Headhunting, knockdowns, chin music, brushbacks, rib-roasting — the practice has been around so long, there are all sorts of terms for it. In the 21st century, there is only word we need: unacceptable.
The practice of intentionally firing an object 97 miles per hour in the direction of another human being has got to stop. It’s incredible that it still happens. In the real world, we’ve got a word for such behavior: assault. In the baseball world, it’s a practice that lingers for no better reason than it’s something that has always been around.
In some ways, you can’t entirely blame hard-throwing Marlins righty Jose Urena. You can blame him plenty, but this anachronistic ritual began decades before he was born. For most of baseball history, it was part of the job to many — but certainly not all — pitchers. It was a necessary evil, a thing pitchers did if they wanted to keep the respect of opposing hitters in one dugout — and teammates in the other.
Marlins starting pitcher Jose Urena has been suspended for six games for intentionally hitting Braves rookie Ronald Acuna Jr., who had homered in five straight games, including the previous three against Miami.
Can Boston set the MLB wins record? Who will emerge as the NL’s top team? MVP? And who ya got — hits or whiffs? Baseball minds want to know.
The Red Sox are riding high, but they aren’t a lock to win it all just yet. How strong are their chances, and who could stand in their way?
As we saw Wednesday, this tired practice lives on. Even now, when the practice of headhunting has long since acquired the stigma that goes with consensus scorn. Somewhere in Jose Urena’s brain, when confronted with red-hot Atlanta rookie Ronald Acuna Jr., he thought nailing him with a fastball on the first pitch of the game was the thing to do. Thus Acuna had to be pulled from the game. Both benches emptied. Urena was ejected. The game was delayed for 17 minutes while the umpires sorted everything out. On Thursday, Joe Torre, the longtime manager and player who is now the chief baseball officer at the league office and in charge of disciplinary matters, handed down a six-game suspension for Urena. I’ll get to that.
Can we know for sure it was intentional? Urena said it was an accident, that he was just trying to move a hot hitter off the plate. The circumstantial evidence for Urena isn’t great:
• According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Urena’s 97.5 mph pitch ranked in the 99th percentile in velocity of all pitches he’s thrown this season. It was the fastest pitch he has ever thrown to start a game.
• Acuna entered the game having led off three consecutive games with a home run, and he had a five-game home run streak overall. During August, he leads baseball in OPS (1.319), homers (eight), runs (16) and extra-base hits (12). He was as hot as hot gets.
• Urena’s 25 hit batters since last season are tied for the most in the majors with Cole Hamels and Charlie Morton. According to TruMedia research, his 17 hit batsmen since 2016 on fastballs are tied for the most in baseball.
• Of Urena’s 11 hit batters this season, nine have come on fastballs and two on changeups. Four of those HBPs have come after he’s given up a homer earlier in the same game, and that doesn’t include Acuna. To be fair, three of those pitches were in the same inning — first inning on Opening Day against the Cubs. It’s likely that Urena was simply having command problems that day.
• Urena’s bases-on-balls rate since the beginning of the 2016 season ranks 206th among 359 pitchers who have thrown at least 2,000 pitches. In other words, his command has been below average but not awful. His rate of hit batters (0.49 percent) ranks 10th.
This stuff has gone on in baseball for far too long. I own a book of baseball oral histories called “We Played the Game” by Danny Peary. There are lots of comments in it about the role of knockdown pitches in the game, but the one that sticks with me was from pitcher Stan Williams, who came up with the Dodgers. He talked of how the Dodgers instilled meanness in their pitchers in the old days, telling their young hurlers, “If your grandmother walks up to the plate with a bat in her hands, knock her on her ass.”
That’s not to accuse Williams of being mean, though he did hit an above-average number of hitters. Presumably, the Dodgers have long since ceased to develop their pitchers with that quality in mind, but Williams’ last big league game was in 1972. The Dodger Way traces back to decades even before then, all the way back to Branch Rickey and on through Walter Alston, who passed the baton to Tommy Lasorda, who himself managed future skippers such as the Angels’ Mike Scioscia.
Whereas the Dodgers indeed led the majors in hit batters in the years before Alston took over in 1954, that is not a trait that has defined their subsequent eras. Even in the 1960s, the time of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, the Dodgers were middling in hit batters. (Drysdale, whose 112 hit batters led the majors during the ’60s, was an outlier in that regard.)
