Category Archives: Don’t Play Aggressively with a Big Lead

To Bunt or Not to Bunt: Is That Even a Question Anymore?

 

wee-willie-keeler

Today’s topic sits at the core of baseball’s unwritten rules, but amid the recent thunderstorm of bat flips and other erstwhile celebration it seems to have gotten a bit lost: Don’t run up the score on an opponent.

What this means in baseball terms is the cessation of aggressive play while holding a big lead late in a game. Players in such situations still try to get hits and score runs, of course—they just don’t take chances to do so. Mostly this means playing station-to-station, advancing only one base on a single, two on a double, etc. The rule also discourages things like stolen bases and sacrifices.

The pertinent question is less about whether one should do such a thing than when it should happen—what constitutes the definition of big lead and late?

The Baseball Codes offers a quick-hit array of opinions on the matter:

  • “It used to be that [running with] anything more than a four-run lead was wrong, and you’ve got to be careful with that.”—Tony La Russa
  • “When I was playing, if you had a four-run lead it was a courtesy not to run. But you can do that now.”—Ozzie Guillen
  • “Once I had you by five runs and you couldn’t tie me with a grand slam, that was it.”—Sparky Anderson
  • “I was always taught you shut it down at five runs after six.”—Dusty Baker
  • “Five runs in the sixth, I’m not stopping there. We get into the sev­enth inning, then I’ll start chilling a little bit.”—Ron Washington
  • “We play [to shut it down] if you’re up seven runs in the seventh inning.”—Jim Slaton
  • “From the seventh inning on, if one swing of the bat can tie you up, it’s game on,” said ex–first baseman Mark Grace in 2006. “If it’s 4–0, you have Jason Schmidt on the mound, and he’s only given up one hit, you still go for it if Ray Durham gets on base in the eighth inning. Now, if it’s 6–0, you’re in territory where you might get a player hit in the brain in response.”

That list was first published in 2010, and already it seems so, so quaint.

Take, for example, yesterday’s Dodgers-Diamondbacks game. Los Angeles starter Kenta Maeda had given up only one hit through six as his team built an 8-0 lead, but with two on and nobody out, he did this:

maeda-bunts

Additional details: The game was played in pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium, limiting the big-comeback potential held by numerous bandboxes around the league. Dodgers starters had gone at least six innings in each of the previous two games, so their bullpen wasn’t particularly hurting. Maeda had thrown only 86 pitches. The lead seemed about as safe as a lead could be, yet there was Maeda, laying one down.

Was this kosher? My gut screamed “No!”—but I’m willing to admit that my gut is rooted in 1954 as far as these things go. It’s now okay to toss a bat for something so simple as a sacrifice fly, so perhaps it’s also okay to chase runs while up by eight and with every incidental factor leaning in your favor. Hell, Vin Scully said as much during the broadcast, and who am I to question the legend?

One thing that hasn’t changed is the question about how much is too much. Is eight runs now the limit? Ten? Twelve? In the sixth inning or the eighth?

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the diversity of opinion. I haven’t run any recent polls of big league managers, but it’s a fair certainty that there’s hardly unanimity on the subject. Even more certain is that, while four runs were once the limit, the current number is much, much higher. That is, if there even is an upper limit.

There must be a reason, after all, that this hasn’t been much of an issue recently. Bunt away, boys.

[H/T Uzzy]

 

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Replay Revenge Rocks Runaway Rally Against Redbirds

 

Maddon

Yesterday, Hardball Talk pointed out something brewing in a next-level unwritten rules controversy: management of the challenge system.

On Tuesday, in the ninth inning of a game in which the Cubs were leading the Cardinals, 8-1, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny ordered his infield to play in—a decidedly unusual move so late in a blowout. Typically, such tactics—things like having first basemen hold runners close—are eschewed when the final result is no longer in question. Pitchers even stop nibbling around the corners, the better to force action and end things quickly.

So why would he do it? ESPN’s Jesse Rogers may have an answer.

During the play in question, Addision Russell—the third batter of the ninth inning—was called out at first after grounding to St. Louis second baseman Kolten Wong. It would have been the inning’s second out.

