A poor record has kept the Arizona Diamondbacks out of national headlines for much of the season. But the team’s controversy-rich retaliation tactics have flung them into the limelight on a pair of occasions.
Last week, D-backs All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt had his left hand broken by an errant 93 mph pitch from Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Ernesto Frieri.
A night later, in the ninth inning, D-backs pitcher Randall Delgado appeared to target Pirates star Andrew McCutchen, hitting him in the middle of the back with a 95 mph fastball.
McCutchen, who is now dealing with a rib injury which many are blaming Delgado and the D-backs for, criticized his opponents after the game, not because they hit him, but because of the way they went about it.
“They had all game to retaliate,” he told reporters after the game. “They had the first inning to retaliate. They had the first pitch (of the ninth inning at-bat) to retaliate. They missed.
“You throw a slider on the second pitch and then you throw up and in on the next pitch. Are you trying to hurt me too? That’s the question. . . We understand that retaliation is going to happen in this game. But you know, there’s a right way to do it. If you’re going to hit me, hit me.”
Much of the consequential criticism being hurled at Delgado and the D-backs has carried a different tone, however. Many question why the D-backs saw it fit to retaliate from what seemed like an accident by Frieri.
A guest on the Burns and Gambo show on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Wednesday, D-backs Chief Baseball Officer Tony La Russa sought to answer those questions, and more, in a lengthy interview.
The Hall of Fame manager, who has been outspoken in his support for retaliation tactics in the past, began by pointing out the importance of context when analyzing last week’s events.
“I think one of the problems nowadays is everyone looks for the quick answer and once they get a quick one that’s really controversial, they go with it, but they really don’t stop and analyze,” he explained, jabbing at members of the media.
That quick answer, La Russa seemed to opine, was that the Pirates hit Goldschmidt on accident and the D-backs overreacted by hitting McCutchen on purpose.
“If you’ve got a storyline, then you will pick and choose examples that fit your story and ignore the ones that don’t,” he said later in the interview.
La Russa suggested there was far more complexity to the situation.
The problem, he believes, is a difference in opinion across baseball in how to pitch inside coupled with a general lack of command among young pitchers in the game today.
“You’ve got a bunch of hard-throwing kids, and mostly kids, that are out there and when they get real excited their delivery falls apart and they have no idea where the ball is going,” he said toward the end of the segment.
When it comes to pitching inside, La Russa said, his D-backs are in the majority; they do it the safe way.
“Most organizations, they pitch down — from like the mid-rib, down toward your feet — because you don’t have enough command, and if the ball gets away you nick someone in the head, instead of the leg or something,” he said.
The D-backs’ opponents last week shared no such philosophy, according to La Russa.
“Pittsburgh has been one of those organizations that has taught this up-and-in pitch,” he said.
Goldschmidt’s injury was owed to these factors, the D-backs CBO claimed. Frieri’s pitch sailed upward, near Goldschmidt’s head and, while he didn’t appear to be targeting the first baseman, his offering was problematic, as he was aiming up and in while lacking for command.
“(The situation) was preventable if you just aim the damn thing down,” La Russa said.
McCutchen and the Pirates hitters, in turn, are likely to get an up-dosed serving of inside pitches because of their organization’s advocacy for up-and-in, dangerous pitching, La Russa said.
“I really don’t know if Delgado hit him on purpose or not, but I know you pitch the Pittsburgh guys inside more often to make the same point, except that you pitch down,” he told the show.
“The Pirates have hit 61 hitters; the Diamondbacks have hit 32,” La Russa said, noting the amount of hit-by-pitches each team’s pitchers had dished out prior to Wednesday’s respective contests.
“That’s why, by the way, they’ve been hit 60 times this year,” he said at another part of the interview. “Because they get that stuff flowing and the other team doesn’t just sit back and say, ‘Okay, you have all the fun and we’re going to take all the hits.'”
La Russa later called for critics to look at the big picture — reciting how the D-backs go about pitching inside and how the Pirates do so. That, he said, is the context for Friday and Saturday’s incidents.
“The biggest problem with what happened in our situation — it was just unfair,” he said.
“We were totally innocent. I mean, you look at the whole history of the season and there’s no way you can accuse us of being head hunters and (pot)-stirrers. The Pirates, for one, have been more active (on that front).”
But a lot of the heat aimed at the D-backs over the last several days stems from a history of retaliatory tactics and endorsement of as much.
In June, D-backs reliever Evan Marshall was tossed from a game against the Milwaukee Brewers when he hit maligned outfielder Ryan Braun with a purpose pitch. The organization caught flak for the incident, as manager Kirk Gibson — a known critic of Braun’s — congratulated Marshall with a fist bump following the pitcher’s ejection.
Several months earlier, following the 2013 season, general manager Kevin Towers told Burns and Gambo that his team would be more aggressive this season, saying it would be “an eye for an eye” if a D-backs batter was hit by a pitch in 2014. He went on to say “somebody’s going to get jackknifed” if Goldschmidt was hit and that he would trade pitchers who didn’t buy in to the retaliatory philosophy. In the same interview, Towers referenced the rollicking celebrations of the Los Angeles Dodgers in a game late last season and said, “Literally, if I would have had a carton of baseballs I would have fired them into the (Dodgers) dugout from where I was sitting behind home plate.”
Both the targeting of Braun and the remarks made by Towers have set the stage for the brickbats the D-backs sustained in the wake of hitting the 2013 National League MVP in the back last week.
“(Towers’) comments have come back to haunt, but I don’t think they should have,” La Russa said Wednesday. “I think (the media) are looking at bits and pieces that support the story.”
Ultimately, La Russa fears that the sequence of events is going to cause irrevocable damage to the image of the D-backs organization — a notion he hates.
“Number one, what bothers a lot of us, is for our fans to think that we are some kind of hoodlums and that our organization is up there doing things in a nasty way — nastier than anybody — and that is absolutely 180-degrees wrong,” he said. “That bothers me a lot.”
Seemingly in defense of hitting McCutchen — intent of which he never fully owned — La Russa went on to analogize a baseball team to that of a family.
“You can’t just sit there and say ‘ho-hum’,” he said. “It’s your family, so you will throw more pitches inside.”
Again, at the conclusion of the interview, La Russa retreated to such reasoning.
“This team is our family,” he continued. “And you protect your family. You don’t mess with the upstairs area; that’s wrong. You have to pitch back inside so you can earn that respect.
“In baseball, the other teams know the Diamondbacks are going to take care of their family, but they’re going to take care of them in a non-dangerous and professional way.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.