Thursday, August 18, 2011

Why Throwing at Hitters Is Unacceptable. Period.

By Mark Smith

When I was nine years old, I had to have set a record for the most HBPs in one season. In the like 20 games, I must have been hit 12 or 13 times. Miraculously, I never charged the mound or hit a batter on purpose (though, considering my wildness as a pitcher, I might have hit quite a few myself; I tried to block out that whole pitching thing, so I don’t remember) in retaliation. Granted, I was nine, and nine-year olds generally don’t do that stuff. Then last week happened, and the Little Leaguer from New Mexico hit and admired a home run during one of the Little League World Series regional championship games. All of a sudden, people started clamoring for the kid or one of his teammates to get hit. WHAT?!?

I used to understand the sentiment in regard to major-league players. It sent a message and protected teammates, but I was like 12 then and held grudges. I hope we can all agree that having pre-teens throw at each other is a bad idea. Sure, it wasn’t the best thing in the world for him to admire the shot, but don’t you think the coach or a league administrator (if the coach didn’t) could just pull the kid aside and tell him not to do it again?

This is one of those times where I actually think major-leaguers do set a bad example for kids. Retaliation by attempting to throw at or hit a batter is always unacceptable. I said so during the Zambrano fiasco where he tried to hit Chipper, and someone said that I’d be fighting an uphill battle on that. Well, I’m here to fight that battle. Here are the common defenses for throwing at a hitter and why they don’t actually make sense.

It’s an unwritten rule.

First, if it’s an unwritten rule, that means they didn’t write it down somewhere, and if they didn’t write it down and put it in the official rulebook, then it’s not a rule worth keeping. Common law used to be law done by precedents and oral tradition, but eventually, people realized it would be best if those were actually written down. Second, not everyone follows that rule because it’s not written down as an official rule. Some abuse the use of it, and some don’t use it at all. If you don’t see it coming, then we have that whole message mix-up from the next section. Third, it’s machismo. That’s all it is. Some guy was offended because a guy dared throw inside and hit him. He’s offended, and because he has the respect of his teammates, they feel they need to stick up for him or lose his respect/friendship. He wants payback, and because the pitcher doesn’t want everyone to hate him, he throws at a hitter. We teach our kids about not letting pride get the best of them, and we admire a saying like “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. Yet, we, then, advocate this action on a baseball field. Can someone explain that to me?

It sends a message.

This one sounds the best. One player gets hit, and the batter’s pitcher hits a guy on the other team to let the other team know that wasn’t very nice. It’s a great theory, but it doesn’t work out in practice. First, it implies that the first team (let’s call them Team A) at least partially meant to hit the batter of Team B. If it was an accident, I have no idea why you’d feel the need to retaliate. You have to assume, therefore, that Team A’s pitcher meant to throw at the batter of Team B, even if it was just to throw in and back him off the plate. If that’s the case, then Team B believes Team A tried to harm their hitter or at least put the batter in position to be harmed, and they, then, feel it’s their duty to do the same to Team A.

All of this assumes that you knew what the pitcher was thinking. What if Team A’s pitcher just wanted to throw inside, missed his location, and hit the batter? Now, when Team B hits Team A, Team A doesn’t really know why. They can make the connection, but they don’t really understand. So Team A now has to make a choice. Their hitter was hit intentionally, but they didn’t mean to hit Team B. Do they now throw at Team A’s batter to protect their players and get revenge, or do they let it go knowing they hit a batter? The latter sounds awfully chivalrous in this scenario as Team A had no intent and HBPs happen, so it seems like the former needs to occur. Team B will then get pissed because they thought the kerfuffle was over when they hit Team A, but now they feel they need to hit Team B again. You see how this can steamroll? In order to start this, you have to assume you knew the intent of the pitch, and don’t you dare say you’ll know it when you see it.

But let’s assume that you can, and the message was clearly sent. In order for this eye-for-an-eye thing to work, it has to stop with the second hit batter. You now have to assume that A) the messages sent back-and-forth were equal and B) that both teams are mature enough to actually follow through on stopping. B) is ridiculous because we’ve seen teams clear benches, and you can’t trust highly-competitive macho athletes to look at the situation without emotion. A) is harder to discern. What batters were hit? With what pitches were they hit? What about their reputations as people (in other words, did they deserve it?)? Then plug that into the Eye-for-Eye Calculator and see if they’re equal.

So in conclusion, teams don’t know when the initial message is sent, what the contents/value of the message is, and they may not even agree that there should have been a message in the first place because THERE WAS NO MESSAGE IN THE FIRST PLACE. No one speaks. No one writes. No one explains. They just do it, and everyone’s left to decipher a message in one person’s head. Fabulous.

Getting back at a player who showed you up/taunted you.

That kid from New Mexico showed up that pitcher when he admired his shot. He didn’t taunt the other team, but he did “show up” the pitcher. This still goes back to the eye-for-an-eye thing, but let’s talk about it. A guy just taunted you, and you react by hitting a player, letting the first guy know you got to him. If your intention was to tell him that you don’t care, you failed. If your intention was to tell him that was unacceptable, you either hit the wrong man, or if you did wait to hit him, his ego is probably big enough to either think he accomplished something by getting to you or will now hold a grudge. Either way, you didn’t really get a great point across, unless you assume that his team will get mad at him for his antics (which they would have anyway if they felt the behavior was unprofessional). The best way to let the guy know you didn’t bother him? Don’t react, play the game, and beat his sorry butt. You’re only showing your own self-doubt if you retaliate.

