Money isn’t everything

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The electric horseman: Manager Torey Lovullo (left) welcomes Madison Bumgarner home.

Arizona the region and not necessarily the baseball team said something to Madison Bumgarner for long before he became a Diamondback at last. Enough to compel him to sign a new contract paying him less than he probably could have earned, even though he’s in the re-invention stage of his career. Sometimes there’s no place like a second home, too.

And more often than you think, money isn’t everything.

Time was when you couldn’t have pictured Bumgarner in anything other than the black-and-orange Giants hat and cream fatigues. When you saw the tenacity on the mound that turned him into a postseason myth in those fatigues and assumed, no matter what else came into play around him, that a Giant he was and a Giant he’d stay.

Madison Bumgarner and the Giants? Married even in the free agency era like Hall of Famers George Brett and the Royals, Tony Gwynn and the Padres, Chipper Jones and the Braves, Mariano Rivera and the Yankees, and Mike Schmidt and the Phillies. Not to mention future Hall of Famers Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers (so far) and Mike Trout and the Angels, plus Yadier Molina and the Cardinals, and David Wright—whom injuries obstructed from consummating a Hall of Fame career—and the Mets. Right?

But maybe you didn’t catch onto Bumgarner and his wife falling in love with something aside when the Giants hit spring training every year in Scottsdale, Arizona. Something like Arizona itself. The place means almost as much to Bumgarner as the heat of baseball competition and the chance for winning that, right now, the Diamondbacks present better than the Giants do.

“First and foremost, winning,” he said when the Diamondbacks introduced him as their newest Snake Tuesday. “That’s what the whole decision is based on, and being with a team that’s my brand of baseball. They play the way I like to play. They just play hard. They’ve got a bunch of grinders on this team, guys that don’t take any pitch off. They’re just a hard-nosed group of guys.”

That’s a terrific reason for a pitcher who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “quit” to think about a new team, of course. But the lure of Phoenix and the surrounding ambience of Arizona itself was just as powerful, maybe the only presence that could hit Bumgarner for distance and get away with it.

The long-enough-time Giants horse becomes the Diamondbacks’ own Electric Horseman. The Bumgarners imported a few of their horses from Bumgarner’s native North Carolina to Arizona every spring. The Giants training there was so seductive to him that, once he knew the Diamondbacks were more than interested when he finally became a free agent, he was even willing to trade a fan base he came to love as deeply as he loves to compete to surrender.

“It’s tough,” he admitted about leaving them behind. “The fans in that city mean so much to me. I mean, shoot, it’s been ten years there and we won three world championships and have been through a lot together. They’ve always been as good as they could possibly be to me, and I’ll never forget that. I’ll always be thankful for it. That part of it was tough, but coming here, so far, this place has exceeded all my expectations, and like I said, I’m really excited about it.”

The fact that he still gets to have a few skirmishes a year with the Dodgers now that he’s staying in the National League West couldn’t possibly have eluded MadBum, either.

Stephen Strasburg re-signing with the Nationals, like Trout extending for life with the Angels last spring, said essentially that there’s no place like home, even an adopted home. (Strasburg is a native southern Californian; Trout is native to a region near the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border.) Bumgarner signing with the Snakes says there can be no place like the home you long for.

The Giants could have offered him everything including ownership of McCovey Cove, his own private cable car, free feed for the rest of his life at the Fisherman’s Wharf eatery of his choice, and an on-the-house lease to any piece he chose at Hearst Castle down Highway 1 in San Simeon. Once the Diamondbacks indicated they wanted him, you couldn’t pay him enough not to swap the Bay for the desert.

If you think that’s even just a slight exaggeration, be advised that assorted published reports say the lefthander with the Dreamliner wing span in the split second before he throws to the plate had nine-figure offers to ponder from elsewhere, but he instructed his agent, VC Sports’ Ed Cerulo, that Arizona was “the number one place for me.” And money wasn’t everything.

“We definitely left some money on the table,” the newest Diamondback said when the team introduced him formally Tuesday. “You can say that.” If the published speculation is true and Bumgarner looked at $100 million or better for five years in other offers, he’s left at least $15 million behind overall while agreeing to pitch—according to The Athletic‘s Zach Buchanan—for $6 million in 2020 before hitting $14 million for 2021, $18 million a year in 2022-23, and back to $14 million in 2024.

Essentially, Bumgarner gave the Diamondbacks a new-home discount. No, make it actually: Buchanan reported that $5 million a year is deferred from the 2021-23 annual salaries until the deal is finished. And general manager Mike Hazen—who traded a somewhat more expensive desert lover named Zack Grienke to the Astros in 2019’s marquee trade deadline swap—“plans to use that [2020 payroll] flexibility” to shore up the Diamondbacks for contention.

