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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

49 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

19braves77

My problem with the Frank Robinson solution is do you really want to yank your #1 pitcher after two innings of wildness in the middle of pennant race.

Jun 12, 2013 04:25 AM
rating: -1
 
Squirrelmetrix

Yes. Consequences shouldn't have weights on when they are applied.

Jun 12, 2013 08:27 AM
rating: 4
 
mblthd

LARRY
Actions have consequences.

CLIVE
Yes, often.

LARRY
No, always!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mC8Vh76vy0w

Jun 12, 2013 10:24 AM
rating: -1
 
rofldude

A pitcher cannot possibly become successful in the major leagues without a moderate level of control. I wonder how often a batter is struck by a pitch. My guess is around 1%, probably less. These guys know where they want to put a pitch. There are no coincidences.

Jun 12, 2013 05:24 AM
rating: -3
 
thegeneral13

That's just not true. Control is a function of muscle memory, which is built by repetition. Pitchers rarely throw a ball to the coordinates associated with the middle of a hitter's back, so there is naturally a lot more variance in where a pitch intended for that location ends up.

Jun 12, 2013 09:41 AM
rating: 2
 
Bryan Cole

For the record, there have been a total of 5,219 HBP since 2010 in 627,927 PAs, which works out to a little less than 0.84%. So you're right on that front.

But there must be SOME coincidences: there are obviously some pitches that get away from guys. Even when batters aren't hit, sometimes someone bounces a curveball five feet in front of home plate or throws it to the screen or something. What percentage of hit batsmen would you estimate are accidental? In other words, if there were no throwing at hitters as punishment, what would that percentage go down to?

Incidentally, there are way more HBP in the NL than in the AL this year (338 vs 284). This is abnormal (at least going back to 2010). Will this normalize? If not, is it nontrivial?

Jun 12, 2013 10:00 AM
rating: 0
 
Timothy Mennel

Another way to penalize the pitcher more would be to award a hit batsman a free trip to second or third, depending on the severity of the hit--to be decided at the discretion of the umpire. (Balls that brush uniforms would still warrant only first base.) Not too many managers would find that worth the payback.

Jun 12, 2013 05:57 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Jason Wojciechowski
BP staff

Had a similar thought, though without the discretion angle: HBP above the belt = second base; HBP below the belt = first base.

Jun 12, 2013 09:09 AM
 
Lou Doench

I like the Frank Robinson solution, but it runs into another problem and that is that the umpires are hardly the neutral observers that would be necessary to make such a scheme work. Too many umps are adversarial showmen who see the players as little better than children to be controlled. Watch their body language whenever they warn a pitcher or bench. Until we approve the professionalism of the umpire core (Joe Sheehan wrote a great newsletter about it recently) we can't depend on them being the ones to prevent escalation.

Jun 12, 2013 05:57 AM
rating: 7
 
Johnston

Too right. The current crop of MLB clowns, er, umpires, would have to be replaced with professionals who knew how to do their job and who did it without bias.

Jun 12, 2013 21:03 PM
rating: -1
 
lipitorkid

A baseball to the head can kill, paralyze, whatever- lots of sports have trash talking and poor sportsmanship- rarely in those sports does one player decide he is going to do something back that could end someone's career. Why does baseball think it's so special? Baseball also had a tradition of not playing Black/African-American players and that tradition stopped. There is a HUGE liability/legal issue looming when an organization knows they are allowing something to happen that's dangerous and doing nothing about it.

You can't throw at two guys heads. If you hit a guy in the head BOOM you're out of the game.

Jun 12, 2013 06:22 AM
rating: 3
 
DABanales

Paragraph 3 speaks of Kershaw. I think that should be Greinke.

Jun 12, 2013 06:56 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Sam Miller
BP staff

Thanks

Jun 12, 2013 07:20 AM
 
BirdlandPGH

Very compelling ideas here. A couple related points:

(1) Umpires need to begin enforcing Rule 6.08 (b.2), which calls a batter out for not making an attempt to get out of the way of a pitch. I think I've seen this enforced only once yet batters regularly get hit without making any attempt whatsoever to get out of the way (and, indeed, often turning in to the pitch).

