The Pittsburgh Pirates and Arizona Diamondbacks got into a brouhaha over the weekend about hit batsmen that has brought baseball's unwritten rules once again to the fore. The clubs' hitting of batsmen started on Friday night when reliever Ernesto Frieri hit the Diamondbacks' best player, All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, in the left hand with a ninth-inning fastball.
Because Frieri intended to come up and in and wound up hitting Goldschmidt as a result, I wasn't surprised when Dave McKay, a long-time Tony La Russa lieutenant, initiated a discussion with Pirates catcher Jason Kendall after the end of the game. I also wasn't surprised when Arizona reliever Randal Delgado hit Pirates superstar Andrew McCutchen in the back the following game, after Goldschmidt was placed on the DL with a fracture in his left hand.
The events in Arizona over the weekend took me back to Milwaukee in 2011, when the Cardinals squared off against the Brewers. In that series, Takashi Saito attempted to come up and in to Albert Pujols and struck the slugger on the hand. Later, Jason Motte plunked the eventual National League MVP, Ryan Braun, in retaliation (even though Motte and La Russa maintained the HBP was unintentional).
The Brewers took issue with the Cardinals plunking Braun in plain retaliation for their unintentional HBP of Pujols. But La Russa would have none of it. According to his interpretation of baseball's unwritten rules, the two teams' HBPs were on par with one another.
"The ball that they tried to throw on Pujols was aimed right where they aimed it," La Russa said. "Did they try to hit him? No. But there's a small window. They did it [Monday] and the ball trickled off his bat. You know how close that is to your face and your hand?
"So I don't want to hear about our tactics vs. what they did. They did not make an intentional hit, but they tried to throw the ball up and in, and it's a very dangerous pitch and we almost paid a hell of a price. So I don't want to hear about it."
La Russa, now an executive in the Diamondbacks front office, spoke to MLB.com's Steve Gilbert about the Diamondbacks-Pirates incident. Not surprisingly, the move from the dugout to the front office has not changed La Russa's philosophy much since the 2011 incident in Milwaukee
"So what's happened is some teams have developed this idea that they can pitch in and up," La Russa said. "Well it's got rewards because I don't care if you're a right-hander or left-hander, that spot right there, nobody gets to that pitch. So it's a hole for everybody. The problem is, unless you have Greg Maddux pitching, that's a very risky area to throw in."
Risky because it leads to more hit batters and as a result, opposing teams then will pitch to the same area.
"And I don't judge because if that's the way you want to pitch, you need to understand with those rewards it comes with risks," La Russa said. "So for those teams that are really featuring that style of finishing a hitter or setup the outside pitch by throwing the ball up and in, the other team that sees that they say, 'Wait a minute, we're going to throw the ball in more often.' So those teams the risk they face is that they get pitched in more often."
"That to me is what's surprising and upsetting about how shortsighted this criticism is," La Russa said. "Here's a team that's lost three hitters -- Hill, Pollock and Goldschmidt -- with broken bones. Those pitches should never be thrown up there, never."
La Russa then went on to bemoan that the McCutchen HBP is receiving much more attention than the Goldschmidt HBP:
"I've heard a lot about McCutchen getting hit, but I haven't seen nearly as much about Goldschmidt, who isn't going to play the rest of the season," La Russa said. "I think, wait a minute, five runs down in the ninth and this guy's lost and he's every bit the player that McCutchen is. They're in contention, but that makes no difference. There's a big difference between getting hit here [in the hands] and getting hit here [in the back]. That's why I think it's unfair. I think it will continue to be unfair because I don't think this message will get out. It's not a popular response, so they'll just dismiss it."
By La Russa's unwritten code, to pitch up and in—while making a good faith attempt to induce an out—and hit a batter in the hand or wrist is as bad as intentionally throwing at a batter and striking him in the back. It's no wonder Baseball Men don't write these rules down. Reducing such a code to writing would expose just how nonsensical the rules are as well as just how irrational the self-appointed enforcers of them can be.