You probably saw this, but earlier this week a New York Yankees prospect broke up a no-hitter in the minor leagues with a ninth-inning bunt. Would-be sports ethicists came out of the woodwork to debate the social acceptability of this maneuver. It's an old debate, and your opinion on it says a lot about the way you view the world. Or something like that.
In a civilization such as ours, our behaviors are influenced by countless rules, laws, customs and social norms, many of which we might not be aware, especially in the case of natural and physical laws. Our lives play out under the oppression and uncertainty of these restrictions. Some might say that sports, particularly one with a long-documented history like baseball, are no different.
I disagree. Here is the distinction as I see it: In life, there is really no overarching consensus goal of existence. (If there is and I have missed it, please let me know.) Natural selection might suggest our prime directive has been embedded through evolution and is simply to allow for the continued survival of the species. And, sure, that would be nice. But we've evolved countless levels of complexity that allow each of us to define our own set of life goals, within the bounds of all the restrictions inherent to advanced civilization. Individual aims and searchings that we all pursue exist in forms too numerous to count.
Competitive sports, especially at the professional level, are very different in that they have a clearly defined primary goal: to win. There are many other benefits to be derived from the playing of sports, or even the watching of them, but they all are subordinate to that central mandate -- winning. Everything else exists in service to that directive, including nebulous concepts like respect-for-the-game customs and all of those infamous unwritten rules.
There are few things more frustrating to me than watching teams and players accept their fate when defeat is imminent. Swinging at first pitches in a 15-1 ballgame. Leaving timeouts on the board in football when the opposing team is kneeling out the clock. Forgoing an intentional foul in the closing seconds of a basketball game that has more than a one-possession difference. Just to illustrate my sincerity: Once, in a seventh-grade basketball game that deep down I knew was surely lost, and knowing the only way to stop the dwindling clock was to commit an intentional foul, and wanting to make sure the foul wasn't missed by the referee, I grabbed my opponent and threw him into the bleachers.
Acceptable? No. But at least I was still trying to win! This is probably an unfortunate defect in my personality, but that stuff drives me crazy. It drives me beyond crazy in baseball, a sport in which there is literally no clock. There is absolutely no reason to ever give up.
This mania drives my feelings about the bunting issue. First of all, it's a poorly described concept. Players such as Matt Lipka, the Yankees prospect in question, aren't bunting to break up a no-hitter. That is not the motivation. They are bunting to get on base. Because if you can get on base, you can score and your team's chances to win are improved. Bunting isn't always a great way to actually get on base, or else we'd see a lot more of them than we do these days. It would not be such a collectively atrophied skill. But by definition, if you are being no-hit, your team's previous attempts at reaching base and scoring runs have been futile. If you see a chance to bunt your way on and you don't take it because of some kind of perceived social norm, then you are behaving unethically.
Anyway, it's not like there is a consensus on this topic. It's been a back-and-forth debate for eons. Just to cite one historical example: On July 9, 1969, the Cubs' Randy Hundley tried to bunt his way on to lead off the ninth inning against the Mets' Tom Seaver. New York was up 4-0 at the time and, oh, yeah, Seaver had retired the first 24 Chicago batters. Hundley bunted right back to Seaver, who threw him out. On the very next pitch, Cubs rookie Jimmy Qualls laced a clean single to break up the bid. There were over 50,000 Mets fans on hand at Shea Stadium that day to boo Hundley, but all Seaver said about it afterward to the Daily News was that "he did me a favor."
In response to Lipka's bunt, MLB.com put together a collection of player responses and the feedback was split. In that piece, there are all kinds of terms and conditions laid out by the players about when it is or isn't OK to bunt during a no-hitter in progress.
These notions, which vary from speaker to speaker, are always trotted out anytime this kind of thing happens, and they are all pure manifestations of sheer madness -- a product of over-civilization. We have such little clarity of purpose in life, why would we forgo it when we are confronted by an endeavor that has at its essence a purpose as clear as fine crystal? It is never not a good idea to do that which you sincerely believe will enhance your team's chance to win a game.
What's more, it's the defense that is primarily responsible for whether a bunt is a good idea in a given situation. In this case, Lipka, a righty, pushed a bunt to the arm-side of lefty reliever Ben Bowden, who on that offering at least fell off to the third-base side of the mound. If that's his tendency, then the push bunt was a stroke of brilliance for Lipka, who entering that at-bat was hitting .176. In other cases, it's the depth of the corner infielders that is the primary factor. If a third baseman, for example, plays back because he assumes the batter will adhere to some kind of silly undocumented custom, and the batter plays along, they are in fact undermining the integrity of the contest and tainting the very feat that the pitcher is trying to accomplish.
This came up during another near no-hitter on Aug. 21, 1973. White Sox pitcher Stan Bahnsen had a no-no alive with two outs in the ninth. The score, which really shouldn't matter, was 4-0. At the plate was Cleveland's Walt Williams, a former White Sox teammate with good enough speed that he was used as a pinch runner 35 times during his career. Chicago third baseman Bill Melton was playing in on the grass to guard against the bunt, and Williams slapped a ball by him to break up the bid.
