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.”