Prevention, not punishment, should drive longer suspensions for MLB head-hunters

Watching this situation between the Orioles and Red Sox escalate over the past couple of days, I can’t help but be annoyed at how MLB helped this dust-up approach debacle status.

Watching this situation between the Orioles and Red Sox escalate over the past couple of days, I can’t help but be annoyed at how MLB helped this dust-up approach debacle status.

With just a tiny bit of foresight, this fiasco could have been nipped in the bud, if not avoided altogether.

The whole thing started when Manny Machado broke one of baseball’s unwritten rules when he slid over the second base bag and into Red Sox star Dustin Pedroia, who left the game with an injury that kept him out a couple of games. Machado was absolutely in the wrong, though it wasn’t an abhorrent action. The typical punishment for that type of infraction, according to those unwritten rules, would be Machado getting plunked in the butt/thigh with a pitch during an at-bat within the next game or two, when he wasn’t up in an important situation.

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If that had happened, that would have been the end of what’s turned into an ugly incident.

But instead, the fourth Boston pitcher to face Machado after the incident finally delivered the retaliation; Matt Barnes threw a 90-mph fastball inches behind Machado’s head in the eighth inning of the final game of that series.

That took it up a notch. Things got out of hand, fast.

The next time the teams played, in Boston on Monday, Baltimore’s Dylan Bundy hit Boston’s Mookie Betts in the thigh with a fastball. So, on Tuesday new Red Sox ace Chris Sale threw a fastball behind Machado, prompting an emotional, profanity-laced tirade from Baltimore’s superstar after the game. It’s hard to blame him for being pissed.

I wrote last week how it’s way beyond time for MLB to implement much, much stronger penalties for pitchers who throw baseballs at players’ heads. With all that we know about the long-terms dangers of concussions and head injuries, it’s absolutely reckless for baseball to treat a baseball thrown at the head the same as a pitch thrown at the butt when it comes to punishments.

Barnes was suspended only four games. As a reliever — not Boston’s closer or set-up guy, by the way — that realistically keeps him out of, at most, two appearances. It’s a laughable “punishment” from MLB and commissioner Rob Manfred.

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Throwing baseballs at heads has to stop. I won’t lay out everything again, but here's the basic thought: If a pitcher throws at a batter’s head in an obvious retaliation situation, the first offense should be a month-long suspension. Then two months for the next one, and so on.

There is a point I didn’t hammer home enough in that column: The tougher suspensions aren’t about punishment, they’re about prevention.

Here’s the thing: If Barnes and the Red Sox knew that he would be suspended for a month if he threw that pitch at Machado’s head, do you really think he still would have thrown at Machado’s head? Nope. Zero chance. Instead, the purpose pitch plunks Machado below the shoulders, and he walks to first base and we avoid all this stupid drama.

Also, this isn’t a middle-of-the-season solution. This is something baseball needs to evaluate and implement during the offseason. After years and years of established suspension patterns, I didn’t expect MLB to hand Barnes a 30-day suspension. That would have never held up upon appeal. I was, though, surprised he only got four games, instead of something in the seven- to 10-day range.

Sporting News alum Ken Rosenthal, now an MLB guru at Fox Sports, wrote last week that sources told him the players’ union wouldn’t be receptive to harsher punishments for pitches thrown up above the shoulders. But consider what Machado said during his postgame interview Tuesday night, and it’s easy to imagine that sentiment changing. “F— pitchers out there with f— balls in their hands throwing 100 mph trying to hit people,” he said. “I’ve got a f— bat too. I could go up there and crush somebody if I wanted to. But you know what? I’ll get suspended for a year and the pitcher only gets suspended for two games. That’s not cool.”

He’s not wrong.

For hitters, the difference between getting hit with a 95-mph fastball in the head and getting hit with a 95-mph fastball in the butt is huge. There’s so much more risk there. But for pitchers? Right now, there’s basically zero difference in the risk (in terms of suspension) between throwing at the head or throwing at the thigh.

That needs to change.

And, really, there’s no downside to establishing harsher penalties. MLB wouldn’t be looking at a situation where it’s handing out multiple month-long suspensions every week for the next five years. Once the rule is established and a couple of guys are forced to sit that long, this stupidity would stop. Not only because players don’t want to miss a month, but because that hurts the team, too.

Using Barnes again as the example: If he misses only the two relief appearances for throwing up near Machado's head, that’s not a big deal at all. Where's the risk? But if he’s out a month? He’s a pretty important piece of that bullpen mix, and his absence would put more stress on the other relievers. That hurts Boston, big time. Suddenly it becomes really damn important to keep that purpose pitch below the shoulders.

An ounce of prevention instead of a pound of cure, y’know?

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I know people love to complain about baseball’s unwritten rules, how unnecessary and stupid they are. “Grow up!” they tell the ballplayers. We've all heard that a lot lately. And that’s all fine and good, but if we're being realistic, we all know that unwritten rules — and, more specifically, the penalties for breaking these unwritten rules — aren’t leaving the sport. Ever.

Players will always, always, always take matters into their own hands. They will police their own, and all those other clichés. And you know what? That’s OK. That’s not a bad thing.

Baseball just needs established guidelines to make sure the enforcement of unwritten rules doesn’t get out of hand like it has this past week.

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