Let’s Fix MLB’s Suspension System

Late Thursday afternoon, Major League Baseball announced it was suspending Yordano Ventura for nine games, and Manny Machado for four games, for their respective involvement in Tuesday night’s brawl between the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles. As is often the case in these situations, many quickly criticized the seemingly lax punishment doled out to Ventura in particular, who will effectively miss only a single start despite having similarly instigated fights on several prior occasions. Indeed, on Wednesday, FanGraphs’ own Dave Cameron had called for Ventura to be suspended for 30 games due to his status as a repeat violator.

Even if MLB wanted to throw the book at Ventura in this case, though, its hands were largely tied. As I’ve previously noted, under Article XII of MLB’s collective bargaining agreement, any disciplinary action that the league takes against a player for on-field conduct must be based on “just cause.” Not only does this standard require that the punishment fit the crime, but also — perhaps more importantly here — that the disciplinary action be consistent with prior penalties doled out by the league for similar conduct.

This presented a problem for MLB in Ventura’s case because pitchers who were previously found to have intentionally thrown at a batter have historically only faced a suspension somewhere on the order of seven to 10 games. While MLB may have been able to justify suspending Ventura a bit longer than that, given his repeat-offender status, any suspension of much more than 12 or 13 games may very well have been overturned by an arbitrator on appeal.

This means that even if MLB would like to take greater steps to crack down on beanballs, it will be hard pressed to do so without the approval of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

While it’s true that the union has been willing to work with MLB to devise new punishment scales for performance-enhancing-drug use and domestic violence in recent years, it’s uncertain whether a majority of the union’s membership would be amenable to doing the same for pitchers who intentionally target batters. While some players — including Josh Donaldson — have certainly encouraged the league to do more to crack down on beanballs, other players would undoubtedly prefer to continue to police such conduct themselves on the playing field.

Even if a majority of players did support such a change in theory, however, it may be difficult for the MLBPA to reach a suitable agreement with the league on the matter, as the question of how to fairly but effectively punish starting pitchers in these cases presents something of a challenge for MLB and the union.

Because starting pitchers only pitch once every five games, a suspension of anything less than 10 games realistically means that the pitcher will usually miss at most a single start. To many fans, this often makes a suspension imposed on a starting pitcher appear to be quite lax compared to those for position players or relief pitchers, who are much more directly impacted by each game they are forced to sit out.

At the same time, though, because most starting pitchers are only expected to start around 30 games per year, the loss of a single start obviously deprives a pitcher of a much greater percentage of his anticipated yearly playing time than does a single game for a position player or relief pitcher. In this respect, then, a one-start suspension for a starting pitcher really equates to a roughly five-game suspension for a position player, in terms of the share of each player’s annual expected playing time missed.

Nevertheless, a suspension costing a pitcher only a single start is often viewed as being insufficient in the eyes of many in cases such as this where a pitcher appears to have intentionally targeted and hit a batter.

One obvious alternative, then, would be to simply increase the length of a starting pitcher’s suspension in order to ensure that he misses what would be viewed as a sufficient number of starts. This option presents its own problems, however.

Because all MLB suspensions are unpaid, merely increasing the length of the suspension for a starting pitcher will have a disproportionate financial impact on the suspended pitcher. For instance, in order to force Yordano Ventura to miss an equivalent number of starts (four) as games that Manny Machado will sit-out during his own suspension, MLB likely would have had to suspend Ventura for at least 20 games.

This would mean that while Machado’s four-game suspension will only cost him around two percent of his annual salary, an analogous four-start/20-game suspension for Ventura would result in a loss of around 12 percent of his 2016 income. So even if the MLBPA was on-board with increasing the potential punishment for beanballs in theory, the union would likely be reluctant to agree to a new punishment scale that could force starting pitchers to lose such a disproportionate share of their annual salary compared to other players.

One way in which MLB and the union could alleviate this concern would be to agree to withhold only a portion of a starting pitcher’s salary during a suspension for on-field conduct. By only docking a starting pitcher, say, one-fifth of the salary he would have received during the course of a suspension, the league could satisfy those clamoring to see pitchers suspended for a greater number of starts while at the same time ensuring that the financial effects of such a suspension are roughly equivalent for starting pitchers as for other players.

Of course, if one believes that lost salary — rather than missed games — provides the greatest deterrent effect for players, then allowing pitchers to retain an equivalent share of their salaries while serving a suspension may do little to curb the rate of beanballs. So MLB and the union would likely have to figure out what would be the most effective, yet fair, percentage of salary to withhold from starting pitchers during the course of a suspension.

Regardless of the exact percentage, though, this sort of system would allow MLB to impose more meaningful suspensions on starting pitchers who intentionally hit batters, while at the same time accommodating the union’s likely concerns over the disproportionate financial impact that significantly longer suspensions would have on starting pitchers under the current system.

Nathaniel Grow is an Associate Professor of Business Law and Ethics and the Yormark Family Director of the Sports Industry Workshop at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. He is the author of Baseball on Trial: The Origin of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption, as well as a number of sports-related law review articles. You can follow him on Twitter @NathanielGrow. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not express the views or opinions of Indiana University.

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7 years ago

What about fining a hitter? I saw Machado got fined 2500 dollars or something, but what if you suspended a pitcher for 20 games, and suspended a player 10 games and fined him an amount equivalent to 10 games salary? That would make things more or less even in both playing time and salary.