guess the truth will get you crucified,” he told reporters. “At the end of the day, I’m not going to sit here and bald-faced lie. The game sees enough of that.”

It may be refreshing to see a pitcher actually cop to trying to decapitate a hitter who offended him or his team. But what about a pitcher trying to decapitate a hitter over a months-old incident that was presumed reasonably to have been settled business? Kela can plead all he likes that at least he didn’t hit the man, but admitting he threw at and over his head (this is how we play [fornicating] baseball!) is a dangerous look.

Will Dietrich be under a life sentence of brushbacks, knockdowns, and attempted decapitations whenever he faces Pittsburgh pitching? Will the Pirates come under closer scrutiny for the apparent penchant toward inside pitching that seems often enough as though their pitchers don’t care whether even non-plate crowding batters get hit?

Actually, they just might. With Torre’s plain statement singling out “multiple intentional pitches thrown at Dietrich this season,” plus previously known formal complaints from the Cubs, the Cardinals, the Diamondbacks, and the Reds prior to the Tuesday night dance, the Pittsburgh (This is How We Play [Fornicating] Baseball) Pirates now have an official headhunting reputation.

That’ll last longer than any of the suspensions will. And it’ll keep baseball government more than a little on edge, too. The Pirates and the Reds have six more meetings before this season ends. Three in PNC Park in late August; three more in Great American Ballpark to end the regular season. Don’t be shocked to see S.W.A.T. teams deployed strategically at each ballpark until those sets end without further ado, if they do.

Pushing a plate crowder off the plate is one thing. Trying to assassinate a guy who’s guilty of nothing more than hitting a couple of over-three-month-old, glandular home runs, and admiring his handiwork in a moment he doesn’t expect to be that glandular, makes you look smaller than a garden slug.

Kela has something of a reputation for trouble even without the Tuesday night soiree. The Rangers may have been pitching needy at the time but it didn’t stop them from shipping him out of town and to the Pirates at last year’s old non-waiver trade deadline after a number of unsavoury incidents with his Texas teammates.

A week before the rumble with the Reds the Pirates suspended Kela a pair of games over a fight with the team’s performance coach Hector Morales. On Wednesday, a report at MLB Trade Rumours suggested the Pirates talked to the Brewers about a trade that would send Kela to Milwaukee. Even headhunters have their limits with their own.

As in April, I’m reminded of something Nats reliever Sean Doolittle said last fall, when proclaiming himself all in on baseball’s reputed drive to let the kids play. “I promise you, they’re not disrespecting the game,” Doolittle said last fall of the those batters who dial long distance, if not the river, and celebrate on the spot.

If you’re the pitcher who surrenders such bombs, Doolittle had a further message: “If you got your feelings hurt, that’s on you. If a guy hits a home run off me, drops to his knees, pretends the bat is a bazooka, and shoots it out at the sky, I don’t give a shit.”

Concurrently, if you’re the hitter who just got struck out stylishly enough by the enemy pitcher, it’s on you if you take offense should the pitcher simulate fanning a pistol (Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley did that now and then) or shooting an arrow into your hide. Letting the kids have fun should work both ways. Doolittle knows it.

Maybe that’s one reason why he’s enjoying a successful season as perhaps the only Nats relief pitcher who wasn’t prone to throwing gasoline on fires for too long while the Pirates sink deep into the NL Central basement. Maybe, too, they ought to post Doolittle’s words in the Pirates’ clubhouse and bullpen. The Pirates’, and everyone’s.

Bauer raises a Red flag

2019-08-01 TrevorBauer

Bauer admits pitching hurt. The Reds need to get that out of his system like now.

A tantrum on the field is in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes the beholder seeks the benefit of the doubt, sometimes the beholder couldn’t care less. The former will give you a pass based on your full picture, the latter will run you out of town post haste, most of the time.

Most, but not all.

When Jason Vargas threatened a reporter in Chicago in late June, after an already testy Mets media session in which the big question was why leave Seth Lugo in for a second relief inning when he was barely serviceable in the first, leading to a Mets loss, it should have been grounds to move him onward post haste.

But it wasn’t.

It took the Mets’ rookie general manager Brodie Van Wagenen over a month before getting rid of Vargas. Good thing for him the Mets began playing good baseball after the All-Star break. The bad news is that that hasn’t changed perceptions that Van Wagenen is in over his head.

Last year, when then-Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley pointed to his dugout seeking his manager’s help with a couple of contradictory umpire signals, then surrendered a home run in a ninth-inning outing he didn’t expect during a Nats blowout, he slammed his glove to the ground in frustration. Was it grounds to run him out like five minutes sooner?

It was, alas, as far as Nats GM Mike Rizzo was concerned.

