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.

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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.”

 

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

When Unwritten Rules Collide: Proper Shift Etiquette During a No-No

You don’t break up a no-hitter with a bunt. It’s a cornerstone of baseball’s unwritten rules. I’m giving you my best as a pitcher, and I expect your best as a hitter, the theory goes, and with this much on the line, ticky-tack small-ball tricks hardly count as anyone’s best.

Except for one caveat: If it’s a close game, everything’s in bounds. If your team needs a baserunner, then by golly you go out and become that baserunner the most effective way you know how.

On Monday, the Padres added another caveat to the list. With Andrew Cashner working a no-no one out into the fifth, Dominic Brown pushed a bunt down the left field line. Nobody came close to making a play, and Brown was on with a single. It was only a 1-0 game, and as the possible tying run Brown had every right to do what he did.

Especially when the Padres put on the freaking shift.

Which brings us to No-Hitter Etiquette Exception No. 2: If You Don’t Want a Guy to Get a Hit, Try to Avoid Making the Process Unduly Easy for Him.  That this is the Padres—at this point known primarily as the only franchise never to throw a no-no—makes it all the worse. Since the Padres came on the scene in 1969, they’ve been at the wrong end of nine of them. The Dodgers have thrown two this season.  The St. Louis Terriers, who played in the Federal League in 1914-15, have a no-hitter to their name. But not the Padres.

And still, manager Bud Black put on the shift. When Brown bunted the ball down the third base line, it was fait accompli.  Alexi Amarista was the closest guy to it as it rolled down the line, and he was playing shortstop. At the very least, Black was defying the baseball gods by ignoring another no-hitter rule: Don’t change anything up—not a spot on the bench between innings, not a guy warming up in the pen, and especially not an overt defensive assignment.

Which brings us to the third rule the Padres broke. That would be, Don’t Complain When Somebody Exploits your Shift During a No-Hitter. Especially When it’s 1-0. Cashner was visibly displeased on the mound, but settled down to end the inning. (He eventually gave up a second hit, to Marlon Byrd.) There was some dugout grumbling and the fans booed wildly. (Which is not to say that everybody in the home clubhouse was crying. “This is baseball,” said catcher Rene Rivera in an MLB.com report. “If you’re going to give a guy that side of the infield, why not take your hit?”)

It brings to mind that only two seasons ago, Jarrod Saltalamacchia also bunted against a shift to break up a no-hitter, which, like this one, was a fine thing to do. It also brings to mind that earlier this season, Colby Lewis got upset when somebody bunted to break up his no-hitter in the fifth inning, despite it being a perfectly acceptable thing to do. What it really brings to mind, though, is the most famous no-hitter-destroying bunt in history, which also involved the Padres, though in 2001 it was one of their own doing the bunting. And Ben Davis didn’t even bunt into a shift when he did it.

As for Brown, he said afterward that he wouldn’t have bunted had it been the ninth inning, but in the fifth all bets are on the table. It showed good awareness of the rules, though it probably won’t buy him any goodwill from the Padres fans who were ignorant enough to boo him in the first place.

 

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter, Oakland A's, The First Hit of a Game Must be Clean

1972: A’s Unhappy Over Bunt that Broke up Vida’s No-No

Vida TimeResearch for my next book, about the Oakland A’s dynasty of the 1970s, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015, has turned up boundless examples of unwritten rules from that bygone era. The latest is from Oakland Tribune beat writer Ron Bergman, on Aug. 1, 1972. Of note is that A’s players did not appear to be upset over a bunt as the game’s first hit so much as the official scorer’s unwillingness to call it an error:

Vida Blue retired the first 17 men he faced before opposing pitcher Rich Hand [of the Texas Rangers] laid down a bunt with two out in the sixth inning. The score was 1-0 at the time. Third baseman Sal Bando swooped in to pick up the ball, stumbled off balance when it landed in his glove and then couldn’t extract it. By the time he plucked it out for an errant throw to first base, it was too late.

Official scorer Joe Sargis of UPI called it a hit, which took some courage. A line drive single by pinch-hitter Toby Harrah on the first pitch of the ninth didn’t mitigate the anger in the A’s clubhouse.

Blue seem to be the least disturbed.

“A hit is a hit, “Vida said. “No hits or 55 hits, you’ve still got to get 27 outs.”

“It should have been an error,” Bando declared. “I couldn’t get the ball out of my glove. I threw it over there to give them a chance to call it an error. I’ve seen games in which something like that is called an error, and if there’s another hit they go back and change the first call. The first hit is supposed to be a clean hit. I think that if that was called an error, Vida would have pitched a no-hitter.”

“We all were sure it would be called an error,” A’s manager Dick Williams told Sargis.

Hand said he saw Bando back up after the first pitch, “so I decided to give the bunt a whirl. It was a hit all the way, as clear as it’s going to be. I don’t see what they’re yelling about over there. They won, didn’t they?”