This illustrates a couple of things. First, many notions in baseball really do have ancient origins, particularly the bad ones. Second, you don’t have to be bound by them. The Dodgers didn’t rank that high in hit-by-pitches under Alston or Lasorda, nor have the Angels under Scioscia. The Dodgers have ranked at the top of the charts in ERA in pretty much every era of the post-World War II majors. During Scioscia’s era (since 2000), his Angels rank eighth in ERA; the Dodgers rank first. Both teams are in the bottom 10 in hit batters. You don’t have to throw at batters to get them out.
Acuna was in the midst of a historic stretch for a Braves team closing in on a division title. In doing so, he’s captured the attention of fans all over the nation. His precocious bout of power is just part of it. He plays a spectacular center field. He plays with the exuberance of one so young and so talented. He, in short, is exactly what baseball needs, and if Atlanta gets into the postseason, he’ll be performing in the brightest of spotlights. He will attract countless eyeballs.
All of that could have been lost with one ill-conceived, 97.5 mph fastball. Luckily, it looks like Acuna, the Braves, and the rest of us have all dodged a bullet. The X-rays Acuna underwent after being pulled from the game were negative, and he was in the lineup for Thursday night’s game. Still, when a guy is rolling like Acuna, you hate to see him disrupted at all.
What should have happened to Urena? After a game that has an incident like that, the umpires send in reports to the league office. The league reviews the reports, talks to the relevant parties and doles out a penalty if it is deemed warranted. Torre made the final decision.
Precedents play a big part in the process. Baseball has doled out numerous suspensions for throwing at batters since 2000, when the league took over such matters from the old individual league offices. The length of most suspensions has tended to be in the range of four to six games — typically five — which for a starting pitcher is ostensibly one missed start.
There have been exceptions, with some pitchers receiving suspensions as long as 10 games. Ian Kennedy, Miguel Batista and Runelvys Hernandez all earned that penalty. Yordano Ventura was suspended nine games in 2015 for throwing at Brett Lawrie. In 2017, Hunter Strickland — a reliever — received a six-game penalty for throwing at Bryce Harper.
Simply put, Urena deserves more than six games. Fifteen games, I’d say. Maybe 20, if that is what it takes to cost him three starts. It’s not just the egregious nature of this particular incident. And it’s not because it was Acuna, because it really shouldn’t matter who the hitter is who is getting thrown at. It’s because it’s time for baseball to draw a line in the sand and to set a new precedent for this type of incident. Let’s see if, finally, we can put this tired practice to bed.
Hit batters are at a record level in baseball this season. The rate of 0.40 HBPs per game would be the highest of the modern era (since 1901). We’re on pace for 1,923 hit batters, which would be 33 more than we’ve ever had in a season.
Likewise, we’ve seen an upsurge of batters getting hit by pitches in the hands and wrists. Wednesday night, the same as the Urena-Acuna incident, smoldering Cardinals slugger Matt Carpenter had to leave a game after being hit on the hand. Kris Bryant lost time after being hit in the face. Justin Turner hasn’t been right all season after taking one on the wrist during spring training. Aaron Judge is out right now. It happened to St. Louis’ Paul DeJong, as well. Freddie Freeman lost a chunk of his career season in 2017 after getting hit in the wrist, and had another scare early this season.
Obviously, the vast majority of these HBPs are unintentional. Why is this happening, then? Part of it might be that better-padded hitters crowd the plate more than they used to. Some of it might be the recent rage for launch angle, as pitchers go up in the zone more often to combat it. From the data, it’s hard to say. There’s no apparent pattern of pitchers going up and in more often based on pitch-location data.
However it’s happening, you can’t really legislate against pitchers throwing inside. They have to. It’s baseball. Sometimes batters crowd the plate, so pitchers will try to move them back. That’s OK. Sometimes, pitches get away and hit batters. It will always happen. There is only so much we can control. So let’s control what we can.