And unlike Van Wagenen, who was too willing to give Vargas the benefit of the doubt, Rizzo couldn’t have cared less about Kelley’s thinking or mood in the moment. You’re either with us or you’re in the way. The Nats got the message the Mets should have gotten almost a year later.

Which brings us to Trevor Bauer.

When last seen in an Indians uniform, Bauer, fuming already over letting the Royals slap him around enough, saw manager Terry Francona come out of the dugout to lift him and winged the ball from the mound clear over the center field fence. It was the only time, as The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark (Hall of Fame baseball writer) observed with a wink, that Bauer ever threw something that sailed over the fence without being hit there.

The next thing you knew, Bauer was fined but not suspended by baseball government, but then he was traded to the Reds in a three-way deal announced the night before the new single trade deadline but not finalised until deadline day itself.

A talented pitcher whose brain oftentimes seems short of a critical resistor or two, Bauer knew at once how childish he’d been when he threw the ball. And Francona didn’t exactly deny that it had a big hand in making Bauer more likely to go than the trade rumours preceding the incident suggested.

“I had concerns what it could do to our team,” the manager told reporters Wednesday, after a loss to the Astros, “and I voiced those concerns. I would never, ever go tell [the front office] something, but they are good enough to always allow me my opinion, and you just try to do the best you can, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit worried.”

The Indians may or may not have known that they had something more to worry about than Bauer’s occasional tantrum or off-field foolishness. And Bauer himself has now suggested the Reds, his new team, who surrendered Yasiel Puig to the Tribe to get him, have a lot more to worry about than whether he has a few screws loose.

Admitting that you’re still trying to pitch through injuries big or small is very hazardous to your health and that of your team, old or new.

“It’s been really frustrating,” said Bauer, who was still with the Indians Wednesday. “One of the things I’m most proud about is I haven’t missed a start this year through two months of probably needing to be on the IL and probably should have missed some starts. I was able to get myself ready and take the ball.”

The injuries include back spasms and torn ankle ligaments, Bauer said. And if the Reds thought his temperament might have been a problem, they should wonder very acutely whether a pitcher risking further injury by trying to work with and despite injuries such as those isn’t risking his career and the team’s performances. And in that order.

The guts-and-glory crowd would probably want to give Bauer a medal for, you know, manning up and toughing it out. Well, now.

Last year Bauer led the American League in fielding-independent pitching rate with a sparkling 2.44, in hand with his 2.21 ERA. This year, Bauer’s FIP is 4.16 and his ERA is 3.79, and if he’s leading the league in innings pitched he also leads with fourteen hit batsmen—five more than all 2018. There was something clearly wrong with him this year. Now he’s copped to it.

The Nationals took no chances and sent Max Scherzer back to the injured list when a rhomboid muscle strain near the spot under his right shoulder that inflamed recently turned up Monday. Manager Dave Martinez said the team was taking no more chances than Scherzer wanted to take in getting back on the mound healthy.

Scherzer knows how foolish it is for even a workhorse like himself to play chicken with his physical condition. “I’ve always [prided] myself in getting out there and making 33, 34 starts,” the righthander said this week. “To not be out there is frustrating, but at the same time I feel fortunate . . . we’re not dealing with anything major here. “[We want] that right program of everything the back needs so that I can be completely durable and go out there and throw 100-plus pitches and recover.”

Of course the Nats aren’t as dismissive of even smaller injuries as have been other teams with other, more questionable cultures.

Bo Belinsky once revealed Gene Mauch took player injuries so personally that, when Belinsky was a brief Phillie, he noticed players downplaying or saying nothing about injuries for fear of the manager’s wrath. Belinsky himself turned up with an injured rib and tried pitching through it; Mauch contemptuously accused the notoriously rakish lefthander of incurring the injury while surfing in Hawaii in the off season.

Leo Durocher made Mauch seem like a kindly country doctor by comparison. One of the reasons his 1969 Cubs collapsed out of the pennant race may have been his nasty penchant for dismissing injured players as quitters. Enough so that assorted Cubs who’d been injured on the field likewise kept their mouths taped shut.

An earlier generation of Astros brain trust ignored J.R. Richard’s complaint of shoulder fatigue before the 1980 All-Star break. Shortly after the break, Richard suffered what proved his career-ending stroke. He also underwent thoracic outlet syndrome surgery—the same surgery that may yet put paid to Matt Harvey’s once-promising pitching career, the same surgery that was the net result of Harvey’s own shoulder fatigue.

Playing or pitching through injuries normally does more harm than good. Baseball’s past is littered with players of glandular promise ground down or out entirely because of injuries. Pete Reiser, Carl Erskine, Karl Spooner, Herb Score, Rocky Colavito, Ernie Broglio, Roger Maris, Tony Conigliaro, Dick Allen, Jim Maloney, Denny McLain, Mark (The Bird) Fidrych, Randy Jones, the Mets’ “Generation K” pitchers of the mid-1990s (Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher, Paul Wilson) . . . the roll is thicker than the Harvard Classics.

