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April 15, 2013

Baseball Therapy

Boys Will Be Boys?: The Carlos Quentin and Zack Greinke Story

by Russell A. Carleton

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Last Thursday night, in the bottom of the sixth inning of the Dodgers-Padres game—which the Dodgers led 2-1 at the time—Zack Greinke hit Carlos Quentin with a 3-2 pitch. Words were exchanged, and Quentin (6'2", 235 lbs) charged the mound. Greinke (6'2", 195 lbs) tried to mosh with Quentin, leading with his left (non-pitching) shoulder, but Quentin had a 60-foot running start and 40 pounds’ worth of advantage. In the classic physics equation, force equals mass times acceleration. Quentin had the advantage on both counts.

Tempers flared, benches cleared, the mosh pit got bigger, and then a few players started yelling at the guys wearing the other uniforms. Greinke got a broken collar bone for his efforts, and will spend at least six weeks in timeout thinking about what he did. Quentin will sit out eight games with a suspension. And to make things even more fun, guess who's playing against each other tonight at Dodger Stadium... on Jackie Robinson Day.

It's rather telling that a good chunk of the discussion after the fact was an analysis of whether Greinke intended to hit Quentin, because while "He started it!" certainly doesn't work as an excuse at my house, it's apparently okay to use in a baseball game. Jonah Keri, formerly of BP, pointed out that if this event had taken place outside of a baseball stadium, Quentin's actions might have earned him an assault charge. But let's be clear: both men acted inappropriately and neither should be cleared of blame over what happened.

When asked about the melee, San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, in Chicago at the time, gave the standard societal response for when one wants to avoid confronting inexcusably stupid male behavior: "Boys will be boys." I disagree with Bochy's rather dismissive attitude, but he is indirectly bringing up an important point. A lot of what happened on Thursday night does come down to men behaving badly, and shines the light on some parts of baseball (and masculine culture) that perhaps we all don't want to confront.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article examining how managers react when a runner on their team is thrown out on a stolen base attempt. It turns out that, far from being "once bitten, twice shy," managers actually attempt to steal more often. All of them. In that column, I made this observation:

If there's something that I've come to understand about baseball, it's that it's impossible to understand the game without understanding the psychology of the human male. Yes, over time, the rational mind will see that if a strategy isn't working, you should stop using it. However, the human male is not known for feats of rationality, particularly in a case where he has challenged another man and come up short. Men, in general, don't take that sort of thing well, and are more likely to try again.

In another article, when I pointed out that pitching out was an irrational strategy, I suggested that the pitchout did have one benefit. It allowed the manager pitching out the chance to have a moment where he could claim some sort of small (and Pyrrhic) victory over his opponent. In that article, I said:

If there's a common thread that runs through a lot of the inefficiencies in baseball, it's the male pack animal tendency to try to display dominance behaviors over other males.

The Greinke-Quentin incident isn't the first time that a player has charged the mound or that a real fight has started as a result. It is, however, the first time that a pitcher making in excess of $20 million a year has been sidelined for a significant amount of time because of one. There are apparently some lines that shouldn't be crossed. I propose we look at the matter through the lens of understanding the human male and masculinity in United States culture.

You and What Army?
I don't know whether Greinke was intentionally throwing at Quentin (and again, it's irrelevant). Unless Zack Greinke comes out and says "Why, yes, I was aiming right for him..." we'll never really know. If Greinke was aiming for Quentin, it wouldn't be the first time in MLB history—nor the last—that a pitcher threw at a hitter.

Pitchers will sometimes throw inside to try to get the hitter to back off the plate (and sometimes, they come too far inside). That at least makes sense strategically, and you could argue that being hit by a pitch is just an occupational hazard of standing too close to the plate. Sometimes the ball just gets away. But then there are the "message" bean balls. Pitchers will retaliate for the bean ball that happened in the last half-inning. Some pitchers have admitted to throwing at hitters in retaliation for hot-dogging it after a home run, or to simply knocking down the next guy up after a home run. Sometimes two men have some personal grudge against each other.

