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June 12, 2013

Pebble Hunting

How Beanballs and Brawls Could Be Avoided

by Sam Miller

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I’m a scaredy-cat, and a pacifist, so I come to these sorts of discussions from a place that won’t appeal to everybody. When I see a pitch going toward Zack Greinke’s face, for instance, I think of it as the culmination of a violent series of events that could have easily killed a man; that it didn’t kill a man makes me only marginally less queasy about the whole thing. At the risk of going into unnecessarily macabre territory, I want us to imagine for a moment here that it did kill a man; the difference between that universe and ours is perhaps mere inches. Had it killed a man, there would be reckoning, soul-searching, panels to study the issue. There would be vigorous discussion about whether the criminal justice system should be brought in. There would be, mostly, an attempt to figure out how this happened, and what went wrong, and where we could have prevented it.

So how did the beanball that touched off a brawl between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks on Tuesday night happen? What went wrong? Where could somebody have prevented it?

The final act

I’m going to assume the best about everybody’s motives, as much as possible, and so here I’ll assume Kennedy wasn’t aiming for Greinke's face (or even shoulder), but threw a pitch that was supposed to be a bit lower but got away from him. One might note that Kennedy is a control specialist; a couple years ago, when Jered Weaver threw a pitch head-high, I saw some suggest that he must have been head-hunting because a pitcher as good as Weaver would never miss by such a wide margin. But of course pitchers miss by eight or more inches constantly, on practically every pitch, and on top of that throwing at the numbers on the batter’s back means throwing to an unfamiliar target at an unfamiliar angle. So it’s very easy for me to imagine that Kennedy missed his target, that this wasn’t an attempted murder. Just simple, common-law-sanctioned assault.

That’s just the point, though: throwing anywhere near a batter’s upper body is reckless. Reckless drivers aren’t trying to crash into things; they’re just driving recklessly, and the law holds responsible those whose reckless behavior leads to damage and/or injury. Pitchers are pretty good, but they’re also pretty terrible at throwing the ball precisely where they want, and aiming for a spot close to a face isn’t much different than aiming for a face.

So Kennedy could have thrown at a lower target. Greinke’s legs, for instance. That’s not the way these things are done, but we’re talking about what could have been done differently. Now, pitchers would never consent to give up the upper/inner part of the plate when they’re trying to get batters out—they’d be hopeless without the implicit fear such pitches plant in the hitter’s mind, and the support that an up-and-in fastball provides to subsequent breaking balls is invaluable. But in retribution cases, there’s no intention to try to get the batter out, merely to deliver a message. That message is supposed to be pain but not injury. Kennedy, and all pitchers, could have aimed for his target’s lower half. It’s harder to hit a batter’s lower half, and there are places down there that can get injured, too. But baseball’s first on-field death since 1920 is unlikely to come on a pitch aimed at the knees.

Kennedy could also have not thrown at Greinke at all. This is a premise that won’t find much traction unless a) Kennedy and everybody else in the majors turns into a scaredy-cat pacifist like me or b) the retribution is relocated somewhere else. We’ll get there.

If the pitcher must aim high, any higher than the waist, then the catcher could warn the batter. Presumably, the target typically knows enough to expect a retribution pitch, and the whole point is that the pitch is supposed to be seen as intentional, to make the point. So this wouldn’t be all that dramatic a change, though it would obviously be a bit awkward for everybody involved—“so, uh, hey, just want to make sure you stay safe, we’re about to throw a thing near your face”—including the umpire. His obligation would be to conveniently forget that he heard anything, for the safety of all future targets who will benefit from the heads-up.

Kirk Gibson could have prevented it by telling his pitcher that he was, under no circumstances, to hit Zack Greinke with a pitch above the waist, or at all. He needn’t even have had to worry about being seen as some awful scaredy-cat pacifist, either. The pragmatic explanation—not wanting to lose players to suspensions in the middle of a pennant race—should be plenty. It’s not an easy decision to make, and it wouldn’t be an easy decision to explain to Miguel Montero, but there’s a reason the manager gets tossed from the game, too. The manager has the power to stop these things.

Frankly, though, there isn’t a great way out of the situation once it escalates to this point. That’s how it goes with cycles of violence: they’re a lot easier to stop before they start cycling. So let’s go back further.

The intermediate act

At this point, there are a lot more options that might have headed off the pitch to Greinke. On the first pitch to Montero, which was up and in, umpire Clint Fagan could have ejected Greinke. On the second pitch to Montero, which was well inside, umpire Clint Fagan could have ejected Greinke. In either case, it would have taken some gifted mind-reading to deduce clear intent, but perhaps intent is beside the point. In fact, intent is beside the point. If the goal is to incentivize pitchers to avoid the escalating violence of beanball wars—and, remember, we’re talking about this in the context of a man dying, in which case this would be a less controversial point—then surely an innocent pitcher or two being ejected over an accident is a fair sacrifice for safety.

