Throughout the history of baseball, the threat of beanballs has kept a lot of players at bay when it comes to digging in at the plate. Pitchers are constantly fighting a struggle with hitters over the inner half of the plate, and guys who are unable to establish that area as “their” turf are the ones who find themselves without jobs in short order.
In addition to that establishing of territory at the dish, pitchers use inside pitches to send messages to hitters. Whether it’s a “hey, you showed me up after you hit a home run, and now you’re getting a ball to your backside” or “your pitcher hit my guy, so now I’m hitting you”, this kind of horsehide communication has become an integral part of the game over the years, and practitioners like Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens were especially proficient at doing so on a regular basis.
In an era where the safety of athletes is frequently discussed, as it has been in the New Orleans’ Saints “Bountygate” case and when examining concussions in both the NFL and NHL, the debate of the morality of beanballs has ratcheted up significantly. Writers and fans alike have started decrying the notion that pitchers would hit batters on purpose, and there are plenty of folks on both sides of the argument with strong opinions on the matter.
Those arguers were handed some prime red meat on Sunday night in a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals. In the first inning of that game, 19-year old phenom Bryce Harper strode to the plate to face perennial Cy Young candidate Cole Hamels. The lefty isn’t exactly known for being a guy out for frontier justice, but he drilled Harper in the back with a pitch. Harper would later score on a steal of home in that inning, but that was only the beginning of the story.
After the game, Hamels admitted that he hit Harper on purpose, telling the media:
“I’m not going to deny it. I’m not trying to injure the guy. They’re probably not going to like me for it, but I’m not going to say I wasn’t trying to do it. I think they understood the message, and they thre it right back. That’s the way, and I respect it.”
That admission set off a firestorm of conversation on the topic of hitting batters, with proponents on both sides of the issue digging in for a battle. On Monday, commissioner Bud Selig issued his decision on the matter and suspended Hamels for five games for deliberately throwing at Harper. Hamels will not appeal the suspension, but that’s only because his turn in the rotation will be skipped due to the return of Cliff Lee to the rotation for the Phillies.
The real question that comes up because of this ban is a simple one: was MLB right in showing Hamels the door for being so public in his admission that he hit Harper on purpose? In addition to that, was the suspension really worth it in general, considering that he will not be missing any starts because of it?
For starters, the league was not right in suspending Hamels. Yes, he deliberately threw at Harper, but the fact of the matter is that he hit him in the lower back, which is hardly grounds for more than a passing glance back at the mound. There is a right way and a wrong way to plunk someone in the big leagues, and Hamels did it the right way. Yes, it was a fastball, but it was a well controlled one and was nowhere near the youngster’s head. If it had been higher, then yes, Selig should have looked into it as something worthy of punishment. There is no reason in the world that a professional pitcher can’t locate a beanball to just send a message rather than inflict a serious injury, and Hamels showed that control in what he did against Harper.
Some in the media have said that there really wasn’t a legitimate reason to plunk Bryce, but those types of arguments don’t really hold much water. The reality of “the code” in baseball is that it really doesn’t fit into any type of logical progression, and to try to apply one to it is a lost enterprise. Folks who espouse worries about pitchers taking the rules into their own hands too easily dismiss what all these years have cultivated, which is the understanding that pitchers and hitters are always engaged in a type of dance, and the pitcher always has to be careful to maintain the lead. It may not be the greatest reason to uphold any code, but it’s worked for this long, and it should continue to do so.
Finally, the suspension that MLB handed down was ludicrous and pointless on its face anyway. Suspending pitchers is always a tricky enterprise, but to suspend a guy for five games here seems particularly silly. Yes, the forfeited game checks are a punishment, but the fact that he won’t even miss a start makes the suspension ring even more hollow than it already did, and Selig either should have gone bigger or gone home.
Washington GM Mike Rizzo taunted Hamels over the incident, calling him “fake tough,” but the point of this situation remains the same: pitchers need to have the right to pitch inside and shouldn’t be punished for that or for being especially candid about their motivations on the mound. These kind of suspensions won’t deter beanballs, but they may end up further sanitizing what players tell the media, and that is a disservice both to baseball scribes and baseball fans. The game needs more character, not less, and if the unintended consequence of this suspension is for players to clam up, then it becomes even less worth it than it already is.