Originally Published: August 28, 2018 noon
Headhunting in baseball is a euphemism to describe the actions of a pitcher who intentionally throws at a batter’s head. In any other setting we would simply describe the practice as assault.
Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Urena did exactly that to Atlanta Braves’ rookie Ronald Acuna Jr. with the first pitch of the game between the two National League East rivals on August 15. Fortunately, Acuna was able to get his head out of the way but the ball, thrown at 97.5 mph, hit him in the elbow.
Acuna had hit a home run in each of his previous five games, three of them as the leadoff batter. In the first half of August, Acuna led MLB in four slugging categories, winning Player of the Week honors in the process. Baseball tradition dictates that pitchers need to make someone as hot as Acuna “uncomfortable” in the batter’s box, the theory being an uncomfortable batter is easier to get out. But it isn’t necessary to throw at a batter’s head to get them out.
Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, who pitched for 21 years and won 363 MLB games, sixth most all-time, said hitting is timing and a pitcher’s job is to upset the batter’s timing. Spahn did that successfully by changing speeds and moving the ball around the strike zone, in and out, up and down.
Batters are being hit at a record pace this year but the overwhelming majority of the time it’s unintentional, having more to do with batters crowding the plate and pitchers being wild than an intent to injure. Urena pleaded innocent of intentionally hitting Acuna and he’s the only one who knows for certain if that’s true. But using circumstantial evidence, a reasonable person could reach a different conclusion.
The umpires disagreed with Urena, immediately ejecting him from the game. MLB sided with the umpires and suspended Urena for six games, a punishment that does nothing to dispel the practice of throwing at batters. That’s the standard punishment for such conduct, although in several grievous incidents pitchers were assessed suspensions of up to 10 games.
Fortunately, X-rays showed no damage to Acuna’s elbow. The Rookie of the Year candidate was in the lineup the next day, which is fortunate for the Braves as they try to lock up a playoff spot for the first time in five years. But there’s no denying the Braves’ season – and Acuna’s career – could have been in jeopardy, all because tradition dictates that a hot hitter needs to show some “respect.”
Pitchers who throw at batters are cowards, plain and simple. They exhibit no respect for themselves or their fellow ballplayers. There are many traditions in baseball that warrant preservation, but this isn’t one of them. A number of MLB players agree, taking to Twitter to criticize Urena.
The league, with the support of the Players Association, needs to crack down on headhunting. Failure to do so is a disservice to the players, teams, and fans, without whom there would be no game.
Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.