Listen, I understand that this is a Royals blog and, generally speaking, we should all expect me to focus more on the Royals specifically than on baseball as a whole. That said, the Royals are a week into the season and after I over-reacted a bit to opening day, I’m not particularly keen to write about what’s happened since. So, instead, this week’s Hok Talk is going to talk about the baseball controversy that comes up every few weeks and did so again earlier this week: The Unwritten Rules of Baseball.
In case you didn’t hear, the San Diego Padres were getting stomped pretty badly by the San Francisco Giants. The score was 11-2 in the sixth inning and the outcome was all but decided. Still, the but lingered. Enter Mauricio Dubón. Dubón is a 27-year-old utility player. He has never played more than 74 games in a Major League season. He won’t be arbitration-eligible until 2024, but if he wants to be anything other than non-tendered he’s going to have to find a way to provide more value than he has so far.
Given all of that information, Dubón took his opportunity at-bat to attempt a (successful) bunt single. The Padres took exception, It appeared as though Eric Hosmer gave him an earful after he reached first base. Multiple team members complained publicly after the game. The media began wondering if the Padres would attempt to retaliate in order to enforce this unwritten rule of baseball. And I have only one response to all of them.
“If you don’t like it, don’t let the Giants get a nine-run lead.”
The unwritten rules of baseball are stupid, bad, and stupid. They should be completely ignored until they cease to exist. Here are five reasons why.
1. It makes games less interesting
What on earth is even the point of watching a game if one team is so badly beaten they start waving a white flag and the other team isn’t allowed to keep trying? Baseball is supposed to be entertaining and none of that sounds remotely entertaining. Baseball is also a business, so you’d think that the teams would be getting on people’s cases about not continuing to try since that could devalue the product as TV companies don’t pay to broadcast the games just to have no one watch them because they’re dull.
2. Enforcement is subjective and arbitrary
Quick, without thinking too much about it, what is the maximum lead a team is allowed to have before a bunt for a hit or a 3-0 swing is no longer permitted? Bzzzzt! Time’s up! The answer is, “No one has a forking clue because it’s all entirely arbitrary!”
Beyond that, it’s not always the perpetrator that gets “punished” either. Recall that the penalty for breaking an unwritten rule is to throw at or near someone. But that someone isn’t always the person who did the thing. For example, if a team thinks that the other team spiked their third baseman intentionally they might bean the player who did the spiking, they might bean the other team’s third baseman to “make things even”, or they might bean the other teams’ “star” player if their third baseman is considered one of their stars. Or they might just bean the next guy up to bat.
3. It asks players to sacrifice money
This should be self-explanatory, but I never hear anyone talk about it so I’ll go over it real quick. Players are paid roughly analogous to their productivity on the field. This makes sense, most of us generally expect to be paid more as we prove we have continued to get better at our jobs. If you ask players to stop trying their hardest because it might hurt the feelings of the other team you’re literally asking them to weaken their ability to make money in the future.
How would you feel if I told you to intentionally do your job poorly because Deborah in Accounting feels bad that you’re so much better than her even though it might cost you your end-of-year bonus? That’s what I thought.
4. It makes it harder for the leading team to win the game
A nine-run lead is a pretty big lead. In fact, according to FanGraphs, the Giants had a 99.9% chance of winning that game as Dubón stepped up to the plate. But as Royals fans, we’re all familiar with the fact that 99.9% is not 100%. We’ve seen the Royals make no fewer than three miraculous comebacks that seemed utterly impossible in the last decade. It is disingenuous to insist that the leading team should stop trying to win while the losing team is allowed to keep going. How awful would it feel to know that not only did your team blow a big lead and lose, but they could have won if only they hadn’t stopped trying halfway through?
If you want the team in the lead to quit trying, you need to implement a mercy rule so that the “big enough” lead is clearly defined and the losing team doesn’t get a hidden advantage.
5. It sacrifices potential future advantages for the leading team
This is something I hadn’t ever considered until it came up during the most recent commotion, but a team would still have a vested interest in continuing to try to run up the score even if they were guaranteed to win. Every additional pitcher the winning team can force into the game makes their future victories over the same team easier to achieve. It wears out players, potentially causes a loss of confidence, and allows your batters to become more familiar with the opposing pitchers’ weaknesses.
As many are fond of pointing out, baseball is not a sprint; it is a marathon. As such, teams should be focused not just on winning this game but future games as well. And if you stop trying to force the other team into a less-favorable future position then you’re not doing everything you can to win the championship. And if you’re not trying to win the championship, what are you trying to do?
Keep in mind, this is not a call to abandon all reason and propriety in search of wins. It’s simply a suggestion that if the rules permit a thing that will help you win, you should be doing that thing whenever possible.
None of those five reasons above even addresses the issue that the most common “punishment” for breaking these arbitrary, unknowable rules is for one person to intentionally throw a baseball as hard as they can at another person. That sort of thing doesn’t just hurt, it can end careers. And while it’s unlikely, it could even end someone’s life if it hit them just right.
The final point I want to make about the unwritten rules of baseball is that they’re exactly as described: unwritten. Baseball has a hard enough time enforcing the rules it has written down. It’s ridiculous to assume that everyone can be on the same page about a set of self-defeating rules that aren’t even on a page. And if they can’t all agree, these rules must be tossed out.