Did Bryce Harper Cheat in the Home Run Derby?

The 2018 Home Run Derby was an awesome spectacle despite what appeared, on paper, to be a lackluster field. Bryce Harper, who somehow has 173 career homers and is still just 25, won the event in a dramatic finale that saw him best fellow catcher-turned-outfield-slugger Kyle Schwarber.

Or did he?

Yes, that’s #Justice4Schwarber trending on Twitter. My personal favorite hashtag, though, was this:

In short, the Twitterverse (mostly, to be fair, Cubs Twitterverse) was abuzz with the sentiment that Bryce Harper won the Home Run Derby by cheating. Specifically, by doing this:

You can also see that video here. In terms of what it shows, it’s pretty obvious: during the last minute-plus of his final round, Ron Harper (who, by the way, has alarmingly immense limb musculature) didn’t wait for Bryce’s batted balls to hit the ground before tossing another pitch to his son. It’s also pretty clear that, absent those extra pitches, Bryce wouldn’t have been able to catch Schwarber. As Jay Jaffe explained yesterday (emphasis mine):

[T]he 25-year-old Nationals superstar did have his back to the wall in the final round against fifth-seeded Kyle Schwarber, but with nine homers in the final minute — on 10 swings by my count, though ESPN’s broadcast said nine in a row — he tied the Cubs slugger’s total of 18. On the second pitch of the 30-second bonus period, he lofted a 434-foot drive to center field, then did a two-handed bat flip as the crowd went wild, and quickly handed the trophy to his barrel-chested father, Ron, who had pitched to him[.]

But before we toss out Harper’s Derby trophy, we should point out that it’s not at all clear from the reporting what rule Ron actually broke. The “ball must hit the ground” rule isn’t listed here, or here, or here. It’s not listed in the official guide that MLB Communications provided for the new Derby Rules in 2015. It’s not in the 2018 Official Baseball Rules. It’s not in the rules for various collegiate and intramural home-run derbies. A few reports, like this one from Craig Calcaterra, have mentioned that the rule exists, but it took some doing to find it… here, with this summary of last year’s Home Run Derby Rules.

Each round is four minutes long, which starts as soon as the first pitch is released. Each subsequent pitch can’t be released before the previous batted ball is a home run, is caught, hits the ground, or leaves the field in foul territory.

As it turns out, the actual rules governing the Home Run Derby are found in Attachment 16 to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which is a letter from Daniel Halem to Rick Shapiro. Daniel Halem is the chief legal officer of Major League Baseball, and a lawyer. Rick Shapiro is a senior advisor to Tony Clark at the MLB Players’ Association, and a lawyer. Because you definitely want two lawyers writing the rules for the Home Run Derby. Anyway, here’s the official text of the Rule in question.

That “lead official” is a reference to the Home Run Derby umpire. Dayn Perry at CBSSports pointed out that the umpire did, from his limited appearances in the telecast, appear to tell the pitchers when to throw again. And though we don’t have definitive proof that Ron was following the umpire’s lead, it’s also worth noting that he wasn’t just grabbing and throwing. He takes a ball, comes to a stop, and then throws, just as he would if he were awaiting an umpire’s signal. If that’s what was happening, Twitter’s grievance is with the umpire, not with Ron or Bryce. Ron was just doing what he was told.

On the other hand, if we’re going just on the language of the rule, it’s hard to make a convincing case that Harper didn’t violate it. There’s video proof that, on multiple occasions, Ron threw the next pitch before Bryce’s moonshot landed. However, the Rule also fails to prescribe a penalty. And since we’re firmly in the land of the absurd (we are, after all, applying the law to a home-run hitting contest), it’s worth noting that the idea of noncompliance as a feature, rather than a bug, of certain legal systems is pretty well established. Of course, that’s more in the context of international law rather than baseball, but they’re of almost equal importance.

Anyway, the real point here is one that might surprise some readers — namely that there isn’t a penalty for every violation of rule or law. Sometimes the statute doesn’t have one, sometimes the courts won’t create one, and sometimes the drafters imagine that a rule is so unimportant that it’s not worth punishing noncompliance. After all, every punishment has a social cost. If you get caught speeding, for example, that $125 ticket is lost money to the economy, but we as a society have decided that the economic loss from your ticket is worth less than the social good of deterring speeding.

On the other hand, some laws feature no attendant penalty for a reason. (Whether you think it’s a good or bad reason is up to you.) In some large cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, for example, there are municipal ordinances requiring landlords to give their tenants written information on preventing the spread of bedbugs. Those ordinances, however, don’t prescribe a penalty for not giving out that information, and courts have been reluctant to create one. That’s because the city governments decided that the existence of the law is enough to get most landlords to comply, and incentivizing the ones who don’t isn’t worth the social cost. Whether or not that decision was correct is for another article.

