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Was Jose Tabata's HBP that ended Max Scherzer's bid for perfection dirty?

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Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Jose Tabata drew quite a bit of ire, both from Nats fans and national media, for not trying to avoid a Max Scherzer slider with a 2-2 count in the ninth inning last night.

Max Scherzer had a historic performance Saturday afternoon. It could have been more but for a batter that hit a pitch with his elbow. At the end of the day, all that matters is that the Nats won their second straight game.
Max Scherzer had a historic performance Saturday afternoon. It could have been more but for a batter that hit a pitch with his elbow. At the end of the day, all that matters is that the Nats won their second straight game.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Max Scherzer was rolling.  The Nats 30-year-old ace dominated the Pittsburgh Pirates for 8.2 innings, striking out 10 of the 26 men he'd faced without allowing a single baserunner.  With Scherzer just an out away from perfection, the Pittsburgh Pirates turned to Jose Tabata off the bench.  Scherzer quickly got ahead of Tabata 0-2, but Tabata battled his way back to a 2-2 count and fouled a few tough pitches off.  On the eighth pitch of the at bat, Scherzer threw a slider inside to Tabata that didn't break back....

Let's start by stating the obvious.  Nobody wants to see a bid for a perfect game end when that pitcher hits a batter. Apart from the fact that the HBP ended Scherzer's bid at perfection, this was particularly annoying for a few reasons:

  1. Tabata had more than ample opportunity to avoid the pitch.  In fact, it certainly looks like it wouldn't have hit him if he hadn't dropped his front arm and leaned into the pitch.
  2. There were two outs and he had a two strike count.  Scherzer was literally a pitch away from perfection.  If this had happened in, say, the third or fourth inning, it's doubtful that it gets much attention.  When the next pitch could have completed the perfect game, it's under more of a microscope.
  3. It was a 6-0 game. I get the mentality that a team should never stop fighting to get back in the game.  A baserunner is a baserunner.  Still, trailing 6-0 with two outs in the ninth when a guy is throwing a perfect game, there's no reason for a hitter to be leaning into a slider to try and get a free baserunner.

Let's spend a little time focusing on that first bullet point, though.  Did Tabata really lean into the pitch?  Let's have another look......

I'd say that it kind of looks like he leaned into it.  Dropping his front elbow a bit is something that would happen naturally if he had any intention of swinging.  It was a slider that pretty clearly wasn't going to break all the way back to the plate, but the direction that Scherzer's slider normally breaks would have taken it close to the inside corner.  It's reasonable to think that Tabata could have been trying to start a swing here, which might have taken his elbow right into the pitch.  Unfortunately, the pitch just didn't have much horizontal break to it.

That does seem unlikely, though, predominantly because of his base and his head.  Tabata takes a short stride early, but looks like he's given up on swinging at the pitch pretty early.  He follows the pitch with his head and drops his elbow both down and in towards the inside corner of the plate.  By the time he's dropping his elbow (as if he's going to swing), it seems like there's no way he would have had a chance to make contact.  Still, it looks more suspect than obvious that he was happy to take one for the team in this situation.

By the rulebook, whether he was attempting to lean into the pitch is moot...... Here's a section from Rule 6.08 in MLB's official rulebook:

(b) He is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit unless (1) The ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, or (2) The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball;
If the ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a strike, whether or not the batter tries to avoid the ball. If the ball is outside the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a ball if he makes no attempt to avoid being touched.

Whether you think Tabata leaned into the pitch or not, he certainly didn't make any type of effort to avoid it.  Of course, this is a rule that's rarely enforced.  Generally speaking, if a batter is hit by a pitch, he's headed to first base unless he was swinging.  We rarely see (2) enforced, but there was another ballgame where it was enforced last night......

That would be Kevin White of the Omaha World-Herald tweeting about Florida Gators DH Mike Rivera getting hit by a pitch in the College World Series last night.  The umpire ruled that he didn't try to avoid the pitch and he grounded into a double play.  Florida would end up losing to Virginia 5-4, sending the Cavaliers to the championship against Vanderbilt.  See... It does happen... in college sports, at least.  Maybe this is baseball's equivalent of travelling in the NBA in that it's something that's never enforced at the highest level.

At any rate, Tabata's hit by pitch ends up being nothing but a footnote in what will go down as an historic no-hitter for Max Scherzer and the Nats.  More importantly than a no hitter, a perfect game, a shutout, or Max Scherzer's "pitcher win," the Nationals won the ballgame.  It changed the dynamic of how the game will be remembered by all of us, but it didn't have any effect on the actual result of the game.

I'm interested to see what the reaction will be if Tabata sets foot on the field at Nats Park on Sunday.  Even with lefty Gio Gonzalez on the hill for the Nats, it seems unlikely that he'll start for the Pirates.  He's started just four games all season.  It's possible that with Gregory Polanco being a bit banged up, Clint Hurdle gives Tabata a start, but I wouldn't count on it.  If Tabata does end up getting in the game, I would expect (nay... encourage) a hearty round of boos from the crowd at Nats Park.  I wouldn't anticipate the club on the field to provide any fireworks, though.

Anyway, I've written quite a few more words tonight than I thought I ever would about an opposing player who has been sub-replacement level over the past two seasons.  At this point, Jose Tabata is just a guy who was once a promising prospect but never developed into anything more than a fourth or fifth outfielder at the big league level.  He's just not worth devoting this much time to.  It was a shady play by a mediocre player who is just trying to hang on at this point.

Let's focus on the positive.  What a game by Max!  Go Nats!