In Violating Health and Safety Protocols, Plesac, Clevinger, Laureano Become Cautionary Taleson August 12, 2020 at 5:00 pm

In Violating Health and Safety Protocols, Plesac, Clevinger, Laureano Become Cautionary Tales

This week, key players on two American League playoff contenders made mistakes pertaining to COVID-19 protocols that will cost them significant chunks of the shortened 2020 season. Cleveland starting pitchers Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac — two key members of what has been the majors’ most effective rotation thus far — were both placed on the restricted list by the team and ordered to self-quarantine for three days after sneaking out of the team hotel in Chicago. Meanwhile, Oakland center fielder Ramon Laureano was suspended for six games by Major League Baseball for his part in a bench-clearing incident that occurred in Sunday’s game against Houston.

The two situations are different in their particulars, but they share some commonalities. In a normal season, the actions of these players might not have generated more than a series of stern lectures behind closed doors, and whatever suspensions they led to would have been blips on the radar amid a 162-game schedule. However, the pandemic has necessitated new rules and regulations — over 100 pages of them in MLB’s 2020 Operations Manual — and all three players crossed lines that not only violated those rules but increased the risk of infection for themselves and their teammates. Their punishments have been amplified, perhaps disproportionally, albeit as a warning to other players.

The saga of the Indians’ starters unfolded in stages. On Sunday, the team sent Plesac, a 25-year-old righty with 24 major league starts under his belt, back to Cleveland after he left the hotel without permission and went out with friends on Saturday evening. As innocuous as it sounds, that’s now prohibited under the revised protocols MLB issued last week in the wake of outbreaks on the Marlins and Cardinals; any player wishing to leave the hotel on a road trip is required to obtain permission from the team’s compliance officer.

Plesac’s actions greatly upset both the Cleveland brass and his teammates. Mindful of the possibility that he had been exposed to someone with an infection and could trigger an outbreak, the team quickly moved to isolate him from the rest of the traveling party, arranging a car service to send him back to Cleveland. According to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Zack Meisel, both Plesac and the driver were given instant tests to ensure they were not already infected.

For as well as Plesac has pitched — he’s the latest of Cleveland’s homegrown success stories, posting a 1.29 ERA and 2.27 FIP in 21 innings, including six shutout frames against the White Sox on Saturday — he was already in jeopardy either of being optioned to the club’s alternate site in Lake County, Ohio, or moved to the bullpen, as the Indians won’t need a fifth starter again until August 22. Instead, he was sent to quarantine for at least three days, during which time he’ll be tested daily.

Plesac’s teammates met on Sunday morning to discuss the violation and its ramifications, and Clevinger, a 29-year-old righty who has emerged as one of the AL’s top pitchers over the past three seasons, sat through that meeting. Only on Monday night, after he had flown home with the team, was it revealed to the public that he, too, had gone out with Plesac; team president Chris Antonetti declined to explain the specifics of how he learned about each pitcher’s infraction. Clevinger was scratched from Tuesday’s start against the Cubs and, like Plesac, placed in quarantine, with a daily testing regimen as well.

Adam Plutko, who replaced Clevinger and threw four innings of one-run ball in a loss, sounded infuriated with his teammates:

Plutko was referring to earlier statements by both players, who last month were vocal about following the protocols. Via The Athletic‘s Meisel:

“There are common-sense situations, where you see things are packed, or going out to the bars and drinking. Doing stuff like that isn’t stuff that’s really important to us right now and shouldn’t be important to us right now. We’re given this privilege to be able to come back and play and given this short window to even play. It’s a good time now just to really buckle down and focus on what’s important and work toward something greater at the end of the season, and for these couple months, lock in and focus on what we have set for us at the end of the year.” — Zach Plesac, July 3

“Having that trust in your teammates is a big thing. It’s a big thing on the field. If you feel your teammate doesn’t trust you off the field, how are you going to feel like he trusts you when you get between the lines?” — Mike Clevinger, July 30

Particularly given that rotation-mate Carlos Carrasco missed significant time last year with chronic myeloid leukemia, and that manager Terry Francona has dealt with multiple health issues in recent years (including a just-concluded nine-day absence due to a gastrointestinal problem), neither player was assumed to be paying mere lip service to the rules. They both failed to live up to their statements, and Clevinger did even worse, initially lying about his participation and then exposing others until the lie was discovered.

Both pitchers have since apologized to teammates and the public, with Clevinger admitting the extent to which he jeopardized those around him:

Additionally, both have been placed on the restricted list by the team. They’re still being paid and receiving service time, can be activated at the team’s discretion, and don’t count against 28-and 40-man roster limits. They might remained quarantined for as long as 14 days in accordance with CDC guidelines (of course, if either gets sick, they could be out longer). Accordingly, our Depth Charts and Playoff Odds have been adjusted to reflect their absences, with each pitcher losing about 10-12 innings; Clevinger, who was projected for 68 innings at the outset of the season and who has thrown 16.2 (with a 3.24 ERA but a gaudy 6.15 FIP), is now estimated to have another 39 innings remaining, while Plesac, initially estimated for 48 innings but on pace to exceed that thanks to his strong performances, is now projected to have 31 remaining.

Plutko, projected to provide a 5.32 ERA and 5.29 FIP, is picking up much of the slack, which is a noticeable step down given Clevinger’s talent — he pitched to a 2.71 ERA and 2.49 FIP in 126 innings last year — and it comes at a point when the AL Central is no longer the perennial two-team battle between Minnesota and Cleveland. The Twins, who have fallen to 11-7 by losing five out of their last six games, are still one game ahead of Cleveland (10-8), but the upstart Tigers (9-6) are in between the two, and the White Sox (9-9) are in fourth, one game further back. After Saturday’s win, Cleveland was estimated to have a 28.1% chance at winning the division and an 89.4% chance at the playoffs, the league’s fourth-highest mark. They’ve been bailed out to some degree by Minnesota’s slump; with the outages factored in, Cleveland’s odds of winning the division are up to 32.0%, though their overall chances are down to 88.3%.

Of course, if either pitcher gets sick and spreads it to teammates who are forced out of action, those odds will drop, but even apart from that, these were dumb, premeditated, and unforced errors by players who obviously knew better. That separates what they did from the heat-of-the-moment transgression of Laureano, who lost his cool mid-game after being hit by a pitch three times during the A’s three-game series against the Astros in Oakland, though none of them appeared intentional. Humberto Castellanos hit him on the left elbow with an 88 mph sinker in the 12th inning of Friday night’s game, then Brandon Bailey — for whom Laureano was traded on November 20, 2017 — drilled him in the left shoulder with a 91 mph fastball in the fifth inning of Sunday’s game. Finally, Castellanos plunked him again in the back with a 78 mph curveball in the seventh inning of the same game.

The understandably frustrated 26-year-old center fielder lingered in the vicinity of home plate after being hit, gesturing at Castellanos before heading towards first base, though catcher Martin Maldonado and two members of the umpiring crew made sure he didn’t charge the mound. Once he got to first base, he and Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron began shouting at one another. Cintron motioned to Laureano, as if to invite an altercation, and Laureano charged, making it almost all the way to the warning track in Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum’s large foul territory before being intercepted by a pair of Astros; catcher Dustin Garneau tackled him.

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Laureano said on Monday that Cintron made a derogatory comment about his mother, telling ESPN the hitting coach “said in Spanish something you don’t say about my mother.”

In its 2020 Operations Manual, which set out the COVID-19-specific health and safety protocols in place for this season, MLB said that it would strictly enforce prohibitions against unsportsmanlike conduct:

The prohibitions against unsportsmanlike conduct (see OBR 6.04) will be strictly enforced during Spring Training, the championship season, and postseason, to prevent unnecessary physical contact and support physical distancing between individuals on the playing field. In this respect, players and managers should maintain physical distancing from all umpires and opposing players on the playing field whenever possible. Players or managers who leave their positions to argue with umpires, come within six feet of an umpire or opposing player or manager for the purpose of argument, or engage in altercations on the field are subject to immediate ejection and discipline, including fines and suspensions.

That prohibition figured into the eight-game suspension MLB handed Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly for throwing behind the Astros’ Alex Bregman and then inciting a bench-clearing incident on July 28, though the reliever’s previous track record (he was suspended six games for intentionally hitting the YankeesTyler Austin in 2018) and commissioner Rob Manfred’s warning against retaliating against the Astros for their illegal sign-stealing efforts also weighed into MLB vice president of on-field operations Chris Young‘s ruling.