It’s okay as long as you don’t hit the batter in the head.

We’ve decided that hitting a batter in the head is bad for obvious reasons, but people feel it’s fine to hit someone in the back or hip. First, a 90+ mph fastball hurts and can injure someone if thrown in any of those areas (broken ribs, hip, elbow, shoulder blade, etc.), and no one wants to injure anyone, I hope. And if Team B injures Team A after Team B was not, then the message being sent is a different one than Team A may have sent. Second, major-league pitchers miss spots. They may intend to hit a guy in the back, miss a foot up, and hit the guy in the head anyway, and because the batter’s reaction to the pitch is unknown, you can’t really plan to hit him anywhere, unless you just expect him to stand there and take it. Taking chances like this is unacceptable. Yelling at a guy for crossing your mound is one thing, but attempting to hit/injure/maim anyone is always unacceptable. And unless you plan to throw the ball three feet over the batter’s head to the backstop, throwing at a hitter can also result in the hitter getting hit or injured depending on the pitcher’s aim and the batter’s reaction. Egos heal a lot better than broken bones, concussions, and ended careers.


There are certain times where throwing at a batter, though not to hit him, is considered acceptable. “Brush back pitches” are balls thrown intentionally well inside to make a batter back up and not lean over the plate. Because the intention is not to hit the batter, it seems okay, but you’re still taking a risk. Again, pitchers aren’t perfect, and you might hit him, anyway. You’re allowed to throw inside, but that’s to throw a strike, not to throw at the batter and hope he moves. Pitches inside are less likely to hit a batter, and “brush back pitches” are often fastballs (or a potentially damaging pitch) to “send a message”, which may set off a firestorm depending on who’s in the other dugout. Another is when a player tries to bunt or, especially, squeeze bunt. This is worse than brushing a batter back. Now, the hitter is committed to staying in longer, giving him less time to react, and again, you’re throwing mainly fastballs here. The batter is also exposing his arms and fingers more, increasing the opportunity for injury. Listen, hit batters happen, but we shouldn’t be increasing the chances of it happening. And we shouldn’t increase it while throwing fastballs. These are less reprehensible, but there are other ways of dealing with these situations without endangering the batter further.


Please understand. I get why unwritten rules have an appeal to people. Rulebooks don’t contain everything we think they should have, and we believe there’s a way to play with honor and integrity. I get that. I really do. But the rulebook is the rulebook because we have agreed to play by them. All other “rules” are personal and carry different weight with different people. You can’t enforce these rules, and you can’t make people follow them because they never agreed to follow them.

What makes throwing at hitters so much worse than other “unwritten rules” is the harm aspect. Bunting during a no-hitter won’t hurt anyone physically. Stealing second with a nine-run lead will only upset people. Throwing at hitters can cause actual injuries, and depending on the maturity of those involved, they can cause major injuries. Then, depending on the maturity of those involved, a brawl can start where more people get hurt. And what do they get from all this? An ego boost. That’s it. It doesn’t help them win. It doesn’t make them money. It gives them higher self-esteem. If you’re really worried about it and are that offended, my guess is that you don’t need a bigger head or you have your priorities in the wrong place. None of that is worth potentially hurting another human being. It would be great if everyone agreed on how the situation was to be played out, who started it, what the retaliation should be, and to execute it flawlessly, but that isn’t the reality of the situation.Throwing at batters doesn't restore order to the game. It threatens it. And it threatens the people within it as well.

If anyone is interested, I can put up a plan, detailing how MLB can curb the instances of this, later, but at 2,000 words, I’m guessing we’re all a little tired.


Bryan said...

Mark, I couldn't agree more with your sentiment. The only excuse I understand for hitting a batter (though I don't necessarily agree with it) is strategy. Bob Gibson was a better pitcher because he wasn't afraid to pitch way inside and keep the hitter from getting comforable in the box. If violence becomes a part of in-game strategy, baseball can choose whether to legislate it, and it seems like they have, by giving umpires the power to warn and eject players and managers. I think baseball and society at large have evolved to the point where hitting batters intentionally do not need to be a part of the game

Paddy McMahon said...

That 'uphill battle' (you're welcome!) isn't just about public perception. It's about the fact that you (well, 'you' as synecdoche for anti-HBP sentiment) are railing against machismo in a professional sport. The amount of competitive drive these guys have is ridiculous; they wouldn't be where they are without it. I think they just find it easier and more natural to embrace the eye-for-an-eye approach that we as writers/observers can derogate from outside the game.

For (tangential) example, Chris Perez got into it with people on Twitter about the save rule and when to use closers and all that. He was a strict, by-the-book guy who espoused the notion that The Closer is reserved for save situations whenever possible. Now, I suspect that (a) Perez is fairly representative of your average MLB player in terms of how they think about the game, and (b) his acceptance of baseball doctrine with regard to the save speaks to how he would embrace the notion of trading HBPs.

I submit that it's just part of the game to them, not a thing to be judged as inherently positive or negative.

Mark Smith said...

Reactions to situations are socialized. That you react isn't socialized, but how you react is. People tell you it's okay to react a certain way, which reaffirms your reaction. Attempting to hurt other people to soothe your ego is wrong.

And you also act as if this is just a player thing. Tons of writers/journalists/fans see this as an appropriate reaction.

I agree that an ego is part of being a player, but players wouldn't throw at or fight other players if it was rebuked by coaches, front offices, and fans. They'd choose another way.