Baseball's beanball culture is getting even more dangerous

Josh Donaldson argues with umpire Mark Ripperger after a close pitch by the Twins' Phil Hughes. Bruce Kluckhohn/AP Photo

Reigning American League MVP Josh Donaldson lashed out Sunday after Twins starter Phil Hughes -- whose control is as good as any pitcher in the game -- nearly hit him twice, first with a pitch near his gut and then with the next one behind his back:

That was the culmination of an emotional weekend in which Twins bench coach Joe Vavra yelled at Donaldson on Saturday for not running out a ground ball. When Donaldson chirped back at Vavra, he was ejected from the game -- umpire Toby Basner apparently thought Donaldson was yelling at him. On Sunday, Donaldson homered off Hughes in his first at-bat, then stared into the Twins dugout at Vavra. Two at-bats later, Hughes threw close to him, although he wasn't ejected from the game.

On Tuesday, Pirates reliever Arquimedes Caminero -- one of the hardest throwers in the game -- hit Diamondbacks infielders Jean Segura in the helmet and Nick Ahmed in the shoulder and jaw with high-and-tight pitches, knocking both from the game. Here's the Segura HBP and here's the Ahmed HBP, which led to Caminero getting ejected. Luckily, both players were OK and have returned to the lineup.

That led to some emotional responses from Diamondbacks chief baseball officer Tony La Russa and manager Chip Hale, let alone Diamondbacks fans who remember when then-Pirates reliever Ernesto Frieri broke Paul Goldschmidt's hand in 2014. La Russa even went into the Pirates’ broadcast booth on Tuesday after he heard Pirates broadcasters had addressed La Russa's retaliatory actions from his managing days.

From Nick Piecoro's story on AZCentral.com:

La Russa said that during his years as a manager his pitchers never hit a batter first because that batter was swinging the bat well against them. He also said a lack of intent doesn’t take a pitcher off the hook for a hit by pitch.

"A lot of guys who are pitching in don't have the ability at this point to command it and it becomes very dangerous," La Russa said. "The reasoning you get from the other side is they didn't mean to do it intentionally. If you don't have command, then that's intentionally careless."

When speaking with reporters during his pregame session Wednesday, Hale seemed mostly to absolve the hard-throwing-but-erratic Caminero. He instead seemed to direct his complaints toward Pirates manager Clint Hurdle and his staff.

"I don't think the kid meant to do it," Hale said. "When you put a guy out there that doesn’t have control in that area and you're trying to pitch in, it’s not something that we can have here. The guy doesn’t have the ability to pitch in certain quadrants of the zone, we don’t do it. It’s almost the fault more of the coaching and the managing than it is the player at that point."

Indeed, in the videos you can hear the disgust in the voice of Diamondbacks broadcaster Steve Berthiaume when he says, "They have a reputation for pitching inside. It's one they defend vigorously." And later: "This is a constant factor when you play the Pittsburgh Pirates."

Over at Inside the 'Zona, Ryan P. Morrison dug into some of the numbers with the Pirates -- pointing out that they don't simply pitch inside, but high and inside. They're tied with the Cubs for the major league lead in hit batters, after leading in two of the past three seasons, but what's dangerous is they hold a big edge in the number of pitches identified as up and in:

I'm not all that concerned with inside fastballs or HBPs, specifically. This is about the threat of high HBPs -- the balls that can find a batter's head, arms, hands. Looking for those pitches, I pulled all fastballs this year that were at least 3.2 feet high and 1.2 feet in on the batter from the center of the plate (the rulebook zone ends at 0.7 feet inside). We’ll call them Headhunter Pitches. And in terms of Headhunter Pitches this season, the Pirates are far, far out in front of the rest of baseball: They've launched 93, double the average of the other 29 teams (46.1). No other team has thrown more than 20 Headhunter Pitches above the average, and the vast majority are within 10 or 11 of the average.

The Pirates have been very open about their philosophy on pitching inside. As Ben Lindbergh detailed in a 2014 Grantland story, the philosophy was born of collaboration between Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, his coaching staff, and Pirates analysts Dan Fox and Mike Fitzgerald.

The Pirates trying to pitch inside and Hughes apparently trying to retaliate against Donaldson maybe aren't apples to apples, but they're from the same culture that allows dangerous pitches to be thrown with little recrimination from the umpires or the league. It's part of the game, everybody says. Which is Donaldson's point: It shouldn't be part of the game. Part of the reason pitchers can get away with it is that the first high-and-tight pitch or deliberate inside pitch gets only a warning from the umpire, meaning the second team faces ejection if it wants retribution.

Unfortunately, that doesn't always stop teams, which is why we see these beanball wars. In fact, Caminero's second hit batter came after Diamondbacks reliever Evan Marshall had plunked David Freese. It wasn't always like this, as much as the old-timers like to pretend these acts were common once upon a time.

Here's a little chart of the history of HBP totals over the past 50 years. Hit batters this year are at 0.33 per team per game (the same rate as in 2015), which is lower than the 0.39 peak in 2001, but more than double the 0.16 rate seen in the early 1980s.

Certainly, some of the hit-by-pitch totals are a reflection of batters moving up in the box, hanging their elbows over the plate -- think Anthony Rizzo, who was hit by 30 pitches last year -- and daring pitchers to come inside. But it's probably not a coincidence that HBP totals started increasing in step with the increase in home runs during the steroid era. But how much of the increase is attributable to retribution?

That's hard to say. The fourth column is the percentage of games with a hit by pitch where both teams were hit by a pitch. The number has gone up, but you would expect that number to go up since there are more hit batters in general compared to 30-plus years ago. The percentage of hit batters with the bases empty has remained fairly stagnant. (I thought maybe it would increase, as intentional HBPs would be more likely to occur with the bases empty, when they would be less damaging.)

I do wonder, however, where the future leads us. Pitching inside is part of the game; head-hunting and retaliation should not be. The AL MVP has spoken. Do you agree with him? It's only a matter of time until we get our next Giancarlo Stanton incident. Maybe it will be accidental, but there's a chance that pitch will have a purpose behind it.