In this case, the players appeared to act ethically. Williams was a bunt threat and Melton played him accordingly, rather than playing back in assumption that unwritten rules were in effect. It was a clean hit, come by honestly, and while Bahnsen lost his no-hit bid, there was no reason for anyone to hang their head. Except, unbeknownst to Melton, Williams in fact planned to behave unethically and remove the bunt threat from his option list. According to the linked piece, Williams said, "To this day I never understood why the Sox were playing up on the infield. I played with Stan, he was a former teammate. I wasn't going to lay down a bunt to break up a no-hitter! I had no intention of bunting in a situation like that and I was a great bunter. I could lay down a bunt without sliding my hands up the bat. I guess the Sox were going off the pregame scouting report, but I was taught early in my career that you don't do something like that under those circumstances."
People, and teachers in this case, do not always think rationally.
Anyway, there is one final component to this particular outbreak of a tired debate. You might have noticed that I referred to Bowden as a lefty "reliever." That's because he had nothing to do with those eight previous no-hit innings. Starter Rico Garcia (a good prospect) threw six no-hit innings, followed by one each from relievers Jordan Foley and Logan Cozart. Bowden was Trenton's fourth pitcher of the night.
Combined no-hitters! A scourge! A black mark in every no-hitter database that is otherwise pure and holy! You disagree? Chart for me, then, the dramatic arc of a combined no-hitter. Oh, you can do it, but it will be the most dull drama since "Heaven's Gate."
A no-hitter is an individual feat, accomplished by a pitcher who navigates through 27 outs of a baseball game without allowing a base hit. He has solved the issues of fatigue and facing the same hitters at least three times in a contest, without aid of his bullpen. It isn't "my six-best innings" giving way to three fresh arms, which is nothing. A combined no-hitter is simply a game in which one of the teams doesn't get a hit. There should be no mound celebration, no special mention in a highlight package. Baseball should not only strike these foul things* from the official record book, they should launch a program to discourage and stigmatize these things at every turn. That's especially crucial now, in 2019, our second season of the Opener Plague.
(*: Obviously the Ernie Shore game is an exception.)
That's what makes this week's back-and-forth on baseball ethics so singularly absurd. Lipka didn't break up anything. He simply got on base in a game his team was trailing by just three runs, and it happened to be his team's first hit. But the only player on the opposing team who had any real shot at pitching a no-hitter that night had hit the showers two innings earlier.
The phrase "third time through the order" penalty entered the baseball lexicon a few years ago. The notion is simply that starting pitchers, as a group, fare worse against hitters seeing them for a third time in a game. The reasons for this aren't necessarily clear-cut, but we've seen managers in the past couple of seasons limiting the exposure of many starters. In fact, it's this very finding that served as the predicate for the philosophy behind the opener.
Since 2009, the OPS-allowed progression for pitchers by number of times facing a hitter in a game goes like this: 1. .706, 2. .746, 3. .780. After that, the progression breaks down due to selection bias -- only pitchers throwing especially well are allowed to get into a lineup for a fourth time. Now, here is that progression by season, per TruMedia:
Thus far, at the aggregate level, the third-time-through effect is not present at this juncture of the season. I wouldn't want to declare why without doing a thorough deep-dig on it, so consider this a theory: The selection bias that we have always seen with fourth-time-through measures has now expanded to the third time. In other words, managers are doing a better job at weeding out those pitchers who aren't effective the third time through opposing lineups, and doing a better job of identifying when pitchers are throwing well enough to take on that challenge.
• Since everyone loves to point out how there have been more strikeouts than hits this season, I thought I'd point out that in May hits won the showdown, though not by much. And so far in June, they are again (barely) winning the battle.
• Bruce Bochy won his 1,000th game as manager of the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday and has reached 1,951 for his career. The Giants (25-35) are winning at a .417 clip this season, and if that keeps up, Bochy would finish at 1,993 -- tantalizingly close to the 2,000 threshold that only 10 managers have reached. Maybe if the Giants pick it up he can get there, but since San Francisco is positioned to shed veteran talent, it might get worse before it gets better. Bochy, of course, announced that this season would be his last in the dugout.
In honor of Bochy's accomplishment, I dusted off a spreadsheet from a dusty corner of my hard drive and updated it. It assigns Fibonacci win points to managers in exactly the way Bill James designed his method for starting pitchers. The aim is to combine measures of longevity and proficiency into one number.
By that method, Bochy's 940 Fibonacci win points rank 27th in history, right between Billy Southworth and Dick Williams. With three World Series crowns also under his belt, there is no question that Bochy is a future Hall of Fame manager. Here are the top 10 active managers in that measure, along with their all-time rank:
Managerial Fibonacci win points
1. Terry Francona (1,100, 17th)
2. Bruce Bochy (940, 27th)
3. Joe Maddon (837, 38th)
4. Bob Melvin (602, 57th)
5. Ron Gardenhire (556, 60th)
6. Clint Hurdle (546, 64th)
7. Ned Yost (437, 79th)
8. Bud Black (390, 95th)
9. Don Mattingly (374, 100th)
10. A.J. Hinch (363, 104th)