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Respect the Game, and Play to Win
IT DIDN'T TAKE LONG FOR JUSTIN VERLANDER to realize how fortunate he was.
Fortunate that the fading Detroit Tigers decided to trade him in August of 2017. Fortunate that the Houston Astros, after not showing much interest either at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline or through almost all of August, decided on the final day of the month that Verlander was the missing piece in their carefully built puzzle.
Verlander was fortunate no team had put in a waiver claim, which would, in effect, have kept the Tigers from trading him that month. And also that when the Tigers came to him to seek his approval — he had full no-trade protection — he agreed to the deal. It went right down to the last minute — even the last seconds, Verlander would say later — but he said yes.
It was a fortunate decision, and not just because two months later Verlander would be celebrating the first World Series championship of his 13-year major-league career.
It was more than that. It was that Verlander had stumbled onto a team that played the game of baseball the way he played it, that followed the game's unwritten rules as he had learned them.
"This team does," Verlander said, after he had been with the Astros for nearly a full year. "Everybody [with the Astros] does."
The Astros, for all their young talent and new-school embrace of analytics, were still old school when it came to the things that mattered most. They still believed in playing the game hard and playing it right, in respecting the game and respecting their opponents.
And most of all, they believed in playing to win.
The best teams still do, even if many of the details of how they do it have changed. Baseball has legislated against hard takeouts at second base and bowling over the catcher to try to score a run. The high-and-tight fastball as an attempt to intimidate has more or less left the game. Beanball wars are much less common, with at least one major-league manager telling his pitchers he doesn't believe in intentionally throwing at batters. What once would have been seen as over-the-top celebrations are accepted without a second thought, and rookies come to the big leagues without even once being told to sit down, shut up, and know your place.
The details have changed. The bigger picture hasn't.
Talk to prominent major leaguers, from veterans like Verlander to kids like Aaron Judge and Juan Soto, and one of the words you hear most often is "respect."
"You always ask yourself, 'Is it disrespectful to my teammates? Is it disrespectful to the game?'" said Walt Weiss, who played 14 seasons in the major leagues and later coached and managed.
Respect the game. Respect the uniform and the organization it represents. Respect your teammates, but also your opponents.
"I respect people who respect me," said Javier Baez, an emerging star with the Chicago Cubs.
Winning teams and winning players do all of that. Verlander found all of that when he came to the Astros, who were 80–53 the day he arrived.
And rather than the culture being the result of the winning, Verlander came to believe it was the other way around.
"I think it's the cause of winning," he said. "When everybody comes in, no matter whether you've got one day [of service time in the big leagues] or 15 years, you know everybody is there to kick the other team's ass every day. That's the only reason you're here. It's a different feeling. The best teams do [have that]."
The team Verlander left in Detroit was no longer one of the best. The Tigers had gone to the World Series twice and the postseason two other times in Verlander's first nine seasons. but the team he left had a 58–74 record, on the way to 98 losses.
The Tigers under Jim Leyland had been one of the teams that did things the right way. Leyland demanded it, and he was able to get his players to buy into it.
Verlander found that the Astros under A.J. Hinch were the same way. So did Gerrit Cole, when he arrived from the Pittsburgh Pirates after a January 2018 trade.
"It's 25 guys playing extremely hard every day," Cole said. "That's kind of an understatement. It boils down to having players with talent, but there's a focus, a preparation that goes into the mindset to be able to go all out."
Cole pointed to Astros right fielder Josh Reddick.
"That guy drills the cutoff man right in the chest, even if it's the third double in a row you've given up down the line," he said. "He gives that same effort as he gave the first one. You throw someone out, or you hold them from taking the extra 90 feet, and it can change the whole course of a game."
The team Verlander and Cole described was the one that won the 2017 World Series, but they just as easily could have been describing a championship team from the 1950s, '80s, or early 2000s. The game has changed, in many ways, but just because the Astros shift a lot on defense and rarely use the bunt doesn't mean they reinvented the most important things about how the game is played.
Neither did the Cubs, the team that won its first World Series in 108 years in 2016.
