Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Bunting During A No-Hitter is No Bueno, Even In The Minor Leagues

Finally, we have some unwritten-rules stuff in baseball that doesn’t involve bat flips or pitchers annoyed by bat flips or bat flippers annoyed by the fact that pitchers get annoyed by bat flips.

A minor-league game yesterday harkened back to one of the great moments in unwritten-rules history (as defined by something that seems utterly inconsequential being elevated to a level of national importance):

Bunting to break up a no-hitter.

The event we remember best in this regard happened back in 2001, when San Diego catcher Ben Davis broke up Curt Schilling’s perfect game by laying one down. Folks on the Arizona bench were irate. I went over this in some detail in The Baseball Codes, including a meaty excerpt of the section that ran on the 10th anniversary of the event.

Yesterday it happened again in a Double-A game between the Trenton Thunder and the Hartford Yard Goats. With one out in the ninth and his team having gone 0-for-25 to that point, Trenton’s Matt Lipka laid one down in front of surprised closer Ben Bowden, and beat it out.

Bowden quickly got the remaining two outs, but his teammates were disgruntled to the point of wanting to fight, which led to a postgame infield scrum before the teams could decamp for their respective clubhouses. No punches appear to have been thrown.

The idea behind the prohibition against such bunts is that players should not resort to trickery to avoid ending up on the wrong end of history. No-hitters don’t come around that often, and any pitcher dominant enough to take one late into a game deserves the opposition’s best effort, not some weasely backdoor attempt to slap a hit on the board in any way possible.

This kind of thing happens far more frequently than one might think.

As with Ben Davis’ bunt against Schilling 18 years ago, of course, there were some mitigating factors in Hartford.

For one thing, it wasn’t one Hartford pitcher having an all-time dominant day, but four: right-hander Rico Garcia pitched the first six innings, followed by one frame each by a trio of relievers. Two Trenton runners had already reached base earlier in the game on errors

Far more importantly, the score at the time of the bunt was only 3-0. By reaching safely, Lipka put the tying run on deck and got Bowden into the stretch. After more than eight innings of baseball, it was his team’s best chance to get back into the game. (In case you haven’t already clicked the above link, Davis’ bunt came in a 2-0 game, and Schilling didn’t hold it against him.)

Ultimately, as with any unwritten rule, winning trumps the Code. Just as close games serve to stifle retaliatory tendencies, they also allow players to get away with some tactics that would never play with a different score.

Even, it appears, in the minors.

Update, 6/7: Well, that took a dark turn. Some fans are nuts.

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Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Belt’s (Sort-Of) Bunt Breaks Up No-No, Everybody Remains Calm

Belt bunts

We have another entry in the bunting-to-break-up-a-no-hitter category only a short way into the season: Brandon Belt did it on Tuesday to ruin Patrick Corbin’s no-no in the eighth inning. It was completely aboveboard, for a host of reasons:

  • It was a swinging bunt, not a squared-up affair. Arizona manager Torey Lovullo called it a check-swing, but it looked to me more like a clear push toward the left side.
  • It would have been okay even if it was the buntiest of squared-up bunts, given that the game was scoreless and Belt represented the go-ahead run.
  • The reason Belt so wanted to push the ball to the left side was that, like Minnesota before them, the Diamondbacks had put on an extreme right-side shift against him. It paid off for them earlier in the game, when Belt grounded out to third baseman Daniel Descalso, positioned to the right side of second base, in the third inning. Descalso was positioned similarly in the eighth. It didn’t work out so well the second time around.

Belt bunts sort of

Unlike Minnesota, nobody on Arizona’s side of the field seemed to take umbrage with Belt’s tactics following the D’Backs’ 1-0 victory. “Unfortunately we play a shift, we play an aggressive overshift and you saw what happened,” said Lovullo after the game, blaming himself, not Belt, in an MLB.com report.

This year we’ve already seen Cleveland bunt against the shift during a one-hitter and the Angels bunt against Cleveland during a no-hitter, which follow last year’s incidents involving Justin Verlander and Gio Gonzalez.

The good news is that, save for a few profoundly sensitive players in Minnesota, nobody really thought twice about any of these situations.

As for Belt, he continued to be a thorn in Arizona’s side on Wednesday night.

Bunt appropriately, Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

In Wake Of When-To-Bunt Talk, Simmons Bunts Whenever The Hell He Feels Like It, World Continues To Turn

Simmons bunts

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.

Sometimes.

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.

 

Bunt appropriately, Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Dozier Doubles Down on Blowout Bunt Talk

Dozier

Brian Dozier wants to explain himself.

After invoking baseball’s unwritten rules in ridiculous ways on Sunday to defend his disenchantment with the fact that an opponent had the audacity to bunt against the Twins’ shift, he felt some clarity was in order. So he continued to talk.

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:

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.

Bunt appropriately, Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Ninth-Inning Bunt Bothers Berrios, Twins Talk Tersely About Turf Tactics

Cisco bunts II

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.

