Lord, have mercy—no mercy rule

2019-08-17 MikeFord
Mike Ford had a ball pitching Thursday night—but his Yankee manager was anything but amused over using a position player to pitch.

Baseball Reference defines a blowout as a game won by five runs or more, which seems a particularly liberal way to define it. By that measurement, though, the Yankees—nestling quite nicely atop the American League East with a season-high ten-and-a-half-game advantage—are 20-11 in blowouts this season.

If  you define a blowout as a game won by a larger margin than five, say eight runs or more, the Yankees have won four such games and lost four such games this year. The latest of those: the 19-5 destruction laid upon them by the American League Central-contending Indians Thursday night.

By Baseball Reference‘s definition, the Indians are 22-16 in blowouts this year. But defining a blowout as an eight-run difference, the Tribe is 4-3. And the Yankees recovered nicely enough from the 19-5 beatdown to beat the Indians 3-2 Friday night.

Yankee manager Aaron Boone is still not amused over Thursday night’s thrashing. Or, what it compelled him to do the better to spare his actual bullpen in a lost cause.

He sent one of his non-pitchers, rookie first baseman/designated hitter Mike Ford, assuredly no relation to a certain Hall of Fame Yankee pitcher, for the final two innings of the massacre.

Rest assured, Boone wasn’t exactly thrilled that the Indians battered Ford for five runs in three consecutive plate appearances in the top of the eighth, on an RBI infield hit, a three-run homer, and a solo homer.

Rest assured further that Boone probably doesn’t want you to remind him that Ford somehow retired the Indians in order in the top of the ninth, half an inning after Gleyber Torres hit a one-out solo home run to close the Yankee deficit to a mere fourteen runs. Or that Ford isn’t the first and probably won’t be the last, rookie or otherwise, to take one for the team on the hill where he doesn’t normally work.

But rest assured, too, that Ford had far more fun on the mound than his skipper had having to put him there. Ford had a blast, even if he did get blasted in the eighth. Boone by comparison almost had kittens.

That blowout began the same weekend during which the Little League World Series will be played. Little League Baseball features a mercy rule: a six-inning game ends when one team leads by ten or more after four innings, or fifteen or more after three innings. Boone would kinda sorta like to see the Show implement a comparable rule.

“If you get to this point after seven innings or whatever,” Boone told a news conference Friday, “there might be something to that, some merit to that and worth exploring. Because it’s not fun to have to put in a position player in that kind of situation.”

Try asking the position player himself. Ask Pablo Sandoval how much fun it wasn’t to put him in that situation against the Reds in May. With his Giants on the wrong end of what finished as a 12-4 blowout, Kung Fu Panda ran, hit, and pitched his way into the record book.

Sandoval stole third in the third and hit a three-run homer in the sixth. With the game too lost a cause for Giants manager Bruce Bochy to even think about kidding himself, he let Sandoval pitch the eighth. And he didn’t get murdered, either.

Kung Fu Pitcher plunked his first batter, got a fly out, and then lured an Area Code 6-4-3 for the side. He faced three hitters, got three outs, and didn’t let one Red cross the plate against him. The fact that he resembled a Venezuelan Jumbo Brown only heightened the entertainment value.

The fact that he became the second Giant ever to steal a base, hit a home run, and pitch a shutout inning in the same game—Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson did it in 1905; that he was a pitcher and threw a complete game shutout at the Reds seems a mere technicality—was gravy.

But the entertainment value sometimes works the other way, too. On Thursday night the Mets in Atlanta started blowing out the Braves early and often enough to have a 10-3 lead after seven innings. Think of the fun the Braves would have missed, never mind the aggravation the Mets and their faithful would have missed, if the Braves could have evoked the kind of mercy rule Boone kinda sorta wants to see.

Think of the optics, too, in a pair of division leaders invoking mercy rules when they’re on the wrong end of an occasional big blowout. Try to imagine the great white shark telling the bluefish to pick on someone his own size.

As I write the Yankees and the National League West-leading Dodgers share baseball’s best record thus far, 84-42. Baseball Reference‘s blowout definition has the Dodgers with a 33-10 blowout record this year. My less liberal blowout definition shows the Dodgers with a 5-4 blowout record.

For the sound enough reason that managers don’t want to waste their bullpens in apparent lost causes, you won’t see position players on the mound unless their teams look to be getting blown out big time. A five-run deficit isn’t as likely to prompt a manager to reach for his bench to pitch; an eleven-run deficit is something else entirely.