"I feel like you have 25 guys just going in the same direction," said Jason Heyward, who signed with the Cubs as a free agent in December 2015. "Regardless of why they want to win, they're just trying to win. This team, right away it was easy to see that guys just wanted to be a part of helping, do whatever they can on a given night to help. Whatever it was, they were just trying to find a way to help. If you didn't get your chance, you were itching for the next chance.
"At the end of the day, once you become a winning team and are expected to win, guys are going to bring it even more."
Heyward learned early what it meant to play the right way. He grew up in Georgia in the middle of the Braves' 14-year run as division champions. His mother is from New York, and Heyward came of age during the Yankees' championship run of the late 1990s.
Derek Jeter was his favorite player. He watched Chipper Jones all the time and eventually shared a clubhouse with him after being drafted and signed by the Braves.
"When you have Chipper Jones take you off to the side and tell you, 'We go about things this way or that way,' you learn," Heyward said. "I always try to hustle. I don't show people up. That's just me. That's how I am."
Heyward worries that etiquette isn't as common in baseball as it was when he watched as a kid or when he debuted in 2010.
"But I think people in the game still do appreciate the old-school way or the old-fashioned way," he said.
It's not just old managers and older fans, either. It's not just former players sitting in the broadcast booth and celebrating when they see a pitcher work inside or a batter calmly put his bat down and run the bases after hitting a home run.
It's guys like Heyward, and also his Cubs teammate Kris Bryant, who makes a point of never flipping his bat.
"That dude's an MVP all the way around," Heyward said. "The way he does it. Hustles, everything."
The best players and the best teams still do.CHAPTER 2
When Numbers Change the Game
I DIDN'T WANT THIS BOOK TO BE ENTIRELY about numbers, but it's impossible to write about the way baseball has changed without acknowledging the effect of analytics. More numbers than ever are available, and more smart people than ever are joining baseball front offices and figuring out ways to turn those numbers into wins.
There's more willingness than ever to challenge traditional norms, to avoid doing something simply because it's the way we've always done it.
"We should always be open to changing our minds," said Philadelphia Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, who is as new school as they come but is perfectly willing to listen if you want to make the argument his methods won't work.
Baseball has always been something of copycat game, and anytime one team succeeds doing something different, there's a rush of other teams trying to do the same thing. But there's also room for a smart guy trying to buck the trend, whether it's Earl Weaver preferring three-run home runs to playing for one run in the 1970s or Billy Beane seeking out players with high on-base percentages in the early 2000s.
The copycat crowd now is all-in with analytics, preferably with an Ivy League general manager in place, a heavy reliance on defensive shifts, and a roster chosen based more on what the numbers and algorithms say than on what the general manager hears from scouts in the field. The numbers dictate matchups and often the daily lineups, and the numbers influence pitch selection.
The Moneyball trends that began with Beane and the Oakland A's aren't outliers, but Beane found other ways to go against the norm and get his low-budget team to the 2018 playoffs. The defensive trends that began with Joe Maddon, when his 2010 Tampa Bay Rays used defensive shifts 221 times — 88 more than anyone else in the majors that season — have now gone far beyond anything Maddon imagined. Maddon's Chicago Cubs shifted about 40 percent more times than his 2010 Rays (315 times, according to Statcast), but instead of ranking a distant first, they ranked 28th among the 30 teams. The Houston Astros had shifted 2,196 times, seven times as often as the Cubs.
The increased use of shifts and overall better defensive positioning has made it harder for hitters to get ground balls through the infield, helping to convince more and more hitters that their best route to success is to increase their launch angle and hit more balls in the air. Perhaps someday it will lead to more emphasis on hitters using all fields, making them harder to shift against, but so far more seem intent on hitting the ball over the fence, figuring no shift can stop a home run.
Analytics aren't going away, nor should they. Any team should want to make use of as much information as is available, and modern teams have access to far more than their predecessors did. Shifts are far easier to design, for example, because instead of relying on spray charts compiled by hand, teams can now look at every ball a player has ever hit and where it went, and break it down by the count and type of pitch.
Statcast, which uses high-resolution optical cameras and radar equipment, tracks the location of the ball and of every player through each and every major-league game. Teams (and fans) have more accurate measures of a player's speed than was ever available before, along with spin rates for every pitch, how direct a route an outfielder takes to a fly ball, and tons of other data.
