Things You Learn When the Mets Bat Out of Turn

On May 9, the Mets batted out of turn against the Reds. You probably know this. Actually, you might have known this and then forgotten it already. May 9 was a while ago. A lot has happened since May 9. Like, just in baseball, a lot has happened. Why even talk about it further?

Because May 9 was also not that long ago. In the context of humankind’s march through history, for example, it’s basically yesterday. In the context of the universe, it’s like a second ago. In the context of the universe, our whole lives are no longer than the snap of a finger. So, from that point of view, any discussion of baseball is absurd. From that point of view, why not discuss the Mets batting out of order on this first day back from a long weekend?

So much of baseball is routine. We learn from the repetition, but sometimes we glean something new when the seams get pulled apart. Batting out of turn isn’t entirely new, but it is unusual: according to Retrosheet, it had happened just six times in the last decade prior to the Mets’ foul-up. In case you missed it live, the lineup the Mets shared with the media looked like this:

The trouble was that the lineup actually given to the umpires and Reds manager Jim Riggleman had Wilmer Flores and Asdrubal Cabrera flipped.

Shortly after the game itself began, Flores came up to bat and struck out. Riggleman said nothing. They tell you to say nothing unless something good happens. Then Cabrera came up and doubled, after which Riggleman pointed out the mistake. Rule 6.03(b) is one of baseball’s more complicated rules, but the gist of it is, if a team bats out of turn and the other team notices in time, it’s an out. Once Cabrera’s at-bat commenced, it legalized Flores’ previously illegal at bat, which meant that Jay Bruce ought to have batted after Flores. Because Bruce was the proper batter, he was called out, poor guy. Cabrera’s double was wiped from the books. The Reds would win on an Adam Duvall walk-off solo home run in the 10th. One could argue it would have been good for the Mets to have scored a run in first.

It was silly and embarrassing, but it also showed us some things. These are a few of those things.

Devin Realizes That Things Can Always Get Worse

It might be because I like being at home too much, but I think if I were a ballplayer, I’d struggle to get over the disruption of being traded. Traded players must feel adrift. Their usual coffee spot isn’t there anymore; like all people who have recently moved, they’re left looking for possessions in their own homes for months. They’re doomed to take the wrong exit on the freeway, get back on, then take the wrong exit again. This will happen several times in one week. They’ll feel very silly about it. They have to make new work friends. Of course, it can be fine. Great even! Justin Verlander got a World Series ring out of his move, which probably inspires patience as a new barista learns his coffee order. Sometimes, you luck out. Sometimes, you’re in a bad baseball situation, and come to find yourself in a better one. Sometimes, though, you’re Devin Mesoraco.

The Mets aren’t especially good, but they clear the important (if low) bar of being better than the Reds. I bet Devin felt pretty good about getting out of Cincinnati. It’s not a parade in Houston, but it’s something, something for which you’re willing to endure unfamiliar lattes. I bet he thought he was in the clear, free of a bit of nonsense.

Which is why perhaps the saddest moment of this whole kerfuffle comes when Adrian Gonzalez and Jose Reyes and Mickey Callaway are gathered around the dugout lineup card, pointing and wondering as they search for answers, and Devin comes into the frame.

Because it is in this moment that new-Met Devin, faced with an almost incomprehensible mistake, realizes something important about life and baseball: it can always get worse.

Devin should be forgiven his mistake; it’s a common defense against the world’s barbarism. We always think that nothing can be worse than the last, terrible thing we’ve endured, but of course it can be. It can be stranger, and more embarrassing. It might hurt. But I’ve always found something oddly reassuring about things being able to get worse. If nothing else, it shows that things can change, and if they can change, they can also improve. We just have to live long enough to remember which exit to take.

The Strategic Value of Being Kind to Others

I think we fail to appreciate the strategic value of adhering to the old adage that we should treat other people how we want to be treated. Which isn’t to say that, if it didn’t serve us, we would be excused if we were lousy. Most of the pull to be a good person — like, 96% of it — ought to be the fact that I’m a human and you’re a human and, as such, each of us should be afforded some dignity. We know how it feels when we aren’t. That’s 96% of it. But the other 4% is about smoothing the way. It’s about us all having to live here together. It’s about not getting too much of the business when we make a mistake.

