Alex Remington, responding to my post about A.J. Pierzynski (apparently) cheating the other night, leads with this: "As he so often does, Rob Neyer asks an interesting question — and then declines to give an answer."
Heh. Good one. I'll work on it.
As you might recall, Pierzynski -- if you believe the replay, anyway -- faked being hit on the foot by a pitch from Ricky Romero, and the next hitter broke up Romero's no-hitter with a home run. This offended my tender sensibilities. Alex wasn't quite so offended ...
- There isn’t much difference between this and a run-of-the-mill blown call. It’s not completely clear that he lied: after all, it’s conceivable that Pierzynski truly believed that he got hit, much as many a hitter will argue till he’s blue in the face that a called third strike was really a ball, or that he was really safe at first. Of course, it’s more likely that he knew the ball missed him, lied to the ump for his own advantage, and the ump wrongly believed him. That certainly wouldn’t be the first time a player (or a manager) has argued his own cause to an ump despite knowing he was wrong — it’s just one of the few times that it has ever actually worked.
Still, I’m sympathetic to his point, especially because Pierzynski’s play is effectively the baseball equivalent of flopping in soccer and basketball: it’s bush league, it’s unsportsmanlike, it delays the game, and it creates a major moral hazard problem, because it incentivizes every other player to lie.
But how do you punish him? The commissioner’s office can’t very well levy a fine for doing something that isn’t prohibited in the rulebook, and public ostracism won’t make much of a difference either: A.J. Pierzynski has made a career of ticking off fanbases and clubhouses alike. As satisfying as it would be to punish a player for lying, it isn’t very practical — after all, it’s impossible to know exactly whether a player is genuinely mistaken or intentionally dissembling.
Ultimately, Neyer’s righteous indignation is understandable, but it’s misguided. Instead of focusing on the player’s motivations, we should aim for greater accuracy: vetting and replacing the worst umpires in baseball, and permitting instant replays to ensure that the right calls are being made.
One, if Pierzynski wasn't hit, it's very clear that he did, indeed, lie. It's not as if the pitch was close to his foot, the umpire told him to take his base and he sort of shrugged, "OK, if you say so." He scampered out of the box, then hopped around like something was fractured.
And two, I wasn't suggesting that Pierzynski should have been, or should be, punished. I'm arguing that there should be a mechanism to punish players for doing what Pierzynski did. It would be tough for the umpires on the field to levy this punishment, because a player probably wouldn't lie unless he was 95-percent sure the umpires couldn't catch him. What I'm suggesting is a post facto punishment, in the form of a suspension.
Yes, this would require someone at Major League Baseball to watch the replay in super-slow motion, again and again, and determine not only exactly what happened on the field, but also the player's intent.
That's really hard!
And they do it all the time. Every few weeks, a pitcher is suspended for a few games because someone in New York determines the pitcher was trying to throw a pitch at a batter's head. Is it always fair? No. Sometimes the guy in New York gets it wrong. But the judgment's been made that an occasional injustice is a price worth paying if it means fewer hitters getting knocked into the hospital with cranial trauma.
I favor that tradeoff. And I would favor a similar tradeoff in cases like the Pierzynski Affair. It's worth some effort to preserve the health of the players. It's worth some effort to preserve the integrity of the game on the field.