MLB has suspended Cubs reliever Ryan Tepera three games (and manager David Ross for one game) for throwing behind the legs of Milwaukee’s Brandon Woodruff on Thursday. On one hand, it’s an admirable effort to tamp down on-field animosity between teams before things spiral out of control.
On the other hand, it’s ludicrous.
There is much to criticize when it comes to the frontier-justice mentality of baseball’s unwritten rules, especially as pertains to pitchers drilling hitters. Tepera, though, picked a well-traveled middle lane, sending a message while offering no actual threat of harm.
This has been a trusted tactic in the major leagues since pretty much forever. Some recent examples:
Pittsburgh’s Chris Archer used it to protest a home run pimp job by Derek Dietrich that led to some on-field fireworks in 2019.
LA’s Joe Kelley used it to express his displeasure with the Astros’ sign stealing against the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series.
The Rangers did it to Manny Machado following Fernando Tatis’ infamous 3-0 swing in 2018.
Noah Syndergaard threw behind Chase Utley in 2016 to protest Utley’s takeout of Ruben Tejada during the previous season’s playoffs, bringing us the effervescent “ass in the jackpot” comment from umpire Tom Hallion. (Syndergaard was ejected due to the high-profile nature of the situation, but that’s very different than a league suspension.)
Sure, the rationale behind some of these events—particularly the one involving Tatis—is inane, but the idea holds: Pitchers standing up for their teammates by sending a non-impact message. No harm, no foul, right?
Not according to MLB. Tepera’s tactic has officially been put onto the no-fly list, sending a message to every team that even the small stuff will no longer be tolerated. It’s admirable in theory, but it sets baseball up for at least two scenarios in which things will get hinky:
- It removes the power of response. Kneecapping a team’s ability to answer to liberties taken by the opposition—especially when it comes to responses that do not actually put players into harm’s way—seems rife with unintended consequences. Instead, teams might explore other avenues that fall more firmly into the gray area of accountability. Extra-hard tags? Takeout slides that adhere to the league rules while being extra vicious? Or will we simply enter the era of the extra-saucy revenge home-run pimp? We’ll find out.
- Given the league’s willingness to put the hammer down on non-contact pitches, MLB will now be faced with dilemmas over how to respond to actual hit batters in situations where the pitcher has a degree of plausible deniability. More than ever baseball will have to judge intent via punative action that to this point it been extremely hesitant to engage, for good reason. The moment that pitchers start getting suspended for pitches that inadvertently run too far inside is the moment that pitchers stop pitching inside altogether, and baseball changes fundamentally.
It’ll be interesting to see how MLB handles yesterday’s incident in Chicago, in which Cleveland pitcher Aaron Civale hit Adam Eaton after Eaton’s minor dust-up with middle infielder Andrés Giménez, who he felt pushed him off the bag during a play at second base.
Maybe this is a whole lot of nothing, an anomalous blip on baseball’s disciplinary radar. In a world in which MLB is checking baseballs for pine tar and embracing rules changes the likes of which would have been unfathomable a decade ago, however, anything is possible. Look out.