Category Archives: Unwritten Rules

To Bunt or Not to Bunt, That is the Question


Lee Judge of the Kansas City Star just came out with the best, most reasoned piece on baseball’s unwritten rules in some time. It’s not because he staunchly defends them—to the contrary, he concludes that players should be allowed to aggressively chase stats any way they can, even during the course of a blowout, a position with which I disagree—but because he presents a comprehensive look into expectations during lopsided games.

In so doing, Judge refers to an Aug. 24 game between Kansas City and Baltimore, in which the Royals scored seven runs in the sixth inning to take a five-run lead. The key moment was Eric Hosmer coming to the plate for the second time in the inning, after all seven runs had scored … and trying to bunt for a hit. The Orioles were not happy about it, and expressed as much from their dugout.

The answer to whether Hosmer was right or wrong is what makes baseball’s Code so variable, and so difficult to understand by those not paying close attention. To wit:

  • While most agree that aggressive tactics like stolen bases and hit-and-runs should be abandoned during the late innings of blowouts, the definitions of how much and when have shifted over time. Only a few years ago, amid the steroid-fueled chaos unleashed upon box scores nightly, a five-run lead in the sixth would have barely registered. Now, however, with offense down, it now appears to be back in play.
  • Another thing that’s changed over the last few years is the prevalence of the defensive shift. Does the fact that Baltimore was playing the majority of its infield on the right side of the diamond—giving itself a clear defensive edge—negate Hosmer’s mandate to play non-aggressive baseball, which includes bunting for hits? The Orioles were playing like run prevention still mattered, and if their lack of willingness to give up aggressive defensive tactics has to carry some weight.
  • It’s not unlike the defense giving itself an advantage by failing to hold a runner at first during a blowout, knowing that, based on the Code, he won’t take off for second. The inequity of being able to play the first baseman in the hole rather than having him tethered to the bag, even while insisting that the opposing team not take advantage of it, is wildly lopsided. (The compromise position, as Judge points out, is to play the first baseman back, but not all the way back.)
  • Numerous factors are involved in the designation of what lead is too big and what point in the game is too late, including geography and bullpen availability. A big lead in San Francisco is far more sound than a big lead in a bandbox like Philadelphia. Similarly, if a team does not have its full complement of relievers available to protect a lead, it may try to pile on more than it otherwise would. As is usual in these types of situations, communication is paramount; letting the opposition know that one’s decision to eschew the Code is reasoned and not personal can go a long way toward avoiding bad blood.

Ultimately, I agree with Hosmer and Judge: Regardless of circumstance, if a team is willing to put on a defensive shift, it must be prepared to deal with the consequences of that shift. Run at will, boys.


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Q: When is Headhunting Okay? A: Never

This seems like a good time for a quick dissertation on the meaning of—and the general spirit about—baseball’s unwritten rules. The last several years has seen what seems like a tidal shift of voices decrying their very existence, bemoaning what is deemed to be a culture of institutionalized violence in the name of some outdated code of moral conduct.

Let’s use an event from a minor league game on Friday to dispel some of that.

The scene: Moosic, Pennsylvania, at PNC Field. Pitcher Lester Oliveros of the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings opens the game by surrendering back-to-back singles, then a three-run homer, then another homer. Down 4-0 before he’s recorded an out, Oliveros drills the next hitter, Austin Romine of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders directly in the helmet.

It’d be easy enough to decry this as macho posturing within an institutional framework that props up such behavior. When one is getting one’s teeth kicked in, after all, it behooves one to mix things up, to make the opposition less comfortable.

It is macho posturing—that much is beyond debate—but it has no more place among the game’s unwritten rules than it does among the written ones. It goes against nearly every facet of the Code: A pitch above the shoulders; retaliation for teammates’ success; loose-cannon ethics that possess no space for the wellbeing of the opposition. The underlying tenet of the unwritten rules is the exhibition of respect, and this act decries it almost entirely, as it regards opponent and sport alike.

