Naturally enough, the Cubs were “incensed” by this breach of the unwritten rules. Cubs manager Mike Quade brought up the incident at the post-game news conference. One Cubs player told ESPNChicago.com that “things like that are always remembered down the road.” (In this case, the remembrance will probably take the form of a Cubs fastball aimed between the shoulder blades of a Dodger batter.) In his defense, Dodgers’ manager Don Mattingly claimed that the team meant “no disrespect”, that his third base coach had missed a sign, and that the team did not intend to have its catcher trying to steal bases. But Mattingly also pointed out that the Dodgers had given up eight runs in the ninth inning of a recent loss to the Braves, that runs come easily in games played at the Cubs’ Wrigley Field, and that “we are trying to win the game”.
Maybe it’s because I’m not an ex-Major Leaguer, but my favorite unwritten rule is this: you play to win the game.
Let’s look more closely at yesterday’s Cubs-Dodgers game. Per FanGraphs, the Dodgers had a 97.6% chance to win the game when Ellis took off for second base (they had a 97.2% chance to win after he was thrown out at second). But the thing is, a 97.6% chance to win is also a 2.4% chance to lose. Over a 162-game season, a good team may lose a couple of games where they had a 97.6% chance to win, and they may also win a couple of games that they had a 97.6% chance to lose.
This sort of thing happens all the time. It’s already happened twice this season to the Tampa Bay Rays. In their April 8 game against the Royals, the Rays trailed 7-4 and had a 96.3% chance to lose the game. The Rays scored five runs in the top of the ninth to win 9-7. In their April 14 game against the Twins, the Rays had only a 3.8% chance to win after B.J. Upton grounded out to begin the top of the ninth inning. But the Rays went on to tie that game and win in extra innings.
The closest parallel this year to the Dodgers – Cubs game took place on April 11, when the Mariners fell behind 7-0 against the Blue Jays. Entering the bottom of the seventh inning of that game, the Jays’ chance of beating the M’s stood at 99.7%. Funny thing. The M’s scored once in the seventh, five times in the 8th and twice in the ninth to win 8-7.
Worst to remember: the Yankees had a 95.6% chance to beat the Twins on April 5 when Raphael Soriano took the mound in the top of the 8th inning. But the Twins scored four runs that inning to tie the game, and went on to win in extra innings. Would it have been a breach of etiquette if the Yankees had tried to manufacture an extra run that night by, say, stealing a base in the bottom of the seventh?
It should not surprise us to see games where teams overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to win ballgames. Baseball seasons contain large numbers of ballgames: 2,430 of them are scheduled every year. So, we have plenty of space for crazy things to happen.
Funny thing: I’m a polite guy. I don’t like it when fans boo or throw beer. We could all stand to be a little more respectful to each other. So if you want to enforce unwritten rules about not running across Dallas Braden’s mound, I’m OK with that. But I feel differently about unwritten rules that require a team to give less than a 100% effort just because the team is 99% certain to win.
There’s another unwritten rule of baseball, one written by philosopher and sage Yogi Berra: “it ain’t over ’till it’s over.” Until the fat lady sings, a baseball team is justified in doing everything it can to win, including trying to steal a base with an 8-1 lead. If your team has a 98% chance to win the game, then (properly understood) your team is not showing up the other team by trying to increase those odds to 99%, or 99.5%, or even 99.9%.
Easy enough for me to say. No one’s going to throw a 95 mile per hour fastball at a blogger who disrespects the unwritten rules.