MLB: The Art of the Basebrawl

Is there anything more ridiculous in sports than watching pitchers attempt to run-in from the bullpen during a bench-clearing brawl?   Watching David Robertson “motor” in from left-center field during one of a seemingly million scrimmages in Detroit on Thursday was one of the everlasting images in my head.  I realize that the real image I should always remember is how Austin Romine vs. Miguel Cabrera turned out to be better than an overhyped fight from Las Vegas on Saturday night (Disclaimer:  I didn’t order it. I didn’t hunt down an illegal feed.  I didn’t watch a single second of it.  So how do I know that Romine-Cabrera was better?  Because Twitter told me, whether that was sarcasm or not is really of no importance).    However, the images of bullpens running in as if they can somehow contribute to the abundance of testosterone getting tossed all over the field is hilarious to me.

The Yankees-Tigers brawling had a bit of an old-school feel to it.  There was an incident earlier this season in Yankee Stadium that appeared to have carried over, with the same pitcher (Michael Fulmer) hitting a player in the same spot.  Last time, it was Jacoby Ellsbury.  On Thursday, it was Gary Sanchez, one of the hottest hitters not named Giancarlo Stanton in all of baseball.   The Yankees, naturally, would be a bit furious with their megastar catcher getting hit by a pitch.  Any way, the day included many ejections, which led to many suspensions.  As for those suspensions, we as fans do not have any idea what information MLB was given from the umpires, the teams, etc.   That is why it is very tough to really dissect who got suspended and for how many games.   Fans may think Dellin Betances, for example, deserved a few games.  However, what if the reports handed to MLB indicated that nobody thought there was intent?  Hitting a player in the head, while obviously dangerous, is not a grounds for suspension on its own.   Purposely hitting a player in the foot IS grounds for suspension.  Intent overrides pitch location.   We may think Fulmer deserved a suspension, based on the history from last time and what happened this time, but if he claims that his fingers went numb as he was throwing that pitch, it is hard to really find evidence that it didn’t happen, regardless of how far-fetched it may seem.  Fulmer did have a recent injury, which at least makes his story a tad more probable.

Through the years, we have seen our share of famous baseball brawling incidents.   If you are old enough to remember, the image of Robin Ventura charging Nolan Ryan, only to have Ryan put him in a headlock, is always etched in your sports brain.  The Yankees-Orioles incident, where Darryl Strawberry charged at the Orioles dugout, is another one you will often see replayed.    The Yankees and the Mariners once had a fight, where young stars Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez were hanging around the pile, talking to each other as if they were watching a random bar fight that they wanted nothing to do with.    Pedro Martinez knocking over a charging Don Zimmer is a thing of legend (and yes, a scary moment).   The Reds and the Cardinals had a nasty brawl back in the early part of his decade, where a catcher (Jason LaRue) was kicked in the head so hard that it caused a concussion that ultimately led to his retirement when the season was over.   The 1986 Mets turned brawling into an art form, while the 1984 Braves-Padres brawl (back when the teams separated by a zillion miles were actually in the same division – National League West!) featured fans on the field.

Why do baseball players insist on this silliness?  Why does a simple hit-by-pitch occasionally turn into a battle of who can push and shove the hardest?   Why are we subject to baseball players proving that they have no idea how to throw a punch, which is a thankful thing, otherwise we would have more injuries coming out of brawls?   Using fights to settle a score rarely works, because nobody really wins the fight, and even if you do, there isn’t much to really gain from it.

When the Yankees and Red Sox had a brawl during the 2004 season, the narrative was that the brawl is what essentially led the Red Sox to getting their act together on their way to winning a World Series.  The narrative was fun and all, but also was not accurate.   While the Sox won the game in exciting fashion (a walk-off home run that gave them an 11-10 win), they only went 7-6 over the next 13 games before starting to ascend to winning the Wild-Card and eventually the World Series.  In other words, the fire that the fight supposedly was sparked by was merely nothing more but smoke for two weeks.   A delayed reaction to team unity from a brawl?   Hey, whatever fits the narrative.  I could do a study (and I just might now) that shows how a team fares in the aftermath of a big brawl.  We all know that for the Yankees on Friday, it meant nothing, as they could only muster 1 run in a 2-1 loss.

I have read many suggestions on how baseball can change their rules to help avoid these types of incidents.   I don’t think anyone should put too much thought into it, however:

1.  These types of brawls are rare – There is a reason why some of baseball’s biggest brawls are etched in your memory:  It is because they rarely happen.  You may get a player or two who is legitimately upset and wants to charge the mound, but the catcher is typically able to keep things at bay before it escalates.   The Yankees – Tigers Brawl of 2017 will always be remembered, but also remember there has been a lot of bad blood between the Orioles and Red Sox in 2017 that has not led to a major, suspension-filled altercation.

2.  This can’t be the NBA or NHL – A rule designed to keep players on the bench or in the bullpen doesn’t work as well in baseball, since the defense has 9 players on the field, while only one offensive player is on that same field.   This in itself, you may think, may be enough to deter a player from charging the mound – but it would not deter a pitcher with intent from throwing at the hitter.   Bench penalties do not work, but if you want to put a padlock or electric fence on the bullpen, be my guest.  They never have a reason to charge in.

3.  The umpires can do a better job of policing the game – The umpires are given information about both teams prior to a series starting.  This crew knew all about what happened at Yankee Stadium earlier in the season (which wasn’t THAT long ago).   Knowing what they knew, a warning once Fulmer hit Sanchez may have been enough to curtail everything.  Or, at the very least, simply warning Tommy Kahnle rather than tossing him when he threw at Cabrera.   Warnings can be a great deterrent,  because there isn’t any gray area.  You know that the next time something even appears to be intentional (or even if it isn’t), you can be tossed from the game.   This brings me back to the Betances pitch:  Even if the home plate umpire determined it to not be intentional, he should have been quick to toss him.   Rather, he didn’t toss him, and nothing happened until the umpires had a conference.  This just adds to the confusion, an adds fuel to the fire.

There have been very few serious injuries that have developed as a result of a brawl, mostly because what we see on the field isn’t nearly as violent as it appears.  While baseball can make a few tweaks to the playbook surrounding how to deal with potential brawl escalations, I just don’t think they happen nearly enough for this to be considered much of a crisis.

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