Pitcher's Guide to Handling a Beanball War in Today's MLB

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Pitcher's Guide to Handling a Beanball War in Today's MLB

Sometimes you just gotta hit a guy.

Pitchers in Major League Baseball know what that's all about. The beanball has long been a part of the game, and no amount of rules and regulations are ever going to make it go away. The league can't control where pitches are thrown, and the fact is that there are times when beanballs are necessary.

However, pitchers must be smart when a beanball war breaks out. It's not hard, for all said pitcher really has to do in order to be smart is avoid being stupid. That's a matter of abiding by a couple of very simple guidelines.

Full disclosure: This is not a major league pitcher speaking. For that matter, I don't even play one on TV. I'm just a guy with an obsession for baseball, a keyboard and an Internet connection.

These things proved to be good enough to conjure the following.

 

Keep It Below the Shoulders, Gents

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Case in point: Lower than this.

They're going to happen by accident from time to time, but fastballs to the head should never happen on purpose. The destructive power of such things is simply too great.

Back in 1920, Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman died after taking a pitch to the head. Even in the age of helmets, an accidentally-on-purpose fastball to the head can still result in a concussion. 

As we all well remember, that's what happened when Roger Clemens unleashed a fastball at Mike Piazza's head in 2000. What Clemens did wasn't cool then, and it would be even less cool now given what we know about concussions. Serious stuff, them.

The good news?

Pictured: More than a slight daze; Photo by Charles Wenzelberg of the New York Post

That would be that we don't see too many pitchers purposely throwing fastballs too far upstairs to opposing hitters anymore. Not that they catalog such things, but there aren't any true head-hunters still left in the game. They've gone the way of dinosaurs and Hostess donuts.

This was probably bound to happen. Jason Turnbow, author of The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America's Pastime, noted on NPR a couple years ago that beanballs to the head have long been a no-no in baseball.

"It would never be okay to throw a beanball as defined by a pitch that comes in above a player's shoulders," said Turnbow.

Now, there are going to be times when a pitcher is going to have an excuse to hit a batter in the head. The temptation is going to come when a pitcher sees one of his guys take a fastball to the head that may not have been an accident, which, of course, means war.

This is when pitchers have to control themselves, just like Kerry Wood did in 2011. 

Wood and the Chicago Cubs went to Fenway Park to play the Boston Red Sox in May of 2011, and the team got thrown for a loop when Alfredo Aceves uncorked a fastball that hit Marlon Byrd square in his face.

The pitch left Byrd with multiple facial fractures, and it gave rise to a beanball war that Wood eventually found himself in.

The night after Byrd got hit, Wood was on the mound in the eighth inning facing Boston shortstop Jed Lowrie. Wood's response was to aim not for Lowrie's head, but for his backside.

That's how it should be done. A pitcher can have the need to respond to a head-seeking beanball all he wants, but he must be the better man by aiming lower. To that end, a batter's rear, um, end is as good a target as any.

 

If You Must Retaliate, Make Sure You Hit the Right Guy

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
ONLY EVER HIT BARRY BONDS! YOU GOT THAT?!

There's one thing about beanball wars that hasn't changed and probably never will change, and that's the justice protocol. It's one straight out of the Bible: an eye for an eye.

Taking, say, a fingernail for an eye isn't going to cut it. With the lone exception being beanballs to the head, the reaction must be equal to the initial action.

In plain English: Pitchers have to make sure they hit the right guy.

This is particularly important when a pitcher sees one of the stars on his team take an intentional beanball. He can't respond by plunking the other team's No. 8 hitter or some scrub just up from the minor leagues whose first name is still a mystery in the clubhouse.

No, it's one of the other team's stars that must pay the price. Only fair.

Case in point, Steve Henson of the Los Angeles Times recalled an incident in which then-Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent got hit by a pitch in a game against the San Francisco Giants. Dodger pitcher Tim Hamulack's response was to plunk Giants slugger Barry Bonds.

Bonds' response to getting plunked was to calmly walk to first base. He knew what the deal was just as much as Hamulack did.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Pictured: The ricochet heard 'round the Dodgers dugout.

Since this is the National League we're talking about, the Dodgers could have waited until the next time they saw Giants starter Brad Hennessey, the guy who beaned Kent and started the whole kerfuffle, to exact their revenge.

But hitting Bonds instead was the better response. As Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post noted last year in the wake of the Bryce Harper vs. Cole Hamels drama, hitting one of the opposing team's star hitters is going to result in that star hitter telling the pitcher who started the whole thing to knock it off.

Hitting a star batter can thus accomplish two things: It can leave a bruise on the right guy, and it can get the other team to resolve the conflict amongst themselves. 

Exceptions can be made. As recounted by ESPN's Tim Kurkjian, Rick Sutcliffe used to respond to beanballs by asking the guy who got hit who he wanted hit in return. If one team's cleanup hitter gets beaned and demands that the other team's No. 8 hitter be beaned, well, so be it. It's the cleanup guy's bruise that has to be avenged, after all.

But what's a pitcher to do when he dishes out a bruise and then sees the guy wearing it charging the mound with fire in his eyes and malice in his heart?

