When Yermín Mercedes of the Chicago White Sox got a 3-0 meatball to hit in the ninth inning of a May 17 blowout against the Minnesota Twins, he didn’t miss. But after Mercedes hit the ball 429 feet for his sixth home run of the year, his Hall of Fame manager, Tony La Russa, was swift in condemnation. La Russa called the dinger a “big mistake,” said Mercedes was “clueless,” joked that he’d spank Mercedes if the athlete wasn’t so big and strong, and insisted such a disrespectful home run wouldn’t come off Mercedes’s bat again. When the Twins’ Tyler Duffey got himself ejected the next night by throwing a 93 mph fastball directly behind Mercedes on the first pitch of his at-bat, La Russa told reporters he “didn’t have a problem” with it.
The backlash stemmed from a breach of an unwritten rule of baseball: Mercedes had swung away on a 3-0 count while his team was winning by a ton. What constitutes “a ton”? It’s not always clear. It’s also possible that Mercedes violated a more general unwritten statute against embarrassing one’s opponent, given the combination of the 3-0 count, Chicago’s 15-4 lead, and the fact that the Twins had waved the white flag by bringing in a position player, utilityman Willians Astudillo, to pitch.
Did Mercedes really violate baseball’s non-rules? If so, how severe an imaginary crime did he commit? How rare was his transgression? And have past aggressors against the sport’s unspoken honor code faced the same firestorm Mercedes did? To answer these questions, let’s start where all fruitful hunts begin: in Baseball-Reference.com’s Stathead search tool.
According to Stathead, major league hitters have hit at least 14 home runs that meet the following criteria: They were hit on a 3-0 count, in the seventh inning or later, while the batter’s team led by six or more runs. (Six is an arbitrary number right on the edge of blowout territory, which suits the arbitrary nature of rules that aren’t written anywhere.) Stathead’s count data is largely complete going back to 1988, with only sporadic pitch-by-pitch data available before then, so there have undoubtedly been more of these home runs. But even the limited list we have makes clear that Mercedes wasn’t the first (or even the last) to do this deed:
|8/4/1946||Goody Rosen||NYG||PIT||Ed Bahr||9-1|
|6/22/1954||Jim Greengrass||CIN||@BRO||Ben Wade||11-0|
|4/22/1963||Denis Menke||MLN||@LAD||Jack Smith||8-2|
|6/2/1993||Robin Ventura||CHW||@DET||Dave Haas||9-1|
|4/18/1996||Jay Buhner||SEA||DET||Mike Myers||10-3|
|5/20/2000||Thomas Howard||STL||@PIT||Keith Osik||15-3|
|8/11/2000||Juan González||DET||@OAK||Jeff Tam||10-3|
|5/9/2003||Tony Batista||BAL||@KCR||Albie Lopez||8-2|
|9/29/2005||Hideki Matsui||NYY||@BAL||Jorge Julio||6-0|
|8/17/2018||Manny Machado||LAD||@SEA||Christian Bergman||7-1|
|8/17/2020||Fernando Tatís Jr.||SDP||@TEX||Juan Nicasio||10-3|
|4/28/2021||Mitch Garver||MIN||@CLE||Sam Hentges||8-2|
|5/17/2021||Yermín Mercedes||CHW||@MIN||Willians Astudillo||15-4|
|5/23/2021||Christian Yelich||MIL||@CIN||Brad Brach||8-2|
These are just the homers –– the goriest violations of the purported unwritten rule against swinging on a 3-0 count while winning a rout. They don’t account for hundreds of players who have otherwise put a ball in play in such situations. Taken together, if swinging away on a 3-0 pitch in a blowout is a baseball sin, a lot of hitters are sinners.
But not all sins are created equal, nor are all home runs. Some homers on 3-0 counts in blowouts are more overtly disrespectful to the opponent than others, and thus an even harsher breach of baseball’s sacred –– albeit imaginary and unclear –– code. To quantify the audacity of each of these home runs, let’s use a new composite metric, known as the Derision Index for Superfluous Slams (DISS).
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It works like this: Each home run starts with a default score of 10. From there, add 1 for every run the batter’s team is leading by, because the size of the lead is directly related to the seriousness of the violation. But subtract 1 for every inning removed from the ninth, because a home run in the seventh is less disrespectful than one in the ninth. (There’s still more game to play, so the chances of a shocking comeback are marginally higher.) Then, add 2 if the home run comes in a road ballpark, because homering on a 3-0 count while winning big is funnier if the home crowd bought tickets to watch an opposing hitter do it. Finally, add another 2 in the event the homer comes off a position player. (After all, the defense has already surrendered.) A higher DISS score correlates with a higher level of disdain for baseball’s traditions.
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These are the DISS scores of those 14 uncouth home runs:
|Date||Batter||Lead||Inning||Off Pos Player?||On Road?||DISS score|
|8/17/2020||Fernando Tatís Jr.||7||Eighth||✓||18|
Mercedes’s mash off Astudillo is one of the most contemptible breaches ever of the imaginary rule against 3-0 swings in blowouts. But it’s not the highest DISS ever. That belongs to Thomas Howard, a bench outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2000. With a 15-3 lead in the ninth inning at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, Howard homered with three balls and no strikes off the Pirates’ backup catcher, Keith Osik, who himself had hit a homer the inning before. Howard and Mercedes are the only players on the list to have homered off a non-pitcher.