Buchanan thinks Bumgarner all but willed the new Diamondbacks deal into existence, sort of, but don’t dismiss Hazen—who once said that on the one hand he wasn’t exactly starving for starting pitching but, on the other hand, he wasn’t exactly going to say no to the chance for more—being just a little bit shrewd in his own right, either:

Hazen admitted that adding to his rotation wasn’t his top priority, or really any sort of priority, entering the offseason, but that Bumgarner made it plain early on that he preferred to end up in Arizona. Though Hazen stopped short of saying that affinity for Phoenix prodded him into engaging on the longtime Giants starter, the structure and overall value of Bumgarner’s deal—and Arizona’s lack of rotation holes before offering it—suggest the Diamondbacks were able to capitalize on a specific advantage they had over the 29 other major-league teams.

It also looked like the early speculation that made the Bumgarner deal a possible to-come trade scenario for incumbent starting pitcher Robbie Ray isn’t necessarily so. Bumgarner’s deal flexibility lets the Snakes shore up without having to invent payroll room. They’d rather save the invention for the field if they can help it.

And, more important, Hazen’s willing to gamble that Bumgarner continues re-inventing himself on the mound to the point where he’ll deliver better goods than he could with the Giants since 2017. “We just watched a guy leave here in the middle of last season who reinvented himself every year he was here,” Hazen told the Tuesday presser, referring to Greinke. “We feel like [Bumgarner] has that ability.”

The entertainment possibilities can’t be resisted, either. Assuming the Diamondbacks have a better sense of humour now than they had when the late Kevin Towers was their general manager, don’t be shocked to discover a hitching post outside the players’ entrance at Chase Field. Or, to see Bumgarner galloping up to the park aboard one of his horses, maybe hollering, “Hi yo, Tumbleweed! Away!”

Or (sorry, it’s impossible to resist), to see a staredown and bawl-out with an enemy batter (preferably a Dodger?) who’s just hit one over the right field fence in Chase Field turn into a cheerfully snarky “Go get it out of the pool!” T-shirt.

Life and baseball with Bumgarner could be mad fun for the Diamondbacks, even if Bumgarner isn’t yet ready to resign his Fun Police commission. Almost as much fun and soul embracing as life in Arizona for Lieutenant and Mrs. MadBum themselves.

MadBum hitches his horses to the Snakes

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Postseason legend Madison Bumgarner takes flight and gallops in Arizona now.

Picture the next time Madison Bumgarner surrenders a hefty home run in his home park and snarks over the bomber having fun with the blast. The bomber’s mates will be inspired to produce T-shirts saying not, “Get it out of the ocean” but, rather, “Get it out of the pool.”

Bumgarner has signed for five years and $85 million with the Diamondbacks, and the nearest body of water into which the opposition can hit is the pool behind Chase Field’s right field fence. Until Bumgarner gets to face the team for whom he served so well, mostly, for the first eleven years of his career, in his former playpen, that is.

A few years ago, Bumgarner’s asking price wouldn’t have been as low as $85 million for five years or more. A few injuries and, more important, a heavy workload have taken their toll, though at 30 years old Bumgarner isn’t exactly ready for Retirement Row. But yes, it does feel a little strange that you’ll see him for the next five in something other than Giants’ fatigues.

And, yes, Bumgarner really did prefer going to Arizona if the Giants weren’t going to be that interested in keeping the greatest postseason pitcher in their history. The Diamondbacks, admirably, have continued remaking/remodeling themselves without even thinking about tanking, and Bumgarner is nothing if not a competitor no matter how much his left arm doesn’t always obey his orders lately.

But The Athletic‘s Bay Area scribe, Andrew Baggarly, says it was personal as well: “Bumgarner told me in July that he and his wife, Ali, loved Arizona and he’d be interested in playing for the Diamondbacks. He gets his preferred destination from a life perspective, he’ll play for a team with way more near-term upside than the Giants, he still gets to hit (in a lively ballpark where he loves to take BP) and he still gets to stare down the Dodgers five or six times a year. What’s not to love?”

Thus does it make a little more sense that, yes, the Giants “were interested and engaged in retaining” the lefthander whose arm span as he’s about to deliver a pitch makes him resemble a Boeing Dreamliner with a bearded cockpit on takeoff; but, no, they weren’t exactly rolling the old red carpet for his landing, either.

Baggarly caught the drift at last week’s winter meetings. When he asked the Giants’ new manager, Gabe Kapler, how he was selling both himself and re-selling the Giants to their franchise World Series hero. When Kapler said he hadn’t talked to Bumgarner and (Baggarly’s words) “wanted to give him his space,” but would still reach out “if others thought it was a good idea.”

