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Kobritz: Baseball brawls will continue until the end of time

Column: Beyond the Lines

Two weeks into the 2018 baseball season and two trends have dominated the headlines. The first one concerns hit batsmen. Batters are being hit (HBP) at a historically high rate, a total of 149 batters or 0.42 per game. That rate is 17 percent higher than last year’s full-season pace and if it continues for the entire season, it would be the highest since at least 1900 according to research posted on baseball-reference.com.

There may not be an overriding cause for the high numbers, but a confluence of early-season weather conditions and the schedule could provide some insights. The cold, wet weather makes it difficult for pitchers to grip the baseball, which affects their control. Additionally, the schedule pitted natural rivals against each other multiple times in the early part of the season and familiarity can lead to bad blood, which can result in HBP’s.

HBP’s are problematic because they can cause injuries, directly and indirectly, which have negative consequences to individual players and teams. An example of a direct injury is when Texas Rangers’ shortstop Elvis Andrus suffered a fractured elbow after being drilled by a fastball thrown by reliever Keynan Middleton of the Los Angeles Angels. The Rangers were struggling even with Andrus in the lineup and without him for an extended period of time their season could be in jeopardy.

An indirect injury occurs when HBP’s lead to on-field brawls, which happened three times on April 11, once during a game between the Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres and twice during a Red Sox-Yankees game. Fortunately, no one was injured in any of the melees, but that isn’t always the case. Last season, San Francisco Giants outfielder Michael Morse sustained a career-ending concussion when he banged heads with his own teammate while rushing onto the field during a brawl with the Washington Nationals.

What can MLB do to discourage on-field donnybrooks? The answer is, nothing, at least not unilaterally. MLB can impose suspensions, as they did on a number of players who participated in the Red Sox-Yankees and Rockies-Padres fracases. But MLB can’t take additional action without the consent of the union, which has been reluctant to agree to further disciplinary actions for fear of putting their members at greater risk for injuries.

Unlike MLB, the NBA, NHL and NFL all have rules in place forbidding bench players from joining in fights. But teams in those leagues have an equal number of players on the field at all times. Not so in MLB where the defensive players outnumber the offensive ones by a 9-1 margin. The disparity shrinks to 9-4 if you include the on deck batter and the base coaches, but one team remains at a decided disadvantage in a fight.

In recent years, owners and players have agreed to implement measures to reduce injuries to catchers in home plate collisions and to protect middle infielders from aggressive slides, which is what precipitated the Red Sox-Yankees HBP and brawls.

But until the parties agree to take disciplinary action to discourage it, on-field fighting will remain a free-for-all.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in and chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.