In the wake of yesterday’s coverage of the Let Tim Anderson Play Incident, it seems prudent to follow up with a secondary discussion about pitchers hitting batters. Not whether they should (hot take: they shouldn’t), but, for those whose minds are already made up, when to do so.
On Wednesday, Brad Keller whiffed.
So let’s say a guy, maybe a guy who pitches for the Royals, is miffed that an opponent took some liberties in celebrating a home run against him. Maybe some other guys were chirping about it in his dugout, so this Royals pitcher decides to stand up for The Right Way to Play, and drills his opponent in response.
Let slide for a moment your feelings about the decision. In this scenario it is fait accompli, a resolute act. At this point, once said pitcher cannot be diverted from his course, it would behoove him to drill the offender at a juncture of minimal impact to the game. Ideally, it would happen with two outs and the bases empty, with his team comfortably ahead. Or perhaps first base would be open in a situation in which the hitter might have been intentionally walked anyway. There are various metrics to determine the right time, and reasonable discussions to be had about sufficient size for a lead, etc. If enough of those metrics aren’t met, it should be incumbent upon said pitcher to wait—for an inning, a game, a series or a season—until favorable conditions present themselves.
Brad Keller does not seem much for waiting. In Anderson’s very next at-bat, Keller plunked him in the backside, first pitch. While nobody among the ranks of those who approve of such things should take issue with the placement, the pitch’s timing was a downright disaster.
Anderson was leading off an inning in a tie game. Suddenly, Keller was forced to pitch out of the stretch while worrying about a guy who’d stolen six bases in 16 games. (Or at least Keller would have had to worry about pitching out of the stretch had he not been ejected. Instead, he saddled reliever Ian Kennedy with that task.)
Ultimately it didn’t matter. Kennedy retired the next three hitters in order and Kansas City won the game, 4-3, in 10 innings. But this is all about percentages. Had Anderson (or his replacement, after he was ejected along with Keller) come around to score, costing the Royals a victory, the Twitterverse would have lost its mind. That’s because Keller drilling Anderson when he did was even stupider than Keller drilling Anderson in the first place.
Baseball’s unwritten rules have softened over time, and I’m on the record as saying that, when it comes to retaliatory HBPs, that’s a good thing. But as the mandate to drill opponents recedes, the understanding of when to do so recedes right along with it. Which leaves guys like Keller, determined to get their pound of flesh, with a clearly insufficient understanding about how to do so.
There are no easy answers here. When-to-drill-a-guy lessons don’t come easily in an environment bent on preventing pitchers from drilling guys. (Look no further than Keller being ejected without warning for a fairly benign HBP that didn’t even inspire a mound charge. It might have been a Joe West issue, but there’s no denying MLB’s newfound interest in preventing this kind of thing.)
This is some weird middle ground we’re in. We’ll probably have to wait until a similarly impatient pitcher actually costs his team a game before people begin to acknowledge this in a widespread fashion.