Unwritten Rules

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.

17 thoughts on “Unwritten Rules

  1. Hugh

    Amen to that.

    Even the commenters on the piece on this on ESPN are pretty much as one on this, many of them pointing out that if you don't want a base to be stolen, you should throw the guy out. And if you don't want to be "shown up" you should either score some more runs yourself or forfeit the game long before you think about complaining that your fellow professional athletes are trying too hard. I have a really hard time understanding how this was even brought up after the game.

    It was in the fifth inning, right?

    Do the Cubs want an optional mercy rule, perhaps, so they can give up if they're having a bad day?

    • LarryAtIIATMS

      Amen right back at you. But I think what we're dealing with is simply a failure to appreciate the numbers. Back in school, if we got a 98% on a test, we were very happy campers. If we got a 99% on a test, we thought it was essentially the same grade as the 98%. But in terms of odds of winning, 99% is twice as good as 98%, in that the odds of LOSING (1% versus 2%) are cut in half.

      This is a problem of perception. Baseball players are proud, they don't like to be "shown up", etc. An 8-1 deficit in the fifth inning simply isn't something to get humiliated over, that's still a winnable (or losable) game, but I think the perception must be otherwise.

      • Hugh

        I agree again.

        There's a marked difference mathematically between 8-1 in the fifth and 8-1 in the ninth.

        An 8-1 lead at that stage in a school or college game might well reflect a strong and obvious disparity in the respective strength of the two sides. I am a school teacher in England. If one of my teams was up twenty points early in a game of rugby, I would quite possibly be (quietly) passing certain "rules" to my boys on the pitch designed both to broaden their range of playing skills and reduce the impact of our main "strike weapons" so as not to unduly humiliate or diminish the opposition.

        But this is not sport at that level. It's sport at an elite level, where the team that "shows up" a team one night could easily be "well beaten" (to give the scenario in place in the instant case its correct name) by that same team the next.The fact that a similar deficit has already been overturned in another game this early in the season should highlight to the Cubs the rather obvious fact that until the game is over, anything is possible.

        Your comment about the players' (and here, apparently, the manager's) perceptions is interesting and perhaps correct. I submit that, if that really is how the Cubs perceived that play, they have some real issues that a good sports psychologist might be able to help them with. For sure, I'd be really disappointed to be on a team with a bunch of guys that had given up the game by half-time, especially if, while apparently too downcast to even consider victory possible, they still had the energy to bitch about their opponents. Not a team I'd be hurrying to play for for long, or to pay money to watch were I a fan…

  2. Excellent post, Larry. I couldn't agree more, except I want to point out something. I don't think anybody on the field is thinking along the lines of one team having a 97.6% chance of winning. An 8-1 lead in the 5th inning is far from insurmountable. In fact, it's a good time for the team in the lead to be thinking, "Let's put this completely out of reach before they rally for 3 or 4 runs and force us to have to use our best relief pitchers."

    But, you're absolutely right that unwritten rules that essentially mean a major league team has to reduce their effort to win are ridiculous. They have a 13-run mercy rule in my men's softball league. They don't have one in the majors, and for good reason.

    • LarryAtIIATMS

      Good points, particularly on keeping a game far enough out of reach to rest the bullpen, also to give the starting pitcher a bit of a breather too.

  3. Hugh

    Hey, what do you know?

    The Cubs just scored 5 in the bottom of the eighth to come back and win 10-8. I'm sure I speak for everyone not watching the game live in saying that I sincerely hope and pray that they didn't show anyone up while doing so. Presumably they will have walked off the field at the end without smiling or shaking hands with each other or in any other way disrespecting their opponents or the game.

    • LarryAtIIATMS

      Hugh, as a L.A. resident, I blame Bud Selig for this. (Man! I bet I'll say this same thing over and over all year and it will never get old.)

  4. Hugh

    Now the Yanks are up 10 in the ninth. Look for the double steal if the opportunity arises!

    • LarryAtIIATMS

      You realize that the villagers would have lit torches and run me out of town if the Yanks had lost that big lead … right?

  5. Kyle

    I'm a Cub fan and I had no problem with the Dodgers stealing with an 8-1 lead in the 5th. I was actually grateful they decided to give us an easy out by sending their catcher. I had more of a problem with the Cubs poor pitching and lack of hitting up to that point in the game. Just sayin'.