Intentionally hitting a batter as retaliation for some perceived slight seems to be a counter-productive strategy. The batter gets first base for free out of the deal. In recent years, MLB has moved to a system where the umpire will warn both benches after one incident, and any further shenanigans will be met with an ejection (and probably a fine and suspension) for the pitcher and his manager. The pitching team will lose the services of that pitcher for a few days and need to bring in another reliever. It certainly doesn't make the game any easier to win. Despite those stakes, you still see pitchers choosing vengeance. What gives? (For those who are really interested in this topic, may I recommend the first chapter of J.C. Bradbury's book, The Baseball Economist.)

After these sorts of events happen, teammates often talk glowingly—in code words—about a pitcher who is willing to "protect his teammates." It's not that hard to figure out what's going on. The retaliating pitcher might need to answer a few questions to the league, but he'll be a hero in the clubhouse.  If he doesn't retaliate, there are often code words about that pitcher not being very well-liked.  You might argue that the benefits of promoting a "we're all in this together" attitude and not dividing the locker room are actually worth more to a team than having a runner on first. There's no really good way to measure it. A different re-frame would be that the pitcher is giving in to peer pressure in an overly macho locker room. But the mere fact that pitchers do sometimes choose retaliation does reinforce how valuable the players perceive that locker room culture to be.

When a structure exists within a society, there is some function that it serves. It might not serve that function well, but there's always a reason. Baseball can be a dangerous game. A pitcher with a bad attitude and a 97-mph heater is a dangerous combination. A runner on first with a bone to pick and a shortstop coming across the bag trying to turn two can result in a DL stint. I often use the term "pack animals" with disapproval in my voice, but it's easy to understand how players can feel very vulnerable and want to know that the pack is there for backup. If a pitcher does not retaliate, will other pitchers take that as a sign that they can do as they will? Will the pack have my back? Maybe it makes players a little more hesitant to stand a little closer to the plate. In a game of inches, that can be a big deal, maybe a bigger deal than giving a guy a free trip to first base. I can't say that I condone the behavior, but I can at least understand where it comes from.

Maybe there's an upside to this strategy of detente. If it's known that "an incident" will beget a response, it might persuade a loose cannon that firing one at the other team is a bad idea. Or maybe it would get his teammates to talk some sense into him. The system of retribution will lead to some ugly incidents, but we do need to leave open the possibility that it might prevent more bean balls than it incites (there's no way to test it), and we just never see the ones that don't happen.

If there is one reason for hope, it's that there is an odd double standard on acceptable reasons for hitting a batter. Suppose that a pitcher hit a batter in the top of the first inning, knocking him out of the game and relegating him to day-to-day status. Before his post-game interview, the pitcher took a "vitamin supplement" that was "inadvertently laced" with sodium pentothal (truth serum). Asked about the first inning plunking, he said, "Yeah, before the game, we had that as part of our strategy. We figured that while we were giving Smith first base, the pitch would probably knock him out of the game, and maybe the rest of the series. Since the other team would have to put Jones in the game to replace him, we calculated that it gave us a better chance to win."

There exists a set of circumstances in which this would be a perfectly logical and rational choice for a team to make. And your jaw is still on the floor at the thought. Retaliation is okay in baseball, but pre-meditated targeting, even if it makes logical sense, is not. It means that there are some rules. If players recognize that there are rules, then maybe they really can "police themselves." In a perfect world, there would be a system where the only hit batsmen were cases where the ball really did get away and pitchers didn't use a fastball to take out their anger and frustration.

I don't think that we should be blaming the "protection" system that has developed (and the resulting bean brawls). Maybe we ought to be more mad at the fact that United States culture is really bad at teaching people, particularly men, safe and effective ways to release anger. And when someone tries to release anger in a harmful way on the baseball diamond, it can literally be fatal. The protection system is a natural outgrowth of that more basic cultural problem with anger management. Given that there are certain guys who can't handle anger, how do we best deal with that?

Are You Threatening Me?
In the Greinke-Quentin confrontation, what happened between the ball striking Carlos Quentin's arm and Carlos Quentin striking Zack Greinke's arm is a matter of some debate. But one thing is clear. Whether or not Greinke "meant it," Quentin assumed that he did. A calm, rational review of the circumstances (3-2 pitch, one-run game in the sixth inning) suggests that the probability is high that Greinke didn't actually mean to, but it's not unthinkable that he might have. Greinke had plunked Quentin before, although many have pointed out that a lot of people have plunked Quentin. He's the active leader in career HBP. What happened is that Quentin engaged in what is known as the hostile attribution bias. He took what was an ambiguous (at best) set of circumstances and assumed that Greinke was out to get him rather than "It just got away from him."

