By now we know that certain members of the Twins don’t appreciate players bunting against the shift while a Minnesota pitcher is throwing a one-hitter in the ninth. But do we know how the Mariners feel when Joey Gallo bunts against the shift while leading 5-2 in the fifth?
We might have found out on Sunday, when Gallo did just that. His attempt rolled foul. The next pitch from Mariners right-hander James Pazos drilled him.
Afterward, Gallo attributed no hard feelings to the play, attributing it merely to a pitcher trying to come up and in. Rangers manager Jeff Bannister made clear his intentions while facing future shifts, saying in a Dallas News report: “If you don’t want him to bunt, then don’t give it to him. Other teams have to play their game and we are going to play ours. We aren’t going to stop trying to win baseball games.”
It’s crazy that this is even a topic. Baseball would be a better place if everybody bunted against the shift all the time until teams simply stop shifting. Enough with the sensitivity, people.
A week into the season and we’re neck deep in When Not to Bunt waters. Unlike Chance Sisco’s effort against the Twins on Sunday, Anaheim’s Andrelton Simmons actually dropped one down yesterday while Corey Kluber was tossing a no-hitter. Also unlike Sisco, that’s an actual violation of the unwritten rules.
If a team is behind by a reasonable margin in the late innings of a no-hitter, the theory holds that it is incumbent upon them to avoid resorting to trickery to ruin a masterful effort. Fair enough.
Yesterday, however, when Simmons noted the deep positioning of third baseman Jose Ramirez, it was only the fifth inning. Even more pertinently, the Angels trailed only 2-0 at the time. By reaching base, Simmons brought the tying run to the plate in the person of Shohei Otani.
It paid off when Otani homered, tying the game and allowing LA to win it in the 13th.
To their credit, unlike various members of the Twins, Cleveland players didn’t much complain about it, probably because it was so obviously kosher. Here’s hoping whoever next encounters something similar will feel the same way.
It all had to do, he said on Monday, with the fact that Baltimore had, an inning earlier, failed to hold Minnesota’s Ryan LeMarre on base after he’d singled in the ninth. The game situation—a 7-0 twins lead—was nearly identical the one that Dozier found so offensive only moments later.
“When they didn’t hold our runner on, they conceded to the fact they didn’t want us to steal, so we didn’t steal,” Dozier said in a Pioneer Press report. “We could have very easily stolen and put up more runs, so therefore in return you don’t bunt. That’s what everybody is missing in this whole thing.”
It’s an interesting point. In Dozier’s reading, the Orioles tacitly approved late-game blowout tactics by not holding LeMarre close to first, thereby giving themselves a defensive advantage by positioning first baseman Chris Davis in the hole rather than tethering him to first base. Adhering to the Code, LeMarre stayed put, and did not attempt to steal.
It was a classic example of straightforward blowout tactics, fanciness stripped out in favor of straight-up baseball designed to push the pace and end things quickly. The point that Dozier seems to have missed is that Minnesota’s shift against Sisco was not that. Positioning three fielders to the right side of second base is anything but straight-up baseball, and if the Twins felt that the game situation was insufficient to dissuade them from doing so, they had no business complaining that the game situation was insufficient to dissuade Sisco from responding.
Bill James, meanwhile, made an equally ludicrous suggestion on the opposite side of the argument:
I know I am out on a limb here and will probably be blitzed for saying this, but I think the Commissioner should suspend any veteran player or m'ger who makes comments suggesting that a young player is doing something improper when he is simply trying to win. That's intolerable.
Ignore for a moment the idea of suspension for the outspoken members of the Twins, because James’ suggestion doesn’t apply here. Sisco wasn’t trying to win the game, he was trying to beat the shift, down seven runs with the bases empty and two outs to go. There’s value in that, even during a blowout. If Sisco wants to leverage the bunt as a means of getting teams to stop shifting on him, a lopsided score should not interfere with an opportunity to do so. It had little to do with winning.
As for James’ idea of MLB implementing thought police, it’s pure fantasy, and he knows it. It’s analogous to the idea of automatically suspending pitchers who throw at batters, which would lead to a number of issues, none bigger than the impossibility of determining intent. Who in baseball would want to be charged with containing that morass? With that in mind, under James’ proposed rule, what kind of comments would be okay for players to make, and who would judge the gray area, and how would a team’s fan base react to a star player being suspended for having thoughts?
In a league where good vibes rule and the commissioner would love nothing more than for every ounce of drama to be contained to the field, this suggestion would blow up in fabulous and unexpected ways. James doesn’t strike me as the type to say sensational things simply to garner attention, but this statement certainly qualifies.
We didn’t even make it out of the season’s opening weekend before being hit with 2018’s first Guy Who Bunted When He Shouldn’t Have Bunted controversy.