If the unwritten rules are to come into play here at all, it will be in the RailRiders’ response. Perhaps the imminent suspension will suffice, but there will likely be an on-field retort the next time Oliveros takes the field against against them. Red Wings manager Mike Quade is well acquainted with the Code; he can opt to let Oliveros take whatever may be coming in an effort to put the incident behind him, or he could simply refuse to play him against Scranton, hoping the pitcher will make the jump to the big club soon enough.

The Code also matters to the rest of Oliveros’ teammates, who should understand that his recklessness has put each of them in harm’s way should Scranton opt to retaliate in anything less than direct fashion. (Such a response would carry its own baggage, but there’s no mistaking that sharing a bus with guys who are pissed off at your actions can serve as a powerful deterrent in the future.)

Ultimately, Oliveros was an independent contractor, working outside the scope of any prescribed response to his situation. By ignoring the Code he set himself up to face every a host of corrective actions that have been developed specifically to keep guys like him in check. It can be a powerful tool … if one lets it.

[Via Hardball Talk]


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Shout it From the Rooftops, Shout it From the Mountain, Just Don’t Shout it Near MadBum

Gomez confused

There was a lot of shouting at Carlos Gomez in Milwaukee on Wednesday. Some of it was from Madison Bumgarner. Most was from Gomez himself.

It started when Gomez fouled off a pitch he felt he should have drilled. He whirled outside the batter’s box and screamed at himself loudly enough to be picked up on the TV broadcast. (Watch it here.)

Bumgarner did not approve. The pitcher glared at Gomez, then fed him an inside pitch—it didn’t come close to hitting him, but conveyed an unmistakable message. Gomez popped out on the lefty’s next offering, also inside. Bumgarner had some words for him as he headed back to the dugout.

Really, though, this story is about Gomez’s postgame comments. Had he not said this, on

Who does that guy think he is, Bumgarner? I never scream at anybody when they miss a pitch and he screams at himself, or they make a pitch and be happy. I never say anything. So you put a good swing and they’re looking at you like you’re a piece of (garbage). Tell that (guy) to throw the ball and don’t worry about my thing. That (guy) was looking at me like I’m an idiot. So you worry about pitching. I worry about hitting. I don’t care what you do. You can strike me out and do whatever you want. That doesn’t bother me. But a professional, like the guy thinks he (is), you throw the pitch and the hitter can do whatever he wants. I missed a pitch. . . . I was (upset) because I waited for that pitch and I’m supposed to hit it and I missed it. I was (mad) at myself, so he can’t be looking at me. He’s not my dad.

… then we wouldn’t be talking about the incident today.

The reality is that Gomez is no stranger to controversy. Like his brawl with Gerrit Cole in 2014. And his showdown with Brian McCann in 2013. And his confrontation with Joe Mauer in 2010. The guy has his moments.

So then does Bumgarner, who lit into Yasiel Puig last season for flipping his bat, and into Juan Guzman in 2013 for much the same reason. It wasn’t even the first time he dug into an opponent for self-flagellation; Alex Guerrero did a disgusted pirouette after flying out to right field against the Giants earlier this season, and MadBum had a few things to say.

The takeaway: Bumgarner is one of baseball’s noted red-asses, and whether or not you like it, at least he’s consistent. He’s not settling any stupid, made-up scores by drilling guys, so in that capacity he’s fine. And baseball needs a few curmudgeons to keep things spicy.

Gomez, for all his fire, has the right to be annoyed, but he should also come to expect it. Bumgarner’s not his dad, but he does make his own rules when he’s on the mound. Gomez doesn’t have to like them, but he’d be well served to understand that things are probably not going to go any other way.

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Knee-gate Revisited

Rosy's knee

Last week we examined Adam Rosales’ knee plant atop second base, which was called out by Rays shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera as violating some sort of unwritten rule pertaining to middle infielders. Never having heard of it, I took an unofficial survey of as many infielders as I could find when I was at the Oakland Coliseum last weekend.