Accounts vary as to what happened next. Zack Greinke apparently "said something" to Quentin. Quentin was likely not silent either. Some accounts say that the turning point was actually when Greinke dropped his glove to the ground, and perhaps invited Quentin to the mound for further conversation. And here we have the classic story of every fight between two men in the history of the world. Quentin perceived that he had been challenged by Greinke. Men generally react to challenges by either engaging in a dominance behavior of their own (Quentin apparently chose to yell a few choice words) or showing a submissive behavior, which is this case probably would have been simply walking to first base. Greinke then had the choice of meeting a dominant behavior with a dominant behavior (like yelling back) or submitting ("Dude, calm down... I'm not trying to hit you.") Quentin could have responded to that challenge by another dominant behavior (charging the mound) or a submission (rolling his eyes and walking down to first base). Greinke could have responded by either running toward Quentin and breaking his collarbone or backing off toward second base and waiting for catcher A.J. Ellis (trailing the play) to tackle Quentin.

At any of those points, the fight could have ended before it started. Why didn't it? The simple answer is that in United States culture, there is a strong taboo against a man who displays submissive behaviors, even when challenge behaviors make no logical sense. The phrase "wimp out" is much more common than "calmly assessed the situation and realized that it made no sense to become further involved." In the immediate aftermath, I heard discussion of whether Greinke should have backed away once Quentin charged. The general consensus was that it was Greinke's job to "protect his mound." In other words, Greinke was seen as virtuous for trying to take on a much larger man in a fight to prevent him from scoring a touchdown rather than to back down and live to pitch another day. Like Tuesday. Against the Padres.

When I read Dirk Hayhurst's book, The Bullpen Gospels (which could double as a dissertation in field anthropology), what struck me was how... well... male everything was. I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that when the players, managers, and coaches are all men, and the group is relatively isolated from others, that it would form a culture based around norms of hyper-masculinity. Consider the realities of life for the professional baseball player. For more than half of the year, you are not physically in one city for very long. Your job requires that you travel a lot, so it's hard to form a good solid social network. Worse, because of your job, people act... kinda funny when you're around. Unfortunately, you have to be wary that some of them might try to take advantage of you, and it's hard to trust them. It's not that a baseball player has no outside social network. It's just harder to come by.

So, players fulfill the basic human need for a social network by turning to the people around them, all of whom are hypercompetitive males and with whom they spend an inordinate amount of time. When a group is isolated, it forms its own culture. And because many of them were raised in a culture (i.e. United States culture) where "backing down" was most certainly not part of masculinity, it's not surprising when the culture that emerges over-emphasizes this hypermasculine ideal. Maybe there are guys in the clubhouse who take a more enlightened view, but if they have limited influence in the clubhouse, they will have limited influence over the emergent culture.

It's tempting to say that Carlos Quentin, for example, needs anger management counseling. (Maybe he does, I don't know.) Or that both men could benefit from a stop-think-act training (we all could). But maybe we ought to think a little deeper about where the hostile attribution bias and the idea of "never backing down even when it's pointless" comes from. If you want to write lyrical poems about how baseball mirrors the most excellent parts of United States culture, then consider writing a few verses about how it mirrors the worst parts of United States culture.

When something continues to happen despite the fact that you've taken several measures to correct it, it usually means that you haven't correctly identified the problem. Bean brawls are certainly a problem within MLB, and to their credit, MLB has taken sensible steps within their means to curb them. Despite that, Zack Greinke is still currently wearing a sling. The problem is that MLB exists within a broader culture and its players have soaked up years of unfortunate messages about what it means to be a man. Maybe this one's beyond MLB's power to completely stop. Anger makes people do irrational things, and it's not just a matter of needing to increase the length of suspensions for throwing at a hitter or charging the mound. This is a symptom of a broader cultural issue. Zack Greinke and Carlos Quentin should have proper consequences for their respective actions. However, simply tinkering with those consequences is to ignore the bigger problem. If you want to see an MLB free of brawls, there's a bigger issue that needs to be solved first.

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

Related Content:  Zack Greinke,  Carlos Quentin,  Brawl

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