J.A. Happ got hit in the head by a line-drive comebacker. When the same thing happened to Doug Fister, he got lucky; when the same thing happened to Brandon McCarthy, he also got lucky, if you understand that “luck” can go both ways, like “accelerate.” Happ is fortunate in that he seems to be doing well, but the scene at the time was terrifying, with Happ on the ground and blood on his face. It was the kind of incident that makes you wonder if we’re going to see a player die, and it’s sparked back up the familiar debate regarding pitcher protection. This post isn’t about that, because there’s nothing new to be said. (It would be nice.) (Reality hasn’t yet matched up with the theory, in that no one’s yet invented anything worthwhile.)
This post is about the result of the play. Desmond Jennings was the player who drilled the line drive, and he wound up standing on third base with a two-run triple. A screenshot taken moments after ball-head impact:
When a pitcher gets hit in the head, there’s not a lot of mystery. Everybody knows what happened, maybe except for the pitcher, but here, with Happ on the ground, the play continued for several more seconds. Only then could Happ be attended to, and only then could he be surrounded by his rightfully concerned teammates. The Rays got three bases out of it, although for whatever it’s worth they would ultimately lose. This is the way it’s always been, to my knowledge — a serious injury doesn’t mean a dead ball. A completed play means a dead ball.
Seems to me there’s an argument for stopping the action right away. We can acknowledge right off the bat that there’s no perfect solution, and we’re going to have to rely on subjective judgment. But such circumstances seem sufficiently extreme to warrant an immediate dead-ball situation. Both for the sake of getting the injured player treatment as quickly as possible, and for the sake of not having the other players carry out a play during which they’re certainly distracted. Wrote Shi Davidi:
Bautista, first baseman Edwin Encarnacion and catcher J.P. Arencibia were among the players who had to fight the urge to run right towards Happ because the play was still alive, with Encarnacion having to retrieve the ball after it ricocheted into foul territory toward right field.
Gibbons and trainer George Poulis both jumped out of the dugout but had to pause until two runners scored and Jennings reached third base.
Definitely, these situations are infrequent. Definitely, if an umpire were to call the ball dead, he’d have to decide where to put the baserunner(s), and that would get messy and protestable, because that would be guesswork. Jennings wound up with a triple, but when Erick Aybar hit McCarthy, he was still thrown out at first base. When Ian Desmond hit Juan Nicasio, he wound up with a single. When Vladimir Guerrero hit Rafael Soriano, he wound up with a single. When Ryan Thompson hit Bryce Florie, he was still out. We’re talking about a matter of a few seconds, and we’re talking about varying results. But when players get injured like this, the game itself ceases to really matter, and it just doesn’t sit right to have play continue while a pitcher is bleeding out of the side of his head, with the trainer having to wait.
The easy solution would be to award a base, and to have the pitcher removed. Mostly, pitchers are hit by line-drive comebackers, and those are otherwise automatic singles. But this doesn’t only have to apply to pitchers getting hit. The ball could be ruled dead whenever any player seems to get seriously injured, with the other most obvious case being that of two defensive players colliding. When outfielders get injured, inside-the-park home runs can result, simply because the hurt outfielder can’t get back to his feet. It’s all very subjective, and a lot of people want to reduce the amount of subjectivity in baseball, but there is precedent for this in another sport. We visit the NHL official rule book:
When a player is injured so that he cannot continue play or go to his bench, the play shall not be stopped until the injured player’s team has secured possession of the puck. If the player’s team is in possession of the puck at the time of injury, play shall be stopped immediately unless his team is in a scoring position.
In the case where it is obvious that a player has sustained a serious injury, the Referee and/or Linesman may stop the play immediately.
Granted, in hockey, there’s a lot more bleeding, so it’s more important to get injured players looked at and treated as fast as possible. That’s one of the side effects of playing a sport on shoes with knives on them. But injuries in baseball can be extremely serious, and this seems like the sort of rule that could be introduced without much disagreement. If a player’s obviously hurt, the game should stop, and the umpire should decide what to do with the baserunner(s). Umpires already have to make judgment calls when balls in play bounce over the fence. It could be mandated that the injured player be removed, so as to discourage any opportunistic acting. Maybe there could be two separate, related rules — the play could be dead immediately upon an obviously serious injury, and in the event of something less obvious, the play could be dead as soon as the defensive team retrieves the baseball. When a player’s badly hurt, after all, the priority isn’t the game. It’s getting a medical professional to look at the player.
It isn’t perfect, and these things happen so infrequently that I can’t pretend there’s any sense of urgency. If you watch one team all season, you might see only one occasion, or even possibly zero. But on Tuesday, J.A. Happ got hit in the head by a line drive, and the trainer had to wait to look at him until the play was finished and the Rays had two runs. As imperfect as this solution would be, yesterday’s reality doesn’t make any sense.
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