Similarly, baseball could take on the role of ending the violence by severely suspending pitchers who are suspected of abusing their inside privileges. Rarely are pitchers suspended if there isn’t a brawl immediately afterward, or an injury to the player. The beanballs that follow cases like this, then, are the players’ attempts to mete out justice that they don’t consider otherwise served. If Greinke had been tossed after hitting Montero, and if precedent suggested that he would certainly be suspended 15 games, would Arizona have insinuated itself into the disciplinary process? Perhaps not, if only for the safety and availability of its own players.

Baseball might not consider it to be the league’s role to read pitchers’ minds, or to keep the sport’s best players off the field. But just because the league doesn’t take action doesn’t mean the crime goes unpunished; unsurprisingly, the revenge-fueled punishments are arguably worse for the game (and certainly worse for the game’s safety).

After the pitch comes in, Montero takes a step toward the mound. Fagan runs out to get between the two. What if he hadn’t? The point of Kennedy’s retribution pitch the next inning is that it was a proxy for the violence Montero wished to do, or perhaps had justification to do, to Greinke. This is what most beanballs are: attacks that supposedly account for offenses that are only tangentially related, or are totally unrelated, to the pitch. Beanballs for showy home run trots; beanballs for hard slides; beanballs for words said in interviews; beanballs for stealing signs; beanballs for, according to C.J. Wilson, using steroids. But proxy wars are supposed to be less lethal, less expensive; that’s the whole point! So why allow a proxy fight that is actually more dangerous, more lethal, than simple fistfights or brawls? Why has baseball decided that there’s only one way to settle a score, any score, and it’s the most unpredictable and dangerous way possible?

Presumably because fistfights and brawls are ugly in a way that a pitch between the shoulder blades isn’t. Presumably, even the players (many, at least) would be ashamed to be seen constantly fighting with other grown men. It’d be a shame if baseball had fights like hockey has fights. It’d be a shame if somebody died in front of us, too.

The first act

Kennedy’s reaction here makes it easy to accept that this was unintentional. Maybe it was a knockdown pitch, but let’s assume it was an accident, a pitch that was supposed to be low and in but that started a series of events that might have led to a tragedy. So what do we do to keep accidents from happening?

Bill James wrote in his 1985 Abstract about “The Frank Robinson solution.”

Before he was a manager and known for having the league’s most antagonistic pitching staff, Frank Robinson had a solution that he liked to recommend: Forget all about the intent of the pitcher. If a pitcher comes inside two or three times, tell him to take the rest of the day off. The umpire doesn’t need to make any judgment about what the pitcher has in mind; he just needs to say, “It looks like you’re a little wild today, son, we’d better get another pitcher in here before somebody gets hurt.”

As James notes, the rules prohibit pitchers from throwing the ball in the batter’s space, intentionally or not. So why be so passive about punishing pitchers who can’t follow the rules, particularly when they endanger their opponents?

Getting away from the messy business of intent opens up all sorts of possibilities. If pitchers who hit batters are penalized regardless of intent, then they’ll not just avoid the violent pitches that end these brawls but be more cautious about avoiding the accidents that beget them. It’s happened before. In 1884, so many overhand throwers were hitting (and hurting) batters that the American Association allowed such batters first base. Writes Peter Morris in A Game of Inches,

Some found the whole concept bizarre, such as the sportswriter who filed this report: “Five of the Quincys were given first base yesterday under the rule awarding the batter a base for being struck by a pitched ball. None of those so struck was injured in the least, and it was noticed that they finally scored without exception. Another such farcical innovation was never introduced into the game.”

The new rule didn’t eliminate brushback pitching, but it did the next best thing by ensuring that there was again risk on both sides.

Any rule that stiffens penalties for hit batsmen would hurt pitchers’ ability to control the inside of the plate; would, then, increase offense, shift the offense/defense balance so delicate in baseball. This is an easier sell in these low-offense years, but one can imagine how out of control the 1990s would have been if you shaved a couple inches off the pitchers’ territory on the inner half.

Today, as the league ponders suspensions, there will be debate about who was most at fault. The focus will be on Greinke and Kennedy, and which was most wrong, and how wrong. But the cycle of violence that we saw Tuesday night was just an echo of the larger cycle that has been going for a century and a half in baseball. The status quo is that beanballs are the appropriate way to deal with all manner of offenses. So long as that’s the status quo, the focus shouldn’t be just on Greinke and Kennedy, so much as it should be on the status quo.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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