We’re still waiting to hear that Jean Segura is all right after he was beaned in the 7th inning last night by the Pirates’ Arquimedes Caminero, but Caminero didn’t wait long to pitch high and inside again — in the 8th, he caught Nick Ahmed in the jaw with a pitch that glanced off the top of Ahmed’s shoulder. Those links are to the clips, but just in case you don’t want to see it: Segura tried to duck, and that pitch caught a lot of the front of Segura’s helmet. The pitch to Ahmed, though, was on its way to his face so exactly that all he could really do was roll with the punch.
There’s a lot more context, of course. In between those two Caminero HBPs, Evan Marshall threw high and tight to David Freese, hitting him in the front of his shoulder. And it wasn’t all that long ago that then-Pirates reliever Ernesto Frieri cracked Paul Goldschmidt‘s hand on August 1, 2014 — with Randall Delgado hitting Andrew McCutchen in the back the next day. The Pirates generate these situations. No, they don’t hit anyone on purpose, necessarily. But it’s not all that different if the beanballs come because of something else that’s being done on purpose — at that point, it’s not just callous, it’s calculated. And the D-backs have a limited number of ways to respond.
Still Pitching High and Inside
Nobody wants to see a beanball war. As Tony La Russa told Nick Piecoro in 2014, pitching up and in has “rewards,” but also “risks.” At FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan did the research to back up TLR’s assertion that the Pirates were pitching far inside much more than the average team. At that point in 2014, the Pirates were leading baseball in inside fastballs with around 3,300 — ahead of the next team by around 600. The Pirates still pitch high and inside; using the “zones” from PITCHf/x, 8.76% of their pitches since the beginning of 2014 are fastballs in the high/inside quadrant of pitches high and inside to the batter. No other team has a percentage higher than 7.69%.
And that’s meant hit batsmen. Since the beginning of the 2014 season, the Pirates have hit batters 182 times, well ahead of the second-place team (Reds, 151) and the MLB average (123.3). That may not sound like a lot, but every other team is packed a lot tighter around that MLB average. In fact, every last one of the other 29 teams have a HBP total within 1.5 standard deviations of that average, above or below — the Pirates are the sole outlier, more than 3 standard deviations above the average. And the Pirates are one of those teams.
I’m not all that concerned with inside fastballs or HBPs, specifically. This is about the threat of high HBPs — the balls that can find a batter’s head, arms, hands. Looking for those pitches, I pulled all fastballs this year that were at least 3.2 feet high and 1.2 feet in on the batter from the center of the plate (the rulebook zone ends at 0.7 feet inside). We’ll call them Headhunter Pitches. And in terms of Headhunter Pitches this season, the Pirates are far, far out in front of the rest of baseball: they’ve launched 93, double the average of the other 29 teams (46.1). No other team has thrown more than 20 Headhunter Pitches above the average, and the vast majority are within 10 or 11 of the average.
The Pirates’ Depraved Indifference
Were all 93 of those Headhunter Pitches meant to hit someone? Of course not. Each one of them could have, though. The Pirates are rolling dice, and from a purely objective standpoint, if they think it makes their pitching a lot more effective, isn’t it a great idea? Sure, they put an extra duck on the pond from time to time, but the Pirates must think the benefits outweigh that downside. And yeah, some players could get hurt. But they won’t necessarily be Pirates.
Forgive the extreme illustration here, but there’s no replacement for it. If you try to kill someone and succeed, with very few exceptions, you’ve committed murder. If you act recklessly knowing you’re putting lives at risk and someone dies, you may have committed manslaughter, a less serious crime. But if you aim a gun at someone’s house and shoot, knowing they’re inside — that shot might not be especially likely to hit someone, but if you do kill someone that way, that can also be murder. Sometimes, no distinction is made between “on purpose” and “doing something that might mean the other thing happens.”
I’m not a criminal attorney, and nothing I write on this site constitutes legal advice, and you shouldn’t take it as such. The point is that sometimes, recklessness is indistinguishable from intent, and that sometimes, recklessness should be treated as the same as intent. When it comes to the playing field, things get very complicated, legally. Acts that could put a person in jail or at the wrong end of a civil judgment in everyday life are completely acceptable when two or more people are playing a contact sport. My point isn’t that the Pirates or Caminero should be held accountable in a courtroom if Segura was seriously hurt last night; my point is just that this isn’t business as usual, and it shouldn’t be treated that way. There are risks to the Pirates’ approach, and the risks probably shouldn’t all be felt by opposing teams.
Retaliation Isn’t Working
The public D-backs bluster in late 2013 and 2014 about retaliation had a purpose. Retaliation HBPs are meant to deter other HBPs, at an uncertain time and place somewhere down the road. Don’t mess with us; you’ll get messed up, too. And while the D-backs’ public comments on retaliation were not exactly well received, they did help accomplish that purpose, because the whole point is to send that message. Heck, doing it with public comments might be more effective than letting a pitcher do the talking on the field, and it has the added benefit of not actually hurting anyone.
But let’s get back to last night’s game. When Caminero hit Ahmed in the 8th, he might have been thrown out of the game even if there were no warnings in effect; home plate umpire Larry Vanover was clearly affected by the Segura beanball, signaling immediately to the D-backs dugout in a way that seemed panicked. That only became a sure thing, though, after warnings were issued. Let that sink in.