Instead, Maddon challenged, and Russell was ruled safe. The Cubs went on to score four times, ultimately winning, 12-3. By all appearances, Matheny saw the move as disrespectful. The Code during runaway games is largely aimed at avoiding unnecessary embarrassment for an opponent that’s already been embarrassed enough, the equivalent of a college football team pulling its starters while holding a 35-point lead in the fourth quarter.

Maddon explained his replay process thusly, via MLB.com:

“That validates running hard to first base. Two things could happen there: Maybe [Russell] could hit .300 because of that play, but more than anything, if our minor league players are watching, they see the validation of running hard to first base all the time.”

Both things are true. But a baserunner saying that the bag he swiped late in a May blowout might be the one that allowed him to reach 50 is spurious logic. This isn’t much different.

The Code during a blowout also stipulates the cessation of aggressive tactics, which means station-to-station running: advance only one base on a single, two on a double, etc. Wanting to reward his player for a hit justly earned wasn’t aggressive on Maddon’s part, but the Cubs actions with the very next batter—Javier Baez scored Chicago’s ninth run from second base on a single by Tim Federowicz—were.

Remember, Maddon’s Cubs and the Cards already have some history.

Ultimately, this seems like an issue that should be more or less immune to the unwritten rules. If a guy earns a hit, a guy earns a hit, and his manager looking out for him in that regard is the least he can do. Had Maddon chosen to challenge a play on the basepaths, it’d be a different story. For the time being, however, watching the Cubs and Cards snipe at each other is its own special reward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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David Ortiz: Maybe Not the Best Spokesman for His Own Damn Point of View

Ortiz flip

David Ortiz took on the haters yesterday in the pages of the Boston Globe. It should come as no surprise, since the guy’s proclamations were the same as they ever were. To wit:

  • Flipping a bat is his right as a hitter.
  • He doesn’t make a big deal of it when a pitcher pumps a fist after striking him out.
  • Shut up.

On two of those counts, anyway, he is correct. He’s also correct in his assertion that such expression is more at home in the modern game than ever before. When Ortiz started flipping bats back in the late-1990s, baseball’s landscape was far less tolerant of such displays than it is today, but the guy has officially worked himself into the mainstream … or worked the mainstream around himself.*

It’s in his rationalization of the process that Ortiz goes off the rails.

Start with this:

“Respect? Respect my [expletive]. I don’t have to respect nobody when I’m between those two lines. I’m trying to beat everybody when I’m between those two lines. This ain’t no crying. There’s no, ‘Let me be concerned about taking you deep.’ No.”

While Ortiz subsequently affirmed a willingness to respect his opponents as people, he couldn’t have landed further from the point.

As the father and coach of two ballplaying preteens, I emphasize respect for the opposition as emphatically as I do proper mechanics. Just yesterday, one of my son’s teammates, a 7-year-old, pitched his first-ever inning in Little League, and struck out the side. When he returned to the dugout, however, the first thing he heard from his father, another coach on the team, was about his habit of repeatedly pumping his fist after throwing strikes.

Argue with the approach if you’d like, but not with the underlying message that respect on a ballfield is paramount.

In the big leagues, of course, players have spent the last decade separating actions like bat flips and fist pumps from the concept of respect. It’s all about me, Ortiz and players like him insist, not about him or them. They’re not showing anybody up, they say, so much as celebrating their own actions.

That credo, however, leaves plenty of wiggle room for respect. The moment that bat-flipping became accepted major league practice was the moment that it could no longer be seen as disrespectful.

With his sentiments in the Globe, however, Ortiz kicked the entire house of cards to the ground. I’ve come to accept that bat flipping and the like are now part of the professional sport. When they become not about a player’s own greatness, but the lack of same from the opposition, though, it’s a bridge too far. Perhaps this is not what Ortiz was intending to convey, but the phrase “I don’t have to respect nobody” seems pretty clear-cut.

He also said this:

“Whenever somebody criticizes a power hitter for what we do after we hit a home run, I consider that person someone who is not able to hit a homer ever in his life. Look at who criticizes the power hitters in the game and what we do. It’s either a pitcher or somebody that never played the game. Think about it. You don’t know that feeling. You don’t know what it takes to hit a homer off a guy who throws 95 miles per hour. You don’t know anything about it. And if you don’t know anything about it, [shut up]. [Shut up]. Seriously. If you don’t know anything about it, [shut up], because that is another level.”