There has always been a big difference between claiming the inner half of the plate and throwing at someone with malicious intent. It’s not excusable even in the context of retaliation, and it’s certainly not excusable in a case like this, when Acuna’s only apparent transgression is being a really good hitter. If the league doesn’t take care of things from above, as too often has happened in baseball history, teams will take care of things on their own during a game. Which, of course, just makes things worse. Now we have to see if the Braves take that bait. I hope they don’t because they have bigger fish to fry than Urena. They don’t need anyone suspended.
We might not be able to truly control intent, but we can at least plant seeds of doubt in the mind of a pitcher seeking some sort of misdirected retribution. Make the penalty for throwing at hitters so substantial that pitchers just don’t do it anymore. There will always be gray areas; determining the intentionality of a pitch is dicey. Usually it isn’t, though, and baseball already makes that determination in doling out these kinds of penalties. If the players’ association becomes concerned that things are getting too punitive, you can fold it into the process.
Whatever happens down the line, now is the time for baseball to take a stand. We need our young stars. They are the game’s most precious commodity. If Jose Urena had been made an example of, and it at last tipped the scales, so be it. He earned it. And we, as baseball fans, have earned a reprieve from this nonsense.
And don’t even get me started on Keith Hernandez …
What the numbers say
Hitting (and non-hitting) positions
With analytics deeply embedded in baseball these days, in some ways it has shaken our notions of just what a position is on a baseball field. We still call them left fielders, shortstops, etc., but it doesn’t mean the same thing it used to. A shortstop might spend half the game standing behind second base or shaded on the first-base side of the keystone, if the other team has a lot of lefty pull hitters. Third basemen might spend little of their evenings at the hot corner and, instead, will play where we are used to a shortstop standing, or even on the infield grass.
As the defensive demands of ballplayers have evolved, so, too, has the way teams weigh the offense-defense trade-off at each position. How much defense are you willing to trade off in order to get offensive production at a position? Traditionally, managers have emphasized glove work for positions up the middle, and bats on the corners. There are countless exceptions, but that has been the baseline. Now that teams are leaning nearly as much on numbers-based scheming as on the individual ability of defenders, how has that shaken up this pecking order?
Using Baseball-Reference.com, I created a series of charts for each position, looking at this season, last season, five years ago, 10 years ago and then 10-year increments going back to 1948. Each chart lists the year and the OPS for each position, listed as a ratio of league average. So, for instance, if a number is .948, that means the position is producing an OPS of 94.8 percent of league average — or 5.2 percent below league average. And so on.
1B (OPS VS. LEAGUE)
First base has always been an offense-first position. It remains that but not to the same degree, and I wonder if this is only the beginning of the trend. This season, first-sackers have put up an OPS just 5.8 percent better than the overall big league average, down from 11.1 percent above in 2017. It’s the lowest of any year measured here since 1948. When we consider how little big-stick first basemen have been valued on the open market over the past year or so, you can’t help but wonder if defense is becoming more important at the spot. Whatever it is, something is going on.
2B (OPS VS. LEAGUE)
Last year, second base became a slightly better than average offensive position, but that seems to be a blip. Still, second base is more of an offensive position than it used to be. Of course, many second basemen these days spend much of their defensive innings perched in short right field. Other than that, the second-base position has changed less over the decades relative to the other spots.
3B (OPS VS. LEAGUE)
Offense is on the upswing at third base, as well, despite the fact that Josh Donaldson has missed much of the season and Manny Machado has spent most of it playing shortstop. Jose Ramirez, Nolan Arenado, Alex Bregman, Matt Chapman, Kris Bryant — the game is rich with terrific young third basemen. In the years we’re studying today, you have to go back to 1948 to see the current level of production from the spot.
SS (OPS VS. LEAGUE)
This is hardly news for anyone who has been paying attention. The days of the banjo-hitting shortstop are long gone. If your shortstop can’t swing it, you have a serious hole on your team. The evolution at this position is remarkable, and a testament to teams’ ability to assess the defensive ability of players who in the old days would have never gotten a shot at playing shortstop. Now, it’s almost a throwback to amateur ball — your best athlete and hitter might well be your shortstop.
LF (OPS VS. LEAGUE)
Defense is emphasized more in left field than it was in the pre-designated-hitter era, and last year the collective OPS at the spot dropped precariously close to league average. Who in the days of Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky would have foreseen a day when shortstops would hit as well as left fielders? We’re almost there.
