NO MARGIN FOR ERROR

Jonathan Sanchez said he was trying to pitch inside and missed his spot. Umpire Tim Timmons had a different perspective. “You’ve got two home runs and then you’ve got a line-drive single up the middle, and then the very first pitch is up around the shoulder and head area,” said Timmons. “He threw intentionally at him, and in that area … he’s done. Very dangerous.”

Three batters into last Friday’s Pirates-Cardinals game and Sanchez was ejected for hitting Allen Craig on the shoulder. The next morning Major League Baseball announced that Sanchez was suspended  for six games and fined him an undisclosed amount (the league automatically reviews all incidents when an umpire believes such a throw is intentional). Sanchez is appealing the decision — and rightly so.

Pitching inside is an art form, one that Sanchez hasn’t mastered. No, scratch that. Hitting a batter, intentionally or not, is an act Sanchez has not earned the right to do. You don’t need to trust my word just ask the master: Bob Gibson. “Pitching inside, just pitching inside, doesn’t mean that I’m coming in there and I’m trying to knock a guy down, I’m trying to hit a guy or to scare him,” Gibson explained during a 2011 interview for NPR radio. “I want him to think about the ball inside when I come in off the plate. That’s pitching inside. I want to get him out on the corner in there. That’s pitching inside.”

Isn’t that — pitching inside — what Sanchez was trying to do? So, he missed. But do you really think he was trying to hit Craig? He was the three batters into the game. Sanchez had just given up back-to-back homers and a single. Wouldn’t hitting the next batter make things worse? Either Sanchez is ignorant or he missed his spot? I choose the latter.

Dangerous? Sure. There’s an element of danger on every 92-mile per hour pitch, no matter where it’s located. The truth is, in today’s game, pitchers can’t afford to pitch inside because if they miss, there’s a chance they’ll be ejected. For guy’s like Sanchez there’s no margin for error. He’s not Bob Gibson. He doesn’t have the respect from umpires the way Gibson did. When Gibson wanted to throw inside, he did, and he didn’t deny it. Gibson knew it, the batter knew it and the umpire knew it. Deal with it.

gibsoneffect

Former National League umpire Doug Harvey was asked once about Barry Bonds reputation for standing and admiring his home runs. Harvey replied, “I’ll tell you what, if he hit a home run off Gibson or [Don] Drysdale and stood and admired it, they’d knock that earring out of his ear the next time up.” Drysdale led the league in hit batsman five times, including four consecutive seasons (1958-1961). Meanwhile, Gibson hit 102 batters over his career 17-year career, but never led the league.

Gibson said that when he did hit a batter, often it was a mistake. But he wouldn’t acknowledge it was unintentional. “I wasn’t throwing at them and they didn’t know it, because they expected me to throw at somebody. So I never apologized,” Gibson told the Sporting News. “”Actually, I didn’t drill many guys. You thought you might get it. People don’t really understand about pitching inside. They think when you throw inside, you are trying to intimidate somebody, you are trying to knock them down, you are trying to hit them. It’s none of the above. You pitch inside to make them think inside.”

This is who Bob Gibson was as a pitcher. Umpires and opposing teams respected his presence. In fact, Joe Torre, who was Gibson’s teammate in St. Louis (1969-1974), knew Gibson better than anyone. In 1981, when he was manager of the New York Mets manager, Torre hired Gibson to be the “attitude coach” to help develop a more menacing pitching attitude. No, really. In today’s game you’d get fined, and maybe suspended, for just thinking that way.

“Whenever the subject of intimidation comes up, like a beaning, I get a lot of calls and interviews,” said Gibson. “I’ve had it up to here. Every pitcher tried to intimidate batters when I played. Maybe I was just a little more successful.”

That’s no longer the case. The inside half of the plate is now more dangerous to the pitcher than it is the hitter — at least according to MLB rules and an umpires best judgment. Better safe than sorry. Baseball, again, takes the conservative approach.

As CNN reported two years ago on this subject, “There is no meaningful penalty in baseball for a pitcher hitting a batter with the ball. Yet what the helmet-to-helmet hit is to football, the bean ball and its cousin, the brushback pitch, are to baseball — a tactic that is potentially life-threatening … Distinguish between a pitch that is dangerous and a pitch that is life-threatening?”

The discussion is worthy, especially in consideration of the alternatives. One player died (Ray Chapman). A handful have suffered severe injury (Tony Conigliaro). Some have suffered concussions (Mike Piazza, David Wright). Countless bench-clearing fights, including the recent brawl between Zack Grienke and Carlos Quentin that ended in a cruel twist of fate and Grienke, not Quentin, suffering a broken collarbone. An intended brushback pitch that misses could be a potentially “life-threatening” hit-by-pitch.

Is baseball too conservative on pitching inside?

That’s a compelling question.

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