I find few things more energizing than a thoughtful discussion with exceptionally contemplative people. It’s not to say we all must agree: actually, most often, the best conversations involve moments of disagreement, in which my own ideas come up against counter arguments and logical appeals. Occasionally I change my position—I do so almost once a year in my own philosophy class—though most often, I come away knowing even more about the given topic, understanding it in a deeper, more complete way.
For these reasons I was pleased when a representative from Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) reached out to me. “Have you seen how much commentary your short video on pitch framing incited?” she began. “More than anything we’ve posted in a long time.”
She then paused, changing her tone, “Though you may not be happy—it seems like most commenters are very unhappy with you.” After a few seconds of silence she reassured me, “Though one person did put this great image with the text, ‘BOOM. Mind Blown!’ This is a good thing—it means he liked it.”
To save you the 56 seconds, the video begins by entertaining arguments deeming pitch framing as unethical: the pitcher is awarded a strike that wasn’t a strike and so doesn’t deserve, the batter is wrongly punished, and the umpire is deceived. Though the video ends with the following insight: because framing does not violate a rule and is entrenched in how baseball is played, we can view pitch-framing as a skill of the game and, thus, not unethical.
A Deeper Look at Pitch Framing
Given that I limited myself to less than a minute in the video, it’s worth quickly delving into the phenomenon of pitch framing. It’s commonly referred to as “stealing strikes,” though those who prefer to avoid the pejorative “stealing” often speak euphemistically, deeming it “pitch presentation.” Regardless of what you call it, framing pitches involves the catcher receiving a pitch inches outside the strike zone and then subtly bringing the ball in—framing it—as a strike. Baseball columnist Rob Arthur (an expert in the sport of baseball) provides a great exposition on Buster Posey, arguably the best in Major League Baseball at pitch framing. “Good framers turn pitches outside of the zone into strikes,” writes Arthur (italics mine). His article, “Buster Posey’s Pitch Framing Makes Him A Potential MVP,” includes video of Posey doing just this, along with an exceptionally in-depth analysis of how skilled catchers receive balls and turn them into—ahem, they steal—strikes.
The People Speak Out
This all brings us to the collection of comments on the PCA Facebook page. It began with this offering from commenter, S.M.:
Contemplating the ethics of framing pitches is delving way too far. Slowly we are striping [sic] the character and gamesmanship out of sports.
As I mentioned from the onset, the very act of contemplating has virtue in and of itself. How can we truly understand the richness of a phenomenon without contemplating it? Additionally, it hardly seems that looking into issues like justice, culture, and fairness “strip” character from sports—if anything, it provides the opportunity to exhibit more robust character.
A number of the criticisms came from people wanting to qualify the term “framing.” Many used it as follows: to catch a pitch well, turning the glove so as to display the pitch to the umpire. Clearly, there is nothing wrong with this. As is often the case in disagreements, a mere defining of terms would either solve the disagreement or, at the least, allow for a more civil, productive discussion. Simply catching a pitch is not unethical—how could it be? Someone who understood the term “framing” as such would understandably be wound up by the mere mention of concern with this practice. As someone well-versed in philosophical discourse, I failed to define my terms; a big oversight in my line of work and I could have saved numerous PCA commenters a lot of angst.
With framing now defined as deceiving the umpire, the disagreement ensued. A number of commenters argued this deceit of umpires is an integral part of baseball while others, representing the minority opinion, suggested deceiving an umpire is wrong. As C.H. put it,
If a kid frames a ball into a strike, then the hitter was robbed by a misrepresentation of the facts. It’s sad when adults take youngsters and teach them dishonesty is a part of competition.
Clearly, there’s a conversation worth having—and some contemplation worth doing.
It was suggested by a few that, because I engage in sports other than baseball, I am not qualified to speak on baseball. As D.E. asked, rhetorically, “Why is a water polo coach commenting on something he obviously knows nothing about?” J.W. also commented, “lololol [Laugh out loud out loud out loud]. Know what you are talking about before you say dumb things.” Never mind the “Positive” component of the PCA site J.W. has visited, these two gentlemen provide an ideal example of a fallacy (i.e. poor reasoning error) known as an ad hom attack. In short, you should not attack “the man” but should instead address only the logic of the argument. This fallacy is typically committed when a person of poor character offers a valid argument against another’s position and, instead of defending the logic of the argument, they retort, “Well, he’s a bad guy. You shouldn’t listen to him.” The point being: “the man” doesn’t matter—the argument does.
On the heels of that, here’s the good news: doing philosophy is not an “insider’s” club. It’s not like practicing medicine in which one really does need a degree in medicine to do it well. Sure, getting a degree in philosophy helps—you’re exposed to countless well-made arguments and learn how to develop logical arguments and also how to detect poor ones—but it’s not required. All are welcome. And with my background as a baseball player as well as the brother of a college player and a current fan (having watched probably 90% of the San Francisco Giants recent five years-worth of games) I too am qualified enough to discuss issues in baseball.
One of my favorite comments came from someone who was actually attempting to disagree with me. They beautifully frame my earlier value-of-contemplation point. J.G. begins, “[I] never thought about the moral aspect of it.” This is where I insert my own, “Boom. Mind blown.” A success. We’ve encouraged someone to contemplate a subtle yet fascinating aspect of an institution they’re intimately involved with. J.G. then continued, thoughtfully, noting, “It’s not cheating, it is teaching your players to put the odds in your favor.”
J.G. is right: it’s not cheating. That’s not to say that everything that’s not cheating is sportsmanlike, because it’s not. But here is where pitch framing differs from the analogy I reference in the video of soccer’s flopping. Flopping—faking being tripped—is against the rules. Framing is not.
And so, one final lesson learned here… In arguments, people tend to be so biased toward their own conclusion they fail to listen—to really listen—to the argument being offered. In this case, a close listening isn’t even needed. I argue, explicitly, that pitch framing is not unethical. So the two-thirds of those who spent time ranting about how pitch framing is allowable seem to have either not watched the entire 56 seconds or their human brains were just wound up from the onset and not able to see what was right before them.
Discussing ethics can be amazingly challenging as so many factors go into establishing a well-made, valid argument. All the while we have our emotions engaged which can often get in the way of an otherwise cogent argument. These emotions frame an otherwise good argument as poor, and we miss out on a great opportunity for contemplation, and maybe even the home run of philosophical inquiry, the Truth.
Jack graduated from Stanford with Honors in Human Biology and earned a masters in philosophy with an emphasis in Sport Ethics graduating summa cum laude from California State University, Long Beach. He has published four books, including “If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers” (Random House, 2010), a philosophical novel, “The Dream Weaver” (Penguin, 2008) and a college-level philosophy textbook. His most recent book, Ethics and Leadership in Sport, comes out in July, 2017. While at Stanford Jack was a 2-time water polo All-American and NCAA MVP and was the alternate goalie on the 2006 Olympic Team. He has coached water polo at Menlo School for the past 17 years, winning the league championship 15 years and the section championship 5 times. In 2011 he was named by the Positive Coaching Alliance as a National Award Winner and now serves as the chair of the National Coaches Council for PCA. He teaches philosophy at Menlo School and serves as their College Athletics Councilor.