Teams develop proprietary software that attempts to project how players will perform. Some teams have become so dependent on those projections that they have few if any scouts watching professional games in person to evaluate players for free agency or trades.
Even some of the scouts who still have jobs complain that their opinions aren't valued as they once were, that bosses trust what their computers say over what the scouts tell them about a player.
The move to a reliance on big data has without doubt changed the game and led to changes in many of the unwritten rules. There will be more changes to come, because the available data keeps getting better and the analysis of it does, too.
But there's still plenty that the data doesn't show, and there are still things that are more evident when you watch a game in person than when you look at video. There are things you learn by talking to a player's teammates or to those who have coached or managed him.
Teams that come up with better information and better ways to use it will always have an edge.
The game changes. As Kapler said, we all need to be open to changing our minds.CHAPTER 3
Some Teams Get It
WHEN YOU ASK VETERAN MAJOR-LEAGUE players where they learned to play the game the right way, some mention a family member or a high school or college coach. Some mention a player they watched and respected as a kid, or a teammate that took time with them when they were young.
But quite a few of them will credit the organization that brought them to the big leagues. You hear it from players raised by the Yankees, by players raised by the Red Sox and the Twins, and just as often from players who came up with the Atlanta Braves over the last 30 years.
There was always a "Dodger way to play baseball," to quote the title of the 1954 book Al Campanis wrote when he was the team's scouting director, on the way to becoming general manager.
As Ross Newhan wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2008, "the 'Dodger way' formed a significant part of the club's aura and attraction for decades, tutored to rookies in night classes at Dodgertown, envied and emulated by other organizations."
Newhan also asked whether the Dodgers under the Frank McCourt ownership of the early 2000s had lost their way.
"Was the book eventually misplaced?" he wrote. "Has it now been permanently lost?"
Organizations change over time, but many executives since Campanis have vowed to create an atmosphere that will also be envied and emulated. Some have even succeeded.
"There's a ton of accountability in that [Boston Red Sox] organization," said Travis Shaw, who was drafted by the Red Sox in 2011 and went through every level of the minor leagues with the Sox before coming to the big leagues in 2015. Shaw was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers after the 2016 season, but the lessons learned in the Red Sox organization stuck with him.
"It was play hard and don't take the name on the front of the uniform for granted," he said. "They always reminded you of the tradition, and that it was a privilege to put on that uniform."
When Shaw got to the major leagues, he found that Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz policed the clubhouse the same way it was done in the minor leagues with the Red Sox. It was the same way for years with the Yankees, where Derek Jeter led the way, and also with the Braves with players like Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, and now Freddie Freeman.
It starts well before a player gets to the big leagues. Brian Butterfield played five years in the Yankees system and later returned to the organization as a coach and minor-league manager. Butterfield has gone on to work as a major-league coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Chicago Cubs, but he never forgot how things were with the Yankees.
"It all started back in the day with the short haircuts, and wearing your uniform a certain way," said Butterfield. "There were just certain things. It was cool because it made them different from just about every organization in baseball."
The Yankees still require players to cut their hair short, even in the major leagues. Other teams have had similar rules, at least in the minors.
When reliever Jason Motte signed with the Atlanta Braves in April 2017, he had to shave the beard he had worn for years, because he was going to pitch first in Triple-A and the Braves don't allow facial hair for their minor-league players.
Does any of that matter for winning? Butterfield thinks it does.
"No doubt," he said. "And I think it's been reflected through the years in the way the organization has approached things, the way they play the game. You'd always think the Yankees would come and play, kick your ass, and go home and go to bed. That's the way. It's a proud franchise. They've had a lot of good people leading the way, starting with George Steinbrenner."
It's not all about facial hair. The 2004 Red Sox famously called themselves "the Idiots." Johnny Damon had the beard and the long hair. As Kevin Millar said years later, "We were just the opposite of the Yankees."
The Yankees aren't alone, but they've been among the most successful in recent years at establishing a tradition of respect and watching their players carry it through. You never hear opposing players complain about the way Aaron Judge carries himself on the field or off it, just as you never heard anyone complain about Jeter.
Other organizations have been reminded how difficult it can be to maintain the tradition.