“And that was it,” Baggarly continued. “That was all I needed to know. There was no way that Bumgarner would continue his career with the Giants.” Because, of course, if the Giants wanted him to stay and thought they had a shot even at $85 million for five more years (they’re said to have offered four and $70 million), “you can bet that calls and meetings would’ve been set up. Kapler would have begun the back-channeling before he even got the job. The Giants would have tried to assuage Bumgarner’s every concern and dispel every bit of unease.”

Bumgarner isn’t the only one now shouldering into a Diamondbacks jersey who’s a bounceback candidate. The incumbent Snakes ace, Robbie Ray, is looking to make a comparable comeback from a somewhat dismal 2019, and much analysis has suggested the team hoped for enough of a comeback to make him attractive at next summer’s trade deadline. Bumgarner’s signing may have made Ray look positively glittering as a trade topic and positively assured of bringing back a haul of delicious enough prospects sooner.

MadBum is almost as renowned for the pleasures he takes in hitting as he is for that lifetime 2.11 postseason ERA, including a transdimensional 0.25 lifetime World Series ERA. He’ll fume at or bawl out enemy hitter taking a little too much pleasure in a monster mash on his dollar, but he enjoys hitting one for distance as much as the next man. Even if he admits he just can’t bring himself to let the kids play, or play with the kids, when he’s the bomb victim.

A shame, too. Two Opening Days ago I had a little mad fun with MadBum’s hitting a pair out, against the Diamondbacks of all people, one a leadoff blast against Zack Greinke in the top of the fifth, the other a one-out shot against reliever Andrew Chafin in the top of the seventh.(In between, then-Diamondback/now-Dodger A.J. Pollock hit one out off Bumgarner in the bottom of the sixth.)

I wrote a puckish column pondering the dialogue between the then Cy Ruth Award candidate and the Giants’ then-manager Bruce Bochy, leaning a little heavily off the day Bumgarner and then-Dodger Yasiel Puig tangled verbally after a ground out, with Bumgarner—who loves Puig about as much as a small child loves liver (after Puig joined the Reds and took Bumgarner deep, Bumgarner cracked, “He’s a quick study. It only took him seven years to learn how to hit that pitch”)—hollering, “Don’t look at me!”

Forgive me, MadBum, but I couldn’t resist looking at you on that Opening Day:

Bochy: Bum, it’s not that we don’t need the runs, but would you kindly remember that your job with this team is not to do your impersonation of Henry Aaron every other time up?

Bumgarner: Skip, don’t look at me!

Bochy: Bum, I know you were p.o.ed about losing the perfect game in the sixth. But you’re not getting paid the gigabucks to beat baseballs into earth orbit. You’re getting paid the gigabucks to throw them, preferably down the throats of enemy batters. Think you can remember that while you’re bucking for the Cy Ruth Award?

Bumgarner: Skip, just don’t look at me!

Bochy: Bum, you’re embarrassing our hitters. Hitting one 410 feet over the left center field fence on 1-2. You realize how many guys around here can’t hit on 1-2? You bucking to get our hitting coach fired?

Bumgarner: Skip, just don’t look at me!

Bochy: Okay, I’ll give you this one, Bum. That shot you hit in the seventh with one out. 2-0. Now, that’s a more reasonable count to swing on. And you did bust a three-all tie while you were at it. But c’mon, you don’t have to do everything yourself. Even if you’re the one who let them tie it up at three-all in the first place. Well, okay, it was A.J. Pollack, and even you can’t keep him from hitting one out now and then, you’re only human, after all.

Bumgarner: I’m only what?!?

Bochy: I knew that’d get your attention, Bum! Now, about those eleven strikeouts … that’s why you’re getting paid the gigabucks. Wait a minute — hey, Denard! Not a great way to open, getting yourself arrested for attempted grand theft second!

Bumgarner: Don’t look at him, Skip!

Bochy: Anyway, you’re getting paid to strike those emereffers out, not hit them into the Cove, buddy. There’s no Sandy Mays Award in baseball. I need you to start and when necessary close your own games, so far, depending on how much of an improvement this bullpen’s gonna be over last year’s bullpen. Christ, last year we couldn’t get save a thing if we’d had the Red Cross coming out of the pen.

Bumgarner: Rowrowrowrowwwrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

Bochy: What’s eating you, Bum?

Bumgarner: What’s with this Hoover? Who does he think he’s fooling with that slop? Why doesn’t he go back and make his vacuum cleaners where he belongs?

Bochy: He just struck Pence out after Hunter fought him back to 2-2.

Bumgarner: That ain’t exactly beating as you sweep as you clean, Skip.

Bochy: Where’d you learn your history?

Bumgarner: I play Trivial Pursuit just like any normal guy.

