The first meeting between the Astros and Dodgers since the 2017 World Series was bound to be ugly. The Astros, of course, cheated their way to victory at the expense of the Dodgers, the Yankees, and at the time, Joe Kelly’s Red Sox. Kelly took it upon himself to enact revenge, throwing around the head of Alex Bregman.
Kelly was suspended eight games with MLB citing a previous incident in which Kelly intentionally threw at Tyler Austin in 2018. According to Kelly, the pitch at Bregman was a mistake, and he’s appealing the suspension. However, pitchers rarely admit to intentionally throwing at a batter, and they always appeal suspensions. Kelly’s actions afterward sure make it seem like it was intentional, but a lot of people don’t appear to be bothered by that.
There are two basic arguments floating around saying that Kelly’s eight game suspension was unjust. First, it’s unfair that Kelly is getting a harsher punishment than any of the Astros players who cheated their way to a World Series title. Second, that an 8-game suspension in a 60-game season is too long.
Now, did the Astros get off light for the banging scheme? Absolutely. In April, I called their punishment a slap on the wrist. With the pandemic barring fans from attending games, the Astros have—for a time—even avoided the rain of boos that would shower them at every city they visit. The Astros undermined the integrity of the game, and the punishment made it worth it.
That doesn’t give opposing players permission to attempt bodily harm on them. Cheating is bad, but headhunting is worse. Kelly easily could have concussed Bregman, or broken his jaw, or even killed him. Bregman, Correa, and the Astros certainly deserve spite, but none of them deserve to suffer physically for their transgressions. To think otherwise is barbaric.
So, Kelly has been suspended for eight games for something that would get you arrested if you tried it on the street. Ken Rosenthal tweeted that eight games in a 60-game season was the equivalent of 22 in a 162-game campaign, and that it seemed harsh. To some, taking Kelly out of action when every game counts for three is disproportionately unfair.
That logic doesn’t hold up. Should the inverse be true? Should punishments be shortened in a 60-game season? Tres Barrera was recently suspended for 80 games for a PED violation, but no one argued that the length of the suspension was inappropriate. 80 games in a 162-game season is 49.3 percent of the season, but in a 60-game season, it’s 133.3 percent.
Of course, there are established rules for PED violations. The first positive test is always an 80-game suspension. For intentionally throwing at a hitter, MLB plays it by ear, which is admittedly a problem. Last season, Keone Kela was suspended for 10 games for throwing at Derek Dietrich’s head. In 2017, Matt Barnes was suspended four games for throwing at Manny Machado’s head.
Between Kela, Barnes, and Kelly, that’s three suspensions, all of varying lengths, for the same thing: throwing at a player’s head. MLB should have a set number of games for which a headhunting player will be suspended, and it should be higher than the eight games Kelly received.
In eight games, a reliever like Kelly might make five appearances if they’re really busy. Alex Claudio led the majors in appearances last year at 83, so he appeared in every other game. Missing out on four innings of work isn’t enough of a deterrent, and that’s why this keeps happening.
MLB hasn’t shown that it can adequately or consistently punish bad behavior. Take, for instance, the myriad on-field safety protocols that are broken in every game. We haven’t seen an umpire even apathetically tell players not to high-five or to spit. The league didn’t make any statements or issue any punishments for the benches clearing in Houston. None of that means it’s up to the players to take up vigilantism. It MLB doesn’t get its act together, someone’s going to get hurt.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.