What does this have to do with Bryce Harper? Even if Ron and Bryce broke the rule — and even if they won only because they broke the rule — there appears to be no language to suggest that those dingers ought to be disqualified. In fact, if you read through the letter cited above, there are no penalties for noncompliance included in any of the rules for the Home Run Derby. Now, to be fair, writing in penalties wouldn’t make sense, because it would (a) penalize potentially inadvertent mistakes in a meaningless entertainment skills contest and (b) show someone was spending way too much time creating really technical rules for a meaningless entertainment skills contest. So we can definitively put to bed the idea that Kyle Schwarber is the “real” winner: he didn’t hit more home runs than Harper, so he lost. Harper may have broken the rules, but he was probably obeying the umpire, and there’s no penalty for breaking the rules anyway.

One more thing. As some in the Twitterverse pointed out, Harper wasn’t the only cheater.

It’s almost like we were watching a game where the rules didn’t matter.

Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

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5 years ago

I mean, really, who cares?

5 years ago
Reply to  radiohead

Cubs fans apparently. I warned anyone that would listen. Once the Cubs won a World Series, their fan base would become every bit as tiresome as Red Sox nation.

5 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

I’m a Sox fan and 100% agree.

Johnny Coconuts
5 years ago
Reply to  drewsylvania

We’re fun now we promise! Come on down to Fenway for some lobster poutine and obstructed view seating.

Curious Gorge
5 years ago

I’m a Cubs fan. This doesn’t bother me in the least. It was a great show. I’m just happy to finally be following a perennial winner. I’m hoping for a great second half.

5 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

Been saying the same thing since the Cubs looked like they were getting good. They have not quite become as entitled and insufferable as Red Sox fans, but they are certainly working on it.

5 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

It is funny how the Red Sox have totally become an evil empire yet 1) nobody calls them out on it, and 2) still complain about NY being the evil empire. The Yanks, after all, have the 8th highest payroll and a competing for the best record in baseball.

5 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

If Kyle didn’t have a problem, then why should I. But admittedly, it took a couple beats there.

I don’t know what ‘nation’ you root for (in a sense, size does matter; edit, by how the sheer size of a fanbase can skew the volume), but many fans get a little crazy after a loooong drought, are jealous of rivals during said drought and winning stretches and take some pleasure when a rival stumbles.
That said, I have been deeply saddened by how many fans I once respected became intolerable after the WS. I finally chose to stop going to well respected blogs – blogs that got me thru the rebuild – because so many once rational, patient and knowledgeable commenters, turned into impetuous children, turning on every play/pitch/game player.

Chicago Mark
5 years ago
Reply to  radiohead

Coming from me, a Chicago guy, this is the most egregious act of cheating since….since….oh WTF, it’s only a game. And it was fun. Go Cubs!

5 years ago
Reply to  Chicago Mark

“their fan base would become every bit as tiresome as Red Sox nation.”

No fanbase is worse right now than the Cardinals with their continued assault on their own player. Cubs fans may feel that they are a better franchise but they aren’t actively engaging in the stupidity that is coming out of St. Louis. But can you really be too surprised I mean St. Louis style pizza is an abomination like Cincinnati Chili.


5 years ago
Reply to  brood550

I feel like at this point in time we can put behind us the notion that St. Louis Cardinals fan’s are “the best fans in baseball”.

5 years ago
Reply to  Geebs

Or maybe we should stop making broad statements about fans in general? Cardinals fans aren’t evil, Red Sox fans aren’t insufferable, Cubs fans aren’t tiresome.

Football fans on the other hand, are the worst!

5 years ago
Reply to  besgueToDiffer

“Cardinals fans aren’t evil.” True.
“Red Sox fans aren’t insufferable.” Questionable.
“Cubs fans aren’t tiresome.” Unequivocally false.

5 years ago
Reply to  brood550

I mean, Cardinal fans loved Dexter Fowler last year, and now he sucks so they hate him. That’s kind of just baseball. But I’m not going to defend Cardinal fans too much – their annoying “Cardinal Way” and “best fans in baseball” stuff chased me from them being my favorite team (St. Louis native) when I was about 16.

5 years ago
Reply to  Kevbot034

Well, of course, that’s how sports fans treat any player whose value completely tanks without any way to explain it. Fowler is being treated no differently by the Cardinals fans than he would be as a member of any other team. It’s not like the fans are booing him whenever he comes to the plate and/or whenever he makes an out.

5 years ago
Reply to  brood550

Hey, St. Louis style pizza is great! There’s absolutely no outside crust (the worst part of any pizza, although stuffed crust is at least pretty good), and the cracker-like texture tastes great without being too filling or doughy or being too crunchy.

It’s at least much better than that nasty deep dish stuff in Chicago, and yes, I have had both from within their respective cities.

5 years ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

“Hey, St. Louis style pizza is great! There’s absolutely no outside crust (the worst part of any pizza, …”

You, my friend, have clearly never visited Italy. 🙂

5 years ago
Reply to  radiohead

FYI, I was at the HR derby watching from Sec 121 behind the plate. Throughout the entire derby the umpire was not signaling the go ahead based on when the ball hit the ground. It seemed to be a judgment rule based on whether there might be a safety issue with the kids. Hoskins, Schwarber and Harper were the most impressive IMO. I think Hoskins scored well in part because he had the lowest launch angle on average for his HRs, thus less time wasted for the balls in the air.