CF (OPS VS. LEAGUE)
I have a theory. I’ve bounced it off a couple of team executives. It has not been warmly received. Yet. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Here it is: Teams have become so confident in their ability to position infielders that range has become a less-valued trait. Thus the uptick in relative offensive numbers noted above. At the same time, analytics have shown more of a variation in ability to go get balls in center field, and, with more balls being hit into the air than ever, that position has become the most valuable defensive spot on the field. I can’t prove it yet. Like I said, it’s a theory. Whatever you think about that idea, there is no doubt that teams are choosing their center fielders for defense more than offense these days, to a greater degree than at any point in recent baseball history.
RF (OPS VS. LEAGUE)
It’s more subtle, but you see the same move toward defense in right field, as well. The change has been gradual, and it’s still an offensive position.
C (OPS VS. LEAGUE)
This, again, is not surprising. The heightened emphasis on pitch framing that analytics has given us, along with the hard-to-believe runs-saved numbers that go with them, have led to teams going all-in on defense behind the plate. At the same time, there are some scouts who suggest that we have a dearth of quality catching in the game right now, at least in terms of all-around players.
DH (OPS VS. LEAGUE)
Obviously, defense is not a factor at DH, so we’re really looking at how well teams have leveraged the position. In theory, it should be the most potent offensive position but, in practice, managers have increasingly used the spot more to rest regulars than to deploy a full-time masher. Last year’s below-average collective OPS was embarrassing for the managers. They’re doing better this year.
PH (OPS VS. LEAGUE)
Teams have shorter benches these days since they have to keep so many pitchers on their daily rosters. This is reflected by the long-term decline in pinch-hitting production. However, the recent levels have been surprisingly stable and have even improved over 30 years ago. I would not have expected this.
P (OPS VS. LEAGUE)
Yes, I know. Pitcher hitting has gotten progressively worse over time and has never been worse than it is this season, and the degradation of offensive ability at the position seems to be accelerating. I still don’t want a universal DH. Teams: Do a better job of teaching your pitchers to hit.
Since you asked
A Moose in new threads
I have to admit, even though it’s been a month since Mike Moustakas was traded from the Royals to the Brewers, it still seems weird to see him in that bluish purple-and-gold scheme. He, on the other hand, seems to have fit right in with an upbeat Milwaukee clubhouse. That’s no surprise. Moustakas is as affable as ever, even after a brutal offseason professionally when he became one of the overlooked free agents during hot stove season. He ended up in Kansas City on a fairly shocking one-year, $5.5 million deal (plus a mutual option for 2019), far below what everyone figured he’d get heading into the winter. This winter, he might get a chance to try again.
In Milwaukee, Moustakas is in a familiar situation — trying to help an upstart small-market team into the postseason. His numbers have been on the upswing since the trade, albeit in a small sample of 17 games. For the Royals, Moustakas hit .249/.309/.468 in 98 games. Since the trade, he’s at .311/.358/.475. Perhaps more important, he’s even been known to buy doughnuts for the entire team on the morning before day games. New team, new city, same old Moose.
It is a little strange to see you in these colors. How has the transition been for you?
Mike Moustakas: I like it a lot, man. It’s been fun. I’ve had a good time here so far. I knew a lot of guys already in here, playing with them in the minor leagues or big leagues. It’s been a pretty easy transition.
How much of a jolt has it been going from where the Royals were at, really at the beginning of a rebuilding process, to right in the thick of it with a team in position to win now?
MM: It’s definitely different. Obviously, with what the Royals were doing over there, they are in a little bit of a rebuild mode right now. I was really happy to be a part of what I was there. Ten, 11 years in that organization, and it was an unbelievable ride. [General manager] Dayton [Moore] has great things coming their way for that organization. He’s always going to take care of them. He’s going to be on top of it. But to come over here and have a chance to go back to the postseason is awesome. This team is fun, we play hard and we’re winning some ballgames.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time around the Brewers the past couple of years, and it seems like the kind of clubhouse that would be easy to fit in with pretty much right away.
