Yesterday, Fernando Tatis Jr. hit a grand slam and the internet lost its damn mind.
It wasn’t the homer that did it, of course, it was the response … something to do with the unwritten rules.
In this case, circumstances matter. It was the top of the eighth inning, the bases were loaded and the Padres were leading Texas by seven runs (thanks in part to a three-run homer by Tatis an inning earlier). Pertinent to this discussion, Tatis’ fateful shot came on a 3-0 pitch. The Rangers didn’t know it at the time, but the young slugger had missed (or ignored) a take sign from his coach.
With that, Rangers manager Chris Woodward removed pitcher Juan Nicasio, inserted pitcher Ian Gibault, and watched as Gibault threw a pitch behind the next batter, Manny Machado. Message delivered. (No warnings were issued, and no other pitches came close to hitting anybody.)
After the game, Woodward addressed the issue directly. “I think there’s a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today’s game,” he said. “I didn’t like it, personally. You’re up by seven in the eighth inning; it’s typically not a good time to swing 3-0. It’s kind of the way we were all raised in the game.”
This is the point at which Woodward, and baseball in general, tends to lose touch with its fan base. What in the hell was the manager talking about, cried the majority opinion? Why should one of the sport’s brightest young stars be expected to do anything other than bright-young-star things, regardless of the situation?
It’s complicated. The rationale starts with pitchers, not hitters. During a blowout, nobody in either dugout wants to see the pace grind nearly to a halt while a pitcher tries to finesse the edges of the strike zone, especially while down in the count. 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.
At which point pitchers are expected (or were once expected, anyway) to throw something straight that will get the game moving again. For that one-pitch adjustment, hitters are expected (or were once expected) to lay off. As Sparky Anderson said in a New York Times report: “You don’t cherry-pick on the other team. You don’t take cripples. Three-oh, he’s struggling, he’s got to lay the ball in there. Don’t do it to the man. He’s got a family, too.”
Then again, Anderson said that back in 1993, which may as well have been 1893 as far as the evolution of the unwritten rules is concerned. The sport in which Anderson managed bears little resemblance to the modern game in numerous ways. A prominent aspect of this evolution is showboating, bat flips and the like, which once would have been certain to draw a pitcher’s attention but are now mostly background noise.
Swinging 3-0 is not quite the same thing, but it’s in the same ballpark.
It does happen from time to time. Last year, Twins outfielder Jake Cave swung 3-0 while his Twins led 13-5 in the ninth, and connected for a single. The next hitter, Max Kepler, saw three inside pitches and was drilled by the fourth.
Here’s the catch: The team doing the responding—the team at the wrong end of Cave’s swing—was Chris Woodward’s Texas Rangers. Woodward, it appears, is no stranger to having his pitchers mete out punishment for those who he feels cross a line, and swinging 3-0 is a prominent one for him.
(There are plenty of non-Woodward examples, as well. In 2017, Corey Seager swung 3-0 with a 5-0 lead, and before long teams were brawling on the field. In 2012, Jayson Werth swung 3-0 and benches emptied. In 2011, David Ortiz’s 3-0 swing helped lead to another fight. In the past, I’ve covered incidents from Davey Lopes, Vladimir Guerrero and Gary Sheffield. Hell, in 2001, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, fresh from Japan and unaware of this particular rule, was drilled for swinging 3-0 … and missing. Hell, Corey Kluber doesn’t even like it when guys swing hard against him, regardless of the count.)
Yesterday, the response from the Padres was less about the retaliatory pitch from Texas than with their own shortstop. On the telecast, cameras caught Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer—30 years old and a 10-year vet—telling various Rangers that “we’ll talk to him.” Sure enough, Hosmer sat Tatis down for a dugout conversation. Later, San Diego manager Jayce Tingler talked to reporters about the importance of getting signs correctly, called it “a learning opportunity,” and said “[Tatis] will grow from it.” (Prior to taking over the Padres, Tingler worked in the Rangers organization since 2007. The guess here is that he knows precisely what it will take to avoid bad blood with that team.)
But what about Tatis himself? On one hand, he’s 21 years old, in only his second season and hails from the Dominican Republic, where a freewheeling, unfettered brand of baseball is the norm. On the other, he grew up learning the major league game from his father, whose own big league career ran from 1999 to 2010, when Jr. was 11 years old.
“I’ve been in this game since I was a kid,” Tatis Jr. said after the game. “I know a lot of unwritten rules. I was kind of lost on this. … Those experiences, you have to learn. Probably next time, I’ll take a pitch.”
This is just another example of baseball needing to get a handle on outdated concepts of ballplayer decorum. Developing an entire promotional campaign—Let the Kids Play—around the idea of unfettered joy on a ballfield is fine … right up until an angry pitcher disagrees and responds to a bat flip with some questionable behavior. Somehow, Woodward’s Rangers have been involved in those fights as well.
The reason that most pitchers no longer care about bat flips is that bat flipping has been divorced from the meaning it once held. It is now seen as a joyous act, not a disrespectful one.
Swinging 3-0 during a blowout holds deeper connotations, but ultimately the concept is the same. Either we let the kids play, or we don’t. When Sparky Anderson told the Times that, as pertains to swinging 3-0, “there is a thing in this game—honor—that will always stay with me and I’ll never give it up,” he was speaking from a different era.
At some point, baseball has to make up its mind. Until it does, this cultural dissonance of blowback against young stars doing things that the public wants to see is going to continue until everybody’s so frustrated that they turn their backs altogether. This is a problem that baseball is already trying to counter; it led to Let the Kids Play in the first place.
“I love this game, and I respect the game a lot,” Tatis said after the game. “I feel like every time I go out there, I just wanna feel respect for everybody else. … This game is hard for everyone, so why not just celebrate and have fun the way you wanna have fun?”
It was the smartest thing anybody said all day.