CLEVELAND (TNS) --The game of baseball is currently going through a generational divide, one that seems to pop up every now and then thanks to some comment from a curmudgeon of a veteran upset that the game has evolved.
Or, at times, some false macho-man bravado is behind an outdated notion about the game policing itself at questionable times.
The newest example came about last week after Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Urena plunked Atlanta Braves phenom Ronald Acuna Jr. with the first pitch of the game.
Acuna had hit a string of home runs (five in his previous four games with four of them coming against the Marlins and three of which being of the lead-off variety) and was among the hottest hitters in baseball. So Urena, right out of the gate, drilled him with a 97-mph fastball. It was Urena’s fastest first pitch of the entire season. As Acuna tried to twist out of the way, he was hit on the elbow.
Thankfully, for the game of baseball and one of its brightest young stars, Acuna avoided major injury. But with the location of the pitch, a fractured elbow or a broken rib was certainly possible. Urena was given a six-game suspension that he has since appealed, a slap on the wrist compared to the time Acuna could have been on the disabled list.
In an already heated situation — the Braves obviously furious that one of their best was hit without cause — Keith Hernandez then fanned the flames. Hernandez, a 17-year MLB veteran and current SNY game analyst, said the Marlins were justified in hitting Acuna solely because of his hot streak.
“They’re killing you. You lost three games. He’s hit three home runs. You got to hit him,” Hernandez said on the air. “I’m sorry, people aren’t going to like that. You know, you got to hit him, knock him down. I mean, seriously knock him down if you don’t hit him. You never throw at anybody’s head or neck. ... You hit him in the back. You hit him in the fanny.”
That thought process, that you need to hit an opposing hitter just because he’s done well against your team recently, is outdated, unnecessary and not really a part of the game anymore.
Indians reliever Cody Allen, when told about Hernandez’s comments, didn’t even wait for the question before responding.
“No, you don’t,” Allen said, before explaining there’s a difference between that and trying to make a hot hitter uncomfortable by pitching inside. “You don’t want to just keep feeding stuff out over the plate they can continue to pound. You’re gonna try to pitch to the short side of the plate for a ball and for a strike. Granted, you’re not trying to plunk somebody or throw it at their head, you’re just trying to make him uncomfortable. But just because a guy led off a couple games with a home run, you don’t intentionally wear him out at 97.”
Allen used Jose Ramirez, now a Most Valuable Player candidate and one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball, as a prime example of how the Indians’ clubhouse might react if he had been in Acuna’s position. It’s a baseless act that might seriously injure a batter just for doing his job.
“It’s just not a good part of the game,” Allen said. “If Jose is raking, and somebody goes up there and throws one at his dome and knocks him out for a week or hurts him, and it screws up [our chances of winning], and we don’t have Jose, that’s one of the best players in baseball, I’m going to be pretty upset. If I was on the other team, hopefully I’d feel the same way. You’re competing, you’re pitching, you’re doing well and you’re trying to get a guy out, but at the same time you’re not trying to hurt somebody. And when you start doing that, you can hurt guys.”
So, an opposing batter has hit a bunch of home runs off of you recently. Is firing a 97-mph baseball at his rib cage a “game policing itself” move? Because it sure comes off more-so like a petulant child upset that he isn’t getting his way. You can send messages in a different way. This isn’t the NBA, where a hard foul can do the trick. This is hurling a baseball at someone with the possibility to do some serious damage. Being cautious about hitting a batter for that reason shouldn’t be seen as a weakness or timid, it should be seen as a sign of strength that the main course of action is simply to try to best him the next time up to bat instead of just hitting the guy.
Making a hot hitter uncomfortable does have a lot of value. Pitchers have to be able to establish the inside part of the plate or at least get a hitter outside of his comfort zone.
“I don’t think that hitting somebody intentionally because they’ve done well is really part of the game,” Indians ace Corey Kluber said. “If a guy’s going out to get the ball, and he’s too comfortable so to speak, there’s definitely a need and value to pitching him inside but I don’t think that means you have to hit him. One of the things that makes a pitcher be able to pitch at this level is to be able to command the ball to both sides of the plate. I think that’s one of the ways to keep hitters off balance. I think if you’re going out there and feeding them the same pitch over and over, and they hit it, I don’t think the answer in turn is to then hit them. If you’ve got to pitch a guy inside to change his eyesight or keep him off that pitch outside, that’s one thing.”
The alternative to risking injury is fairly simple.
“You could try getting him out?” second baseman Jason Kipnis said.
“There’s a place in the game for messages. I don’t mind that,” Kipnis added. “I would have rather seen one to the backstop before one in his ribs. I think there’s some steps in-between that you could take, maybe start him off with a curveball. Mix it up. Switch your pitching approach. One high and tight inside that doesn’t hit him is another step. Get him uncomfortable, get him moving his feet. There’s ways of making a hitter uncomfortable without getting one in the ribs. Are there times to hit a guy? Yeah. I don’t think that was one of them.”
Hitters flipping their bat or having a “look-at-me” attitude, as he put it, can warrant a more stern response, in Kipnis’ eyes. Kluber said if you’re going to show emotion on the mound or pound your chest after a big strikeout, you better also be OK with a hitter flipping his bat on you. There can be a time for the game retaining some form of policing itself in terms of players not showing each other up. There are some traditions to be upheld. This situation, though, doesn’t fit that mold. And, much of what seems to cause a stir now isn’t necessarily new in the first place.
“Players have always showed emotion,” Kipnis said. “I much more like the showing of the emotion more than the ‘look-at-me’ stuff. It’s two different eras right now between what guys did 20 years ago versus now, with so many eyes on everything and social media. There are guys back then who showed emotion, too. It just wasn’t under the microscope. It just wasn’t talked about because there weren’t the platforms there are today.”
Baseball has fallen behind the NFL and NBA in terms of marketing its players, and they haven’t made much traction in that regard lately. Part of the issue might be so many veterans bad-mouthing any changes in the sport, as if the game of baseball hasn’t gone through myriad transformations in the past century, and for the better.
It’s pretty clear that drilling a guy with a 97-mph pitch because he hit a few home runs isn’t in the best interest of the sport. Just strike the dude out next time.
Ryan Lewis is a columnists for the Akron Beacon Journal.