And who was Howard’s manager? None other than La Russa, giving him the distinction of managing both of the players sitting atop the all-time DISS leaderboard. It raises the question: Given that La Russa was so outspoken against Mercedes after his disrespectful dinger in 2021, did he have similar words for Howard after his galling goner 21 years earlier? We can’t know everything said inside the walls of the St. Louis clubhouse, but there’s no indication that La Russa expressed any outward displeasure. A search of newspaper archives from the day after the game reveals no discussion anywhere of Howard’s homer coming on a 3-0 count. In fact, the phrase “3-0 count” doesn’t show up in any newspaper articles covering the game the next day. Nor does “three balls.” A manual look through newspaper clippings on the game doesn’t show anything, either.
That same search strategy reveals no substantive discussion of the pitch count for any of the DISS leaders through the 20th century: Goody Rosen in 1946, Jim Greengrass in 1954, Denis Menke in 1963, Robin Ventura in 1993 or Jay Buhner in 1996.
As RJ McDaniel detailed at FanGraphs in 2020, baseball writers have been talking about various “unwritten rules” since the late 1800s, but the first examples to be declared in public didn’t have anything to do with swinging on 3-0 counts. It appears there was at least some school of thought by 1939 that swinging away on a 3-0 count was wrong. Ted Williams homered on one in 1939 after Detroit Tigers catcher Rudy York reportedly told him, “Well, here she comes –– the old 3-0 pitch. I s’pose you’re gonna hit it.” Williams promised the catcher he would, the Essex County Herald reported. The article said “a lot of teams would slap a fine on a player who was sucker enough to bite on it,” making it unclear if the problem was about sportsmanship or strategy.
Hit batsman data also doesn’t reveal the exact moment when a subset of people within baseball came to see big swings on 3-0 counts with large leads as a major act of aggression. That data wouldn’t tell the whole story, because players like Mercedes might have a fastball thrown behind them that wouldn’t show up as a hit-by-pitch. Still, none of the DISS hitters –– from Rosen in 1946 to Buhner in 1996 –– brought clear retaliation for their 3-0 homers with huge leads. Most of their opposing teams never hit them with a pitch after these homers for the rest of their careers. The exceptions are Menke and Buhner, who were hit by pitches in meetings months after their DISS home runs. Press clippings from those games indicate no hit-by-pitch controversy. There’s also no evidence that the players atop the DISS leaderboard led their teammates to get into beanball wars in subsequent meetings with the teams they’d wronged.
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There are hints that this unwritten rule started to be more stringently enforced around the turn of the millennium. In 2000, Detroit’s Juan González took Oakland’s Jeff Tam deep while leading by six and ahead 3-0 in the count (a DISS score of 18). Tim Hudson of the A’s hit González the next day. The Detroit News reported that Hudson showed “excellent control” but nonetheless plunked González in the back. The Tigers later hit Oakland’s Eric Chávez in the same game, after Chávez had taken off running on a pitch while the A’s had a big lead. “If you’re offended when someone is swinging 3-0, then that same book says you don’t hit-and-run with a six-run lead,” Tigers manager Phil Garner said afterward. “I’m not saying I adhere to that, but it seems like they do. They took action on one of my players based on that standard.”
In 2001, Matt Williams of the Arizona Diamondbacks doubled on a 3-0 count against the San Francisco Giants while leading 6-0 in the fifth inning and then got thrown at later in the game, leading to the dugouts clearing. “When respect is lost and you’re shown up, you do the best thing that men know how to do,” the Giants’ Jeff Kent said. “You fight.”
But even by this point, punishment seems to have depended on the sensitivity of the players and coaches on the losing team. Howard’s homer off Osik in 2000 led to no clear retribution.
After Hideki Matsui’s DISS homer in 2005, the big leagues went through a 13-year drought of these worst impositions on the unwritten rules. And when Manny Machado, then with the Los Angeles Dodgers, hit a homer with a 16-DISS score off the Seattle Mariners’ Christian Bergman in 2018, it didn’t lead to any public fuss. But in August 2020, budding San Diego Padres superstar Fernando Tatís Jr. hit a 3-0 grand slam off the Texas Rangers’ Juan Nicaso while leading 10-3 in the eighth inning. That kicked off a veritable firestorm. “I think there’s a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today’s game,” said Rangers manager Chris Woodward, leading the delegation against Tatís. “I didn’t like it, personally. You’re up by 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.” The Rangers pulled Nicasio for Ian Gibaut, who threw a pitch behind Tatis’ teammate Machado, who had since moved on to San Diego. Woodward, the pitcher’s manager, said it “slipped out of his hand and went wide.”
You might expect every subsequent DISS homer to generate the same outrage, but no. In late April, Minnesota’s Mitch Garver hit a 16-DISS homer off Cleveland’s Sam Hentges; that was slightly lower than Tatis’s 18-DISS bomb off Nicasio, and it didn’t make nearly the headlines that Tatís’s did. The Mercedes homer (25 DISS) came less than a month after that and generated tons of discussion. Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers, a former National League MVP, hit an 18-DISS homer less than a week after the Mercedes shot, and that didn’t lead to much discussion at all, much less outrage. Managers made a fuss about two of the homers, though, and Tatís and Mercedes became villains in some corners while Machado, Garver and Yelich did not.
One thing is clear: homers on 3-0 pitches in blowout wins are more en vogue now than at any time in recent history. Using the six-run threshold, the majors didn’t see any from 2006 until 2018, but there have now been four since August 2020, including three in the past two months. They’ll probably keep coming, too; MLB’s leaguewide 3-0 count swing rate has been on a steady upslope since the league started a pitch-tracking project in 2008, going from 7.1 percent in 2008 to consistently north of 10 percent from 2017 to 2019. The league has also started to market itself explicitly around breaking unwritten rules –– something that often comes up in the context of encouraging bat flips but could easily extend to ignoring imaginary barriers to 3-0 swings.
Mercedes might have hit one of the most nakedly disrespectful homers in MLB history. But the nonexistent rule that told him he shouldn’t have done that might soon be even less existent.
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