Harper’s class can’t fix a true pitching dilemna

Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper took the highest road before Thursday’s Phillies-Cardinals game. Phillies reliever Hector Neris took the lowest in the ninth Thursday night.

When the Phillies and the Cardinals tangled the night after Bryce Harper and Didi Grigorius took back-to-back drills, from Cardinal reliever Genesis Cabrera’s first two pitches of the top of the sixth, you’d have understood almost completely if the Phillies came out bent on making the Cardinals pay.

You’d have understood because a) Harper’s was the truly frightening one, taking a runaway 97mph fastball on the left side of his nose that knocked his helmet clean off and him to the ground; and, b) the umpires saw fit to issue nothing but warnings to both side, without doing what one of today’s most foolish new rules bars a manager from doing.

But therefore you wouldn’t have known that Harper himself put a stop to any possibility of all-out war before the Phillies and the Cardinals met again Thursday. Until Phillies reliever Hector Neris said not so fast in the bottom of the ninth at Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado’s expense.

I couldn’t find the exact words in question, but Harper sent Cardinals manager Mike Schildt a text message saying, essentially, Your guy wasn’t trying to decapitate me, he had an off night, you know it and I know it, and I didn’t get my brains blown out or my head torn off, so don’t let it blow you or him apart, my dudes, we’re good.

Whatever the actual words Harper sent Schildt the day after he nearly went from Genesis to Revelation, Schildt was nothing but appreciative. It’s not every day that an almost-headless man shows a little empathy for the unintended executioner.

“Whoever’s a fan of Bryce Harper, whoever has children that are fans of Bryce Harper, support that guy,” Schildt told reporters. “Because what he sent over in a message today was completely a class act.”

If anyone knows the difference between lack of intent and deadly intent, it should be Harper. Four years ago, almost, then-Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland opened the top of the eighth facing then-National Harper by hitting Harper in the hip—in payback for a three-year-old pair of postseason home runs—with a pitch so obvious that Stevie Wonder would have seen intent without blinking twice.

Before the rule mandating relief pitchers face three batters at minimum unless he came in mid-inning and ended the inning before a third batter faced, Schildt by his own Wednesday night post-game admission would have gotten Cabrera the hell out of there after following Harper’s near-beheading with a drill through Grigorius’s ribs.

Why the umpires didn’t remains a mystery at this writing. The umps have been asleep at the switches an awful lot this season thus far, on the field and even in the replay review rooms in New York. If they’re not calling strikes on pitches far enough from the zone that you could fly a plane through the space, they’re calling walkoff hit by pitches on near-flagrant bids to take one for the team with the pillows stuffed.

On Wednesday night, they warned both the Phillies and the Cardinals against any further funny business. Then, they ejected Phillies manager Joe Girardi when he sailed out of his dugout demanding accountability for Cabrera’s obvious wildness following the Grigorius drill.

“I understand they don’t want things to escalate. They don’t want people to get hit. But if a guy hits a guy in the face and a guy in the ribs with two pitches, he’s got to go, right?” Schildt himself told the press post-game. “If you’re really protecting the players, obviously, he doesn’t have command. He’s got to go.”

The official rules don’t specify when an umpire can order a wild pitcher out of a game on behalf of keeping peace. But The Baseball Codes author Jason Turnbow, writing on his Website of the same name, says the arbiters have the option by default: “[U]mpires have one more wrinkle to consider in the same spirit as bench warnings: Those times when ejecting a pitcher for his own good might actually serve to cool tensions from both sides of the field.”

Sometimes it seems as though almost nobody wants to address a concurrent issue that Harper’s former Nationals teammate Ryan Zimmerman does: baseball organisations seeking and finding pitchers who can throw supersonic pitches but haven’t learned to control them properly.

“You see these teams just call up these guys that throw 95 or 100 mph and the team doesn’t really care. They’re just trying to see if they have anything in them,” Zimmerman told the 106.7 radio station’s Sports Junkies podcast after his old mate and friend nearly lost his head Wednesday night.

A couple years ago, these guys would be in Double-A or Triple-A for another year trying to learn how to pitch but these teams just call them up to see if they can kinda hit lightning in a bottle. If not, they send them back down. They don’t care if they hit four guys on the other team. What does it matter to them? The [general manager] of the other team is not in the box, so he doesn’t care. It’s a different kind of game but it is what it is and that’s where we’re at.

