Politics of Plunking

A handy guide to when, where and why it's O.K. to go inside, for pitchers intent on delivering retribution
June 24, 2013

For better or worse, baseball has a self-policing mechanism, and it was on display on June 11 in Los Angeles. After Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke hit Arizona's Cody Ross on the hand in the fifth inning, Diamondbacks starter Ian Kennedy hit L.A. phenom Yasiel Puig in the nose with a pitch during the next frame. Throwing high at a hitter is a no-no, so Greinke plunked Arizona's Miguel Montero—but only after buzzing (and missing) him twice. That peeved the D-backs, reportedly because they felt that a pitcher should only get one shot at evening the score. So what happened? When Greinke came up in the eighth, he took one in the shoulder—and nearly the head—triggering what passes for a fight in baseball (lots of shoving, jawing and finger-pointing).

Who was in the right? Had Kennedy overstepped his bounds? Did Greinke have it coming? We asked former pitcher Al Leiter, now an MLB Network and Yankees analyst, to help sort it all out.

START HERE

DID THEY HIT YOUR GUY FIRST?

(No)

Was an opposing hitter showing you up?

Are you getting raked?

(Yes)

DON'T DO IT

There's a school of thought that back-to-back homers should be followed with a heater between the numbers. Not so, says Leiter: "It's cowardly. Look, make better pitches. If you suck and can't get people out, maybe you should get a different job or go to the minors and figure it out." However, there is a time to come inside against guys who rough you up: "Guys who have good numbers against you are comfortable. Make them uncomfortable. Doesn't mean hit them. You come inside. Throw down in the zone, thigh high, and make them move their feet."

(No)

Did a player on the other team make a dirty play, such as sliding with his spikes up?

(No)

Is there a long-standing beef with an opposing hitter?

(No)

DON'T DO IT

You've got no case. Of course, that doesn't mean guys don't get hit for other, often silly, reasons. Tommy Lasorda often tells of hitting Buster Maynard because Maynard refused to sign an autograph when Lasorda was a teen. It led to a brawl, which usually means a lot of rolling around. In that case, watch your digits. Says Leiter, "The worst part of a baseball brawl is [someone] stepping on your fingers."

(Yes)

Hit that guy. Bush league behavior should be dealt with at the source. Don't take it out on a teammate. Says Leiter, "It's definitely personal."

HIT

(Yes)

(Yes)

There's no statute of limitations on settling a score. In 2000 the Yankees' Roger Clemens hit the Mets' Mike Piazza in the head, then threw a broken bat at him three months later in the World Series (top). "Shawn Estes was the pitcher when Clemens finally pitched at Shea [in 2002]," says Leiter, who was a Met at the time. "He had to go down. Now, [Estes] missed him, but everyone knew it was going to happen."

(Yes)

Was the player on your team who was hit showboating?

Sometimes guys deserve to get plunked. In May the Pirates hit Mets outfielder Jordany Valdespin (below) after he stood and watched a home run—and his team did nothing about it. Says Leiter, "You get your message to the showboating Cadillac that it's disrespectful. You [let them] learn the hard way. The Pirates took care of Valdespin, and there was nobody on the Mets' side defending him. They're looking at him, saying, 'Don't do that.'"

(Yes)

DON'T DO IT

(No)

Is the other pitcher just wild—not necessarily malicious?

(Yes)

Says Leiter, "You've got to say, 'Hey, look, you can't just blatantly throw inside. You're going to get someone hurt.' That usually comes down from the pitching coach or manager. In between innings the pitching coach will tell you, 'Get your arm up, your slider was flat last inning, blah, blah, blah. Oh, and by the way, sometime this inning, find a spot. Somebody's got to go down.'"

(No)

Are you in the National League?

(No)

HIT

Hit someone. But who? Leiter explains: "You can get the first guy the next inning, but generally you try to get a couple of outs so you don't create a situation where you're scrambling because you're a gunslinger. If you get my number 3 hitter, I get your number 3 hitter—that was the Tony La Russa way. My feeling: You find a meaningful guy in the lineup, because you're taking the bat out of his hand." As for how you do it: Keep it down. "Guys get hit in the back and butt all the time" says Leiter. "You'll have a bruise, but it's not going to hit you in the skull."

(Yes)

Here's a myth: Because they bat, NL pitchers have to be more careful about whom they hit. But Greinke was just the fourth NL pitcher to get hit this year. Even in the supposedly rough-and-tumble old days, pitchers didn't get hit often. Stan Williams, who once apologized for hitting Hank Aaron in the head by telling him, "I meant to hit you in the neck," was plunked just twice in his 14-year career.

FOUR ILLUSTRATIONSILLUSTRATION BY NICOLE ZIGMONT PHOTOWILLIAM PERLMAN/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PRESSWIRE (CLEMENS) PHOTOMARK J. TERRILL/AP (GREINKE) PHOTOMARK J. TERRILL/AP (FIGHT) PHOTOJIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (VALDESPIN)
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)