In fact, you only have to consult MLB’s official rules to see just how seriously MLB takes intentionally throwing at a batter: Rule 8.02(a) governs intentionally modifying the ball to gain an advantage. The mandatory penalty for doing so? Automatic ejection from the game and a 10-game suspension. Rule 8.02(d) governs intentionally throwing at a batter, but there’s no penalty specified. The only comment in this section of note is that throwing at a batter’s head is “condemned by everybody.”
Except it’s not condemned by everybody. Far from it. Take the former Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers, who kept his job for a year—and was celebrated in some corners—after explicitly endorsing hitting more batters with pitches. If you didn’t want to assault a fellow human being? Per Towers, “There’s ways to get you out of here. If you don’t follow suit or you don’t feel comfortable doing it, you probably don’t belong in a Diamondbacks uniform.” Towers was later dismissed as GM, but the fact that the Diamondbacks offered him another position, and that Towers ultimately joined the Cincinnati Reds’ front office, is a good indication that his way of thinking by no means condemns a person in the way the MLB rules suggest.
In other words, the message sent is this: “Throw at batters all you want and we’ll shrug it off, but don’t you dare doctor the baseball. Oh, and if you’re throwing at someone, take care not to hit them in the head. We don’t really know what we’ll do if you do it, but we’ll condemn the practice!”
The sentiment of “don’t hit people in the head” is a nice one, though it’s rather limited. Aside from the nebulous punishment associated with headhunting, pitchers trying to hit a batter don’t have very good aim. Pitchers train to throw at or around the strike zone, so preparing to throw a ball at a batter is an unnatural motion and has a wide variety of outcomes. It’s why you see pitchers throw behind batters when trying to hit them—they’re used to throwing strikes, not hitting people. So it’s not unreasonable to think that a pitcher might intentionally throw at a less-critical body part, miss, and end up hitting the head by mistake. It’s why Jim Bouton wrote in 1970’s Ball Four that he wouldn’t throw at a batter—there was too much risk involved. It’s why the pitcher and author Dirk Hayhurst, 40 years later, expressed the same sentiment. If you throw at a batter, there’s a very high risk of something terrible happening.
Given that executives like Towers think throwing at batters is acceptable—perhaps even laudable—there unfortunately needs to be a reason other than “assault is bad” to stop the practice. Owners, who invest an enormous amount of money in their best players, need to recognize the threat that intentional hit-by-pitches pose to their investments. Take the 2013 National League Most Valuable Player Andrew McCutchen, who was intentionally hit in the back in 2014 and went on the disabled list soon thereafter with ongoing rib issues. Or last year’s MVP runner-up Giancarlo Stanton, who was unintentionally hit in the face by a pitch, breaking his jaw and causing him to miss most of September's games. A player, however talented, is still just a mortal, and when you hit him with a baseball, he’s liable to get injured. Stanton signed a $325 million, 13-year contract this past offseason; it would be foolish not to do everything possible to protect him from further injury.