Sandy Koufax—pitching his final two off-the-charts/out-of-this-universe seasons, and securing his peak-value Hall of Fame case, with an arthritic pitching elbow that compelled him to an insane-in-the-brain medication regimen—was a genuine outlier. Allen’s Hall of Fame case might have solidified sooner if injuries hadn’t kept him from a more respectable decline phase.

Hall of Famer Jim Palmer was so haunted by arm trouble after his fine 1966 rookie season (including beating Koufax in a World Series game), and apparent mishandling of it the next two seasons, that when he returned, he became one of the game’s greatest pitchers and most notorious hypochondriacs.

It drove his manager and teammates to drink as often as they respected his competitiveness on the mound. But just maybe Palmer’s hyperactive concern for his health (and he did incur a few more injuries as his career went on) made him a six-time pennant winner, a three-time World Series champion, and a Hall of Fame pitcher, and kept him on the mound until he finally had nothing left by spring 1984.

The Reds are kinda sorta on the fringe of the National League wild card race right now, though they’ve played a game under .500 ball since the All-Star break. Bauer becomes arbitration eligible this winter and can become a free agent after next year. If the Reds want to maximise his talent, they’d better have a sit down with him immediately, if not sooner.

And the message needs to be, “We can put up with your flakiness and your temperament, but if you think you’re going to keep pitching through injuries, buster, you’d better think again. Because we think more highly of you than that. And we need you healthy because we’ll be healthier if you’re healthy. So quit trying to play Ol’ Blood and Guts and start being smart when you get hurt.”

Heard of punching tickets out of town?

2019-07-30 YasielPuig

Yasiel Puig (66) didn’t instigate this Tuesday night brawl between the Reds and the Pirates. Neither did he know just yet that he’d just been traded to the Indians.

Well, now. Baseball government decided a fine but not a short ban was appropriate for Trevor Bauer after his Sunday afternoon tantrum. (“The last baseball Trevor Bauer threw for the Indians landed over the center-field fence,” crowed The Athletic‘s Hall of Fame baseball writer Jayson Stark. “And nobody even hit it!”)

The Indians may have decided otherwise.

They had more say in the three-way Tuesday evening deal that rid them of Bauer and brings them Yasiel Puig from the Reds than they had about Justin Verlander punching out thirteen Tribesmen en route the Astros shutting them out, 2-0.

But did the Indians elect to trade Bauer, in the deal also involving the Padres, because his reaction to surrendering a pile of runs and then manager Terry Francona coming out to lift him en route a loss to the Royals was to throw that ball over the fence?

And was some sort of cosmic mischief at play when Puig, still suited up for the Reds, found himself in the middle of a wild ninth-inning, bench-clearing brawl between the Reds and the Pirates that he had nothing to do with starting?

The three-way deal was announced while the Reds hosted and were being blown out by the Pirates. And, shortly before Reds relief pitcher Amir Garrett received a visit from pitching coach Derek Johnson in the top of the ninth.

Garrett had gotten Pirates shortstop Kevin Newman to ground out after serving pinch hitter Jose Osuna a two-seam fastball too meaty not to hit for a three-run homer that crowned what proved to be an 11-4 burial. But while Garrett was about to hand the ball off to Johnson—who was managing the Reds at the time, the circumstances behind which to come anon—a little chirping rom the Pirates dugout tripped Garrett’s trigger.

Apparently, it was Pirates pitcher Trevor Williams who chirped toward Garrett. Apparently, too, Garrett previously had words for Pirates first baseman Josh Bell, words some tweeters translated to be “[Fornicate] you!” And the next thing anyone saw, Garrett practically flew solo toward the Pirates dugout, fists flying with the intent of nailing anyone in Pirates’ colours, greeted by a swarm of Pirates with the equivalent intent of making sure he couldn’t get any piece of any of them.

The Reds were probably jolted enough at their man’s audacity that it took a couple of moments before they realised they weren’t seeing things and swarmed toward the Pirates swarm.

Puig was actually a late arrival to the dance. Late or no, he plunged into the swarm, apparently intent on getting Garrett the hell out of there by hook, crook, left hook, anything short of an ambulance populated by men and women in white coats armed with straitjackets.

And Puig probably didn’t know he wasn’t really a Red anymore.

The three-way deal sends Puig and minor league pitcher Scott Moss from the Reds to the Indians, Bauer from the Indians to the Reds, outfielder Taylor Trammell from the Reds to the Padres, and three Padres—Franmil Reyes (outfielder), Logan Allen (pitching prospect), and Victor Nova (minor league jack of most infield and outfield trades)—going to the Indians.