Bochy: Normal! Normal! Any normal guy who gets paid the gigabucks to pitch and strike out the other guys but who gets up to the plate and thinks he’s Mike Schmidt. You call that normal?

Bumgarner: Do I look like Mike Schmidt, Skip?

Bochy: Only when you hit.

Bumgarner: When did he ever strike out eleven guys in a game? Hey! We got first and second. Buster walked and Craw singled him to second. Who says I’m the one who has to do it all?

Bochy: Nunez just lined out to right, in case you weren’t looking.

Bumgarner: Looks like Hoover needs to change his beater bar brushes.

Bochy: Come on, Bum, give the guy a break, you had to squirm a couple of times too, you know.

Bumgarner: I twist and shout, I do not squirm.

Bochy: Have it your way, buddy. Look at him. Throws two balls to Hernandez, then strikes his ass out on three straight pitches. Looked like he took a couple of lessons from you.

Bumgarner: OK, give you that one. Poor Gork, forget the breeze, I could feel the hurricane.

Bochy: C’mon, Bum, you did more than your share today. Take the rest of the day off. Law can handle these guys.

Bumgarner: Okay, Skip, but remember who would have hit second in the ninth. For all you know I had another home run in me.

Bochy: Bum, let’s not get into that again, shall we? Can’t you settle for being the only pitcher in baseball history ever to hit two bombs on Opening Day and let it go at that?

Bumgarner: Well, look at poor Law, Skip. Two hitters, two singles, and Goldschmidt coming up. Whoa! Two straight strikes he throws on Goldschmidt. Now balls one and two.

Bochy: Gimme a break, Bum, I didn’t want Pollock to pounce on you again.

Bumgarner: You’re all heart, Skip.

Bochy: Damn! The bastard tied it up with a single.

Bumgarner: He fought the Law and won.

Bochy: Forget it. Jerry Seinfeld you ain’t. Hold on, I gotta get Law out of there.

Bumgarner: Good call, Skip. Blach got the double play. And Strickland got the strikeout. Now I know you’re gonna miss me hitting in the ninth!

Bochy: You gonna start that again?

Bumgarner: Who’s the genius who decided I could take the rest of the day off when I might have had another home run in me?

Bochy: I dunno.

Bumgarner: Well, don’t look at me, Skip!

Bochy: Hey, look who’s pitching the ninth.

Bumgarner: It’s old man Rodney! And Panik triples off him to open! C’mon, Skip, I could have gotten him home without hitting one out.

Bochy: See? Gillaspie got him home! Sacrifice fly. So it’s not like you hitting your third homer of the game, just shoot me.

Bumgarner: Don’t start with me, Skip!

Bochy: Now I got to get Melancon in there. The season isn’t even three hours old for us and already we’ve got a blown save. Thirty last year wasn’t enough, we gotta buck for forty already? Damn, how could we load up the pads on old man Rodney and not cash those guys in? How could we get Span thrown out at the plate to end that inning? Coulda had a two or more run lead.

Bumgarner: Well, Melancon isn’t getting paid the big gigabucks to go up to the plate and hit grand slams, Skip. Damn, Skip! Two outs, he gives up a double to Mathis and an RBI single to Daniel Freaking Descalso!! And Owings sends home the winning run! Why are we paying Melancon the big gigabucks? I told you you should have had me available to hit in the ninth! You ever heard of an insurance run?

Bochy: Don’t look at me, Bum!

The word is that the man who’s been a horse for the Giants even when he wasn’t pitching at his peak performance level owns horses in the Phoenix area and, with his wife, loves the horses as much as the area and as much as baseball. The man who doesn’t want you looking at him when you recover from a knockdown pitch or take him out of your shared baseball real estate isn’t averse to a little horsing around.

But wouldn’t it be something if baseball could give him dispensation for Opening Day, lets him keep a horse adjacent to the batter’s box, then—if he hits one out—lets him mount and gallop around the bases?

All the Diamondbacks have to do otherwise now remind Bumgarner the only body of water into which the other guys can hit is small, behind the fence, and features a hot tub off to one corner. And, keep him away from dirt bikes.

Marcus Stroman and other trade deadline thoughts

2019-07-30 MarcusStroman

Marcus Stroman to the Mets—method to madness or madness to method?

As regards the Mets dealing a pair of mixed-reviews pitching prospects to the Blue Jays for their staff ace Marcus Stroman, and the coming trade deadline in general a few observations. Beginning with the one that tells me it seems at least three-quarters of baseball never saw this Stroman deal coming.

Anyone who thought Stroman’s new address would be New York by this year’s new single trade deadline figured it would involve the Yankees, leaders in the American League East, and not the Mets, strugglers to stay within reasonable sight of even the second National League wild card.