 

If the Offended Hitter Charges the Mound, Don't Be Stupid

Denis Poroy/Getty Images

If MLB had a sense of humor, the league would allow pitchers to take the mound with red matador capes in their back pockets. Just in case something angry charges.

But since that's not a practical request, pitchers will just have to take care of themselves in the event of an angry player charging the mound.

That scenario is going to be a danger whenever a pitcher uncorks an intentional beanball, and pitchers need to know not to put themselves in more danger when it happens.

For an example of what not to do, we turn to what Zack Greinke did last week when he found Carlos Quentin bearing down on him.

Greinke deserves some props for holding his ground, but he was asking for trouble when he lowered his left shoulder to meet Quentin's charge. That was a battle Greinke was never going to win, as a guy who goes 6'2" and 240 pounds is always going to have an advantage on a guy who goes 6'2" and 195.

Sure enough, Greinke didn't win it. Quentin walked off the field as the villain in the whole thing, but Greinke walked off with a broken collarbone. That's much worse.

Another thing not to do if you're a pitcher in a mound-charging situation: Throw punches with your pitching hand.

Yes, Nolan Ryan did it when he put Robin Ventura in a headlock and rearranged his face in 1993, and we all know that The Ryan Express owns life (the Texas Rangers are really just a side project). But had Ryan hurt himself, it wouldn't have been an issue. That was the final season of his career, and it's not like his right hand had anything left to prove.

That's not how you punch, Mr. Shields, but at least you've got the expression down; Photo via RaysIndex.com

Your garden-variety pitcher these days wears an entirely different set of shoes. Their pitching hands are their money-makers, and some of them make a lot of money. Putting them at risk by trying to punch some guy's lights out—as James Shields did in 2008 when he confronted Coco Crisp—is the epitome of stupidity.

So how should a pitcher handle a guy who charges the mound?

The best course of action is to make like Rick Porcello.

Porcello appeared to want no part of a charging Kevin Youkilis after he hit him with a pitch in a game in August of 2009. Youk, meanwhile, clearly meant business. He threw his helmet at Porcello and then got him in a grapple behind the mound.

That's when Porcello turned the tables, using Youk's weight against him and throwing him to the ground. He had won the battle, but he did so without injuring anything other than Youk's pride and, more importantly, without injuring himself.

Thus, Porcello was good to go when he returned from a five-game suspension. With both his pride and his body intact, he proceeded to go 4-2 with a 3.22 ERA the rest of the way.

 

Above All, Know the Situation

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
A.J. Ellis and Clayton Kershaw going over situations. Probably.

The late Earl Weaver was as feisty as they came, but he wasn't too fond of beanballs. In fact, he wanted nothing to do with them.

According to Kurkjian, Weaver told his pitchers never to throw at opposing batters because:

...you might get ejected, or you might get in a fight. And if you get ejected or get hurt in fight, you are going to miss games. Our players are better than their players. So we are going to lose in that exchange. So don't throw at anyone. And don't fight.

Weaver's point was that the games matter more than revenge, and that's a point that even pitchers who are obligated to exact some revenge in a beanball war need to be mindful of. Even those who really, really want to hit somebody need to make sure that the game comes first.

That means being aware of the situations, and we all know what the obvious ones are.

Most notably, it's plum stupid to intentionally hit a guy at a crucial point in a close game. A pitcher shouldn't hit a guy on purpose if that guy is going to become the potential tying run or go-ahead run. That's just bad baseball (known as "smrt baseball" in some circles).

Greg Fiume/Getty Images
It's worth noting that Harper ended up stealing home after Hamels plunked him last year.

Hitting a guy in situations like those is especially stupid if said guy has a set of wheels on him. You never know when those wheels are going to be put to use on the basepaths and ultimately change the outcome of the game.

For starting pitchers, it's not just in the late innings that the beanball instinct needs to be silenced.

If both teams have been warned and a pitcher knows that a beanball is going to get him tossed, he has to just suck it up and keep on pitching. His team, after all, needs outs more than it needs revenge.

Especially if said team's bullpen is coming off of a rough night or a rough couple of nights. That's a lot more common these days than it was in the old days given the fact that teams, you know, actually use their bullpens.

But a starting pitcher doesn't necessarily have to keep a beanball in his back pocket for good. A starter involved in a beanball war can make like Clayton Kershaw did in 2010.

Kershaw was in the middle of a heated July game against the Giants at Dodger Stadium that saw Tim Lincecum hit Matt Kemp with a pitch, drawing warnings for both dugouts from the home plate umpire. Later in the game, Giants reliever Denny Bautista knocked Russell Martin to the ground with a brushback pitch.

Kershaw finally answered in the seventh inning when he hit Aaron Rowand, and was promptly ejected. But since Kershaw was already up over 100 pitches and had already allowed four earned runs, it didn't matter. He was destined for the showers anyway. Ruling Kershaw's and the Dodgers' thinking in that instance was simple common sense.

And that's all it comes down to, really. Common sense doesn't have the power to make a beanball war look like a noble pursuit, but it can keep both bodies and reputations from getting hurt.

In essence, it can keep beanball wars from getting any messier than they have to be.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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