Maybe Aroldis Chapman is just mad at the Pirates because he got played by a woman in Pittsburgh who was attempting to rob him last June. Maybe it’s something else. Whatever it is, there is a problem. Last night he buzzed the Pirates' Neil Walker in the ninth inning and tonight the Pirates are going to have to do something about it.
Throwing a baseball 90+ miles an hour at a batter is still considered by many the epitome of machismo. A statement of dominance and control. Your team is getting beaten by another team too often? Hit one of their batters. A batter hits a home run and it goes too far or he stares too long? Drill the next guy. You want to show ‘em you own ‘em, buzz ‘em. Whatever happens, make sure you don’t get shown up yourself. Make sure everyone knows you’re the man.
And its ridiculous. It’s vainglorious B.S.
This isn’t about pitching inside. Pitching inside, to make sure guys don’t lunge across the plate to drive pitches the opposite way or turn on every fastball, is a requirement for successful pitching. Brushing guys back to make them less comfortable and to control both sides of the strike zone is a tried-and-true path to success.
Throwing at guys from the shoulder up and at their heads is completely different. And it’s idiotic. Most importantly, it’s dangerous as hell.
And now MLB and Chapman have given the Bucs no choice but to retaliate because the game of baseball still has no idea how to manage the situation. They don’t want to "legislate intent," so guys get drilled night after night with the smallest of repercussions. Instead we have our 21st Century version of jousting. Batters get your armor.
Monday night was the opening game of a four-game series between the Pirates and the Reds. These teams have a bit of history of throwing at each other. Ok, let me rephrase that. The Reds have a bit of history of throwing at the Pirates and the Pirates don't have much of a history of responding. The most recent history centers on August 3, 2012 when Chapman, he of the 100+ MPH fastball, hit Andrew McCutchen up high (video). McCutchen was beyond hot, but there was no opportunity to retaliate because it was the ninth inning and the Reds didn’t bat again, winning the game 3-0.
The next day the Reds' Mike Leake hits the Pirates' Josh Harrison in the second inning and both teams were warned. The Pirates did nothing the Reds first time up and now they were handcuffed by the umpiring crew. The following day, the crew chief Brian Gorman went into both clubhouses before the game and essentially warned both managers. The Reds hit two more Pirates batters, the Pirates won the game, nothing ensued.
Put it on Pirates' game two starter James McDonald, put it on manager Clint Hurdle, put it on the Pirates contending for a playoff spot deep in the season for the first time in 20 years. Whatever the reason, the Pirates didn’t retaliate. (Clint Hurdle has said there was a plan, but one can only assume the course of events and umpire intervention derailed it.)
That Friday night when McCutchen was hit, the Pirates were 60-44, the Reds 64-40. They were battling for the division title. The Pirates went 19-39 (.328), the rest of the way. They played the Reds six more times. In the first matchup each team hit one batter, but none were hit in the remaining five. Why did the Reds care? They had already left their calling card. It’s hard to argue their intimidation didn’t have some effect. McCutchen’s batting average dropped 46 points. By the time they met again, the Pirates were out of the race.
This season the teams played six times before Monday night. Batters on both sides were hit, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The Pirates were up 4-2 on the season series and came into Monday’s game with a 41-28 record. The Reds, a half-game better at 42-28.
Leading off the top of the fourth, Mike Leake hit Andrew McCutchen in the shoulder with an 0-2 cutter. Because it’s Leake, who had already hit McCutchen with a pitch in the neck in 2010, and Cutch it raised an eyebrow, but in a 0-0 game Leake got the benefit of the doubt.
Chapman, not so much. He has a history of headhunting. Aside from the McCutchen incident last year he twice threw beanballs at Nick Swisher earlier this season. And last night n the ninth inning of a 4-1 game he buzzed one right at the head of Pirates leadoff batter Neil Walker.
Now the Pirates have to take matters into their own hands. And no, the Pirates reacting isn’t the vainglorious B.S. I referenced earlier. This has now become about safety and protecting teammates. Chapman is legitimately putting players in serious harm’s way. If MLB isn’t going to police him, the Pirates have to make sure his own team will. Chapman, he of zero career plater appearances, isn’t coming to bat, so Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and others are going to pay the price. They might as well pick out their protective armor now.
39 years ago in the most classic case of retaliation ever, Dock Ellis took matters into his own hands against the same Cincinnati Reds. This is a great recap of Ellis’ night with tons of great quotes. We romanticize what Ellis did that night because of who he was, the legend surrounding him and the fact that we romanticize virtually everything about our national pastime as being quaint from our smug perspective of the present. We shouldn’t. Throwing at guys’ heads is serious business.
But because the game hasn’t taken one step forward in fifty years, hasn’t figured out how to protect players and put teeth into punishment, "policing the game" is still the tried and true manner and now the Pirates have to put it into practice.
When asked recently about the Dodgers-Diamondbacks beanball-fest and how teams handle situations when emotions get a little frayed, Clint Hurdle responded: "You try to handle it professionally without going rogue. And sometimes at the end of the day, rogue is the answer for that particular team to get angst out, to get frustration out. To get whatever they need to get out. I've seen it happen a lot. It usually happens in the summer. I mean we're 60 games into the season. Guys have a feel for things. There is a little more weight tied to things. The frustrations and anxieties pick up."
Tonight I expect you will see the those frustrations boil over. It’s gonna go rogue.