The Unwritten Rules of Baseball


Rather than continue my trend of predictability by writing about the end of Andre Ethier’s 30-game hit streak or the double dose of no-hitters tossed by Francisco Liriano and Justin Verlander this week, I’ve decided to change things up. I’m going to offer my two cents (which isn’t worth all that much) on a topic that is gaining more and more traction and has become increasingly significant in Major League Baseball over the last several years.

In talking about the unwritten rules of baseball, I recognize that I am wandering into some dangerous and controversial territory. However, I’ll gladly take the leap because quite frankly, the rules that are not in writing are the most fun to talk about.

As a loyal subscriber to ESPN The Magazine, I often get to read many of the insider MLB articles, which is how the idea to write about unwritten rules came about in the first place. The magazine has an interesting series running called “Player X.” The columns provide an unfiltered look into the lives of professional athletes, and they are written by an anonymous player. I should also point out that this particular player is an MLB all-star.

While I am sometimes skeptical as to why these players feel that they can run their mouths and call out other pros while hiding behind the pages and remaining unknown, many of the points that they make are valid and intriguing. There is quality value in the honest and unrestrained opinions of those who are out on the field on a daily basis. The message of this specific column is extremely powerful, so here’s a look at some of the thoughts of “Player X.”

"We baseball players take our unwritten rules seriously. Break one that exists between hitters and pitchers, and there will likely be painful consequences for somebody on your team. There are three cardinal sins that will get a guy hit almost every time: stealing a base when the game is out of reach, laying down a bunt when the pitcher has a no-no going, and acting like you got hit when you didn’t. The last one just makes you lame. If you lean in on a curveball and fake getting clipped, you can expect a fastball to your ass in your next at-bat. The rules of engagement get a little fuzzier once you move beyond those three biggies. A lot depends on prior history or how short a pitcher’s or manager’s fuse is."

I could be wrong, but the fastball-to-your-ass part makes me think that this anonymous player must be a pitcher. Anyway, the three cardinal sins hat were mentioned are probably not a surprise to anyone who follows the game of baseball closely. I know I can immediately think of an instance or two in which each of these unwritten rules was broken. Obviously, laying down a bunt when the opposing pitcher has a no-hitter is not very common, but the other two are not rare by any stretch of the imagination.

Nyjer Morgan, who never fails to find trouble, is not surprisingly one of those guys who has stolen a base with the game out of reach. In September of last season, he stole second and third with his team down by ten runs. He’ll tell you that he was simply trying to get into scoring position, but when there is no chance whatsoever at a comeback, stealing is unnecessary and actually quite comical.

Also in September of last year, Yankees captain Derek Jeter faked being hit on the arm by a pitch. Of all people, Jeter broke an unwritten rule. To me, bluffing your way to first is cowardly and shameful. Everyone wants to get on base, but that is just a sign of pure desperation. Many would argue that it is smart on the part of the hitter, but it is unquestionably bad for the game of baseball. Umpires do make mistakes from time to time and will fall for the occasional bluff, but the last thing MLB needs is to be sharing the acting stage with the NBA and WWE.

"Not every situation is cut-and-dried. Sometimes a pitcher will become agitated by the strategies you use to exploit his weaknesses. Like when a fat guy is on the mound, the top of our order will lay down some bunts because we know he’ll get winded chasing them down. Once he’s out of breath, the heart of the order can capitalize. But we also understand that pissing the guy off means our guys at the bottom of the order will be at risk of getting drilled. Pimping really gets an opposing dugout going too. By pimping, I mean taking 10 seconds to do something that can be done in two. If a dude stands at the plate admiring a home run or does a dance on a hit that isn’t a walk-off, that’s pimping."

When you’ve got a guy like CC Sabathia or Heath Bell on the mound, why not lay down a bunt? It will probably work more often than not, especially if the hitter has some decent speed. The pitchers won’t be happy about it, but it’s really a solid (and fair) strategy. Pimping, on the other hand, is just ridiculous. If you pose at the plate or take forever to circle the bases, you are basically asking to get nailed. Many names come to mind when I think about pimping, but Manny Ramirez was the master. In a walk-off situation, anything goes. Any other time, celebrate in a fashion that does not delay the progress of the game.

Now, as “Player X” mentioned earlier, let’s get to the consequences. If an unwritten rule is broken at any point during a game, it is only a matter of time until someone pays the price by getting plunked. Even knowing that there is a possibility of getting tossed from the game, pitchers will never hesitate to throw at a batter to get revenge for their team for an earlier incident. These days, so much goes into planning the art of intentionally hitting someone that it has almost become a game within the game, if you will. Who to hit, where to hit them, and how to make it look accidental are all factors that come into play.

Quite honestly, the bean war gets to a point where it takes away from the real action. Benches clear, tempers flare, and everyone wants the final say. In general, players and managers alike need to focus on the game itself and not get caught up in the stupid aspects of the game that lead to altercations.

This season alone, 295 batters have been hit by a pitch in 509 total MLB games played. Many of these are indeed unintentional, but it just goes to show how players are getting hit with alarming regularity. Maybe umpires should just warn both benches at the start of every game.

Although baseball is unique as far as the seriousness and publicity of its unwritten rules is concerned, it is not alone as far as the existence of such rules is concerned. When you really think about it, every sport has at least one unwritten rule somewhere in the mix. It may take quite a bit of searching to find, but it’s there nonetheless.

In hockey, the goalie is pretty much off limits entirely. Skating to the net and stopping with enough force to give the goaltender a shower of ice is severely frowned upon, and it isn’t likely to endear a player to the opposing team. In basketball, teams are not supposed to fast break, press, or play at a fast tempo when up by an insurmountable margin. In football, offenses are expected to run the ball exclusively when ahead by a few touchdowns in the fourth quarter. With that said, there usually isn’t any physical retaliation in these three sports if one of the unwritten rules is broken.

The thing that makes baseball’s unwritten rules especially difficult to understand and even harder to abide by is the gray area. Sometimes the breaking of these rules has major implications, and sometimes it goes unnoticed. Much of this depends on the situation, the specific players and teams involved, and prior history. The rules are shady and unclear at best, which makes sense because they are, well, unwritten. Unwritten rules will always exist in this game for the foreseeable future, so I strongly advise all rookies to take notes and know what they are getting into if they throw at a batter or feel the need to “pimp” at the plate.