No-Hitter Ethics!

Hope

You see, this is why I am a lifetime underachiever. Here I am, desperately preparing for a challenging 3-hour seminar, and when Jutgory sends me a story about a controversy over what should count as a “perfect game” in baseball, I can’t think of anything else. Baseball and ethics. The combination gets me every time! So I am writing a post instead of doing my job. Pathetic.

For some reason, 2021 has been a big year for no-hitter definition categories. About ten days ago, Arizona Diamondbacks left-hander Madison Bumgarner threw seven hitless innings against the Atlanta Braves, winning 7-0. However,the game was part of a doubleheader, and this year, as in the 2020 season, twinbills consist of two 7 inning games. Bumgarner’s gem does not officially count as a no-hitter, because MLB declared many years ago that an official no-hitter must be nine innings, a shutout, a victory, and a complete game. This eliminated no-hitters that had been shortened because of rain but were still official games, and the strange games where a pitcher gave up a run or more because of errors or walks. It also wiped out one of the most famous no-hitters of all time.

Harvey Haddix of the Pittsburgh Piratesgave up no hits, walks or baserunners for 12 innings against the Milwaukee Braves on May 26, 1959 in a 0-0 extra-inning tie. He retired 36 consecutive consecutive batters until an error in the 13th ended the perfect game bid, then he gave up a hit, and eventually a run and the game. It was one of the greatest pitching performances of all time, but did not count, sayeth the rule-makers, as a perfect game or a no-hitter.

Not giving Baumgarner credit for a “no-no,” as no-hitters are called by their close friends, seems very unfair. The game was official and not shortened by the elements. He did everything he could do: it wasn’t his fault MLB is lazy and incompetent and decided to allow kiddie rule 7-inning games this season. (The excuse was, as with much that is outrageous, the pandemic.) I am quite sure that baseball didn’t think through such possibilities as a double-header no-hitter, and was stuck with a rule that really shouldn’t have applied.

Which brings us to Baltimore Orioles pitcher John Means, who yesterday threw the first complete-game, no-hitter for the Orioles since Jim Palmer’s in 1969. It would have been a perfect game, except that Seattle Mariner Sam Haggerty struck out on a wild pitch, and was able to reach first base before the catcher could retrieve the ball and throw to first. Moments later, Haggerty was caught stealing. This inspired a truly inept bit of baseball punditry from Andrew Joseph in USA Today, who thinks the rule that allowed Haggerty to reach base is “lame”:

But the fact that hitters can reach first base AFTER striking out is a rule that has never made sense. MLB rules state that a batter becomes a runner whenever the third strike is uncaught (and first base is unoccupied or occupied with two outs), but there’s never been an acceptable explanation for why this is a thing. If an out needs to be caught, then why have an infield fly rule? Why is a baserunner out if a batted ball strikes him? Those outs aren’t caught. There’s no reason why a batter should be rewarded with a chance to reach first base after a pitcher completely owned him by drawing a swing at an uncatchable pitch.

This guy is a baseball writer? To being with the obvious, “why” is an absurd question to ask about any baseball rule. Why three strikes? Why three outs? Why not four strikes and six outs? Unlike a lot of baseball rules, the one Joseph is complaining about has sound reasons behind it. The strikeout is completed when the catcher receives the ball from the pitcher, otherwise, the ball is live and in play. If the out has not been completed, the player can still run to first (if it’s unoccupied). Wild pitches and passed balls (by the catcher) are considered mistakes, the equivalent of errors. A wild pitch isn’t “owning” the batter who swings at it, it’s called “being lucky” depite screwing up. The rules require a team that receives such a gift to do a little extra to get the out. Good. The rule has also resulted in some of baseball’s most famous moments.

The writer’s analogies are also terrible. The infield fly rule is a famous anomaly, but again, there’s a good reason for it: without the rule, infielders could always get cheap force-outs or even double plays by intentionally allowing pop-ups to bounce. Runner are out when batted balls strike them to stop baserunners from intentionally interfering with balls in play.

Meanwhile, the question I often heard (from girlfriends I was trying to introduce to my beloved obsession) was why a perfect game was called perfect when every player didn’t strike out. I patiently explained that no game was or would ever be that perfect.

Last month, softball pitcher Hope Trautwein of the University of North Texas (above) struck out every single one of the batters she faced from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff for a really perfect game.

Too bad it was only seven innings…

30 thoughts on “No-Hitter Ethics!

  1. Except seven innings has been the norm in NCAA softball for decades. (At least 45+ from my personal experience as a campus radio station sportscaster at the University of South Carolina in the early 1970s.) That’s a long time rule, not a recent change, so I would say her 21-K perfection is just that.