While Ortiz’s “Respect my ass” proclamation is ridiculous, his if-you-didn’t-play-your-opinion-doesn’t-count cliché is simply tired. Sportswriters spend more time considering the game than most players, and many die-hard fans spend even more time at it than the guys in the press box. Having never laced up spikes as a professional hardly invalidates their opinions.

Even more glaring was Ortiz’s claim that a vast number of his colleagues—pitchers—be similarly marginalized. If he really wanted to find a prominent position player who’s hit plenty of home runs and disagrees with much of what he says, he wouldn’t have to look far.

There was more.

“When a power hitter does a bat flip, you don’t hurt nobody. If I hit a homer, did a bat flip, threw it in the stands and break a couple of people’s heads, I understand. But that’s not what it is,” he added. “When you see a pitcher do a fist pump when they strike out any one of us, or jumping on the mound, I don’t see anybody talking about that. Nobody’s talking about that.”

 

Hmm.

Does Ortiz really think that pitchers acting like assholes do not get noticed?

Ultimately, he sounded less like somebody elucidating his right to self-expression, and more like somebody trying to bluster his way through an argument in which he does not fully believe. He’d have had me with the simple notion that he likes to celebrate after doing something good. The abundance of overt and misguided rationalization, however, has little benefit for anybody.

In Ortiz’s defense, at least one of his statements is incontrovertibly correct. “This ain’t no old school,” he said in closing. “This is what it is in today’s day. You pull yourself together and get people out, or you pull yourself together and you go home. That’s what it is.”

* Reggie Jackson is frequently cited—including by Ortiz during his diatribe—as the guy who all but invented the home run pimp. Actually, it was Harmon Killebrew, a guy who Jackson himself credits with breaking that particular ground. Similarly, for all the credit/infamy (depending on your point of view) given to Yasiel Puig for popularizing the bat flip, we should not lose sight of Ortiz’s importance in setting that particular standard.

 

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Filed under Bat Flipping, David Ortiz, Uncategorized, Unwritten Rules

Wayback Machine: Dealing With Code Violations in a Bygone Era

Darrel ThomasIn researching a project unrelated to baseball’s unwritten rules, I came across an item that was too good to not share.

May 25, 1979: In the sixth inning of a game against the Reds, Dodgers second baseman Davey Lopes drilled a three-run homer. Trouble was, the Dodgers led by 12 runs at the time, and he swung at a 3-0 pitch to hit it. The blast gave Los Angeles a 17-2 lead.

This, of course, was a clear violation of the unwritten rules. From The Baseball Codes:

The last thing a pitcher wants to do with his team down by a wide margin late in the game is walk batters, which not only suggests unnecessary nibbling but extends a game that players want to end quickly. When a count gets to 3-0 … it’s a near-certainty that the ensuing pitch will be a fastball down the middle. The unwritten rulebook does not equivocate at this moment, prohibit­ing hitters in such situations not just from swinging hard, but from swing­ing at all.

There’s also the factor of rubbing it in while running up the score. In the modern game, of course, such actions are no longer universally seen as an unequivocal sign of disrespect. Baseball is entertainment, the thinking goes, and nothing is more entertaining than a well-struck ball. The rule still exists, but more players than ever opt out of recognizing it.

In 1979, however, such was not the case. Two innings after Lopes’ homer, Cincinnati reliever Dave Tomlin fed him four straight inside pitches. None of them connected, but after the fourth, Lopes, irate, threw his bat into the air and hollered toward the mound.

It was enough to draw players from both dugouts, even as Lopes angrily stalked toward first base. No fight appeared forthcoming until Dodgers utilityman Derrel Thomas—a perpetual wild card when it came to baseball propriety—decided to take a swing at Cincinnati’s Rick Auerbach, spurring numerous scuffles. This, far more than Lopes’ action, spurred the Reds to action.

Before the next day’s game, Cincinnati players decided to draw names of the Dodgers out of a hat, representing their assignments in the eventuality of another fight.

Every slip of paper said the same thing: Derrel Thomas.

(Thomas started the following day in center field, without incident.)

