MLB players should celebrate more flamboyantly

October 19, 2020

Sunday night, Cody Bellinger hit a no-doubt home run that put his team ahead late in Game 7 of the NLCS. He strutted out of the batter’s box and, before touching first base, yelled a bunch of stuff at his teammates who had spilled out of the dugout in celebration.

All of this is good and should be normal, because exuberance is both fun for the people expressing the emotion and because it’s fun to watch from the stands or on television.

If someone hits an important home run in a high-leverage moment, it would be weird if that person didn’t feel happy and want to lord it over their opponent. Hitting a home run is a really cool feat, and doing so at the highest level, on the game’s biggest stage, has to feel great.

Oh ho, you’re probably thinking. What about the opponent’s feelings? At the youth levels (you might be trying to argue with me, telepathically), we don’t want to encourage this kind of behavior because the point is to encourage everyone to keep playing and we don’t want anyone to associate baseball with feeling bad. And in the pros, we should also discourage excessive peacocking because hurting the opponent’s feelings might cause them to lash out, throw purpose pitches, and perhaps injure people.

To which I say, it’s good when pros’ feelings are hurt by opponents celebrating cool baseball plays, and at the same time we ought to work on setting the expectation that rage is best channelled into playing better and celebrating even harder if they eventually get the upper hand in the game.

I’m calling for celebration stimulus. We’re not exactly in a celebration recession, but at the same time the baseball feelings economy is in no danger of overheating, and so an injection of celebration is warranted.

Note that we have to seasonally-adjust our celebration measures for October, since a celebration like Randy Arozarena’s helmet-less home run trot might have represented a major spike in August, but now it’s just part and parcel with the intensity of the playoffs.

Bellinger’s pimp job off his jonrón was welcome, but ultimately remains a conventional form of celebration. Should Major League Baseball embrace a supply-side celebration strategy, it will be important to diversify.

Marcell Ozuna’s homer selfie is a great start, but in order for the pantomime sector to mature, it will need to find ways to blend with traditional trots rather than fully disrupt them. Bat-flipping is gaining more prominence, even if not every instance will be a Bautista-level winner. Fernando Tatís, Jr. is doing his part to keep aggressive bat flips relevant, while Ji-Man Choi displayed a subtler style. Earlier this season, Rhys Hoskins displayed admirable pettiness in a 34-second home run trot against the Mets.

What we need are celebration innovators; anyone can break out an old chestnut like the 30-second jaunt around the bases (though not everyone would have Rickey Henderson’s style and commitment). Adam Rosales’s home run trots were largely taken as earnest expressions, but in the right hands a super-fast trot can turn into a particularly biting celebration, a message that the batter can’t wait to get the next guy up so they can continue hitting the crap out of the ball.

I wouldn’t even worry about losing the message in the haze of a new act. Say Aaron Judge decided to troll the pitcher by sprinting at full speed around the bases. I feel like it would be taken in roughly the same way as Edwin Encarnacion’s invisible parrot or Jeffrey Leonard’s one flap down were: a clear sense that it constitutes a taunt and that the batter is rubbing his opponent’s face in failure, but also plausible deniability that it’s just something that kind of happened on its own. (For what it’s worth, Leonard clarified that he absolutely meant his trots as a taunt.)

And while I’ve mostly focused on offense here, defenders will have their opportunities. In Korea, Lin Che-Hsuan is blazing new trails, while Mookie Betts is keeping the flame alive in MLB’s playoffs.

I’ll leave you with words from Bryce Harper, whose leadership in this arena since 2016 is greatly appreciated:

"Baseball's tired," [Harper] says. "It's a tired sport, because you can't express yourself. You can't do what people in other sports do. I'm not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it's the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair. If that's Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom or Manny Machado or Joc Pederson or Andrew McCutchen or Yasiel Puig -- there's so many guys in the game now who are so much fun.

"Jose Fernandez is a great example. Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist. And if you hit a homer and pimp it? He doesn't care. Because you got him. That's part of the game. It's not the old feeling -- hoorah ... if you pimp a homer, I'm going to hit you right in the teeth. No. If a guy pimps a homer for a game-winning shot ... I mean -- sorry."

He stops, looks around. The hell with it, he's all in.

"If a guy pumps his fist at me on the mound, I'm going to go, 'Yeah, you got me. Good for you. Hopefully I get you next time.' That's what makes the game fun. You want kids to play the game, right? What are kids playing these days? Football, basketball. Look at those players -- Steph Curry, LeBron James. It's exciting to see those players in those sports. Cam Newton -- I love the way Cam goes about it. He smiles, he laughs. It's that flair. The dramatic."

(Photo: "Pete Alonso celebrates with teammate after hitting a home run from Nationals vs. Mets at Nationals Park, September 27th, 2020 (All-Pro Reels Photography)" by All-Pro Reels. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)