    Oh and the manager's name is Mike Quade.

    • LarryAtIIATMS

      Very rational, Kyle.

      Y'mean, he's NOT related to Dennis and Randy? Thanks for the correction.

  6. 27up-27down

    Ellis, the catcher who has no stolen bases this year gets thrown out at second…the catcher. The cubs get an easy out and their reaction is to complain? Says everything i need to know about the 2011 cubs.

  7. Tom I

    Bravo! This article is terrific. I'm tired of pros complaining because someone else continued to do, what they get paid (and often quite lucratively) to do. 100% effort should never be criticized. It also begs the question of 'what do you do in this situation in youth sports?' Do you teach children to let up and not roll other kids over, or do you teach them to persist and give it their complete effort?

    • Hugh


      Unlike Larry, I do coach kids' sports, though english rather than american ones, fwiw.

      Kids, and probably adults, learn best in close contests so the first thing one does is try to organise fixtures that are likely to be as competitive as possible. Nonetheless, imbalances occur sometimes and when they do then, for me, a number of considerations arise, as I began to discuss above. If I am refereeing a game of rugby and my boys are dominant then they will find that their play will have to be wholly without blemish if it is to avoid my whistle. (This needs to be done reasonably discreetly to avoid patronising the opposition but is standard practice in most cases of my experience.) In sports that are less susceptible to refereeing interference, such as soccer or cricket for me, one may experiment with positional or tactical variations rarely used so as to mitigate the quality gap. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. It would be rare to ask someone to let up, though I may substitute a player off the pitch or quietly let him know that he cannot score any more himself if he is much too good for the opposition physically. At all times, there is no question of anything other than the utmost respect for the opposition.

      When your own team is on the receiving end, you tell them to take it on the chin, learn such lessons as they can ( like working on being 40lbs heavier/ 5seconds quicker over 100yds etc.) and move on.

      Sport is worth nothing except as a microcosm of life and life is not fair or equal sometimes, but you learn the lessons you can and, perhaps, accept your place in the wider scheme of things, appreciating the value of having comrades to share both the successes and the failures.

  8. Jim P.

    Larry — I agree with everything that has been written, and you, Hugh, and the other commentators have all made good distinctions regarding the differences between kids' games and pro games, which I agree are completely different animals with different sets of issues. There is one more aspect of this I would like to add, looking at it from a little different angle, and that is that there can be a very strategic decision involved in whether or not to "pile on" that goes beyond the physical play of the moment. We would all recognize it as the "let sleeping dogs lie" theory. Any decision a manager makes at any time should be based upon the simple question: "how does this impact the present and the future?" And naturally, while part of that assessment is the impact on his own team, the other part is to consider the impact on his opponent either for that game or for the future. Is he better off letting sleeping dogs lie, or does he risk stirring the slumbering pride of talented athletes who may rise up as a result with greater intensity and focus? Looking at it from this angle brings the decision back into part of the strategic calculation.

    • LarryAtIIATMS

      Jim, you're raising the old question of "bulletin board material". I've never been sure if this sort of thing works in baseball. Baseball seems to be a game where taking a calm and relaxed approach (or as calm as one can be when you've got a guy 60 feet away throwing a hard ball at you at 95MPH) pays off the best. It's a fine line between baseball intensity and "thinking too much", between baseball focus and "pressing" too hard. Also, isn't there also supposed to be something to "getting into the other team's head?"

      I think your comment is sound, but if I'm running a baseball team I don't know that I want to vary my baseball strategy so as to create the best (for me) psychological state in my opposition. I don't know that I'd know how to do that; I think the opposition is going to try and beat my brains out in any event. Also, if my team is the Yankees, they're never going to love me no matter what I do.

  9. BrienJackson

    I've coached a good bit of youth baseball, and I usually tailor it to whatever the mercy rule is. If there's a mercy rule for the entire game I'll usually have them play hard until the game is over one way or the other (though maybe being a touch less aggressive on the bases or adjusting pitcher usage or something). In the youth league I'm currently coaching in they have a limit on runs per inning, so it's a little different. It's also 7-8 year old division, so games also rarely ever truly get out of hand. I have had some that do though, and in those situations it's basically a matter of being less aggressive on the bases and mixing up the defensive positions.

    But I would never tell a pitcher or a batter not to do *their* best on the field, and I don't think I know any other coaches who would either.

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