Bryce Harper vs. Hunter Strickland: The ridiculousness of basebrawling shows itself again

·MLB columnist

Over the course of 45 seconds Monday afternoon, a goon with a history of brainlessness hit one of the best players in baseball with a 98-mph fastball to the hip, the player responded by charging the mound and giffing his way into history with the most impotent helmet throw imaginable, the goon’s catcher watched the trainwreck unfold in front of him like a figure at Madame Tussauds, two of the goon’s teammates tried to save him and instead ran into one another, and three more of the goon’s teammates dragged him off the field and into a tunnel as he acted like someone who were he not wearing a San Francisco Giants uniform might be on the wrong end of a Taser.

And that was the most intelligent part of the day.

Seriously, have you ever heard baseball players try to explain away the nonsense that goes on when a pitcher brandishes the five-ounce ball in his hand and chucks it at a batter? Baseball’s labyrinthine unwritten rules force players to twist themselves into logical pretzels, and none is anywhere near a talented enough contortionist to extract himself from the foolishness the game teaches.

It’s bad enough when the pitcher — in this case, Hunter Strickland — tries to deny hitting the batter intentionally. For nearly three years, Strickland had bottled up fury that Bryce Harper, the hitter, walloped a pair of home runs off him in a 2014 playoff series the Giants actually won on their way to a World Series championship. The rationale here is delightful. Strickland was bad at his job. Harper was good at his job. Ipso facto, Harper deserves to get hit with a 98-mph fastball.

Harper, of course, knows better than to succumb to a 1,000-day-grudge-carrying lummox. He has been a target for the aggrieved, the jealous, the foolish since the day he was drafted. To get baited by Hunter Strickland, of all people, is just unbecoming.

It’s more than that, though, so much more. It’s Harper’s manager with the Nationals, Dusty Baker, saying, “What’s a man supposed to do?” and acting like it’s some rhetorical question instead of one with an obvious answer: walk to first base. And it’s Harper copping to having that choice and opting for one that will get him suspended: “You either go to first base, or you go after him. And I decided to go after him.” And in the next couple days, it will be Major League Baseball, tagging Strickland with a few games off and Harper with a few himself and telling players this sort of behavior is perfectly cool.

Bryce Harper
Bryce Harper vs. Hunter Strickland was nearly three years in the making. (AP Images)

It stinks. The whole thing stinks. It stinks that Hunter Strickland believes it’s OK to hunt a human being with a ball, and it stinks that Bryce Harper believes it’s OK to endanger not just himself but his teammates with the collateral damage that comes from benches clearing, and it stinks that MLB isn’t willing to fight the MLB Players Association for longer suspensions, and it stinks that the union advocates the merits of its members fighting one another every time these piddling suspensions come down.

That’s how screwed up this is: The players actually believe this is necessary. What Strickland did Monday afternoon – it happens all the time. A few years ago, one big league pitcher recalled a player going into second base spikes-high against his college team. He never saw the guy again until the upper reaches of the minor leagues. “Hit him with the first pitch,” the pitcher said. He laughed. Pitchers never, ever forget.

Sprinkled among the manifest ridiculousness was one statement reminding that even in the primordial ooze of baseball wisdom there remains some hope for it changing. When …

1. Bryce Harper said “A baseball is a weapon,” he encapsulated the entirety of this issue that already revealed itself this season with the Manny Machado-Red Sox chicanery. Just think about that: The former National League MVP, and the frontrunner for the award this year, is saying the implement most vital to the game is a weapon when in the wrong hands. Left unsaid is that those who choose to use it as such are punished with all the ferocity of five lashes with a spaghetti noodle.

The penalty shouldn’t be any bigger when a pitcher throws at Harper or Machado, per se. It merely highlights the danger of such actions in a game that already struggles with creating stars. For most of the season, the Nationals have carried the best record in the National League due in large part to Harper’s exploits, and the prospect of losing a .331/.443/.663 bat on account of childishness and machismo – well, that sounds like the sort of thing everyone in the game should be working together to exterminate.

In the meantime, Harper escaped with the greatest wound — that to his pride for trying to chuck his helmet at Strickland — and watching it sail instead toward right field. If only the injury to …

2. Mike Trout were so benign. Trout tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb sliding into second base Sunday. He’ll undergo surgery that will sideline him for at least six weeks, likelier two months and perhaps beyond. Never in his previous 5½ seasons had Trout hit the disabled list. Devastating as this is for the Angels, it may be worse for baseball, which was getting to see what looked like Peak Trout.