Okay, it was only two. And one of them plays third base. Still.

“If his knee’s not in the way and he’s not trying to do it, then he’s not trying to do it,” said A’s third baseman Brett Lawrie (who’s had his own dose of slide-related drama this year). “If you’re on top of the bag but there’s still room to slide, that’s okay. Everything’s fine.”

A’s coach and longtime middle infielder Mike Gallego offered a different—though not contradictory—perspective. The difference between tags today and those of previous generations, he said, is replay.

“Back in the day with the old sweep tag, if the ball beats the runner the umpire is calling him out, no question,” he said. “Now, you have to literally put the tag on the play, so you might see guys blocking the base a little bit more to make sure they get the tag on the runner. It’s changing.”

It’s true. Prior to replay, runners never complained about being called out if the ball beat them to the base, even if the tag had already come and gone. Now, the necessity to position themselves not just to make a tag, but to hold it, is paramount. It only follows that they’ll have to at least occasionally brace themselves in ways about which previous generations would have been less tolerant. Not a direct correlation to Rosales’ situation, but worth mentioning.

The early verdict: Both Lawrie and Gallego mentioned that planting a knee next to the bag is preferable than doing so on top of it, for reasons that Cabrera enumerated after jamming his fingers. They also said that things happen in a bang-bang play, and what Rosales did was hardly objectionable. (Hell, first basemen like Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell were known for applying pile-driving tags on pickoff throws as a means of reminding the runner about the cost of doing business. Tag etiquette can be a complex affair.)

I’ll continue to ask around as the season progresses. Updates as events warrant.

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Knee, Meet Fingers. Fingers, Knee. Chat Amongst Yourselves

Rosy's kneeAfter having paid particular attention to baseball’s unwritten rules since I started researching The Baseball Codes in 2005, I’ve compiled what seems like a pretty comprehensive set. On Saturday, Asdrubal Cabrera may have informed me of a new one.

Diving back into second base on a pickoff attempt, Cabrera jammed his fingers into the knee of Rangers second baseman Adam Rosales, and got up shoving. (At first blush it appeared to be because Rosales inadvertently leaned on him with an off-balance elbow, but that had nothing to do with it. Watch the play here.)

After the game, Cabrera said, in an report: “He put a knee onto second base. I’ve played both sides, second and short, and I know that’s not fair to put a knee on the base.”

At the very least, Cabrera was correct in his assessment that, had Rosales’ knee not been planted atop the base, his fingers would have remained blissfully unjammed.

Rosales’ general demeanor is among the best in all of baseball, and there’s no question that whatever he did was done unintentionally. Still, it begs the question—especially with the accusation flying from one infielder to another—was he out of line?

More to follow …


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On Defending the Code

Keep calm

Yesterday, the Atlantic’s website came out with a think piece slamming baseball’s unwritten rules and going so far as to call for a ban on hit batsmen. All hit batsmen. At any time.

Author Adam Felder suggests that baseball eject any pitcher who hits a batter, an idea that is on its face ludicrous and would change the game for the worse by massive amounts, all but eliminating the inside corner. Felder realizes this, of course, and seems to be throwing it out there more as a conversation starter than anything. At least he gets credit for creative thinking.

More worthy of nitpicking are the rest of his hypotheses. The piece is riddled with errors of assumption that are easy to believe. Felder asserts that the dearth of player fatalities since Ray Chapman was struck down in 1920 have “less to do with improvements in player safety and more to do with dumb luck,” when in fact it has everything to do with safety improvements. (Is he really claiming that helmets haven’t made an enormous difference?) Counter to another of his contentions, pitchers are not routinely ordered to drill opponents. (Those orders, while somewhat prevalent prior to the 1980s, are nearly extinct today.) The story led with Chapman (who Felder mistakenly transposed with the man who threw the fatal pitch, Carl Mays), a guy who died in a singular accident that had nothing to do with the unwritten rules, and which would have been prevented had helmets been in use at the time.

