MLB's pathetic punishment for throwing at a player's head needs to change

Jeff PassanMLB columnist

Suspensions in baseball are based on precedent, and precedent, in the case of Red Sox pitcher Matt Barnes throwing a 90-mph fastball inches behind the head of Orioles star Manny Machado on Sunday, says he will face anywhere from a three- to six-game ban. This is ridiculous, and Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association have good reason to work together, make an example of Barnes and end the farcical tradition that places the entire sport in peril every time a pitcher is foolish enough to engage in it.

Imagine, for a moment, that Barnes’ pitch did hit Machado. When a baseball meets a face, awful, unimaginable chaos unfolds. Bones break. Teeth shatter. Blood pours. Concussions ring. This is meant to be gory. It is meant to illustrate that with one pitch, Barnes nearly became the person who delivered grave harm because a few days earlier Machado had delivered a mild injury to one of his teammates with an ill-advised but almost certainly not malicious slide.

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This could’ve been anyone. That it happened to be Manny Machado, one of the best players in the world, the $300 million-plus man from the bonanza Free Agent Class of 2018-19, is actually a gift to MLB, because it offers a star around whom to mold new legislation, like when the Buster Posey collision changed the calculus for catchers. The rules of old must go. Suspending Braves pitcher Jose Ramirez only three games for throwing behind the head of Jose Fernandez last September? That was a poor, irresponsible, feckless suspension that reeked of the very do-it-because-that’s-how-it’s-always-been-done blather commissioner Rob Manfred despises.

The union, too, has every reason to support a long suspension for Barnes. While the MLBPA’s job is typically to negotiate down discipline against players, headshots are a significant threat to those the union is supposed to protect. Even if incidents such as this pit union member against union member, the MLBPA’s duty is to support what’s right for the majority of players. And anybody who would argue in favor of an unwritten rule over player safety needs to stop taking those Goose Gossage pills.

It’s quite likely none of this would have happened were the recipient of Machado’s spike marks not Dustin Pedroia, the longest-tenured Red Sox by more than a half-decade. Because it was, retribution was a near-certainty, if not now then later in the season. Considering his reaction — in the aftermath of the pitch, Pedroia yelled from the dugout toward Machado, “It’s not me,” and after the game he deemed it “a mishandled situation” — it’s exceedingly unlikely Pedroia asked Barnes, or any pitcher, to drill Machado.

Thing is, he didn’t need to. Baseball culture demands it, and that is something that will take years to break. A good first step, though, is so thoroughly disincentivizing throwing anywhere in the vicinity of a player’s head that such pitches practically grow extinct.

Perhaps this is wishful, but the threat of a 20-game suspension and significant fine would seem to meet that standard. The intention of this is not to usher in an era of punitive penalties in MLB. It’s to legislate away revenge pitches, which almost always result from the breaking of unwritten rules, which in most cases are more of a pox on the game than something that do what they’re supposed to, which, ironically enough, is keep the peace.

Manny Machado, the soon-to-be $300 million-plus man, found himself in the middle of bad blood between the Red Sox and Orioles. (AP)
Manny Machado, the soon-to-be $300 million-plus man, found himself in the middle of bad blood between the Red Sox and Orioles. (AP)

The union could be concerned about the proliferation of further suspension, or more significant punishment for retribution pitches done “the right way” — in the ribs or the thigh or, pretty much, not the head-and-neck area. This is a fair concern. It also is something worth getting rid of. Pitchers need not be the game’s policemen, the adjudicators of punishment. Baseball is not a better game when pitchers are throwing at players or players are taking out others with slides or vigilante justice is accepted with pointless punishment. In 2012, Cole Hamels admitted to throwing at then-rookie Bryce Harper and got all of five games for it.

So go after Matt Barnes, not because he’s Matt Barnes or because they’re the Red Sox but because he’s the unfortunate one who happened to be the latest to do something indescribably stupid and they’re the ones who tried to help him explain it away afterward. Barnes and Red Sox manager John Farrell said he lost control of a fastball that was supposed to go inside.

Most of the time, there is plausible deniability when players say this because everything else in the story at least reasonably covers up the intent. In this case, Christian Vazquez made an oopsie.