Or, if Stroman was going to move on from Toronto, he’d be more likely to land with one or another viable 2019 competitor—say, the Braves, where I seem to recall some observers thought he’d make a better mutual fit if the Yankees really were convinced Stroman was good enough to pitch but not necessarily fit.

But Stroman, who makes his living largely by way of his ability to lure ground balls, is now a Met. So where do we and they go from here?

1. Former major league general manager Jim Bowden, who now writes for The Athletic, says the Mets have no intention of landing Stroman just to flip him for a better package by the close of trade business Wednesday. And the two pitching prospects going to the Jays—Anthony Kay and Simeon Woods-Richardson—are considered solid but not elite prospects, but the Jays believed they weren’t going to get better than them for Stroman when all was said and done.

2. The Mets aren’t a team of elite defenders especially around their infield this year, and yet Steven Matz—returning to the rotation after a brief spell in the bullpen to re-horse—pitched a complete-game 3-0 shutout Saturday night in which his calling cards were a deft blend of breaking and off speed stuff and putting his fielders to work, which for a change they did rather admirably behind him.

3. Matz’s performance may well have had a firm impact on the Mets’ pitching thought. May. They’ve tried since 2013 to cultivate an arsenal of power arms in the rotation and seen, when all is said and done, only Jacob deGrom live up to any expectations. They watched Matt Harvey’s injuries collapse him from a power pitcher to one in search of a new cause and, now, a new team. They’ve seen Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler bring the power without delivering the consistent results.

If the Mets had eyes for Stroman before Matz took the mound Saturday night, Matz’s performance had to have told them it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to add another arm to the rotation that belonged to a young man who uses more than his arm to survive on the mound. Stroman isn’t a strikeout machine; he has the second highest ground ball rate among all Show starting pitchers.

4. Maybe acquiring Stroman begins to get the Mets re-thinking their incumbent defense, too, especially marrying him to Matz in their rotation. Rookie of the Year candidate Pete Alonso forced Dominic Smith off first base, but Smith in the outfield looks almost exactly like the un-natural he is out there even though he hits with authority. Rookie general manager Brodie Van Wagenen’s willingness to take aging Robinson Cano if he wanted closer Edwin Diaz from the Mariners last winter forced Jeff McNeil, their obvious second baseman of the future, likewise into an outfield where he’s about as comfortable as an elephant in front of a mouse much of the time.

5. Diaz has been a mess not entirely of his own making this season, mishandled, sometimes mis-deployed, and while the raw talent is still there the Mets are now rumoured to be shopping him. Cano has four years left on the contract the Mets took on from the Mariners, making him almost an immovable force. Whether the Mets’ contradictory ownership might be willing to take a bath on the deal in order to start moving defensive parts back where they belong is anyone’s guess.

6. With Stroman off the market eyes turned not just upon Syndergaard but the rest of this trade deadline’s pitching market.

The Giants’ unexpected resurgence means Madison Bumgarner isn’t likely to go anywhere the rest of the season, compared to a month ago when the observers and speculators pondered where, not if he’d move on. The Yankees need whatever starting pitching help they can get but the market now seems more constricted—and as much as they’re wary of dealing with the Mets, Syndergaard now might look like an attractive Yankee target. Might.

And the Nationals, like the Giants but at a higher level, have had an unexpected resurgence of late after they were all but written off as dying as late as early June. They ran into a buzzsaw in Los Angeles this past weekend, needing Stephen Strasburg to pitch the masterwork he did in seven Sunday innings to escape with even a single win, but now Max Scherzer—whom all the Smart Guys said had to go on the trade deadline block once upon a time, in large part to bring them badly needed bullpen relief—may find his barking back barking well enough into August.

At first glance, then, it would seem the Nats have a big problem as they prepare to square off against the National League East-leading Braves Monday night. Except that the Braves, who ran roughshod over the league before the All-Star break and still lead the Nats by five and a half games, have suddenly regressed to being only human. Not only have they lost seven of their last eleven, they’ve lost two critical elements—shortstop Dansby Swanson, resurgent veteran right fielder Nick Markakis—to the injured list. The Nats won’t have Strasburg or Scherzer to throw at the Braves this week but the Nats might still gain key ground, anyway.

7. The bullpen dominos began falling over this past weekend, too. Veteran Sergio Romo, once a key to a couple of Giants World Series winners, just went from Miami to Minnesota where the Twins, this year’s American League surprise, just bumped their bullpen up several notches by bringing him aboard. Jake Diekman went from Kansas City to Oakland, a sign the Athletics are gearing up for another wild card run. There are contenders aplenty who need help in the pen and few more than the Nats.