(2) Batters (like Derek Jeter, for example) who regularly have their hands hanging over the plate and even in the strike zone sometimes, should expect to get hit in the hands.

(3) all that said, perhaps an automatic 30-day suspension for a pitcher who hits a batter in or very near the head, regardless of intent.

Jun 12, 2013 07:18 AM
rating: 0
 
BillJohnson

I like your first and second points (although not the third one), and they fit nicely with my own preferred solution to this problem, which is very different from the one proposed in this article, and is also rather radical -- which means it's never going to be adopted. My solution: Give the pitcher complete, 100% immunity from consequences of a hit-by-pitch -- unless that HBP does lasting damage. And then throw the book at him.

A little flesh on the bones: screw this "warning" business; it doesn't work and may create bigger problems than it solves. When a pitcher delivers a ball to the gluteus maximus or similarly robust anatomy, and the batter hasn't violated your points 1 or 2 (which should be applied rigorously), then the batter is awarded first base and the game goes on. If there's a brawl, it's 100% the batter's fault and he is ejected, no questions asked. (Ejections and other penalties for those joining the brawl later are the same as for any other brawl.) End of story... BUT:

If the pitcher inflicts such injury by a HBP (other than one to a batter's hand while still on the bat -- your point 2) as to cause the batter to miss playing time beyond removal from the game where the HBP occurred, then the pitcher is suspended for a time equal to or greater than that missed by the batter. This extends all the way to a career-ending injury.

I think this would do a marvelous job of cleaning up these ridiculous brawls on the one hand, and deterring pitchers from throwing at batters' heads on the other. ("Are you really willing to risk your career for the privilege of rearranging Zack Greinke's dental work, Mr. Kennedy? I didn't think so.") Yet it allows for messages to be sent by way of the nerve endings in the hitter's fleshy bits.

So what's wrong with this proposal, other than that it's such a departure that a conservative business won't like it?

Jun 12, 2013 08:15 AM
rating: -2
 
David Jackson

That'd be awesome. The Giants pick up a 42-year old benchwarmer. Have him take a shot in the back. Claim disc injury. Never play baseball again.

Hasta la vista, Clayton Kershaw's career.

Jun 12, 2013 08:47 AM
rating: 7
 
BillJohnson

Do you really think that MLB would be so stupid as to not see something like that coming? Of course there would be review processes and appeals.

Jun 12, 2013 09:27 AM
rating: -1
 
Dodger300

David Jackson's example instantly forced you to turn your "objective" solution into a subjective nightmare of reviews processes, appeals and opinions.

You will continue to defend it, but the rest of us can see that it is a complete failure of logic and justice.

Aug 02, 2013 23:32 PM
rating: 0
 
OuagadougouGM

I think a pitcher throwing at the opposing pitcher because he threw at someone else is crossing a very dangerous line.

Jun 12, 2013 07:39 AM
rating: -1
 
warpigs

I thought "No throwing at the opposing pitcher" was one of the unwritten rules of baseball.

Jun 12, 2013 10:24 AM
rating: -1
 
Dodger300

I don't know why you thought that. Pitchers have always thrown at pitchers.

One of the criticisms of the DH rule was that they couldn't throw at a pitcher any more. So AL teams adapted to getting retribution by throwing at his battery mate.

Aug 02, 2013 23:34 PM
rating: 0
 
Howler37

The Tigers' Doug Fister leads the league in hit batters this year, over 10 I think. But yet nobody ever says he's a headhunter or anything like that. In fact, in a game earlier this year, he hit 2 or 3 batters; I was wondering if the Ump was going to toss him. But he wasn't, and none of the batters I've seen him hit have taken offense.

He's a good pitcher overall, but if you apply the Robinson Rule, we'd never know it since he wouldn't be around long enough to prove he's a good pitcher.