There’s nothing to suggest that Laureano’s reaction had anything to do with sign-stealing, though Cintron is alleged to have played a significant role in that (more on which momentarily), but by charging the coach, he did draw players from both sides out of the dugout. Compare his six-game suspension (10% of the season) with the ones doled out by MLB for the more severe (and let’s face it, more entertaining) July 30, 2019 brawl between the Pirates and Reds: 10 games (6.2%) for Keone Kela for intentionally headhunting, eight (5%) for Amir Garrett for charging the Pittsburgh bench and throwing a punch, five (3.7%) for Jose Osuna and three (1.9%) for Yasiel Puig and Kyle Crick for aggressive and/or inappropriate actions in the brawl, plus three for Jared Hughes for intentionally throwing at Starling Marte.

In other words, despite never throwing a punch, Laureano’s suspension is double in proportion to Garrett, who did. It’s also double in proportion to the eight-game 2013 suspension of Padres outfielder Carlos Quentin, who charged the mound and slammed into the Dodgers’ Zack Greinke, breaking his left collarbone. That seems extreme, but MLB clearly believes that the extra risk to which Laureano’s actions exposed other players counts for something in this weird year. For what it’s worth, the outfielder expressed regret for his role in the fracas (“You can’t be doing that as a coach. He was wrong for doing that. But I’m a man. I couldn’t keep my cool, and I should have. I wasted my time with that guy…”), but he thanked Garneau, his teammate last year in Oakland, for protecting him from getting injured in the pileup.

As for Cintron, he denied insulting Laureano’s mother but drew an even harsher suspension from MLB: 20 games, a record for a coach. Though he had a right to appeal his suspension — managers and coaches are eligible for membership in the Major League Baseball Players Association — he accepted it and apologized via a statement in which he noted that coaches “are held to a higher standard and should be an example to the players.”

This isn’t the first time Cintron has failed to live up to those standards; Manfred’s file on Cintron might be nearly as thick as his file for Kelly. In the ALCS opener last fall, he gave Yankees manager Aaron Boone the finger when the Yankees voiced concerns about whistling from the Houston dugout, which they believed to be part of a sign-stealing ploy. Additionally, Cintron’s name surfaced in the Codebreaker-related emails of Tom Koch-Weser, the team’s director of advance information, to general manager Jeff Luhnow. Per the Wall Street Journal‘s Jared Diamond, Cintron “was believed to be involved in transmitting information from the video room to the dugout.”

Anyway, this isn’t the place to relitigate the Astros’ sign-stealing saga and the non-punishment of the players involved, and the loss of Cintron even for a substantial stretch will likely have a negligible effect on the Astros’ record. The loss of Laureano for six games — perhaps one or two fewer, if he wins his appeal — will have a bigger effect on the A’s, though as it happens, the team (12-6 at this writing) has a 4.5-game lead on the struggling Astros (7-10) and a 95.9% chance of making the playoffs, second-highest in the league.

After the adjustments to our depth charts, Laureano is estimated to lose 19 plate appearances, which prorates to 51 over the course of a 162-game season. That translates to a few more games in center field for Mark Canha‘s, who has outhit him 145 to 130 in terms of wRC+ since the start of 2019 (albeit with a significant deficit against lefties) but is a notably worse center fielder (career UZR/150 of -9.3, versus 0.7 for Laureano); it also means a bit more exposure for lesser hitters at the corners such as Robbie Grossman, Seth Brown, and Chad Pinder. The suspension is unlikely to cost the A’s a playoff spot, particularly in a division where they’re currently the only team above .500, but having the wrong hitter or fielder at the wrong time could cost them a game, leading to a lower seeding and thus a less favorable series matchup.

In an ordinary year, the actions of Clevinger, Plesac, Laureano, and Cintron would be considered comparatively minor. Clearly, the stakes are higher for a team that has grown particularly sensitive to the health and safety of its own, and for a league that has recently been forced to fend off questions as to the wisdom and propriety of proceeding amid multiple coronavirus outbreaks. The rules are different in 2020, and so are the penalties, and both the Indians and MLB have made that clear.

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