Perhaps the trickiest of baseball’s unwritten rules has to do with when to take one’s foot off the gas pedal.
Everybody agrees that it’s bad form to pile on when sitting on a big lead late in a game, with aggressive tactics like stealing bases. It’s just that nobody can seem to agree upon when that point is.
Once, a four-run lead was considered somewhat safe. That was a long time ago. As offense has increased over the years, so has the margin. Now, it’s upward of six or more.
The precise number hinges on numerous factors—primarily how far along the game is, but also things like the strength of a team’s bullpen and its ability to come back from a given deficit. A four-run lead in the ninth is generally considered to be safer than a six-run lead in the fifth.
All that being said, seven runs seems about right as a point at which to call off the big dogs. Just like a football team putting in second-teamers when sitting on a five-touchdown margin, teams can reasonably be expected to cool it on overt scoring attempts while holding such a big lead. Players still try to get hits and score runs, of course, but at some point tactics trend toward station-to-station baseball—runners taking one base on a single, two on a double, etc. If a play necessitates a slide, then it’s probably best not to attempt it.
On Saturday, Jurickson Profar stole a base while the Rangers held a seven-run lead over Minnesota. In his next at-bat, Twins reliever Addision Reed threw two pitches inside, then drilled Profar in the leg with the third. (Watch it here.)
Which is where we get to mitigating circumstances. For one, Profar had already been hit twice on the day, his contested steal coming after the second HBP. For another, it was only the fourth inning, by any count too early in the game to consider shutting things down.
That didn’t stop the Twins from crying foul—literally, from their dugout—to the point that Profar expected the drilling he eventually received.
“I thought it was after the fifth inning that you shut it down,” Profar said after the game in an MLB.com report. “They almost came back at the end. They thought it was bad. It is what it is. It’s baseball, I’ll learn from it.”
It’s unclear what Profar thinks he’ll learn, since he’s spot-on about everything else. The Twins, down 9-2 at the time he stole the base, scored the game’s final four runs and brought the tying run to the plate before losing, 9-6.
For evidence that Minnesota did not actually deem it too late in the game, know only that they were still holding Profar on prior to his contested steal. If a team expects an opponent to play by blowout tactics, they themselves should, too. In this case, that would have involved playing first baseman Logan Morrison in the hole, with the understanding that Profar would not take advantage by stealing the base. This did not happen. (Nor should it have, given that it was the fourth inning.)
“The thought process between the unwritten rules of the game is not clearly defined,” said Twins manager Paul Molitor after the game in a Dallas News report. “What I might think and what he might think might be different things. I was surprised that [Profar] ran with the score the way it was, when he did. And getting hit there was something that Banister felt wasn’t appropriate.”
The likely reason that Bannister felt it wasn’t appropriate is because it wasn’t appropriate. A lack of clear definition when it comes to this stuff doesn’t override the fact that the fourth inning is too freaking early under nearly any imaginable circumstance to take offense at something like a stolen base. The Twins aren’t presenting a good look, here, and not for the first time this season.
Despite expressed displeasure from manager Brian Bannister, the Rangers opted not to retaliate. At least somebody in this story possesses a clear head about these things.