 

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Bo Porter, We Hardly Knew Thee …

Bo PorterSo Bo Porter has been fired by the Astros amid reports of tension and disagreements about how to handle an exceedingly young roster. There’s no indication that it had anything to do with Porter’s April meltdown over a first-inning bunt by the A’s … but that phrase—”meltdown over a first-inning bunt by the A’s”—merits revisitation. In addition to another incident in which he should not have lost his cool, Porter quickly became the wackiest new manager in the major leagues as far as the unwritten rules were concerned. We’re sorry to see him go.

From the original reason we fell in love with the guy, back in April:

What’s up, Bo Porter?

Because baseball’s unwritten rules are built upon the concept of respect, the first rule among them is usually don’t run up the score.

What this means, practically speaking, is shutting down aggressive play late in blowout games—things like stealing bases and hustling into a base that is not otherwise conceded to you. People differ on the point at which such a code comes into play, but in nearly 10 years of covering this very topic, one thing has become abundantly clear to me:

The first inning of a game can never, ever, under any circumstances, be described as “late in the game.”

So when Houston manager Porter—and by extension, Astros pitcher Paul Clemens—took exception to Oakland’s Jed Lowrie laying down a bunt (against an accomodating defensive shift, no less) in the first inning on Friday, it was nothing short of ludicrous.

Houston’s fuse had burned short: The A’s had already scored seven runs in the frame, and Lowrie was batting for the second time. Also, they’re the Astros.

When Clemens faced Lowrie in his next-at bat, in the third, there was no mistaking his intentions. The right-hander’s first pitch was aimed at Lowrie’s knee, and ended up going between his legs. (Watch it here.) His second pitch was also inside.

After Lowrie flied out to end the inning, he asked former teammate Jose Altuve what was going on. At this point, Porter stormed out of the dugout and began shouting at Lowrie to “go back to shortstop.”

Porter’s rage would have been understandable if it was even the sixth or seventh inning, let alone the eighth or the ninth. Sure, his team is the AL-worst Astros, who boast six sub-.200 hitters in the starting lineup, and whose best hitter, Jason Castro, is batting .216. Yes, Porter was already into his bullpen.

His is probably the perfect team to lend credence to the point that, in the face of the Astros’ own inability to score runs, Lowrie was, in some way, rubbing it in.

But still: IT WAS THE FIRST INNING.

Lowrie hit it on the screws in his postgame comments.

“If we’re talking about the eighth inning, of course I’m not going to bunt,” he said in an MLB.com report. “But they’re giving me that by playing the shift and, as a competitive guy, I’m trying to help my team win. We’re talking about the first inning of a Major League game.”

Yes, we are. Yes, we are.

 

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The Air is Hot, Smart or Not, Deep in the Heart of Texas

Lewis shoutsSo this is what the ruination of baseball’s unwritten rules looks like. People keep marginalizing them, shunting them to the corner, labeling those who play by their merits as kooks and haters of fun. What we’re left with, at least in part, is this: Ballplayers, both red-assed and traditionalist, playing less by moral imperative than by half-formed opinions based on a system they don’t appear to fully understand.

Case in point: Rangers starter Colby Lewis, who on Saturday lit into Toronto’s Colby Rasmus (in the rare and wondrous Battle of the Colbys) for daring to lay down a bunt late in the game while the Blue Jays sat on a huge lead.

Except that it was only the fifth inning. And the score was 2-0. Oh, Colby Lewis.

The section of the unwritten rulebook that Lewis was attempting to channel was the one that dictates avoidance of running up the score late in games. It’s a simple matter of respecting one’s opponent enough to keep from embarrassing him … but that doesn’t have much relevance to whatever happened in Toronto. Just as Astros manager Bo Porter was ludicrous when he exploded over a first-inning Jed Lowrie bunt back in April, Lewis is ludicrous now.

Rasmus bunted because—here’s the pertinent part—his run mattered. Lewis was upset that Rasmus had taken advantage of a defensive shift designed to stop him from hitting. Now that such shifts are gaining traction even as the Code is losing it, we’re faced with an awkward intersection: Is there a moral component to playing straight-up against the shift with the fact that it presents an obvious weakness (nobody playing down the third base line) to exploit? The closest example I can conjure is the first baseman who plays off the bag despite a runner being on base late in a blowout game, with the expectation that the runner will hold anyway. He wants the defensive advantage of playing in the hole, and expects that his opposition will not take similar advantages of their own.