8. If the Jays are rebuilding in earnest, bullpen-longing eyes may be cast upon the surprising Ken Giles. After his 2017 World Series mishap (which wasn’t entirely his sole responsibility) and subsequent personal and mound meltdowns, Giles has rehorsed completely in Toronto. As in, a career year: a 1.54 ERA and a 1.60 fielding-independent pitching rate. Not to mention a 5+ strikeout-to-walk rate and a 14.9 strikeout-per-nine rate.

Yes, the Nats have eyes upon Giles and his Jays pen mate Daniel Hudson. But so may the Red Sox and any other contender who needs a bump among the bulls. Even the Twins, despite landing Romo, might still make a play for Giles at least or, if Giles eludes them, Norman, whose 2.87 ERA and June-July of only four earned runs in 21 innings’ work yanked his trade value up accordingly.

Bowden rates the Stroman deal a B+ for the Mets and a B- for the Jays. It wouldn’t hurt the Jays’ standing to try prying a slightly better haul back for Giles and/or Hudson. And although Giles is dealing with a slight nerve issue in his pitching elbow, wiping out the side as he did in a Saturday night assignment should make his suitors breathe a little easier, assuming they don’t fall tempted to overwork him while he works through it.

9. The Mets may or may not yet have a wild card long shot this year, but don’t kid yourselves: they were thinking as much about 2020 as now when they made their play for Stroman. And since Stroman is under team control through the end of 2020, don’t be surprised if they like what they see from him the rest of this season and start talking extension with him before 2020 begins.

Which might also mean that Syndergaard at minimum, and Wheeler at maximum, may yet have changes of address coming by Wednesday afternoon. And with whisperings that the Red Sox have eyes upon Diaz for their pen, which needs a little help but isn’t as badly mismanaged as the Mets pen has been this year, the Mets should be thinking smart and looking very closely at that Red Sox farm system.

Because the Mets could also use a third base upgrade from veteran Todd Frazier, who’s reliable but beginning to show his age. And as thin as the Red Sox system is for now, AAA third baseman Bobby Dalbec was named both the offensive and defensive player of the year for 2018 in the Red Sox’s minor league award valuations. If the Olde Towne Team wants Diaz for their pen that much, the Mets should all but demand Dalbec in the return haul.

10. Too many teams never quite do what they should when it counts. The Mets, alas, are notorious for that. Even when they’re winning.

 

. . . but the little gulls understand

2019-07-19 AT&TParkSeagulls

A flock of seagulls over AT&T Park’s outfield, not unlike the one Pete Alonso of the Mets scattered in the sixteenth Thursday night.

A pair of National League also-rans meeting to start a four-game set in San Francisco. One managed by a three-time World Series-winning skipper, the other managed by a former pitching coach who’s caught too often unawares but still might break a record for in-season votes of confidence that make his team’s fan base anything but confident.

A pair of starting pitchers whose names appear as often in trade-deadline speculation as Harold Stassen used to run for the presidency. Backed by one bullpen that has three bulls whose names are sometimes whispered in trade talks and another backed by a group that plays with matches a little too often for its own good.

And, a marathon in which both sides’ pitching traded off otherwise lockdown work around twenty hits, ten for each side, with 32 strikeouts between them for fifteen innings, and a flock of seagulls flying above the left side of the AT&T Park outfield in circular patterns that looked taunting one minute and challenging the next.

Thus the Mets and the Giants Thursday night entering the sixteenth inning tied at one. Until Pete Alonso opened the top of the inning almost doing to a seagull with his bat what Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson once actually did to a dove from the mound to break the tie at long enough last.

The Mets entered the bottom of the sixteenth with a 2-1 lead and exited with a 3-2 loss to the Giants in which Mets reliever Chris Mazza, who’d worked a spotless fifteenth, couldn’t get an out if he’d pre-ordered them on Amazon Prime Days just before the Mets hit the Bay Area.

Both teams all but emptied their bullpens, following seven strong innings from Mets starter Noah Syndergaard and nine from the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner, with the Mets’ pen of all people having a little bit of the better of things until the sixteenth. And that was after both Syndergaard and Bumgarner could swap a few jibes about how the single runs each surrendered might look almost like happy accidents in the box score.

Mets rookie Jeff McNeil scored in the top of the first—while Alonso himself dialed Area Code 6-4-3 with nobody out. Giants center fielder Kevin Pillar scored Pablo Sandoval with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the fourth. And no matter what the Mets and the Giants threw at each other or swung against each other, nobody else came home until the sixteenth.

Bumgarner still felt his oats after the ninth, doing everything he could short of bringing Perry Mason in to plead his case to manager Bruce Bochy to go out for the tenth. “He lobbied, trust me, he did,” Bochy said after it finally ended. “In fact, I came in after the game, he’s still mad at me for not letting him go out there in the 10th.”

“I didn’t try to make it much of a conversation but he wasn’t having it,” the normally ornery Bumgarner said with a few chuckles punctuating his remarks. “Usually if I really want to I can get my way with him, but he wasn’t having it today. How many times do you get to go out for the tenth?”

