Last Sunday, Cole Hamels intentionally hit teenage phenom Bryce Harper with a pitch, and then proceeded to admitting that he “was trying to hit him”, basically because Harper is new to the game, and Hamels is an “old-school” player. If this doesn’t make sense to you, I don’t blame you. In fact, I think the whole idea of intentionally hitting batters in baseball makes very little sense. I’d like to take a closer look at some of the justifications for this phenomenon and analyze them rationally (because that’s what philosophy majors do).
“It’s just part of the game”
This might be the most popular defense of intentional hit-by-pitches (HBPs). Many argue that throwing at batters intentionally is just part of baseball, just like fights are part of hockey and hard fouls are part of basketball. Now I won’t get into other sports, but this defense on its own doesn’t make a lot of sense. There are a lot of things that used to be “part of the game” which we absolutely would not find permissible now, most notably the exclusion of African-Americans from the game. The fact that something is part of the status quo is not a good reason by itself to continue allowing it. Baseball is constantly changing, with previous norms being replaced by new, more sensible ones, and there is no reason why intentional HBPs should be exempt from the changing nature of baseball.
“It defends your team’s/teammate’s/own honor”
The idea behind this claim is that of retribution. When a player stares at a home run too long, or slides too hard into a base, or hits one of your players, it is often perceived as a personal insult. Therefore, it may seem only natural that a pitcher should return the favor by throwing at the offending player or someone else on the team on behalf of that player. But what does this accomplish? Supposedly, the goal is to punish the player for disrespecting the game, but hitting a batter puts them on base, which helps their team. Therefore, the goal must be to physically hurt the batter. However, most baseball players are willing to withstand a fair amount of pain to help their team, and in fact, most are very willing to get hit in order to get on base. So why do batters often get so riled up when they are intentionally (or accidentally) hit? There seems to be an underlying symbolism to hitting a batter intentionally. Most of the time, pitchers are not trying to injure the batter, and if not for the intentionality of the pitch, batters are normally happy to be hit and get on base.
So it seems that it is not the actual hitting of the batter that is important here, but the underlying meaning behind it. Intentionally hitting a batter is a sign of disrespect and/or retribution for some previous action, fully apart from the actual act of the HBP. Sometimes, as in the case of Hamels and Harper, it’s simply saying, “Don’t get too cocky.” But if this is the case, that the real consequences of the HBP are not important, then pitchers should find a better way to express this sentiment. Suffice it to say, getting hit with a 90+ MPH baseball is not pleasant, and can cause serious injury and pain if it hits the wrong spot. If the pitcher misses by a few inches in any direction, he could hit the batter’s neck, elbow, knee, or head, all of which have the potential to cause season or career-ending injuries. And even if the pitcher does hit a safe spot (usually the back), he is hurting his team by allowing a baserunner. Even in the best possible situation, when there are none on and two outs, a hit batter can easily lead to a run, as Bryce Harper showed Cole Hamels. It is strange that the action that pitchers take to “get back at” hitters in fact hurts the pitcher’s team.
If a pitcher wants to put a batter in his place, one would think that the best course of action would be to try harder to get him out. Just as Bryce Harper showed up Cole Hamels by stealing home, an act that was fully within the confines of the rules of the game, so should a pitcher “show up” a batter by embarrassing him within the confines of the rules of the game. If he cannot do that without risking serious injury or hurting his own team, then maybe he should try to resolve the conflict like other adults do: by simply talking to the other person. IHBPs are reminiscent of childhood arguments that are resolved by throwing things and hurting others, and there is simply no reason that this should be part of a game played by adults. Baseball is a game full of traditions and unwritten rules, and often those traditions and rules add to the excitement of the game. But when those practices risk the health of the players involved, and in fact hurt the team’s chances to win, then they should either be replaced by a safer, more effective, practice, or abandoned altogether.