Is Acting Unethical in Baseball?

UPDATE 10/12/10: Animated .gif files have been removed due to bandwidth issues.

During the bottom of the seventh inning of Game Two of the NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds, Chase Utley was awarded first base when it seemed like a high-and-inside Aroldis Chapman fastball grazed his hand. As we see in the animation below, the baseball clearly never made contact with Utley. As such, Utley was wrongfully awarded first base. The Phillies would go on to score three runs in the inning in part because of Utley’s reaching base.

The above is yet another reason why instant replay could be implemented in baseball to ensure that the correct calls are made, but that isn’t the debate I want to focus on. Instead, I want to talk about the ethical aspect of acting in baseball. Some people see the above as well as a similar acting job done by Derek Jeter in mid-September and conclude the players are cheating or being otherwise unethical.

Asked about his HBP from nearly a month ago, Jeter told reporters:

Reporter: Did you… [exaggerate the HBP]?

Jeter: Well, I mean, [the umpire] told me to go to first. I’m not going to tell him I’m not going to go to first, you know? My job is to try to get on base. It’s part of the game. I’ve been hit before and they said “you weren’t hit”. So my job is to get on base. Fortunately for us, it paid off at the time, but I’m sure it would have been a bigger story if we had won the game.

Utley spoke about his HBP last night with reporters. Via Todd Zolecki:

But wait a second. Did that pitch actually hit him?

“I’m not sure,” Utley said coyly. “It was pretty close. At first I thought it was going to hit me in my head. Fortunately, it didn’t. And he throws so hard. I felt like I thought it hit me, so I put my head down and I ran to first.”

Is it wrong to take a base that isn’t yours? Is it wrong to put on a show to wrongfully take a base?

I don’t believe it is. Utley and Jeter are not the first two players to attempt to deceive umpires into making a call that benefits them and they certainly will not be the last. Outfielders attempt this — though much less successfully — when they trap a ball between their glove and the grass. Even if the outfielder knows it bounced, the umpire’s view may not have been the best and if he stands up confident that he caught the ball, he may earn the out. Catchers will frame a borderline pitch, moving his glove ever so slightly back into the strike zone, hoping to convince the home plate umpire that the pitcher threw a strike.

San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey stole second base in Game One of the NLDS against the Atlanta Braves and, despite the safe ruling, was clearly out. On receiving the benefit of the doubt from the second base umpire, Posey quipped, “I guess it’s a good thing we don’t have instant replay right now.”

For as long as there exist umpires that are human beings, mistakes will always be made and the arbiters will be prone to various methods of persuasion, whether it’s acting, framing, or simply a player’s confidence. Players will continue to list “actor” under Skills on their baseball résumés and they should not be condemned for this.

Should Posey instead have told the second base umpire that he was out, and jogged back towards his dugout? Does Posey owe it to his teammates and to Giants fans to go along with the incorrect call, or does he have a larger obligation to the spirit of the game to play honestly 100 percent of the time? By encouraging and enforcing a zero-tolerance policy on dishonesty (especially with no enforcement), aren’t we implicitly rewarding those who lie?

If Utley, Jeter, and Posey have one thing in common, it’s that they all try their hardest to succeed on the overwhelming majority of opportunities. In other words, they do what it takes to win. That includes running out mundane ground-outs and pop-ups, diving for foul balls, sliding hard into second base, and yes, acting. That attitude is one that should be encouraged by Major League Baseball.

That players can, for lack of a better word, trick the umpires is not the players’ fault; it is the system’s fault. If a player’s acting to generate a beneficial but incorrect ruling is to be frowned upon in baseball, then every call needs to be eligible for instant replay review and ball-strike calls must become computer-generated.

Barring that, enjoy the theater that is Major League Baseball and accept the flaws of the human beings who take part in it.

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28 comments

  1. Drew

    October 09, 2010 07:50 AM

    I agree, but I also think Utley’s situation was a little different than Jeter’s. Utley didn’t fall to the ground writhing in “pain,” and I can absolutely buy that when a 102 mph fastball blows by that close to you, in a split second, you could genuinely be unsure about whether it grazed you or not. Jeter knew for a fact that he wasn’t hit and put on a show. From what we saw, I believe that Utley was rattled by the close call, thought that he probably wasn’t hit but wasn’t positive, and wasn’t going to argue with the call. Still perhaps not entirely ethical, but he doesn’t deserve to be lumped into the same category as Jeter.

