Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 5/10/12

So here’s what we know:
1) Bryce Harper, a phenomenally talented 19 year old who also occasionally does annoying things, got plunked by Cole Hamels on May 6.
2) Cole Hamels admitted doing it on purpose, “to continue the old baseball… that old-school prestigious way of baseball.”

In the week since Hamels hit Harper, jawing between the two teams has given way to a wider discussion on the nature of beanballs in baseball and the “old-school” baseball code that Hamels felt the need to uphold. First, according to baseball’s traditions, when is it acceptable to hit a guy? Second, ethically speaking, regardless of what tradition says, when should it be acceptable to hit a guy?

Almost everyone agrees that when Hamels did something nontraditional when he admitted doing it on purpose, rather than just offering up standard boilerplate to say that the ball got away from him. After all, Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann plunked Hamels later in the same game, and afterwards, he said that the ball got away from him. Zimmermann’s retaliatory beanball was totally uncontroversial, even to Hamels. But hardly anyone agrees on the traditions that govern when a pitcher ought to intentionally plunk a guy.

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo blasted Hamels for hitting Harper: to him, it was “classless, gutless, chicken[bleep]” to hit a “19-year-old rookie who’s eight games into the big leagues.” He also suggested that, considering the football bounty programs that have been exposed, the commissioner should come down hard on intentional plunking. (Rizzo later got fined for his comments.) Phillies manager Charlie Manuel stuck by his pitcher, but Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, looking visibly uncomfortable, said he was “kind of disappointed” by Hamels hitting Harper and admitting it.

The reaction of pundits and others within the game has been similarly mixed. As Paul Hagen wrote on MLB.com, “Criticism of Hamels focused not on what he did, but the fact that he was candid about his motivations afterward.” That’s pretty much the same conclusion reached by Jason Turbow, coauthor of “The Baseball Codes,” a book about baseball’s unwritten rules: the plunking wasn’t particularly out of line. “This is how veterans handled rookies for generations,” he wrote in a piece for SI.com. Turbow suggests that Hamels may either have been trying to tame the swagger of a first-place Phillies team, or rally his teammates, like a game in 1974 when Dock Ellis plunked the first three Cincinnati Reds of the game. In fact, noted headhunter Don Drysdale went so far as to do that in his autobiography, “Once a Bum, Always a Dodger”:

For all those batters I nailed, I can honestly say that I never tried to hurt any of them, never tried to hit any of them in the head—never tried to hit any of them, period.

The generalized response appears to be, approximately: sometimes that’s the right thing to do. Just don’t talk about it. No one who knows baseball tradition will come right out and say that baseball tradition absolutely blessed his actions, because that would violate the baseball tradition of clubhouse omerta. (The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club.) But Turbow clearly thinks that Hamels’s actions fit within the broader scope of baseball tradition, though he and other baseball people acknowledge that intentional beanballs are not as much a part of the game as they used to be.

But calling for silence is not a moral stance. It doesn’t answer the question of the appropriateness of what Hamels actually did. Rizzo suggested a moral equivalency between headhunting in baseball and bounties in football. Obviously, a 90-mile an hour fastball can’t do as much damage as the Saints’ offensive line. But they rest on a similar basic point, the fundamental appropriateness of using violence as a deterrent. And make no mistake: a 90-mile an hour projectile is violent.

Rizzo wants the commissioner to essentially tighten penalties on headhunting to the point of mostly eliminating it. That is essentially what happened with on-field brawls, which have more or less vanished as the penalties for all involved continued to increase. Certainly, penalties on beanballs have already increased over the past decade, as I wrote two years ago when Cliff Lee was suspended five games for throwing behind Chris Snyder, not even hitting him, in spring training. But the penalty Hamels received raised more questions than it answered: why should Hamels get the exact same penalty for successfully hitting someone as Lee got for not-quite hitting someone?

An added justification for further tightening penalties could be concussions: after all, if it’s possible for the ball to get away from a pitcher to the point that it hits a guy, then there’s always a chance that it could hit him in the head. As baseball, football, and hockey become more aware of the serious long-term effects of concussion and brain injury, all three sports have a greater need to show that they are taking steps to reduce the risk of long-term damage to their players. The commissioner could consider an intentional, unprovoked beanball the equivalent of a “dangerous play.”

Of course, it’s hard to legislate against ill intentions, and that’s why “the ball got away from me” is the age-old explanation for why HBPs happen. After all, sometimes the ball does get away from you. So a presumption of innocence is probably still important. But… sometimes… you can tell. Like on Sunday, when Cole Hamels twirled eight brilliant innings, yielding just one walk and five hits, and managed to place a pitch squarely in the middle of Harper’s back. Even if Hamels hadn’t admitted it, it would have looked pretty intentional.

It’s undeniable that beanballs are less a part of baseball strategy than they used to, largely because of increased suspensions. And plenty of baseball tradition is
either questionable or irrelevant: ballplayers used to have jobs in the offseason, “play their way into shape” in March and April, and think that on-base percentage was unimportant because it isn’t on the scoreboard. So just because something is traditional doesn’t make it right. It also doesn’t make it good strategy: Harper made the cover of SI as a 16-year old, but that doesn’t mean that giving him a free base is a great idea. If beanballs fall further into disuse, few will mourn their loss.

The problem with overpenalizing beanballs without comparably penalizing hitters is that it fails to balance the incentives: it basically gives hitters an extra reason to lean into one. So if the commissioner is to increase the penalties for intentional beanings, then he will need to instruct the umpires to do a much better job of enforcing the rule that says that batters must make an effort to get out of the way — and if the batter leans into one, the umpire should call it a ball or strike and continue the at-bat.

There is a place for intimidation in the game of baseball. Retaliation is a bit harder to ethically condone. I understand that pitchers feel the need to put hitters in their place, and high inside fastballs often have a way of doing that. But a “welcome to the game, rookie” beanball is unnecessarily old-fashioned, and it’s a practice that is rightfully going out of style.

Of course, Hamels might a bit out of style himself. After all, as he tweeted after the game:

What does trending mean? RT @eleanorkennedy: @TheHamels is trending!! such a great game last night

— Hamels Foundation (@TheHamels) May 7, 2012

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