There it is. Fifteen games for the pitch, five for the worst lie of 2017.

If there is anything good to take away from this, it’s that …

1. Manny Machado locked up the unlikeliest foul ball of the year in the first month of the season and that noise was the ball hitting his bat, not his helmet. In an odd way, Machado being hurt actually would have helped the idea of significant suspensions for headhunting, even though the act of throwing in the area is imprecise enough that something around the area is dangerous enough to warrant punishment.

The most curious part is that of all the people to be sensitive about the fragility of a baseball player’s career, his future, his life, it would the 749 other men who share his distinction as a major league player. And of all the people for major league players to hope stays healthy and productive the next two years, Machado is near the top of the list.

Because he is a headliner in the Free Agent Class of 2018-19, which deserves every one of its capital letters because of how it’s going to change baseball. It would be easy to exaggerate this, but the prospect of major league teams guaranteeing $4 billion in one offseason is eminently real.

Two offseasons ago, teams spent $2.5 billion, and while that group was good, it looked nothing like those licking their lips in anticipation of November 2018 and the Winter Meetings a month later, which, appropriately enough, are scheduled to be in Las Vegas.

Machado will be 26 years old with nearly 1,000 big league games under his belt. He’s one of the three best third basemen in the game and plays a pretty damn neat shortstop, too. Provided he resembles himself the last two seasons over the next two years, the bidding will start at $300 million and land well north of it. And considering …

2. Bryce Harper hits free agency that offseason, too, the prospect of Machado being the highest-paid athlete in American sports history and then being usurped days later is legitimate.

Harper is looking like every bit of his 2015 MVP self, putting up a slash line that our lawyers told us not to include because it’s too obscene. Let’s just say when the batting average starts with a 4, the on-base percentage a 5 and the slugging percentage an 8, it’s pretty good.

Here’s the thing, though: Nobody in the Class of 2017-18 is primed to break the bank to the level that the record average annual value of a contract or the single biggest salary will go up, meaning Zack Greinke’s $34.42 million annual salary (which is worth slightly less because of deferrals) and the $33.25 million owed Mike Trout from 2018-20 are the benchmarks to surpass.

If there is an argument for Harper to be the world’s first $500 million athlete, it hinges on Scott Boras making a claim that Harper deserves to make 50 percent more per year than the best pitcher in the world and the best player in the world, and even for Boras, that’s one hell of a sell. Of course, the last time Boras took a player of Harper’s ilk into free agency, Alex Rodriguez more than doubled the previous record of a baseball contract — and his $252 million deal with Texas, signed in December 2000, remains the third-largest deal ever in the sport’s history.

Another 11 baseball-playing months like his April — or 13, should the Nationals finally start making some playoff runs — and Harper will obliterate every financial record possible. He’s young. He’s marketable. He’s great. He’s the closest thing baseball has to a star. If a team’s going to gamble hundreds of millions of dollars on someone, he’s the best bet.

It’s easy to look at …

3. Josh Donaldson right now and think he’s anything but. A calf injury has him on the disabled list. The Blue Jays are the worst team in baseball. At the moment, it’s grim.

His place in the Class of 2018 might be the most interesting of anyone. Donaldson will turn 33 that offseason. While Harper and Machado will field 10-year-plus deals, Donaldson — a late bloomer who saw his first full-time action at 27 years old — may find himself fielding, at best, eight-year offers. And that presumes teams haven’t talked themselves out of overpaying for a player by giving him years during which they know he won’t produce. Because the greatest free agency axiom is: It only takes one team. And amid the feeding frenzy that’s the winter of 2018-19, that one team always will exist.

It’s not hard for a team to talk itself into guaranteeing truckloads of money to a third baseman who, over the last four years, has hit .284/.375/.518 with some of the game’s best defense and recent postseason numbers to match. The market for those guys is 30 teams. The only issue is how many can afford them. And that’s where the financial imbalance that exists across the game could be seen as the most dangerous since before the strike. Machado isn’t going to a small market. Harper isn’t going to a small market. Donaldson isn’t going to a small market. And …

4. Clayton Kershaw isn’t going to a small market. Yes, he’s a free agent, too, if he opts out of the last two years of his seven-year, $215 million deal, which he absolutely should barring an injury. From a purely voyeuristic perspective, the prospect of seeing how teams value someone of Kershaw’s ilk is giddily fascinating.

