Woodrey: The Ethics Of Retaliation

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On April 21, a late slide from Manny Machado injured Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia – a slide that most observers would categorize as “clean.” Since then, a feud between the Orioles and Red Sox has been heating up to begin the young 2017 MLB season. Although Pedroia insisted it wasn’t his command, the Red Sox took it upon themselves to retaliate against the Orioles’ prized franchise player. In a later game between the two teams, Red Sox pitcher Matt Barnes rifled a 90 mph fastball that missed Machado’s helmet by inches before connecting with his bat behind his head. After a couple more missed attempts from other pitchers and a conversation between Machado and Pedroia, the tension seemed to be cleared.

Fast-forward several Machado at-bats into the future, and newly acquired Red Sox ace Chris Sale restored the quarrel between the two teams with a 98 mph fastball that went behind Machado. Several games and many at-bats later, and still there exists a desire for revenge between the two teams.

Following the game, Machado made an eye-opening statement. “The pitcher is throwing almost 100 mph, and if he hits me he gets suspended two games. I have a bat in my hand – what if I use it against him? Then I’m suspended for the entire season.”

We’ve all seen players get thrown at, but very few, if any, of us have ever seen a hitter charge the mound and take a bat to the opposing pitcher. It makes you wonder, though, just how different are the two acts? A 100 mph fastball is a deadly force, especially when elevated up around an opposing hitter’s head.

As I watched the tension unravel throughout the week, I reflected back on my experiences as a player: what I was taught about hitting batters, the unspoken rules, what calls for hitting a player and where to hit them. This is what I recalled.

Why

I was taught there’s one overlying theme for why you should hit an opposing player: they disrespected your teammates or team, and you have to back them up. The whole “pimping” home runs fad wasn’t nearly as big when I was growing up, so I never received instruction on how to handle that. From a personal standpoint, I never let that get to me. Giving up hits, and home runs, is a big part of pitching. In a match between the hitter and myself, the odds are stacked in my favor. A great player succeeds three out of every 10 at-bats, and I walk away victorious the other seven.

That being said, if the hitter wants to toss his bat and admire a home run, I’m not going to be so sensitive that I feel the need to retaliate. He got me that time; I’ll probably get him next time. Besides, I know what it feels like to come through in a big situation, and how the raw emotion can overcome you. That fist-pump a pitcher does after a big strikeout to end an inning is no different from a bat flip.

So if a bat flip doesn’t garner a fastball to the back, what does? There are several reasons, but mostly it comes from breaking one of baseball’s unspoken rules or targeting one of my team’s players first.

I experienced a situation along these lines early on in my college career:

In March of 2013 – my freshman year at Miami – we faced off in a home series versus an unranked opponent that we were expected to beat handily. A young, unproven Hurricanes team had just cracked the Top 25 in the rankings, and a Friday night loss was already a setback. Saturday night’s game started no differently. In fact, it started worse. The opposing team plated five runs before the fourth inning concluded, and another four before the seventh.

The early innings were behind us, and we were losing 9-0. Then, the other side broke one of baseball’s unspoken rules. On the road in our ballpark with a significant lead, a player on the other team stole second base. Our first baseman wasn’t holding the runner on, and the pitcher was paying the runner no attention. After all, there was no way he would be stealing with how this game was going.

Maybe the unranked team was looking to make a statement, or maybe they simply weren’t confident with any lead against a storied program that traditionally had success against them. Nonetheless, they did what they did, and something had to be done about it.

The coaches said nothing, and the players just gave each other a look. We knew what needed to be done. We all knew. In the innings that would follow, three different Hurricanes took the mound. All three attempted to hit a batter, and all three failed. In fact, to this day I’m not even sure the opposing team knew that we were trying to hit them.

Following the game, the upperclassmen had some choice words for the team. They explained that as a team we would never again let someone come to our field and embarrass us like that. It was the most memorable postgame meeting of my four-year career – even ahead of meetings that followed dogpiles to send us off to Omaha.

Which leads me to my next point: how exactly do you go about hitting a batter?