You almost predict what those clubs want: floods of strikeouts. But Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven got floods of strikeouts (3,701 lifetime) and his money pitch was maybe the third most monstrously voluptuous curve ball yours truly has ever seen. (Numeros two-o and uno: Dwight Gooden, and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax.)

It’s bad enough that the three-batter relief minimum throttles managers from getting wild pitchers out of there before they do worse damage than turned out done to Harper and Grigorius Wednesday night. It’s worse when baseball organisations seem to believe pitching is purely a matter of who can throw the lamb chops faster and farther past the wolves.

“Hitting is timing,” Hall of Fame lefthander Warren Spahn once said. “Pitching is destroying timing.” That was then, this is now, and for once the Old School has it right. Today hitting may still be timing, for all the overstated obsession with launch angles and exit velocities, but pitching today often seems oriented on destroying batters instead of their timing.

In case you were curious, the prankish Spahn—whose money pitch was a screwball and who happened to be one, himself, especially allied to longtime Braves buddy Lew Burdette—averaged two hit batsmen a year.

That was also then: minor league legend Steve Dalkowski could throw a cruise missile past a fighter jet on Mach-plus cruising speed. But he couldn’t find the strike zone with a search party and bloodhounds half of the time. (The ill-fated Dalkowski never saw one inning’s major league action: he’d barely made the ’63 Orioles roster in spring training when he blew his elbow out during an exhibition game.)

This is today: If Zimmerman is right, today’s organisation wouldn’t care half as much for Dalkowski’s inability to find and keep the strike zone as for his ability to scare the opposition to death and back.

NBC Sports writer Matt Weyrich says there are some hard numbers supporting Zimmerman’s theory: In 2018, the Show set a new record with 1,922 pitches hitting batters. Then, in 2019, the Show broke that record by 62. The wild pitches also climbed, with the Show’s seven highest wild pitch totals “all recorded in the seven seasons from 2013-2019.” This year’s 291 wild pitches and 354 pitches hitting batters, Weyrich adds, threaten to set new league records yet again.

Remember the postgame exchange between fictitious Durham Bulls manager Skip Riggins and coach Larry Hockett about Dalkowski-inspired pitching prospect Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham?

Riggins: He walked eighteen.
Hockett: New. league. record.
Riggins: He struck out 18.
Hockett: Another new. league. record. In addition, he hit the sportswriters, the public-address announcer, the bull mascot— twice—also new. league. records. But, Joe—this guy’s got some serious shit.

In theaters and on DVD, that’s about ten laughs. In the real game, it’s as funny as a shave with a Mixmaster. “You’re in the big leagues,” Zimmerman told that podcast. “There’s kind of a thought that if you’re at this level, you should be able to control — especially if you’re throwing 97 mph.”

Did any rough stuff happen between the Phillies and the Cardinals on Thursday night, then? Well, yes, there was—briefly. And that was with neither Harper nor Grigorius playing, Girardi having added that both players would be re-examined when the team returned to Philadelphia today to open a weekend set with the Mets.

With the game tied three-all, and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Neris decided Harper didn’t speak for him when sending Schildt that pregame, give-peace-a-chance text.

Neris gave his own piece a chance at the expense of Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado—hitting him up and in and on the back of the shoulder on the only pitch of the plate appearance.

Would Girardi or any other Phillie care to expose just who whacked Neris with the stupid stick? The righthander resembled a bullying coward willing to endanger his own team for the sake of who the hell knew exactly what. He was lucky the benches didn’t clear after betraying the letter and intent behind Harper’s olive branch.

It wasn’t as though the next Cardinal batter was liable to blast a two-run homer to win it on the spot. Tyler O’Neill plays major league baseball in the first place because he’s a very plus outfielder. At the plate, calling him a spaghetti bat might be putting things politely. Don’t think Neris wasn’t aware of it when he did what four Phillies pitchers preceding him didn’t even think about doing.

He hit one of the Cardinals’ big sticks to take the easy out, striking O’Neill out on three pitches. Neris is lucky Schildt took the higher road likewise, applauding the Arenado hit as “old school baseball.”

Then another Phillie reliever, David Hale, threw a wild pitch past Cardinals shortstop Edmundo Sosa, a pitch catcher J.T. Realmuto might or might not have been able to block successfully considering its movement. It allowed O’Neill—who began the inning as the free cookie on second to open it, and took third when Cardinals catcher Andrew Knizner grounded out leading off—to score the winner in the bottom of the tenth.

