Baseball’s complicated relationship with hit-by-pitches just got a lot more complicated.
Hunter Strickland drilled Bryce Harper in the hip with a 98 mph fastball in Monday’s Washington Nationals–San Francisco Giants game, with the obvious intention of hitting Harper in the hip. Harper charged the mound, sort of threw his helmet and exchanged punches with Strickland, with both landing blows on each other’s faces. The benches cleared, order was restored and it eventually took four teammates to drag Strickland into the tunnel connected to the Giants dugout.
It was pure bush league from Strickland, and that was made clear by catcher Buster Posey‘s reaction. Posey stood behind home plate as Harper charged the mound, a thousand words spoken with his motionless pose. The pitch was likely thrown as a ridiculous retaliation for the two home runs Harper hit off Strickland in the 2014 playoffs, including this monster mash that Harper watched — it was right down the line — before starting his home run trot:
That was the last time Strickland faced Harper. So he has been stewing on those two home runs for more than a thousand days, itching to get back at Harper for … what? For his own bad pitching? For Harper’s staring at a ball a second too long? Here’s an idea: Don’t give up home runs.
Harper would send that message after the game, telling reporters, “It’s so in the past it’s not even relevant anymore. They won the World Series that year. I don’t think he should be even thinking about what happened in the first round.”
It would seem Strickland’s teammates would agree with Harper. As Eduardo Perez pointed out on the ESPN telecast, the Giants infielders took their time before budging from their positions. Their message matched Posey’s: You’re on your own, buddy.
The benches eventually emptied, with Jeff Samardzija charging after Harper like a medieval jouster on a horse, only to charge right into a nasty collision with his own teammate. There was more hair flying around than at a senior prom in 1987.
There will be suspensions. Harper, while understandably ticked off, couldn’t contain his emotions in the heat of the moment. At least he might have realized at the last moment that throwing his helmet right at Strickland wasn’t smart. He also risked injury in charging the mound; who knows what can happen in one of those pileups on the mound? Still, you trying remaining calm when somebody just fired a projectile at you at 98 mph.
“A baseball is a weapon,” Harper said, adding that “sometimes you’ve got to go and get him. You can’t hesitate. You can either go to first base or you go after him. And I decided to go after him.”
Because both guys threw punches, last year’s Rougned Odor–Jose Bautista fight is an apt comparison. Odor drew an eight-game suspension (reduced to seven) for throwing a punch, and Bautista drew a one-game suspension for his actions and postgame comments. Samardzija could also face a suspension for “aggressive” actions, similar to Elvis Andrus’ game suspension in that Rangers-Blue Jays brawl.
One of the ongoing subplots of the 2017 seasons — similar to every other season — is the debate over pitchers throwing at hitters. When is it appropriate? When is it not appropriate? When do you seek retribution? What, ultimately, does it solve when you do retaliate?
The one thing everyone basically agrees on is that pitches at the head are unacceptable in any situation. That’s why everyone got worked up when Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes threw a pitch near Manny Machado‘s head in April. In theory, Strickland’s pitch was acceptable because it was thrown at Harper’s hip and not up-and-in. That, however, doesn’t make it excusable. In no way does Harper’s watching that home run justify Strickland’s pitch, even if thrown in a relatively safe location.
What comes next? Strickland might have put Posey in danger, as he’s the obvious target if the Nationals seek revenge. One suggestion could be that longer suspensions are necessary in an attempt to limit unnecessary beanings. Or should this be something that players legislate themselves? They’re the ones playing the games.
After all, if Harper — or Nationals pitchers — do nothing, it essentially gives opponents free reign to throw at him. This was one of the subtexts of the heated Red Sox-Yankees rivalry in the 2000s, when it was believed that Pedro Martinez and Red Sox pitchers eventually gained an edge by throwing at or inside to Yankees hitters, while Yankees pitchers didn’t retaliate often enough.
What to do? I have no idea. Hit by pitches totals aren’t going down; they’re actually double the rate of the early 1980s, though some of that comes from hitters’ crowding and diving over the plate. I suspect that until we get a major injury, things will continue as they are now: an eye for an eye.
Which means Posey better come to the plate Tuesday with a little extra padding on his body.