 

 

 

 

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

Perfecto Broken Up by Bunt … and for Once That’s Okay

Boston, a day after getting gut-punched 20-2 by the Oakland A’s, had mustered not so much as a baserunner with two outs in the fifth inning Saturday against right-hander A.J. Griffin.

Frustration was inevitable, but was it sufficient to explain why Jarrod Saltalamacchia would bunt in the middle of a perfect game? The Red Sox catcher did, and reached base safely, which seems like a no-brainer: The guy was in clear violation of the Code. Heck, he even had a parallel with the most famous perfect game breaker-upper in history, Ben Davis—another catcher, who pulled the trick against Curt Schilling in 2001.

There was, however, a notable difference: For some unexplainable reason, A’s manager Bob Melvin had put on a defensive shift. With third baseman Adam Rosales positioned where the shortstop usually stands, Saltalamacchia was given the same kind of wide-open invitation all left-handed batters receive in that situation: an easy base hit with a well-placed bunt. Saltalamacchia, who has all of three sacrifice bunts in his career—all in 2007—took him up on the offer. (Watch it here, starting at the 1:03 mark.)

If the theory behind the governing rule is that a team’s first hit should be above board, with no gimmickry involved, then it should only follow that the defensive positioning of the pitcher’s team should follow suit. When Melvin opted not to play things straight up—despite holding a 5-0 lead—his opposition can hardly be faulted for acting similarly.

Melvin acknowledged as much after the game. “I probably should have had the third baseman in,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

To Griffin’s credit, the pitcher appeared to not hold any grudges. “It’s a good way to try to get momentum for your team,” he said. “There’s not anything I can do about it except try to get the next guy. Whatever.” (Bobby Valentine, who has far bigger controversies to consider than this one, added the sentiment, “Who cares?”)

There’s lots of blame to go around for Boston’s misery this season, but not on this play. If Griffin has a beef with anybody, it should be Bob Melvin.

Ben Davis, Curt Schilling, Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter

Tenth Anniversary of an Unwritten Rule Violation People Still Delight in Referencing

Today marks a decade since Ben Davis bunted on Curt Schilling. If that reference fails to ring a bell, you clearly have some catching up to do. Might I suggest your nearest copy of The Baseball Codes, from which the following passage is excerpted:

Davis came up in the eighth inning as the twenty-third hitter to face Curt Schilling, entirely cognizant that his team was 0-for-22 to that point. Because swinging the bat against the big right-hander had not yet paid dividends, Davis switched gears and, noting the deep positioning of third baseman Craig Counsell, laid down a bunt. Although the execution was lacking—Davis popped the ball up, just over Schilling’s head—the hit nonetheless fell between the mound and second baseman Jay Bell, who was also stationed deep. Davis safely reached base with his team’s first hit.

The Arizona bench exploded at the audacity, calling the player gutless and intoning that he was afraid to take his hacks like a man. To judge the play by the unwritten rules, the Diamondbacks had a point. “The first hit of a no-hitter is not a bunt,” said Kansas City Royals pitcher Danny Jack­son fifteen years earlier, in 1986, after Angels rookie Devon White attempted to break up his own no-hitter with a failed eighth-inning bunt attempt. “I don’t know how long he’s been around,” Jackson said about the outfielder, “but he’s got to go down.” Arizona manager Bob Brenly felt the same way about Ben Davis, calling the play “chickenshit” and saying that Davis “has a lot to learn about how the game is played.”

“It wasn’t the heat of the pennant race in September, or something like that,” said Diamondbacks left fielder Luis Gonzalez. “They say every game counts, but when a guy’s doing something masterful like that, if you get a hit you want to earn it in the right way.” Third baseman Matt Williams said he wouldn’t have done it. First baseman Mark Grace said that, although he didn’t fault Davis, if it was him he wouldn’t have had the balls. Schilling was “a little stunned” at the move; his experience taught him that players should earn their way on base in that type of situation.

There was, however, a mitigating factor. The score of the game was 2–0, and when Davis reached base it brought the tying run to the plate. The Padres clearly hadn’t been getting it done against Schilling in any other regard, so from a strategic standpoint Davis’s approach worked. “I don’t know if you saw my swings against him . . . ,” the catcher said. “I’m just trying to get on base any way I can right there, and I did.”

“What if it’s the seventh game of the World Series? Would they or any­body be upset?” asked Padres manager Bruce Bochy. “No, because that’s a huge game and you’re trying to win.” Arizona, he said, wanted the Padres to “drop our weapons and raise our hands.”

Even Schilling grasped both sides of the argument. Though stopping short of taking Davis’s side, he expressed understanding for those who did. “Whether I agree with it being the right thing to do or not is not really relevant,” he said. “It was a 2–0 game. . . . If it’s 9–0, yeah, I think it’s a horseshit thing to do. But it was a 2–0 game and the bottom line is, unwritten rules or not, you’re paid to win games. That’s the only reason you’re playing in the big leagues.”