He struck out six in nine to Syndergaard’s eight in seven. Then came the running of the bulls. The Mets’ pen—in order, Seth Lugo, Luis Avilan, Edwin Diaz, Jeurys Familia, Robert Gsellman (working two innings), and Justin Wilson—scattered three hits and three walks with a combined ten strikeouts (including Gsellman’s three) before manager Mickey Callaway sent Chris Mazza out for the fifteenth.

The Giants’ pen—in order, Will Smith (another trade deadline subject), Reyes Moronta, Tony Watson, Derek Holland, and Trevor Gott—was equally stingy until the sixteenth, scattering four hits and a walk while striking out a collective eight. (Including three each by Smith and Gott.)

Both the Mets and the Giants, riding concurrent hot or semi-hot streaks into Thursday night, might yet be pondering the reset buttons. But several players on both sides made themselves look a little more attractive to prospective contending suitors a fortnight before the new single trade deadline.

The men don’t know, but the little gulls understand.

Then Williams Jerez, who’d shaken off first and second in the top of the fifteenth, went to work in the top of the sixteenth. He had Alonso 0-2 with a foul. Then he hung a changeup, and Alonso hung it into the left field seats, missing one of the circling gulls by inches. Imagine the gulls as they scattered: Incoming! Hit the deck! There is no deck!

Jerez nailed a pair of back-to-back strikeouts before walking Amed Rosario, but he escaped when he picked Rosario off and got him thrown out for attempted grand theft. Then it was Mazza’s turn to work a second inning.

He got that turn because Callaway had no choice: he had nobody left in the pen, it wasn’t their fault the Mets were as futile in getting runs home until Alonso’s blast, and he didn’t want to burn a starting pitcher if he could help it. Callaway admitted after the game that if it went somehow to a seventh inning he would have sent left fielder J.D. Davis to the mound and pitcher Jacob deGrom out to play left field.

Thank God it didn’t quite come to that, except that the Giants made sure it wouldn’t get to that point off Mazza in the bottom of the sixteenth. It’s a luxury the Mets couldn’t have afforded unless they’d gotten more in their half than just Alonso’s almost-seagull shoot.

A leadoff double (Alex Dickerson), RBI double to re-tie (Brandon Crawford), a hit batsman (Austin Slater, who took over for Mike Yastrzemski in right field in the ninth), a bases-loading single (Pillar), and the Mets’ infield in to choke off the run that wouldn’t be choked off when Donovan Solano (who’d replaced Joe Panik at second in the tenth) sort of snuck a base hit into shallow right field.

“Syndergaard did a great job of pitching out of some jams early and their guys did too,” said Callaway after the game. “There were a lot of baserunners at third with less than two outs and nobody got in. It was a tough night to score runs.”

It was for fifteen innings, until the bases-loaded jam the Mets couldn’t escape the way they did in the fourth, when Pillar’s sacrifice fly began life as a potential bases-clearing hit until J.D. Davis ran it to the rear end of left field and made a leaping snatch.

But the Giants finally banked a win to be proud of and the Mets banked a loss they couldn’t really be ashamed of. Even the gulls looked as though they tried congratulating both sides when it finally ended.

Murphy’s law: Celebrate!

2019-06-14 TomLawless

Tom Lawless, the patron saint of bat flippers, starting his flip in Game Four, 1987 World Series . . .

The Fun Police have a new protester who played the game in an earlier era. And when Dale Murphy talks, it would be wise for the Fun Police to lend him their ears and not their billy clubs.

Murphy inaugurated his partial new life writing for The Athletic with a September 2018 essay in which he applauded doing away with throwing at batters on hot streaks. That was after the Marlins’ Jose Ureña was stupid enough to think the proper way to stop Ronald Acuna, Jr. from making mincemeat out of Marlins pitching was to open a game by drilling Acuna’s elbow.

The longtime Braves bombardier said then pitching inside is one thing but drilling hitters who offend you is something else entirely. “If Ureña thought he was being tough, he wasn’t. Good pitchers–and staffs–will take command of a situation before a guy is swatting home runs left and right. The Marlins kept throwing Acuña fastballs down the middle. Well, what did they think was going to happen? A light should have gone on. Hmm, maybe we should try something else.”

Now, Murphy wasn’t exactly amused when Madison Bumgarner barked at Max Muncy after Muncy drove one of Bumgarner’s offerings clean into McCovey’s Cove last week. Murphy was far more impressed not just that Muncy was sharp enough in spontaneity to hand Bumgarner a classic one-liner (I just told him if he doesn’t want me to watch the ball, go get it out of the ocean) that begat a classic troll shirt, but that Muncy had no qualms about even a lower-keyed celebration of, you know, achievement.

