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Fernando Tatis Jr. Proved That MLB’s Battle Over Unwritten Rules Is Already Over

The Padres’ young superstar’s home run on a 3-0 count Monday drew comments from both his manager and the opposing manager. But if the backlash to those remarks is any indication, the debates over baseball decorum already have been decided.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Monday night, San Diego Padres wunderkind Fernando Tatis Jr. hit a grand slam that somehow upset both the team his home run hurt and the team his home run helped. Tatis’s team entered the eighth inning up 10-3 over Texas, then loaded the bases against Rangers righty Juan Nicasio on a single and two walks. That brought up Tatis, who had launched a three-run homer in the preceding inning to put the Padres well ahead. Tatis took three balls, then uncoiled on a fastball on the outside corner. Considering the circumstances, it wasn’t a badly placed pitch, and a lesser hitter might have helped Texas out by delivering a double-play ball. Instead, Tatis picked up the family hobby of hitting noteworthy grand slams, slicing a low liner over the right-center-field fence and into the fake crowd for his major-league-leading 11th home run.

The one-out slam extended San Diego’s lead to 11 runs and improved the Padres’ win expectancy from 99.6 percent to 99.9 percent. But the dinger’s implications went well beyond sealing a win for the probably playoff-bound Padres: A stereotypically traditionalistic and stodgy sport was about to be embroiled in another news cycle about unwritten rules and the battle for baseball’s soul. The reaction to Tatis’s 3-0 swing late in a game that was already a borderline blowout seemed to expose a still-wide divide in baseball’s beliefs about the proper way to play. On one side were the forces of fun, freedom, and self-expression, embodied by the charismatic, ultra-talented, 21-year-old Tatis. On the other, the straitlaced enforcers of old-fashioned on-field etiquette, represented by the teams’ respective skippers, the Rangers’ Chris Woodward and the Padres’ Jayce Tingler. But contrary to initial appearances, the firestorm ignited by Tatis doesn’t demonstrate that MLB has a problem with unwritten rules. It proves that the problem is basically over.

At first, the anti-trying brigade ganged up on Tatis. As the shortstop circled the bases, an agitated Woodward slapped his own thigh and jerked his head up and down. Minutes later, new Rangers reliever Ian Gibaut threw his first pitch behind Padres third baseman Manny Machado, who was up after Tatis. Although Gibaut quickly glanced at his fingers as if to blame a bad grip, the act didn’t disguise what was clearly a purpose pitch.

At the end of the inning, the oldest member of the Padres’ regular lineup, Eric Hosmer, seemed to tell the Texas dugout that he would talk to Tatis, and in the bottom of the eighth, cameras captured him imparting what some interpreted to be a rebuke of the sophomore star. After the game, both managers expressed their displeasure. “I didn’t like it, personally,” the 44-year-old Woodward said of Tatis’s decision to swing. “You’re up seven in the eighth inning; it’s typically not a good time to swing 3-0. It’s kind of the way we were all raised in the game.” Woodward, who said he planned to discuss the sequence with Tingler, added, “I don’t think we liked it as a group.”

Instead of defending his franchise player, the 39-year-old Tingler piled on. “It’s a learning opportunity and that’s it,” Tingler said, portraying Tatis’s extremely successful swing as a sign of immaturity. “He’ll grow from it.” Tingler, who worked for the Rangers as a minor league manager, major league coach, and front-office executive for more than a decade until the Padres plucked him away last October, then hastened to placate Texas, saying, “We’re not trying to run up the score or anything like that.” He didn’t condemn Gibaut’s potentially dangerous delivery.

Most dismaying, Tatis apologized. Although Tingler said Tatis’s free spirit was “the last thing that we’ll ever take away,” some of that spirit seemed sapped as Tatis explained why he had tried to do in the eighth what he had already done in the seventh, back when hitting a homer was perfectly fine. “I was kind of lost on this one,” Tatis said, evincing some confusion about when it is and isn’t acceptable to attempt to score runs. “They told me after five, seven, after six, something like that,” he continued. “Those experiences, you got to learn from it. Probably next time, I take a pitch now that I learned from it.”

