Last night, Manny Machado dug in to face Jonathan Papelbon after belting a homerun in his previous plate appearance. MASN's own (and former Oriole) Ray Knight would later describe Manny's response to hitting the homerun to be inappropriate. Apparently, Manny admired it too much. Anyway, the first pitch thrown by Papelbon to Manny came inside and high. It looked like a brush back pitch by a pitcher who has issued fewer than one walk per nine innings since showing up in Washington, a pitcher always known for having good control. The next pitch was a breaking ball out and away. The third pitch hit Manny up high. One could not have scripted a better intentional beaning.
However, it is difficult to know whether it was intentional. Sometimes the most guilty looking people are actually innocent as our judicial system shows day in and day out. Rarely in baseball do you get an incident like when Cole Hamels drilled Bryce Harper a few years ago and then readily admitted as much. Instead, you get pitchers claiming a pitch slipped or a pitch rode a little further than it usually does. This makes it pretty difficult for the umpiring crew to manage.
Of course, one wonders whether or not this is a manufactured issue or something has gone amiss. I pulled data from 1990 until now and the graph below depicts the percentage of plate appearances that end in hit batsmen.
From the tail end of Ray Knight's career, batters are nearly twice as likely to get beaned now than they were back then. So something has certainly changed. Additionally, the narrative about the current downswing of power is related to an increase in inside pitching appears to be a false narrative. I am unsure what happened for the 2001 season, but it greatly impacted HBP incidence.
Anyway, the goal should be to reach zero HBP in a reasonable and rational way. Of course, it is highly improbable we could ever reach zero, but it is important to reduce the number of hit batsmen. Baseball is about watching players play the game as opposed to finding themselves injured or having to sit through pointless bench clearings. In other words, we probably should not distinguish between intentional and unintentional hit batsmen incidents.
Why? Intentionally hitting a batter is dangerous (especially so if a beanball is issued), encourages further situations where a batter is hit, creates the idea that players are allowed to play umpire, and slows the game down. It is fairly obvious that the negatives involved for intentionally hitting a batter outweigh any possible good in ensuring the game is played the "right" way. I would also argue that unintentional plunking is more dangerous. Typically, an intentional hit batsmen is hit in the back or on his backside. I assume that a wild pitcher will just about hit a batter anywhere. I imagine a large number of wild pitchers are falsely accused of throwing at a batter intentionally (leading to a poor application of suspensions as well as encouraging players on other teams to regulate the game themselves). Regardless, a professional pitcher should be able to both control his emotions and his pitches, so we should just throw all hit batsmen in the same bucket. Discerning intent is fraught with error, so the most appropriate and fair way to handle this is with a generic sledge hammer.
What I propose is that the game sets up a simple system of punishment that is similar to how soccer leagues operate with their card system. In soccer, a player is issued a card when their play is inappropriate. The inappropriateness of a tackle is judged by the official and a yellow card or red card is issued. Again, this sets up the whole intent problem again, so for hit batsmen I would modify it and take a full yellow card approach.
Two HBP in a single game = 25 game suspension
Author's note: After some discussion, an eight game suspension might be fair and still be disrupting to a rotation, but not as crushing as a 25 game suspension.
Ten HBP accumulated over a full season for a SP = 25 game suspension
*Each HBP in relief counts as two HBP when considering a full season
The downside of this is that it encourages a batter to throw himself in front of pitches. To prevent that from happen, batters will need to be punished as well. This would be done best after the game has concluded. Any pitches where the batter was hit while occupying the strikezone, would result in the pitcher having the HBP vacated from his record. Additionally, getting hit in the zone would warrant an automatic 10 game suspension to the batter.
Again, our concern here is not to discern the presence of intent. It is a sweeping approach that addresses both bad actors as well as curtail poorly skilled individuals from putting others in harms way. What would the effect be this year (given that the punishment approach is not in place, which would likely reduce the number of HBP)? There have been 111 games in total where a single pitcher has hit two batters or more. We won't list all of them, but here are pitchers with more than one such game:
A.J. Burnett (3)
Charlie Morton (3)
Jeff Samardzija (3)
Jered Weaver (3)
Jimmie Nelson (4)
Clubs Most Impacted (5 or more players with 2 HBP in a game):
As you can imagine, this rule would play havoc on many clubs if it was installed this year and if it did nothing to impact how pitchers pitch. It could be argued that this would prevent pitchers from pitching inside and, yes, it effectively would for many pitchers who lack the skill required to pitch inside without control sufficient to avoid hitting the batter. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Additionally, the league is experiencing a time relative pitching dominance, so the league would probably shoulder any potential increase in offense.
More likely, we would see an increase in offense due to two reasons. One, pitchers would be less inclined to pitch inside. This would be especially true after one batter has already been hit. The 111 instances above would likely result in a significant change in approach. This change in approach likely would influence pitchers even when no batters have been hit and, again, especially for those who lack control. Two, offense would likely increase because pitcher who perform well sometimes hit batters. The Pirates would be greatly hampered with AJ Burnett and Charlie Morton both having multiple games out. We likely would have seen more of Radhemes Liz this year. For a club like the Orioles, they would have lost Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, and Ubaldo Jimenez for stretches. That would have hurt.
Next, how many starters have logged ten hit batsmen this year? Fifteen:
Nick Martinez (13)
Jimmy Nelson (13)
Chris Heston (12)
Mike Pelfrey (12)
Jeff Samardzija (12)
Chris Sale (11)
Jered Weaver (11)
Gerrit Cole (10)
AJ Burnett (10)
CJ Wilson (10)
RA Dickey (10)
Colby Lewis (10)
Charlie Morton (10)
Drew Hutchison (10)
Justin Masterson (10)
One would imagine with the 2 HBP suspensions that players like Heston, Samardzija, Burnett, etc. would likely not qualify for this list.
How many relievers with five hit batsmen this year? Twelve:
Fernando Rodney (8)
Jared Hughes (7)
Carson Smith (7)
Jonathan Papelbon (6)
Arquimedes Caminero (6)
Scott Oberg (6)
Andrew Miller (5)
Drew Storen (5)
Jose Alvarez (5)
Jim Johnson (5)
Boone Logan (5)
Aaron Loup (5)
If you wished to drop down to 4 HBP, then the list goes up to 25 relievers. Three? 47. However, I would think if you instituted this rule, those numbers would then drop as well. It is rather interesting that a control guy like Papelbon has the fourth most HBP among relievers.
Anyway, this seems like the fairest way to handle this issue. It keeps the gray area of intent from being considered as well as recognizes the need to players to be skilled enough to not put batters in danger.