In his postgame remarks Sunday, Matt Barnes swore up and down that he didn’t mean to throw at Manny Machado. That was a fairly transparent lie, and also a fairly blameless and understandable one. Admitting to intentionally throwing at any batter roughly doubles the suspension a pitcher can expect. Barnes was just saying what he needed to say, in order to lose as little of his paycheck as possible.
He did say one thing that seemed eminently sincere, though: that he didn’t mean to put the ball anywhere near Machado’s head. I have no trouble believing that. In fact, I actively accept it. Most players acknowledge the role of beanball wars and even (unfortunately) embrace that form of vigilantism. They believe their judicious, tactical firing of baseballs at one another keeps the scales of justice balanced and prevents all-out brawls of the kind we saw more often 30 years ago. However, nearly every player also acknowledges that hitting a player anywhere near the head is a dangerous and damnable error, whether intentional or not.
Here’s the problem, where Barnes is concerned: he had no way to throw at Machado without risking hitting him in the head. In fact, when he decided to throw at Machado, he introduced an alarmingly high risk of hitting him right in the ear flap. That’s not because no pitcher has sufficient command to throw at a hitter without risking such a mistake (though that’s a valid argument, and maybe a correct one). It’s because of the way Barnes pitches.
Barnes is a hard-throwing right-handed hurler, with a high arm slot. He doesn’t come from a radical, classic over-the-top angle, but he certainly qualifies as a high-three-quarters guy. Pitching guru Doug Thorburn talks about this with some frequency. When a pitcher misses, they tend to miss along a diagonal that roughly matches their arm slot. When someone who throws like Barnes misses, then, it will tend to be more up-and-down than left-to-right.
Now, add the handedness matchup and the nature of a pitching delivery to this equation. Barnes is right-handed; so is Machado. To ensure that he’d throw inside on Machado, Barnes needed to err slightly on the side of an early release, relative to a perfect, clean pitch. A slightly early release, out of Barnes’ arm slot, will tend to generate a pitch that rides higher than intended—higher and (slightly) further inside.
Barnes is actually very good at repeating his release point. Last year, there were 255 pitchers who entered 750 or more pitch pairs into our tunneling database, and Barnes’ release point varied from pitch to pitch by the eighth-smallest margin. Even so, with the altered mental approach that comes with throwing at someone, Barnes missed by enough to change the tenor of the whole interaction. A pitcher with Barnes’ arm slot should absolutely never be allowed to throw at a same-handed batter, because there’s too much risk of something just slightly worse than what actually happened Sunday in Baltimore.
Of course, Barnes likely wouldn’t have felt it necessary to do what he did if it hadn’t been for Eduardo Rodriguez’s failure to hit Machado (despite three tries) earlier in the game. Rodriguez is a lefty with a notably lower arm slot than Barnes. His misses were just wide of Machado’s knees and ankles. Rodriguez ranked 51st in release-point differential last season, nestling nicely into the top quintile. Still, he was unable to hit Machado, for two reasons:
- Humans are, by and large, much taller than they are wide. Rodriguez’s arm slot makes him more likely to miss in the direction in which he had much less margin for error, in terms of still hitting his target.
- It’s hard for any pitcher to intentionally throw a fastball accurately into the glove-side batter’s box. For a pitcher with a relatively low arm slot, though, it’s especially tough, because they have to fight the natural arm-side run their heaters have.
We can’t have this. Beanball wars are anachronisms. They arose rationally out of the culture of the game, but that was your grandfather’s lifetime ago. Back then, pitchers really and truly threw at hitters. They threw at them with the intention of intimidating them, of leaving them unable to approach their plate appearance with a clear mind. To maximize that effect, they often targeted the player’s head, which was poorly protected when it was protected at all. Somewhat often, they threw these pitches in long shadows or under weak stadium lights.
They were blue-collar men, in general, paid nowhere near what today’s players are paid, raised in a rougher world and according to a more violent code of conduct than today’s players have had instilled in them. They were perfectly willing to put the health of opposing hitters at some level of risk, so long as doing so increased their chances of surviving and thriving in the game for another day.
