Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, The Baseball Codes

The Air is Hot, Smart or Not, Deep in the Heart of Texas

Lewis shoutsSo this is what the ruination of baseball’s unwritten rules looks like. People keep marginalizing them, shunting them to the corner, labeling those who play by their merits as kooks and haters of fun. What we’re left with, at least in part, is this: Ballplayers, both red-assed and traditionalist, playing less by moral imperative than by half-formed opinions based on a system they don’t appear to fully understand.

Case in point: Rangers starter Colby Lewis, who on Saturday lit into Toronto’s Colby Rasmus (in the rare and wondrous Battle of the Colbys) for daring to lay down a bunt late in the game while the Blue Jays sat on a huge lead.

Except that it was only the fifth inning. And the score was 2-0. Oh, Colby Lewis.

The section of the unwritten rulebook that Lewis was attempting to channel was the one that dictates avoidance of running up the score late in games. It’s a simple matter of respecting one’s opponent enough to keep from embarrassing him … but that doesn’t have much relevance to whatever happened in Toronto. Just as Astros manager Bo Porter was ludicrous when he exploded over a first-inning Jed Lowrie bunt back in April, Lewis is ludicrous now.

Rasmus bunted because—here’s the pertinent part—his run mattered. Lewis was upset that Rasmus had taken advantage of a defensive shift designed to stop him from hitting. Now that such shifts are gaining traction even as the Code is losing it, we’re faced with an awkward intersection: Is there a moral component to playing straight-up against the shift with the fact that it presents an obvious weakness (nobody playing down the third base line) to exploit? The closest example I can conjure is the first baseman who plays off the bag despite a runner being on base late in a blowout game, with the expectation that the runner will hold anyway. He wants the defensive advantage of playing in the hole, and expects that his opposition will not take similar advantages of their own.

But those who think that situation is reasonable do so because of the lopsided score. In a close game, if a defense wants to gain the advantage of an extra defender on the right side of the infield, it has no business taking exception should a batter exploit that weakness. Which is not only what Rasmus did, but which is what every hitter with speed should do, at least on occasion.

Lewis had words for Rasmus on the field (watch it here) and after the game explained just what was going on. “I told [Rasmus] I didn’t appreciate it,” Lewis said in an report. “You’re up by two runs with two outs and you lay down a bunt. I don’t think that’s the way the game should be played. I felt like you have a situation where there is two outs, you’re up two runs, you have gotten a hit earlier in the game off me, we are playing the shift, and he laid down a bunt basically simply for average.”

Lewis’ criteria for judgment was that once Rasmus reached base, he didn’t try to steal and get himself into scoring position. “That tells me he is solely looking out for himself, and looking out for batting average, and I didn’t appreciate it,” he said, digging himself into a dangerous rabbit hole of inanity. Left unexplained: If in Lewis’ mind the game situation dictated that Rasmus wasn’t allowed to bunt, the question isn’t whether the pitcher’s head would have exploded had Rasums stolen a base, but how violently.

Hell, Curt Schilling didn’t take offense when Ben Davis bunted against him to ruin his perfect game in 2001. That’s because, like the game in Toronto, the score was 2-0 and a baserunner could have made a difference.

Or one could look in another direction: When Jarrod Saltalamacchia bunted to break up a perfect game against Oakland’s A.J. Griffin in 2012, he was barely faulted for it by Oakland manager Bob Melvin, not because the score was close but because Melvin had put on a shift similar to the one Texas used on Saturday. “I probably should have had the third baseman in,” said Melvin at the time.

Ultimately it’s up to players to recognize what is and isn’t appropriate, and to be damn sure they’ve been aggrieved should they get their jocks in a bunch over a given play. The Code is a powerful part of baseball’s social fabric, but only when it’s leveraged properly. Because the facts of the matter don’t back him up, all Colby Lewis is left with is a bunch of hot, angry air.

6 thoughts on “The Air is Hot, Smart or Not, Deep in the Heart of Texas

  1. Jason, remind me, is there a section in your book and/or dedicated post about rules regarding the shift? While the shift is obviously more popular these days (often accredited to Maddon), I recall seeing it in older games in the 70s and 80s, so baseball people have had some time to deeply-ingrain opinions on the rules that govern them.

    1. In five years of conversations about the subject leading up to publication, the shift never once came up. (The first baseman failing to hold guys on in the late innings of blowouts did, repeatedly, which is why I used it as an example.) I cannot fathom how a team or player could be upset by somebody taking advantage of a defensive weakness borne of a shift designed to offer an advantage someplace else. Hurt them enough by exploiting the shift’s weakness, and they’ll stop using the shift as much. Simple math. Works in wars, why not baseball?

      1. Could you please teach Big Papi how to bunt to the left side? And how to run faster?

        Seriously, I’m not denying your logic, which is extremely clear. But there are many examples of etiquette rules in baseball that are not always based on logic. Just for arguments’ sake, if beating the shift with a bunt turned a non-bunter into a bunter, then I could imagine the old guard getting irritated, even if the non-bunter was inept at it … it’s not hard to imagine someone saying that person should learn to hit to the other side (acceptable way to beat the shift) but not by bunting. Which might seem ridiculous to anyone but the right baseball guy.

        Your post here gave me a hint that there might be opinions within baseball contrary to yours and mine. I’m curious, since I’ve long wondered why Papi (for example) doesn’t just do it, as you suggest. There seems to be little downside: at worst, you get a few more infield hits OR you end up making them not shift on you, which then opens up your terribly lop-sided hitting lane again.

  2. You bring up a number of good points. I can’t much explain the rationale for people who resist bunting against the shift, short of that it somehow doesn’t satisfy the appropriate degree of macho. I even understand the play-me-straight-up-like-a-man ethos … right up to the point that the very nature of the shift does exactly the opposite of that.

    It’s true that some people view the act of bunting in part based on the guy at the plate. A player who breaks up a no-hitter (or bunts in a similarly questionable situation) will be given more leeway if bunting is part of his offensive repertoire. It’s part of what made Bob Brenly so mad at Ben Davis — a catcher for whom bunting did not even register as an option until he saw the third baseman stationed way back on the grass.

    But now we get back to the question about the shift. Is playing your third baseman exceptionally deep against a guy who’s no threat to bunt any different than playing your third baseman in the shortstop position? I don’t think so. If a team wants to give itself a defensive advantage, it has to be comfortable knowing that somebody will eventually come along to exploit any holes that might exist within that framework. Otherwise it’s just a lot of sour apples and whinging about not much at all.

  3. Reasoned to the usual high standard and typically well-written, this post kind of screams “What can be done?” Any takers on that? I’m not sure what anybody can do. If the Baseball Codes were a language, they are morphing into mutually unintelligible dialects and sub-dialects at an increasing rate.

    This post further notes the ‘wondrous battle of the Colbys’. Not to put too fine a point on it, but over at Deadspin, commenter Snoopaloop opined:
    “I think what Lewis is saying is Colby should have went for the jack instead of exploiting the swiss defense on the left side of the infield, thereby increasing the amount of cheddar he earns in his next contract. Some of our older readers camembert Ted Williams used to do that. Like any good American would do.”

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