  2. Richard Hershberger

    October 09, 2010 08:12 AM

    After the Jeter incident my initial reaction was to criticize him. Upon further consideration, I realized that this is exactly the sort of question where the players collectively determine acceptable and unacceptable behavior, i.e. the notorious “unwritten rules”. If they considered this unacceptable, Jeter would have gotten a ball in the small of his back the next time he was at the plate. He didn’t, and no one seemed to think he should have, so clearly the players consider this sort of thing part of the game.

    That being said, I agree with the previous commenter that there is a huge difference between what Jeter did and Utley last night. Jeter’s act was well down the road to soccer foolishness. Fortunately the opportunity doesn’t arise often for this, as its becoming common would be seriously detrimental to the game.

  3. Jeff

    October 09, 2010 08:38 AM

    Agree with two prior comments. Utley just ran to first he didn’t call out the trainer and dance around as if he’d been shot. If jeter had just done that I’d have been ok with it. It’s the overselling similar to dives in soccer or flops in basketball where jeter really went overboard.

  4. Richard

    October 09, 2010 08:48 AM

    I agree with the first three commenters. I also think the replay is inconclusive. Neither it nor the play at second were anything like as clear as the missed call on Posey’s stolen base.

  5. Sundar

    October 09, 2010 09:20 AM

    if you aint cheatin you aint tryin

  6. bill

    October 09, 2010 12:07 PM

    Yeah, I’m really not sure if replay would have solved the Utley thing. Even watching it slow motion right now it’s hard to tell if the ball grazed the side of his batting glove (probably not, but it is *really* hard to tell).

  7. Grung_e_Gene

    October 09, 2010 12:42 PM

    If cheating is ethical aren’t A-Roids acts of deliberately hitting Bronso Arroyo, while he’s covering first base yelling at the Blue Jays, and Taking Steroids completely acceptable?

    Shouldn’t pitchers be able to scuff the ball? Base runners interfere with defenders? Pitchers throw at the heads of batters? 1st basemen slam their mitts into the faces of base runners on pick off attempts?

    Shouldn’t everything be made legal?

  8. Jon

    October 09, 2010 12:59 PM

    I’m not sure I’d say that video “clearly” shows the pitch didn’t hit him. On live replay I thought it might’ve grazed the bottom of his glove, and at first I was worried it might’ve caught him on that little bone at the base of the hand (I think that’s the one Dave Hollins always broke).

    That said, from his comments, I don’t think it did hit him, but I tend to agree he was probably stunned and even if he’d had the mindset to say “nope, didn’t hit me” he probably wasn’t thinking about it at that moment. Especially in a game where we’d already seen Chooch and Francisco get nailed by pitches, with Francisco taking one off the helmet.

    @Grung: I believe the difference is that nowhere in the rulebook does it obligate you to correct an umpire’s call. All of the other things are covered by the rules.

  9. Mratfink

    October 09, 2010 01:34 PM

    Yeah, I have to admit that it makes me uncomfortable that that was such an important play. I mean I’m happy the Phils won so I’m not going to condemn it, but I really hope this play isn’t celebrated, and is just forgotten after a while.

  10. Austyn

    October 09, 2010 01:46 PM

    When i was watching the play, i agree that he probably didn’t know if it hit him or not, a 102 MPH i think it was more of life flashing before his ideas and you could sense that when he had his hands on his knees at 1st base.

  11. MoyerIsMyHero

    October 09, 2010 03:45 PM

    I’m just going to pile on here. Have you ever seen a guy called safe, who then stood up and said ‘nah, he tagged me’ and jog back to the bench? Of course not. I’m not even sure there’s anything in the rulebook about what to do if a player says the ump was wrong in his favor.

    And that’s where Utley and Jeter’s situations differ. Utley moved out of the way of the ball, the ump called HBP, and he took his base. He wasn’t trying to get the call – the call happened and he took it. Jeter pretended to have been hit and in pain so that the ump would call HBP.

