Do the Wolverines abide by baseball's unwritten rules?

Sunday, October 4, 2020 - 11:07pm

Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich, as well as the rest of the Wolverines' baseball team, selectively follows many unofficial rules of baseball on the diamond.

Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich, as well as the rest of the Wolverines' baseball team, selectively follows many unofficial rules of baseball on the diamond. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

On Aug. 17, the San Diego Padres were up by seven runs when Fernando Tatis, Jr. hit a grand slam on a 3-0 count. Some fans and media members thought that adding to a seemingly insurmountable lead on a hitter’s count was disrespectful. Supporters of Tatis countered that seven-run leads are not guaranteed to hold and that playing an all-gas-no-brakes style makes baseball fun. 

The incident sparked a larger conversation about baseball’s unwritten rules, a few of which are written below. Which, if any, do Erik Bakich and the Michigan baseball team observe? 

Don’t steal bases, swing at 3-0 pitches or otherwise run up the score when ahead by a large margin.

Bakich does not abide by this rule. No crooked number is enough for the Wolverines, who won 13 games by nine or more runs in 2019. Michigan ran up the score in non-conference tuneups, against Big Ten opponents like Michigan State and in the playoffs, too, with a 15-3 win over Texas Tech in the College World Series. 

Different faces are responsible for the scoring depending on the context of the game. In a 23-2 blowout against Manhattan, Bakich nearly emptied the bench, giving six non-starters at least one plate appearance apiece. Of the six, four reached base and three scored. But in a higher-stakes game against the Red Raiders, Bakich used only three substitutes, preferring to give more plate appearances to his starters. 

How these runs are scored remains mostly the same. Big games like these usually include a homer or two, but plenty of runs are built over several plate appearances. The Wolverines aren’t ostentatious with a big lead: They don’t steal bases or try to go first to third on a base hit, for example. Their baserunning is aggressive but reasonable, advancing on errors and throws to other bases. 

Should the Wolverines win so many games by so many runs? Are such wide margins of victory insulting to their opponents, or are they necessary to win? To know definitively, we’d have to simulate these 13 wins by nine or more runs, asking Michigan’s hitters to follow baseball’s unwritten rules. Do opponents take advantage of this mercy, or would the Wolverines still win with, say, a six-run lead? Who knows, but it never hurts to have insurance runs.

Verdict: Michigan does not follow this rule. No lead is insurmountable, so Bakich tries to put games as far out of reach as possible.

Throwing at hitters is the conventional retaliation.

At the major league level, brushing back or plunking opposing hitters with a pitch happens for a variety of reasons; as punishment for dirty or unsportsmanlike play by the hitter in question, returning the favor after one’s own teammate is brushed back or hit, or because an opposing hitter or team is frustratingly dominant. The manager is often involved with the decision.

Wolverines pitchers don’t have track records of intentionally throwing at hitters. Former left-hander Ben Keizer led the team with 11 hit batters in 44 innings pitched in 2019, but it seemed to be a symptom of a larger control issue — he walked 21 batters that year, third-highest among team relievers. Junior left-hander Walker Cleveland hit 10 batters but walked only 15 in 38.1 innings of work, culminating in a BB/9 of 3.52 — that’s only poor, compared to Keizer’s awful mark of 4.29, according to Fangraphs. In other words, Cleveland had far better control than Keizer, but the two hit nearly the same amount of batters.

Is that cause for suspicion that Cleveland was throwing intentionally? Maybe. But he hit batters throughout the season, in wins and losses, against rarely-seen non conference teams and familiar Big Ten opponents. This tells us that he didn’t have an agenda against a particular team or act like a sore loser by physically punishing the better team. And he tended to allow walks and hit batters in the same outings, indicating that he just couldn’t hit his spots some days. 

Verdict: Michigan does not follow this rule.The satisfaction of hitting a batter pales in comparison to the satisfaction of winning a game, which is made more difficult if the offending pitcher and coach are ejected from the game for intentional throwing.

The center fielder gets the ball.

Do corner outfielders defer to the center fielder because of tradition alone, or are center fielders actually the fastest and most able defenders in the outfield? 

If the former is true, then outfield defensive strategy suffers from a center fielder obsession that might date back to the 1950s, when Duke Snider, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle all played center field for the three New York teams (and were immortalized in a song). 

In 2019, center fielder Jesse Franklin had 147 chances, nearly double the 80 of everyday corner outfielder Miles Lewis. Lewis was the more capable outfielder of the two, posting a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage to Franklin’s .993 and needing far fewer chances to reach nearly the same number of outfield assists (three, to Franklin’s four. Franklin had an assist on one of every 49 chances, but Lewis had an assist on one of every 26.6). 

Based on the numbers, Lewis is the better outfielder and Franklin should have deferred to him whenever a ball was hit in disputed territory between the two. But Franklin had so many more chances than Lewis, despite only appearing in nine more games. There are three ways to explain the gap in numbers of chances. Many more fly balls may have been hit to straight away center field, where Franklin would be responsible for the ball regardless of whether he was deferring to Lewis or not. Lewis may have had fewer chances because he misplayed balls hit to him, not making an error but not making a putout or assist, which would result in the event not registering as a chance. Or Franklin was responsible for more turf in the outfield, which unsurprisingly created more chances for him.

Verdict: Bakich might follow this rule, but shouldn’t, if his starting center fielder is an inferior defender to either corner outfielder. 


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