The Cubs' righthander was a big fan of the Memorial Day fight, though his reasons why reflect an increasingly tired old-school mentality.
Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta is no stranger to hot takes when it comes to the state of baseball in this day and age. Just back in March, he made waves when he said that young players hadn't earned the right to flip a bat after a home run, and that any rookie who had the temerity to send his bat skyward "might wear one in the ribs" his next time up. (Though it should be noted that Arrieta had no problem with Jose Bautista's bat flip to end all bat flips, saying, "Certain guys have earned the right to do that. In big spots like that, there’s so much on the line and sometimes it’s nice to see guys lay loose and let that excitement really show.")
It should be no surprise, then, that Arrieta's takeaway from the Memorial Day brawl between the Nationals and Giants—prompted by Hunter Strickland plunking Bryce Harper—is a little off the beaten path. Here's what he said to Chicago radio station 670 The Score on Tuesday:
I don't think anybody is right or wrong. I thought it was awesome. Every once in a while, it's refreshing to see two teams emotionally charged getting after it. And when something like that happens versus continuing to chirp and talk about it, why don't you go out there and see somebody? That's exactly what happened in the game yesterday.
The fracas between Harper and Strickland was the result of some lingering bad blood on the latter's part—three years' worth of animosity, to be exact, as Strickland was still stewing over two bombs that Harper hit off of him in the 2014 National League Division Series and the way the Washington superstar admired his shots. The resulting fight will cost Harper four games and Strickland six, though in Arrieta's mind, that's just what happens when two dudes have a score to settle.
If two guys want to go see each other, let them be in the middle, let them throw some punches, then break it up. I don't like to see any sucker punches. I do think in the heat of battle if you're getting hit on the hip with 98, then you should be able to go out and see somebody. I think the umpires handled it well. They let them exchange for a moment, then they tried to break it up.
Arrieta was also cool with the way Giants catcher Buster Posey refused to get in the middle of the fight or stop Harper from rushing his pitcher, something that drew some ire from fans and a few former players. Though again, Arrieta's take on the situation isn't what you'd expect.
If it's my catcher, I want him to wait and give me an opportunity to do a little damage. I don't want it broken up right away. If it happens, I'll let you know. I'll be ready. You know, I like my chances toe-to-toe with just about anybody.
Leaving aside the bizarre dynamics of starting a fight over something that happened three years ago and the idea of Arrieta taking on all comers in a brawl, it's clear that the former Cy Young winner subscribes to an older brand of baseball—a no-holds-barred style of the game in which beanballs and brawls are just part of the way things are. To Arrieta, fights and bat flips are two sides of the same coin, an expression of passion and excitement you don't normally see and that players can police themselves.
But while excitement is all well and good, and while it can be entertaining to watch the likes of Harper and Strickland tussle and throw punches (ala Bautista and Rougned Odor a year ago), it's a bit unsettling to see a current player essentially applaud and encourage violence as the way to solve an issue, particularly given the inherent danger of a man throwing a projectile nearly 100 mph at another man. And that's to say nothing of the potential injuries arising from a brawl itself. The Harper-Strickland fight, for example, resulted in Giants outfielder Mike Morse landing on the concussion disabled list after he collided with teammate Jeff Samardzija while trying to break it up, and a fear of getting hurt in the scrum was what Posey cited as his reason for staying out of the scrap.
Far be it from me or anyone else to tell Arrieta or other players how they can feel about or react to a fight. But all the silliness that surrounds brawls—the so-called violations of the unwritten rules, the bizarre code of conduct when it comes to throwing at someone, the obfuscation of intent that always follows (see Strickland claiming that he was just trying to pitch inside)—is as tired as can be. Sure, it's funny to watch guys throw open-handed punches and flail around because of the kind of hurt feelings that most grade schoolers would dismiss more quickly. But will it still be funny the next time a purpose pitch goes too high or too tight? Would Arrieta still have been as gungho about the brawl had either of Harper or Strickland (or anyone else) been seriously injured?
Arrieta has some dustup experience of his own: Back in the 2015 playoffs, he was hit on the hip by Pirates reliever Tony Watson amid a dominant performance in the NL wild-card game, with both benches emptying and Pittsburgh utility infielder Sean Rodriguez getting tossed for throwing hands at catcher David Ross. Afterward, Arrieta played down the incident, saying that it was just a moment where "tempers [were] running hot." But what if that fight had ended with a Pirate bodyslamming him ala Graig Nettles and Bill Lee in 1976 and hurting his shoulder? What if Arrieta's newly resurgent career had been affected because of a pointless hit-by-pitch? Will it take something like that to make all the performative posturing passé?
Arrieta is who he is, and some form of frontier justice will likely always exist within baseball (though the league itself could do far more to curb it, starting with far harsher punishments or longer suspensions for players who start fights or who throw high and inside). But hopefully, players with his old-school mentality will give way to guys who view fighting and feuding as archaic and stupid, and ideally, that'll happen before someone gets hurt.