And that’s just in the opening paragraph.

What Felder is missing is that the Code serves a grander purpose than being a simple manifestation of aggression. Baseball is a sport of relative leisure, its pace allowing for meaning to be imbued into a given action. A stolen base doesn’t have to mean something, but when a player wants it to, it does. (He can take off late in a blowout game. He can go in too hard, or too late, or spikes high. The possibilities are multiple.) At that point, it is up to the opposing pitcher to respond.

Contrary to popular perception, retaliatory strikes act as a release valve, allowing a team both to acknowledge an act and respond to it. Rather than having bad blood fester between teams—a real possibility considering that division rivals face each other 19 times each season—the cycle ends there. Everybody moves on, all according to the Code.

Internally, it is vital that a player know his teammates have his best interests at heart. When the second baseman on the wrong end of that message-laden stolen base—the guy who was barreled into late—is protected by a retaliatory strike, it helps build a unified front. Should he not be protected it can quickly do the opposite. Just as importantly, the retaliatory pitch lets the other team know that future indiscretions will not be tolerated.

Ultimately—and this is the point that most people miss—the Code is about respect and safety. Pitchers who hit a batter for lightweight infractions like showboating or the above-mentioned ill-timed stolen base can be justifiably criticized. But when players go about intentionally risky business (the runner who flies recklessly into an infielder; the infielder who throws down an intentionally late tag—or, even worse, a deke—to force a baserunner into an awkward slide; any player who plays with excess aggression when aggression is uncalled for), handling things in this manner is a proven, effective way to put a stop to it.

The Code covers that part, too. A pitcher who places a ball above an opponent’s shoulders—intentionally or otherwise—is the closest thing to a pariah that the game knows. The batter who is hit justifiably and properly, in the hip or the thigh, will quietly take his base. Every time.

Sometimes things don’t play out according to the script, Kansas City’s ongoing drama with Oakland serving as a recent example. Those, however, are exceptions, noteworthy for that very detail. Had the participants acted according to proscribed tenets, the bad blood would have barely been noteworthy at all.

There’s a reason for the Code. Feel free to quibble with how it frequently plays out (hell, players themselves do that much), but at least understand why it’s there, and why it endures.


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Kevin Towers, We Hardly Knew Thee …

Towers-La RussaIf we’re gonna remember Bo Porter when he’s canned, seems only right to do the same for Kevin Towers. The GM who brought a lot of toughness and not too many victories to the desert as of late was canned Thursday by new boss Tony La Russa.

Towers’ grit-based organizational structure came to prominence last month when the D’Backs drilled Andrew McCutchen, because Pirates closer Ernesto Frieri accidentally hit Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt on the hand a day earlier, breaking a bone. It led to a protracted discussion about how, while an eye-for-an-eye mentality once played well on baseball’s landscape—and despite Towers’ own overt statements to the contrary—things have kind of changed.

That said, La Russa has never been one to shy from grit. He thrives on it, in fact, with an entire book—Buzz Bissinger’s 3 Nights in August—being more or less dedicated to dissecting La Russa’s strategy of drilling other players in response to stuff they or their teammates did.

No, La Russa probably cared more about Towers’ record than his team’s treatment of Andrew McCutchen. The problem for Towers: That hasn’t been strong, either. After two straight .500 seasons, Arizona is 59-81 this year. Towers has traded away Trevor Bauer, Ian Kennedy, Jarrod Parker and Juston Upton, among many others, without getting a whole lot in return. His handling of free-agent signee Brandon McCarthy—who struggled after being instructed against throwing his cutter—drew particular notice once McCarthy joined the Yankees, kickstarted his best pitch and began to dominate again.

(Lest anyone think that La Russa and Towers are pure opposites, check out this story from 2011, in which each man is separately accused of gamesmanship practices that fall someplace between evil-genius and good-for-a-chuckle.)

Now on the hot seat: Gritty Kirk Gibson.


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