A Point in Defense of Tony La Russa

One thing we know almost for certain: the Diamondbacks hit Andrew McCutchen intentionally, as revenge for the Pirates knocking out Paul Goldschmidt. One thing people believe, that might or might not be true: McCutchen’s rib injury is related to the beanball. McCutchen figures it’s not a coincidence; his manager, on the other hand, thinks linking the two is a “conspiracy theory”. Whatever the case, the Diamondbacks are receiving attention in August, their philosophy being brought back into the spotlight. And Tony La Russa, who works for the organization now, has spoken up in response to the media criticism:

“I don’t see where the Diamondbacks should catch all this (expletive) they’re catching,” La Russa said.
[…]
The crux of his argument lies in what he believes to be the Pirates’ pitching philosophy. They don’t just pitch inside, La Russa said. They pitch up and in. And by choosing to do so, they have to live with the consequences.

La Russa doesn’t think his team is the offender it’s portrayed as. He thinks the Diamondbacks are being broadly perceived unfairly, and if you look past their own quotes and look instead at the numbers, you can see where La Russa might be on to something. People like to think of the Diamondbacks as one thing, but in reality, their issue is less about the pitches, and more about the things they say.

Let’s try a little thing. Let’s identify both inside fastballs and really inside fastballs. We’ll never be able to look at the data and figure out pitch intent, but we can at least look for clues, and if a team has a particularly high rate of really inside fastballs, we might conclude those weren’t accidents. This is all going to be somewhat arbitrary, but I’m going to classify inside fastballs as being fastballs at least half a foot from the center of the plate. I’m going to classify really inside fastballs as being fastballs at least a foot and a half from the center of the plate. That’s hit-by-pitch territory, of the intentional variety. Sometimes Chase Utley gets hit by borderline strikes but that’s just part of his skillset.

This year, the Diamondbacks rank in the middle of the pack in inside fastballs thrown. On average, by my specifications, 13% of inside fastballs are really inside fastballs. So, somewhat dangerous fastballs. The team with the highest rate of really inside fastballs / overall inside fastballs: the New York Yankees. The team with the lowest rate of really inside fastballs / overall inside fastballs, by a full percentage point: the Arizona Diamondbacks.

By that one measure, the Diamondbacks aren’t disproportionately putting hitters in danger. Hitters, of course, get hit by non-fastballs too, but people tend not to fret about those. This season Diamondbacks fastballs have hit 18 batters, fifth-fewest in the majors. There’s absolutely no question that Arizona has hit a few hitters intentionally. But there’s also absolutely no question that other teams have hit a few hitters intentionally, and the D-Backs don’t seem to be making a habit of this. They’re being closely monitored on account of the things they’ve said to the press, so every incident blows up, but then it’s not that their incidents are disproportionate in volume — it’s that the coverage is.

There’s a crowd of people that would love to see MLB discipline the Diamondbacks for their behavior. There’s no room in baseball, the argument goes, for intentionally inflicting pain with a weapon. I’m all for increased discipline overall in the event of transparent intentional beanings, but this isn’t just an Arizona thing. Cole Hamels was suspended for obviously hitting Bryce Harper on purpose, but was it enough? A couple years ago Ubaldo Jimenez drilled Troy Tulowitzki on purpose in spring training after a bit of a war of words. Earlier this season, the A’s and Astros exchanged some pretty obvious deliberate beanings, with Bo Porter seeming the aggressor. What’s the meaningful difference between what Porter did and what Kirk Gibson has done? Why pretend like the Diamondbacks should be disciplined more than anybody else?

Of course, Kevin Towers probably should’ve just shut up. But I don’t think Towers has ever been able to shut up about anything, and the issue here isn’t that Arizona has hit guys on purpose — it’s that they’ve all but admitted to it. It’s that, at times, they’ve celebrated it. With Arizona now, we always presume intent, where other teams might get more benefit of the doubt. But at the end of the day, the Diamondbacks aren’t actually endangering players more than other teams. They’re doing so less than other teams.

About the Pirates, specifically. La Russa talked about how their style lends itself to more hit-by-pitches, and it’s absolutely true. This year, the Pirates have thrown about 3,300 inside fastballs. That doesn’t just lead baseball — that leads baseball by just about 600. Unsurprisingly, the Pirates also lead baseball in hit-by-pitches by a wide margin, and while most of those hit-by-pitches are very much unintentional, the Pirates know that their style will cause batters to get hit more often than they would against another opponent. The Pirates are accepting, as a consequence, that they’re endangering opponents, and some players might get hurt. Paul Goldschmidt isn’t out for the year because the Pirates hit him on purpose, but Goldschmidt was at greater risk facing the Pirates than he would’ve been facing anybody else, and this kind of muddies the seemingly simple divide between intentional and accidental. Goldschmidt was hit by accident. McCutchen was hit on purpose. But overall, the Pirates hit players a lot more often than the Diamondbacks hit players, so while an intentional pitch from Arizona carries the greatest risk, the remaining pitches for Pittsburgh carry a greater risk.

It gets complicated. If the idea is to ensure player safety, players are less safe against many teams than they are against Arizona. If it’s to just eliminate retaliation, you might see more inside fastballs and more players getting hit. Emotions get involved when hitters get buzzed at 90 miles per hour, and by pitching in on purpose, the Pirates are accepting some inflicted-injury risk. Throwing at a player on purpose also accepts some inflicted-injury risk. It’s not necessarily meaningfully greater. Retaliation, if nothing else, can be better anticipated.

