Donaldson right in comments about beanballs, but change will be slow
Nearly every week seems to bring a new beanball controversy, but not every week features a reigning Most Valuable Player sounding off on the topic. After nearly being hit with consecutive pitches by the Twins' Phil Hughes on Sunday, whom he had homered off of earlier in the game, Blue Jays slugger Josh Donaldson told reporters that Major League Baseball should be more stringent about policing pitchers who intentionally throw at hitters, just as the league has taken steps to protect catchers and infielders by attempting to eliminate collisions and takeout slides. While Donaldson isn’t exactly blameless in this particular instance, he does have a very good point.
Jose Bautista started Sunday's game at Target Field with a home run, and three pitches later Donaldson took Hughes deep as well. After he crossed home plate, he apparently glared into Minnesota's dugout at bench coach Joe Vavra. The previous day Vavra had yelled at Donaldson for not running out a first-inning groundball; when Donaldson had replied to those comments with banter of his own, he got ejected by home plate umpire Toby Basner, who thought Donaldson's remarks were directed at him. Whatever Donaldson did after Sunday’s homer, it's tough to tell from the video:
What is clear is what happened when Donaldson came to bat in the sixth inning. Hughes started him off with a 92 mph fastball that just missed Donaldson's left hip, then followed it with another fastball behind Donaldson's back.
Recall that Hughes has demonstrated outstanding control lately; since the start of 2014, he’s walked 0.9 batters per nine innings and has hit just seven men in 413 2/3 innings, including just one since May 22, 2015. When Toronto manager John Gibbons came out of the dugout to protect an irate Donaldson and find out why Hughes hadn't been tossed, he wound up getting ejected himself by crew chief Joe West; that was the third time in eight days that Gibbons had been thrown out of a game, sandwiched around a three-game suspension he received for returning to the field during the May 15 brawl with the Rangers after having already been ejected.
The Blue Jays wound up beating the Twins 3-1 on Sunday, but afterward, Donaldson had plenty of thoughts about what had transpired. Via SportsNet's Arden Zwelling:
“Major League Baseball has to do something about this… They say they’re trying to protect players. They make a rule that says you can’t slide hard into second base. They make a rule to protect the catchers on slides into home. But when you throw a ball at somebody, nothing’s done about it. My manager comes out to ask what’s going on and he gets ejected for it. That’s what happens.
“I just don’t get the point… I don’t get what baseball’s trying to prove. If I’m a young kid watching these games, why would I want to play baseball? Why? If I do something well or if somebody doesn’t like something that I do, it’s, ‘Oh, well, I’m gonna throw at you now.’ It doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
…“My beef is not with Phil Hughes, the pitcher who threw at me… My problem is with how in baseball you have to feel like you’re a tough guy by throwing a pitch at somebody who’s defenceless. I don’t have a chance. I’m not going to throw my bat at the pitcher. And in the American League, the pitcher doesn’t have to hit."
A player with a bat in his hand isn’t exactly defenseless, but Donaldson is correct to note that the league is doing more to protect players, introducing the home plate collision rule in 2014 and the takeout slide rule this season. While both rules have come under fire for going against the grain of players' competitive impulses and for creating confusion with regards to their implementation, neither could have come about without a consensus from the players' union—an agreement that change is in the best interests of the sport.
Ideally, the same should be true regarding batters being hit intentionally. Particularly with pitchers throwing harder than ever, the danger of such pitches causing serious injury is elevated, and it's in the best interests of both the MLBPA and the 30 teams to keep the players healthy. Even if pitchers tend to target legs and backs instead of heads when delivering purpose pitches, it wouldn't take much of a slip-up for such pitches to have dire consequences.
Determining intent on a pitch can be a difficult matter for an umpire, but they already find reasons to warn both benches when tensions are escalating. How hard would it be to assume that any batter plunked after having homered earlier in the game was hit on purpose? The odds of two such events happening in the same game completely independent from each other seem slim. Ejecting a pitcher who hits a batter in such an instance would act as a deterrent, though as it is, in situations where both benches have been warned due to previous beanball shenanigans, pitchers will complain that by taking away their ability to pitch inside via such warnings, they’re the ones who are suddenly defenseless.
Pitchers and teams might also complain that by removing such pitches from their arsenal, the players lose the ability to self-police for violations of the unwritten rules such as dirty slides or excessive celebrations; Hughes and the Twins certainly thought Donaldson had crossed some line on Sunday with his actions toward Vavra.
The brawl between the Rangers and Blue Jays, however, demonstrated how such efforts to self-police can go awry. To recap: Rangers pitcher Matt Bush hit Bautista with a pitch, perhaps as belated payback for his Division Series Game 5 bat flip, for which we know that hurt feelings lingered among the Rangers; both benches were warned in the wake of Bush’s pitch. Bautista then made an illegal takeout slide into second base while trying to break up a double play; Texas second baseman Rougned Odor appeared as though he were aiming to hit Bautista in the head with his throw, then shoved and finally punched Bautista flush in the face, inciting a full-on brawl that included Donaldson taking a flying leap at Odor. Half an inning later, Prince Fielder was intentionally hit by Blue Jays pitcher Jesse Chavez and ejected.
Thankfully, nobody was seriously injured, but at every turn, the outcome could have been much worse in terms of broken bones and torn ligaments. The final scorecard from the league: an eight-game suspension for Odor, three games for Chavez and Gibbons, one game for Bautisa, one for Blue Jays first base coach Tim Leiper, and one for Elvis Andrus. Donaldson and Bush were among numerous players fined, but the latter wasn't suspended despite the league finding that he hit Bautista intentionally. Why? Mainly because the umpires hadn't issued any warnings, and because Bush managed a no-comment reply when asked afterward if he intentionally hit Bautista. Other pitchers in the past have been suspended for such plunkings even if they weren't actually ejected from the games, because they wound up opening their big mouths.
All disciplinary action handed down by the league is based on precedent, and it takes agreement between the union and the league to deviate from that framework and institute stricter penalties, such as when the two sides empowered commissioner Rob Manfred to hand down lengthy suspensions to players involved in domestic violence incidents. If Donaldson has company among his peers in wanting baseball to wean itself from the cycle of grievance and retribution and to reduce such displays of toxic masculinity, perhaps we'll see new rules put into place when it comes to beanball wars. More likely, we'll just see more chin music.