Things Get Real in Baltimore: Jays Rookie Hunts Heads, Draws Ire

Marcus Stroman needs to sit down for a while. A long while, probably.

The Blue Jays right-hander took a noble idea—standing up for one’s teammates, the mark of any good team player—and turned it ugly in a hurry on Monday. After Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph apparently stepped on Jose Reyes’ fingers during a bang-bang play at the plate in the fifth inning, Stroman responded during Joseph’s next at-bat, spinning a 92-MPH fastball just behind the hitter’s helmet.  (Watch it all here.)

Plate ump Ted Barrett immediately warned both benches. It was the wrong decision. On one hand, the warning removed Baltimore’s option to respond (in what would hopefully be a more reasoned manner). More importantly, tossing Stroman immediately might have obviated the need for any response at all. (O’s manager Buck Showalter came out to vociferously argue the latter point, as far as Stroman’s lack of ejection.)

“You let your emotions take over and all of a sudden someone’s lying at home plate in a pool of blood with a blow to the head,” said a disgusted Showalter after the game in a Baltimore Sun report. “How really manly do you feel? Was it really worth it?”

Even within baseball there is widespread disagreement over what constitutes a retaliation-worthy offense, and what shape retaliation should take when it’s in the offing. One thing everybody agrees on is that any liberties taken above the shoulders are squarely out of bounds. As former outfielder Dave Henderson said in The Baseball Codes: “I have a rule: You can drill me all you want. But if you throw at my face, it gets personal. I kill you first, then your grandpa, your grandma—I just go on down the list. It gets personal. Batters should get mad. The guys who get hit on the elbow and all that, I have no sympathy for them. Big deal, you got hit. I got hit in the head twice in my career; the other stuff didn’t count.”

Stroman is 23 and having a splendid rookie season for Toronto. As such, he probably feels the need earn his stripes with the veterans on his team, showing them that he has the convictions necessary to protect their collective flank. It’s been the dance of big league pitchers forever; what Stroman lacks is nuance. Never mind that Joseph did nothing wrong; there were still a dozen ways for Stroman to send a message about Reyes’ hurt fingers without putting anybody in harm’s way.

Whether the ball ended up where the pitcher wanted it to, or if it was a message pitch that came a little closer than intended is irrelevant. Showalter nailed it after the game when he said, “If you don’t have the command to throw the ball where you’re supposed to to deliver a message, then you shouldn’t be throwing at all there. It really pushed the hot button with all of us because it certainly wasn’t called for. That was obvious. It was borderline professionally embarrassing.”

Joseph himself clairified the complete disconnect between Stroman’s actions and the mores of the game when he said, “Yeah, there’s a code. Every baseball player knows there’s a code. I’m not the judge here to judge intent or any of that stuff. I’m just glad it didn’t hit me.”

In that, Joseph wasn’t just acting like a ballplayer. He was acting like a human being, which is something to which Marcus Stroman needs to pay some very close attention.

Update (9-17): MLB has ruled: Stroman will sit for six games, pending appeal.

6 thoughts on “Things Get Real in Baltimore: Jays Rookie Hunts Heads, Draws Ire

  1. There was nothing to retaliate for. He didn’t mean to step on his hand and you can’t complain when you go headfirst to the plate.

  2. So, so true. Stroman’s response nearly completely obscured the fact that the Jays getting mad in the first place was pretty ridiculous.

  3. I think I have to take the other side of this one.
    Barrett is a veteran ump. In fact, after Jeff Kellogg messed up Sawx–Rays earlier this very season, Barrett was sent in to defuse the situation.
    Given that
    1) MLB holds Barrett is such esteem in precisely such difficult situations,
    2) that Barrett didn’t think it fit to eject Stroman,
    I don’t see how Stroman can be suspended just because Showalter cried like a baby.
    No way Stroman gets suspended if he’s not a rookie. I don’t approve of headhunting, but if this was an arbitration-eligible or longer serving pitcher, there’s no suspension.

  4. Interesting angle, but I’m not clear about why you have it. What makes you think that MLB is more inclined to suspend rookies than it is veterans? (I can see a case being made for stars, who equal gate receipts, vs. non-stars, though I’m not aware that this actually happens.)

    1. Maybe I’m suffering from North-of-Border-itis. (I’m not actually a Jays fan.) The story up here was that Showalter went bananas as much about Stroman “not having been in the game long enough” as much as for anything Stroman actually did.

      Maybe I’m oversensitive (I am a Sawx fan) but I found it very strange earlier this year when David Price hit Big Papi in the hip and got nothing, but Sawx rookie Brandon Workman (I honestly believe) had a pitch slip out of his hand on a wet rainy night and he’s gone for six games.

      Exhibit B: Randall Delgado has parts of four seasons in the bigs. He plunked Cutch in the back as retaliation for Goldschmidt. No suspension. (Disclaimer: Buccos are my NL team. If someone thinks Delgado’s drilling of Cutch was an accident, state your case, I’m openminded.)

      If Stroman went headhunting, suspend him. And if Barrett was convinced by the balance of evidence Stroman was headhunting, Barrett would have tossed him surely? And rightly so. But Barrett (veteran ump held in high regard by MLB) wasn’t so sure, so he didn’t toss Stroman. Showalter makes a fuss onfield and after, and all of a sudden the rookie’s suspended.

      Unless I’m just wrong: is it possible that an umpire can be convinced a pitcher threw at a guy’s head (shoulders, whatever… but that dangerous area well above strike zone) and just warn him? Could Barrett really have thought Stroman tried to take Joseph’s head off and said “that’s a warning”?

  5. The idea that veterans can get away with more than rookies — and that rookie pitchers have no business policing veterans — is widespread, but doesn’t exist much beyond the field of play. I’d be shocked if that was a factor in the league’s decision to suspend Stroman. My guess is that Barrett made his best judgement in the moment (the same judgement with which I took exception), and the league office, upon reviewing the tape, realized that he had been too lenient. This happens in the NFL all the time, when players end up fined for plays that didn’t even draw a flag. It’s why this situation — and Workman’s and Delgado’s — is so dicey. Umpires and occasionally the league office must become arbiters of intent. And because only the pitcher knows if he meant to do what he did, the authorities are left to lean on their best guesses. Sometimes, regardless of what actually happened (wet night, rookie pitcher, bad control), if a pitch slips at an inopportune moment, the circumstances surrounding it make the result impossible to ignore.

    I’d be surprised if Showalter’s on-field reaction was a factor in the league’s review of the situation. (I have no idea if he lobbied for a suspension after the fact, though that would be unusual, to say the least.) Managers ostensibly holler to sway umpires, but because they know that almost never works, they mostly yell because yelling is cathartic. The Commissioner’s office has little room for catharsis.

    As for Delgado: Yeah, he meant it.

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