Whenever a 25-year old man dies, under any circumstance, it should be met with the deepest sympathy. The tragic death of Australian cricket player Phillip Hughes is no exception. We here at Beyond the Box Score – what our readership would know as a baseball metrics blog – are as shocked and saddened as the rest of the world. There are no metrics by which to measure this tragedy, nor statistics to comfort those who loved him.
But this sad event should also lead us to think deeply about the dangers of our game, a cousin of the game that cost Hughes his life. We encourage you to share your thoughts about the following suggestions aimed at making it far less likely that this kind of thing will occur in baseball.
Let’s start then with broad strokes. My ideas for rule changes:
1) Much stiffer penalties for both unintentional and intentional hit-by-pitches
This one is the easiest to suggest to people, so we’ll start with this baby step. This could come in very different ways as well but here’s how I would frame it if I were commissioner: a) no warnings, immediate ejection. If you make this a blanket punishment it really shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Regardless of it being intentional or not, the pitcher is ejected. This would also go hand-in-hand with stiffer penalties for batters who hog the plate or fail to move out of the way. The umpire is in control of the game and, frankly, sometimes the players don’t know what’s best for their own safety; b) if a tribunal – like the advisory committee of the newly-minted Pitch Smart – with help from the Major League Baseball Players Association, agrees that the hit-by-pitch was intentional (or perhaps not clearly accidental), the pitcher is suspended for roughly 3 starts. I’d set this at 19 games to ensure 3 starts and keep this the same for relief pitchers. The intentional HBP needs to end; this shouldn’t be a difficult concession for any party.
There are two reasons for penalties in sports: 1) to uphold the rules that make that particular game unique (e.g. a hand ball in soccer), and; 2) to protect the players that play it from injury. I’ve intentionally ordered them this way because I believe this is the order society cares most about. But do you really want it to be in this order? Carefully ask yourself this before criticizing my stance.
The main detraction – which I do truly welcome – would be that pitchers wouldn’t be able to apply their craft as effectively, ‘scared to pitch inside.’ I don’t give this argument any credence. If a professional can’t aptly do their job while simultaneously conforming to safety regulations then they don’t deserve a job at the highest competitive level. An inside fastball is a crucial weapon which the best pitchers will still deploy with confidence and the restriction will apply uniformly to all pitchers, not just arbitrarily based on umpire.
2) New protective equipment is made mandatory
This involves Major League Baseball pouring a ton of money into real research and development to create the best protection possible. Again, this shouldn’t be difficult considering the financial health of the sport. Major League Baseball profits from the product they put on the field. Therefore, they are responsible for the well-being of that product. The same as any business in my opinion, the company is liable when the employee is injured at work. It is both the employees’ right and responsibility to protect themselves from the dangers of their profession.
Real research and development would need to be done on this but I could speculate. For instance, I’d like to see cages put onto helmets like youth Fastpitch. Similarly, some form of neck protection. Something that could be easily removed after an at-bat would be fine with me. Or maybe even fitted to the helmet, like Jason Heyward has done. From the outside of the sport looking in, the new protective hats for pitchers look like they need work before being implemented fully. Alex Torres is the only player to have worn one in a game and, frankly, I can see why. Major League Baseball needs to work harder and with pitchers to create a more realistic and game-ready iteration.
Most importantly though, this would not be grandfathered in; this would be mandatory effective immediately. Major League Baseball would have a clear case to show how much time and effort they put into making this the best possible solution and the Players Association could happily oblige. Worst case scenario, they could strong-arm the union on this. A work stoppage started by the union would look petty in this case and it is worth enough to the sport and commissioner that a death doesn’t happen on the field.
3) Hit-by-pitch is now worth extra bases
This is the toughest sell by far in my opinion. There is this weird culture in sport that makes the record books holy. Anything that may impact the record books is usually a non-starter.
I’m pretty soft on this one though and I think it might actually be the most effective of my propositions. Provided the bases are empty, the hit batsman would take second base as opposed to first now. For instance, a hit-by-pitch would still not advance the runners other than in a bases loaded situation. There is significant reason to believe a pitcher wouldn’t intentionally bean a batter with runners on base anyways. Would Roger Clemens have given Mike Piazza a concussion if he wasn’t leading off that inning? Rhetorical question. Leading aside, can we all take a moment to acknowledge the dangerous message sent when Clemens didn’t even get warned, let alone thrown out from the game? He went on to throw more than 7 innings that night.
Anecdotes like these are really what sets apart Phillip Hughes’ tragic accident from a similar thing happening in baseball. That is, we have a great amount of empathy for Sean Abbott, the bowler who threw the bouncer that hit Hughes’ neck. There is an agreement in cricket that this was a freak accident. But in baseball, there’s a culture that makes intentionally hitting a player okay in certain circumstances. Take a moment and really think about how absurd that is. We welcome this type of on-field justice, because it ‘settles scores’ or whatever other rhetoric fans and players want to apply. It’s abhorrent and disgraceful.
I coach youth baseball. Indulge me. One of the players on my team was blocking the basepath; an amateur mistake. The larger child, running to third, felt it necessary to run my player over while he was waiting to receive the ball, not paying full attention to the runner. Do you think I told my pitcher to bean that player the next time he was up to bat? That doesn’t belong in baseball at any level. If you can’t watch that happen to a child then you shouldn’t be able to watch it done to any other human regardless of what you deem to be ‘context’ for ‘vengeance.’
These rule changes truly are a beginning for player safety as research discloses more and more about concussions. Think of the precedent Major League Baseball would set if they – a non-contact sport – announced that they were taking player safety this seriously. How would the contact sports react and, indeed, keep up? Baseball has been anything but progressive. I love this sport, I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t, but it’s true. It would be nice to see them set the precedent on this issue.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Michael Bradburn is a Contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mwbii. You can also reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org