“Admiring a home run is OK,” Murphy writes in an essay published Friday. “Bat-flipping is OK. Emotion is OK. None of that is a sign of poor sportsmanship or disrespect for an opponent. It’s a celebration of achievement — and doing so should not only be allowed, but encouraged.” And he’s not limiting its encouragement to hitters alone, either. “Pitchers can shout excitedly after an important out,” he writes. They can pump their fist after a clutch strikeout. Players, fans—and basically any rational-thinking human—will understand that no harm is intended by these spontaneous expressions of joy.”

Last year, Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle jumped onto the fun train. And he said he wanted more than just bat flips. “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,” he said. To which I myself added, “I hope a lot of pitchers start channeling their inner Dennis Eckersley and start fanning pistols after they strike someone out. I’d kill to see a hitter moonwalk around the bases after hitting one out. Let’s see more keystone combinations chest bump or make like jugglers after they turn a particularly slick and tough double play.”

“These are some of the best athletes in the world, competing against some of the other best athletes in the world, with generational wealth at stake,” writes Murphy. “Yet, they’re expected to play baseball like they’re doing calculus at afternoon tea.” My own expression was (and remains) that whereas Willie Stargell was right saying, “The umpire doesn’t say, ‘Work ball’,” if you want to play baseball like businessmen, take the field and check in at the plate in three-piece suits.

“In what other sport does this happen?” Murphy asks. “In what other sport is celebration considered disrespect? In football, guys plan celebrations. They choreograph them with teammates. They gesture when they get a first down. As far as I know, the world hasn’t ended.  Baseball is a strange place. It’s not OK to watch your home run, but it is OK for someone to throw a baseball 95 miles per hour at your head if you do.”

It’s still funny in anything but a ho-ho-ho way that when it’s free agency signing season the Old School wants us to remember they’re getting overpaid to play a game, for crying out loud . . . but when it’s time to actually play the game, God forbid the players look like they’re, you know, playing.

Murphy is careful not to say that those on the field who don’t like celebrating their achievements should be allowed not to like it, either. But he’s adamant that if they want to celebrate, they shouldn’t risk being decapitated the next time they bat against the pitcher they just took into the ocean. And, to Madison Bumgarner’s eternal credit, he didn’t even think about trying to flip Max Muncy when Muncy faced him the next time.

Neither did the arguable and unlikely father of the home run bat flip as we’ve come to know it face revenge.

I take you back to the 1987 World Series. The one in which no game was won on the road and the Twins won in seven. The one in which Tom Lawless—journeyman infielder, minus 2.1 wins above a replacement-level player, lifetime .521 OPS, lifetime hitter of two regular-season major league home runs, who hadn’t hit one out since 1984—squared up Frank Viola (a Cy Young Award winner the following season) with two on and nobody out, in the bottom of the fourth, in a tied-at-one Game Four, and hit a meaty fastball over the left field fence.

Lawless took ten leisurely steps out of the box up the first base line as the ball flew out. When it banged off a railing above and behind the fence, he flipped his bat about ten feet straight up into the Busch Stadium air before starting his home run trot. The crowd may have cheered as much for that flip as for the ball flying out in the first place.

“Look at this!” hollered then-ABC commentator Tim McCarver when showing it on a replay. McCarver and Al Michaels sounded absolutely exuberant. Viola didn’t exactly look thrilled to have just surrendered a tiebreaking three run homer, but he wasn’t exactly spitting fire or raging in the moment, either.

As Bleacher Report‘s Danny Knobler observes in Unwritten: Bat Flips, the Fun Police, and Baseball’s New Future, Viola never once retaliated for the Lawless flip. On 14 May 1989, Viola and Lawless met for the first time since that Series, with Lawless now a Blue Jay pinch hitting for Rob Ducey in the top of the fifth. Viola caught Lawless looking at a third strike in that pinch hit appearance. Lawless stayed in the game playing right field, of all places. He batted against Viola in the top of the eighth and grounded out to first.

Not once did Lawless face a knockdown or brushback.

It’s a shame someone didn’t teach that lesson to Hunter Strickland two years ago, when he opened against Bryce Harper by drilling Harper in the hip—over a couple of long, almost three-year-old postseason home runs the second of which Strickland thought Harper pimped, when the only thing Harper actually did was make sure the launch straight over the right field line and foul pole would fly out fair.

“I didn’t remember flipping it,” Lawless said after that ’87 Series game. “I’ve never been in a position like this before.” He never would be again, either. That blast was the only World Series hit of Lawless’s career, and he never played in the Series again.

In 2017, he told a Cardinals television broadcast interviewer, “I don’t have any idea why I did it. It just happened.” Spoilsport.