Column: Are Beanball Wars out of control?
Just as the MLB season has heated up, so too have the “Beanball Wars.” The motivation for the incidents may vary, but the potential result is the same: Suspensions and/or injuries that could affect a team’s performance or jeopardize a player’s career.
The most recent dust up occurred when Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura plunked Orioles third baseman Manny Machado in the back during a game on June 7. Machado’s offense was barking at Ventura after the pitcher had thrown inside to him earlier in the game. Machado dropped his bat and charged the mound, precipitating a benches-clearing brawl. When the melee ended, Ventura and Machado were ejected and later suspended by MLB, Ventura for nine games and Machado for four.
Toronto has been involved in two beanball incidents this year. Texas waited until the last game of this season’s series with the Blue Jays to retaliate against outfielder Jose Bautista for his infamous bat flip during last year’s playoffs. In some circles, that on-field show of emotion violated one of the Unwritten Rules of Baseball. On May 15, Rangers reliever Matt Bush plunked Bautista in the ribs with the first pitch. But Bush was neither ejected nor suspended despite the fact that everyone on the planet knew the pitch was intentional.
Later in the inning, Bautista slid aggressively into Rangers’ second baseman Rougned Odor in an attempt to break up a double play. In response, Odor took a swing at Bautista, hitting him flush in the face. Both players were ejected and later suspended, Odor for eight games, later reduced to seven, and Bautista for one.
On May 22 Minnesota Twins pitcher Phil Hughes threw two pitches that almost hit Toronto’s Josh Donaldson. The Blue Jays’ third baseman had hit a monstrous home run against Hughes two innings earlier. Donaldson, incensed, implored MLB to do a better job of policing retaliation efforts, claiming they can jeopardize a player’s career.
Pittsburgh reliever Arquimedes Caminero hit two Arizona players in the head in the same inning in a game on May 24. Both players had to leave the game. Caminero was ejected after the second beaning but wasn’t suspended. The D-backs accused the Pirates of intentionally pitching inside, a claim that may have merit. Pittsburgh is tied with the Cubs for most hit batsmen this year after leading MLB in that department in two of the past three years.
One analysis of this year’s pitch location shows that the Pirates have thrown double the MLB average of pitches up and in, so-called “Headhunter Pitches.” That’s the type of pitch that can be most dangerous to a hitter’s safety. Some veteran baseball observers merely shrug and say what we’re seeing today harkens back to the old days. But for the past two years, batters have been hit at double the rate that occurred in the 1980s.
Why the increase in beanballs? There’s no single “answer.” Every situation seems to be different. Sometimes it’s a player with emotional issues (see: Ventura). Other times it’s retribution for a perceived wrong (see: Bautista and Donaldson).
The bigger question is what, if anything, should MLB do about the Beanball Wars? Or is this an issue where players should be left to police themselves? Teams believe in frontier justice, an eye for an eye, which is a cycle that never ends. And that tactic could end up punishing the retaliating team. The first incident in a game usually prompts a warning from the umpires but the second carries an automatic ejection of the pitcher.
On the other hand, if MLB wanted to send a message that this type of activity is verboten, they didn’t do a very good job of it with the Ventura/Machado suspensions. Ventura’s suspension for nine games means he misses one turn in the rotation. Machado, on the other hand, is out of the lineup for four games. That seems patently unfair to the Orioles.
The only thing certain about the Beanball Wars is that at this time neither the league nor the players is committed to solving what is obviously a very difficult and dangerous situation. Pitching inside is a widely used tactic that’s legal; intentionally throwing at someone is assault, which isn’t allowed on the streets. Why should it be tolerated on the baseball diamond?
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor and the Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland. Jordan maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.