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Trying to Understand the Unwritten Rules of Pitcher Retaliation

Before yesterday’s Brewers-Pirates game  – the first contest between the two teams since Easter Brawl 2014 – it wasn’t surprising that fans and pundits had retaliation on their minds, particularly since instigator Gerrit Cole was starting for Pittsburgh.  As it turned out, Cole did hit Carlos Gomez in the third inning, but it was an off speed pitch that everyone on the field seemed to understand wasn’t intentional.  The home crowd didn’t understand though – listen to the boos in this video clip.

It goes to show not everyone understands the details of baseball’s least secret unwritten rule.  When and why a pitcher decides to hit a batter for some perceived transgression seems pretty subjective to outsiders.  I remember in 2010 spring training when Barry Zito hit Prince Fielder in apparent retaliation for Fielder’s “atom bomb” celebration of a walk-off home run against the Giants months earlier.  Sheesh, it seems like they should have let it go by then.

Just last month, a truly bizarre situation happened during an Astros-A’s game when Houston’s pitcher threw at Oakland’s Jed Lowrie for laying down a bunt in the first inning.  The A’s had already scored seven times, but it was the first inning.  Retaliating for a bunt that early doesn’t make much damn sense.  It makes one wonder about the factors that influence pitcher retaliation.

In his terrific 2007 book The Baseball Economist, J.C. Bradbury analyzed hit-by-pitch data from 1921-2005 to see what it revealed.  One finding was interesting if not completely surprising – from 1973 (when the DH rule was implemented) to 2005, the hit batter rate in the AL was 15% higher than in the NL.  That might indicate NL pitchers are less likely to hit opposing players, presumably since they might face retaliation when they come to bat.

Bradbury also had some interesting findings about who and when batters are hit by pitchers:

  • Pitchers who hit batters in the previous inning were more likely to be hit than pitchers who did not hit batters.
  • Pitchers were more likely to hit good batters, perhaps because the price of hitting them (i.e., giving them first base, added to the chance of the pitcher being retaliated against) was lower than letting them swing away.
  • Pitchers were more likely to hit batters when they were losing.  The greater the run differential, the more likely losing pitchers were to hit batters.

While Bradbury’s research gives us an idea of when batters are likely to be hit, it doesn’t necessarily illuminate what factors are likely to prompt retaliation.  Interestingly, one significant factor may be the climate:

“Twenty years ago, I’d done a paper with some graduate students just showing that in hotter temperatures, pitchers are more likely to hit batters with pitches,” says Larrick, a professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. […]

“Laboratory research has shown that if you put people in a hotter room, they’re more likely to act aggressively toward someone else,” sometimes without even being aware of it, he says. […]

“We can look at every game and every plate appearance, and just look at what the chances are of a batter being hit,” he says. As he reported in the journal Psychological Science, there was a definite pattern. Pitchers were more likely to hit a batter if earlier in the game, one of their teammates had been hit. But that’s not all.

“It seems to be that the main thing that changes with temperature is the desire to retaliate for my teammate being hit,” says Larrick. He says that fits well with what his laboratory research shows about people in hot rooms. “The same thing that someone else does to me, that could be ambiguous, whether it was designed to hurt me or not, is more likely to be interpreted as having hostile intent, which then provokes me to want to retaliate for it.”

While the temperature explanation makes a certain amount of sense, but what about a temperament explanation?  Last year, ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian wrote a column arguing that a fair amount of retaliation can be attributed to the inherent nastiness of baseball players:

Baseball players are the most macho, remorseless, vengeful people I’ve ever met. If you mess with their game, if you mess with them, if you mess with a teammate, they are going to get revenge, no matter how long it takes. […]

Al Bumbry crossed home plate many years ago and just steamrolled the opposing pitcher, Dennis Eckersley, who was backing up on the play.

Bumbry made it look like an accident, but it was not an accident.

“What was that all about?” teammate Mike Flanagan asked him.

“That was for him hitting me with a pitch in 1975!” Bumbry said.

“That was seven years ago!” Flanagan said.

“I know,” Bumbry said, “but it hurt. I had to get him back!”

On the other hand, maybe when it comes to retaliation, we’re just letting a few outliers and exceptional circumstance carry too much weight.  In his 2006 article “Hit By Pitches: Moral Hazard, Cost-Benefit, Retaliation, or Lack of Evidence?” published in the Journal of Sports Economics, Gregory Trandel also analyzed HBP data and came to different conclusions than Bradbury:

[T]here is no evidence of a correlation between the number of HBPs experienced by a team’s batters in a given year, and the number of HBPs thrown by that team’s pitchers in that year. […]

The overwhelming implication of this analysis is thus that there is no empirical evidence in the team HBP figures that a team’s pitching and batting HBPs were ever related in any systematic way.

Perhaps pitcher retaliation has been a figment of our imaginations this whole time?  Someone should tell Al Bumbry.

Based on this brief analysis of recent evidence, this much seems clear – pitcher retaliation definitely exists, it could be influenced by temperature and how badly a team is losing, it may have something to do with baseball players being miserable bastards with long memories, and according to some data it might not actually exist at all.  Hopefully one day some former players will take the time to write these unwritten rules down.  Then we’ll have some idea of what it is we don’t agree on.  

(Image: Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette)