Sometimes baseball stays constant to a fault. It took way too long for instant replay to make its way to America’s pastime, and the sport has been slow to make peace with the idea of players showing emotions after a big hit or strikeout.
One thing that will never change, though, is the way the game polices itself, and it’s difficult to argue that’s a bad thing. “Are you going to pitch inside? That’s fair, but your control better be pinpoint, because if my guy gets hit, our pitcher is going to put one between the numbers on one of your guys, probably the one who’s 2-for-3 with a home run and three RBIs.”
Umpires will sometimes warn benches if they feel the self-policing aspect is getting out of hand, and since officials are tasked with maintaining control of the game, it’s good they have that authority. Self-policing is fine if done within certain parameters, but given that emotions are often involved, it can sometimes balloon into something it shouldn’t become. That delicate balance will likely be tested this season as teams will no doubt want to “send a message” to the Houston Astros in regard to the sign-stealing scandal that rocked the MLB offseason.
I previously wrote about the Astros’ alleged cheating scheme, but as a quick review, former Houston pitcher Mike Fiers and other unnamed sources detailed to The Athletic how cameras set up at the Astros’ Minute Maid Park were used to decipher opposing catchers’ signs, and that information was relayed in real time to the Houston dugout. Teammates banged trash cans to indicate what pitches were coming. MLB investigated the allegations and found this system was used during Houston’s 2017 World Series championship season and part of the 2018 season. Houston manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended by MLB for a year — and fired by the Astros afterward — and team owner Jim Crane was fined $5 million, the maximum amount allowed by MLB. The team also lost picks in this year’s draft.
In my January piece, I opined that fans of teams not named the Astros shouldn’t act too high and mighty over this, as I figured this sort of thing might be more widespread than is being reported. As spring training began, and as more and more players began to speak out against what the Astros are accused of doing, I was forced to reconsider that stance. Would I be shocked if another team used technology to steal signs? No, but the amount of backlash I saw from players all across the league was eye-opening, as even when the worst information of the performance-enhancing drugs scandal was leaking I don’t recall the players being so outspoken.
It’s mostly understood that players across baseball, regardless of the team for which they played, were using PEDs during the height of the PED era. That’s obviously not the same as one particular team having a system in place to gain a competitive advantage with sign-stealing, which I believe is why the Astros are receiving so much backlash. In exchange for cooperating with the MLB investigation, no Astros players who took part in the scheme were suspended. That’s no doubt left a sour taste in the mouths of the other teams’ players, and it’s why I think we’re going to see a lot of “self-policing” this season when it comes to Houston.
The last article I can find keeping track of Astros being hit by pitches is a Feb. 27 Washington Post story by Scott Allen. In it, he notes that as of that date, Astros players have been hit by more pitches during spring training than any other team. At that time, the total was seven. Can I believe some of those were coincidental? Sure. Do I believe all of them were coincidental? Well, not when MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is supposedly going to take steps to prevent self-policing this season.
During an interview with ESPN’s Karl Ravech in February, Manfred said he would warn teams against throwing at Astros hitters intentionally by saying a subsequent memorandum would “increase the ramifications of that type of behavior.” Translated, that means if an Astros hitter gets plunked and the league determines there was intent behind the pitch, the pitcher would likely face a significant suspension.
I understand why Manfred would take this approach as it’s his job to try to keep things from escalating between the Astros and their opponents, but if he thinks this will stop teams from sending a message, then he likely has another thing coming. That’s not to suggest it’ll be beanball day every time the Astros come to town, but teams will undoubtedly have a guy on the squad with a grudge who is willing to take a fine and suspension in order to unleash the frustration his teammates are feeling.
If enough of those guys exist, then MLB has a problem on its hands. They could keep escalating the penalty for plunking Astros hitters to more games and a larger fine, but determining intent is not an exact science since it involves human emotions, and guys who were just trying to pitch inside and had one get away would be caught up in the madness. Maybe this whole thing is overblown and the Astros aren’t even top 10 in the league in hit by pitches, but if the game follows its tendency to police itself, then Manfred and company will have the unenviable job to try to curtail the self-policing, especially since that policing will be a consequence of not suspending the offending players in the first place.
Drew Kerekes is the sports editor at The Meridian Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.