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June 11, 2014

Pebble Hunting

Throwing Bats, Throwing Balls, and the Appropriate Punishment for Each

by Sam Miller

So far as I can tell, ballplayers aren’t all that interested in our concern for their safety. They probably understand the risks better than we do (or feel like they do) and they understand the unintended consequences of ‘solutions’ better than we do (or feel like they do). So there’s a certain pointlessness to any article that dwells too much on the suspensions doled out by Major League Baseball, which are (theoretically) supposed to incentivize responsible behavior and reduce the risks violence imposes on players.

I’m going to do it anyway. There’s no part of baseball that shouldn’t be picked at to death by outsiders.

You know the background: On Sunday, after a whole bunch of lunatic behavior by Manny Machado, Fernando Abad threw two pitches at his legs. Machado responded by throwing his bat at third baseman Alberto Callaspo, either errantly (if he was aiming at the pitcher) or mistakenly (if he thought Donaldson was still in the game). But not accidentally. He didn’t do it accidentally.

On Tuesday, the suspensions came down: None for Abad, five games for Machado. It’s hard to put crimes in neat categories, given all the circumstances (previous warnings, intent, actions taken in consequential brawl, etc.), and it's also hard to compare pitcher and position player suspensions. But, for simplicity, let's accept that Machado was suspended for half as long as Ian Kennedy was after throwing near Zack Greinke’s head, and a game less than Brandon Workman was for throwing behind Evan Longoria. There’s a couple ways to respond to this, both reasonable: Throwing a ball at a player is potentially lethal, and should be penalized more than flinging a bat at a guy 90 feet away, which is almost certainly not going to be lethal. Or, a bat is--well, you know that saying, don't bring a knife to a gun fight? In the weapon-to-weapon portion of the SATs, ball:knife::bat:gun. Flinging a bat should be penalized more strictly, goes the other argument.

There’s a right answer*. The right answer is that the bat-thrower should be suspended for much longer. I’ll explain why it’s the right answer in a minute, but first let’s consider the underappreciated argument for why the ball-thrower should be suspended for much longer.

*Ignore the authoritative tone in that paragraph. That’s just the tone I chose to write in. I don’t actually intend to lecture anybody or summarily dismiss other arguments. Paragraphs like this, incidentally, are a terrible way to get trolling traffic. I’ll never learn.

Here’s why the ball-thrower should be suspended for a long, long time. There will be something like 750,000 baseballs pitched in the major leagues. There are so many that we stop thinking of each one as the risky event that it is, the same way we stop thinking of driving a car as the risky event that it is. There’s some serious cognitive dissonance going on: I’m driving a 1,500-pound missile at incredibly high speeds within mere feet of other 1,500-pound missiles driven at incredibly high speeds in the opposite direction by strangers who, for all I know, are sociopaths, drug addicts, asleep, English majors, or scorned ex-lovers? I’m standing 60 feet away from a guy who is throwing a rock at an incredibly higher speed, and he’s hoping to hit a spot in the strike zone that’s about 18 inches from my chin, and he routinely misses his target by 18, 24, 36 inches, and also I have no idea which direction this pitch is going to move because of a bunch of optical illusions intended to keep me from picking up its destination?

So: Terrifyingly dangerous activity that is inevitably common to the point that it becomes banal--and, further, it becomes unavoidable. I guess in some cities you could quit driving and take the bus. But basically you’re stuck with a car. And definitely you’re stuck standing in the batter’s box. Now: Add a crazy person. Add malice. Add irresponsible violence, and send that violence hurtling toward victims who are just doing what they always do. It destroys the fragile faith we have. A jealous wife who shoots her husband shakes a community, but a highway shooter can outright paralyze it.

Thus, pitchers have added responsibility to keep hitters safe. If we don’t trust pitchers, we don’t have a sport.

And that’s why pitchers should get longer suspensions than they do when they throw at a batter. (I’d not limit this to the ones who throw at the batter’s head, as some argue; pitch location is unpredictable, as are--and this is maybe more important--the retaliatory consequences of a pitch thrown with intent. I wrote here about what Bill James called The Frank Robinson solution, which I support. But I’m a weenie. Ballplayers would hate me.)

However, they should not get longer suspensions than the batter who flings his bat. Here’s why: As perilous as a thrown pitch can be, that’s pretty much the extent of its potential. The overwhelming majority of pitches thrown at batters don’t kill anybody. They’re awful, for real and for symbolic reasons, and they should earn harsh punishments, but that’s as far as that line of weaponry can go.

Bats, meanwhile, are routinely used as lethal weapons in fights. You know that Eazy E song “Louisville Slugger”? That’s about killing people with a baseball bat! Baseball players are not holding something that, deployed irresponsibly, can be very dangerous, like a clothes iron or a bowling pin or a heavy dictionary. They’re holding something that can qualify as felony possession.

Meanwhile, fighting in baseball is a relatively common thing. So you have a situation where men are throwing punches at each other. You have weapons nearby. This has the potential to go in very, very bad directions.

And yet we almost never see the bat used as a weapon. It’s not part of the ballplayer culture to use a bat as a weapon the way the ball is used as a weapon, or sharp spikes are used as weapons, or a lowered shoulder is used as a weapon, or fists are used as weapons, or a glove is used as a particularly weak weapon. This is a red line that baseball needs to enforce.

Back to the bat-as-gun analogy: All sensible people, those of us who support broad gun-ownership rights and those of us who don’t, recognize that a firearm is a different category of danger and requires different precautions. A gun in real life, we appreciate, is not so different than a gun in a Chekhov play, and so we take extra care to keep accidents from happening. Pointing a gun at somebody, even unloaded, is taboo. Keeping an unlocked gun in a house with children, even hidden or up high, is a crime. No playing with guns. No exceptions.

And that’s why Machado should have received a much longer suspension. Once the bat is seen as anything other than a tool for baseballing, it’s a gun, and it’s eventually going to go off. Alberto Callaspo wasn’t in mortal peril when Machado threw a bat at him. But, in a sense, they’re all in a bit more danger now.

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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