f you had any doubts about the inherent silliness of baseball, note that Fernando Tatis Jr was just criticized for the crime of driving in too many runs. In a bases-loaded situation in the eighth inning of Monday’s game against the Texas Rangers, the San Diego Padres’ ridiculously talented young shortstop swung at a 3-0 offering from Juan Nicasio and deposited the ball into the stands for the first grand slam of his career. The problem, if there was a problem, was that his team were already up 10-3 and his manager Jayce Tingler claimed he had given him a sign indicated he shouldn’t swing at the pitch. Instead of being happy for the additional runs, Tingler was upset that his player had broken one of the game’s unwritten rules.
“Just so you know,” Tingler said after the game, “a lot of our guys have the green light [to swing on] 3-0. But in this game in particular, we had a little bit of a comfortable lead, and we’re not trying to run up the score or anything like that.”
In baseball tradition, when the batting team has a big lead late in a game, it’s bad form to swing at that 3-0 pitch, which almost always is a strike right down the middle. The idea is that by swinging, you’re embarrassing the opposition because the game is theoretically out of reach. Now, you won’t find any mention of this in any book, it’s just part of the Unwritten Rules of Baseball, arcane knowledge passed down in clubhouses and dugouts since time immemorial (or the 19th century at least).
When a player breaks the unwritten rules, there are consequences. One of their teammates will usually pay the price by getting hit by a pitch on the next at-bat. It’s an immature way to settle disputes, but that’s how things work within the game.
Don’t try to look for logic within the rules. In situations like the one above, doing everything you can do to score is bad and “disrespecting the game.” In other situations, most notably failing to run hard to first base on a routine groundball no matter the score or situation, is considered “a lack of hustle” and also “disrespecting the game.” Celebrating a home run too vigorously – or, gasp, flipping your bat –is unnecessary showmanship and is often the number one cause of retaliatory hit-by-pitches. When a starting pitcher has a legitimate shot at a no-hitter late in a game, it’s a major faux pas for an opposing batter to attempt a bunt in order to try to get on base. After all, you wouldn’t want to spoil your opponent’s personal milestone with anything so gauche as trying to do something to help your team win.
Mercy rules exist in other sports but not in MLB, partly because the game has no running clock. In football, for instance, there comes a point where it’s essentially impossible to overcome a large-enough lead. Baseball doesn’t end until the final out. One could argue that when New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has his team score touchdowns late in blowouts, he’s “running up the score.” You can’t make that argument in baseball when there’s always technically a chance to blow a lead, even when you’re 11-0 up and the other team has one out left.
This is the main reason that the entire furor over Tatis’s grand slam is absurd. Sure, the Padres had a seven-run lead late in Monday’s game. Yes, they were in an excellent position to win the game unless things went terribly wrong, but things go terribly wrong all the time in baseball. Just ask the 2003 Florida Marlins who allowed the Boston Red Sox to score 14 runs in an inning. Or the New York Mets, who were 10-4 up last season in the final inning and lost 11-10. Heck, Tatis witnessed first-hand the last time a team overcame a seven-run deficit: it happened in 2019 when the Padres beat the Colorado Rockies.
ESPN Stats & Info
Fernando Tatis Jr.’s grand slam came when up 10-3 in the top of the 8th inning.The last team to win when trailing by 7+ runs after 7 innings was the Padres on June 14, 2019 – a game in which Tatis played (beat Rockies 16-12). pic.twitter.com/75vkCwzQXd
In fairness, some players supported Tatis. “Keep hitting homers, no matter what the situation is … Keep bringing energy and flash to baseball and making it fun … The only thing you did wrong was apologize. Stop that,” wrote Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer on Twitter.
When he apologized for his “infraction,” Tatis said that he was aware of the taboo of swinging at a 3-0 pitch when there’s a big lead, but he made the very good point that he isn’t sure exactly when the score differential is large enough for the game to be considered out-of-reach. The problem with “unwritten rules” lies in the fact that they remain unwritten. Different players and teams will inevitably have different sets of standards. In other words, Unwritten Rules are actually Not Really Rules.
The Padres’ win probability was 99.6 percent when Fernando Tatis Jr. came to the plate in a seven-run game in the 8th. 99.6 is not 100.
Unwritten rules are a relic from a long-distant past when baseball was much more of an anarchic free-for-all. The teams had to police themselves on the field because back in the late 19th century nobody was there to protect them. There was a vested interest between teams to prevent bad feelings escalating into violence. Now though, the unwritten rules are far more likely to spark conflict than prevent it. In 2020, there’s no reason for teams to throw projectiles at each other whenever they feel disrespected. Baseball should be a grown-up game played by actual grown-ups, particularly when many believe the game has grown out of touch with the times.