Why MLB's ‘courtesy trots’ matter

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Six-thousand-and-some home runs will be hit this season at about 400 feet apiece, which is about 455 miles of home runs, which sounds like a lot and is a fine story about where a game turned gluttonous finds itself.

Some will benefit. Many will not. Pitchers, for one, will not. This isn’t really about any of that.

What no one ever talks about — part unwritten rule, part brotherly gesture — is the empty miles logged by outfielders on courtesy trots.

More baseballs clear more fences by a greater margin than ever before, meaning more no-doubters than ever before and, league wide, outfielders will make their half-hearted, half-earnest jogs to the place at the fence the ball will be last seen, because a long time ago they were told it was the polite thing to do.

“I’m not going to stand there and have people say, ‘Kole Calhoun didn’t even move for that one,’” the Los Angeles Angels outfielder himself said this week. “Just having an old-school mentality, I suppose.”

Hunter Renfroe of the San Diego Padres leaps on the outfield fence as he watches a home run by David Peralta of the Arizona Diamondbacks land in the bullpen. (Getty Images)

Pitchers complain about the new ball. Traditional baseball fans wonder where their game went. Players from past eras wonder where their records went. Outfielders are the hidden victims, as they wear paths to and from fences, not for no reason, but for the best reason — “That’s your guy,” Texas Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo said. “When the pitcher’s on the mound, that’s your guy.”

Everybody else gets to stand and watch. Even, often enough, the guy who hit it, for a while. In 2019, there have been 311 home runs of 421 feet or farther, 241 of 430 or farther, which is to say that’s a lot of long home runs that wouldn’t be held in any park under any conditions short of a Cat 5 event. The deepest fence in the big leagues is in Comerica Park’s center field, 420 feet from home plate. More, there have been 52 home runs of at least 462 feet. So, 52 especially hopeless slogs in the direction of the fence in case the ball strikes a crow or a Cessna or a satellite and falls to Earth, 52 courtesy trots that with a straight face whisper to a crestfallen pitcher, “Almost had it.”

Still, the duty of the outfielder in a time of intercontinental home runs is to run under them for a good 50 or 60 feet in order to properly monitor the situation and offer a traditional act of kindness in an often unkind world. It is referred to as the courtesy trot or courtesy jog, whereupon the outfielder is expected to pretend he has a chance to catch that ball, that that ball was not struck quite as hard as everyone knows it was, that he and his pitcher are in this together, all that even in absurdly small ballparks beneath absurdly long home runs.

“It’s just a respect thing,” Angels outfielder Brian Goodwin said. “The pitcher’s out there working his ass off. He’s not trying to give up the longest home run of the day or the week. It happens. You got the guy’s back, who’s playing his heart out for you. Now, I might not take the lo-o-o-ng jog, but … ”

A conversation in two clubhouses this week about courtesy trots stemmed from a larger dialogue about the juiced ball, about how the public emphasis is on pitchers and hitters, and how no one ever mentions the guys who must chase it. The new ball comes off bats hotter, changing trajectories and predicted landing spots, and potentially challenging instincts built over decades of outfield play. Outfielders for the Angels and Rangers reported batted balls that stay in the ballpark — there’ve been a few — generally behave the same as they always have. Observations were made about smaller hitters going to the opposite field with a bit more carry than expected. Some outfielders said they play shallower, a counterintuitive adjustment explained by the fact anything over their heads is likely to be a home run anyway. And all of them said they will watch a ball carry over their heads, still rising in some cases and headed for a seat or concourse or parking lot or river or bay or road maybe 500 feet from home plate, put their heads down and dutifully pursue the uncatchable.

The equivalent, Goodwin noted, is in the NFL, where a quarterback throws an interception in the flat to an in-stride cornerback and five 320-pound linemen give futile chase for 60 yards to the end zone. To refrain, Gallo said, to stand still and let nature and physics and Rawlings take their unnatural courses, would be no better than working himself into a two-strike count in the batter’s box only to spy his own pitcher gathering his glove and cap in the dugout.

Only recently a clubhouse television showed a highlight of a walk-off home run. About the time the ball came off the bat, the right fielder began to jog … off the field, crossing paths with the ball at about 300 feet. Didn’t even give it a courtesy glance. So, Gallo asked a few pitchers about that.

“A couple guys were like, ‘Eh, whatever,’” he said. “A couple were, ‘Yeah, doesn’t look great. Doesn’t make us feel good.’”

Rangers outfielder Delino DeShields Jr. observed, “Back in the day, they might fight you for that.” Goodwin added “Guys would be livid. I’ve seen near fights in dugouts.”

Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder Joc Pederson (31) watches a solo home run by New York Yankees Didi Gregorius go over the right field wall in the ninth inning at Dodger Stadium. (Getty Images)

DeShields said, “A lot of that is an old-school mentality. Pitchers would get on guys for showing ‘em up. Honestly, for me, you give up a bomb, you give up a bomb. So what? You can get mad at me, but it’s not my fault it’s been crushed.”

But, he said, he puts in his courtesy trots, same as everyone else. It’s just the way it is.

Mechanically, the first step or two are instinctive enough to be simple and nearly effortless. In the distance, an outfielder sees a pitch he’s seen a million times before, a swing he’s seen just as many times and the ball leaving the bat the way it does. Then, following so near to be almost simultaneous, the sound of contact. He moves in the direction of all that information. Somewhere inside the first, second or third step, sometimes, he understands that everything from there on is a Hallmark card and a get-’em-next-time-bro for a crestfallen pitcher.

Pitchers can be emotionally taut. They stand by themselves up on a hill and endure the bad stuff best they can, their own doing and others’, then wear a decision that might burden them with what is officially called a loss, attached to them forever, as if the prior three hours were nine on one. A little love will go a long way, then, and it’s not so hard to ease into another 15 or 20 yards for the good of another dude’s achy soul.

These are, in the end, the small efforts, small sacrifices, fleeting deeds, passing affections that keep a team from fraying. A we’re-all-in-this-together thing, even if only one of us is throwing balls in the river.

“Besides,” Goodwin said with a grin and a shrug, “you’re moving anyway.”

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