Neris should count his blessings that it looks as though he won’t get a week’s detention.

Fun Police lives matter?

Even after Yadier Molina (left) shoved him from behind after he objected to Jack Woodward’s (left) driller, Nick Castellanos (second from right) would still ask Molina for a signed jersey. A little cray-cray?

I guess the Cardinals showed him. Reds right fielder Nick Castellanos sure knows who the men around here are now. Right? Wrong.

For the crime of flipping his bat after hitting an Opening Day home run with his team trailing the Cardinals two days earlier, Castellanos got himself first-pitch drilled, wild-pitched home, and ejected in the fourth inning Saturday afternoon.

He also got shoved from behind by Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina for his trouble, but—rather inappropriately—nobody sent Molina to his room for that.

Apparently, it’s not nice to call out the Fun Police’s St. Louis division.

All that began after Castellanos seemed to let Reds pitcher Jack Woodford covering at the plate how little he thought of taking one in the ribs two days after he hit a two-run homer off Jack Flaherty in the third inning—two outs after Flaherty opened the inning by hitting Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart with a 1-1 pitch.

With Castellanos on third after the drill, Mike Moustakas at the plate watched Woodford’s wild pitch sail up, up, and away, off Molina’s mitt. Castellanos shot home and dove across the plate. Woodford hustled to the plate to cover as Molina scrambled for the ball and tossed high to him.

The pitcher slid on one knee trying for a tag as Castellanos beat the play and began to pick himself up, barking at Woodford about . . . who knew precisely what? Was it umbrage over getting drilled? Was it saying he just had to score by hook, crook, or anything else the Reds could come up with (it was a base hit by Joey Votto to send him to third before the wild pitch to Moustakas) after taking an unwarranted plunk like that?

No. It turned out almost precisely the way the Reds’ broadcast team suggested: “I said ‘let’s [fornicating] go! and then I walked off,” Castellanos told the press post-game.

That’s when Molina hustled over as the benches began to empty and gave Castellanos an apparent shove while Castellanos still had his back turned to him. The Reds separated Castellanos from Molina while Moustakas tried to keep Molina from charging Castellanos further.

The lone ejection was Castellanos, though it wasn’t known until the Reds sent Aristedes Aquino out to play right field in the top of the fifth. Woodford got only a warning, apparently, after throwing the driller in the first place. Molina, whom some fans with troths not plighted to the Cardinals believe receives special dispensation even when he behaves like an ass, got nothing.

Cardinal teammates kept holding Woodford back from further attempts to settle Castellanos’s hash. Then the bullpens emptied, providing room for Cardinals relief pitcher Jordan Hicks to enjoy a brief shove upon Reds infielder Eugenio Suarez before the bulls returned through a little more shoving all the way to the pens.

Then, the Reds—who’d dropped a third-inning six-spot on Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, including Castellanos himself singling and then scoring on another base hit—got to finish the 9-6 win they’d started. Putting the only damper that really counts on the day Nolen Arenado, the Cardinals’ new third base toy, parked Reds reliever Sean Romano’s full-count, one-on pitch in the left field seats.

After the big dance around the plate area, Woodford walked Moustakas to load the bases and hit Jonathan India with a 1-2 pitch to nudge Votto home with the eighth Reds run before striking Tyler Naquin out for the side at last.

Aquino at least had something else to say about his unlikely mid-game insertion under such troublesome circumstances. He led off the sixth against Andrew Miller, the former Indian who still hasn’t really regrouped too well following his heralded, almost entirely effective, but still unconscionable overuse in the 2016 postseason. Aquino looked at a strike down the pipe before timing a second such pitch and sending it over the left field fence.

The good news is, Castellanos didn’t take Molina’s shove from behind personally. As C. Trent Rosecrans of The Athletic tweeted after the game, Castellanos said of Molina, “That guy could punch me in the face and I’d still ask him for a signed jersey.”

Maybe Castellanos does know who the men around here are, including the one who smiles back to him from the mirror while he trims his beard. How would Molina sign that jersey, then—“Fun Police Lives Matter?”

From mile-high madness to St. Louis serenity

Like should-be Hall of Famer Scott Rolen before him, Nolan Arenado’s a top third baseman the Cardinals will take happily off an unappreciative team’s hands.