After the game, Jim Riggleman told reporters, “I want to say as little as possible about that because that’s a bad feeling for anybody. I felt bad. It’s so easy to have happen.” Riggleman had a job to do. He had to call attention to the Mets’ error. But he felt bad about it. He knew it could have been him. That was 96% of it, the Callaway-is-a-fellow-human-person part of it. The other 4% came two days later, on May 11 at Dodger Stadium, when the Reds messed up a double-switch.

The specifics aren’t important but it all ended with Alex Blandino, who had never played the outfield in the majors, replacing Scott Schebler by way of Jesse Winker, who went like this:

And then like this:

Yes you, Jesse. People had a little bit of fun with it after the game, what with it coming so soon after Riggleman called out the Mets’ mistake, but they had a normal amount of fun, not a mean amount of fun. They weren’t out to teach Jim Riggleman a lesson. He didn’t need one. There was no need for the business. He went in knowing he could be next, and after he was, well, he had already smoothed the way out.

Management Is Deciding How to Look a Little Stupid

I think the Mets’ situation revealed two related, somewhat interesting things about Mickey Callaway, one small and another quite large. First, the small thing. I think we learned that Mickey Callaway is a pretty good manager. I don’t mean that he is necessarily a good baseball tactician. His team did bat out of order, after all. It’s not a totally tight ship he’s running over there. What I mean is that he seems like a pretty good boss. Almost everyone has a boss, and almost all of our bosses have bosses themselves. How our bosses deal with their bosses when we screw up tells us a lot about how good a boss we ourselves have. Sometimes you, a worker, have to wear a mistake, but sometimes a good boss steps in to spare you embarrassment or prevent you from getting fired when you sort of deserve it, but maybe not all the way. They become shields.

After the game, Callaway told reporters that what happened was, “an administrative thing that I didn’t take care of,” and that it was his fault. “I’m responsible for it. I have to double-check, triple-check and quadruple-check what’s put on there and what’s put on the board.” Except he didn’t write it. Bench coach Gary DiSarcina did. When you’re the boss, you have to let go of doing some things, even if, as the saying goes, the buck stops with you. Literally every other time, this has worked out. So you trust that it will again. But when it didn’t, Callaway didn’t hang DiSarcina out to dry. He took responsibility; he was a shield.

His inclination to be a shield leads us to the bigger thing we learned, which is that Mickey Callaway has a preferred way of looking a little stupid. Of all the ways to be a dummy, he has a favorite. Let’s review. When the game was done, Callaway claimed, “I knew right when they went up there that we were out of order.” Well now, hold on: we’ve just learned something. Let’s take Callaway at his word for a moment and assume he realized right away that Flores was out of turn. He’s also admitting he doesn’t know the rule! The relevant parts of 6.03(b) tell us:

(1) A batter shall be called out, on appeal, when he fails to bat in his proper turn, and another batter completes a time at bat in his place.

(2) The proper batter may take his place in the batter’s box at any time before the improper batter becomes a runner or is put out, and any balls and strikes shall be counted in the proper batter’s time at bat.

If Callaway had truly known right when they went up, he could have avoided this whole thing. He could have marched out to home plate and said, “Boy, do I have a funny one” to the home-plate umpire, and sheepishly smiled and been embarrassed, and called Cabrera up to come finish the at-bat. It would have been a web gem, and we all would have laughed — and liked Callaway more for looking sheepish and embarrassed. I would have still written about it, because I am a sucker for charming baseball types, and we would have moved on.

Except we aren’t taking him at his word. We believe he was being a good boss. I don’t think Callaway realized anything was wrong until Riggleman came out on the field because he trusted DiSarcina to do his job but was proven to be wrong, at which point, Callaway faced a choice about the particular sort of a little stupid he wanted to pretend to be. He decided to go with the stern, responsible type who is definitely paying close attention while not knowing the rules. I suppose there are worse things. At least he had a choice. Most of us just fall into stupid sideways and have to take the kind we get.

