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The Tortured Logic of Unwritten Rules

Suppose you’re the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. You’re at home against the Chicago Cubs, and going into the bottom of the eighth inning, you’re up 5-0. So you’re feeling pretty good about yourself. On the other hand, your closer John Axford has been awfully shaky lately, and you’d probably love to scratch across an insurance run. With one out, Mark Kotsay walks, and you have Carlos Gomez on the bench. Would you let Gomez loose on the bases and see if he could make it around the bases with some old-fashioned National League speed?

Well, if you were Ron Roenicke on Saturday, April 9, that’s exactly what you’d do. Gomez came into the game and just abused Jeff Samardzija, stealing second base on the second pitch Samardzija threw to the next batter, Wil Nieves. When Nieves worked the count full, Gomez took off; it wound up being outside, and Gomez was standing on third and Nieves was on first. Samardzija managed to strike out the next batter, Jeremy Reed, but then he walked Rickie Weeks to load the bases, and walked Nyjer Morgan, which brought Gomez around to score. The Brewers won the game 6-0.

Now, we all know that there’s an unwritten rule that says that you don’t try to steal bases when you’re up by a lot of runs in late innings. But in this game, Roenicke clearly believed that a 5-0 lead was nowhere near a blowout, particularly with Geovany Soto, Carlos Pena, and Alfonso Soriano due up in the 9th, and he said as much after the game, though he sounded a bit defensive when justifying himself for having possibly broken the rule:

Up 5-0 in the eighth or ninth inning, I don’t worry about it one bit. Today’s game is not 20 years ago. You can get five runs in one inning. … People used to say you’re not supposed to run in the seventh, eighth or ninth when you’re up by more than a grand slam. That is completely out of this game today. It’s not even close. So, for me, it’s not even an issue. If that’s brought up, it’s from people that really don’t understand today’s game.

In other words, to translate Quade Roenicke: In today’s game, no five-run lead is truly safe, and therefore it’s stupid to say that you shouldn’t try to run. Now, them’s fighting words, and Cubs manager Mike Quade predictably took exception both to the sentiment and to the strategy. But Quade had to object to that steal while still acknowledging that a five-run lead isn’t unimaginably huge, and that unwritten rules have a lot of different interpretations, and that those interpretations can frequently seem illogical. So he took the passive-aggressive route, condemning Roenicke with his tone, but equivocating with his words:

Everybody has to make their own decision on that. There are unwritten rules, so I’d disgree with [Roenicke] on that. Since they’re unwritten, I guess the decision on what they are and when they apply are left to the individual. [Gomez] is just a really fast guy, and I guess he wanted to steal a couple bases. That’s their decision. I don’t think he got punched in — we walked a run in — so it wouldn’t have mattered anyway… A lot of situations, a lot of different things apply. I cut Colvin loose with a five- or six-run lead last year in the middle of a game with the bases loaded and 3-0 count, and had an umpire tell my young player that was not right, which was amazing. These unwritten rules — everybody has their own interpretation. Sometimes when interpretations differ, that’s when you run into trouble.

To translate Quade: Every situation’s different, and everyone has their own interpretation, and sometimes there’s nothing wrong with stealing basis when you have a lead, and sometimes people can sound really unprofessional when they condemn you for stealing bases with a lead, but on the other hand, this particular situation was beyond the pale. Actually, Quade’s memory is slightly off. I looked at every situation that the Cubs attempted to steal last year after Quade took over, and the situation he describes didn’t occur with Tyler Colvin, it occurred with Starlin Castro, and it was a 2-0 count: Starlin Castro was caught stealing second in the third inning of a game against Livan Hernandez and the Nationals, when the Cubs already had a 5-0 lead.

In fairness, that game situation wasn’t really comparable to Saturday’s game. However, there was a much more comparable situation, a last-at bat steal with a multiple-run lead, in the top of the ninth in San Diego on September 28. With the Cubs up 5-2, Starlin Castro singled, got singled to second, and he then got caught stealing third. While it’s an aggressive, probably foolish play, calling for a steal in the ninth inning with a three-run lead doesn’t make Quade a hypocrite — but it does explain why he had such a hard time verbally condemning Roenicke’s actions, even though he clearly disapproved. The difference between a three-run lead and a five-run lead in your team’s last at-bat is not all that great, and if you want an insurance run to go from a three-run lead to a four-run lead, you would probably want an insurance run to go from a five-run lead to a six-run lead. After all, John Axford gave up four runs on Opening Day.

I emailed Delino Deshields, a celebrated basestealer who is now a manager with the Cincinnati Reds’ Class A affiliate, the Dayton Dragons, for his take. His response was as conflicted as Quade’s:

Every situation is different… From a strategy perspective, I don’t have a problem with it if that is what the manager felt he needed to do to win. I am not a big fan of the so called unwritten rules. There is a reason they are unwritten. Yes, you do need to respect the game, but a five run lead is not a completely safe lead. I would not have taken the base in that situation, but as far as strategy, I don’t have a problem with it.

When I asked why he wouldn’t have taken the base, the Dragons’ director of media relations responded for him: “He said he would not do it due to the likelihood of someone getting hit.” To translate Deshields: Strategically, it’s hard to argue with Roenicke, but unwritten rules are slippery and other people might disagree, so he wouldn’t do it for fear of reprisal.

I have gone into far more detail than is necessary to unpack a brief sequence in the eighth inning of a 6-0 victory. But that’s because I’m less concerned with stolen bases than with the tortured, unreasonable logic of baseball codes that attempt to govern what one should or shouldn’t do on the field. Ultimately, stolen bases are less a matter of strategy and more a matter of principle — Gomez’s two stolen bases in that inning had a combined WPA of .002. Roenicke’s decision to send Gomez had a negligible effect on the game, but Samardzija is a tall right-handed pitcher and Gomez is a burner and there is no mercy rule in baseball, especially not with just a five-run lead in one of the better homer parks in baseball. (Miller Park was in the top 10 in ESPN’s home run park factor in three of the past four seasons.) I have no patience with rules that state that a team should voluntarily try less hard to win the game out of “respect” for the other team.

I’d prefer that the unwritten rule against stolen bases in late innings would be done away with altogether. But at the very least, I’d like for baseball people to be willing to acknowledge that these unwritten rules get ridiculous. As Quade said, “These unwritten rules — everybody has their own interpretation. Sometimes when interpretations differ, that’s when you run into trouble.” Maybe that’s a good reason for us to take them less seriously.