Saturday, April 26, 2014

On Bo and Beanings.

I was going to write only about Bo today.  Not about actually what he is doing at the moment, but how he seems to have changed compared to last year.  I always thought that Bo was the perfect manager for a rebuilding ball-club.  He seemed supportive, firm and fair, but was careful to ensure that whatever happened (hypothetically like, say, 110+ losses) there were lessons to be learnt.  Not only learnt, but internalised.  Lessons to be understood, but with the aim of improvement and upskilling.

This year, it has been a little different.  The 18 second pause (or 17 seconds, depending on whose articles you read) attracted a lot of press.  Then, in quick succession, #Buntgate (enough already!), a frustrating blown save (Qualls), a brief reprieve because the stories were positive about the Astros for two days, then another horrible blown save.  And now, #Beangate (actually, #Buttgate may be a better descriptor).  And the press is again overwhelmingly negative.

The first two games of the series have been brutal.  Brutal in the kind of eviscerating, frustrating and confidence-shattering way.  Losses that would be best described as a beat-down by someone much faster, stronger and more skilled then you.  But then, you claw your way back, and... it happens all over again.  Back to the pit of despair for you!

If this was 2013's version of Bo, I imagine that the lessons to be understood would be along the lines of the idea that baseball is nothing but a series of events, and a reminder to be in the best, most positive and relaxed frame-of-mind for each and every play.  Doesn't matter if you are down by 5.  Doesn't matter if you are winning by 1.  Treat it all as a bunch of individual plays all rolled together, do your best at each one, and remember that failure most of the time is often part of the game.  Zen-master Bo.

2014 Bo seems different.  He has an edge this year.  In 2013, Bo was thrown out of his first game on August 8.  In a brutal season - with offensive ineptitude, blown saves, entire series' where the team was not even close to winning, and culminating in a 111-loss season.  2013 was as bad as it is going to get, and Bo seemingly maintained a positive, upbeat and supportive stance.

This year, Bo has shown a lot more emotion.  He was thrown out tonight, most likely asking very reasonable questions of the home plate ump, the impressively tall Jordan Baker.  I think Ghandi would have been thrown out after Fernando Abad was not tossed for his contribution to #Buttgate.  It was an odd and un-understandable umpiring call, especially given the quick hook that Paul Clemens had been given the day prior.  Perhaps the umpires had dinner reservations, and didn't want another pitcher having to warm up.

Briefly, back to Bo before we head to the analysis of #Buttgate.  I don't know what is going on with Bo.  The only time I get to see Bo is on the rare occasions that I get to watch entire games on TV.  Most of my watching is highlight packages, and they (rightly) don't tend to concentrate on the managers.  I listen to him during interviews on the radio broadcasts, and he strikes me as focussed, supportive and articulate - articulate in a way that many baseball guys simply aren't.  Bo seems more than capable of making a subtle point through verbal communication, rather than 18 second press-conference pauses.

So, I don't know what is going on with Bo.  I think it is kind of like spotting an iceberg on a satellite image (like, for example the crowdsourcing attempts at finding MH370) and guessing the shape and weight of the whole iceberg.  You see a one dimensional image of the iceberg, only the tip is visible, and the conclusions that you draw must therefore be limited.  I see very little of Bo.  Goodness knows what is going on behind the scenes.  But I will say this: if he is under-pressure with his job, and gets fired, given this talent to work with, it would be an incredible shame.

In many ways, the 2014 Astros are worse than the 2013 Astros - at least the 2013 edition had some Veteran Goodness like Rick Ankiel and Carlos Pena to add some maturity and experience.  These guys have Dexter Fowler, Chad Qualls, Matt Albers, Jose Altuve, Scott Feldman and Jason Castro, and the latter two been injured most the the time.  Only the pitchers have even reached free-agency.  Most of the rest of the team are either practically or actually rookies.  This remains a seriously offensively-challenged unit, and given how fluctuant bullpens are, this years' more expensive and more experienced bullpen may be just as bad.  But that is a topic for another day.

Bo, hang in there.

These two games between the Astros and the A's have been significant for butt-beanings.  Nothing up around the head, thankfully.  The highest threatening pitch was the first HBP of Brandon Moss, which caught him on the jersey around his bicep.  Thank goodness no head-shots  - that would be really losing perspective.

The series started with George Springer being hit in the first inning by Scott Kazmir.  In isolation, this is the worst - the most obvious beaning of the lot.  Except, a beaning would have made no sense.  Runners on first and third, one out, first inning, up 2 runs, 0-2 count.  Kazmir had been having control problems... but goodness me.  Catcher set up low and outside, and Kazmir must have missed his spot by three feet.  Right in the knee.  If you were going to send a message by moving the feet or hitting the hotshot rookie, that pitch would have been perfect execution.  At least, on an 0-0 count, no runners on, up by 5, bottom of the 8th or something.  Who knows, I am not inside Kazmir's head, but I can't see a scenario where that is a deliberate beaning.  But if it was, it was brilliant.

