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August 14, 2014

Skewed Left

Where Have All The Suspensions Gone?

by Zachary Levine

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One of my least favorite hot takes in all of sports comes when people say that the National Hockey League should ban fighting. Not because I find the sport’s method of supposed self-regulation to be at all attractive but simply because fighting in hockey is banned. Know how I know it’s banned? Because not only is it a penalty to fight, it’s a major penalty. The NHL banned shooting the puck over the glass from your own zone a few years back, and you only get two minutes for that; thus certainly fighting is banned if it's five.

So technically you are not allowed to throw at hitters in Major League Baseball. If you hit someone, he goes to first, which, if it’s leading off the inning, costs about a third of a run. And if you miss, the 1–0 count isn’t good either. And these days you’ll probably try again. Sometimes you’ll even get ejected like Randall Delgado did when he punctuated Andrew McCutchen last week.

Hitting a batter, by this logic, is still banned.

But boy does it not feel like that, and all of a sudden, too.

Last year, you could get suspended for this sort of thing. As the aerial assaults continue, however, the discipline has sharply, abruptly, and perhaps dangerously stopped. The lasting question in the wake of three recent incidents in the National League is whether we have reached a point where baseball can no longer suspend players for throwing at each other.

First, let’s rewind to 2006, a year when 12 players were suspended multiple games for beanballs alone. Since then, it’s been mostly downhill, though it had stabilized in the past few years.

Suspensions for hit batsmen

Year Suspensions
2006 12
2007 9
2008 8
2009 7
2010 5
2011 5
2012 4
2013 5

This year, beyond bat-tossin’ Manny Machado, the only players to get multiple games for anything were Martin Maldonado, Carlos Gomez, and Travis Snider for their roles in that dumb Pirates-Brewers fight. Nobody has been suspended for the hit-by-pitches that have sparked cultural debates and, at times, have really hurt. Only once this year has it happened: Brandon Workman vs. Evan Longoria on a pitch that missed head-high on June 2. Since then nothing.

David Carpenter hit Corey Dickerson with a pitch as retaliation for a wayward follow-through. It was deemed to be intentional, and he was ejected from the game. He was not suspended.

Justin Wilson hit Justin Turner as the Pirates and Dodgers mixed it up. He was ejected for the intentional HBP. He was not suspended.

Clayton Kershaw threw at Matt Holliday in retribution for Hanley Ramirez’s plunking. He was not suspended.

And then there was Delgado, who planted one between the 2 and the 2 in Andrew McCutchen’s back. He has not been suspended.

Last year I wrote about how either the league was bad at determining intent or they were taking responsibility for legislating the unwritten rules. That was sparked by the Pirates (they come up a lot, it’s sort of a theme) not being penalized for throwing at Jordany Valdespin, who had admired a home run too long.

This year brings a new possibility: MLB just quit trying. Or they have become accepting of the fact that players will do this to each other. While the NFL, with its rules to prevent serious injury, and the NHL, with its crackdown on hits to the head, have taken steps to make their games safer, Major League Baseball has walked those steps in reverse. They have implicitly declared free shots. Or at least shots that only cost .36 runs.

The climate was right to suspend Delgado. Unlike Kershaw, Delgado has little brand name value; Kershaw was needed for a marquee series against the Giants the following weekend. And the Diamondbacks were the source of quite a bit of vitriol from the public for their repeated roles in this sort of incident along with Kevin Towers’ and Kirk Gibson’s declarations of a retaliatory culture.

More than a week later, it’s safe to say a Delgado suspension isn’t coming. So the question now is whether a hit-by-pitch can result in a suspension ever again.

What happens the next time MLB wants to issue a suspension for an intentional hit by pitch and the player appeals, citing this year's precedent? (Suspensions have been overturned before: Cliff Lee got five games for a spring training 2010 plunking and had that reversed.) The questions on appeal would be: How was this different from what Delgado did? Or what Wilson did? They were deemed to have done this intentionally, and they were both pretty obvious about it; why do I not fit that category?

The easiest way out of this precedent would be for the next intentional hit batsman to start a massive brawl or lead to something unusual occurring. Then MLB can get the pitcher for inciting violence beyond the simple violence of intentionally throwing at a batter, and can be back on track if it ever wanted to get serious about getting this garbage out of the game.

Two problems, though.

  1. Nobody charges the mound anymore. The instances of fights, especially spectacular fights, that get big news coverage and embarrass the sport aren’t what they used to be.

  2. We’ve sort of already tried that this year. Fernando Abad was ejected for throwing the pitch that led to Machado’s bat throw. He was also not suspended even though it turned into an ugly incident.

So we might not get there the easy way, which leaves the hard way: a pitcher seriously injuring a hitter. Put a fastball in somebody’s brain and precedent may not matter much.

Even then, it will look like Major League Baseball is only affirming one of the dumb clichés we always hear in this situation, that there’s a right way to hit batters. Still, that's a step up from what the last few months may have revealed about MLB's thinking.

Sources: Major League Baseball’s official discipline report, Spotrac database.

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

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