We’re All Just a Mistake Away from Baseball’s Collapse

I don’t mean to overstate things, but I think if teams batted out of order more often, we couldn’t have baseball. I think we’d stop trusting it. Foul-ups like the Mets’ threaten the whole enterprise. Because the thing is, the game’s rules are pretend. We made them up as we went along. We say that objects obey the laws of gravity, but they don’t have much choice in the matter; when you knock a glass off your kitchen counter, it doesn’t decide to submit to the fall. It just falls.

Meanwhile, baseball is bursting with choices, little bits of fuss and discretion doled out 90 feet at a time that could have gone a different way, but didn’t. Some of those choices were the result of wanting to accomplish a particular thing, like scoring more runs or keeping players safe, but others are just calcified wisps of having left things to sit for a while. We’ve been exercised lately about the idea of starting a runner on second in extra innings, or having a designated ninth-inning hitter, and those might be bad ideas, but they don’t violate any natural laws. There is nothing natural about baseball, and I think we tend to underestimate just how fragile the stitched together fragments of purpose and just-because are when put under the pressure of a certain kind of rule-breaking.

Not regular rule-breaking, mind you. Regular rule-breaking is fine, or at least survivable. Perpetrators suffer their consequences, and we all move on. But batting out of order reminds us that baseball is made up… and then makes us worry that we aren’t in reliable hands. It’s like that moment in a disaster movie when a super volcano is erupting and the California coast is collapsing into the Pacific, but the protagonist’s cell phone still works. You were with them before, with the RV that can outrun an eruption, but then they got this small thing, this basic thing, wrong, and you start to worry that you would feel confused later on. You start to worry they are wasting your time.

In the top of the second inning, Adrian Gonzalez came up to bat. He came up to bat because Jay Bruce was called out to end the first. Gonzalez came up to bat and Riggleman clearly thought the Mets had done it again. He went out and checked with the umpires, who no doubt explained that Jay Bruce can’t bat after having made the last out of the prior inning. Riggleman retreated to his dugout and Gonzalez singled. And there was a moment after when most of the crowd looks confused, and baseball almost breaks.

Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 4 are all separately trying to sort out what happened. No. 6 is trying to overhear Nos. 3 and 4 so he can explain it to No. 7. No. 5 is calling his mom to ask her if she knows. No. 8 is proudly telling the wrong thing to No. 9, who might be a team employee and knows No. 8 is wrong but is also embarrassed he can’t remember the real rule, which he really should know, so he’s just saying, “Uh-huh” over and over and hoping there are no clarifying questions. No. 10 is checking Twitter, hoping for clarity. All of them are confused and like baseball a little less than they did at the start of the game. The illusion that this all makes sense, that we aren’t spending our days and dollars on a bunch of bases scattered an arbitrary distance apart — that has been shattered. Even Riggleman, the rule-knower, didn’t know the rules all the way. Even he proved a bit false.

It didn’t fall all the way apart, but I think if it happened more often it would. We hate to feel confused, and we hate feeling like we’ve wasted our time even more. After all, there’s just no way that cell phone should work.

Baseball couldn’t operate like this all the time. Even delighted observers like me would tire if it did. But it does some amount of good when things break apart. It’s one way to see what’s inside.

Meg is the managing editor of FanGraphs and the co-host of Effectively Wild. Prior to joining FanGraphs, her work appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing, and Just A Bit Outside. You can follow her on twitter @megrowler.

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I love this. Thank you.
You are good at the thing you’ve chosen to do in exchange for legal tender.

Jetsy Extrano
Jetsy Extrano

Are you writing a book? I would buy the hell out of that book.

The point about managing, that you need to be hands off and still take the fall, is… I know I’ve thought each half of it, but I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever connected them.

Fangraphs has several truly world-class doers-of-the-thing-they-do-here.