The next inning, Brandon Moss was hit by an overthrown curveball on the upper arm from Brett Oberholtzer.  Again, Obie had some trouble with control early, and this wasn't deliberate.  Plus, the whole off-speed thing was a serious giveaway.

You would have seen or heard about Clemens' beaning of Lowrie if you are reading this article.  This was the next incident.  Many factors of this butt-bean would encourage one to think that it was likely to have been deliberate - the past animosity between the two, the count, the stage of the game, etc, etc.  But I imagine that Porter would have been pissed that the beaning occurred, unless he suggested it.  He would have been upset because: 6th inning, taxed bullpen, 5th starter (for all intents and purposes) going the next day, no Matt Albers for the last 2 days, Josh Fields also unlikely to throw because he has gone three days in a row.... plus the beaning pretty much ensures one, if not two, extra pitchers are needed.  That puts the Astros in a worse position, and possibly forces Albers on to the DL to get a fresh arm for the rest of the series.

Today's beanings started with Brandon Moss in the 9th.  Hit twice in one inning - I believe that this has only happened once before in the AL - Brady Anderson hit by Mike Morgan in May 1999.  But goodness me... have a look where Moss sets up his back foot.  If he ever led off a game, and the batters box was not a scuffed up mess, I swear that his back foot would be over the line by inches.  He is clearly trying to pull the ball, and pretty much daring the pitcher to throw inside.  This may be some karma from the Craig Biggio Era coming back to bite the Astros.  But both times the catcher set up inside, and both times the pitcher missed in and a little up.  Even the A's commentary team made a point of saying neither was intentional.

But then it got silly.  Abad clearly butt-beaned Castro second hitter of the next inning.  Look, for the sake of comparison, where Castro's back foot is set up.  No one on.  0-0 count.  Castro jawed to the bench afterward.  And somehow, Abad was not thrown out.  Wow.

The A's also managed to cede any moral high ground that they had before.  Prior to this beaning, this was clearly an Astros-Lawrie thing, as evidenced by the apparent lack of support shown to Lowrie by the A's broadcast team and teammates.  Now, by butt-beaning Castro, you are picking out the best player and throwing at him clearly and deliberately.  Now it becomes an Astros-A's thing.  If this goes on, that is the reason.

Obviously, there has been a lot written on this situation, in both the media and the blogosphere.  Many of these centre around "the Unwritten Rules of Baseball", and how stupid they are.  Many cite such bulletproof arguments as "isn't it a crime for grown men to try and injure each other by throwing things??" and so on and so forth.  My take on it is this:  The Unwritten Rules of Baseball are there for the players to manage their own behaviour.  They aren't for the fans, for the TV audience or anyone else.  It is a way that the players can stop douch-ery amongst their own kind.

That, to me, is the beauty of baseball.  It is, essentially, a series of confrontations with a limited number of outcomes inside a zero-sum environment.  Luck plays a big part.  Tiny, tiny things can make the biggest difference - a matter of millimetres when the ball contacts the bat, the kick off an uneven bit of turf on the infield, the effect that a breeze has on a fly ball.  So baseball isn't always fair.  And these confrontations are repeated over and over again inside a game.  And the games are repeated over and over again.  And sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose.  But you won't win them all, and you won't lose them all, and when someone wins, someone else loses.  There is no game without an opponent, and therefore opponents are worthy of respect.  And just because you win today, doesn't mean you win tomorrow.  So you manage each victory and loss with dignity and sportsmanship.  And respect the opposition, at all times, because everyone is only a freak injury or accident off never playing again, or never playing to the same level again.  (I loved Carlos Hernandez).

And when someone steps outside that, the baseball fraternity frowns.

And when non-players, and poorly informed people comment on the Unwritten Rules, that annoys me.  The rules may be stupid and illogical, but they are there.  And they are there for a reason, have developed for a reason, and are maintained for a reason.  You see, commentators are all pretty much outside the game (with very few exceptions).  We are satellites over the game, seeing the tips of icebergs.  We see very little of what is actually going on.  We know nothing about how far below the surface the iceberg extends.  Only those in the game really know the full context.

I am a doctor, working in a small area of medicine.  I know most people who work near me - very well.  I know who is good, and who is less good.  I know who is frikking dangerous.  I have a mental list of doctors that I would allow family members to go to.  And it isn't a long list.  I know my profession.

The players know their profession.  They know who the guys are the play hard and fair, and who oversteps the mark.  They know the classy players, and they know the self-obsessed players.  They know who rubs the opposition's nose in it, and who doesn't.  Who knows what is going on behind the scenes, or what other events may lie behind this incident.

So when Bo said "I think the game of baseball takes care of itself", then pointed out that George Springer's HBP preceded Lowrie's, this is what I think he was meaning.  He wasn't, as some have suggested, going crazy, or blowing a fuse.  At least I hope not, because that would be a tragedy.  There isn't an easily painted hero and villain here and suggesting otherwise is lazy.  This is a complex and fluid situation between two teams that play each other another 14 times.

And baseball will take care of itself.  As it has always done.