On the Whys, Whens and Hows of Drilling an Ace

Arrieta drilled

Depending on one’s perspective, Tony Watson’s decision to drill Jake Arietta last night was either supremely rational or patently ludicrous, depending on which details you want to focus.

Watson’s Pirates were losing a do-or-die wild card game, the 4-0 score mattering far less than the fact that Arietta had meticulously dismantled their offense, batter by batter, pitch by pitch. The Pirates couldn’t touch him, and they knew it. This is a bad reason to throw a fastball at the opposing pitcher.

But …

Arietta had hit two batters himself—catcher Francisco Cervelli in the fifth, and Josh Harrison in the sixth. Neither was intentional, the former coming against the inning’s leadoff batter, the latter coming on an 85-mph breaking ball which put two men on with one out and Andrew McCutchen at bat.

The you-hit-my-guy-so-I’ll-hit-your-guy ethos is reptilian and outdated, especially when Arrieta went out of his way to explain to Cervelli that he had been hit accidentally. Also, intentionally gifting an opponent baserunners during an elimination game is usually a bad idea, pretty much regardless of the score.

But …

Arietta had twice come up and in to batters in addition to the two men he hit. Because his control was superb throughout the game (he walked nobody), this was a clear indication that he was taking excessive liberties with inside pitches, content with a margin of error that included an occasional hit batsman. (His postgame explanation that “balls were slick” was hogwash.) Pittsburgh had every right to dissuade him of this idea—especially when it comes to future meetings.

And …

The Pirates are still sore about the semi-dirty takeout slide Chicago’s Chris Coghlan laid on Pirates shortstop Jung Ho Kang last month, knocking him out for the season. If that was Watson’s primary motivation, Coghlan (who did not play Wednesday) is the guy who should have been in the crosshairs. Even for the revenge-minded, that’s the kind of thing that can wait for an appropriate time.

But …

At least Watson did the deed properly, drilling Arrieta below the belt. “The butt’s perfect,” the pitcher said afterward in an ESPN report.

Also …

Ultimately, the benches would not have cleared had Arrieta simply headed to first base—which he should have done, given the circumstances. It was only when he stopped, stared down Watson and started to jaw—the point at which the chance of a physical confrontation rose to realistic levels—that his teammates streamed out to protect him. (As per usual, it was fairly uneventful … save for this.)

And …

Arrieta got his own dose of revenge, stealing second on the very next pitch. It was the first steal that Arietta had so much as attempted as a professional. “That was awesome,” he said in USA Today.

And so …

Ultimately, it’s all rubbish. Were the Pirates hell-bent on avenging Kang, they could have waited until next season. If they wanted to show Arrieta that they did not appreciate his liberties with the inside corner, the seventh inning of an elimination game was not the time to try to affect change. Ultimately, this was little more than frustration bubbling over in a way that does not reflect well on the Pirates.

The playoffs are not a time for vendettas. Pittsburgh now has about five months with which to consider that notion.

4 thoughts on “On the Whys, Whens and Hows of Drilling an Ace

  1. Bucs fan here. No problem plunking Arrieta safely below the waist. Arrieta said as much himself. Three comments:

    –I don’t think this had anything to do with Kang.

    –Arrieta was in complete command of his skills and needed to be kept off the inside if Pirates had any shot at coming back. He’d hit two guys, so a stronger message than a brushback was OK. In this sense the timing was OK because the Bucs had nine outs left to save the season.

    –Cervelli took it on the hand, perhaps a foot from his head, and wound up flat on his arse. On its own well, not cool but never mind, but Arrieta then hit ANOTHER batter the next inning. That’s enough of that whether the Pirates had any shot in the game or not. If Arrieta had no clue where his pitches were going, well, fine–but we agree he had excellent command. Elementary, Watson.

    It’s over, and we get to start next season’s 19 games with no ill will.

  2. Everything you say is reasonable. Still, drilling Arietta decreased (however slightly) Pittsburgh’s chances to win a game they had to win. Any message they wanted to deliver could have waited for next year — at which point it’ll be interesting to see how they respond the first time Arrieta comes too far inside.

    1. “Still, drilling Arietta decreased (however slightly) Pittsburgh’s chances to win a game they had to win. ”

      I’m not certain of that.

      On the stuff we know how measure, you are, of course, correct. And the Sabrmetricians can tell us exactly what fraction of a run Pittsburgh gave up by putting Arrieta on. But what chance did plunking Arrieta have of either rattling him, or stopping him from dealing inside? Much harder to measure.

      In the end, of course, Arrieta didn’t score, nor was he thrown off his game (complete game shutout, 11K, 0 BB). I look forward to the day when we can measure both sides of that equation, specifically the side that deals with gamesmanship.

      Aside: I hope this element of Cubs-Pirates animosity is now buried. Both because it ought to be buried and because the teams don’t see each other in Spring Training to work anything out there. My Bucs were well-beaten (for the second year in a row) by a white-hot pitcher in the wildcard game. Next year we just need to move on.

  3. I hope you’re right, but my money’s on Arrieta getting brushed back (at the very least) the next time game flow allows it when these teams play next year.

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