    Should what Jeter did be against the rules? No, I don’t think so. But I certainly think it should be looked down on more than Utley just taking the call.

  12. Eric

    October 09, 2010 03:49 PM

    What an acting job! He turned to the umpire who subsequently sent him to first base! This is an awful example of the thesis of this post.

  13. steve

    October 09, 2010 05:23 PM

    Watching the little .gif replay there, isn’t it fairly obvious that the ball hits the end of his bat and changes direction? The ball hit something – right as the clip slows down we can see that the ball takes a sharp turn toward the umpire. Pitches don’t just change direction so dramatically without some sort of impact.

  14. Jim

    October 09, 2010 05:51 PM

    Bill,

    I have to say I’m disappointed at this article. You said in the beginning how this is an article about ethics, but it really isn’t. Not when your conclusion is “winning is everything, even if you cheat” and “if you don’t get caught, you’re fine.” That’s anything BUT ethics. You are basically saying ethics have no place in baseball.

    What would you say if someone from an opposing team deliberately and seriously injures Chase Utley on a sliding attempt to second, and later used the excuse “hey we’re trying to win?” Can anyone seriously argue that by taking out the best 2nd baseman in all of baseball, the opposing team would not significantly increase its odds of winning? Would you be outraged about that? Of course you would. Yet you’re not outraged about this? Is this not equally intentional? Had this article been about where do we draw the line, then yes, it would be an article on ethics. But this article is not talking about that either.

    And the comparison to blown calls by the umpires is also completely inappropriate. They blow calls because they make mistakes, not because they are deliberately trying to deceive someone. I would sincerely hope, and in fact I EXPECT, that if we ever discovered that an umpire deliberately made the wrong call, that he wouldn’t just be reprimanded, but he would be fired. But it’s okay for the players to do that? What? Yes, you are absolutely correct about one thing. What is Jeter or Utley gonna say if they were told to take first base? Nothing, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. But the REAL question ISN’T whether they should take first base when they were told to. The REAL question is whether or not they should have tried to deceive the umpire in the first place! Had Utley merely tried to avoid what he thought was a ball that was gonna hit him, and afterwards, he turned around and the ump told him to take first base, even tho he knew he didn’t get hit? By all means, take first base. Someone above suggested that’s what happened; I don’t know if I agree with that. In any case, that wasn’t the point of your article; you basically said acting is a-okay.

    I personally do not have a problem with what Utley did, not because I think acting is okay; but because only a few weeks ago, Jeter did the same thing, and the reaction of the country was that, hey, we’re okay with that. To now chastise Utley just because it happened in an important game, and his “acting” could have very well contributed to Phillies’ comeback, that would be wrong; we shouldn’t have different standards just because all of a sudden things matter a bit more. But I’m sorry, I’m embarrassed by this article as a Phillies fan, not only the content, but the timing, mere hours after what transpired. This article just made us no different than the Yankees fans: making increasingly pompous excuses to deflect attention away from arrogance and bias. How we Phillies fans should have reacted was sheepishly said, “yeah, I guess we got away with one there.” In fact, that’s EXACTLY how Utley reacted when he was confronted with it, not Derek Jeter’s arrogant “I’m amused by all this” reaction. That’s what you call a class act. You’re better than this, Bill.

  15. Bill Baer

    October 09, 2010 06:03 PM

    Jim,

    Using your words, things I did not argue (a.k.a. strawman arguments):

    - “winning is everything, even if you cheat” and “if you don’t get caught, you’re fine.”

    - someone from an opposing team deliberately and seriously injures Chase Utley on a sliding attempt to second, and later used the excuse “hey we’re trying to win?”

    - [umpires] are deliberately trying to deceive someone.

    - have different standards just because all of a sudden things matter a bit more.

    - making increasingly pompous excuses to deflect attention away from arrogance and bias

    Things I did argue:

    - [umpires] blow calls because they make mistakes

    - Had Utley merely tried to avoid what he thought was a ball that was gonna hit him, and afterwards, he turned around and the ump told him to take first base, even tho he knew he didn’t get hit? By all means, take first base.

