We Jays fans know how Josh Donaldson won the Most Valuable Player award last year by driving in tons of runs for the team and making highlight reel grabs at third. But if the sport listens to him, he may be the most valuable player for other reasons- even to opponents.
Donaldson has been the highest-profile, and loudest player to speak up about the ridiculous “unwritten rules” of the game and the beanball. You might recall Donaldson’s tirade last month after the Twins Phil Hughes threw a pair of back-to-back pitches at him the at bat following a Donaldson home run. Donaldson got mad, John Gibbons came out to intervene and got ejected and afterwards the MVP noted that he wasn’t all that mad at Hughes himself, but rather the Minnesota management (who no doubt instructed the pitcher to lob one at the Blue Jay in return for being “shown up”) and at the dumb, macho culture of the game in general.
“They say they’re trying to protect players… you can’t slide hard into second base. They make a rule to protect the catcher on slides at home. But when you throw a ball at somebody, nothing’s done about it.” He referenced Giancarlo Stanton who still wears a specially-adapted helmet after being smacked in the face by a pitch and added that the whole aspect could deter some kids from going into baseball, a reasonable assumption perhaps. If parents are scared to let their boys play football because of concussion risk, it’s not beyond the pail to suggest they might do the same with baseball.
The whole situation became news again this week when famously volatile KC hurler Yordano Ventura managed to drill Orioles star Manny Machado with a 98 mph fastball on his third attempt, sparking a fist to his face from the Baltimore infielder, a bench-clearing brawl and surprisingly little support from his Royals teammates who have grown tired of his distractions. While Ventura’s pitch control isn’t specatacular, it seems dubious he’d miss three in a row and drill the one player who was making him look bad that game. Particularly when we recall that it is the same Ventura who managed to provoke brawls in three successive games last year by throwing at a range of players and having personal beefs with a list including, but not limited to, Adam Eaton, Brett Lawrie, Mike Trout and, yes, our own Josh Donaldson. Baseball’s fining him after throwing at Lawrie and suspending him 7 games for starting the melee with the White Sox last year didn’t seem to do anything to suggest he needs to calm down a little on the mound, so it’s encouraging that this time around he got a 9-game suspension (compared to 4 for Machado.) Bizarrely, while playing the Orioles Ventura was shooting his mouth off in the clubhouse about planning to hit Jose Bautista with a pitch. Joey Bats didn’t respond, as far as we know, but one can imagine Kevin Pillar , ever the loyal teammate, practising up some kick boxing moves just in time for next month’s Royals-Jays series, just in case.
Since then many other players have spoken up about the need for change. As Dodgers’ Adrian Gonzalez says, “throwing a baseball at a batter on purpose is the opposite of whatever tough is.”
Of course, some of the older voices say no change is necessary, that it’s all a part of the game and “hard-nosed” baseball like it used to be played. Surprisingly, even that assumption is a bit off; the number of hit batsmen has risen considerably in the past fifty years. In the 1940s and 50s, only three years was a batter hit 20 times in a season; so far this century up to last year, only once did that not happen. Brandon Guyer of the Rays has already been plunked 15 times this year. Surprising also, National League teams (where the pitcher at times will come to the plate himself) outdo the AL ones in head-hunting. This season, NL teams average about 21 hit batsmen compared to 18 in the AL .
As for it being traditional and “hard-nosed”, so what? Rob Manfred hasn’t been afraid of other changes. He’s talking of doing away with throwing pitches for an intentional walk and , of course, he instituted the slide rule thereby stopping one of the most traditional, “hard-nosed” ways of playing the game: sliding into the second baseman to break up a double play.
Traditionalists might not like it, but change is needed. First and foremost, the “Warning” aspect has to go. There’s no way to justify the rule as it is now in which a pitcher can throw at a batter and not be disciplined but if the umpire then issues a warning, any other pitcher will be tossed for hitting any batter, intentional or not. This gives hotheads like Ventura a free pass. If we trust umpires instincts and knowledge, we allow them to throw out any pitcher, any time, if they think they are deliberately throwing at a batter. If we don’t think the umps are that savvy, we need to simply throw out any pitcher who hits a batter no matter what the circumstances. Or possibly the answer lies in making it much more pricey for a team to dare hit a batter. Making a hit-by-pitch a virtual “double” (batter gets to second base instead of first and all runners on base advance two bases) would cut down on head-hunting .
It took a leg injury to Ruben Tejada to stop aggressive slides into base. It took an injury to superstar catcher Buster Posey to make contact between a catcher and runner almost verboden. Baseball cannot wait for a career-ending or worse head injury to a batter before stopping the beanball.