We’ve rehashed the most famous example of this, Ben Davis breaking up Curt Schilling’s perfect game in 2001, many times now. Davis was a slow-footed catcher who had no business doing what he did, save for one detail: The score was 2-0 in the eighth inning, and by reaching safely Davis brought the tying run to the plate. One dictate in baseball’s unwritten rulebook is incontrovertible: winning trumps everything, and Davis had just given his team its best chance at pulling out a W.
Yesterday in Baltimore, another catcher, rookie Chance Sisco, dropped down a ninth-inning bunt against Twins starter Jose Berrios, who was two outs from wrapping up not only the first shutout of his career, but the first complete game. Berrios, however, had already given up a hit—a double in the third, also to Sisco—so he should have been cool with it, right?
Right, except for this: The Twins led, 7-0, a point at which—with one out and nobody on in the ninth inning—baseball etiquette dictates that players stop trying to get cute and play simple, straight-up baseball. That means a lack of nibbling around the corners for pitchers, and nothing but hard hacks for hitters. The sooner a blowout ends, the quicker everybody can go home.
“Obviously, we’re not a fan of [Sisco’s bunt],” said Twins second baseman Brian Dozier after the game, in an MLB.com report. “He’s a young kid. I could’ve said something at second base, but they have tremendous veteran leadership over there with Chris Davis, Adam Jones and those guys. I’m sure they’ll address it and move forward. It’s all about learning up here.”
“It’s not good for baseball in that situation,” said Berrios. “That’s it.”
Okay, then. So Sisco shouldn’t have bunted. Right?
Right, except for this: Despite their lead, the Twins were employing a full shift against the rookie. Another unwritten rule says that when a defense calls off the dogs late in a blowout, the offense will not take advantage. Usually this refers to opting against holding a runner on first base, with the understanding that said runner will not attempt to steal second. Like the hard-hacks theory above, it’s aimed at more quickly reaching a conclusion that is virtually inevitable. With the game out of hand, positioning the first baseman back gives the defense a better chance to make a play.
That said, there’s a difference between playing one’s first baseman back with a man aboard, and what happened yesterday. The Twins were trying to end the game quickly by deploying what they felt was their most effective defensive formation, but such extreme shifts allow opponents unfettered opportunities to bunt down the line. By exploiting such a glaring hole, Sisco did his part—as, frankly, most hitters should—to make Minnesota consider the ongoing value of shifting against him like that. It was part of a long game, and the catcher had every right to take advantage.
If the Twins want to cede the possibility of such an outcome, they shouldn’t be all too surprised when it happens. And they sure as hell shouldn’t whine about it afterward.
America is a place where people in prominence can claim ludicrous things and then, after others have pointed out said ludicrousness, double down on their bad ideas. Freedom.
On Thursday, it was CC Sabathia’s turn. Remember just last week when he made the specious, if not downright addled claim that because he was returning from a knee injury, the Red Sox had no right to bunt against him?
If anybody tried to explain to him what a flawed position he was taking, they did a poor job of it. Yesterday, Sabathia again faced the Red Sox, and again the Red Sox did some bunting—starting with the game’s second hitter, Eduardo Nunez, who laid one down in front of the plate, which Sabathia pounced upon … and then threw wildly for an error. “That’s my game,” said Nunez, who also bunted against the pitcher last week, in a Providence Journal article. “You can’t take away my game.”
The strategy proved effective beyond the reach of the bunt itself, when a rattled Sabathia walked the two guys following Nunez in the order, throwing only two strikes in the span of 10 pitches. The pitcher buckled down to escape the jam, then yelled toward the Red Sox dugout as he left the field, explaining in R-rated terms how he felt about their strategy. After the game he said, via a New York Daily News report, that the Red Sox were “scared,” and that “they just think I’m a bigger guy who can’t field my position.”
Well, yes. To which an appropriate response could entail multiple suggestions, primary among them: Figure out how to field your position, or learn to deal with the consequences. Sabathia’s knee is “not my problem,” said Nunez, adding, “If I have to bunt four times in a row, I’d do it. I don’t care if he’s mad or not.”
With last week’s round of complaints, the pitcher effectively offered an open invitation for opponents to get inside his head by bunting. When the Red Sox took him up on it, he responded by channeling a senior citizen chasing neighborhood kids off his lawn.
“I’m an old man,” groused the 37-year-old. “They should want to go out and kick my butt.”
Yes and no. The problem with kicking the butt of an effective pitcher is that alternative paths are sometimes the best route to success. Sabathia earned the victory on Thursday with six innings of one-run ball, and has now won all four of his starts against Boston this season. The Red Sox are obligated to find more effective methods against him.
During the Revolutionary War, the British complained that American forces wouldn’t fight them in formation—a tactic that almost certainly would have led to defeat. With this in mind, why would any team approach Sabathia in his own chosen manner, unless they concurred that it was the best approach?
The Red Sox are being paid to win baseball games, and satisfying the skewed morals of a crotchety pitcher has nothing to do with winning baseball games.