  16. Jim

    October 09, 2010 06:14 PM

    Bill,

    “I don’t believe it is. Utley and Jeter are not the first two players to attempt to deceive umpires into making a call that benefits them and they certainly will not be the last.”

    Certainly doesn’t sound like you were trying to argue that the umpire made a mistake that Utley did not have a part in; in fact to equate it to Jeter’s acting job suggested that you believed anything but.

    “That players can, for lack of a better word, trick the umpires is not the players’ fault; it is the system’s fault.”

    That’s not an argument about ethics; that’s an argument about rules. Would you ever equate laws with ethics? I certainly hope not. That is why it’s called “ethics.” I never argued that what Utley or Jeter did was illegal; but is it ethical? That’s the real question, isn’t it?

  17. Bill Baer

    October 09, 2010 06:27 PM

    “For as long as there exist umpires that are human beings, mistakes will always be made and the arbiters will be prone to various methods of persuasion”

    Regarding the other quote (“trick the umpires”), how is that about rules? I merely said the system produces the environment that allows players to alter the umpire’s calls since they are human. The alternative is to automate all rulings via technology.

    It’s not against the rules to influence an umpire’s call anyway, so the “rules” are irrelevant.

  18. Jim

    October 09, 2010 06:40 PM

    Bill,

    That is correct, the rules are irrelevant. Again, dissecting your own quote, you in fact suggested the real issue here, and thus the ethical argument: “For as long as there exist umpires that are human beings, mistakes will always be made and the arbiters will be prone to various methods of persuasion.”

    Nice use of the word “persuasion” there :) But that’s the point, where do we draw the line? What is “persuasive?” When does it become “unethical?”

    “If Utley, Jeter, and Posey have one thing in common, it’s that they all try their hardest to succeed on the overwhelming majority of opportunities. In other words, they do what it takes to win. That includes running out mundane ground-outs and pop-ups, diving for foul balls, sliding hard into second base, and yes, acting. That attitude is one that should be encouraged by Major League Baseball.”

    If the argument, as you suggested, is about their desire to win, then what makes this any different than my example of taking out Utley at second base?

    I don’t know if Utley was acting or not. I would very much like to believe that he was not, and that the ump just made a mistake. I was happy that Utley responded after the game the way he did; he didn’t do the “damn right I was acting, and I’d do it again” stupidity that Derek Jeter pulled, and he didn’t hang the ump out to dry by saying, “actually I wasn’t hit, but hey, the ump told me to take first, what am I suppose to say?” Then I come here and read your article. Maybe you did not mean to come off the way I read into your article, but that’s the sentiment I got out of it. I understand this is a Phillies blog, but because of its placement on the SweetSpot network, we already have seen readers from the national audience coming and reading your articles. And if I can read into it the way I did, so can someone else who is decidedly not a Phillies fan. I love reading your blog, as evidenced by my active participation in the discussions, but I would not want someone who doesn’t read it as much as I do to have a bad opinion of it just because he now thinks you’re an arrogant sob for writing that article. Like I said, I expected more, that’s all.

  19. Bill Baer

    October 09, 2010 06:44 PM

    I think you can make a utilitarian argument — among many others — that acting is demonstrably different than a malicious take-out slide (the key point being intent to hurt).

    I’m not sure what your displeasure is about other than some kind of subjective view that stands in some kind of ambiguous opposition to my position. You haven’t really explained yourself other than “you criticized Utley [sad trombone]“.

  20. Jim

    October 09, 2010 07:02 PM

    That’s a great article Bill. No offense, that’s what I had kinda wanted you to write. I had fully expected something like a discussion of “what is the line?” I think my problem, after reading your article, is that I read it as you saying, “there is no line. Everything is fair game.”

    “I’m not sure what your displeasure is about other than some kind of subjective view that stands in some kind of ambiguous opposition to my position. Tou haven’t really explained yourself other than ‘you criticized Utley [sad trombone]‘.”

    Well, this entire area is subjective. You didn’t really expect an objective response on a clearly subjective article did you? Last time I checked on fangraph, there is no ETH+ rating for players, LOL. And actually, I WANTED you to criticize Utley, not defend him :) Altho the comparison to Jeter, as others have said, might have been a bit out there. Utley barely qualified as a blooper wheel; Jeter? His was an entire Broadway show.