    • A typo correction: “45+” years, not “45+” decades. Unless I get to call Jack Marshall, “kid”.

        • From the excellent SABR article:

          Burdette lost a chance for a perfect game with one out in the fifth inning when he hit Tony Gonzalez. “I tried to throw Gonzalez inside, but I got too far inside,” he said. “With the count 1-1, I definitely wasn’t trying to give him a bad ball.”4 Burdette got out of the inning facing the minimum three batters when Lee Walls hit into an unusual double play. Walls hit a high bouncer to third baseman Eddie Mathews, who threw to first base to retire Walls. Gonzalez attempted to advance to third, but was retired when Adcock threw to shortstop Johnny Logan covering the base.

          While the Phillies were being held hitless, the Braves were shut out until they broke the scoreless tie in the bottom of the eighth. Burdette himself led off the inning with a double and he scored on a double by Bruton. Conley then retired Crandall on a fly ball to right, struck out Eddie Mathews, and induced Henry Aaron to ground out to end the inning.

          In the top of the ninth, Burdette got catcher Jimmie Coker on a groundout and then faced two pinch-hitters. Ken Walters, batting for Ruben Amaro, grounded out to third base, and Bobby Smith, batting for Conley, flied out to Hank Aaron in right field. Once Aaron caught the ball, Burdette had his no-hitter. Lew had faced only 27 Phillies. He hadn’t walked a batter; the only man to reach base was Gonzalez, and he was retired on the double play.

  2. ….and both pitchers and catchers learn the dropped strikeout rule from Little League on. That’s why catchers (good ones, anyway) try so hard to keep a poorly pitched ball in front of them on. Swinging third strike when first base is unoccupied. It’s a meaningful rule for the reasons cited by Jack. Why a ground rules double instead of ground rules single or triple? Baseball, my friends. The rules are known (except possibly some strange 7-inning rule unknown by Tommy Lasorda).

    • The rules of baseball have been refined through trial and error for about 150 years. With thousands of games played each year, almost any possible rare scenario has occurred, and rules adjusted and clarified to handle those incidents fairly.

      I remember being surprised the first time I saw a batter who struck out steal first, but it makes sense that the pitcher and catcher have to have consequences for throwing or missing wild pitches (frankly, Manfred allowing batters to be waived onto first base makes the game more boring by eliminating the possibility of a wild pitch allowing batters to advance). It is kind of like playing chess casually as a kid, and then being shocked when someone pulls a “castle” on you because you never learned that rule.

    • Since when? I played high school baseball in South Carolina in the early 1970s and the few doubleheaders I was involved with, due to rainouts usually, were seven inning games.

      • I have been a high school umpire here in Virginia since 1995, and double headers in Virginia, by rule, are nine inning games.

    • Back in the dark ages, when the Oakland Oaks played in Emeryville, the second game of a double header was a7-inning event. Pacific Coast League. The iron men were the catchers who caught both ends of those double headers.

      Why MLB shortened the double header games is a mystery…

  3. One incident that I am surprised went unmentioned in your post was the hitter who intentionally struck out because he knew it was going to be a wild pitch and wanted to steal first.

    I forget the player (though it was a big name player, I believe), but I know the incident was mentioned here before.

    -Jut

    • It was Bill Buckner, of ball-went-through-his-legs fame. I saw it. Billy Buck was a fantastic hitter, and the quick thinking it takes to do that is beyond comprehension. Imagine—he had to conclude in a fraction of a second that the pitch would be uncatchable, and make the decision to swing and miss as a tactical move. Buckner could hit anything, anywhere: that was his fatal flaw, because he never walked—but he didn’t strike out much either.

      If anyone else has ever done that, I can’t find a record of it.

      • That must have been it. Considering the rule, I am not surprised it was tried; I am more surprised it was only once. Rules invite people to test them. It was probably a move he contemplated many times, just never found a chance to use it.

        -Jut

  4. Jack,
    Thanks for baseball ethics posts. I love the game and I am somewhat a “traditionalist”.
    In this case, I can appreciate that MLB setup a rule that defined a no-hitter. That way, it’s very clear that if you don’t accomplish the specific things, the “record” is not met. Sure, there may be belly-aching, but then nobody is stuck having to decide if “this” exception is worthy while “that” one isn’t.
    (I’ll note that I do not take such an absolutist stance to robotic strike zones and replays. Sure, use them to grade and improve / replace poor umpires, but let the game unfold.)
    Lastly, I *think* (but am not certain) that a no-hitter where your team loses still counts, presuming the pitcher goes nine innings (if you’re the visiting team and the winning home team doesn’t have to bat in the bottom of the 9th, then you’d only get 8 innings).