Cisco's field
Minnesota’s defense as Sisco’s bunt rolls. That’s a lot of line.

Related: Dozier Doubles Down on Blowout Bunt Talk (4-4-18)

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter, No-Hitter Etiquette

Dee Gordon Swings Away Because of No-Bunting-During-a-No-Hitter Rule, Gets a Hit Anyway

Gordon hits

Baseball’s unwritten rules have a pervasive role in the fabric of the sport, helping to maintain a degree of respect and decorum. That part is good. But sometimes they’re just stupid.

Take yesterday. In the sixth inning of the Nationals-Marlins game, with Washington’s Gio Gonzalez throwing a no-hitter, Florida’s Dee Gordon thought about trying to bunt for a hit.

Typically, this is a no-no. We’ve already looked back this season at the infamous Ben Davis bunt that broke up Curt Schilling’s perfect game in 2001.

Except that Davis was a slow-footed catcher who had never bunted for a hit in his life. Gordon is second in the National League with 38 steals, a player for whom bunting is an essential tool. Also, it was a 1-0 game and Gordon represented the tying run.

“My game is to bunt,” Gordon said in a Miami Herald report, discussing his consternation over the unwritten rules. “I didn’t know if I could bunt or not. I was kind of in a weird situation for myself.”

Gordon didn’t bunt. Instead, he struck out. When he came up again in the ninth, Gonzalez’s no-hitter was still intact. Gordon didn’t even consider bunting.

Instead, he slashed a single to left field, Code be damned.

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Verlander’s No-No Beaten By Bunt, and Nobody Seems to Mind

Dyson bunts

It’s a convoluted question, so bear with me: Can the circumstances following a clear violation of the unwritten rules somehow alter how that rule is perceived?

In other words, might the end of a play justify the means?

The play in question is Jarrod Dyson’s bunt in the sixth inning of yesterday’s game against the Tigers, which broke up Justin Verlander’s perfect game.

Such a thing, of course, has long been frowned upon by baseball moralists as disrespectful of a pitcher’s attempt at greatness. To challenge a guy fully, the theory goes, one must do so in a straightforward manner, without trickery or deceit.

The most famous example of this, as outlined in The Baseball Codes, was the bunt laid down by Padres catcher Ben Davis against Arizona’s Curt Schilling in 2001. Davis was San Diego’s 23rd batter of the night but the first—after his ill-executed attempt managed to drop between the mound and second base—to reach safely. Afterward, Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly called the play “chickenshit” and said that Davis “has a lot to learn about how the game is played.”

Part of it was the intrusion on attempted perfection. Part of it was that Davis was a slow-footed catcher for whom bunting and speed were hardly part of his repertoire. Part of it was that the attempt came in the eighth inning, with Schilling only five outs from immortality.

One detail, however, served as adequate cover. The score was 2-0, and Davis had managed to bring the tying run to the plate. No matter how much animosity his bunt engendered in the opposing dugout, it is impossible to ignore the prime directive governing baseball’s unwritten rules: Winning trumps everything, and Davis had given his team its best chance on the day to win. Justification.

The circumstances yesterday in Seattle were somewhat different. Dyson’s bunt came in the sixth inning—early enough, perhaps, to validate it on its own merits. Take it from a different Seattle player, Jarrod Washburn—who pitched for the Mariners for four seasons, through 2009—whose own no-hitter was broken up by a bunt from Tampa Bay rookie Ben Zobrist in 2006. Like Dyson, Zobrist did it in the sixth inning, and it didn’t bother Washburn a bit. “If it was the eighth or ninth, maybe that would have rubbed me the wrong way,” he said at the time, “but bunting is just part of the game, and he was just trying to make something happen.”

Also in Dyson’s favor is that, unlike Davis, speed is an integral part of his game. Still, the play occurred while the Tigers held a 4-0 lead, and Dyson hardly represented the tying run. Sixteen years earlier, Davis could have creditably claimed that winning informed his strategy, but down four runs, Dyson’s rationalization was considerably more specious … save for two little words: And then.

And then, pitching out of the stretch for the first time all night, Verlander walked Mike Zunino. And then Jean Segura collected an infield single to load the bases. And then Ben Gamel scored Dyson with a single to center. And then, after Verlander struck out Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz brought home two more with a double. And then it was 4-3 and Verlander’s day was over. After retiring Seattle’s first 16 hitters, he retired only one of its next six, including Dyson’s bunt. Seattle scored four more against Detroit’s bullpen, and went home with a 7-5 victory.

Regardless of how things may have seemed at the moment Dyson laid down his bunt, there’s no questioning that the effort played a significant role in his team’s victory. Justification.

After the game, Verlander said that he had no problem with Dyson’s strategy. The best summation, however, came from Schilling, in reference to his own spoiled no-hitter all those years earlier. “Unwritten rules or not, you’re paid to win games,” he said in The Baseball Codes. “That’s the only reason you’re playing in the big leagues.”