That in and of itself is incredible considering pre-Peak Trout won a pair of American League MVPs and finished second the three times he didn’t. This version — .337/.461/.742, piling up WAR like he’s a neocon — was Trout churning along at gigabit speed. An injury on a play so benign is nothing short of cruel.

If there’s a silver lining, it allows others to pick up the spotlight slack and fill that vacuum of greatness. And dangerous as it is to call any Colorado Rockies hitter great because of the inherent advantages of playing in Coors Field, it’s safe at this point to put …

3. Charlie Blackmon in that category. Blackmon didn’t get full-time bats until his 27th birthday, didn’t hit for the requisite power of a Rockies outfielder until he hit 29 and now, at 30, is his fully realized, on-the-way-to-record-breaking self.

Now, the record isn’t altogether meaningful, in that it involves runs batted in, which, as every 10 Degrees reader should understand by now, depend as much on teammates’ production as a particular player’s. Still, Blackmon’s NL-leading 45 RBIs are remarkably impressive considering they come out of the leadoff spot, the second-worst place in a lineup to drive in runs. Only Darin Erstad has reached the 100-RBI mark hitting first, and that was on an AL team without the pitcher in front of him and in a season during which those 100 RBIs ranked 30th in the league.

Blackmon is not a perfect player by any means. He’s a free swinger. He never walks. His center field defense leaves enough to be desired, though it is plenty adequate. Between his speed and gap-to-gap power with an extra gear to drive the ball over the fence, Blackmon’s offense more than makes up for whatever other shortcomings there may be. He’s not just a table setter. He’s a table clearer, too. He’s even got more RBIs than …

4. Aaron Judge, who hit his major league-leading 17th home run Monday. It was a typical Judge tractor beam, on a line to center field, seemingly effortless for those who don’t recognize the difficulty in hitting a ball as hard as Judge consistently does.

It’s getting to the point now that with All-Star voting nearing its first public reveal, we’ll see just how much the public appreciates Judge’s exploits. He deserves to be the first AL rookie to start an All-Star Game since the Yankees’ Hideki Matsui in 2003 – and the first who didn’t come from Nippon Professional Baseball since Sandy Alomar Jr. in 1990.

To say that more than a quarter century has passed since baseball has seen anyone like Judge is no exaggeration. A month ago, we called him Giancarlo Stanton 2.0. After chasing his .303/.411/.750 April with a .333/.426/.632 May, it’s even safer to say that Judge is the goods and here to stay. And it sets a standard for the city that …

5. Michael Conforto is trying to meet down in Queens. Remember, at the beginning of the season, the question about Conforto wasn’t whether he could play. It’s whether he would, or if the Mets would send him down to Triple-A to tool with his service time.

Forty-five games and 13 home runs later, Conforto has been their MVP and saved them from complete ruin as the pitching staff and manager Terry Collins try to one-up one another in a game of Let’s See Who Melts Down First! Even more, Conforto has reignited a question that two years ago made for a popular bet in baseball circles: Who would be a better major league hitter, Conforto or Kyle Schwarber?

It wasn’t exactly Trout vs. Harper, but both were first-round draft picks in 2014 (Schwarber fourth to the Cubs, Conforto 10th to the Mets), both finished their rookie seasons in 2015 with the exact same OPS+ (130) and both had forgettable 2016 regular seasons (Schwarber’s because of a torn ACL, Conforto’s because of poor production). Schwarber entered this year far better regarded. He’s now hitting .173/.294/.339 while Conforto slashes to the tune of .320/.412/.653. It might be the most surprising offensive output in the NL this year if not for …

6. Zack Cozart and his anomalous freakishness. Cozart is nearly 32 years old, and 32-year-old career shortstops do not typically evolve from career 82 OPS+ hitters into what Cozart is this season: a .344/.422/.569-slashing monster who is hitting like no one ever has seen.

Some of the power did show up in recent years for Cincinnati, but Cozart’s greatest stride in production concerns his plate discipline. Never in terribly good command of the strike zone, Cozart is walking at nearly twice the rate he did in seasons past. His command of when to swing has allowed him to take whacks at better pitches. And it doesn’t hurt when they’re dropping more than 40 percent of the time, an absurd clip for any hitter that’s almost certain to bring his bat back to earth at some point.

Until then, the combination of skill and luck has changed the perception on Cozart. Not only can teams in need of a bat this July count on Cozart’s availability, they would get the added bonus of his glove, which is still well above average. After that comes an even more interesting free agency, during which teams will need to ask themselves: Exactly which Zack Cozart are we getting? It’s a familiar question during the offseason, and one teams pondered when …

7. Ervin Santana was a free agent in 2014. There were suitors, sure, but the Minnesota Twins were the only ones willing to go four years and $54 million. At the time, it looked like a classic overpay for a middle-of-the-road starter — say, Jeff Suppan for a new decade. Today, after another excellent Santana start, it’s trending toward a great deal — one that could get even better for a rebuilding Twins team that might actually have enough to make a playoff run this season.

