Friday, May 11, 2012

Solving the beanball problem

Okay, so my title is begging the question: is there actually a "beanball problem" in baseball? I'm taking it for granted that there is, and that you agree with me. (This is inspired, of course, by the Cole Hamels-Bryce Harper controversy from less than a week ago.)

Hamels explained that he threw at Harper because the latter is a rookie, and because
Hamels' plays "old school". Reportedly, Hamels also kicks opponents in the groin and grabs
runners by the belt, just like Ty Cobb did. Old school! Photo from The Washington Post.

The hit-by-pitch in baseball is, to some extent, unavoidable. In the last 60 years or so, Major League Baseball has averaged a bit less than 0.5 hit batters per game. (And that 0.5 includes both teams - so individual teams' pitchers hit one batter every four games, and one of their own batters is hit by opposing pitchers once every four games. And that includes intentionally hit batters, which surely inflates the number a bit.) Even pitchers who have a reputation for being particularly wild or willing to throw inside only hit one batter every 20 innings - and normally, 20 innings would be spread over three starts.

So, what I'd like to suggest (y'know, for all those baseball executives who read this blog) is a yellow-card/red-card system for pitchers who hit batters. It would look something like this:
  • if you hit 2 batters in the same inning, you earn a red-card and are immediately ejected
  • if you hit 2 batters in different innings of the same game, you earn a yellow-card
    • [assuming that you don't later earn a red-card, that yellow-card stays with you for the next 7 days]
  • if you hit a 3rd batter in the same game, you earn a red-card and are immediately ejected
  • if you enter a game while having a yellow-card from a previous appearance, your 1st hit batter  extends it for another 7 days
  • if you hit a 2nd batter in the same game, you earn a red-card and are immediately ejected
  • every red-card is subject to automatic review to determine whether an additional suspension is warranted
  • after your first red-card of the season, every additional red-card carries an automatic 7 day suspension, plus a review to determine whether an additional suspension is warranted

I think that covers the ground that it should cover, but I might be missing something. The idea, though, is to provide enough of a penalty that pitchers might try a little harder to avoid hit batsmen, while at the same time not doing so much that pitchers would be afraid to throw inside. (Unless, of course, they have a yellow-card against them. In which case, they probably should be a bit afraid to throw inside. But that's just how penalties are supposed to work.)

There's one obvious gap in my logic, though, which is that it might actually incentivize batters to lean into a pitch, or simply not get out of the way. I'd like to think that most batters aren't that dumb - letting an 85-95 mph ball hit you, in any part of your body, is probably a bad idea. At the same time, we know that happens, and some batters - I'm thinking of Larry Walker - were particularly good at "turning away" from the ball in such a way that they actually increased the likelihood that they would be hit.

For that reason, any beanball that resulted in a yellow or red-card would be subject to video-review after the fact - and the card would be rescinded if the reviewer found that the batter didn't actually make an effort to get out of the way. (Also? Let's starting calling batters out when they don't actually try to get out of the way. Because I'm not sure that I've ever seen an umpire do that.)

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