The stringency of baseball’s unwritten rules has been slipping for the better part of a generation now. Players care less about how to play the game than ever, at least from the standpoint of decorum, a shift that has largely worked out pretty well for the sport.
One of the stodgiest of the unwritten rules is also one of my favorites when it comes to representing the old-school mentality. Nothing says “don’t do what you’re paid to do in an ideal situation in which to do it” like not swinging at a 3-0 pitch while your team is leading big.
The idea behind the rule is actually kind of sweet. Relief pitchers called in at the tail ends of blowouts tend not to be world-beaters, and the last thing either team wants is for them to extend the game by walking guys. So when the count runs to 3-0, baseball’s code urges hitters to allow the opponent a moment to get straight with a courtesy fastball down the pipe. The war has already been won; ceding a minor point during an inconsequential battle is the gentlemanly thing to do. It is how ballplayers approached such at-bats for the better part of a century.
The argument against such behavior is simple: Ballers gonna ball. Guys get paid on stats, so why short them based on game score? Fans want offense.
Both of these viewpoints were trotted out last season when Fernando Tatis homered on a 3-0 pitch with a big lead against the Rangers. It was a thing for weeks thereafter, based largely on the fact that Tatis’ own manager publicly came out against the swing.
Yesterday it happened again, this time with wrinkles.
The event in question was Yermin Mercedes’ homer on a 3-0 pitch while Chicago led the Twins 15-4 with two outs in the ninth. Everybody, even the White Sox, were ready for that game to end.
One wrinkle came via the guy who threw the ball. Willians Astudillo is a catcher by trade (it’s the position he’d been playing in this one since the fourth inning), and at 5-foot-9, 225 pounds, might be the most perfectly round player in baseball. Astudillo had already made one mound appearance already this season, in which he breezed through the Angels for an inning in April throwing nothing but junk. This time would be different.
The righty lobbed eephus after eephus to Mercedes, none close enough for the hitter to even consider. The fourth pitch of the at-bat was mostly a batting practice meatball that Mercedes could not refrain from hammering.
Which leads one to question how much seriousness should be afforded an at-bat that the opposition is clearly not taking seriously. Does Astudillo deserve more respect for trying to help his team by performing out of his element? Or do the Twins deserve whatever Mercedes gave them for making a relative mockery of the sport? Hell, the fateful offering was the slowest home-run pitch—47.1 mph—ever measured by Statcast.
Another wrinkle: Mercedes’ manager, Tony La Russa, was the subject of an entire book—Buzz Bissinger’s Three Nights in August—devoted largely to his deep consideration of the unwritten rules. La Russa did not appear to address Mercedes’ swing during his postgame press conference, which left the bulk of the commentary to the Twins broadcast, featuring former big leaguer Roy Smalley saying, “I don’t like it. At 15-4, I don’t like it. You’re gonna get the same pitch after this. I don’t like it.”
If the Twins for some reason decide to retaliate tonight, of course, or if La Russa benches Mercedes in some misbegotten stab toward outdated honor, then we’ll be talking about this again tomorrow. More realistically, the enduring optics of one fat guy hitting a homer off of another fat guy, plus the ridiculous nature of the pitching itself, means that this controversy will not likely endure beyond last night’s news cycle. Nor should it.
Update, 5/19: Yeah, we’re still talking about it. And for the stupidest reasons possible.