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/8180/" data-ylk="slk:Clayton Kershaw">Clayton Kershaw</a> can opt out of his $215 million contract in 2018. (Getty Images)
Clayton Kershaw can opt out of his $215 million contract in 2018. (Getty Images)

At the time, he will be 30 years old, with about 2,200 innings of big league experience on his arm. Kershaw is the best pitcher since Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson were tussling for the title, only he has no peers. (And for those who want to say Madison Bumgarner, go ride a motorbike.)

How do you value that? If Greinke, at 32, gets $206.5 million over six years, Kershaw, three years later, two years younger, so very much better, is worth … $300 million over eight years? More?

The numbers are so astronomically high, the fear among a number of agents isn’t that teams are going to try to cry poor, per se, so much as they’re going to appeal to the optics of the deals — that they make baseball players inaccessible and baseball look outlandish, that ticket prices are high because of the contracts and not that contracts are high because of the multimedia deals the league and teams negotiate. These are the macro games going on already, a year and a half out, while teams do the micro games and try to come to terms on whom they plan to focus. If Kershaw is too rich for your blood, perhaps …

5. Dallas Keuchel is a little better-suited. Or Matt Harvey. Or Drew Smyly. Or Garrett Richards or Patrick Corbin or, if his elbow is OK and he decides to opt out of his deal with the Red Sox, David Price. Starting pitching might be the weakest crop in the class, if only because of the fragility of the best arms, with Smyly and Richards on the DL now, Harvey and Corbin with zippers on their elbows and Price in that uncomfortable place between those groups.

Keuchel is the healthy one of the bunch, and, like Harper, he has reverted to his award-winning self this April. The ERA is beautiful (0.96), the walk rate back down (1.93), a little bit of luck not hurting the cause (99 percent strand rate). The truly exciting number, though, is 70 percent. That’s Keuchel’s groundball rate. It’s the best among starters in baseball this year. And it would be the single finest since MLB started keeping track of such things, with Derek Lowe hitting 67 percent twice.

In the elevate-or-die landscape of baseball, a 70 percent groundball rate makes Keuchel a hero. Extreme groundball pitchers don’t typically get paid obscene sums in free agency. Lowe’s $60 million deal with Atlanta was a mess. Brandon Webb’s agreed-upon $54 million deal was yanked after the Diamondbacks couldn’t get insurance on it. The lone exception is Kevin Brown, baseball’s first $100 million man and an underappreciated ace. Nine figures await Keuchel, too, and the possibility of …

6. Zach Britton being baseball’s first $100 million relief pitcher isn’t out of the realm of possibility. In his favor: He’s really, really good, and the price of relief pitching is close enough to $20 million a year that if enough teams want him, going five years at that rate might not seem all that outlandish.

(It is.)

Working against Britton: Andrew Miller. Craig Kimbrel. Jeurys Familia. Cody Allen. Kelvin Herrera. A.J. Ramos. David Robertson. And a bunch of other free agent relievers in the winter of 2018.

Look at that group. It’s incredible. A half-billion dollars could be spent on closers alone. What are there, five of the game’s 10 best closers in that group — and that doesn’t even count Miller, who still will be only 33 that offseason. Starving bullpens, the 2018-19 offseason is an all-you-can-eat buffet with the sort of depth matched only by …

7. Daniel Murphy and the second basemen of 2018-19. It’s easy to get caught up in the Harper/Machado/Kershaw thing, to marvel at the relievers, but the real wonder of the class comes at second base.

Of the baker’s dozen highest WARs at the position last season, six of them are free agents in 2018. Murphy will be coming off what turned out to be an incredible steal by the Nationals and looking to get paid. Same goes for Brian Dozier, whose team-friendly contract expires then. D.J. LeMahieu has a batting title to his name.