Jun 12, 2013 08:33 AM
rating: 1
 
buddons42

ESPN broke down each hit batter he's had this year just a couple days ago. Basically, they concluded no one gets upset because it's been pretty clear with each one there was no intent.

Jun 12, 2013 10:28 AM
rating: 1
 
Squirrelmetrix

Puig's beaning should have been a warning for both teams. Greinke would have been launched and Kennedy's intentional retaliation on Greinke would most likely have been prevented. I agree with Sam in that the beaning of Puig was not intentional but everything after that was. You could also make an argument that there were two earlier acts, including the HBP of Montero by Greinke that was followed by a Kubel home run.

Great timely article about an issue that needs to be addressed. I think we should be beyond the days of trading retalitory HBP's

Jun 12, 2013 08:35 AM
rating: 2
 
hitmannls

I think the fault lies with Montero. D-backs got Puig, Dodgers got Montero. It should have ended there with all sides feeling "even." "baseball code" calls for Montero to just walk to first base there. The subsequent beaning of Greinke was completely unneccessary. Watching Mattingly's yelling at Montero after the Greinke beaning leads me to believe that was his issue.

Jun 12, 2013 10:22 AM
rating: 8
 
hitmannls

Its also possible the Greinke beaning wasnt retaliation for Montero but for Greinke's slide into 2nd in the top half of the inning. Lot of nuances on this one, but I think we havnt seen the last of it.

Jun 12, 2013 10:40 AM
rating: 0
 
BirdlandPGH

Did Greinke have an additional hard slide that game? After the brawl, he remained on first base and then took a hard slide into second on a fielder's choice but I wasn't aware of an additional hard slide.

Jun 12, 2013 11:09 AM
rating: 0
 
warpigs

According to the "unwritten rules" per Buster Olney, a pitcher only gets one shot to throw a retaliatory pitch aimed at a batter. Greinke took 3 and that's why Kennedy re-retaliated. You'd think hitting Puig in the head would have caused Kennedy to think twice about throwing at Greinke, especially around the head.

Jun 12, 2013 10:40 AM
rating: 0
 
rweiler

I wouldn't have a problem with ejecting pitchers that consistently throw at the batter, however I also think batters that make little effort to get out of the way or, worse yet, actively try to get part of their uniform hit, should not be awarded first base.

Jun 12, 2013 08:54 AM
rating: 3
 
zwestwood

Solution..... Let the person who was hit get a free throw at the person who threw it. quid pro quo. Ian (chicken bleep) Kennedy, which is the nickname I will always call him from now on, stands on the wall and has to take one from Mr. Puig. How about them apples?

Jun 12, 2013 09:17 AM
rating: -2
 
brucegilsen
(999)

Okay, that was funny. Though maybe better posted on the Dodgeball Prospectus site.

Jun 13, 2013 19:19 PM
rating: 1
 
Dodger300

That represents the level of moral development and understanding of justice that my four year old nephew exhibits when he gets angry on the playground.

He's certainly not King Solomon the Wise, and neither are you.

Aug 02, 2013 23:40 PM
rating: 1
 
R.A.Wagman

I think MLB should consider balls hitting the edges of loose, baggy and flappy uniforms the same way as they do balls that hit batters who do not try to get out of the way. No free base.

Jun 12, 2013 09:30 AM
rating: 5
 
mblthd

LARRY
Actions have consequences.

CLIVE
Yes, often.

LARRY
No, always!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mC8Vh76vy0w

Jun 12, 2013 10:23 AM
rating: -2
 
mblthd

(whoops, sorry for the double-post there)

Jun 12, 2013 10:24 AM
rating: 0
 
mblthd

Two nights ago, Nolasco hit Aoki in the elbow with a pitch. The catcher (Brantly) pointed out to the umpire his contention that they pitch was actually a strike, i.e., that the ball was crossing the inside corner of the plate when it made contact with Aoki's elbow. I don't know if it did cross the plate, but even if it missed, it couldn't have missed by more than a couple of inches.

