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Taking the bat out of batting

How to hit with a broken bat.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Have you ever played an ice breaker game with a group of people? A lot of them require you to do something simple with an imposed limitation, such as tying each other’s shoes using only one hand, or describing yourself in just one word. At the end everyone is supposed to... sing “Kumbaya” or something? I don’t know, exactly, but you’re supposed to know and like each other better.

When C.J. Cron pinch hit in the bottom of the tenth inning on September 14, he was fortunate not to be part of an ice breaker when Blake Treinen did this to his bat:

If this had been a corporate leadership retreat instead of a baseball game, Cron would have had to finish the plate appearance with his sawed-off bat handle. Instead, he was allowed to get a fresh bat from the rack. (He lined out to third base.)

Ice breaker games and baseball games share a fundamental purpose: entertainment. As part of its fan engagement and pace-of-play initiatives, perhaps baseball should take a cue from your HR director. What would baseball be like if batters were limited to one bat per plate appearance?

Batting

Standing in the batter’s box with a broken bat has to feel like Wile E. Coyote trying to catch Roadrunner. There are several possible ways to reach base, but anything the hitter tries will probably fail. Depending on the bat’s level of fragmentation, he could continue to swing away. Do you really need all of the bat to get a hit? A shortened stroke might be in order— he probably won’t be able to drive the ball— but a single is still possible with a hairline fracture.

In Cron’s case, normal hitting isn’t an option. He was left holding roughly eight inches of handle. With all hope lost for regular contact, could a bunt be in order? Here are a few branches for the bunt decision tree:

  • This is going to be really difficult. Teams will have to keep shattered bat shards around just to practice bunting. Where would you even put the back hand? Should you even use both hands?
  • The defense will know it’s coming. More on this below.
  • Normal bunting variables still matter. This includes the speed of the batter and baserunners, the positioning of the corner infielders, and the pitcher’s defensive ability.

If Cron decides to bunt he stands almost no chance of reaching base. He’s not terribly fast, and there’s really almost nothing left of his lumber. If he tried to bunt one of those 98 mph bullets, he’s more likely to break a finger than reach base. His only remaining option is almost as dangerous: try to get hit by a pitch.

Even getting plunked is easier said than done. According to the hit by pitch rules, a batter must attempt to get out of the way of the pitch. Additionally, if he’s hit with a pitch in the strike zone, it’s still called a strike. To reach base successfully, the pitcher has to throw inside, and the batter has to simultaneously get hit with the ball while trying to convince the umpire that he didn’t mean to. That’s a tough sell for someone who’s literally not even holding a bat!

Pitching

You’re Blake Treinen, and you have just turned a precision-lathed piece of maple into kindling. Your opponent is completely declawed. All you have to do is the one thing you do better than almost anyone on the planet. With success all but certain, what does failure mean?

Clearly, you’d get chewed out by your coach and teammates. You’ll probably make the morning highlights. Maybe it becomes one of those legendary bloopers that you see year after year. What if this defines your entire career— the guy who couldn’t strike out a batless batter? Bill Buckner won a batting title but all people remember is the grounder going through his legs. Mark Wohlers was never the same after he hung a slider to Jim Leyritz in the 1996 World Series. Could this one plate appearance ruin your career if you throw ball four?

Ok, calm down, Blake. You’ve got this. Forget about Buckner and Wohlers. Just focus on the next pitch. But what kind of pitch? You don’t need to throw 98 again. You don’t even need to throw 68, as long as it’s a strike. You’ve never practiced throwing a soft strike, but a fastball would look ridiculous. You can’t just lay in a batting practice pitch because that will look even dumber if you miss. Maybe a breaking ball? No that’s crazy, too much movement. Hmm, this is harder than you thought.

Maybe you’ll just lob it in there, like a toss to first base, except towards home plate. That’s probably easiest, except for one problem: pitchers suck at throwing. In 2018, they have a .952 fielding percentage, which is 20 points lower than any other position. Ironically, most of those errors were bad throws! You don’t want to throw the ball to the backstop, even with no one on base, because then you’ll look even more stupid!

This is getting ridiculous. You’re a pitcher; You should be able to throw a strike if you need to. All the same, pitchers have walked the opposing hurler on four pitches 21 times this season. On August 8, Robert Stephenson gave Jacob deGrom a four pitch walk with the bases loaded. Man, pitching is really hard sometimes, even when it should be easy.

Defense

Naturally, if the batter can no longer perform his primary function, the fielding team has to react accordingly. Regardless of how you feel about defensive shifts, it’s just silly to keep an outfielder 300 feet away from someone trying to bat with a rolling pin.

The outfielders will need to judge how badly the bat is damaged. They’re farther from the batter than anyone else in uniform, including the coaches, so this call really should come from the dugout. It’s pretty standard for coaches to position outfielders differently for each batter, so this isn’t out of the ordinary. The unorthodox part is just how far they have to creep in. In the Treinen/Cron situation, they should move in as far as possible, even if that’s right in back of the mound.

The infielders have to adjust as well, but baserunners are an important factor. With runners on base, a standard bunt wheel play is in order. The first baseman has to hold the runner, but the third baseman can move in as far as he wants. After all, he’s not worried about the batter swinging away!

With the bases empty, infielders are free to move in as far as the pitcher’s mound. Imagine the hilarity of Cron trying to square around with an overgrown pencil, while everyone except the first baseman and catcher crowd within a few feet of the pitcher. Who’s even supposed to call for the ball? The shortstop, I guess? What if no one calls for it at all, and seven fielders collide into each other like circus clowns, then one of them escapes from the pile, only to sail the ball past the first baseman into the completely vacant outfield?

Could this happen?

All rules have consequences; many of them unintended. This is true whether the rule making body is the US Senate or a fifth grade student council. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred implemented a number of pace-of-play initiatives, such as limiting mound visits. He’s considered even more radical ones, like pitch clocks.

When a hitter breaks his bat in the middle of a plate appearance, that wastes time. He’s got to walk most of the way back to the dugout for a new one (depending on where the bat boy meets him), then go through his whole pre-pitch routine. Precious seconds are lost! In a hasty effort to speed up the game, could MLB impose a one bat per plate appearance limit?

No. No they couldn’t. Could you even imagine?


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983