Perception is everything, and precedent feeds perception. On Wednesday, baseball saw two games with hotly contested hit batters, and while there is a strong possibility that neither was intentional, recent history has led those at the wrong end of the pitches to leap to some obvious conclusions.
Let’s start in Chicago, where the White Sox’ series with Kansas City was already steeped in contention, given that the last time these teams met resulted in a rhubarb over a Tim Anderson bat toss. The Royals have already paid him back for that, so when they did it again on Wednesday—pitcher Glenn Sparkman bouncing a ball off of Anderson’s head—the situation appeared ready to explode.
Except for this: It was the second inning of a 2-1 game, with nobody out and a runner on first. Also, it was a changeup—not the type of heat-seeker ordinarily utilized for nefarious purposes. For what it’s worth, the pitch merely grazed the brim of Anderson’s helmet—a terrible location to be sure, but more indicative of a ball that’s riding up and in than a missile aimed at an earflap.
Anderson seemed to realize all of this. Hell, the pitch didn’t even knock him down. While visibly frustrated, he more or less just stood in the batter’s box, helmetless, staring down Sparkman. Anderson’s lack of response was no doubt abetted by umpire Mark Carlson, who emerged from behind the plate and quickly tossed the befuddled pitcher from the game. (“It was a changeup,” Sparkman can be seen explaining on replays. Even Anderson said later that he felt the pitch was accidental.)
Had the Royals not already targeted Anderson this season, of course, there’s almost no chance that Sparkman would have been tossed. As it is, optics are important and Carlson did not want this game to get away from him. Sometimes it’s hard to be an umpire.
In Cincinnati, meanwhile, the game was getting away from the Reds, as Pittsburgh built up a 7-0 lead by the eighth inning. That’s when Pirates reliever Clay Holmes drilled Eugenio Suarez in the hand with a 94-mph fastball. There were some moments of immediate heat—Suarez approached the mound for before being led away by catcher Elias Diaz—but things cooled quickly. X-rays proved negative and Suarez is day-to-day.
“I don’t know if they are going to hit me on purpose,” Suarez said after the game in a MLB.com report. “That’s why I walked up to him and asked him if he hit me on purpose. He said, ‘No. Definitely not.’ I just said I wanted to make sure because I don’t like that pitch up and in, right on my face.”
This is believable. Holmes has walked 15 batters in 15⅔ minor league innings this season, and has issued seven free passes in 13 innings since being called up. Outstanding control does not appear to be his thing.
That didn’t prevent Reds manager David Bell from having a say about what had just gone down. So vehement was he when he came out to argue about the pitch that umpire Jeff Nelson ejected him.
Again, this is where optics matter.
In April, Pirates starter Chris Archer threw a pitch behind Derek Dietrich in response to the slugger taking an unusual amount of time to watch a home run that ended up in the Allegheny River outside PNC Park.
In April 2018, Pittsburgh’s Jameson Taillon broke the selfsame Suarez’s thumb with a pitch, costing the slugger three weeks. Later in the season, Taillon hit Suarez again, this time in the elbow. Never mind that none of the pitches appeared to be intentional, or that as a hitter Suarez could do a better job of turning his back toward inside pitches rather than leaning away from them with his hands exposed—a habit that got Jeff Bagwell’s hand broken in three consecutive seasons. Hitting him again looks bad, so it must be bad.
Bell was fed up by the lot of it. He’d previously instructed his pitchers not to retaliate for such things. That stance may have changed.
“We know they’ll do it,” the manager told reporters after the game in a Cincinnati.com report, explaining his argument with the umpires. “I was doing what I could to protect our players. Clearly, we’re not going to get protected. We’ve got to do whatever we can. We’ve got to take matters into our own hands. It’s unfortunate that our players aren’t going to get protected. That’s been made clear, and we know that team will intentionally throw at people. What are you supposed to think?”
“When someone is messing with your livelihood, your career, who knows? You’ve got to protect yourself. Clearly, we’re not going to get protected by the umpires or the league. That’s been made clear. Our players need to do whatever they need to do protect themselves. I’ll back them whatever that is. For some reason, we think it’s OK to throw at people. For whatever reason, that was OK many years ago, and we’re still living some rules that I don’t know about—that it’s OK to intentionally throw at our players. The umpires think it’s OK. The league thinks it’s somewhat OK. Somebody’s going to get hurt. We need to take as many measures as possible. Ours need to do whatever they need to do to stick up for themselves, protect themselves. They protect themselves, their career.”
Bell has already proved to be angry about this topic to the point of incoherence. Still, the closest the Reds came to a response yesterday was when reliever Raisel Iglesias threw an up-and-in, 97-mph fastball to Bryan Reynolds with an 0-2 count, before eventually striking Reynolds out.
What we’re left with is increasingly high tension. Bell has thrown down one gauntlet. Pirates broadcaster John Wehner threw down another on Pittsburgh radio, when he came down on Dietrich, of all people, for his homer-watching ways: “I can’t stand him. … I don’t understand why you have to do that. It’s different if you’re a Hall of Fame player, you’re a 60-homer guy, you’re an established guy. Nobody ever heard of him before this year.”
Wehner also referenced Dietrich’s grandfather, Steve Demeter, a longtime minor league coach in the Pirates system, who he said “is rolling in his grave every time this guy hits a home run. He’s embarrassed of his grandson.”
Let’s ignore for a moment the very old-school notion of players earning whatever leeway they’re afforded by the sport’s unwritten rules; Wehner seems completely oblivious of the sea change that’s occurred around baseball as pertains to celebrations.
However much they angered the Pirates and Royals, displays like Dietrich’s and Anderson’s are entering the mainstream, to the point of approval from MLB’s own marketing department. Pitchers have the right to try and put a damper on them, but that tactic does not appear to be working very well as a method of dissuasion.
At least Royals-White Sox and Reds-Pirates matchups, despite the meat-headedness therein, are far more interesting now than they were at the beginning of the season.