One interesting aspect of the play was that even among the ranks of baseball’s old guard—guys who lived for and played by the Code—there was hardly unanimity of opinion. Cases were made both for and against Davis, with precedents cited from every generation—like the bunt by Milwaukee catcher Bill Schroeder that broke up a 1987 no-hitter by Roy­als left-hander Charlie Leibrandt in the sixth inning. Nineteen years after that, when Tampa Bay rookie Ben Zobrist bunted for his team’s first hit in the sixth inning of a game against Seattle’s Jerrod Washburn, the pitcher himself agreed that nothing improper had transpired. “If it was the eighth or ninth, maybe that would have rubbed me the wrong way,” Washburn said, “but bunting is just part of the game, and he was just trying to make something happen.”

The Schilling-Davis affair, however, was full of gray area. Some base­ball people will accept a no-hitter-spoiling bunt if bunting is an estab­lished part of the hitter’s offensive repertoire—but Ben Davis was hardly a bunter. In fact, said Brenly, “That was the only time Ben Davis ever tried to bunt for a base hit to my recollection. . . . For a backup catcher who had never bunted for a base hit before in his life to do it, I thought that was unnecessary to begin with, and disrespectful, to top it off.”

The notion of disrespect stems from the fact that Davis clearly took advantage of Counsell’s extra-deep positioning, as the infielder attempted to protect against hard-hit balls that might otherwise have shot by him. Counsell felt safe at that range because he thought there was little chance that a runner as slow as Davis would so blatantly violate the unwritten rules.

Part of the problem was that Davis’s bunt wasn’t even good enough to benefit from Counsell’s positioning. “I was mad that it was such a bad bunt and was still a hit,” said Schilling. “He bunted as bad a ball as you can bunt, to the most perfect spot in the infield to bunt it. . . . I never said it was a horseshit play. I thought it was a horseshit bunt.”

Once the dust settled a bit, the last man standing at the center of the controversy wasn’t Schilling or even Davis—it was Brenly, who, as the most outspoken critic of the play, was left in its aftermath to defend his initial anger. He has since softened his stance, even going so far as to admit that much of his posturing was simply a matter of standing up for his pitcher, to make sure that “Curt Schilling knew that I was looking out for his interests.”

Still, years after the fact, he had a question for which he says he never received an adequate answer: “If it’s such a good fuckin’ play, why didn’t he do it every time?”

– Jason

Don't Bunt to Break Up a No-Hitter, Felix Hernandez, Julio Borbon

Bunt on King Felix? Preposterous!

It’s perpetually incredible that major league players can be unclear on the sport’s primary unwritten rules. Some claim complete ignorance, some apathy. Some are simply too green to have heard of them.

Occasionally, however, a player will think he knows the rules when in fact he’s a bit hazier on the topic than he’d care to admit.

Take Felix Hernandez, who, in the middle of a would be no-hitter against Texas on Friday, got up on his high horse about a Code violation that wasn’t really a violation at all.

Julio Borbon bunted.

We hear it frequently: Don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter. Give a pitcher your best effort, because enduring mound performances deserve no less. The concept rose to prominence in 2001, when Padres catcher Ben Davis broke up Curt Schilling’s perfect game with a bunt, and all hell broke loose from the Arizona clubhouse.

“You shouldn’t do that,” Hernandez said in the Everett Herald, about Borbon’s effort. “Sixth inning and a guy is throwing a no-hitter, it’s disrespect.”

It’s a decent rule, especially if it’s late in the game (as was the case with Davis) and the guy bunting doesn’t make ordinary practice of the tactic (as was also the case with Davis).

Borbon, however, has some speed. And the game was still in the middle innings.

More importantly, the Rangers trailed only 2-0 at the time. Borbon’s effort, had it been successful, would have brought the tying run to the plate, something the rest of his teammates had been unable to do to that point in the game.

In this case (and in that of Davis, who also bunted facing a 2-0 deficit), winning trumps all. Do what you must to win the game.

We’ve seen the tactic unsuccessfully attempted at least twice this year, by Gordon Beckham (against Chicago’s Ted Lilly, whose no-no was broken up later in the game) and Evan Longoria (in the middle of Dallas Braden’s perfect game).

The guy who had it absolutely correct: Borbon.

“What was I supposed to do, let him have it his way?” he said in an MLB.com report. “I realize he was throwing a no-hitter, but I wasn’t getting out of my game. If the game was one-sided it might be different, but in a close game like that, it could be a difference-maker.

“I was trying to get it down and get something going. I wasn’t worried about the no-hitter. If we were down six, seven eight runs, I’m going to swing the bat. But down 2-0 in the sixth inning, I don’t think I was being disrespectful to him or the game or to anybody. I was trying to do something for the team.”

Just like he was supposed to.

– Jason