Ethics Quiz: Is Bunting to Break Up a No-Hitter Unethical?

I want to get this on the record for all time, because the controversy comes up almost ever baseball season. it came up again yesterday.

In Sunday’s baseball game between the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Angels, Tiger pitcher Justin Verlander was six outs from joining Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, and Nolan Ryan as the only pitchers since 1900 with three or more no-hitters in their careers. But the Angels’ Erick Aybar tried to end the no-hitter with a bunt single leading off the eighth against Verlander. He got it, too, except that the home town scorer attempted to preserve Verlander’s historic bid by charging an error instead. (Unethical. But I digress.)

Bunting for a hit in the late innings of a potential no-hitter is considered by many—especially pitchers with a chance at a no-hitter— to be a violation of baseball’s “unwritten rules,”which is to say, “unethical.”  Why? Well, a no-hitter is usually the result of a pitcher pitching unusually well, and thus is a measure of his excellence on a special day. (It is also, to some extent, luck.) Almost any pitch can be bunted, however; whether a bunt is a hit or not has little to do with the pitcher and more to do with the skill of the batter and the competence of the player who fields the bunt.

The argument is that any no-hitter could be spoiled by a lucky bunt, and that a pitcher in the midst of a historic display of excellence deserves some measure of collegial and professional respect, even from adversaries. The Golden Rule is supposed to be in play. Try to get a hit, by all means, but try to get a clean, genuine hit, not a cheapie. A pitcher’s equivalent to a hitter bunting to wreck a no-hitter would be intentionally walking a player in his last at bat during a consecutive game hitting streak, or when he needed to complete a “cycle”( having a single, double, triple and home run in the same game, a feat about as common as a no-hitter).

Predictably, Verlander, who didn’t get his no-hitter anyway, thought Aybar was unethical to bunt. “I know [the score] was only 3-0, so I can understand there are arguments on both sides,” he said. “But as a pitcher, we call that bush league.”

For his part, Aybar said he was just trying to help his team win, and in fact his bunt did open the way for the Angels to score two runs.

Your question: Is bunting to break up a no-hitter “bush league” and unethical?

Oh, of course not.

The objective in baseball is to win the game, not help players get records and reach milestones. Integrity demands that players facing a no-hitter do whatever they can to score runs, which means getting on base. If a bunt looks like it is the best way to do that, then so be it.

Baseball-blogger/lawyer Craig Calcaterra suggests that the ethics might be different “if the score was 9-0.”  But the ethical considerations are exactly the same. The game either has integrity or it doesn’t, and helping the opposition succeed is by definition a breach of integrity. This is a zero sum situation: a pitcher’s success is the opposing team’s failure. When should the opposing team intentionally help its adversary? Never.

I’m glad that’s settled.

9 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Is Bunting to Break Up a No-Hitter Unethical?

  1. This does beg the question of why bunting does not count as a strike. Could it be that no side really wants to give it up?

    • It is a strike, if the player “offers” or “bunts at it.” If he just holds the bat and lets the ball hit it (or not), then missing it wouldn’t be called a strike, The bat has to break the plane of the plate to count as a strike. But you can’t bunt effectively without manipulating the bat.

      • “If he just holds the bat and lets the ball hit it (or not), then missing it wouldn’t be called a strike, The bat has to break the plane of the plate to count as a strike.”
        This may be technically accurate, but in practice I believe the batter is expected to pull the bat back if he decides not to “offer” at it. I think if he left his batting hanging over the plate without technically “offering” at it, the pitch would likely be called a strike.

    • Because doing that doesn’t get you in the Hall of Fame? About 10 years ago an infielder named Jeff Frye needed a single for the cycle, and hit what should have been a triple or a double. He stopped running at first base. I agree—unethical, though the game was decided already. The argument is that the cycle makes the fans happy, so a manufacture cycle is OK.. I don’t buy it.

  2. Can you bunt to break up a one-hitter? A two-hitter? Can you run to first on a dropped third strike to break up a perfect game?

    During a hit streak, with runners at second and third, do you have to pitch to Pujols with 2 outs? What about pitching around him (like one would do anyway)? Is that unfair?

    The numbers don’t mean anything if they were done with options off the table. If pitchers didn’t pitch around good hitters, I bet Maris’ 61 would have been legitimately beaten a few times. Is that not as bad because the results are not as obvious? If it’s an unwritten rule that you can’t bunt, the third basemen can play back a step and maybe cut off a ball through the hole. Should it be easier to get out 27 or 23 than out 4?

    • Exactly.
      I still like the stat that Maris didn’t receive a single intentional walk during his record-breaking season—not because of dumb “unwritten rules”, but because Mantle was batting behind him.

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