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On the Yankees, bat flips, and unwritten rules

Allowing pitchers to police bat flips and hitter emotion without penalty is a danger to baseball’s popularity.

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Submitted for your approval: two scenarios from this past week. One stems from the Yankees and Red Sox game on Tuesday, the other one from the White Sox and Royals game on Wednesday.

In the first scenario, Boston has runners on second and third with nobody out. Most notably, the middle of the was due up to bat. Thanks to two fly outs and a big strikeout of Mitch Moreland, James Paxton escaped the jam unscathed. Having preserved the lead — which to that point was rather narrow — he was understandably pumped up, letting out a fierce yell as he left the mound.

The circumstances differed a little bit in Chicago. Here, the White Sox had a runner on second with no score in the bottom of the fourth — during a game between the two bottom-dwellers of the AL Central. Not exactly a highlight moment to most, but a big one for Tim Anderson, who rocketed his 50th career home run in front of the home crowd.

At their heart, both of these instances are fairly similar. Both Paxton and Anderson get excited for a big moment in either the game or their career, they express that emotion, and — most importantly — the fans get excited both by the performance and by the excitement the players show. So why does one guy’s excitement get plastered on the front pages as the defining moment of the game, while the other guy gets rewarded with a fastball to his hip?

Baseball is the one sport where some arbitrary set of “unwritten rules” has such a stranglehold on what happens in the game, and it is bordering on such absurdity that athletes from other sports are starting to comment.

For what it’s worth, Major League Baseball itself seems to have learned from the NFL’s successful embracing of “fun” via the legalization — and even encouragement — of touchdown dances and other on-field celebrations. Just look at the much-debated “Let the Kids Play” campaign. Even so, bat flips — the centerpiece of that campaign! — continues to stir controversy and inspire hit batsmen.

There are many reasons for this continued debate. For example, the league’s “old guard” (hello, Goose Gossage) laments the designated hitter and refuses to acknowledge that the game of baseball has fundamentally evolved numerous times since the National League’s founding February 2, 1876. They criticize bat flips alongside the DH rule, interleague play, and the end of the Deadball Era.

The outspoken nature these people almost certainly influences whether or not a pitcher throws at a batter for a bat flip, simply because he knows that he will have a support base in the court of public opinion. Unfortunately, the league cannot do anything about the “old guard”, but that does not mean that they are powerless to fight back against this trend.

CC Sabathia began the season serving a five game suspension for throwing at Jesus Sucre last September, done in retaliation for Rays pitcher Andrew Kittredge throwing near the head of catcher Austin Romine. And while this incident had nothing to do with a bat flip at all — both pitchers threw at batters in retaliation for what they felt was an intentional earlier beaming (starting with Sabathia hitting Jake Bauers) — it does serve as a good example for Major League Baseball’s lax policy on intentionally hitting batters.

Technically speaking, throwing a baseball at another human being with the intent of harming them is assault with a deadly weapon, and that is not hyperbole. It has been almost 100 years since it last happened, but a pitched ball has killed someone. Although nobody actually intends to injury the batter he is throwing at, much less kill them, the risk exists.

So why does baseball only suspend these pitchers for five games? Since starting pitchers only throw every fifth day, that means he might not even miss a start. The pitcher may not really be penalized at all!

This de facto lack of actual punishment does nothing to discourage pitchers from throwing at batters whenever they feel slighted in some way. So far early this season, there have been two major instances that blew up into fights on the field (Chris Archer hitting Derek Dietrich, Brad Keller hitting Anderson). This has the potential to curtail the league’s attempt to emphasize personality and emotion among its younger stars. So long as pitchers feel empowered to hit batters without rebuke, the best-case scenario that Major League Baseball can hope for is that batters continue to show excitement despite the risk.

There exists a real possibility that these hitters will adopt Stoic personas in an effort to not get hit by pitches, as it’s unpleasant and a serious injury risk. Wouldn’t it be a shame to see the personalities of Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper. and Clint Frazier diminish?

If the league is serious about promoting individuality and emotion on and off the diamond, they need to begin to take vigilantism in baseball seriously, and that starts with giving actual suspensions to guilty pitchers that will force them to miss multiple starts. Otherwise, batters will either stop showcasing their emotions — which could have a serious blow to baseball’s popularity — or we’re going to continue regurgitating this conversation every time this happens.

Ah, who are we kidding? This is Major League Baseball; we’re probably going to have this conversation again next week.