How

You never throw at a batter’s head. Never. A lot of pitchers get caught up in trying to hurt the batter so that they look tough, but that isn’t the purpose at all. A pitcher doesn’t look tough for hitting a batter; standing 60 feet away, with a catcher behind that hitter who has been taught to stop him before he can ever get to you. The only way for a pitcher to look tough is to actually face a hitter – we all remember Nolan Ryan handling a young Robin Ventura late in his career. In addition, the pitcher knows he never has to get in the batter’s box and be subject to a dose of his own medicine. You must not lose sight that this is defense, not an act of toughness.

I was always taught to aim for the belt. If you miss low, you catch them in the thigh. If you miss high, you catch them in the back. If you throw at their feet they are likely to get out of the way. You aim for the biggest part of the batter, and thus are most likely to actually hit him.

The problem is, it’s not that easy. A batter’s body is no wider than the strike zone, and college pitchers don’t pound the zone with every pitch. Also, when you’ve been throwing to the strike zone all game, it’s hard to then adjust your target two feet over. A lot of times a pitcher’s arms, depending on lefthanded or righthanded, will lag behind too long or cut off too quick and over-adjust to the new target.

It’s not just at the collegiate level, either. Recall what is going on with the Red Sox and Orioles, and look at Sale’s attempt. This is one of the best pitchers in the world, who has a 1.92 ERA and a 73-11 K-BB ratio through 51.2 innings, and he still missed.

The problem is that pitchers never work on hitting batters. Many argue that the extra pitches in a bullpen aren’t worth it for a situation that occurs once in a blue moon. Others don’t practice it because they think there’s no place for it in the sport of baseball. I don’t disagree with either philosophy, but believe that not practicing it actually leads to more problems and more dangerous situations. After all, the Red Sox and Orioles would be at peace right now had Machado just simply been hit in the thigh his next at-bat after the slide.

Where

Hitting batters seems to be far more common at the professional level as opposed to the collegiate level. This is because punishments are harsher, and laid out very clearly at a more frequent occurrence. Professional players – many making millions of dollars per year – face a few-game suspension and a couple thousand-dollar fine. For a pitcher like Sale, who will make upwards of six million dollars this year, the threat of a fine doesn’t mean much. Additionally, Sale is a starting pitcher. The MLB suspending him for five games, when he only throws every fifth game in a 162 game season, also isn’t much of a threat.

At the University of Miami, and I imagine many other universities alike, there was a team meeting the day before Opening Day each year. In that meeting, we went over any new rules added from the previous year. Then, we would go over the same thing every year: “What do we do if a fight breaks out?”

The coaches are always put in a tough spot. On one hand, they explain to you that we’re a team and as such we always look out for one another. On the other, they are obligated to make sure you know the rule: “If a player leaves his position, he can be suspended.” That’s right. If I’m in the dugout and benches clear, I’m not supposed to leave the dugout.

The coaches explain the consequences for intentionally throwing at a batter. If thought to be intentional, it is considered a “fight inducing” action, which could lead to a four-game suspension. On top of that, your head coach is ejected along with you. If it happens again then you get an even longer suspension. A third time? You’re out for the whole season.

The problem will remain until organizations and universities properly teach how to handle difficult situations. All levels of baseball can have tougher repercussions for intentionally throwing at a batter, and these punishments need to be clearly laid out. Perhaps Sale, or any pitcher for that matter, wouldn’t have thrown at a batter if he had to miss his next five starts as opposed to days. Or maybe if Sale had to step into the batter’s box the next inning, he would’ve acted differently.

Sadly, these harsher punishments won’t come any time soon. The players have a strong union behind them that contests the imposition of harsh fines and suspensions, and thus nothing will be imposed. Nothing will change until someone gets seriously hurt, or worse. Standing in a batter’s box is already dangerous enough. Just reference slugger Giancarlo Stanton missing half a season for a broken jaw on a fastball from a relatively slow-throwing pitcher, Mike Fiers. Hitting is dangerous enough; we don’t need to make it worse by targeting the batter.

Baseball has been debating ways to evolve. Some argue that the game needs to have more excitement and action, and thus support the idea of having a DH in both the AL and NL. Others suggest that the games are being played too slowly, and thus want to eliminate the DH so that the game will go faster. I personally support the latter, not because the pace of game, but rather because it exposes pitchers to having to step into the box and face the repercussions of their actions.

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