Monday, May 30, 2016

Enough Already

On Tuesday, the Pirates destroyed the Diamondbacks, 12-1. But the game featured some serious ugliness towards the end. In the top of the seventh, the Pirates were leading 9-1. Arquimedes Caminero, who's exhibited only passing knowledge of the strike zone so far this year (13 walks, three hit batters, and a wild pitch in 17.1 innings), came on for the Bucs. He got center fielder Chris Owings to ground out but then gave up back-to-back singles to shortstop Nick Ahmed and Jake Lamb. Then, with runners on first and second and the count full, he hit second baseman Jean Segura in the head with a 96 mph fastball. 

In the bottom of the inning, Evan Marshall, who'd faced two batters in the sixth, gave up singles to second baseman Josh Harrison and shortstop Jordy Mercer. Catcher Chris Stewart grounded out, with the runners advancing to second and third. Marshall's first pitch to third baseman David Freese, a 95 mph fastball, hit him, either on the shoulder (Pirates broadcast) or grazing his uniform (Diamondbacks broadcast).

In the top of the eighth, Caminero still on the mound, catcher Wellington Castillo walked, left fielder Yasmany Tomas struck out, pinch hitter Chris Herrmann forced Castillo, and then Owings singled. With runners on first and third and the count 1-2, Caminero hit Ahmed in the head with an 89 mph split-fingered fastball.

A notes about this: First, this occurred the day after Pirates pitcher Ryan Vogelsong was hit in the head with a 92 mph fastball thrown by Colorado's Jordan Lyles. Vogelsong's now on the disabled list with broken facial bones. So it's not like nobody was aware of the risks here. 

Second, it's pretty clear that Caminero didn't intend to hit Segura or Ahmed, and certainly not in the head. It's not so clear about Marshall, who has a history if ill-advised retaliation

Third, it's fortunate that Segura and Ahmed are both OK..

Fourth, I was glad that neither the Pirates nor the Diamondbacks TV announcers talked about "protection" or any other Book of Exodus eye-for-an-eye nonsense. Nobody was making excuses for this sort of thing.

All that being said...Enough already. Pirates pitchers have hit opposing hitters 19 times this season, the fourth most in the league. Pirates batters have been hit 31 times, the most in the league. Last year, they hit the most batters (75) and were hit the most (89). In 2014, they hit the most batters (88) and were hit the second most (78). In 2013, they hit the most batters (70) and were hit the most (88). From 2013 to 2016, they've hit 252 batters (15% more than any other National League team), and been hit 286 times (20% more than any other NL team).

As I've pointed out (here and here), some of this may be retaliation for prior hit batters, but a lot, maybe most of it, isn't. But that doesn't make it OK.

Look, I get it. Hit batters are part of the game. Sometimes a pitch gets away from the pitcher. Some batters stand really close to the plate. Pitchers need to be able to pitch inside as well outside, and sometimes they miss. That's all understandable and forgivable. 

What isn't understandable and forgivable to me is intentionally hitting a batter with a pitch. If I intentionally throw a hard object at high speed and hit you, it's criminal battery. Hard contact is part of the game if you're playing football or hockey, and the players dress appropriately. It's not supposed to be part of the game of baseball. Throwing at a batter because he flipped his bat or slid hard or because his team's pitcher hit a batter on the other team isn't just dumb moral equivalence, it's dangerous. Baseball can wait until a player gets killed, or suffers a traumatic brain injury, or is otherwise never able to play again because he's hit by a pitch. (I'd say "or suffers permanently decreased performance" but that's already happened.) Or it can do something now.

First thought: Immediately eject any pitcher whose pitch hits a batter in the head. I think Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale had it right when he said after the game against Pittsburgh, "You know what, when guys get hit in the head and they get hit in the face, there's no place for that in the game. And if the guy is not trying to do it, then he shouldn't be here at this level." I know some have called for ejecting any pitcher who hits a batter, but that could lead to batters leaning in, getting grazed by the pitch, in order to get an ace pitcher out of the game. Nobody's going to lean in with his chin. 

Second thought: Give umpires more latitude to eject pitchers who throw at batters. Granted, a lot of hit batters are in a gray area. But some aren't, like the Pirates-Reds HBPfest on May 11, in which a Red hit a Pirate, then a Pirate hit a Red, then a Red hit a Pirate, it happened again, then a Pirate hit a Red and a Red hit a Pirate. 

Some people will say that that's the way the game's governed itself for over a century and it shouldn't change. Sorry, not buying it. The average fastball velocity so far this year is 92.3 mph; that can do a lot more damage than fastballs of Ty Cobb's and Babe Ruth's and Joe DiMaggio's eras, so it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. Besides, the game went for decades with no nonwhite players on the field. That wasn't a good idea. Until 2014, baseball didn't bother enforcing the interference rule, prohibiting fielders from blocking the baserunner's path the base, at home plate. That wasn't a good idea either. If governing itself means that Ryan Vogelsong gets bones broken in his face one day and has Jean Segura getting tested for a concussion the next, I'd say it's a pretty pathetic job of self-governance. Roll back the historically high trend of hit batters now, baseball, before you have to, with regrets.

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