A Point in Defense of Tony La Russa by Jeff Sullivan August 6, 2014 One thing we know almost for certain: the Diamondbacks hit Andrew McCutchen intentionally, as revenge for the Pirates knocking out Paul Goldschmidt. One thing people believe, that might or might not be true: McCutchen’s rib injury is related to the beanball. McCutchen figures it’s not a coincidence; his manager, on the other hand, thinks linking the two is a “conspiracy theory”. Whatever the case, the Diamondbacks are receiving attention in August, their philosophy being brought back into the spotlight. And Tony La Russa, who works for the organization now, has spoken up in response to the media criticism: “I don’t see where the Diamondbacks should catch all this (expletive) they’re catching,” La Russa said. […] The crux of his argument lies in what he believes to be the Pirates’ pitching philosophy. They don’t just pitch inside, La Russa said. They pitch up and in. And by choosing to do so, they have to live with the consequences. La Russa doesn’t think his team is the offender it’s portrayed as. He thinks the Diamondbacks are being broadly perceived unfairly, and if you look past their own quotes and look instead at the numbers, you can see where La Russa might be on to something. People like to think of the Diamondbacks as one thing, but in reality, their issue is less about the pitches, and more about the things they say. Let’s try a little thing. Let’s identify both inside fastballs and really inside fastballs. We’ll never be able to look at the data and figure out pitch intent, but we can at least look for clues, and if a team has a particularly high rate of really inside fastballs, we might conclude those weren’t accidents. This is all going to be somewhat arbitrary, but I’m going to classify inside fastballs as being fastballs at least half a foot from the center of the plate. I’m going to classify really inside fastballs as being fastballs at least a foot and a half from the center of the plate. That’s hit-by-pitch territory, of the intentional variety. Sometimes Chase Utley gets hit by borderline strikes but that’s just part of his skillset. This year, the Diamondbacks rank in the middle of the pack in inside fastballs thrown. On average, by my specifications, 13% of inside fastballs are really inside fastballs. So, somewhat dangerous fastballs. The team with the highest rate of really inside fastballs / overall inside fastballs: the New York Yankees. The team with the lowest rate of really inside fastballs / overall inside fastballs, by a full percentage point: the Arizona Diamondbacks. By that one measure, the Diamondbacks aren’t disproportionately putting hitters in danger. Hitters, of course, get hit by non-fastballs too, but people tend not to fret about those. This season Diamondbacks fastballs have hit 18 batters, fifth-fewest in the majors. There’s absolutely no question that Arizona has hit a few hitters intentionally. But there’s also absolutely no question that other teams have hit a few hitters intentionally, and the D-Backs don’t seem to be making a habit of this. They’re being closely monitored on account of the things they’ve said to the press, so every incident blows up, but then it’s not that their incidents are disproportionate in volume — it’s that the coverage is. There’s a crowd of people that would love to see MLB discipline the Diamondbacks for their behavior. There’s no room in baseball, the argument goes, for intentionally inflicting pain with a weapon. I’m all for increased discipline overall in the event of transparent intentional beanings, but this isn’t just an Arizona thing. Cole Hamels was suspended for obviously hitting Bryce Harper on purpose, but was it enough? A couple years ago Ubaldo Jimenez drilled Troy Tulowitzki on purpose in spring training after a bit of a war of words. Earlier this season, the A’s and Astros exchanged some pretty obvious deliberate beanings, with Bo Porter seeming the aggressor. What’s the meaningful difference between what Porter did and what Kirk Gibson has done? Why pretend like the Diamondbacks should be disciplined more than anybody else? Of course, Kevin Towers probably should’ve just shut up. But I don’t think Towers has ever been able to shut up about anything, and the issue here isn’t that Arizona has hit guys on purpose — it’s that they’ve all but admitted to it. It’s that, at times, they’ve celebrated it. With Arizona now, we always presume intent, where other teams might get more benefit of the doubt. But at the end of the day, the Diamondbacks aren’t actually endangering players more than other teams. They’re doing so less than other teams. About the Pirates, specifically. La Russa talked about how their style lends itself to more hit-by-pitches, and it’s absolutely true. This year, the Pirates have thrown about 3,300 inside fastballs. That doesn’t just lead baseball — that leads baseball by just about 600. Unsurprisingly, the Pirates also lead baseball in hit-by-pitches by a wide margin, and while most of those hit-by-pitches are very much unintentional, the Pirates know that their style will cause batters to get hit more often than they would against another opponent. The Pirates are accepting, as a consequence, that they’re endangering opponents, and some players might get hurt. Paul Goldschmidt isn’t out for the year because the Pirates hit him on purpose, but Goldschmidt was at greater risk facing the Pirates than he would’ve been facing anybody else, and this kind of muddies the seemingly simple divide between intentional and accidental. Goldschmidt was hit by accident. McCutchen was hit on purpose. But overall, the Pirates hit players a lot more often than the Diamondbacks hit players, so while an intentional pitch from Arizona carries the greatest risk, the remaining pitches for Pittsburgh carry a greater risk. It gets complicated. If the idea is to ensure player safety, players are less safe against many teams than they are against Arizona. If it’s to just eliminate retaliation, you might see more inside fastballs and more players getting hit. Emotions get involved when hitters get buzzed at 90 miles per hour, and by pitching in on purpose, the Pirates are accepting some inflicted-injury risk. Throwing at a player on purpose also accepts some inflicted-injury risk. It’s not necessarily meaningfully greater. Retaliation, if nothing else, can be better anticipated. This has gone down a couple different courses. Absolutely, Major League Baseball should work to reduce these sorts of retaliatory incidents. But that’s a complicated goal to work toward, and in the meanwhile, it’s not even clear that the Diamondbacks are the worst organizational offenders in this regard. They’ve been the most open about it, but retaliation has existed for as long as baseball has existed, and when you look at the numbers the Diamondbacks have actually been one of the safer teams to play. We can all point to a few cases where they obviously hit a guy intentionally. But that’s not behavior that’s unique to them, and if they’d just been more quiet this whole time, maybe Tony La Russa wouldn’t have had to go to the media in the first place.