Retaliation, head-hunting or controlling the inside of the plate? Depends on where you stand

A high and tight fastball has many names, including “chin music.” But those who throw regularly in that region also have a name, that being “headhunter.” Over the past week, Ian Kennedy has been labeled to be a “headhunter” after hitting the tip of Yasiel Puig’s beak with a rising fastball when the D-Backs were in LA. It later lead to an on-the-field melee following which numerous suspensions and fines were ordered. Many are now calling out for rule changes that would reduce the risks of intentionally being struck by a pitch and increasing the penalties for doing so.

To be fair, Kennedy has denied the headhunter claim and says his teammates know otherwise. One of his strengths is the ball movement on his pitches and at times, that could create control issues. However, the fact that he had to deny the claim of being a headhunter is evidence of how baseball’s culture has changed over the generations.

The best examples of the prior baseball culture can be found in the 1960’s through two Hall of Fame pitchers, St Louis Cardinal great, Bob Gibson, and Los Angeles Dodger, Don Drysdale. Gibson retired following the 1975 season with 251 wins, and a 2.91 career ERA. He had an astonishing 1.12 ERA in 1968, while pitching for National League Champion Cardinals. He was best known for his scowl on the mound and a player jeopardized his own well-being if he dared to try to stare Gibson down. Drysdale had a career record of 209-166, a career ERA of 2.95 and had 167 complete games. He used brush back pitches and a sidearm fastball to intimidate opposing batters and 154 of those hitters were nailed by a Drysdale fastball during his career. Neither Gibson or Drysdale would even respond to a claim of being a headhunter.

Aside from mound dominance, the two had something else in common; they had nothing but disdain for hitters that dared enter the batter’s box against them. Folklore tells us a great deal about Drysdale. Whether the story is true or not, it illustrates his attitude. Supposedly, then Dodger manager Walter Alston directed Drysdale to intentionally walk the next hitter. On the first pitch, Drysdale plunked the hitter. As the story is told, Drysdale said that he hit the batter with the first pitch because he “didn’t want to waste three more pitches.”

Although he “only” hit 102 batters during his career, Gibson was even meaner and there are stories galore to back this conclusion. Hall of Famer Hank Aaron was once quoted as saying ‘Don’t dig in against Bob Gibson, he’ll knock you down. He’d knock down his own grandmother if she dared to challenge him. Don’t stare at him, don’t smile at him, don’t talk to him. He doesn’t like it. If you happen to hit a home run, don’t run too slow, don’t run too fast. If you happen to want to celebrate, get in the tunnel first. And if he hits you, don’t charge the mound, because he’s a Gold Glove boxer.”

If you wore the uniform of an opposing team, that is all that Gibson took into account. For years, Gibson was a teammate and good friend of first baseman Bill White. After being traded to the Phillies, White entered the batter’s box for the first time against Gibson. Sure enough, Gibson nailed White in the arm with a fastball. It was reported that on his way to first base, White yelled to Gibson, “What are you doing Bob?! We were teammates for years!” Gibson replied, “We’re not teammates anymore!”

Gibson even had low tolerance for his own teammates. His regular catcher was Tim McCarver. During a game, McCarver headed to the mound when Gibson was in a jam. Gibson told him the equivalent of turn your butt around and get back behind the plate. Gibson had no interest in whatever insights McCarver could supply, later being quoted as saying that the only thing McCarver knew about pitching was that he couldn’t hit it. Years later, McCarver joked back about his ornery teammate that “Bob Gibson is the luckiest pitcher I ever saw. He always pitches when the other team doesn’t score any runs.”

If you look at major league baseball history, those pitchers who controlled the inside corner of the plate commanded the mound. Yet there is no debate about the dangers associated with being struck in the head by the equivalent of a rock thrown at above 90 mph from a mere 60 feet and 6 inches away. That danger was no less true in generations past as it is today. What has changed is the culture. Way back when, being hit by a pitch was just part of the game. Just ask old-timers such as former New York Met and Montreal Expo Ron Hunt and D-Back coach Don Baylor. Being struck by a pitch was just another stat that added to their on base percentage. Others at times took exception, like current White Sox manager Robin Ventura, who infamously attacked Nolan Ryan after being hit with a pitch. Ventura not only suffered being hit by Ryan’s fastball, he then had to endure being pummeled on the head by Ryan’s punches.

One baseball culture that has not changed is the unwritten rule about retaliation. Although he threw inside, Gibson noted that when a batter was hit, it was the batter’s fault. “I think most guys who get hit, it’s their fault. They sort of hit themselves. I know when I hit a guy, 99 percent of the time it was because the other team was throwing at guys on my team.” Drysdale had a two for one rule. If you hit one of his Dodger teammates, he was going to hit two of your teammates.

There is a little known example of how a team is impacted when pitchers don’t protect their hitters. On August 20, 2000, the Cubs were playing the final game of the series against the D-Backs here in Phoenix. It was Mark Grace’s last season with the Cubs, and in the 5th inning Randy Johnson drilled Grace with a 98 mile per hour fastball square in the back, leaving Grace with a profound kidney bruise. The Cubs were leading 4-1 at the time. During the remaining innings, the question inside the stadium was not whether but which D-Back would be plunked in response. The thought had to cross the mind of Jay Bell, Tony Womack, Gonzo, Steve Finley or Matt Williams as they stepped into the batter’s box in the innings that followed. Yet not one pitch thrown by Cub pitchers Steve Rain, Kyle Farnsworth or Tim Worrell even backed a D-Back off the plate, let alone hit them. The D-Backs went on to score four runs in the 6th inning and won the game, 5-4. After the game, tensions erupted in the Cub locker room, with the topic being why not one of these pitchers protected Grace. The brawl one would expect on the field following an intentional beaning almost erupted in the Cubs’ locker room among teammates.

Returning to the events in LA last week, Zach Grienke became a better teammate by hitting Miguel Montero in retaliation for Ian Kennedy having hit Puig. Baseball’s unwritten rule would have been met at that point. It is therefore fair to say that whether headhunter or not, Kennedy created further issues by striking Greinke in the upper back with a fastball in his next at bat.

Without being able to throw inside, pitchers would be at a great disadvantage against the hitters who would be able to dig in and swing freely. But tolerance for being hit or almost hit by a pitch has lowered significantly over the years. Now, even a pitch that paints the black of the plate on the inside corner is viewed by a hitter as a personal attack. There have been ensuing brawls even without being hit by a pitch.

In any event, batters will continue to enter the batter’s box. Pitchers will continue to throw inside and, at times, will hit batters, whether in an attempt to control the inside corner of the plate or as protection for teammates. Batters will respond by storming the mound. Benches and bullpens will clear. Punches will be thrown and most will miss. Players will be suspended or fined. And baseball will continue to be played.