MLB's Unwritten Rules Have Met a Consensus: Let Fernando Tatis Jr. Be Great

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 18, 2020

San Diego Padres' Fernando Tatis Jr. runs the bases after hitting a grand slam off of Texas Rangers relief pitcher Juan Nicasio in the eighth inning of a baseball game in Arlington, Texas, Monday Aug. 17, 2020. The shot scored Jurickson Profar, Josh Naylor and Trent Grisham. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Chris Woodward is in the wrong, Fernando Tatis Jr. is in the right and, in general, Major League Baseball would be better off if its unwritten rules also became unspoken.

Now then, let's back up.

An incident unfolded during the eighth inning of the San Diego Padres' 14-4 win over the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field on Monday. With the Padres leading 10-3, Tatis strode to the plate with the bases loaded and, on a 3-0 pitch, promptly unloaded them for his MLB-leading 11th home run of 2020:

At first glance, nothing wrong happened here.

Juan Nicasio made a decent pitch, dotting a 92 mph fastball on the outside corner. Yet Tatis, who had already hit a three-run homer earlier in the game, simply put a good swing on it.

The thrill of Tatis' slam didn't last long, however. After Ian Gibaut relieved Nicasio, his first pitch was a fastball behind Manny Machado's back that Woodward later indicated was a warning shot. In his eyes, Tatis had broken baseball's unwritten rules.

Here's what the Rangers' second-year manager said after the game, per AJ Cassavell of MLB.com:

"There's a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today's game. I didn't like it, personally. You're up by seven [runs] 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. But, like I said, the norms are being challenged on a daily basis, so -- just because I don't like it doesn't mean it's not right."

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

In fairness to Woodward, he wasn't simply making things up. As covered by Steve Gardner of USA Today in 2019, not swinging on 3-0 with a big lead is indeed one of baseball's unwritten rules.

Albeit in less pointed terms, Tatis also got an earful from his own manager. Jayce Tingler explained that Tatis had been given a take sign precisely because he was in a 3-0 count with a sizable lead:

For his part, the 21-year-old shortstop took it all in stride, saying"I was locked in on the game, just trying to produce for my team. That was on me. I didn't look to my third base coach. I was just trying to take a good pitch and put my barrel on it."

This controversy—if you can call it that—could have ended right then and there. But whenever there's a story involving a young star being chided for breaking baseball's unwritten rules, the Twittersphere is bound to sound off. In the past, that's meant a veritable cluster-you-know-what of loud noises and increasingly scorching takes.

What actually happened this time, though, was...unity?

Yes indeed, and Tatis was the beneficiary. Even setting aside the well wishes and go-get-'ems from fans, he also got plenty of support from peers like Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson:

Cincinnati Reds ace Trevor Bauer:

And Boston Red Sox ace Eduardo Rodriguez:

If anyone was going to have a dissenting opinion, surely it would be star players from older eras. After all, they're the ones who weaved the fabric of history that Tatis may or may not have trampled on.

Well, tell it to Hall of Famer Johnny Bench:

Or fellow Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson:

It's little wonder, then, that Tingler had second thoughts. As reported by B/R's Scott Miller, San Diego's first-year skipper admitted Tuesday that he "probably learned a lesson last night" and indicated that he doesn't plan on putting any future restrictions on Tatis.

Not everyone sided with Tatis, mind you. MLB Network analyst and former big leaguer Bill Ripken didn't go as far as to shake his fist at Tatis, but he did wring his hands about how baseball has "shifted away from some of those old-school kind of thoughts."

Otherwise, there basically is no anti-Tatis contingent in this particular strain of discourse. If Woodward's reaction was him drawing a line in the sand, the dust has cleared and revealed his side to be empty and Tatis' side to be standing-room only.

To one extent, this is a shocking development. But to another, it was bound to happen.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Not all of baseball's unwritten rules are useless. For instance, there are some that cover common-sense procedural matters, such as not making the first or third out of an inning at third base.

Yet these aren't exactly what the phrase "unwritten rules" immediately bring to mind. The term is more so associated with behavioral standards, specifically regarding how to display proper respect. Showboating (i.e., bat flips and admiring home runs) is a no-no, as is running up the score.

But until MLB makes such rules official by literally writing them into law, they exist only by way of tradition. That in itself makes them ripe for criticism or outright rejection, as to say that something is right strictly because it's tradition is a logical fallacy.

Beyond that, baseball has already determined that it's time for the sport's most diehard traditions to, well, die.

Bat flips, for example, have gone from being rare and frowned upon to frequent and celebrated by MLB itself. The league has also embraced other forms of emotional expression and general individuality, most notably by permitting players to go by their nicknames in annual "Players' Weekend" events.

As for what's behind baseball's shifting culture, recent years have seen the league's star power pass from 30-somethings to 20-somethings. It was inevitable that these new stars would dispose of the old ways in favor of new ways. As it happened, Bryce Harper insisted on making baseball fun again, and MLB later followed through with its own "Let the Kids Play" marketing campaign.

There's also the unsubtle reality that baseball isn't as, ahem, monochromatic anymore. Though the league isn't as well-populated with Black players as it used to be, Latinos account for more than a quarter of all players. It only makes sense that the league should have more of a Latin flavor, especially given that said flavor is very much in line with that of the youth movement.

"This is how we play," Manny Machado, who is Tatis' teammate, told B/R in 2017. "We like to have fun. Why are you walking around with a [serious] face? We play the game the right way. We play the game hard. We play it with emotion."

Against a backdrop like this, the unwritten rules pertaining to decorum are badly outdated. They look even worse when applied to a player like Tatis, who's perhaps the ultimate example of what a modern baseball player should be.

He's an extraordinarily talented shortstop who's put up a 1.000 OPS, 33 home runs, 21 stolen bases and 5.7 WAR in his first 107 career games. And he's still only scratching the surface of his potential, as any guy who boasts 100th percentile exit velocity and 98th percentile speed is surely going places.

Tatis is also conspicuously not boring to watch. He has as much swagger as anyone else in the game and, crucially, he never takes any plays off. Even if they're happening with a 3-0 count and a seven-run lead.

Major League Baseball should want more players like Tatis, not fewer. Which brings us to yet another non-surprising aspect of the fallout from Monday night: The league suspended Woodward for one game and Gibaut for three games.

It's a safe guess that all this drama won't be the final nail in the coffin of baseball's unwritten rules. As things in coffins are wont to do, they'll probably rise and come out to bother people from time to time.

We may nonetheless have finally reached the point where there's no going back to the way things used to be in baseball. And if so, it's about time.

                      

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and Baseball Savant.