Mark Madden: MLB plunking blown out of proportion

September 3, 2018

Heading into play Saturday, 1,470 batters had been hit by pitches in the ongoing MLB season. Thirteen pitchers were in double digits for HBPs.

But, in 2018, no pitcher had been suspended for throwing at a batter until Miami’s Jose Urena got a six-game ban for plugging Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna Jr. with his first pitch in Wednesday’s Marlins-Braves game.

Why has this incident become such a cause celebre? Why has it provoked such outrage? Acuna got hit in the elbow, not the head. After leaving Wednesday’s game, Acuna was back in the lineup the next night.

Urena always throws inside. (He’s hit 11 batters this season.) He wasn’t ejected right away. In fact, Urena threw a few warmup pitches after the post-HBP scuffle subsided. The umpires huddled, then tossed Urena.

It was just a normal baseball moment that got blown out of proportion because Acuna had led off with home runs in the series’ first three games, all Atlanta wins. The benches emptied, but no punches were thrown. (There seldom are.) Atlanta manager Brian Snitker hopped around like he was on a pogo stick. Then Urena got ejected.

Perhaps the umpires didn’t want to deal with Atlanta retaliating when Urena batted. But that’s how baseball has always sorted itself out.

Acuna, 20, is one of baseball’s most promising young players and a National League Rookie of the Year candidate. If Urena drills some ham-and-egger, does Urena get ejected or suspended? Doubtful.

Urena is 3-12 with a 4.74 ERA. If Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander is the perpetrator, does he get ejected or suspended? Doubtful.

Guess Urena’s intent all you want, but that’s all you’re doing: Guessing.

Sure, it’s rotten if Urena tried to slow down a hot hitter by plunking him. But, again, you’re guessing. As noted, Urena pitches inside all the time.

Acuna isn’t Ty Cobb dipped in Ted Williams. He’s a 20-year-old rookie. Does he merit the protection MLB gave him? Who’s going to jam him now?

So much about this stinks.

But it’s consistent with the course that American sports are plotting. Football is minimizing hitting. Pretty soon, we’ll all be going to the ballet. (Hockey should eliminate fighting. But that’s another column.)

Maybe MLB should have batters hit off a tee. Because as long as the pitcher throws the ball, sometimes it’s going to hit the batter.

But this one occasion has mushroomed into the Hindenburg disaster. Or the Pirate Ship ride malfunctioning at Kennywood. It’s a huge fuss over a bruised elbow.

Shame on Miami manager Don Mattingly for criticizing Urena in the aftermath. Barring a felony being committed, stick up for your guy.

This incident has been overanalyzed, and with great gravitas (or hilarity, depending on your point of view).

Urena’s pitched was clocked at 97.5 mph, the fastest pitch he’d ever thrown to open a game. If it had been, say, 94.5 mph, would it have been OK? Does anyone really believe Urena muscled up by way of trying to hurt Acuna? If Urena wanted to hurt Acuna, he’d have thrown at his head.

Urena threw a two-seam fastball, which can run in on right-handed hitters. Some “experts” conjectured that, had he merely wanted to brush Acuna back, Urena would have thrown a four-seamer, which goes straight.

Perhaps Urena just wanted to pitch Acuna inside, by way of keeping him off balance, and the delivery got away. Maybe the intent wasn’t sinister.

But baseball’s literati still have their knickers in a twist, led by de facto baseball commissioner Keith Olbermann of ESPN: “Let’s have a little leadership, MLB. Suspend Urena for the season and Mattingly for a week. Let the union sue. This is the revenge of the mediocre against the gifted. Enough.” (ESPN, right now, is the revenge of the mediocre against the gifted. That compliments you, Keith.)

Maybe Urena was looking to injure Acuna.

Or maybe the pitch just got away. Acuna got a contusion on his elbow, not a crack on his melon.

Sometimes a batter just gets hit by a pitch.

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