Obviously, another element then entered that fight for survival: vigilantism. Baseball’s institutional leaders of the post-World War II era were way too slow to undertake any effort to stop that behavior. It was left to the players to police themselves. Trade stops wars, so rather than have all-out brawls every week, teams began trading wild throws at one another.
It seems petty and stupid now, because (as with Machado, and with the Tigers’ decision to throw at Miguel Sano on Saturday) the beaning team is usually intentionally exacting revenge for some accident or perceived slight—a pitch that honestly got away, or a late slide loaded with a little too much momentum, or an overly enthusiastic celebration of a home run. Sixty years ago, though, many beanball wars were started by an intentional and unprovoked bit of chin music—a truly reckless and selfish act by a pitcher, one that invited sanctions from the other team.
The first thing we ought to do, in order to stop beanballs, is to explain this to today’s players. If we did so, we could make it clear that the practice has become thoroughly obsolete. In multiple books over the years, Bob Gibson has stressed that he never pitched inside with the hope of getting outs. He got hitters out by feeding them a steady diet of away, away, away, and then occasionally throwing at them so they wouldn’t dare dive out over the plate.
In Sixty Feet Six Inches, which Gibson and Reggie Jackson co-authored, Jackson confessed that the hole in his swing was always inside, on the hands. Gibson, though, always believed the way to get Jackson out was to throw him fastballs on the outer edge, then hope he chased a slider in the dirt. Even hearing Jackson say otherwise, Gibson replied that most pitchers would never risk going into Jackson’s kitchen that way, both because they would assume he could hit that pitch, and because they would fear missing out over the heart of the plate.
“If I was going to come in on you,” Gibson said, “it’d be way in.”
This isn’t the way baseball is played anymore. Pitchers throw inside with the intention of jamming hitters, getting ground balls, or even inducing swings and misses on back-foot changeups or breaking balls. More important than what they are doing, though, is what they are not doing. With extraordinarily rare exceptions, pitchers do not throw at batters unprovoked. They certainly don’t do so with the hitter’s head in their crosshairs. Social mores have changed, and unprovoked attacks like that have become totally taboo.
At the same time, hitters have gotten huge advancements in protective equipment. Rules have guaranteed them better hitter’s backgrounds than the hitters of a generation ago had. Stadium lighting is no longer spotty. Balls are changed out more often, so they’re whiter, on average. Even if a pitcher had no regard for the batter’s health or the social pressure to stop intimidating behavior, he would find himself much less able to get inside the heads of opponents than his forebears were. Add to that the fact that, if you want to be able to pitch inside for strikes and outs, you only lose by hitting or hunting an opposing batter and getting everyone on edge about everything near the inside corner.
If that message could just shine through, players might be able to understand why the retaliatory hit batsman ought to be left in the past. It’s probable, though, that they’d remain sufficiently suspicious of one another to keep the shit stirred for another several years. Assuming, then, that beanball wars aren’t going away soon, let’s turn back to Matt Barnes and Eduardo Rodriguez.
We have estimates of pitcher command. We have several of them. There are the CSAA stats that we keep here, and there are COMMANDf/x remnants, and there are release-point measurements like the ones that can be found on Brooks Baseball, and there are the ones that can be found in our pitch tunneling database. We also know how pitchers throw, and so, how they’re most likely to miss. Using that information, it should be possible to codify a system for sorting acceptable hit batters from unacceptable ones.
If a high-slot righty hits a righty with a fastball, he should be ejected. If a pitcher with poor command hits a guy anywhere above the knee, he should be ejected. It doesn’t need to be about intent, or justice. It should simply be about safety. We know that some pitcher-batter matchups create more risk for catastrophe than others. When those matchups arise, a pitcher who is insufficiently careful to mitigate that risk should be thrown out of the game, not for malice, but for negligence. Eventually, a blend of rules like those and education of players should make the trading of beanballs an unfortunate part of baseball’s past, instead of an unfortunate part of its present.
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