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Rob Manfred leaves little wiggle room for Yankees pitchers

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The commissioner’s comments mean Houston will have to be pitched carefully.

2019 Major League Baseball Winter Meetings Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

As someone wiser than Houston Astros’ PR team once said, it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.

The public statements about the Astros’ cheating scandal made over the last few days by Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, team owner Jim Crane and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred have been, to quote the understatement of Manfred himself, not successful. With the lack of accountability demonstrated over the weekend, you don’t need the “Codebreaker” algorithm to know what’s coming next. Players and fans alike have already begun speculating how teams will take it upon themselves to police the game.

In response, Manfred is sending clear signals to managers, via in-person meetings and an upcoming memorandum, that throwing at batters will not be tolerated. While Manfred has stressed his opposition to targeting hitters on all teams, Astros games will no doubt be monitored with particular interest by the commissioner.

Setting aside any discussion about the propriety of throwing at hitters, Manfred’s heightened vigilance creates another thorny problem: innocent managers and players will be caught in the crossfire. Pitchers make honest mistakes, and divining the intent of a hit-by-pitch can be difficult even without the added baggage of a historic controversy. After all, Astros hitters were hit by a pitch 66 times last season — every single one couldn’t have been purposeful. Given its handling of the Astros’ circus thus far, the league seems unprepared to adjudicate these incidents fairly. So as the commissioner’s eye turns from the Astros to their rivals, it’s important for the Yankees pitching staff to weigh the implications.

The Yankees won’t face the Astros in the Bronx until a four-game series in September, but they do play three in Houston starting May 15th. With James Paxton’s fitness still a question mark at that point, the Yankees won’t want to lose an arm to an accidental suspension. Fortunately, they’re equipped to navigate that risk. Yankees pitchers hit only 44 batters in 2019, the second fewest in the American League, trailing only — who else — the Houston Astros with 41. Heading into this season, the only surefire Yankees starter to have authored a double-digit HBP year is Gerrit Cole, with 10 way back in 2015.

Chad Green led the team with 6 HBP in 69 innings last season, according to Baseball Reference. But three of those came in his first 12.1 innings, when he pitched to an ugly 12.41 ERA. He nailed just three more hitters over the next 56.2 innings, with a 2.38 ERA over that stretch. Once he sorted out his struggles in May, Green’s HBP rate declined, suggesting his early penchant for plunking was less about wildness and more about a temporary loss of mojo. In fact, he’d never hit more than two batters in a season prior to last year. And even if his HBP total in 2019 is an indicator of deteriorating command, it’s a relatively mild case in contrast with last season’s league leader — noted Astros antagonist Trevor Bauer, who amassed 19 HBP. (Uh oh.)

The Yankees’ low number of hit batters is unsurprising in light of the organization’s recent emphasis on breaking balls down in the zone, a philosophy Sonny Gray famously griped about, but one that’s served current Yankees like Zack Britton well. As a team, the Yankees’ pitch mix is breaking ball-heavy — just 47.3% of their pitches last season were fastballs, per FanGraphs — and their staff buries a lot of balls in the dirt, a formula that has translated to fewer beanballs and bruised ribs.

On the surface, it seems the Yankees don’t need to worry about a misplaced pitch versus Houston. But it’s also possible their track record of good control could work against them. If a ball gets away from a Yankees pitcher and hits an Astros player — especially a high-profile one like Altuve, Bregman, or Correa — Manfred’s likely to assume it was retaliatory, considering the stance he’s taken this spring and how HBP-averse the current Yankees staff appears to be. Against the Astros, this could make Yankees pitchers proceed a little too cautiously.

It’s an awkward situation for players in every MLB city but Houston, and for the Yankees in particular. Astros players who’ve been proven guilty of cheating might actually be afforded extra protection this season, while the rest of the league will be forced to adapt. In recent interviews, Yankees manager Aaron Boone expressed his disappointment with the scandal but also underlined his commitment to helping his team move on from the story. When the games start to matter on March 28th, that commitment could help the Yankees thrive — even when the Astros are in the other dugout.