For the eighth time in his last 10 starts, Santana allowed one or fewer earned runs. His 1.75 ERA is the best in baseball. Even better is his opponents’ batting average: .132 heading into Sunday’s start, during which he gave up just five hits in seven innings. Considering opponents were batting .136 on balls in play, well, Santana might as well change the lettering on the back of his jersey to “REGRESSION.” Nevertheless, he offers the Twins a bountiful opportunity.

If they keep winning, they keep him. If they don’t, they can explore dealing him as the deadline approaches. So what if the market for starters is overloaded? Good teams need pitchers, particularly cost-controlled pitchers whose salary, it turns out, is more asset than liability. Consider: He’s already thrown more innings this season than …

8. Kenley Jansen or Craig Kimbrel will throw all year. Which is fine, because damn are they ever making good use of the innings they do throw.

Nineteen innings into his season, Jansen has struck out 34 batters and walked none. Kimbrel is right there with him, at 40 strikeouts and two walks in 21 2/3 innings, plus he’s been unhittable, too, with just six base hits against him. They’re not the only ones. Andrew Miller is awesome, again, and Greg Holland is back to his old self, and his bullpen mate in Kansas City, Wade Davis, finally this week gave up an earned run. Much respect to the newcomers to the elite-reliever party — we see you, Felipe Rivero, Tommy Kahnle and Corey Knebel — but it’s going to take more than two months to sit with the cool kids.

Being a great reliever means being a consistent reliever, and one supposes that quality goes for all elements of baseball. Consistency is paramount, and it’s why seven years into his career …

9. Buster Posey is every bit as important as he was when he debuted May 29, 2010, as the next big thing. Three World Series later, it always feels like he can be no bigger, and then he slashes .340/.439/.524 over the season’s first two months and again shows no signs of slowing down at a position that can make mincemeat of even the finest players.

It’s also why so much of the attention from the messy brawl Monday descended on him. Watching Posey stand there as Harper tried to assault his pitcher was incredibly telling. The catcher is baseball’s in-case-of-emergency-break-glass sticker. If ever his pitcher does anything to irritate the batter, his job is to ensure the situation does not escalate to, say, a hitter having a point-blank shot at the pitcher with both his helmet and fists. Good thing for Strickland that Harper pulled a 50 Cent and nobody in the end wound up hurt.

At the same time, was Posey’s decision right? From any direction, the answer is yes. Say he didn’t want to get hurt, as he suggested after the game. Good for him. Buster Posey is the San Francisco Giants’ franchise player. He has a responsibility to avoid injuries best he can. Or maybe he didn’t agree with Strickland’s approach in seeking vengeance for something from so long ago and used his lack of support as an overt message to others who may run afoul of his moral code.

Whatever the case, Posey proved that players are capable of staying out of the mess that is a basebrawl. It’s a lesson …

10. Bryce Harper could learn sooner than later. Hard though it may be to believe, he’s still just 24, and while that’s no excuse for his behavior or decision making, it shows Harper has time to figure out the right-from-wrong thing and add to the notion that should spread far and wide: Baseball players do not need to police one another by turning the ball into a weapon.

Whatever various conduits of disrespect led to brawls in the past, the game in 2017 is a lot different. Those dirty slides into second? Umpires will call runners out — and if they miss the call, replay will get it right. The control, command and movement of pitchers is so good that their need to police the plate — to back hitters off with chin music — has shrunk as time has gone on. The larger issue is personal beefs like that of Strickland with Harper, where nobody would’ve figured it would happen until it did.

Long suspensions would be a mighty good deterrent there, and maybe then players would get the harm they do by brawling. Yeah, it’s an adrenaline rush, and fans go nuts, and a scrum here and there gets the blood flowing, and — wait a second. This is the logic that some use to validate basebrawls? People actually believe Harper charging Strickland was warranted, like two wrongs make a right?

Baseball’s unwritten rules are unwritten for a reason. Because if put to paper, they would be so patently absurd, so logically bankrupt, that they would crumble on themselves within minutes. And they are why, on a day that baseball lost its best player for months, it could’ve lost its second best as well. The sport, like Bryce Harper and Hunter Strickland, dodged an even bigger shot Monday. It was, appropriately enough, pure dumb luck.

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