This weekend, the Padres and Dodgers showed us exactly how baseball is changing, and also exactly how it is not. On both counts, they’re right on the money.
Traditionally, baseball has frowned on showmanship, viewing it—particularly as pertains to batter’s box theatrics—as a personal affront to the pitcher. As a result, home run pimping has inspired its share of beanball responses over the years. Those who persisted tended to maintain that their celebrations were entirely about themselves and their teammates, and that lack of respect played no part.
It wasn’t until recent years that pitchers started to believe it.
The first-ever home run pimp may have been Harmon Killebrew, who is counted by many as the pioneer of watching one’s own fly balls leave the yard. No less than Reggie Jackson has pointed toward Killebrew as inspiration in that regard. Still, it took a truly free spirit like Yasiel Puig, who after coming up in 2013 consistently busted barriers around this topic, for the movement to gain its first semblance of legitimacy. During the World Baseball Classic in 2017, when the U.S. got a gander at teams like Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, with rosters stocked with big leaguers having the times of their lives, it finally started to settle in that this might be the shape of baseball to come.
Which brings us to Fernando Tatis and Trevor Bauer.
On Saturday, Tatis drilled two homers against the Dodgers star and leveraged both moments to the hilt, sending messages in direct response to prior theatrics Bauer had visited upon the Padres. Irresistible force, meet immovable object.
After Tatis’ first homer, he covered his right eye with his hand while rounding the bases, in reference to a gimmick Bauer pulled during spring training in which he pitched the better part of three shutout innings against San Diego with one eye closed, then made sure that everybody knew it.
The Padres did not take major issue with this, but you better believe they noticed. Thus, on Saturday we got this:
Five innings later, Tatis did it again, hitting a quality 3-2 pitch from Bauer over the center field fence. This time, in addition to a bat flip and his standard backward shuffle while approaching third base, he included an imitation of the Bauer strut, which is actually the Connor McGregor strut, which the pitcher pulls out on occasion after a big strikeout.
Only a few years ago, the frequency of these displays, and their volume, would have elicited an on-field response. Now, however, we’re Letting the Kids Play, and Trevor Bauer is unlike other pitchers in oh so many ways. To his credit, he encourages this kind of stuff, going so far after the game as to use the word “soft” in reference to pitchers who retaliate for such things. “If you give up a homer, a guy should celebrate it,” he said. “It’s hard to hit in the big leagues.”
Bauer went even further on his YouTube channel, breaking down Tatis’ actions in a complimentary way. “It makes me feel good because they’re aware of my one-eye celebration,” he said. “My clip went viral, his clip can go viral—it’s good for baseball.” Bauer called Tatis’ bat flip on the second homer “tasteful,” and noted that the entire shtick was directed toward the San Diego dugout, not at Bauer or other Dodgers, “so, highest of high marks on that.”
Which brings us to the second part of the story. The part about which Bauer is less zen.
On the pitch that Tatis hit for his second homer, he appeared to look backward as catcher Will Smith was giving his signs. Tatis’ peek came too late to see Smith’s fingers, which he’d already folded back into his palm, but just in time to see the catcher lean to his right, a subtle clue that he was preparing to receive an outside pitch. This might be how the hitter was able to lean into a cutter that ended up well into the opposite batter’s box, and still managed to pull it over the wall in left field.
There are lots of ways to explain this. Bauer had been living on the outer edge against Tatis throughout the at-bat, placing four of his six pitches wide of the strike zone, so it didn’t necessarily take a magician—or a cheater—to discern what was happening. During his look back, it’s possible that Tatis was just scratching his nose and didn’t see a thing.
But the hitter’s body language—stepping toward the pitch even as Bauer was releasing it, and easily handling what should have been ball four by a considerable margin—said plenty. We’ve addressed the issue of peeking on a number of occasions in this space, like that time in 2017 when the Angels suspected various Oakland players of looking backward. Early in the pandemic, we also offered a host of examples from throughout history.
Whether Bauer noticed Tatis doing this in the moment is unclear, but he certainly did after the game. In the same YouTube clip, Bauer addressed the issue directly:
“If you start looking at signs, if you start pulling this bush-league stuff, that’s when people get pissed off. …. That’s the type of stuff that would get you hit in other games. Now, I’m mild-mannered about it. I’m going to send a message this way [via video] and say, hey, that’s not okay, and if you keep doing it something will have to happen.”
Bauer said that while “there’s no rule anywhere that says [Tatis] can’t look back,” there’s also “no rule that says I can’t stick a fastball in your ribs.”
This is classic unwritten-rules policing, albeit via video and not with a message pitch. You got caught, the other team let you know about it, and now you have to knock it off. It’s next-level code enforcement, and while many people have thoughts about Trevor Bauer, pro and con, he comes off as entirely reasonable in the above clip.
How Bauer reacts the next time Tatis (or any Padre, probably) does something similar will be something to see. Having publicly threatened to drill a guy, even obliquely, the pitcher is certain to draw notice from the league office should he ever decide to act on that impulse. The Padres, knowing this, might be further inspired to elicit such a response. And ever does the gamesmanship spiral continue.
In summary: Bat flipping and crazy trots around the bases are, for most people—and certainly for Bauer and Tatis—part of baseball’s mainstream. Peeking at a catcher’s signs is certainly not.
Both developments have been logged and noted, to be built upon the next time something like this goes down. We’re counting the days.