What If Baseball Had a Penalty Box?

I don’t watch a lot of hockey, but when I do, my favorite part of the game is when grown men sit in timeout. They have an angry little fracas and then are asked to cool down. In-game punishment is a tricky business: too light a touch, and violating rules risks becomes acceptable, too worth it. But go too strong, and the game becomes about the penalty; it’s not just an ump show but worse, a slog.

That’s part of the genius of the penalty box, the Sin Bin: removing one player from the ice spurs action. Your favorite team might score a goal. Perhaps you’ll be gifted a defensive highlight, made all the more impressive for playing down a man. But the true insight of the penalty box is a more basic one: we only ever stay really mad at things for a few minutes at a time.

There are exceptions, of course. Grudge holders, deviants. Last spring, we learned that Hunter Strickland carried his rage toward Bryce Harper through three years and a World Series parade. Some guys are just grumps. But most aren’t. Think about being a kid and playing in the yard with your cousin. Your cousin throws mud at you. Startled and angry, you throw grass back. You’re separated and sent to your corners to think about what you’ve done, but once you do, you’re ready to play again. How big a deal is mud anyway? You were dirty anyhow. Perhaps you should go eat worms together.

In the aftermath of the Strickland-Harper brawl, Sam Miller speculated on Effectively Wild that perhaps Harper would have better served by taking off his shoe and throwing it rather than chucking his batting helmet. He might have looked like less of a doofus, but the moment Harper bent down to undo his laces, it would have been over. The fight doesn’t happen. Reason returns. “Wait, what am I doing?” Bryce stops being entirely mad and starts being partially embarrassed. He remembers he’s a homeowner. He just needed a little timeout to change the whole afternoon.

A little bit of fighting is fine. Let’s not be fussy about it. A little bit, just a little bit, is fine. A little fighting entertains. It teaches us something about the players; I learned it might be a bad idea to tell Hunter Strickland you’ll help him move and then forget, because he sure won’t.

But things are out of hand. Fastballs are too fast, and players are too strong; there’s too much risk when guys behave badly now. Michael Morse missed the rest of the season after sustaining a concussion in the Strickland-Harper fight. His career is in jeopardy. It’s too much — and ejections and suspensions and fines aren’t doing it. Baseball needs something more. Baseball needs a Sin Bin. Let’s consider how it might work.

First, we should pause to appreciate the joy of the name of the thing. Sin Bin? Sin Bin! Just imagine. I’d guess the hardest part of writing genre fiction is having to make up nouns and verbs, because it is so easy for it to go wrong. Unobtanium? Terrible. Grok? Really? You can very quickly sound ridiculous, and once you pull that thread, it all unravels. How will you ever convince your reader to spend another 350 pages with you? But Sin Bin doesn’t take any work. Sin Bin just rolls. Hunter, go get in the Sin Bin, you jerk! Delightful.

Much of the virtue of the Sin Bin is that it allows umpires to de-escalate a minor conflict rather than letting it fester. Of course, some indiscretions are still worthy of ejection, but they aren’t all that egregious. Rather, there is a spectrum of bad behavior, and much like hockey, there would be a spectrum of penalties to match.

Minor Penalty

This sort of penalty lasts the next three defensive plate appearances. If the opposing team scores, the player in the penalty box returns to the field of play; if the pitcher or manager is the offending party, the manager will select a substitute player from the field. The team will play down a man.

Examples: arguing balls and strikes, brawling secondary to a brawl, intentionally initiating contact on a slide, spitting at people, charging the mound without making contact, liking mascots.

Brawling Secondary to a Brawl

There’s already a ruckus going on, and it’s a large one, but Nick Castellanos isn’t content just with observing it from across the diamond. He has to be where the action is. I estimate that 95% of brawls that escalate do so not because of the original participants, but because of red asses like Nick. Nick needs a timeout so he can learn to be content with watching the action from third, for the sake of peace in our time.

Liking Mascots

The ballpark is a fraught space; it’s not a bar, but not every day is Little League day. You shouldn’t go out of your way to swear, but you’re a grown up. You can be a grown up. But you should also remember that we taught children how to dab three years ago, and they’re still doing it. They’re still dabbing when they should know it’s not cool. They should know! But it’s hard to unlearn things at that age because you know so little. The kids watching Anthony Recker horse around are learning that mascots are good. They’re learning that mascots are their friends. Anthony Recker is ruining these children.

Major Penalty

This sort penalty applies to the next six plate appearances, regardless of whether the opposing team scores; if the pitcher or manager is the offending party, the manager will select a substitute player from the field. The team will play down a man.

Examples: Really arguing balls and strikes, really brawling secondary to a brawl, making physical contact with an umpire, throwing behind a batter, hitting a batter below the ribs with intent, attacking mascots, swearing at children.

Really Arguing Balls and Strikes

An underrated part of a penalty-box system would be getting to watch managers — who would, under current rules, be ejected — have to continue to interact with umpires. A.J. Hinch was very grumpy about a called third strike, but after he’d said his piece, he saw the rest of the game from the clubhouse. What if he threw his little fit only to end it by turning to the ump and yelling, “AND I’LL SEE YOU AGAIN… SOON!” before marching back to the dugout. You’d watch the rest of that game no matter what the score just to see what his face would do.