  21. micah

    October 09, 2010 08:19 PM

    jim,

    You do not understand what ethics means. You are confusing morality and ethics.

    The bottom line is this: in baseball culture it is ethically acceptable to be the recipient of a bad but beneficial call. A baseball player has no ethical responsibility to call himself out or call an opponent safe or anything like this. If this were golf which is mostly self regulated, it would be different.

    Now, deliberately hurting an opponent is completely different. It is not ethical to do this, at least not in baseball.

    Do you really not understand the difference? If you really can’t see the difference than you are most likely being deliberately obtuse, and further conversation with you on this topic is a waste of time.

    good day.

  22. Freddy

    October 09, 2010 09:21 PM

    Personally, I think this won’t help the cause for further instant replay, however, do see instant replay being used for other things. My debate is why expand instant replay on EVERY call in baseball? The games would be four times longer that way. What I do think MLB should do is expand instant replay on game-deciding plays, such as fair/foul balls (excluding homeruns because we already have that), and plays at the plate. Balls and strikes do not need to be reviewed. Ever. Stolen bases and what not also don’t need to be reviewed. Plays at the plate are important, especially in a play involving the player being clearly tagged out and called safe. Now, in the cases of The above 3 plays, you’re not gonna argue when an ump awards you a base (or stolen base). Everyone knows morals and ethics go out the window when you want to win a game, it’s not cheating, like Jeter said, it’s their job to get on base. Did Jeter overplay the injury with his acting? Yes, but he got the base. Im a phillies fan until I die, so whether people view Utley’s “acting” skills as unethical is their problem. Plus, no one argued the call. Guess we’ll have to sit back and wait for the call on instant replay. GO PHILLIES! DOCTOBER SHALL CONTINUE!

  23. Scott G

    October 09, 2010 11:41 PM

    Freddy,

    You do realize that plays at other bases do determine the game right?

    I’m fairly certain that Utley was out at second base. However, after the fact, Utley scored without contest at home plate. According to you, it’s okay that he scored there because the umpires mistake came at second base. That’s easily the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.

    I am the biggest Phillies fan in the world, but if he’s out at second, then he should never be in place to score that run. Games would take 12 hours (“4 times as long”) if controversial plays would be reviewed? Last night, two plays would have been reviewed. If you’re trying to tell me that watching replays of Utley being HBP or not, and Utley being safe/out at second would have taken any more than 3-4 minutes, I’d say you’re crazy.

  24. Bill Baer

    October 09, 2010 11:51 PM

    Jim,

    If you were asking for my own subjective feelings about these issues, I’d tell you that I’m pretty libertarian. I’m pro-steroids in sports, for example.

    Scott,

    Also, with reviews, consider that the time spent reviewing replays would be replacing players/coaches throwing tantrums on the field, so I think it may even out.

  25. Kel

    October 10, 2010 07:46 AM

    Looks like Chapman’s pitch didn’t hit Utley’s hand, but the 3rd base side angle replay suggests the pitch nicked Utley’s forearm.

  26. Scott G

    October 10, 2010 11:00 AM

    Bill,

    Yea, I’m completely in favor of instant replay. I’ve heard/used the time replacement argument before; I was merely trying to prove that it wouldn’t make the game 4 times longer (maybe not even a couple of minutes longer).

  27. Jim

    October 10, 2010 11:57 AM

    @micah,

    There is actually not much difference between ethics and morality; both are subjective. If you are talking about what is generally accepted in baseball, I think I have already expressed my opinion about that. But a discussion about ethics in baseball isn’t about what is acceptable, but what should, or rather shouldn’t, be acceptable. Otherwise you’re not having a discussion about ethics, but merely a discussion about customs. Of course, like most things, what is ethical or not is generally similar to what is deemed acceptable, but if you are only willing to discusss what is the least common denominator, then you’re right, perhaps there is nothing for us to talk about. It is my sincere hope that conversations like this lead to better ethics, not merely to rehash the status quo. If you yourself can understand that difference, then perhaps the discussion will be fruitful, otherwise you’re right, it will be a waste of time.

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