MLB Sends Harsh but Fair Message with Joe Kelly Ban for Dodgers vs. Astros Spat

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 29, 2020

Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Joe Kelly (17) looks back at Houston Astros' Carlos Correa (1) after the sixth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in Houston. Both benches emptied during the exchange. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The Houston Astros cheated in their win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2017 World Series, and yet the Dodgers are the first to have a player suspended amid the fallout.

That ought to be a grave injustice. But considering the circumstances, it's really not.

If you missed it, Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly put himself in the middle of a kerfuffle during his club's 5-2 win over the Astros at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday. He buzzed Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa with pitches and then had a profanity-laced exchange with the latter that led to a benches-clearing incident.

On Wednesday, Major League Baseball handed down the following punishments for the incident:

  • An eight-game suspension for Kelly
  • A one-game suspension for Dodgers manager Dave Roberts
  • A fine for Astros manager Dusty Baker

Per the Dodgers, Roberts accepted his suspension, served during Wednesday's game at Houston. Kelly, however, is unsurprisingly appealing his ban and is available for the time being.

Even in a normal 162-game season, eight games would be a long ban. In this year's 60-game season, it's the equivalent of a 22-game suspension. That's obviously harsh, especially considering Kelly didn't actually hit Bregman or Correa and the ensuing confrontation never got physical. 

There's also, of course, the apparent hypocrisy at play here.

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Though the Astros lost their general manager and their manager as a result of the "banging" scheme, the scandal resulted in no suspensions for their players. The irony of Kelly getting banned for an ultimately harmless retaliation against them isn't lost on the masses, including a few of his peers.

Cleveland ace Mike Clevinger, for example, tweeted the following:

But while any and all dismay directed at this situation is understandable, the reality is that Kelly should have known better.

Should some Astros players have been suspended for what happened in 2017? That would have been a just decision on MLB's part, but any such notion is overruled by the mechanics of why none were. Commissioner Rob Manfred had to grant Astros players immunity in exchange for their testimony, without which the totality of their '17 scheme may have stayed hidden.

It was nonetheless obvious during spring training—as in, the first round of spring training in February and March—that many non-Astros players weren't satisfied with Houston's punishment.

That naturally included players on the Dodgers, whose thoughts may have been best summed up by Enrique Hernandez: "They cheated and they got away with it."

But as far as MLB is concerned, the matter has been closed ever since Houston received its penalties in January. As part of an effort to keep it that way, Manfred heard Baker's concerns about "premeditated retaliation" and warned clubs against taking matters into their own hands back in February.

Kelly should have been aware of not only this but also that he was already a marked man. As a member of the Boston Red Sox, who notably also lost to the Astros in the '17 playoffs, he was banned for six games in 2018 for throwing at then-New York Yankees slugger Tyler Austin.

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

In fairness to Kelly, the ball that went over Correa's head was a breaking ball that passes the plausible-deniability test. If a pitcher is going to hit a guy on purpose, he isn't going to do so with an offspeed pitch.

The ball that made Bregman hit the deck is another story. It was a 96 mph fastball that came too close to the slugger's head for comfort. If there was even a smidgen of intent behind it, then Kelly was playing an extremely dangerous game.

Because Kelly is known for his frequent bouts of wildness, there's a window (pun kinda-sorta intended) through which to argue that his wayward fastball wasn't intentional. But his '18 beaning of Austin raises doubts, and he didn't help his cause by mocking the Astros in the aftermath of Tuesday's pitch.

Moreover, the effect of said mockery shouldn't be dismissed as harmless. Even if no punches were thrown after the Astros and Dodgers confronted each other on the field, it was still a dangerous situation. There was little to no social distancing in that moment, which is hugely problematic amid an ongoing pandemic that's already decimated one team.

As Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported, MLB has had it in mind to avoid precisely these types of incidents since May:

Add it all up and you get a repeat offender who ran afoul of the league's de facto prohibition on retaliation against Houston and its desire for extreme caution in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

It's all more or less there in the league's (specifically, that of senior vice president of baseball operations Chris Young) official reasoning for Kelly's ban: "Kelly, who has previously been suspended in his career for intentional throwing, threw a pitch in the area of the head of Alex Bregman and later taunted Carlos Correa, which led to the benches clearing."

Perhaps Kelly didn't bother to calculate the consequences of his actions. Or maybe he did and simply underestimated them. Either way, he has himself to blame for his predicament. 

If there's a silver lining for him, it's that his appeal will probably be successful in reducing his suspension. Eight games is indeed too much in the context of a 60-game season. It could go down to, say, five—or even fewer—games.

For now, though, Major League Baseball has made its point. Rightly or wrongly, it wants the Astros scandal to stay in the past. Perhaps just as adamantly, it doesn't want any scenario that puts dozens of players and coaches in close contact with one another.

If players across the league heed both memos, this will be the last controversy of its kind.