Yermín Mercedes is hitting .346 with six home runs in his breakout rookie season, numbers that should win him praise from manager and everyone else rooting for the Chicago White Sox to make a run deep into October.
And, no, he’s never read the unwritten rules of baseball. He can’t, because, well, they’re unwritten.
Tony La Russa seems to know them anyway, which isn’t surprising. And La Russa seems intent on teaching them to his young slugger, who made what might otherwise be chalked up to a rookie mistake by hitting a 47 mph pitch thrown by a position player over the fence in Minnesota the other night.
Or maybe it wasn’t a mistake after all. Unwritten rules, it seems, can be a bit baffling, even to those who think they know them.
That includes a septuagenarian manager who seems determined to prove every day that he is as out of touch with today’s game as his many critics claim.
“I was upset because that’s not the time to swing 3-and-0,” La Russa said. “The Twins knew I was upset. With that kind of lead, it’s about sportsmanship, respect for your opponent and respect for the game. There’s going to be a consequence that he’s going to have to endure within our family. It won’t happen again. He’s not going to do that again.”
Maybe not, if only because Mercedes is a 28-year-old in his first year in the big leagues and pretty much has to do what his manager says. Imagine, if you will, Yankees manager Aaron Boone saying something similar to Aaron Judge if he dared swing away on a slow fat one down the middle at just the wrong time.
But if La Russa is looking to find someone to blame, there are plenty of other candidates available.
Major League Baseball, to begin with, for allowing the farce that is position players pitching in late innings. As much as fans increasingly dislike pitchers still hitting in the National League, the game is far worse when players who aren’t pitchers are sent out to take the mound.
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli for another. He’s got 13 pitchers on his 26-player roster and had used only four of them when he trotted out first baseman Williams Astudillo to pitch the ninth inning Monday of what was then a 15-4 blowout.
And, finally, the whole idea that there are unwritten rules in baseball, something that Mercedes seemed blissfully unaware of after the game.
“We’re just having fun,” Mercedes said. “It’s baseball.”
That’s something La Russa should understand as well as anyone. He’s been in the game all of his life, somewhat improbably now after being lured out of retirement at the age of 76 to manage the White Sox.
Take a look at the standings, and La Russa has done well, very well. The White Sox have the best record in the American League and they’re a team loaded with young talent that is fun to watch.
But a few weeks ago, La Russa didn’t even know one of the written rules when he mistakenly used closer Liam Hendriks as a baserunner to open the 10th inning in a 1-0 loss to Cincinnati.
That’s a no-no even for a manager who deservedly gets some leeway because he won six pennants and three World Series in an amazing run of 36 years in the dugout.
To La Russa’s point, Mercedes did do something major league players just don’t do. ESPN baseball writer Jeff Passan tweeted out the astonishing stat that in the last 20 years, big league players have seen 557 pitches on 3-0 counts with their team leading by 10 runs or more and Mercedes was the first to swing.
And Twins reliever Tyler Duffey responded Tuesday by throwing a pitch behind Mercedes, leading to his ejection.
Still, as former pitcher Brandon McCarthy tweeted Tuesday, Mercedes gets paid to hit. And he’s barely 100 bats into a major league career he hopes will lead to greatness — and the riches that go with it.
“There is a direct correlation between numbers and what you get paid,” McCarthy posted. “This stuff matters for hitters. You put a (position) player throwing lollipops, then back up, cause guys should try to launch.”
Yes they should. Numbers mean everything in baseball these days and every home run Mercedes hits will eventually lead him to bigger paychecks, no matter if they were pitched at 47 mph or 97 mph.
If the Twins were offended, then maybe they should have put a real pitcher on the mound to begin with.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg