In two straight games between the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies, the winning run was scored by a player who was only on base because a batter was hit by a pitch. This is statistically improbable–batters being hit by pitches are a far less common occurrence than batters recording hits or batters being walked–but it is logical in the sense that a batter being hit by a pitch is generally a positive outcome for the batting team.

Strictly in the context of Wednesday night’s game, Bryce Harper being hit by a Génesis Cabrera pitch was a positive event for the Philadelphia Phillies–it improved the team’s odds of winning the game from 50% to 55%. When the next batter, Didi Gregorius, was hit by a pitch, it improved the Phillies’ odds of victory from 55% to 63%, and it put pinch-runner Matt Joyce in scoring position for what would eventually become the winning run in the game. The next afternoon, when Nolan Arenado was hit in the back by a Héctor Neris pitch, his team’s odds of victory went up by 2.8%.

That Arenado was hit in the back rather than in a part of the body more likely to cause serious physical damage is an action which, to an outside observer, must be deeply confusing. That retaliation for Wednesday night’s hit batsmen came well after the team’s ace, Aaron Nola, was out of the game and that it happened to Arenado, who has struggled lately but is certainly the Cardinals’ closest proxy for Bryce Harper, in a particularly low-leverage situation–yes, it happened in the bottom of the ninth, but with nobody on base and two outs, the odds that the Cardinals were going to score a run were not especially high–seemingly tipped the Phillies’ hand. And yet because Arenado was hit in the back rather than hit in the head indicates a lack of malice on the part of the Phillies. They did not try to exact revenge on Génesis Cabrera, the man whom most believe had accidentally beaned Harper and Gregorius but was by definition responsible for the pitches which kept Harper and Gregorius out of the Thursday afternoon game, but rather on a completely unrelated player, and in a benign way. And while the Phillies mitigated their risk by throwing at Arenado (note: having learned their lesson from Cole Hamels, who admitted to intentionally hitting Bryce Harper back when the Phillies didn’t seem to mind throwing at Bryce Harper, the Phillies will never admit this was intentional), it did make the Phillies more likely to lose. This became prophetic the next inning, when the speedster who followed Arenado in the batting order, Tyler O’Neill (who made the final out in the bottom of the ninth), used his base-running first to advance to third base on a ground ball and then to scurry home following a wild pitch.

Independent of whether the beanings of Harper, Gregorius, and/or Arenado were intentional or not (side note: I am far more willing to believe Neris was innocent of headhunting than I am to believe Cabrera was guilty), one thing is undeniable–they hurt the odds of the pitching team winning the game. It is not a particularly complex sabermetric principle to proclaim that a team on defense ought to try to avoid putting runners on the bases, as those runners are eligible to score runs. And setting aside any ethical concerns about intentionally throwing baseballs at batters, it’s just a tactically stupid move.

Headhunters as a role don’t really exist in baseball–even at its peak, teams never found more than a handful of occasions per season in which to intentionally throw at a batter, and any pitcher who would be particularly skilled at doing so would already be employed by a Major League team, as any pitcher with the pinpoint control to successfully hit a batter in just the right spot on command would be immediately scooped up by any MLB team (this is the part where I pull up Génesis Cabrera’s career walk rates and Jim Halpert Face so adamantly that your screen breaks). They did, for decades, exist in hockey, but have largely been phased out of the game. Enforcers were beloved figures–just in my lifetime, guys like Kelly Chase, Tony Twist, Cam Janssen, and Ryan Reaves were widely adored in St. Louis far beyond their on-ice production. But teams grew smarter, and guys whose primary skills were reducing the life expectancy of opponents were deemed less valuable than guys who helped create goals for their team. Baseball, a sport further along in its statistical revolution, would have ditched its enforcer equivalent years ago if such a role had ever existed.

It’s been, thankfully, over a century since a baseball player died as a result of a hit-by-pitch, and even if the sport came to a collective belief that intentional hit-by-pitches were immoral and idiotic, the risk wouldn’t completely disappear. The idea that teams or players would intentionally accelerate whatever risk still exists is perplexing on strictly moral grounds, but it doesn’t even make sense from a strategic perspective. But while I can’t defend helmet-to-helmet hits in football nor hits into the boards in hockey, there is some strategic benefits to it. If a player gets rocked by an illegal hit in football, the odds he will fumble increase. If a pitcher hits a batter in baseball, his team’s odds of victory have almost certainly declined.

Beanballs are beyond logic. It is strictly visceral. Hitting a batter on the other team fulfills a revenge fantasy, and it is does not matter that it has absolutely no impact on the way the game is played (contrary to what the Phillies believe, being hit by a pitch probably isn’t going to have an impact on how Nolan Arenado pitches). But it’s not even the equivalent of giving a driver who cut you off in traffic the middle finger. It is the equivalent of responding to being cut off by intentionally wrecking the other person’s car–there is no scenario in which you emerge in an advantageous position, and all for a second-long feeling of satisfaction. And, assuming the decision to hit Arenado with a pitch was intentional, the decision-maker had a flight out of St. Louis last night to ponder how, for a brief moment of self-satisfaction, it cost them a win. And in the end, beyond suspensions or fines, the knowledge that beanballs are a losing strategy will always be the greatest deterrent to the action.

One thought on “The folly of the beanball war

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