One fine day last year, the Cubs faced a fourteen-run deficit in the sixth inning against the Cardinals. So manager Joe Maddon, unwilling to subject Randy Rosario, Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson, Pedro (Razor) Strop, or Carl Edwards to any further misuse or abuse in an apparent lost cause, turned to three position players—Tommy LaStella, Victor Caratini, and Ian Happ—to just get them through to live to play another day.

The good news: Happ pitched a scoreless ninth with only one hit off him. The bad news: Before that, LaStella got the final out of the top of the sixth but surrendered a leadoff homer in the seventh before pitching scoreless the rest of the inning. And Caratini, a catcher by trade who knows a little something about pitching, shook off a leadoff single to get two swift ground outs before surrendering a two-run homer and then retiring the side.

There’s no record of Maddon calling for anything resembling a mercy rule.

Nor was there one known to have come from Mariners manager Scott Servais last month, when the Angels—playing their first home game since the unexpected death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs in Texas—not only threw a combined no-hitter at the Mariners but blew them out, 11-0, in a game so emotional all of baseball cast their eyes upon Angel Stadium and nobody accused the Angels of being bullies.

Some position players itch for the chance to pitch even once, to even one hitter. The Cubs’ All-Star third baseman Anthony Rizzo was such a player. He’d only hankered to pitch to even one major league hitter his entire career when, on the wrong end of a 7-1 loss, last 23 July, Maddon granted his wish.

Caratini started pitching the top of that ninth, surrendering a leadoff single and luring a double play. Then Maddon sent Rizzo to the mound. To pitch to Diamondbacks relief pitcher Jorge de la Rosa. The count actually went to 2-2 despite the slop-tossing Rizzo, before Rizzo threw de la Rosa something that approximated Rip Sewell’s once-famous eephus pitch, and de la Rosa flied out to center.

Despite the likelihood of the Cubs finishing the loss they started, Wrigley Field went nutshit the moment de la Rosa’s fly landed in center fielder Happ’s glove and Rizzo began walking off the mound with an even bigger boyish grin on his phiz than he normally flashes in moments of joy.

In 2016, a Cub catcher named David Ross, on the threshold of retirement after a fine career, made up for an error in Game Seven of the World Series by hitting one over the center field fence an inning later. It was the final major league hit and homer in his final major league at-bat for a man whose first major league home run was hit against a position player in a blowout. Grandpa Rossy may be the only major league player to hold that distinction.

On 20 September 2002, rookie Ross’s Dodgers entered the top of the ninth blowing the Diamondbacks out 18-0. Ross took over for Paul Lo Duca behind the plate in the seventh and came up to bat in the ninth. Diamondbacks first baseman Mark Grace, who wasn’t in the starting lineup, volunteered to take one for the team and manager Bob Brenly assented.

With two unexpected fly outs to open that inning, Ross checked in at the plate against Grace. He hit Grace’s first float ball over the left field fence. “His first major league home run, and he hits it off Mark Grace,” Grace cracked after the game ended 19-1, “I feel sorry for that kid.”

What was then known as Bank One Ballpark shook with unexpected amusement over the sight of Grace on the mound. He got big laughs on both sides of the field and from the stands when, at one point, pitching from the stretch, he performed a dead-on impersonation of veteran reliever Mike Fetters, a portly fellow with the countenance of a grizzly bear suffering indigestion when taking a sign from his catcher.

The crowd didn’t even seem to mind one bit that Ross piled onto that severe a blowout with a shot into the seats.

“Position player pitching opportunities raise the likelihood for weird baseball stuff,” wrote MLB.com’s Jake Mintz, “without significantly reducing the potential for close and competitive game action.”

Position players also aren’t likely to even think about busting moves on the mound such as trying to throw ungodly fastballs or big sweeping curve balls. They know how to stay within their selves and their limitations. Boone may be admirable to worry about injuries, but position players on the mound are actually brainier than that.

If you’re looking to make and keep baseball fun again, well, who says it isn’t fun to see the big boys humbled by a real blowout now and then? Who says it isn’t fun to see even Yankee position players having to take one for the team now and then?

Apparently, Boone isn’t amused. There are times you’d think the greatest comedians in history couldn’t amuse the Yankees. Let a Yankee position player take the mound on the wrong end of a blowout and actually have a little mad fun with it, and don’t be shocked if he’s fined for conduct unbecoming a Yankee, the poor guy.

Let’s not let those sourpusses from the south Bronx spoil our fun. Lord have mercy, the Show doesn’t need a mercy rule. It needs more fun potential.

 

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