Marshall did hit Freese in the bottom of the 7th, but the result was that official warning. Marshall’s pitch wasn’t just a deterrent in an abstract sense, a message to all teams meant to be heard the rest of the year; it had an actual effect on the game, which led to an actual outcome. It should have made Caminero and the rest of his club less willing to pitch high and inside. But possibly thanks to the Marshall HBP, there was not going to be a third HBP by Caminero in that game last night. As incentives go, that’s perverse. Letting this kind of dispute get worked out on the field this way endangers players; the question ends up being whose players will get hurt.
Promises of retaliation aren’t working. Thanks to the combination of unbalanced schedules and interleague play, the D-backs play the Pirates about as often as they play the Astros; they’ve faced off against the Pirates just 11 times since Randall Delgado drilled Andrew McCutchen in retaliation for the Goldy injury. And the whole retaliation thing is kind of a baseball unwritten rule. Other teams may not be as outspoken about it, but the risk for retaliation is still there for the Pirates, 162 games a year. And they’re still pacing the field in Headhunter Pitches by a large margin.
What Can the D-backs Do?
The D-backs could just hope for the best, here. Or they could make a threat that the Pirates will listen to. If they could take away the Pirates’ desire to pitch high and tight, that would be something. A warning instituted before the first pitch is thrown could do that, maybe; getting a starter tossed early causes problems that getting a reliever thrown out does not. The problem: it’d be problematic for the D-backs, too, if Rubby De La Rosa risked getting tossed early in the game. And the Pirates pitch first. The only way to do that might be for Chip Hale to make some very explicit and incendiary threats before the game, and even that might not work, or cause a host of other problems.
The only workable solution I can think of is to threaten to forfeit, or to actually forfeit. If the Pirates are going to continue to pitch high and tight on purpose, knowing an unconscionable number of Headhunter Pitches are a likely consequence, they are recklessly endangering players’ lives and careers. One key injury for the D-backs this season could have enormous consequences, and not just for this season. More than most teams, the D-backs are committed to a Contention Window in the medium term. More than most of the teams in that situation, the D-backs don’t have extra position player talent to burn; there may only be one or two players in the minors right now who have the potential to be average major leaguers within the next two years. Why risk it? If both Segura and Ahmed had been incapacitated last night, where would this team be? The team is stretched thin — and may not be able to afford the price of acquiring another decent player.
In 1977, the incomparable Earl Weaver was managing a game in Toronto when a “light rain” began to fall during the game. To keep their bullpen mounds dry, the Blue Jays covered them both with tarps (and not Baltimore’s). To keep the tarps in place, they used bricks. And that was too much for Weaver, who refused to keep playing in the fifth inning unless the bricks (and then) tarps were removed from the bullpen area, which was in play. From the Chicago Tribune:
Weaver insisted on the hazard’s removal. When umpire Marty Springstead refused to order that it be done, Weaver called the Orioles off the field.
“I might have saved someone’s career,” Weaver said. “There’s only four feet of space between the foul line and the mound. I had a guy slip out there last night and wasn’t about to let it happen again. If you can’t go four feet and catch a ball, there’s something wrong.
“I can’t afford to tell my players not to go after a foul ball in that area. Mora [Andres] almost broke his leg on that damned thing yesterday. If that had not happened I might not have thought of it. If a guy slips out there and hurts his leg, how am I gonna feel?”
Weaver apparently hoped to have the game resume on a different date that September, but because he didn’t protest the game, the league president couldn’t reverse or alter the umpire’s decision that the game had been forfeited. Reportedly, another umpire had advised Weaver during the game that he could play the game under protest, but Weaver declined because he “value[d] the safety of [his] players.” Playing an unsafe game to successfully protest that it’s unsafe doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
And the same is true for the Pirates’ pitching habits. After last night’s game, Chip Hale noted that he couldn’t get in Caminero’s head — but that if he wasn’t trying to do it, he shouldn’t be pitching in the majors (video, includes the HBPs). Why? Because it’s unsafe. But Caminero is just one of several pitchers who may hay by pitching high and tight, and who throw Headhunter Pitches; even if you remove his 7 Headhunter Pitches from the Pirates’ totals, that team is still a wild outlier. If it’s unsafe for the D-backs to get in the batters’ box against Caminero, it’s unsafe for them to bat against the Pirates unless the Pirates back off their high and tight strategy.
Tonight’s starter Jeff Locke has thrown 11 already this season; tomorrow’s starter Gerrit Cole has thrown 11. One injury could be significantly more costly than a 0-9 official score from a forfeit, and if the Pirates continue their business as usual, the D-backs could end up regretting the decision to take the field. Should they forfeit both games right now? Of course not. But if threatening to forfeit before the game doesn’t result in some different pitching habits in the game, Hale should strongly consider pulling his team the way Weaver pulled the Orioles that day in ’77. In the words of Frank Underwood, if you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table. Let’s see how the Pirates like dealing with fans who only get to see a fraction of a ball game tonight, and dealing with a mostly empty ballpark on Thursday.
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