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Bryce Harper Was Justified in Charging the Mound

Major League Baseball has suspended Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper and San Francisco Giants reliever Hunter Strickland for their roles in last weekend’s bench-clearing brawl. Here’s ESPN:

Strickland hit Harper in the hip with a pitch in the eighth inning and the Washington slugger charged the mound, wildly firing his helmet before trading punches to the head with Strickland during the Nationals’ 3-0 win Monday at San Francisco.

MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre’s explanation of the disciplinary decisions said Strickland intentionally hit “Harper with a pitch, inciting the bench-clearing incident and fighting” while Harper’s suspension came “for charging the mound, throwing his helmet and fighting.” . . . 

Each also was fined an undisclosed amount. Major League Baseball said both players planned to appeal, so they were eligible to play in Tuesday night’s game between the clubs.

MLB awarded Harper a four-game suspension. Strickland got six.

Because baseball donnybrooks are fun to watch, here’s the video:

The proximate cause of the fight was that, apparently, Strickland was still holding a grudge over Harper hitting two (!) home runs off him in the 2014 NLDS playoffs . (The Giants won that playoff series against the Nats and then the World Series that year; the two players had not faced each other since.)

I’ll say this once and I’ll say it again: Bryce Harper was within his rights to charge the mound and lay one on Hunter Strickland. I’ll add this: Harper shouldn’t even have been suspended a single game for his actions, while Strickland should have his suspension doubled.

I’ve heard a lot of dumb commentary on this, so we’re going to take it in order.

“Strickland was within his rights to throw at Harper.”

This is the single-most empty-headed comment that I have heard on the controversy.

It is not an unwritten rule in baseball that a pitcher gets to bean a batter if he hits a home run off him. The “exception” here is if a batter goes out of his way to show up a pitcher after hitting the homer (e.g., by flipping his bat or by taking way too long to start running to first). If that happens, then a pitcher can retaliate. I’ll grant that this is the unwritten rule, even if I don’t necessarily like it — I just don’t think that’s what happened here.

Strickland’s defenders say that Harper showed him up in the aforementioned 2014 playoff game. They say that Harper watched his shot too long, throwing some serious shade at Strickland. But watch the video.

I’m not going to take this frame by frame, analyzing it like the Zapruder film, as some have done. But anyone can see that Harper’s ball was hugging the first-base line and didn’t clear the foul pole by much. Harper knew he had hit the ball hard enough that, fair or foul, it was going over the fence. But he didn’t know for several long seconds whether it was a homer — or just a foul ball to make the count 3-2. You’re telling me that — in the playoffs, with that swing representing the tying run — you wouldn’t have watched that ball? C’mon.

Here are the important facts: That incident was three long years ago, the Giants won the World Series that year, and Harper’s “showing up” of Strickland was questionable at best.

But Hunter Strickland is still upset about it? That’s bush league.

Strickland had no right to throw at Harper. How should Strickland have got him back for the homers? By striking Harper out. A real pitcher would have earned a K. A chump throws at the batter.

“Harper should have just walked to first base.”

A baseball thrown at 95 miles per hour is a weapon. Is it going to kill you if you get hit in the hip? Probably not. But Strickland could have missed by a few inches and broken one of Harper’s ribs or he could have smashed Harper’s knee cap, sending him to the disabled list. Either way, Strickland’s bush-league move warranted a response.

Why? Because if Harper would have chosen not to defend himself here, he would have opened himself up for more cheap shots down the line. Harper hits a lot of home runs — he’s one of the best players in baseball right now. Is he just supposed to accept getting beaned 30 times a season? That’s a clown question, bro.

Yes, Harper could have just taken first, taking what some consider the “high road.” But, in the timeless words of Kenny Rogers, “sometimes you’ve got to fight when you’re a man.”

“Harper’s suspension is warranted, because baseball needs to get rid of the fighting.”

The best way to stop brawls in baseball is to get rid of the routine nature of pitchers throwing at batters. I’ll accept that there may — may — be a time and a place for a pitcher to bean a batter to police an on-the-field transgression (e.g., if a batter makes a habit of dirty, dangerous, cleats-up slides while running the bases). But the Harper–Strickland donnybrook wasn’t caused by any such proximate cause — rather, it was a cheap shot in response to Harper taking Strickland to the woodshed in the course of clean, legitimate play.

Harper had the right to defend himself. Strickland deserved to be ejected, fined, and suspended both for his actions and to set a precedent. Baseball should make it perfectly clear that pitchers will lose a lot of game-time and money if they don’t cut this stuff out.

This is a lot simpler than people are making it out to be: Get rid of the hit-batters and you get rid of most of baseball’s brawls.

One last note.

Another of baseball’s unwritten rules is that a catcher always must defend his pitcher from an angry batter. Strickland’s catcher, the Giant’s Buster Posey, has been around the block. There’s no doubt that Posey knows this unwritten “rule” — but you know what he did when Strickland beaned Harper and then Harper charged the mound? Posey just stood there.

I.e., Buster Posey agrees with me that Strickland’s move was bush league. And Posey agrees that Harper was within his rights to charge the mound. When your own catcher thinks you’re a chump, you’re probably a chump.

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

Update: A reader has pointed out that Harper hit the two home runs off Strickland in the 2014 NLDS, not the NLCS. I have updated that line and thanks for the correction.

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