Cole Hamels, Bryce Harper and bean-balls.
In the first inning of Sunday night’s nationally televised Phillies – Nationals game, Philadelphia lefty Cole Hamels drilled Washington’s 19 year old phenom, Bryce Harper, in the lower back with a first pitch fastball. Harper later stole home on a pickoff throw to first base, giving the Nationals a 1-0 lead. They would go on to lose the ballgame, 9-3, but as of this morning still found themselves a mere half game behind the Dodgers, Rangers and Orioles for the best record in baseball. Washington’s fast start (and the early arrival of Harper, the best prospect in the sport) has been one of the biggest surprises of the MLB season.
Also surprising were Cole Hamels’ quotes after the ballgame. Typically, when a pitcher hits an opposing batter, even on purpose, he still offers familiar, innocuous platitudes when asked about it in the clubhouse. Hamels decided to go another (misguided, though brutally honest) route: he told the truth.
“I was trying to hit him, I’m not going to deny it… That’s something I grew up watching, that’s kind of what happened. So I’m just trying to continue the old baseball because I think some people are kind of getting away from it… I think unfortunately the league’s protecting certain players and making it not that old-school, prestigious way of baseball.”
Keep in mind, Cole Hamels was the guy who vigorously complained about pitching day games in the 2009 NLDS against the Colorado Rockies because as “professional athletes”, pitchers are trained to perform at night, and therefore it was unfair for Major League Baseball to force the top-seeded Phillies to begin their playoff games at 2 PM. That doesn’t sound like a very “old-school, prestigious” mentality to me.
Yet the defense many people seem to have for Hamels, in this circumstance, is that what he did was “old-school” and that baseball has “always been this way.” Columnists and media members have referred to Hamels’ candor as “refreshing”.
It would be interesting to see what those same people had to say about ‘Bounty-gate’ or Metta World Peace’s elbow to James Harden’s head. Sure, those examples aren’t perfect comparisons to a hit-by-pitch, nor is Hamels’ offense nearly as serious as a coordinated effort to injure opposing players through monetary compensation. But look at it this way: one player took action that put another player in harm’s way, deliberately and unnecessarily. The punishment for doing so ought to be swift and severe.
If you think that mentality is too new-agey and soft, consider this quote from Jim Leyland, who is about as old school as it gets in baseball:
“If I was I was making that vote it would be a 15-game suspension, at least … I certainly don’t have any qualms with Cole Hamels. I don’t know the man. I know he’s a very good pitcher, a very talented guy, but when you come out and admit it like that – that ball could have missed, hit him in the head or something else like that – and you come out and admit that, I think five games is way too light.”
Sure, Jordan Zimmerman of the Nationals retaliated in the third inning by plunking Hamels in the left leg, but Leyland has a point: Hamels was the aggressor, and freely admitted to it after the game. He didn’t downplay the incident the way pitchers do it 99% of the time they hit someone on purpose; he didn’t say, “Oh, it got away from me.” Instead he said:
“It’s just, ‘Welcome to the big leagues.’ “
As Leyland alluded to, the suspension for Hamels wound up being five games. Because the Phillies have Thursday off, Roy Halladay can be moved up to start on Saturday (on regular rest) and Hamels could start Sunday, and the Philadelphia rotation would hardly skip a beat. Such is the unenviable job of the commissioner’s office – how do you punish pitchers for intentional bean-balls? Five games seems to be standard fare (Ubaldo Jiminez got something similar for plunking Troy Tulowitzki in a Spring Training game), but with off-days a little rotation re-structuring can nearly eliminate all the side effects of a suspension.
Hamels will lose approximately $409,000 in salary for being suspended those five games, with is twice as much as bad boy James Harrison has been fined (total) by the National Football League. At least he is suffering somewhere- his checking account. But imagine the ball had sailed a bit, or imagine Harper had been looking for a first-pitch curveball, hung in there a little too long and been hit in the hand. Pablo Sandoval of the Giants did that, broke his hamate bone in his hand and will be out 4-6 weeks.
That leads to a question that I don’t have an answer for: in cases where a player injures another player via a dirty or unnecessary hit, should the offender be suspended for as long as the injured player misses games? I have an issue answering that in the affirmative, because although Harper wasn’t injured by Cole Hamels, Hamels still deserves a suspension. The act was still wrong, even though the consequences weren’t as bad as they could have been.
Does Major League Baseball have any other recourse to curb pitchers taking it upon themselves to “welcome” young stars to the big leagues? Other than Hamels’ pocketbook, no one on the Phillies side suffers much for an act that could have had serious consequences. A 15 or 20 game suspension sounds a little harsh for giving Harper a back bruise; so what’s the answer?
Employing the “bean-ball” strategically is one of baseball’s mysterious sciences. Author Buzz Bissinger wrote an entire book (“Three Nights in August”) about Tony La Russa’s mentality throughout a 3-game series against the Chicago Cubs; how and when to hit opposing players is a carefully constructed maneuver. Hitting batters is a part of the game; in a non-contact sport it is the only violent recourse a team has to try and intimidate the opposition. It will always be part of the sport.
But what Hamels did was different. He hit Bryce Harper just for the Hell of it, and dared the commissioner’s office to do something about it; all they did was give him the usual punishment. It’s time for Bud Selig to start handing out longer suspensions to pitchers who are obviously plunking batters. Ten games sounds about right to me. Hamels should have been gone an extra five for failing to possess the good sense to lie about it to the media.
It’s doubtful baseball will change its ways now.. So I suppose they will do what the rest of us will – sit back, and hope that an ill-conceived “purpose pitch” doesn’t alter what could be an intriguing pennant race for no good reason.
Like it? Hate it? Lukewarm about it? Send your thoughts to BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, send me a little something on Twitter (140 characters or less) @BreakTheHuddle, tell me on Facebook, or leave a comment.