Really Brawling Secondary to a Brawl

Do you know how you know you’re really brawling secondary to a brawl? When you knock an old man down because he isn’t steady on his feet, and you don’t stop to help him. That’s how you know.

Game Misconduct Penalty

In this case, the offending party is ejected; the team doesn’t play down a man, but if the offending party’s penalty occurs in conjunction with a minor or major penalty (i.e. hockey’s “two-and-ten” scenario), another player will serve the penalty.

Examples: throwing near the head with intent; physical altercations with contact; slurs based on race, gender, orientation, religion, country of origin, etc.; removing a mascot’s muppety head and tossing it at children.

Clear and Present Danger

Of course, some things are too dangerous for a mere timeout. When Matt Barnes threw a maybe-intentional 90 mph fastball at Manny Machado’s head, he had to go. You can’t rely on normal feelings of shame there. It’s too risky. What if the shame doesn’t take?

Similarly, some fights stop looking like baseball fights and become something else entirely. On June 5, 1999, the Dodgers’ Chan Ho Park and Angels pitcher Tim Belcher got after it. A brawl broke out. Go watch the whole thing. Sure, you have to bounce these two because they’ve punched each other, but also for the moment when Park kicks Belcher.

He lifts his body clean off the ground! He’s gotta go; whatever he’s doing, it’s not baseball anymore.

A Note on Valor

The Sin Bin’s biggest flaw is that it doesn’t have a companion in the light. It has no concept of medals for valor but maybe it should. We don’t do enough societally to acknowledge quiet helpers. On May 1st, 2017, Lance McCullers threw behind Mike Napoli, and the benches cleared. The bullpens rushed in. There was pushing and wrastlin’ and Jeff Banister looking mad.

There was also this:

Look in the lower left-hand corner. There you’ll find Robinson Chirinos and Marwin Gonzalez hugging Rougned Odor. They aren’t jostling him, or reminding him that he likes to fight, or dragging him off the field. They’re helping by hugging. Or here, when two friends find each other in the scrum during a fight last May, and have a nice reunion.

It doesn’t change that Ross Stripling hit Giancarlo Stanton or that the benches cleared, but it takes some of the sting out. There’s real value in being the guy with the good sense to remember a fire extinguisher.

You may wonder why we shouldn’t just keep ejecting players like we do now. Part of the answer is that guys fight anyway (though admittedly they do that in hockey, as well), and part of the answer is it’s a useful way to de-escalate less serious conflict. Another part of it is seeing how many guys you could fit in the box. We’d probably see more runs that weren’t home runs. The defensive lowlights would amuse. But really it’s about shame. In the movie Slap Shot, goaltender Denis Lemieux, explaining the finer points of hockey to a television audience, says of the penalty box: “You do that, you go to the box, you know. Two minutes, by yourself, you know and you feel shame, you know. And then you get free.”

Shame is powerful. Shame, the awareness of having hurt one’s own team, moves us. Shame takes Future Hunter Strickland’s problems and makes them Present Hunter Strickland’s problems. It tethers him to something besides his rage. Shame makes you not want to do it again. Shame is why the penalty box goes right behind home plate.

Just imagine it. You’ve just made a fool of yourself. You have a text from your mom waiting at your locker. You’ve committed a minor penalty and now you have to sit right here, and watch. You have to watch your team field eight against Mike Trout. Maybe you’re a star. Maybe you’re Mike Trout! And now the Angels have to spend three plate appearances with you behind home plate, with all of us watching you. Or maybe you’re the pitcher, and you have to watch a teammate serve your sentence. Maybe there’s a little kid right by the penalty box, as in this picture. Maybe every ballpark should always ensure a little kid sits there, and encourage said kid to stare and look disappointed and ask, “Why?”

It would cost teams some revenue in prime seats and might be scarring to players — and there would be other details to sort through, of course — but I think it would mostly work. It’s not exactly empathy for those they’ve wronged, but it could move them there. I think the shame would be that powerful. After enduring the Sin Bin, wouldn’t you rather make up and go eat worms? Wouldn’t you rather get free?

Meg is the managing editor of FanGraphs and the co-host of Effectively Wild. Prior to joining FanGraphs, her work appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing, and Just A Bit Outside. You can follow her on twitter @megrowler.

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6 years ago

Dissing the Phanatic is high treason in Philly!

CC AFCmember
6 years ago
Reply to  DD

The gratuitous attack on mascots can only lead the reader to one conclusion: “Meg Rowley” is simply a nom de plume for Robin Lopez.

Paul G.member
6 years ago
Reply to  DD

Philly is a city that boos Santa Claus but loves the Phanatic. If you put players in the Sin Bin for liking their mascot, there is a non-zero likelihood that they would burn down the stadium.

6 years ago
Reply to  DD

He’s one of the two or three best mascots in all of sports, and definitely adds to the game. If you wanna make an anti-mascot argument, you illustrate it with one of the (many) lame ones.