    • I agree about the losing no-hitters, though they are all ugly games, and the pitcher hasn’t exactly thrown a masterpiece I should have mentioned my favorite non-no-hitter: in 1917, Babe Ruth, in his pitching days, walked the first batter of the game, fought with the ump, punched him, and was tossed. Red Sox pitcher Ernie Shore replaced him. The runner was thrown out trying to steal, and Shore retired the next 26 batters—a perfect game, minus one.

  5. Re: Stealing First.

    Jack, our Most Intrepid Baseball Ethicist wrote, “If the out has not been completed, the player can still run to first (if it’s unoccupied). Wild pitches and passed balls (by the catcher) are considered mistakes, the equivalent of errors.” That seems reasonable within my knowledge of the game.

    I don’t know the rule (and I haven’t looked it up yet) but does “stealing first” require an unoccupied first base? If there is a runner on first, can that runner steal second allowing first base be unoccupied for the purposes of the batter to “steal” first?

    jvb

  6. All this is very interesting, but reminds me that a day or so ago I saw a moment which defined why I love baseball (not the rules or the ethics): it was an unsuccessful double play, but the work of the fielders was an absolutely beautiful thing to see. Really beautiful. There are wonderful fielding moments all the time, but with this I was struck by the gorgeous geometry and wonder of the game itself. If rules are changed that ruin this kind of opportunity — I can’t imagine one — baseball would be dead for me. Clearly this is not applicable to the discussion, but I did in fact read it and was able to relive a great moment… Thanks.

  7. Re: Bumgarner, no, but he joins an illustrious club https://www.nonohitters.com/near-no-hitters/

    Re: Means, not a perfect game, but still a no-hitter. True some of the rules (if not logic) in BB seem strained and there’s a dimension of arbitrariness to rules for any set of games, but there it is. Galarraga has more of a claim to a perfect game in my book & he lost a no-hitter as well to a clearly blown call by Jim Joyce (6/2/10) before the day of the instant replay (https://www.mlb.com/news/perfect-games-broken-up-in-ninth-inning-c293924598). Agree that Joseph’s arguments are lame, but are typical for what passes as analysis for BB & other types of pundits.

  8. I actually was reading you then, but spending more time writing theater reviews than posting. If his reasoning wasn’t described after the fact, it is the wrong mindset going in. He should not be thinking it needed to be “clean,” and the other alleged gift rulings should have had no bearing on his call. In re-watching the play he does appear to hesitate before giving an emphatic signal (taught at Umpire 101). I would, however, agree that he is an ethics hero because he admitted his mistake, apologized to the offended party AND later requested that MLB overturn the ruling. They declined, so if there is a villain here, it is MLB. In the pantheon of bad umpiring calls, though, Don Denkinger heads my list (10/26/85). That affected a World Series. https://www.si.com/longform/2015/1985/world-series-cardinals-royals/index.html

    • As a Red Sox fan, the villain will always be Larry Barnett. https://howtheyplay.com/team-sports/The-Bunt-That-Changed-History

      I think I wrote about this: MLB couldn’t change the call after the fact with the game over. That was one of the few times I agreed with Bud Selig on anything. It would be a deadly precedent, and also an unfair one. Why not undo the Denkinger call? The Red Sox lost a game two nights ago when a strike three on a Detrot batter was called a ball—he then reached base, and scored the decisive run. Later, computer and camera review showed the call was wrong.

      Going to instant replay was the right response, and that’s what the biggest result of Joyce’s mistake.

  9. Thanks, I’d forgotten about that; clearly interference. Joyce’s call came with 2 outs in the 9th. The game ended with the following out, they won 3-0. Overruling it would have changed nothing, and with instant replay on deck, a precedent was not such aworry. Overturning Denkinger’s call was not something I was advocating. Just an example of a controversial call changing the outcome of a game in a big, big way (like Barnett’s). But I have mixed feelings about instant replay, the need to get it right. Sure, I like to see the right call, but it definitely adds to the length of the games, defuses the tension & passion of the moment – the momentum is gone – and the decisions themselves are often called into question. So, if I had my way, I’d reserve instant replay for the playoffs & WS.

    About balls & strikes, I also don’t know. It’s not clear to me whether the ump is seeing the way the ball crosses the plate better than the way TV is framing – even with the tails on the balls – the strike zone. Yesterday the Nats lost an out on a close call that the announcers were describing as a fail by the ump (“not at this level”). But there’s so much spin, drop, trajectory, on the ball as it crosses the plate, who’s to say?

    • The problem with the televised strike zone currently on televised games is that it is a square and therefore two-dimensional, whereas the strike zone is a box, which is three-dimensional. That’s what umpires are looking at.

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