Both Tatis and Tingler said that Tatis had missed a take sign. If so, that was worth a private word when Tatis returned to the dugout: Some signs are important, as is the chain of command. If Tatis was oblivious to a take sign, though, it was probably because there was no rational reason not to let one of baseball’s best hitters swing away in that spot if he thought he could do damage. There was, of course, an irrational reason: the anticompetitive pressure that prevents teams from playing the way they would normally after they’ve built a big lead, because it might hurt opposing players’ feelings to lose by a lot.

At that point, baseball convention dictates that teams take their feet off the pedal, no matter how shaky their bullpens: Tatis himself helped the Padres come back from a seven-run deficit in the eighth inning last June, and entering Monday, the Pads’ pen had been one of the worst. Nor does it seem to matter that players have huge financial incentives to make the most of every plate appearance, however lopsided the score. Or, for that matter, that teams often alternate between taking offense and offending (as the Rangers did last year), or that the unwritten rules are inconsistently applied: If Tatis had taken a strike and then homered on 3-1, no one would have begrudged him, and if he’d failed to bust it out of the box, some might have faulted his lack of hustle.

Data provided by Baseball Prospectus’s Lucas Apostoleris confirms how deeply ingrained the practice of not trying too hard has been. Since 1988, the first season for which we have quasi-comprehensive pitch-by-pitch data, there have been 226 situations akin to the one Tatis faced: batting team up by six runs or more in the seventh inning or later, with the bases loaded and a 3-0 count. Tatis was only the fourth hitter who chose to swing, following in the worn-away footsteps of Pete O’Brien (1988), Stan Javier (1992), and Rafael Palmeiro (1996), none of whom got a hit.

In other words, no hitter faced with those circumstances has chosen to take a hack since before Tatis was born, which helps to explain why his swing provoked such a strong response. Admittedly, it often makes sense to take on 3-0 when a walk would result in a run and the pitcher may be struggling to throw strikes. But in bases-loaded, 3-0 situations with leads of 1-5 runs rather than six or more, hitters have swung 60 times in 806 chances—a rate more than four times higher than the one with a larger lead. That difference reflects the unwritten rules in action—or inaction, as the case may be.

Even in the midst of the Monday-night meltdown, though, there were signs that the unwritten rules are relinquishing control. Woodward couched his comments in nods to changing times. “I think there’s a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today’s game,” he said, adding, “the norms are being challenged on a daily basis. Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not right.” Padres starter Zach Davies stuck up for Tatis, saying, “A lot of guys talk about unwritten rules of baseball, but you’re in the heat of the moment, you’re gonna try to get your pitch as a hitter, and he didn’t miss.” Davies’s advice for pitchers was not to expect hitters to adopt a passive approach at the plate, but to “Make sure your 3-0 pitch is a little bit better.” And Tatis, who had looked blasé about whatever Hosmer was telling him, also stood up for himself, invoking the philosophy that has made him a lighting rod, a messiah, and a standard bearer in tired debates about decorum: “This game is hard for everyone, so why not just celebrate and have fun the way you wanna have fun?”

Overnight, baseball’s scribes busily blogged in support of Tatis. And on Tuesday, the walk-backs began. That morning, Hosmer downplayed the idea that he’d chastised Tatis, retweeting footage of the two laughing later in the game, captioned with a couple of crying laughing emoji and a sarcastic, “must’ve been a tough lecture.” And both Woodward and Tingler changed their tune in public comments. “I can’t really blame Tatis,” said Woodward, who had blamed Tatis the night before. “He wants to hit.” Woodward continued, “I tell my guys all the time, I don’t want you to take the 3-0. I don’t care who you are, that’s just the best pitch in baseball to hit and that’s been proven. So like I said, the kid put a good swing on it. He got his money’s worth. I can’t really say much after that.”

Tingler, a rookie major league manager, also quickly made amends, admitting that ordering Tatis to take “obviously wasn’t the right call.” Tingler claimed that he hadn’t been talking about unwritten rules the previous evening (despite having referenced “running up the score”) and acknowledged that “looking to put any restraints [on Tatis], that would be insanity.” After saying on Monday that Gibaut’s shot across Machado’s bow “didn’t matter,” he switched to expressing that it was ”definitely not OK.” And whereas on Monday he had said Tatis was the one with the learning opportunity, on Tuesday he said, “It was something for me to learn” (emphasis added).

