Hit batsmen and the New NL East rivalry

Al Bello

The Phillies versus Nationals NL East rivalry has been percolating for years. Does some Spring Training jawing take it to the next level?

We're all looking for deeper meaning.

The analysis and research devoted to baseball pursue this goal in a systematic and methodological approach, in the hopes that we can uncover fascinating information. Oftentimes, members of the baseball community uncover the deeper meaning of an action or a sentence by asking questions, probing for the answers, and then interpreting them using the information at hand.

This was the case in a recent Spring Training game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals. In a piece on ESPN.com, Jayson Stark astutely describes a scene in the game when Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg plunked Phillies 2B Chase Utley in the shin, and the obligatory retaliatory pitch Roy Halladay threw behind Nat's outfielder Tyler Moore.

As Stark notes, this wasn't the first documented squabble between the two clubs involving hit batsmen. First, in John Lannan's first ever MLB start for the Nationals, he hit both Chase Utley (breaking Utley's finger) and Ryan Howard in back-to-back at bats. Next, in 2012, Cole Hamels hit young phenom Bryce Harper, and admitted his intent to do so. Neither of these two teams is new to the "let's plunk the other team's best players" bit we see from time to time.

Stark made a solid deduction in his piece covering the spat between the NL East foes. He pointed out that while this battle of hit batsmen and post-game interviews may have occurred in Spring Training, the timing of the event shows the depth of the rivalry between these two clubs. Sports is chock full of rivalries, and baseball does not diverge from this truth. Whether it's the Yankees and the Red Sox, Cubs and Cardinals, or Dodgers and Giants, some baseball teams have deep-seated anger towards others, and that's the way it is. In fact, for some, if not most sports fans, rivalries make up a large potion of the reasons we love sports like baseball with such fervor.

"How can anyone believe, given the recent history between these two teams, that this was just another day at either of their offices?"

The Phillies and Nationals have, partially by circumstances and partially on purpose, created a new rivalry. I don't speak for every fan, but I think most would agree with me when I say that the making of this new rivalry is awesome. Rivalries bring out the best and sometimes the worst in baseball fans, players, and coaches -- but generally speaking, they enhance the game in a not-so-tangible way.

Another point to take from Stark's piece is the whole idea behind plunking battings and retaliation. Sometimes this behavior leads to ejections, sacrificial acts that lead both to martyrdom and lasting effects on the outcome of the game. Other times, purposeful hit batsmen or high cheese can lead to injures, which not only effect the game at hand, but a team's success down the line.

Stark mentions the necessity of the retaliation by using a quote from Phillies outfielder Laynce Nix:

"And across the field, in the other clubhouse, Laynce Nix, who has played for both of these teams, made it clear that when Utley got drilled by a guy who "had really good control today, at least with all the pitches he threw to me," that wasn't a development the Phillies could just shrug off as no big whoop. Even on March 6."

Does the respect earned by a player in the clubhouse truly outweigh the potential damage in these situations? Sure, MLB hitters have some of the best reaction times in the world, but imagine if Aroldis Chapman threw a high heater for some chin music. How many players could physically get themselves out of the way of one of those Cuban missiles?

Should Major League Baseball implement stricter punishments for such behavior in an attempt to curtail it, or is there no punishment that would stop this conduct all together? Don't ever forget that a fastball is a weapon, and although Halladay may have thrown behind Tyler Moore, not every pitcher has Halladay-like control. While Stark didn't delve into this issue, Spring Training incidents like this should rekindle a discussion about intentionally hitting an opposing team's players, period. Is there a deeper meaning to all of this? Maybe, but is it worth it?

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