If it's possible for the difference between a strike and a HBP to be a matter of a couple of inches (or in the June 10 Aoki/Nolasco case, maybe even zero inches?), I would disagree with increasing the punishment for an HBP beyond awarding the batter first base.



Jun 12, 2013 10:38 AM
rating: 1
 
HAL9100

Pretty sure the hitting of Montero may or may not have been retaliation for hitting Cody Ross prior to that?

I mean the fact that its not presented as a possibility at least feels like an omission.

Jun 12, 2013 12:11 PM
rating: -1
 
HAL9100

Wait - Scratch that - Greinke hit Ross AND Montero.

I think Greinke just has control issues and a sourface.

Jun 12, 2013 12:12 PM
rating: -1
 
onegameref

Where was Montero setup for the Puig pitch? If it was a mistake he should have been on the outside corner or standard middle zone. Pics here don't let us see that earlier frame. Still no excuse to throw toward the head even if coming inside. Kennedy knows this and certainly Montero does. I fault Gibson since he prides himself on being such a hardass with his gruff reputation. I guarantee no one on the Dbacks would want a piece of Puig in an agitated state without 30 guys around to stop him. Love the shots of Mattingly tumbling to the ground with Trammell on Yahoo. Must have been a lot of pent up energy or bad blood from the old days in these two dugouts.

Jun 12, 2013 13:35 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Sam Miller
BP staff

low/inside

Jun 12, 2013 13:53 PM
 
onegameref

Thanks for the clarification. Lends more credence to the intentional camp of the argument.

Jun 12, 2013 17:22 PM
rating: -1
 
Behemoth

Can't really see how there would be a problem with an automatic 12-15 game ban for hitting someone in the head. It doesn't really matter if it was allegedly unintentional.

That, and umpires really should start ejecting pitchers for obviously intentional HBPs.

Jun 12, 2013 14:12 PM
rating: 3
 
lipitorkid

1. You hit someone in the head once and you are immediately ejected. You can claim intent or just a lack of control for the day based on humidity, illness, whatever it's too unsafe to ignore.

2. You hit someone in the head twice in the same season it's an automatic 10-15 game suspension. (2-3 pitching games for a starter) and then escalations for each head hit that season.

I also love that HBP above waist equals 2nd base idea. Throw in HBP in head equals 3rd base. No one is trying to get hit in the head.

Jun 12, 2013 15:16 PM
rating: 1
 
Lastblues

Look into Earl Weaver's philosophy on intentionally hitting the batter. Earl wasnt fucking having it, for strategic reasons.
Well written and thought out piece Sam.

Jun 12, 2013 14:20 PM
rating: 2
 
redspid

Carlos Quentin wonders why he wasn't invited to the party.

Jun 12, 2013 14:48 PM
rating: 1
 
steve08

Were knockdown pitches a big problem in Bob Gibson's era? Why are they such a problem now?

Jun 12, 2013 15:53 PM
rating: 0
 
Tim Lowell

I wonder how much of this episode is related to Greinke's well-publicized mental health issues?

Jun 13, 2013 06:07 AM
rating: -3
 
BirdlandPGH

I can't see any connection there.

Jun 13, 2013 10:14 AM
rating: -1
 
Llarry

Every account I've read says Greinke went after Montero twice. I think if he stopped after one (so he missed, too bad, Zack), then Miggy doesn't stay upset and Kennedy doesn't go after Greinke, and all hell doesn't break loose, and we have nothing to talk about.

"Chin music" has its place, and I do agree with the concept of using rules/punishment to bring message-sending back down below the chest. Still, I worry about creating a rule too strict and inflexible as to unfairly punish honest mistakes. I'd hate to see a pitcher feel he has to throw every pitch low and outside on a wet night for fear of a significant automatic suspension if one gets away...

Jun 13, 2013 13:36 PM
rating: 1
 
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2014-06-11 - Pebble Hunting: Throwing Bats, Throwing Ball...
2013-06-13 - Premium Article Skewed Left: Bayes and the Hit By Pitch