More often than Joe and Jane Fan think, baseball players and those playing other team sports discover that all the money on their paychecks isn’t quite as handsome as winning. It’s the reason such ballplayers otherwise wedded to the teams who reared them swallow pride and paychecks and look out of town when winning isn’t going to happen soon.

The Cardinals are only too willing to show more than cursory interest in such men. They’re baseball’s Emma Lazarus; they might as well engrave the top of Busch Stadium’s entrance with, “Give us your sick-and-tired, your not-so-poor, your huddling supermen yearning to breathe free and win championships.”

They’ll even take your money gladly to take him off your hands.

They’ve just gotten the Rockies to give them sick-and-tired, not-so-poor, huddling super third baseman Nolan Arenado for an apparent bag of mixed nuts. They even accepted the Rockies sending along $65 million dollars for the privilege of taking Arenado off their hands and books.

And, with a few former glitterati due to come off the payroll books after 2021, a couple of big moves that plain didn’t work out for the Cardinals will be gone as well. It’ll make the Cardinals the National League Central favourites and perhaps the only club in the division who can hold up against the monsters of the East and West if they reach the 2021 postseason.

It turns their formerly unassuming off-season into a bristling one. It might make them tempted to think about extending Arenado further depending on what he does with two opt-outs his deal has after 2021 and 2022. And, it adds Arenado to a rather distinguished roll of prior tired, huddling supermen who found baseball a lot more agreeable when they got to play adjacent to the Gateway Arch.

Once upon a time the Padres got fed up with their high-and-wide flying shortstop’s agent and decided to deal him. Then-Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog went to San Diego to talk to the man personally. That kind of personal touch got the Cardinals a Hall of Fame shortstop whose defensive value was equal to his acrobatics and good for big parts of three pennants and a World Series ring. You still know Ozzie Smith as the Wizard of Oz.

Not long after that, Jack Clark bristled over the Giants’ brittle Candlestick Park and their dismissals of him as just too fragile to play major league baseball. They dealt him to the Cardinals, where they moved him to first base for his health’s sake. Jack the Ripper hit the home run that sent the Cardinals to the 1985 World Series and swung big for their 1987 pennant winner until an ankle injury kept him out of that Series and helped keep them from winning it.

Should-be Hall of Famer Scott Rolen got sick and tired of the Phillies’ seeming lack of winning interest and dismissing him despite his play saying what he didn’t like trumpeting on his own behalf. The Cardinals said, “Give us your sick and tired third baseman.” They traded for and signed Rolen to a new deal. They also sent him to four All-Star teams and won a World Series with him.

One fine day Matt Holliday, traded from Colorado to Oakland, discovered the Athletics decided they couldn’t afford his like and traded him to the Cardinals. He shone enough in left field and at the plate for the Birds on the Bat that they made sure he couldn’t take a free agency hike just yet. And, like Rolen, Holliday went to four All-Star teams and won a World Series in St. Louis fatigues.

Another fine day, for the Cardinals at least, the Diamondbacks decided two years ago that they couldn’t or wouldn’t afford to keep franchise-face first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. The Cardinals channeled their inner Monty Hall—Let’s make a deal! They landed Goldschmidt for Luke Weaver and a pair of bodies and signed Goldschmidt in due course to a succulent nine-figure extension. They’ve been to a pair of postseasons with him, too.

Landing Arenado means the Cardinals want a little more than just postseason entries. And Arenado isn’t as treacherous looking going into what’ll be his age-30 season as you might fear. He has five years left on his Colorado-signed extension. He might lose a couple of counting stats weighted heavily on the home side but he might even things out with road performances enabled better by not playing at ionosphere level.

He’ll be able to keep swinging smoothly for extra base hits and doing things at third base unseen since Rolen, Adrian Beltre, Mike Schmidt, and Brooks Robinson, a human vacuum cleaner who no longer has to worry whether his bag will explode in the middle of a flying leap, a running throw, or a swan dive across the line.

Among active third basemen, Arenado is second only to Evan Longoria (thirteen seasons) for total defensive runs saved above his league average, but Arenado has an excellent chance to surpass Longoria at the hot corner and at the plate by the time he reaches his fourteenth major league season.

