The fact is that nobody but Carlos Carrasco knows whether he intended to hit Kevin Youkilis. To his credit, with the command he had that day, if he had intended to hit Youkilis the ball probably would have ended up knee-high on the outside corner. But it was a second offense, both immediately after a home run, so he looks like the lady whose three rich husbands all die of natural causes on the honeymoon.
Since the penalty for this has to take intent into account, it becomes by definition a subjective judgment. To be honest, the fact that Carrasco is Latino probably works against him. We all read a bunch of articles describing him as “immature” and a “hothead,” labels that would never be used if this had happened to Justin Masterson—who, by the way, hit thirteen batters last year without any talk of a suspension. You wonder how many of the people who wrote those articles have ever had a conversation with Carrrasco, or if they all just jumped to conclusions. It is virtually certain that he is now lumped into a category with other Latinos like Carlos Zambrano who had difficulty controlling their emotions, so that he will never get the benefit of the doubt in this kind of situation.
Subjective discipline like this sucks. Everyone who has a sibling knows that it is never meted out consistently (I was the one who always got off easier). Carrasco will miss only one start, so the impact on the pennant race is minimal, assuming the Indians are actually in the race. But there will be a week this season where they are shorthanded, and we don’t know exactly how it will impact them. More importantly, if at any point in the next few years Carrasco is involved in this type of fracas again, he will be treated as an habitual offender, and they will throw the book at him.
So, if it is indeed true that this was an accident, it may turn out to have an unjust impact on Carrasco’s entire career. The way to avoid such situations is to make the punishments objective, thereby taking the element of intent out of the equation. It may seem unfair to have pitchers face consequences for acts they may not have had control over, but that happens all the time in sports. Colt McCoy ducked just as James Harrison was about to hit him, and a rib shot turned into a head shot and a suspension. I could make the case that Youkilis generally stands with his front elbow in the strike zone, making him more likely to get hit, which should impact the punishment given to anyone who hits him, but that is never taken into account.
So let’s just say that any hit batsman is going to result in a penalty, which has to be severe enough to deter it but not enough to inordinately impact a game or a season. The present penalty of first base obviously has never stopped pitchers who wanted to extract payback for something. How about two bases? That may cause a situation where a hitter tries to get hit, and you would be back to the whole subjective thing, like flopping in basketball. Maybe we just say that any hit batsman results in an ejection. No, then we would have a 400-pound guy on the roster just to have his belly sag over the plate, and he would lead off every time Justin Verlander pitched.
There may be a model for this in the NBA. The NBA found several years ago that certain players were receiving extraordinary amounts of technical fouls for arguing with referees. Obviously the one point it may have cost his teams did not deter Rasheed Wallace from going for it when the impulse struck. However, since technicals are assessed subjectively, the league did not want to assess a penalty that might have a more significant impact on the outcome of a game (because, you know, people bet on these games). The solution they came up with was to say that after 16 technical fouls in one season, the player would miss one game. Sixteen is a lot of technicals, so this may seem lenient, but the player will then miss another game for every two technical fouls after that, so a player who has, say, 41 technicals, which Wallace actually did in one season, would miss thirteen games.
So a player who is a chronic offender ends up having a serious impact on his team’s ability to win games, but a guy who just loses it once or twice will face the regular penalty. I assume there is still a rule in place giving the commissioner discretion to deal more severely with players who go crazy—the chair throwers, the F-bombers, and the guys who make physical contact with the refs.
This would work for hit batsmen. If you hit a guy once or twice a year, you deserve the benefit of the doubt, regardless of the situation. If you hit 20 guys a year, we should assume that you have anger management problems or a lack of command. So I propose that we pick a number and say that if you hit that many guys a year, you will miss five games. Like the NBA, every hit batsman or two after that point will result in additional penalties. What should the threshold be? Well, the Major League leader hit 14 last year, so I would say let’s do half of that. Seven hit batsmen results in an automatic five-game suspension, and every two HBPs after that result in another five games.
Under this scenario 48 pitchers would have faced suspensions last year, and 25 would have been suspended at least twice. That seems like too much, so maybe the minimum threshold for suspension should be 10. That is enough so that a pitcher can go through a wild stretch and still not be on the verge of a suspension, but there is not enough leeway that a guy can be a headhunter and not face consequences.
There are holes in this, of course. If I get to Labor Day with two or three hit batsman, I can be a headhunter the rest of the year; then again, if you played by the rules all year, you should get rewarded. The larger hole is relief pitchers. A guy who pitchers 60 innings a year is not going to get enough opportunities to hit batters that he will ever face any penalties. Nor will a guy who gets called up from the minors in July or August. I must confess that I don’t have an answer to those questions, so this is not a perfect solution, but it is better than what we have now, and it can be adapted if need be if there is a way to fill in these gaps.