UPDATE: Rob Neyer responded to this post.
As he so often does, Rob Neyer asks an interesting question — and then declines to give an answer. On Tuesday, Ricky Romero absolutely dominated the White Sox. He didn’t give up a walk till the fourth, didn’t let the ball out of the infield till the 6th, and he took 12 strikeouts and a no-hitter into the 8th inning. At that point, White Sox catcher and sixth-place hitter A.J. Pierzynski decided to take matters into his own hands, writes Yahoo’s Andy Behrens:
Romero skipped a pitch in the dirt to Pierzynski leading off the eighth inning — not a terrible pitch, mind you, because AJ had been hacking at similar offerings all night. But late in the game with his team trailing 4-0, Pierzynski resisted the urge to swing. When the ball hit the ground near his feet, he began hopping as if an anvil had landed on his toe. But in fact, nothing had landed on his toe. Replays were clear. He had not been hit.
Rob Neyer points out that this isn’t just cute gamesmanship: it’s unethical and ought to be condemned, not praised.
“I don’t want to get into the awesome logistics that would be involved here … but, ethically speaking, isn’t there an argument to be made for punishing Pierzynski?…
It’s cheating, and in some quarters there are rules against such things.”
According to Rule 6.08(b) in the baseball Rulebook, a batter is entitled to first base on an HBP if “He is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit unless (1) The ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, or (2) The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball.” Pierzynski didn’t deserve first base, but the umpire, the on-field arbiter of truth, awarded it to him.
There isn’t much difference between this and a run-of-the-mill blown call. It’s not completely clear that he lied: after all, it’s conceivable that Pierzynski truly believed that he got hit, much as many a hitter will argue till he’s blue in the face that a called third strike was really a ball, or that he was really safe at first. Of course, it’s more likely that he knew the ball missed him, lied to the ump for his own advantage, and the ump wrongly believed him. That certainly wouldn’t be the first time a player (or a manager) has argued his own cause to an ump despite knowing he was wrong — it’s just one of the few times that it has ever actually worked.
Neyer’s right that it would be a logistical nightmare to institute a law prohibiting lying. (A good start might be expanding the use of instant replay, which would make it harder for a player like Pierzynski to lie his way on base.) A big problem is that umpires have fewer in-game modes of punishment at their disposal. In soccer and basketball, players who feign phantom injuries can be assessed personal penalties if they’re caught in a lie. In hockey, there are penalty minutes; in football, penalty yards. In baseball, the only way the umpire could have punished Pierzynski in the moment would be to have thrown him out of the game, which would have been excessive.
Still, I’m sympathetic to his point, especially because Pierzynski’s play is effectively the baseball equivalent of flopping in soccer and basketball: it’s bush league, it’s unsportsmanlike, it delays the game, and it creates a major moral hazard problem, because it incentivizes every other player to lie.
But how do you punish him? The commissioner’s office can’t very well levy a fine for doing something that isn’t prohibited in the rulebook, and public ostracism won’t make much of a difference either: A.J. Pierzynski has made a career of ticking off fanbases and clubhouses alike. As satisfying as it would be to punish a player for lying, it isn’t very practical — after all, it’s impossible to know exactly whether a player is genuinely mistaken or intentionally dissembling.
Ultimately, Neyer’s righteous indignation is understandable, but it’s misguided. Instead of focusing on the player’s motivations, we should aim for greater accuracy: vetting and replacing the worst umpires in baseball, and permitting instant replays to ensure that the right calls are being made.