The narrative jumps out as soon as you look at MLB’s spring training leaderboards.
The Houston Astros at the top of the league in HBPs with seven in five games, right in line with how fans and some MLB players have indicated the Astros should be ready to take a few pitches in the back.
Some fans may see what's happened in recent Astros games and think that retaliation is clearly now beginning, as Astros manager Dusty Baker feared and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred warned against. No one would be surprised, given the jeers and signs we’ve already seen decrying baseball’s worst cheaters of a generation.
Except, that is almost definitely not what is happening.
If these Astros HBPs are retaliation, MLB is really bad at it
So, seven HBPs. Most in the league. 1.4 per game, compared to the Astros’ 0.41 per game last year (66 in 162 games). That’s too much to be a coincidence, right?
You’d think, except there are currently four other teams — Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals — right behind the Astros with six plunkings. The Reds have also only played four games, so they’ve actually been hit more.
To our knowledge, none of those teams are currently embroiled in the fallout of a massive cheating scandal, and yet they’ve experienced 85 percent of the pain the Astros have. Maybe if the Astros led the majors in HBPs by a wider margin, you could say it’s a trend. But having 14 percent of the rest of the league right behind them indicates we might just be dealing with, y’know, out-of-practice pitchers and a comically small sample.
So, two well-known faces of the infamous 2017 team, two players who were not part of the Astros organization in 2017 (or 2018), and three minor leaguers. Probably not a group of players the league thinks had it coming.
But Altuve and Bregman got plunked! The other HBPs might just be organizational depth facing pitchers in the second week of their throwing programs, but those must have surely been deliberate, right?
Why don’t we take a look at the plunkings before declaring that. Here’s Altuve:
We’ll let Baker interpret the placement of that pitch.
“He was hit in the foot,” Baker told reporters after the game. “That ain’t nothing, you know what I mean? It wasn’t intentional.”
And here’s Bregman getting hit by a pitch that is much more well-placed as a plunking, right between the shoulder blades.
Down goes Bregman. pic.twitter.com/S6S1D1eP8h— 2020 Astros Shame Tour (@AsteriskTour) February 26, 2020
That sure looks like a deliberate plunking ... until you notice the count was full and the ball thrown was a breaking ball.
“It was a splitter,” Bregman said after the game. “It just got away from him.”
The pitcher in question is also Cardinals minor leaguer Ramon Santos. He has never thrown above Double-A, meaning a) his command might not be majors-level and b) he probably isn’t personally angry enough at the Astros to blow a strikeout opportunity while trying to maintain his place in the Cardinals organization, which demoted him to Class A Advanced last year.
So that’s what the Astros’ “retaliation” is right now. Five players who weren’t on the team that actually cheated, one player getting hit in the foot and another getting hit with a full-count splitter. That’s either an incredibly stealthy, inefficient campaign to stick it to the Astros while skirting MLB discipline, or, and this might sound crazy, spring training.
Even if it all was deliberate, isn’t the point of retaliation to send a clear message? Why muddle the message with breaking balls from minor leaguers and balls in the dirt in games that weren’t even televised?
None of this is to say the Astros won’t face retaliation on the field in the future, especially once the regular season starts. It’s inevitable given how openly livid players across the league have been with both the Astros’ cheating and lack of player discipline. Astros hitters will get deliberately hit — which, by the way, is very dangerous no matter how good your command is — at some point.
However, interpreting nearly every hit by pitch against the Astros as retaliation — as some are doing now — would only lead to a lot of pitchers getting ejected for balls that simply got away from them.
Some fans clearly want to see the Astros some kind of comeuppance, but acting like that’s what’s happening right now is just wishful, weird thinking.
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