One thing he learned is that there’s no room for faux-chivalry in the big leagues. “They’re trying to kick our ass, and we’re trying to kick their ass and win,” the newly enlightened Tingler said. “That’s the bottom line. We can’t sit here and worry about people’s feelings.” There is something sporting about allowing the losers to save some face: Lower leagues adopt mercy rules for a reason. And while unwritten rules sometimes serve, even if subconsciously, as racially coded weapons in a kind of culture war—consider who the “we” may have been in Woodward’s “the way we were all raised”—there’s a kernel of compassion in the idea of not grand slamming someone who’s down. But pressuring players not to be their best comes at a cost to careers and to the sport’s primary purpose: providing entertainment. In the Show, there shouldn’t be crying about blowouts.

It’s likely that the real level of vitriol on Monday was more modest than the public believed; Gibaut’s pitch and the skippers’ postgame quotes were partly the product of a manager who was butthurt about being blown out and another manager who was miffed about a missed sign and may have been extra conciliatory because of his relationship with the Rangers. Hours later, though, both managers gave the impression that they were the ones who’d received stern talking-tos, or at least spent the night reading a room that’s now firmly in favor of fun.

Tatis and his peers have won the war for the hearts and minds of fans and media members of all ages, dozens of whom published earnest pro-Tatis columns and racked up retweets by aligning themselves with a stance that very few prominent pundits still assail. Nor were writers who Haven’t Played the Game the only ones speaking out. A multitude of active or recently retired players joined Davies in endorsing the not-so-divisive swing, including Jack Flaherty, Tim Anderson, Eduardo Rodríguez, Trevor Bauer, Collin McHugh, Trevor Plouffe, Will Middlebrooks, Steven Souza Jr., Cameron Rupp, Cody Asche, and Cody Decker, as well as whippersnappers Rob Dibble, Dale Murphy, Reggie Jackson, and Johnny Bench.

It’s starting to feel like the fight is over, just as it was when Brian Kenny was exhorting teams to “stop bunting” and “kill the win” a decade after Moneyball, when in most non-national-TV circles those disputes were long since settled. When MLB bases a popular ad campaign on letting kids play the way they want to, it’s clear that we’re well past the point at which unwritten rules are ascendant. As it turns out, fans prefer seeing star players perform and teams go at it with their (figurative) gloves off.

After the managers made their mea culpas on Tuesday, MLB suspended and fined Woodward and Gibaut. Tatis, meanwhile, wasn’t benched or bumped down in the lineup as punishment, as he might have been had his faux pas been considered serious. And in Tuesday’s 6-4 win, he made it clear that he’s not going to give undue deference to the scoreboard, stealing third base off Gibaut (who’d appealed his suspension) with the Padres up 6-0 in the fourth.

Tatis, whose career WAR could surpass his father’s this season, is now batting .310/.384/.710 with six steals and is only a hair behind a rebuilt Mike Yastrzemski in the race for 2020 WAR lord. He’s leading the sport in a combination of speed- and power-based categories that no previous player has paced in a full season. His chase rate, which was roughly league average in his superb rookie campaign, is now one of the league’s lowest, and he appears to have conquered his propensity to commit errors: After flubbing 18 plays at short in 731 1/3 innings last year, he has yet to boot a ball or throw one away (in the eyes of an official scorer) this year. In that way and others, he’s been basically flawless, leveling up from an already lofty baseline. Whether based on performance or personality, an anti-Tatis attitude is an insupportable position, and the halo effect fostered by his brilliance on the field has helped break down the last reason-resistant strains of unwritten-rule nonsense.

This week’s kerfuffle was another embarrassing example of baseball being baseball. But the speed and force with which the objections to Tatis’s swing were swept away make this look more like the last gasp of a rearguard action—one that encompasses Cole Hamels vs. Bryce Harper in 2012, Yasiel Puig’s 2013 mannerisms, WBC brawls and celebrations, José Fernández’s run-ins with the Braves, and the 2018 commotion about Machado’s hustle, among other skirmishes—than the opening of a new offensive.

The unwritten rules’ origins extend to the 19th century, when players were routinely drunk and disorderly on the field and an informal, player-policed code of conduct helped to promote peace. It takes time for customs that deeply ingrained to give way, but the process is well underway. So celebrate Tatis, but don’t mistake him for an upstart insurgent. He isn’t an underdog taking on the unwritten-ruling regime; he’s the doctor pronouncing its time of death. We’re witnessing the death rattle of the unwritten rules. Now we’ll wait to see how long it takes the last holdouts to notice that the war is won.