There’s a reason that rules are usually written. We learned this last month, when Atlanta Braves left-fielder Ronald Acuña stepped into the box to lead off during a home game against the Miami Marlins. The 20-year-old Acuña, who is about the age of a college junior, has torn up the National League East in his rookie season. He is hitting .290 with 24 homers since being called up in late April, and is the favorite to win the National League’s Rookie of the Year award.
The game on Aug. 15 was the last of a four-game series between the Braves and Marlins. Acuña had hit a leadoff home run and was 7-for-13 with nine RBIs in each of the three previous games. On the first pitch of the fourth game, Marlins starter Jose Ureña drilled him in the elbow.
The hit-by-pitch looked just about as intentional as it gets. It was a 97.5 mile-per-hour four-seam fastball, the fastest pitch Ureña has ever thrown in his MLB career. And it was aimed, in classic bean ball fashion, at Acuña’s side. It would not have done much damage had Acuña not clenched up and pinched his elbow toward his hip. He dropped to the ground and was tended to by the trainer, as his teammates flooded out of the dugout so they could stand on the field for a few minutes with their chests puffed out. The umpire crew decided to eject Ureña, and Acuña left the game soon thereafter for precautionary reasons. X-rays were negative, and Acuña played the next day.
Ureña could not have received a harsher treatment had he shot Acuña in the middle of Fifth Avenue. For the next week, baseball writers dedicated just about every last column inch at their disposal to excoriating Ureña. The word “cowardly” was a favorite of Ureña’s critics, who often glibly commented that Acuña was “punished for being good.” One columnist, Gabe Lacques, wrote, “removing an opponent through physical harm when you cannot vanquish him within the game’s rules is the lowest of sportsmanship.”
Among Ureña’s few defenders was Keith Hernandez, who does color commentary for New York Mets broadcasts on SportsNet New York (SNY). Hernandez himself had a fine career, playing first for the Cardinals and Mets during the 1970s and 1980s. He won the NL MVP once, two World Series (including one with the legendarily dysfunctional 1986 Mets) and ended up earning 11 Gold Gloves — all this to say, Hernandez is no slouch. However, Hernandez didn’t just think it was okay for Ureña to throw at Acuña: in fact, he thought he was obliged to do so. “They’re killing you,” Hernandez said. “You lost three games. He’s hit three home runs. You got to hit him…knock him down. I mean, seriously knock him down if you don’t hit him.”
Another New York baseball legend agreed. Willie Randolph, who spent an 18-year career primarily with the New York Yankees, said, “Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Harmon Killebrew, those guys knew that if they were hot, they were getting plunked, and they would just walk to first base, and maybe the other team would retaliate without the umpire getting involved, but we kind of accepted that, back in the day.”
What Randolph and Hernandez pointed out is that what Ureña did was not punitive. He did not hit the youngster out of anger. He hit him because Acuña had become too comfortable in the batter’s box. There was no Tonya Harding-esque intention to injure: the point was not to remove him from the game, it was to make him easier to get out the next time around.
Brush-back pitches and bean ball used to be a much more common part of the game. Bob Gibson, considered the master of the pitcher-batter chess match, would throw at hitters if he didn’t like the way they looked at him. The idea was that if the possibility of getting drilled was in the back of hitters’ minds, they would be less confident in the box. Batters had their ways of flipping the script: when Billy Martin, a journeyman second baseman (and, later, an eight-times-fired manager) noticed that he was bailing out in the box, he told his batting practice pitcher to fire balls at his head until he became desensitized to it.
As time has gone on, this element of the game has started to fade away. Most hitters now wear elbow pads so sturdy they look quasi-bionic. In recent years, plastic chin-guard helmet attachments have become surprisingly common. All of this has been a sign of a philosophy that hitters should not be afraid to crowd the plate. Part of this, as Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan pointed out, has something to do with the fact that the average MLB fastball is thrown several miles-per-hour faster than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, dramatically increasing the chance of injury.
Still, some of this remains, and baseball seems very unsure of the place of bean ball in accepted strategy. Hernandez was thoroughly mocked for his defense of Ureña: former Braves reliever Peter Moylan called him a “clown,” while Hall of Fame inductee Chipper Jones tweeted, “So by this way of thinking, Jacob deGrom should get drilled [because] he is the hottest pitcher on the planet?… I’m old-school like this broadcaster, but these comments are [way] off base!” Of course, hitting a pitcher as he bats would not do much to affect his confidence on the mound. But the point of what Jones, Moylan and most of the sportswriters were saying was that drilling hot hitters is not at all an accepted part of the game.
Yet, recent memory suggests that this is a more questionable proposition than many seem to think. The fact that Ureña thought it was appropriate to drill Acuña suggests that remnants of Hernandez and Randolph’s unwritten rules still linger. We can find more evidence in a game between the Yankees and Detroit Tigers that played in August of last year. Gary Sanchez — though these days incapable of hitting his way out of a paper bag — had hammered the Tigers’ pitching in the previous two games of the three-game set. He was 5-for-11 with three home runs and seven RBIs. During his first at-bat against Michael Fulmer, Sanchez hit a long home run over Comerica Park’s “triples alley” left field. On the first pitch of Sanchez’s next at-bat, Fulmer hit him squarely in the hip with a four-seam fastball.
Sanchez, though visibly annoyed, dropped his bat and walked to first base without any further fanfare, although Fulmer claimed that he just-so-happened to have had a finger spasm on that particular pitch. In the form that Randolph described, the Yankees retaliated later in the game when reliever Tommy Kahnle threw behind Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera.
None of this is to say that it’s a good idea for pitchers to throw at batters, really for any reason. It’s not. Even though batters rarely become seriously injured by intentional drillings, the possibility still remains. In recent years, Jason Heyward and Giancarlo Stanton suffered broken jaws at the hands of inside pitches. Famously, Ray Chapman passed away in 1920 after taking a pitch squarely to the skull. An errant fastball ended the career of Adam Greenberg, a promising Chicago Cubs’ prospect, on the first pitch he ever saw in the big leagues. As many have pointed out, the MLB league office needs to be much tougher on pitchers if they want to stop bean ball.
What this odd saga does show, however, is that sportswriters have a much weaker feel for the pulse of the game than they would like us to think. And, different players seem to have strongly-held, yet very different, views of the “unwritten rules” of baseball, while reporters, at best, have a loose grasp of what those different understandings are. It should be a lesson to the baseball media that something does not need to be nonsensical for it to be bad. It makes perfect sense why a pitcher would hit a batter, and it has nothing to do with either punitive motivations or a desire to remove someone from the game. One can accept that reality and still think pitchers should abstain from this gruesome strategy.