Major League Baseball is in an era of enlightenment, in which organizations are filled with bright minds of men and women who won’t accept the status quo without examination. The phrase That’s the way it’s always been done is routinely ignored, thankfully, and more informed decisions are made about defensive positioning, pitch selection, bunts, platoons, trade value and about whether it’s worth sacrificing an All-Star catcher to the act of blocking home plate to prevent one run in one game in a 162-game landscape.
But somehow, as the sport has evolved, the practice of retaliation — through the use of a baseball thrown at a prone human target — is still in play, left over like a horse and buggy in the middle of an interstate highway. There could be no better example of this than what happened between the Atlanta Braves and the Toronto Blue Jays.
To review: On Wednesday night, Jose Bautista clubbed a home run with his Blue Jays down 8-3, and flipped his bat with joy, momentarily glaring in the direction of the Atlanta pitcher Eric O’Flaherty. Bautista’s celebration seemed kind of silly with his team down by a field goal and a safety, but hey, Bautista’s emotional reactions can’t be a surprise to anyone who has watched him play during the past decade. First baseman Jace Peterson said something to him as he rounded base, and so did Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki. After the game, the Braves mostly sounded amused by Bautista’s actions.
But from the end of the Atlanta game on Wednesday night to the start of Thursday’s game, it was determined by somebody that Bautista was going to get drilled. This may have been fueled by Freddie Freeman‘s injury: His left wrist was broken by an Aaron Loup fastball Wednesday, and losing their best player for months may have exacerbated the Braves’ feelings. Whatever the primary motivation for the Atlanta retaliation, Julio Teheran threw his first pitch to Bautista inside, at about 94 mph, and then hit him with his second pitch, at 95 mph — the fastest pitch thrown by Teheran this year. Bautista said nothing, dropped his bat and went to first base.
What followed was a lot of Toronto runs. Three in the first, and six more before Teheran’s ugly three-inning pitching line was completed.
So what was the point of the retaliation?
Longtime broadcaster Joe Simpson asked a really great question as Teheran struggled in the early innings: How much was Teheran thinking about his forthcoming retaliatory strike on Bautista as he prepared and warmed up for the game? Because drilling a hitter on purpose is not something pitchers do often.
Keep in mind: Julio Teheran went into Thursday’s start needing performance traction. He really could have used a clean first inning, to get off to a good start, to try to pick up a team reeling from the loss of Freeman. Instead, Teheran and the Braves jump-started a rally for the Blue Jays, and by the bottom of the fourth inning, Teheran was in the clubhouse, having generated his worst start of the year.
What was gained?
Bautista may have a bruise on his thigh, but in his second plate appearance, he mashed a double; it wasn’t like he was intimidated. There was no competitive advantage gleaned. And what if the Blue Jays had retaliated, and another Braves player was hurt?
A really, really smart manager who believed in statistics and reasoning thought through the retaliation about a half-century ago, and he decided that his teams would not participate in the beanball thing for the sake of a competitive advantage.
Orioles Manager Earl Weaver discouraged his pitchers — OK, knowing Earl, he probably barked at them with biting sarcasm — with logic. If you retaliate, he told them, one of our guys might wind up getting hurt, and our guys are better than their guys. As a result, Orioles pitchers hit relatively few batters.
Here are the Orioles’ American League Rankings in HBPs in Weaver’s first 11 years as manager:
1969 Second fewest
1974 Tied for fewest
1975 Fewest (the Orioles hit just 12 batters)
1976 Second fewest
1979 Tied for fewest
Sarah Langs of ESPN Research dug this out: In Weaver’s first 14 years as the Orioles’ manager, Baltimore pitchers hit by far the fewest hitters of any staff in the AL (the expansion Jays and Mariners, who played their first seasons in 1977, are not included on this list).
1. Angels 537
2. White Sox 502
3. Rangers 492
4. Red Sox 478
5. Tigers 475
6. Indians 458
7. Brewers 455
8. Twins 437
9. Athletics 435
10. Royals 412
11. Yankees 316
12. Orioles 274
And Baltimore was pretty good in this time, playing in the World Series four times. It won more games than any team in those 14 years, with a 1,306-885 record, a winning percentage of .596. The Reds were second, at .571 (1,258-946).
This is not to suggest the Orioles won because Weaver was a conscientious objector in the American League’s HBP wars. But what is evident is Baltimore was not hurt because the pitchers wouldn’t participate, and it is possible Weaver’s strategy helped to keep Hall of Famers like Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Cal Ripken and Jim Palmer on the field. The fact that the Orioles were not engaged in the retaliation meant there were almost certainly fewer situations in which some pitcher purposefully targeted a Baltimore hitter. (Although Orioles batters were hit their fair share in Weaver’s tenure: 469 times, or fifth most.)
Cubs president Theo Epstein’s mantra to the front offices he has led has been: “We don’t know s—.” In other words: Question everything. Look at the logic behind everything we do. And there is no sound reasoning behind a pitcher intentionally hitting a fellow member of his own union with a 95 mph fastball and placing that other person’s body and career at heightened risk for serious injury.
The necessary evolution of thought needs to extend to Major League Baseball, as well, because right now, MLB is in the position of fostering this antiquated practice. Earlier this season, Chris Sale threw behind Manny Machado and everybody in uniform at Fenway Park that day knew that it was probably on purpose, including the umpires. But Sale was not ejected; he was not suspended. Because within the current culture of baseball, in the unwritten rules, there’s The Right Way To Retaliate and The Wrong Way To Retaliate, and by that measure, Sale was OK in the eyes of MLB law. Which is kind of dumb, because if Sale hadn’t controlled the pitch the way he intended and broke Machado’s jaw, Sale’s retaliation would’ve been deemed The Wrong Way To Retaliate.
What happened to discouraging retaliation altogether? In what other sport are game officials and league executives looking the other way in retaliation? If a D-lineman goes down to a cut block in the NFL, referees aren’t giving his team one free shot at wrecking somebody’s knee. If an NBA player is hit with a flagrant foul 2, referees won’t look away if the other team attempts a flagrant 2-type violation. Even in the NHL, a league of enforcers and goons, an act of retaliation leads to a penalty, a game misconduct, a suspension.
But on Thursday night, Teheran intentionally fired a baseball into the leg of Bautista at 95 mph, and you know what he got? A warning. If MLB sticks with the current practices and standards, Teheran won’t be reprimanded in any way — and in fact, under the unwritten rules, the message to Teheran is that what he did is The Right Way To Retaliate.
How crazy is that? How inane?
Earl Weaver was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996, and passed away four years ago. But hopefully the rest of baseball will catch up to him sometime in the next century.