For years, the St. Louis Cardinals had a similar reputation. It went all the way back to Branch Rickey, the same man who once tutored Campanis in the "Dodger way." Rickey signed an infielder named George Kissell in 1940, and Kissell stayed with the Cardinals for almost 70 years and was responsible for what became known as the "Cardinal way."
"It's a cultural issue, I believe, and it's something we talk very much about," said Mike Matheny, who played five years in the major leagues with the Cardinals and later worked in the farm system before taking over as manager in 2012. "It's understanding not just respect for the game but respect for the organization and what the product should look like. That's been our aim, not necessarily to [win games] but to get to what looks like Cardinal baseball."
Matheny did speak often about the "Cardinal way" and "what looks like Cardinal baseball." In the end, though, he wasn't able to get his teams to follow through often enough, and just before the 2018 All-Star break the Cardinals fired him as manager.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Unwritten"
Copyright © 2019 Danny Knobler.
Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: What Are the Unwritten Rules… and What Happened to Them? vii
1 Respect the Game, and Play to Win 1
2 When Numbers Change the Game 7
3 Some Teams Get It 11
4 Leave Your Ego at the Door 17
5 As Adrian Beltre Proves, You Can Still Have Fun 23
6 When a Bat Flip Can Lead to a Bloody Lip 29
7 Here's Some Flipping History 35
8 If Baseball Is "Tired," Shouldn't It Be Okay to Show Some Emotion? 39
9 You Can Earn the Right to Celebrate 43
10 The Puig Way to Play Baseball 49
11 Loving the Game the Latin Way 55
12 There Will Always Be Some Culture Clashes 61
13 "You Should Hear the Screams" for Javier Baez 67
14 Jose Ureno, Keith Hernandez, and an Old-School View Fading Away 73
15 Is There Still Room for a Purpose Pitch? 79
16 Kenley Jansen's Blacklist 85
17 Torey (Just Like Earl) Takes a Stand 91
18 When It's Still an Eye for an Eye 97
19 Is There a Statute of Limitations on Revenge? 107
20 When Even Teammates Don't Like It 111
21 Don't Call Me Coach (But You Can Come Talk to Me) 115
22 The Kids Are Alright (and It's Okay to Hear from Them) 121
23 Watch What You Say (or Tweet) 131
24 Why Can't We Be Friends? 137
25 When There's a Fight, You'd Better Be There 141
26 If You Show Someone Up, There's Going to Be Trouble 145
27 The A-Rod Rules (or Stay off My Mound) 149
28 The Jeter Rules (or Acting Can Win You More than an Oscar) 153
29 Every Player Can Be "Johnny Hustle" 159
30 Deception Is (Sometimes) Part of the Game 163
31 Is It Okay to Steal (and We're Not Talking Bases)? 169
32 It's Only Cheating If You Get Caught 175
33 Can We Say "No-Hitter?" 181
34 Can You Bunt for the First Hit? 187
35 You Don't Pull a Pitcher Before He Allows a Hit (Unless You Do) 195
36 Starting Off with an Opener 201
37 The Wade Miley Game (or When a Probable Starter Only Faces One Batter) 209
38 You Can Start, But You Can't Finish 213
39 Bullpen by Gabe 225
40 Bullpen by Gabe, Part II (or Position Players Can Pitch, Too) 233
41 If a Big Game Is Tied, Shouldn't Your Best Pitcher Pitch? 239
42 When You Play for One Run (or Is the Bunt Dead?) 245
43 Thou Shall Not Sacrifice an Out 251
44 Welcome to Japan, Where the Bunt Still Lives 255
45 You Don't Have to Concede a Run (Even in the First Inning) 261
46 You Can Make the First Out at Third Base (If You Play for Joe Maddon) 265
47 You Can Pick Your Poison 271
48 You Can Break Up a Double Play 279
49 You Can Argue a Call (but Many Don't) 285
50 You Can Run (but You'd Better Know the Score) 289
51 When You Sit to Wear a Crown 297
52 There's No Need to Say You're Sorry 305
53 It's the Players Who Police the Game 311
54 Baseball Is Still a Game of Numbers 315
55 When It Comes Down to It, It's Still about Playing the Game Right 321