Second baseman Daniel Murphy has been a steal for the Nationals. (Getty Images)
Second baseman Daniel Murphy has been a steal for the Nationals. (Getty Images)

Then come the likely ones: Ian Kinsler, Logan Forsythe and Jean Segura all have club options for the 2018 season that are reasonable enough they’re expected to be picked up. In that same group of 2018-19 free agents, so long as their 2018 option is exercised: Andrew McCutchen, Gio Gonzalez, Asdrubal Cabrera, Michael Brantley and Welington Castillo. And that’s to say nothing of Elvis Andrus, who, with his newfound power, may actually be tempted to opt out of a deal the Rangers figured was theirs for another half-decade.

There are more names. Lots more. Adam Jones. Joe Mauer. Adrian Gonzalez. Nelson Cruz. Adam Wainwright. Hunter Pence. Victor Martinez. Chase Headley. All are, or will be, past their primes. All, too, will warrant jobs because of who they are and what they’ve done. They may not get the shockingly oversized contract of …

8. Yasmani Grandal should he reach the market producing as he has his whole career. What does that mean? Look at his year-by-year OPS+ since he made it to the big leagues: 143, 102, 111, 112, 120, 125. The batting averages may be ugly — OK, they are quite unsightly — but Grandal owns one of the finest eyes of any catcher, and that’s just part of the whole package.

He’ll just have turned 30. He switch hits. He hits for power. Framing stats say he’s one of the game’s three best catchers. The other catchers in the class don’t exactly inspire hosannas to be sung of them.

Back to that OPS+. For his career, Grandal’s is 118. Here’s the list of catchers with 500 career games and an OPS+ that high: Buster Posey, Jorge Posada, Mike Piazza, Chris Hoiles, Johnny Bench, Dick Dietz, John Romano, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Ernie Lombardi, Bill Dickey, Babe Phelps, Gabby Hartnett, Mickey Cochrane and Bubbles Hargrave.

Among that group, there are eight Hall of Famers, 13 MVP awards, 98 All-Star Games and four batting titles. It is legitimate company, and for any defensive prowess to complement a bat as legitimate as Grandal’s makes him awfully desirable. Among him and Kershaw and …

9. A.J. Pollock and Charlie Blackmon, the NL West could lose its fair share of elite players. And, yes, Pollock, in his return from what essentially was a lost 2016, has proven himself again as such while Blackmon remains a prime under-the-radar guy whose environment similarly could affect his free agency.

Pollock, 31 in December 2018, is a year younger than Blackmon. Pollock hits right-handed, Blackmon lefty. Pollock plays center field quite well, Blackmon … not quite as well. They share thin air — the Rockies’ obviously notorious among teams that are scared to sign free agent hitters leaving Colorado because they simply can’t predict how he will translate into a new environment. It’s almost like being traded before free agency to prove oneself could be a blessing.

Blackmon isn’t as likely to move as Pollock, who’s a great asset for the rebuilding Diamondbacks but not necessarily someone around whom they’ll build, not with what he’s going to want to buy him out of the free agent years that are so close.

A lot of those conversations are going on already. Teams see the revenue spikes, see a future in which players are coming for their share, and they want to spend that money now. Someone will sign a deal. A few someones probably. The majority, though, see 2018 as the rainbow with a pot of gold at the end, and they need only traverse it a little longer to celebrate its riches. Were the Orioles, say, to offer …

10. Manny Machado hundreds of millions of dollars at this juncture, what incentive would he have to say yes? If he likes Baltimore? Sure. Comfort is important. And if he feels like his teammates and manager and those around him give him the best chance to win? Hey, the Orioles do have the best record in the AL.

Still, the freedom of free agency is so incredibly liberating, something that’s worth celebrating, particularly in a year during which so much greatness will reach it. When Marvin Miller negotiated free agency into baseball, he understood its repercussions would reach long and far. He gave the power of sports back to those who play it.

All so a winter like 2018-19 would happen. Between now and then, there will be injuries and failures, guys who lose tens of millions of dollars through bad luck or bad performance. And there will be those who break out and make more than they ever could’ve imagined. Ultimately there will be the knowledge that players dream of making it there, to free agency, the land of milk and honey, which, as it has done so many times in the past, is bound again to change baseball forever.

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