Ah, the familiar sights and sounds of baseball. The crack of the bat. The pop of the leather. The bunfight over unwritten rules.
We didn’t even get through the first weekend of the 2018 season without one of those, as the Minnesota Twins were deeply chagrined when a Baltimore Orioles hitter had the temerity to bunt against the shift in the ninth inning.
Why, that’s just not how the game is played, son. (Spits tobacco, hitches up pants.) And turn that damn music down.
The funny thing about this latest incident is that it reveals that the unwritten rules, as much as they harken back to the days before artificial turf and domed stadiums, are constantly being updated. It must be tough for players to keep up, what with the rules not even being written down.
A brief recap of the dispute in question: Baltimore was trailing 7-0 in the top of the ninth and Minnesota starter Jose Berrios was still in the game and still mowing down batters. The Twins shifted their infield defence to put an extra fielder on the left side of the diamond against Chance Sisco, who sounds exactly like a character in an Elmore Leonard novel but is in fact a left-handed Orioles catcher. Sisco, trying to shake things up, dropped down a bunt on the right side, where there were no fielders, and made it to first base easily.
Aside from getting himself on base, which is precisely the point of baseball, Sisco’s bunt threw off Berrios’ rhythm just a titch. The next two batters also reached base, but he worked himself out of the bases-loaded jam to end the game. And that really should have been that.
But, no. Local media reported that the Twins made it very clear that they were displeased. Infielder Brian Dozier: “Obviously, we’re not a fan of it. He’s a young kid. I could’ve said something at second base but they have tremendous veteran leadership over there.” Dozier is so confident in the fact that Sisco has committed a grave offence against baseball that he is certain that Baltimore’s veterans will give him a stern talk and maybe send him to his room without a cookie.
Outfielder Eddie Rosario said of the bunt: “Nobody liked that. No, no, no. That’s not a good play.” And the pitcher himself managed to say he didn’t care but also that it was bad for the sport in the space of two sentences. “I don’t care if he’s bunting,” said Berrios. “I just know it’s not good for baseball in that situation. That’s it.” I dare say that he DOES care.
So many things are strange about this. The affront seems to be that Sisco was doing something other than just taking his hacks. In that situation in a seven-run game, the unwritten rules apparently state, batters are simply supposed to go through the motions, to swing away and get themselves out nice and quick so that everyone can get on a plane sooner. Sisco, by beating the shift, was being altogether too clever. But if it was wrong to bunt against a shift when down by seven, wouldn’t it be just as wrong for the team that is leading by seven to be using a defensive shift? The Twins were up big and only needed a couple of outs. Did they really need to deploy advanced defensive strategies?
They didn’t, but as any number of baseball old-timers will tell you, it’s the one sport that has no clock. There is no comeback that is impossible, and so if a team normally sets up in a shift against a pull hitter in the first inning, they might as well do it in the ninth. The mere fact that the Twins were still treating this like a normal at-bat says everything: the game wasn’t over yet.
Which was exactly how Sisco approached it. His bunt effectively started a last-ditch rally, even if it ended up fizzling. Why would opponents take offence at such things? It’s another mystery of that rule book that isn’t actually a book, where it is OK to crush a defenceless fielder with a takeout slide and where bat flips and home run trots are to be quickly followed by a fastball to the ribs. And where that fastball to the ribs is to be followed by a fastball to someone on the other team’s ribs, lest anyone be accused of not standing up for their teammates.
All of this remains standard practice, and most of it is encouraged. But a guy tries to start a rally with a bunt and it is, to use Berrios’ phrase, not good for baseball. If so, baseball has some weird priorities.
Truly, more batters should bunt against the shift in all situations. As teams use it routinely now, the best way to combat it would be to bunt enough to give the manager second thoughts about shifting. It’s almost like many hitters feel the bunt against the shift is beneath them. As though it is an unwritten rule.
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