MM: Like I said, I knew a bunch of guys in here already. Lolo (Lorenzo Cain) and JJ (Jeremy Jeffress), Kratzie (Erik Kratz), Braunie (Ryan Braun). They told me how much fun it is over here and to come in and be myself. Do what you can do to get ready and help this team win. That’s all you can do as a new guy coming into a clubhouse. Do your part and keep things going.
This week is the first two of eight games you have left against the Cubs, which are circle-the-calendar type of games. You’ve been through this before, but how do you balance the urgency of a big series this time of the year with the day-to-day mindset that players try to maintain through a season?
MM: Where we’re at right now, every game is important. It doesn’t matter who is on the other side. Every game is very important for us coming down the stretch. We’ve got to do what we can to win each and every game. Obviously, these games are a little bit more important. But we can’t look too into that. We have to stay within ourselves and go out and play our game. We’re a great ballclub over here, and that’s a great ballclub over there. There is still a lot of baseball left to be played. Though it’s coming down to the end, and we do have to have a little bit of a sense of urgency.
This is a deep group of positional players, and after the midseason acquisitions, the Brewers have more regular-caliber infielders than spots, which has led to some creative deployment. How has that come together so far defensively?
MM: Defensively, with the information we have nowadays, with all the ground-ball rates and ratios and all that stuff, we’re getting put in good spots. I think that’s all we need. We’re good enough fielders to where if we are in the right position, we’re going to make the right plays and get guys out. When we’ve got me, Scopie [Jonathan Schoop] and [Travis] Shaw, as long as we’re in the right spot, and we’re doing the shifts in the right way, we’re going to be fine. If we’re there, we’ll get guys out. These other guys, they are able to move positions and I think that makes us really good. It makes us a lot more versatile. Guys are playing two, three positions and it just makes us better. Then we can have [Orlando] Arcia and H.P. [Hernan Perez] come in, and fill those gaps when we need it. Those guys have been playing unbelievable baseball, too. It’s good to have that problem, to have a bunch of players ready to go.
Some of your teams in Kansas City were among the best defensive teams we’ve had in a while. Is there anything about the way the Brewers set up their defensive schemes that is different — not better or worse but just different from what you were used to in K.C.?
MM: I don’t know if it’s different, but with the personnel that you have, things are going to be a little different. Arcia is an unbelievable shortstop and he can get to a lot of balls and that helps us on the left side. As long we’re in the right spots, like I said, we’re going to make those plays. Our pitchers do a phenomenal job of pitching to scouting reports and pitching to game plans, giving us a chance to make the plays, too.
Coming right up
A numbers game
The Mets and Phillies will culminate a five-game, four-day series Sunday night with the 2018 Little League Classic played in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. That game is on ESPN. It’s joyous and you should watch it.
However, I also want to highlight Friday’s game in that series, a 6:05 p.m. ET start that will be aired on MLB TV. This will be that network’s fourth time presenting a game through the prism of advanced analytics. On-screen graphics will display advanced metrics, and a panel in the studio broadcast will discuss their implications while looking at the game with those measures in mind.
It’s a cool idea, but one obviously geared toward a niche audience. However, in general, I’d like to see advanced metrics better integrated in a particular way to enhance the viewing experience. This goes back to something I heard Cubs manager Joe Maddon mention earlier this season in what was mostly a passing comment. He was explaining some strategic move and the various options that were in play at the time. I forget the specific circumstances. But he punctuated his explanation by talking up the chess- match aspect of his sport, and saying, “I don’t know why we don’t play that up more.”
Why don’t we? Let’s play up that chess match. We’ve had run-expectancy tables on hand for a long time. We also more or less know the percentage chances for each possible outcome of an encounter. What are the chances for a home run? For a double? If the runner steals, what is the percentage chance he makes it? How would a sacrifice bunt enhance a team’s chance to score a run? How would it affect the number of runs a team could be expected to score? How about if there is a pitching change, or a pinch hitter?
As Maddon likes to say, that’s all good stuff. Whether it’s on the scoreboard at the ballpark, on an app on your phone, or on a telecast, it would be interesting to see how it would be received if we presented probabilities in a way that helped fans think along with the manager. Add in the option to “vote” for your preferred option on your phone, and you could see how you compare with everyone else. Seems fun to me.
We’ve got the numbers. Let’s put them to work.