CC Sabathia is angry that the Red Sox took advantage of him. The pitcher, returning from a knee injury, tossed a splendid game against Boston over the weekend, giving up four hits and two runs over six innings to earn the win. One of his takeaways, however, concerned the opposition’s sustained insistence on making him prove that he was healthy by laying down bunt after bunt, to test the left-hander’s agility.
Boston’s very first batter, Eduardo Nunez started things off, though his attempt rolled foul and Sabathia ended up striking him out. Outfielder Andrew Benintendi did similarly, and Sabathia fielded his bunt cleanly, after which he motioned in frustration with his glove toward the Red Sox dugout.
“To come out and that’s your strategy, that got me going a little bit,” Sabathia told the New York Post after the game. “Literally, two of the hottest hitters in baseball bunting. If that was their strategy, I [handled] it.”
The pitcher’s anger is misplaced. Any player nursing an injury is a proven liability, not to mention a target for the opposition. If Sabathia was not healthy enough to help his team, he should not have been on the mound. If he was able to help his team—and boy was he ever—then the upside of his pitching had to be sufficient to protect against those who might seek to take advantage of him in other ways.
It’s why Dusty Baker played in the 1981 World Series with a sprained wrist, despite it preventing him from doing anything of consequence with the bat. The threat of Baker in the lineup was itself valuable, and by not openly discussing his injury, sustained away from the field during the NLCS, he hoped that the Yankees would continue to treat him as the dangerous hitter he’d been all season long.
It doesn’t even take an injury to fit this bill. During the 1974 World Series, Alvin Dark called in Catfish Hunter for a relief role to close out Game 1. When Dark said that the hitter, Joe Ferguson, couldn’t handle curveballs, Hunter told him that Ferguson would see nothing but fastballs. The reason: “I ain’t got no curveball today.” At that moment it was up to Hunter—as it is up to any pitcher trying to perform without his full complement of pitches—to keep that knowledge from the opposition for as long as possible. Ferguson had no idea that he’d not see a single bender, and so had to prepare for the opportunity that he might.
Five fastballs later, he went down swinging for the game’s final out. This kind of thing happens all the time.
Sabathia is obviously concerned about his health, and has every right to be. But if he’s not up for fulfilling every facet of his job description, he must at least be willing to act as if he is.
Luis Cruz thought he understood baseball’s unwritten rules. So did Arnold Leon. The former, playing third base for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, responded to a bunt by Canadian catcher Chris Robinson—whose team held a six-run, ninth-inning lead on Saturday—by gesturing for his pitcher to drill the next batter. Leon, the pitcher, did just that.
Within moments, punches were flying and Alfredo Aceves had Satan in his eyes. (Watch the prelude here. Watch the main event below.)
Cruz, however, did not understand the unwritten rules, nor did anyone else on Team Mexico who supported Leon’s retaliation. Because winning trumps any possible Code violation, the WBC’s consideration of run differential matters. The more a team scores, the more likely it is to advance, and, facing the possibility of a three-way tie with the U.S. and Mexico, Canada needed every run it could get. (Also consideration-worthy: Canada was knocked out of the 2006 tournament when coming out on the wrong side of a run-differential tiebreaker.)
It’s undoubtedly tough for players steeped in a certain way of approaching the game—who may well have embraced the Code throughout their entire professional lives—to ignore what is likely second-nature, but there is little excuse for not knowing the rules by which one is playing.
Plate ump Brian Gorman warned both benches after Leon’s first two pitches to Rene Tosoni, the batter following Robinson, sailed inside. On the verge of elimination, however, Leon opted for pride above victory, and drilled Tosoni in the back. Benches emptied, with the brawl starting when Cruz threw a punch at Canada’s Scott Mathieson.
If there is irony in this situation, it is that players coming out of Latin leagues have long been accused of possessing less-than-sufficient understanding of the unwritten rules. This is generally in respect to flair, however—reaction to making a play, not the play itself. Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista—who has a toe in each pool, playing in Toronto and hailing from the Dominican Republic—backed this up, saying from spring training camp in Florida that the structure of the WBC is not enough to merit such strategy.
“I believe in the unwritten rules of the game,” he said in a Toronto Star report. “They should be respected. It’s a code amongst players and everybody who plays baseball at a level higher than Little League knows what it is and there’s no excuse.”
Except that there is an excuse. Ultimately, Canada won both a moral victory and an actual one, its 10-3 win eliminating Mexico from the tournament. It’s fair to question, as Canadian manager Ernie Whitt did after the game, the wisdom of implementing a run-differential system that runs counter to an ingrained facet of baseball, but that’s a discussion for the future.
As long as the WBC—or any other professional baseball outfit—has rules, players can not be knocked for trying to best position their teams to succeed within them.
Update, 3-11: Who knows if or how much the WBC had to do with it, but Leon, a 24-year-old who has never pitched in the big leagues, was just demoted to minors by the A’s.