Puig and Reyes would make the Indians’ corner outfield that much more productive at the plate, since the pair of them have more home runs between them (49) than the combination of every players seen in the Indians’ outfield corners all season long. If Reyes was on pace to hit 40 bombs with pitcher-embracing Petco Park as his home playpen, Indians fans can only imagine and pray what he’ll hit with Progressive Field to call home.

But Puig was one of eight ejected as a result of the ninth-inning rumble in the Great American Ballpark jungle. It may be an open question as to whether he begins life with the Indians—a rental life at that, since he becomes a free agent for the first time after this season—on the field or on suspension.

All of a sudden, any of Bauer’s past transgressions, including but not limited to some pointed but slightly absurd accusations that Astros pitchers were putting a little too much pine tar on their pitching hands, seem like boys being boys compared to the Cincinnati gang war.

Keep in mind: the Pirates and the Reds aren’t exactly bosom buddies above and beyond common competition. The Pirates were a lot less than thrilled when Reds outfielder Derek Dietrich hit and couldn’t help admiring a pair of homers clean into the Allegheny River on their pitchers’ dollars, one of which triggered a brawl after Dietrich saw a Chris Archer pitch fly behind his head, prompting Puig to take on almost the whole Pirate roster.

The Pirates also make a lot of other people uncomfortable with their penchant for pitching inside as often as possible and even beyond. The Reds aren’t the only team in the game who think that what the Pirates call merely pitching inside is really headhunting.

“Hitters are crowding the plate more than ever to hit pitches on the outer corners,” observed Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Nubyjas Wilborn earlier in July. “[Pirates manager Clint] Hurdle and the Pirates want to own the whole plate, and that’s where part of the conflict exists.”

Tuesday night’s shenanigans began when Pirates reliever Keone (Drinkin’ Rum and Coca) Kela threw one up and in enough to Dietrich to trigger a little bristling among assorted Reds in the seventh, including Joey Votto, who had a few sweet nothings to deliver to Kela before home plate ump Larry Vanover urged Votto back to his own lair.

And part of this conflict may also have rooted in Vanover handing both sides warnings after Kela zipped Dietrich, denying the Reds at least a single unmolested opportunity to send a return message. Ignoring the warnings, apparently, Reds reliever Jared Hughes got himself a premature date with the clubhouse shower, when he drilled Starling Marte with the first pitch of the top of the ninth.

Which is how Garrett got into the game in the first place. In between both, Reds manager David Bell got himself the ho-heave when he objected to a strike call with Puig himself at the plate in the eighth. And soon enough came basebrawl.

Hell of a way for Hurdle to celebrate his birthday. Bell got himself into further trouble when, despite having been tossed from the game, he ripped out from the clubhouse to the field on behalf of his players, gave Hurdle a shove, got into and broke his way out of a headlock from Pirates batting coach Rick Eckstein, and barked a little bit at Hurdle.

Bell has his partisans and detractors, too. For every tweeter singing a variation on the theme of Bell “ejected earlier and back on the field being his usual clown self,” there was another singing a variation on the theme of “I would fight a [fornicating] war for David Bell.”

Things looked as though settling down before, for whatever reason, maybe a Pirate hollering what he thought was something out of line, Puig circled back toward the dissipating swarm for a very brief encore before he was finally lured away. He was one of eight Reds and Pirates ejected from the game before the Pirates could finish the 11-4 thrashing they’d begun.

The ejected included Hughes and Reds bench coach Freddie Benavides over the Marte plunk; plus, Garrett and Puig for the Reds; and, Pirates injury-list catcher Francisco Cervelli plus pitchers Williams, Archer, and Kyle (Up the) Crick.

Now the Indians get themselves a Puig-in-the-box who can play baseball brilliantly enough, when he’s firing on the proper cylinders and avoiding the temptations to rumble. The Reds get themselves a million dollar pitching arm attached to a brain that often impresses people appreciative of the pitching talent as being deprived of a few critical resistors.

Almost forgotten in the middle of the trade that didn’t rudely interrupt the Pirates and the Reds replaying The Wild Bunch is that the Padres may have gotten the sleeper of the deal in Trammell, a talented left fielder who’d been the Reds’ top rated prospect and the number 30 prospect in all baseball despite a somewhat slumping season this year at Double-A Chattanooga.

For curiosity’s sake alone, I ran a search for major league baseball players who’ve tangled in bench-clearing brawls while or at least on the same days they were traded. The search result didn’t answer the question directly. But the first result was a headline about Tuesday night’s tarantella. With Puig’s name leading the head.

Some precedents ought not to be wished.