Some of the major unwritten rules are written down: Don't hit other players with baseballs on purpose, for example. That's both a written rule and an unwritten consequence of breaking unwritten rules. These things can be codified, after all.
And there are rules in place to handle what Jose Tabata did in Max Scherzer's quest for a perfect game. He stuck his elbow out and tried to get hit. This isn't something that needs to be internally managed by some arcane set of invented-on-the-fly ethics. It's written down.
Written down, printed, handed out, uploaded to the Internet, and available on your phone in the middle of the game. If you don't get out of the way, you don't get the base. Let's see if Tabata was trying to get out of the way.
Ha ha, nope.
Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left. There is absolutely no doubt that Tabata was sticking his elbow out, and it cost Scherzer a perfect game. It's up to us to decide how much of a weenie Tabata was.
On the 1-to-10 scale, where 1 is completely appropriate and 10 is one player spitting on a wallet-sized photo of another player's mother before throwing at his head, let's start at a "1" for Tabata and add and subtract points as we go along.
Zero points: The score
Six runs down, two outs. I've heard this used as justification that Tabata was being an even bigger weenie than previously thought. The Pirates were going to lose, so why use skullduggery to get on base? Except that ignores the beauty of baseball, the magic that comes in a sport without a clock. A player shouldn't stop trying just because they're down six with two outs in the ninth. If there's any franchise that knows that, it's the Pirates.
That Pirates team lost 100 games. They were awful. Yet they still scored seven in the ninth inning after two were out. Pat Meares hit a homer. Tike Redman worked a walk. It was nonsense, it was a fantasy world, it was real life. And before you use the excuse that Scherzer was dominating, note that Billy Wagner was the pitcher who gave up the final home run. I'm lousy at judging whether closers are Hall of Fame-worthy, but he'll get several votes, at least. Great pitchers can have gnarly hiccups.
There will be no points added because the Pirates were losing to a great pitcher in the middle of his best performance. You still try. If the base is free, take the base.
Two points added: The armor
Look at this thing that Tony Stark designed:
Tabata didn't feel a thing. It's very, very easy to stick the elbow out when you're wearing a conch shell on your arm. We're moving ever so slowly from "take one for the team" to "oh, come on you weenie."
That was just the 20th hit-by-pitch in the six-year career of Tabata in 1,762 plate appearances. There's no way to find out how many of those involved the elbow armor, but it's not like Tabata is getting hit 25 to 30 times a year, like Craig Biggio. He just doesn't like the idea of his elbow shattering on an errant fastball. I don't blame you. The unwritten compact of that, though, is that you don't get to be a weenie and use the armor as an advantage.
Seven points added (conditional): The situation
This is a conditional consideration because we do not know the heart and mind of one Jose Tabata. If this was his internal monologue right before getting hit ...
Look fastball in, react to breaking stuff down. Look fastball in, react to breaking stuff down. Don't chase. Shorten up. Here it comes fastball fastball tailing in fastball stick the arm out boom first base yee haw.
... there are no points added or subtracted. Baseball happens fast. Instincts take over. If, however, this was his internal monologue ...
I'm a screw up this perfect game.
Then add seven points, pushing him into unwritten-scofflaw territory automatically, even before you add in the armor. No one likes to be the guy on the other end of the highlight, the Rickey Henderson striking out against Nolan Ryan, the Vic Wertz clobbering the ball and getting nothing but a little infamy for his troubles. I've walked by Jason Castro's high school baseball field several times in the last few months, and I'm not sure there was a time when I didn't think about Matt Cain's perfect game. That's how it works, and it stinks.
That doesn't mean you get to stick an elbow out. This isn't an any-means-necessary situation. Have a good at-bat. Get a hit. Work a walk. Do something good. Sticking the elbow out just to break up the no-hitter is like calling the IRS on your neighbor because you're jealous of his new boat. Don't be so awful that you have to ruin other people's fun, too.
I've never faced a 95-mph fastball with armor on, and I've certainly never been the last hitter of a perfect game. I'm not sure how much brainpower a hitter is using in that situation, compared to instinct. I would guess that a little of both was going on, and that's a shame.
On the other hand, a perfect game is a rare specimen because it's so very hard to be perfect. That was an imperfect pitch. Perhaps it didn't belong in an imperfect game.
If Tabata was just playing baseball the way he's used to, he gets a 2, which isn't anything other than a nod toward that sensibly dumb armor he used as a tool. If he stuck the elbow out because it was a perfect game, he's kind of an unwritten monster, with a solid 9. That would be some craven, annoying stuff.
As is, the Nationals didn't plunk him in retribution the next day. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was just baseballing. That means he got the exact punishment he deserved in this situation.
Was justice served?
Justice was served. Boo that man.
One last note, though. The real breakdown of unwritten rules, here, came from home plate ump Mike Muchlinski, who followed the same unwritten rule that umpires have been following for decades. If you were to write it down, it would look a little like this:
Eh, umpires don't really feel like figuring out if batters are trying to get out of the way. Too subjective! Too confusing. And everyone would be mad at us, idk.
For whatever reason, it's a rule that umpires have absolutely zero interest in enforcing, even though it's absolutely clear and unambiguous. Be annoyed at Tabata if you're a Nationals fan. But be more upset that umpires aren't doing their jobs when it comes to situations like this.
SB Nation video archives: Baseball's unwritten rules (2013)