Matter of fact, let’s look at that pair plus Manny Machado, the $300 million plus man in San Diego, according to my Real Batting Average (RBA): total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches divided by plate appearances:

Nolan Arenado 4558 2227 362 58 50 22 .597
Evan Longoria 7380 3108 645 81 89 69 .541
Manny Machado 4989 2211 387 41 36 21 .540

Arenado also has an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) 83 points higher. (I’ll bet you didn’t think Longoria and Machado were that similar at the plate, either.) Arenado’s OPS is also 65 points higher than Machado, who’s only 17 defensive runs behind him.

What he won’t have is Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich to kick, jerk, or slap him around anymore. Arenado bristled when Bridich treated his old infield partner Troy Tulowitzki like a chump over trade rumours, failed to include Tulowitzki in any such discussions, then dealt the shortstop to the Blue Jays. (Where he went to a pair of postseasons before injuries ended his career out of town.)

When Bridich told the Denver Post early last week that nothing came of the Rockies “listening” to other teams about Arenado, the third baseman slapped back. “Jeff is very disrespectful. I never talk trash or anything,” he told a Denver television station. “I play hard, keep my mouth shut. But I can only get crossed so many times.”

Kind of reminds you about Giancarlo Stanton and the Miami Marlins two years ago. He’d signed a then record-dollar thirteen-year deal a couple of years before that only to watch the Fish swimming wild and directionless like killies scrambling to escape the incoming sharks. He spoke publicly of that, then called them a circus when they decided he could just suffer along no matter what. Then they dealt him to the Yankees.

Nobody knows whether the 2020 irregular season that ended with the Marlins in second place in the NL East was as fluky as the rest of baseball, but Stanton did get as far as back-to-back postseasons with the Yankees and missed reaching the 2019 World Series by one ALCS-winning home run courtesy of Houston’s Jose Altuve.

The Rockies weren’t half as crass as the Marlins if no less dismissive. When they signed Arenado to his extension, they promised that wouldn’t stop them from tooling up all around. By the end of a losing 2019, following back-to-back seasons good for nothing more than wild cards and too-early postseason exits, though, Arenado smelled a coming rebuild, if not a coming tank.

Bridich awoke Saturday morning to a roasting by Denver Post baseball writer Mark Kiszla. “[S]o insecure he tries to bully every conversation with Ivy League arrogance as thin as his college baseball resume,” Kiszla wrote, “[Bridich] got ripped off by the Cardinals in a trade that appears so lopsided that Commissioner Rob Manfred should consider voiding the deal before it becomes official.”

Once upon a time, Arenado wanted nothing more than to stay a Rockie for life, the way should-be Hall of Fame first baseman Todd Helton was. “I want to win,” he has told Sports Illustrated. “If we win here, that’s why I signed, right? To win here. But if we’re not gonna win, I’d rather play for a winner. I don’t care where it is. I’d rather win a World Series than have my number retired.”

More than a few eyes are now cast upon Rockies shortstop Trevor Story, who may also have noticed too much of the treachery around Arenado and begun to wonder whether that mile-high baseball air has vaporised common baseball sense even further.

If he’s not careful, Kiszla warned, Story “could be the next knucklehead to be fooled by this team’s hollow promise to build a champion around him. My advice? Story demand a trade ASAP to a major-league city where winning matters.”

A city like St. Louis, perhaps. It wouldn’t be past the Cardinals to ponder a shortstop upgrade, take note of the Rockies leaving Story to waste, and deal a couple of sacks of mulch for him while deciding Kolten Wong is more than worth keeping at second base and moving Paul DeJong to the bench or onward.

You don’t want to relieve your sick-and-tired, your not-so-poor, your huddling Hall of Fame supermen to be (assume he keeps his health following that shoulder injury last year and Arenado’s on the Hall track), allowing them to breathe free and win with you? The Cardinals are only too happy to take them off your hands, relieve your headaches, and cause you a few when you meet them in mortal combat.

They might not even be adverse to keeping their eyes upon the West Coast. That’s where  baseball’s still-best all-around player, loyal as he is to the franchise that raised him, may start thinking in a couple of years while he’s still young enough that knocking Hall of Famers out of the record books or off the WAR charts isn’t enough. He may ask at last what can compensate for being a Trout out of water with no winning to show for his extraterrestrial efforts.

Nobody with a brain would put it past the Cardinals to think about reeling that Trout in. Just don’t expect them to include painkillers in the deal.