Battering the Batter

For too long, MLB has tolerated the 'tradition' of pitchers intentionally hitting the other team's players. That needs to change.

Adam Hunger / Reuters

Unless you’re a baseball historian, Ray Chapman probably isn’t a name that sounds familiar. If you do recognize him, it’s because he has the ignominy of being the last Major League Baseball player to die from being hit by a pitch. The Cleveland shortstop died in 1920 at the age of 29, after the Yankees pitcher Carl Mays accidentally struck Chapman in the head with a ball. That MLB has gone nearly an entire century without another on-field fatality has less to do with improvements in player safety and more to do with dumb luck.

Every season, numerous pitchers are instructed to throw—with intent to injure—at members of the opposite team. Every season, these intentional hits result in bad blood, threats of future violence, and occasionally serious injury to players whose livelihoods depend on their ability to stay fit. And every season, MLB turns a blind eye to the practice. The recent high-profile dust-up between the Kansas City Royals and Oakland Athletics is only noteworthy because it so perfectly captures the absurdity of team-sanctioned assault. The hit batsman gets a free base, but pitchers pick their spots—waiting until there are two outs and no one on base, or after the outcome of the game is no longer in doubt. Unlike other sports, which assess a meaningful immediate penalty (lost yardage, free throws, forcing a team to play a man short for a period of time), MLB has no such disincentive and so this behavior happens frequently. Meanwhile, baseball fans roll their eyes and shrug—they’ve seen this all before.

But if you’re not a fan, this probably seems absurd: Throwing a baseball at 90 miles per hour or more at another human being qualifies as “assault with a deadly weapon.” It’s only between the foul lines that a violent felony is instead viewed as enforcing the game’s unwritten rules. But that’s the biggest problem in stopping such assaults: Nobody can agree on what the game’s unwritten rules are—presumably because they’re not codified and are thus subject to the whims of the various players and managers interpreting them that day.

It goes something like this: A player on Team A does something to offend Team B (or at the very least, Team B perceives that player did something). Team B orders its pitcher to throw at a batter from Team A. Sometimes that batter is the offending player, but other times, he’s just some poor soul who happens to wear the wrong uniform. Team A, realizing it was intentionally thrown at, then orders its pitcher to retaliate. If the two teams, in their infinite wisdom, decide the retaliation is commensurate with the original offense, play continues. But given that the teams are debating nebulous offenses, it's impossible to guarantee peace after the first attack-and-retaliate cycle. Sometimes these feuds can last for years.

Here are some of the violations of “unwritten rules” that have been the flashpoint for team feuds over the past few years. Being happy after hitting a home run. Being a promising rookie. Running on the pitcher’s mound while returning to a base after a foul ball. Sliding too late. Post-game swimming in a recreational outfield pool after clinching a divisional title.

It’s an absurd list precisely because there's never a good reason to throw a ball at a batter. Yet baseball teams take offense at either real or perceived slights and then kick off a cycle of aggression to which the league turns a blind eye. Umpires are nominally supposed to keep games under control and keep feuds from escalating, but they typically issue warnings rather than eject pitchers who hit another batter. This makes sense—it’s tremendously difficult to measure intent, and sometimes a pitch just slips, resulting in an accidental hit-by-pitch. But by leaving ejections to the discretion of umpires, MLB creates a perverse incentive to strike first: The retaliatory hit-by-pitch is far more likely to warrant an ejection than the event that precedes it.

Even when the league does mete out punishments, the sentence is laughably ineffective. The typical punishment for a pitcher found to have intentionally thrown at a batter is a suspension for fewer than 10 games. Yet starting pitchers only throw once every five days, so with clever scheduling of an appeal, a pitcher can serve his suspension while effectively missing zero games. Thus, there’s no disincentive for a pitcher to throw at a batter—indeed, it’s quite the contrary, as there are many managers and analysts who view assaulting batters as “defending the honor of the game” or “playing the game the right way.”

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.

To that end, MLB should look at its counterparts in other major professional sports. It should also make a sweeping change to its own rules and remove umpire discretion from the game.

The National Football League, for example, is no stranger to scandal. Its treatment of domestic violence and willful ignorance regarding concussions are shameful. Nevertheless, when the NFL was faced with overwhelming evidence that Saints players were offered bounties for injuring opposing players, it acted, doling out suspensions of meaningful length—including some season-long ones. (Granted, like so many disappointing things in the NFL, many of the suspensions were later reduced or lifted, but at least the initial reaction was appropriate.)

MLB wouldn’t even need to mount an in-depth investigation: Pitchers admit to throwing at batters frequently. The Phillies pitching ace Cole Hamels, when he hit Washington’s Bryce Harper for the high crime of being a lauded rookie, explicitly said, “I was trying to hit him.” Hamels received a five-game suspension and missed zero starts. If MLB handed down longer suspensions for intentionally hitting batters, it would go a long way toward curtailing the practice. When teams start feeling an on-field effect from throwing at batters—playing with a 24-man roster or not having their best pitchers available for several starts—they’ll find other ways of enforcing the “unwritten rules.”

MLB can also look at the National Hockey League, which has a rule that’s always enforced regardless of intent. The NHL gives a player a two-minute delay of game penalty if he shoots the puck over the glass out of his own end. It’s irrelevant if the delay of game occurred because the player was trying to stave off an offensive rush, or if he just ran into some bad luck.

MLB can follow the same process, though it would be far more controversial: automatic ejections of any pitcher who hits a batter above the waist. Doing so removes umpires’ inability to measure intent from the equation. Hit a batter above the waist, hit the showers early, no exceptions. Ask Giancarlo Stanton’s jaw if it mattered that Mike Fiers wasn’t aiming at his head—the injury is the same. An ejection isn't the same as a suspension—the team would only be without its pitcher for the duration of the game in which the hit-by-pitch occurred. A subsequent suspension would still be under the purview of the league office; it would still determine intent when assessing whether a longer punishment was necessary.

To be sure, this would have a profound impact on the game. Many pitchers rely on pitching inside—sometimes high and inside—to remain effective. Were automatic ejections the rule, offense would increase, as batters would no longer need to fear the inside pitch. Yet that might prove a blessing in disguise, as the new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has stated that he’s looking for ways to increase offense in the sport. Severely penalizing dangerous pitching will improve offense while at the same time mitigating the risk of a gruesome or fatal injury. The sport has survived profound changes to offense over the last two decades; a player’s career may not survive a fastball profoundly changing the structure of his skull.

Even adamant defenders of the sport’s tradition can acknowledge that a baseball moving at high velocity is dangerous. The former outfielder Juan Encarnacion’s career ended when he was hit in the eye by a foul ball. The former player Mike Coolbaugh, while coaching, died after being hit by a batted ball. This is the reason why, when you go to a game, you’re instructed to keep an eye on play—bats and balls leaving the field are dangerous. For MLB not to crack down on pitchers intentionally throwing at batters is a profound oversight on its part at best, and a tacit endorsement of assault at worst. One can only hope the sport takes action before Ray Chapman's unfortunate status as the answer to a trivia question goes to another unlucky player.