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The Tigers handled baseball’s unwritten rules well... but MLB did not

The message is the same, but the medium illustrates the Tigers more evolved method of delivery.

Detroit Tigers v Minnesota Twins Photo by Andy King/Getty Images

Twice in the Detroit Tigers’ last 40 games, stretching back to last season, the team has been put in difficult straights by major league baseball’s “intent-only” policy toward hit by pitches. The incidents were instructive as to where the game stands as it struggles to escape its beanball history, without yet having found a reasonable new paradigm with which to police itself. At least, in the specific situation the Tigers have dealt with. In the process, the way the situation was handled illustrated the approach manager Brad Ausmus and his pitching staff have taken to leveling the playing field for their hitters.

Twins rookie pitcher Justin Haley drilled Tigers rookie center fielder JaCoby Jones in the mouth with a fastball in the third inning. It was a terrifying moment, with Jones staggering around and blood pouring out of his mouth. One had to assume he had some broken teeth, at minimum. The incident was clearly unintentional, but that didn’t matter to Jones’ face. No warnings were issued. Therein lies a problem that baseball is going to have to do a better job in addressing, but we’ll get back to that in a moment. In the league’s judgement, no matter how egregious the injury, the murky standards of intention are all that count for anything.

Two innings later, Tigers starter Matt Boyd threw a fastball that breezed behind Miguel Sano’s behind. Tempers flared briefly, with Sano getting hot. Catcher James McCann moved to restrain him as Sano took a few steps in Boyd’s general direction and voiced his displeasure. McCann whacked Sano in the head with his glove as he reached for him, Sano turned and shoved/punched McCann. Fortunately, home plate umpire Jordan Baker separated the two at that point. Sano and Boyd were both ejected by Baker, as both teams poured out of the dugouts and bullpens for a brief consultation around the home plate area.

Good times.

If you’re not a hardcore baseball fan — or perhaps if you didn’t grow up playing the game, particularly during the previous millennium — this may have seemed like chaos. No reasonable observer, nor Major League Baseball itself wants to see fights, injuries, nor escalating beanball wars. These are grotesques the league would expressly like to see confined to its rough and rowdy past. But I would suggest that what went down on Saturday wasn’t so chaotic at all. Instead, it represented a reasonably well-handled and controlled bit of theater that exists simply because the league has dropped the ball on a key point.

We’re not talking about revenge here. Nor a pitcher throwing at a batter simply out of a bruised ego. Those types of offenses have been rightly shoved out beyond the bounds of acceptable conduct. In neither of the two cases involving the Tigers was their response an attempt at equivalency in terms of damage, or payback, as it were.

But there’s still something at issue that the league has yet to find a reasonable and consistent way to handle. There is a battle in every baseball game for a small but decisive bit of territory. The area between the hitter and the inner edge of the strike zone. On Saturday, Haley’s pitch that drilled Jones in the face, unintentional, just careless, or neither, put the Tigers at a unreasonable disadvantage in terms of their rights to that piece of property. The league, and, in this case, the home plate umpire, failed to protect the Tigers’ interest here and instead asked them to simply trust that it wouldn’t happen again. That just isn’t good enough.

The Tigers don’t know for certain that Haley, or the Twins generally, weren’t trying to brush JaCoby Jones back off the plate. Sure, Haley didn’t mean to hit him in the head, but that doesn’t mean he won’t come hard inside again. That part of it was even more aggravated by the fact that Haley is a complete unknown as a rookie pitcher. He also throws from an extreme crossfire position for a right-hander, which only aggravates the issue. Is this guy a hothead? Is he trying to make his bones as some kind of a tough guy here? No one knows. They also don’t know if he has the control at that point to ensure that it won’t happen again.

That seed of doubt is an psychological challenge added to what is already a difficult enough task. It put the Tigers, in this example, at a disadvantage. Haley’s unknown intent, despite the benefit of the doubt most would give him, is irrelevant. Had the pitch hit Jones in the ribs or back, or on the arm, no particular offense would be taken. But intention doesn’t fix JaCoby Jones’ face, and while he escaped miraculously with only a serious gash to his lip, in the moment anyone watching had to assume he’d suffered a catastrophic injury. That’s a scary thing to see. And a team can’t afford to go to the plate scared of the opposing pitcher.