But those who think that situation is reasonable do so because of the lopsided score. In a close game, if a defense wants to gain the advantage of an extra defender on the right side of the infield, it has no business taking exception should a batter exploit that weakness. Which is not only what Rasmus did, but which is what every hitter with speed should do, at least on occasion.

Lewis had words for Rasmus on the field (watch it here) and after the game explained just what was going on. “I told [Rasmus] I didn’t appreciate it,” Lewis said in an MLB.com report. “You’re up by two runs with two outs and you lay down a bunt. I don’t think that’s the way the game should be played. I felt like you have a situation where there is two outs, you’re up two runs, you have gotten a hit earlier in the game off me, we are playing the shift, and he laid down a bunt basically simply for average.”

Lewis’ criteria for judgment was that once Rasmus reached base, he didn’t try to steal and get himself into scoring position. “That tells me he is solely looking out for himself, and looking out for batting average, and I didn’t appreciate it,” he said, digging himself into a dangerous rabbit hole of inanity. Left unexplained: If in Lewis’ mind the game situation dictated that Rasmus wasn’t allowed to bunt, the question isn’t whether the pitcher’s head would have exploded had Rasums stolen a base, but how violently.

Hell, Curt Schilling didn’t take offense when Ben Davis bunted against him to ruin his perfect game in 2001. That’s because, like the game in Toronto, the score was 2-0 and a baserunner could have made a difference.

Or one could look in another direction: When Jarrod Saltalamacchia bunted to break up a perfect game against Oakland’s A.J. Griffin in 2012, he was barely faulted for it by Oakland manager Bob Melvin, not because the score was close but because Melvin had put on a shift similar to the one Texas used on Saturday. “I probably should have had the third baseman in,” said Melvin at the time.

Ultimately it’s up to players to recognize what is and isn’t appropriate, and to be damn sure they’ve been aggrieved should they get their jocks in a bunch over a given play. The Code is a powerful part of baseball’s social fabric, but only when it’s leveraged properly. Because the facts of the matter don’t back him up, all Colby Lewis is left with is a bunch of hot, angry air.

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Bo Knows: No Such Thing as Too Early, When it Comes to Well-Timed Bunts

Lowrie-Porter

What’s up, Bo Porter?

Because baseball’s unwritten rules are built upon the concept of respect, the first rule among them is usually don’t run up the score.

What this means, practically speaking, is shutting down aggressive play late in blowout games—things like stealing bases and hustling into a base that is not otherwise conceded to you. People differ on the point at which such a code comes into play, but in nearly 10 years of covering this very topic, one thing has become abundantly clear to me:

The first inning of a game can never, ever, under any circumstances, be described as “late in the game.”

So when Houston manager Porter—and by extension, Astros pitcher Paul Clemens—took exception to Oakland’s Jed Lowrie laying down a bunt (against an accomodating defensive shift, no less) in the first inning on Friday, it was nothing short of ludicrous.

Houston’s fuse had burned short: The A’s had already scored seven runs in the frame, and Lowrie was batting for the second time. Also, they’re the Astros.

When Clemens faced Lowrie in his next-at bat, in the third, there was no mistaking his intentions. The right-hander’s first pitch was aimed at Lowrie’s knee, and ended up going between his legs. (Watch it here.) His second pitch was also inside.

After Lowrie flied out to end the inning, he asked former teammate Jose Altuve what was going on. At this point, Porter stormed out of the dugout and began shouting at Lowrie to “go back to shortstop.”

Porter’s rage would have been understandable if it was even the sixth or seventh inning, let alone the eighth or the ninth. Sure, his team is the AL-worst Astros, who boast six sub-.200 hitters in the starting lineup, and whose best hitter, Jason Castro, is batting .216. Yes, Porter was already into his bullpen.

His is probably the perfect team to lend credence to the point that, in the face of the Astros’ own inability to score runs, Lowrie was, in some way, rubbing it in.

But still: IT WAS THE FIRST INNING.

Lowrie hit it on the screws in his postgame comments.

“If we’re talking about the eighth inning, of course I’m not going to bunt,” he said in an MLB.com report. “But they’re giving me that by playing the shift and, as a competitive guy, I’m trying to help my team win. We’re talking about the first inning of a Major League game.”

Yes, we are. Yes, we are.

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