This has gone down a couple different courses. Absolutely, Major League Baseball should work to reduce these sorts of retaliatory incidents. But that’s a complicated goal to work toward, and in the meanwhile, it’s not even clear that the Diamondbacks are the worst organizational offenders in this regard. They’ve been the most open about it, but retaliation has existed for as long as baseball has existed, and when you look at the numbers the Diamondbacks have actually been one of the safer teams to play. We can all point to a few cases where they obviously hit a guy intentionally. But that’s not behavior that’s unique to them, and if they’d just been more quiet this whole time, maybe Tony La Russa wouldn’t have had to go to the media in the first place.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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jwise224
Member

I’ve harped about this at length: the whole flare up wouldn’t be so magnified if the front office and leadership weren’t regularly spouting off about it. Kevin Towers and Co. have a lot of faults, but their inability to handle their business like adults is perhaps the organization’s greatest flaw. As if the play on the field weren’t embarrassing enough…

Slats
Guest
Slats

I’m pretty sure everybody in the baseball world gets the concept that trying to pitch inside can yield the occasional HBP. The Pirates know that. Everyone fucking knows that. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that over the course of hundreds of thousands of pitches being thrown over the course of the season, that statistically speaking, the odds are in favor that a couple batters will get hit unintentionally. What happened with Goldschmidt was unfortunate, especially because his injury, but these things happen. It’s what I would define as “an occupational hazard”

That’s what happened to Goldschmidt. He got hurt via an occupational hazard. It does by no means, justify what the DBacks did, which I would title aggravated assault.

JS7
Guest
JS7

Want to hear a joke?

Kevin Towers.

Warriors
Guest
Warriors

The Dodgers were eating BANANAS? In their DUGOUT??????

That is, without hyperbole, the single greatest act of disrespect on a baseball field in the history of the sport. Towers would have been in his rights to charge onto the field and summarily execute every member of the Dodgers’ roster and coaching staff. I mean, c’mon, bananas? BANANAS!!!!

Iron
Guest
Iron

Last year Brandon Phillips was out a month after a retaliation beaning for Cueto hitting McCutchen.

Not saying that justifies anything, both are stupid, but the Pirates sure as hell live by the sword.

srpst23
Member
srpst23

You forgot to mention that Dusty Baker had Reds pitchers throw at McCutchen pretty much every game to “get in the Pirates head”. The Pirates didn’t retaliate for a fairly long time, pissing off pretty much every baseball fan in Pittsburgh. Phillips got hit after McCutchen did about 5 times.

Iron
Guest
Iron

Brandon Phillips was hit on June 1, 2013. It was retaliation for McCutchen being hit on May 31, 2013. That was the first time, in 25 plate appearances, McCutchen had been hit by a Reds pitcher that year.

You are wrong. QED.

Iron
Guest
Iron

It is true, however, the Cutch was beaned twice in the following series and again in the final series of the regular season by Reds pitchers in retaliation for the retaliation for the retal… but this only proves the point that the Pirates are as stupid when it comes to these pissing contests as any team.

Jim S.
Guest
Jim S.

Exactly right.

Tim
Guest
Tim

“These things happen” much more often with the Pirates style of play. Which is busting guys up and in in risky areas and saying, “if I hit you, I hit you.” I don’t see how that is any better than “Im going to hit you.”

Especially when the latter means the pitcher typically targets a fatty area like the thigh or rear. Much safer than the fragile arm, hand and finger bones the Pirates flirt with when busting guys up and in.

Not to say the Pirates are in the wrong or that that style has no place in the game. But it is just as wrong to say intentional plunkings don’t also serve a purpose. In this instance it introduced accountability and consequences to a gameplan that is win-win for the Pirates while dangerous for their opponents.

“You can pitch mt guys in those risky areas consistently, but you better do it perfectly. Because if my players start becoming collateral damage for your gameplan, you’ll have to answer.” Seems fair to me.

Bad Bill
Guest

Nice to see the concept of collateral damage being introduced here, because there are real-world analogues where collateral damage is a more significant(!) matter than in baseball — i.e., warfare. Our culture tends to take a dim view of collateral damage in war, and a combatant who knowingly wages war in such a way as to increase the risk of it beyond normal limits (whatever those are) risks not only opprobrium of historians but immediate, drastic negative consequences for its captured soldiers. But the real world can’t possibly be relevant to baseball, can it…

Incidentally, a question for those defending Frieri because Goldschmidt’s hands were “moving forward” like the idiot announcer said: if you were pitching with actual INTENT to hit a guy on the hand — not the leg, not the ass, not the middle of the back, the hand — where would you throw that pitch relative to where Frieri threw it?

Johnston
Guest

Bad Bill, you are assuming that Frieri could actually hit any of those things if he aimed at them.

Bad Bill
Guest

I assume nothing. The catcher set up for a high inside pitch. Frieri threw a high inside pitch. It broke Goldschmidt’s hand. I say and assume nothing about his intent in doing it.

Answer the question I asked, not the one I didn’t. I repeat: if you wanted to hit a batter in the hand, how would your location differ from Frieri’s?

PackBob
Guest
PackBob

If you present the premise that statistically speaking, pitching inside will result in batters getting hit, then pitching inside more will result in more batters getting hit, statistically speaking. If the Pirates pitch inside significantly more than other teams, it moves from being an occupational hazard to a team philosophy that accepts the potential to hit more batters.

If the Pirates do pitch inside as a team philosophy, I would say they are more culpable than the Diamondbacks.

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