Boyd’s response contained a clear message to anyone with eyes to see. If we have to worry more than usual about being drilled, so do you. That’s the restoration of balance. Having a guy beaned in the head puts you at that disadvantage psychologically. And a team can’t allow themselves to be put at a disadvantage as to their equal rights to that strip of turf between the batter’s box and home plate.

Ideally, the league would find a way to restore that psychological balance, but so far they’ve fallen well short. If the league and the umpires don’t find a way to deal with that beyond asking teams to just let it go, teams will continue to handle it themselves. Of course accidents happen. They happen in real life too. But the consequences are rarely changed by intention.

Frankly, the way the Tigers dealt with the situation was quite reasonable, and it wasn’t an accident. We have a pretty clean comparison to another recent incident to draw parallels from. It even involved the same home plate umpire, Jordan Baker. In a mid-September game last season, while the Tigers were battling for a playoff spot, Cleveland Indians’ starter Trevor Bauer drilled three Tigers hitters in three innings. And due to the league’s, or Jordan Baker’s, inaction, the Tigers were put in an awful situation.

In the first, Miguel Cabrera was hit in the hand. In the third, Bauer cracked Ian Kinsler in the helmet with a mid-90’s fastball, and he was extremely fortunate to survive unscathed enough to take his base and stay in the game. Three batters later, Bauer pulled a breaking ball right into the kneecap of Victor Martinez. Home plate umpire Jordan Baker, probably correctly, saw no intent in any of this, but he failed in his duty regardless. Baker declined to issue a warning, either to the Indians, or to both benches. This was an egregious oversight on his part. The Tigers response will look very familiar to anyone who saw the Tigers-Twins game Saturday.

It’s completely baffling that it took Daniel Norris throwing a fastball behind Rajai Davis to get Baker to do something. The purpose pitch, taken in the light of Boyd’s offering to Miguel Sano, perhaps demonstrates Brad Ausmus’ method of handling this. It certainly doesn’t seem like coincidence.

Frankly, every old school type watching would tell you the only thing Norris and Boyd did wrong was to miss. But I sense that’s likely purposeful as well. And it’s a pretty classy compromise to a scenario the league has continued to dissemble on. Mutters of “intent” don’t fix injuries. They don’t restore a level playing field in terms of the inside pitch. Frankly, intent is guesswork. Having a player hit in the head is a lot more applicable standard with which to take action upon.

Incidents like this carry over, and will continue to do so. At least until the league, which has demanded that players leave these things to the umpires, figures out a better way to handle them. In the first game the Tigers played against the Indians this season, on April 14, Trevor Bauer was on the mound again. This was the first meeting between he and the Tigers since the aforementioned game last September.

Bauer’s first pitch to Miguel Cabrera in the first inning, was a fastball that nearly hit him in the head. Cabrera took matters into his own hands, getting into it with Indians manager Terry Francona and making a ruckus. This wasn’t a reaction out of the blue. It was the direct result of the previous meeting. Cabrera’s protestations worked. Bauer shied away from pitching inside, and Cabrera later took advantage of it. But if that pitch had hit Cabrera, things might have gotten extremely ugly at that point. And yet I don’t think at any point that the Tigers believed Bauer was intentionally playing beanball.

What’s the solution? That’s for the league to decide. Perhaps simply warning the Twins and Indians alone after the pitches to the head in either game, would at least provide a modicum of restitution. Having umpires guess at intent is a lot murkier ground that simply issuing a warning to any team that hits a player in the head. At least the Tigers would know that the opposing pitcher was going to have to be a lot more careful or be tossed from the game. That’s pretty minimal compensation.Instead, in both cases they had to throw a pitch behind an opposing hitter just to get both sides warned. Matt Boyd being ejected without a prior warning to either, or both, sides, only aggravates the issue.

What’s crystal clear, is that simply washing their hands unless the home plate umpire decides that “intent” was involved is an abdication of responsibility by the league. You can’t ask teams to stop taking matters into their own hands, and then fail to have a reasonable answer on this question. Ignoring everything but a judgement of intent, is a pretty egregious misunderstanding of what is at issue here.

Pitchers aren’t perfect. Hitters are always going to be hit by pitches. For the most part, teams shrug it off as part of the game. But when it happens repeatedly, or when a player is seriously injured, the league has got to have a response to restore some balance. Until they do, we’ll just have to hope that teams forced to handle it their own way do it with the same cool-headedness and respect for their fellow players that Brad Ausmus’ Tigers have displayed. This wasn’t “payback” or “revenge” but rather a simple restoration of a level playing field.