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A pitch got away from Ben Heller. Why was the Yankees’ reliever ejected?

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Umpires use their personal judgement to decide if a hit-by-pitch was intentional. Here’s how Official Baseball Rules can provide more guidance.

Umpires convene to discuss Ben Heller’s hit-by-pitch on Hunter Renfroe
Photo by Getty Images
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Right-handed reliever Ben Heller threw a total of three pitches before getting ejected from the Yankees’ game against the Rays Wednesday night. The Yankees were down five runs in the top of the fifth inning when Heller threw a fastball that missed its target and hit Rays outfielder Hunter Renfroe on the leg.

The umpiring crew’s decision to toss Heller was prompted by events that unfolded the day before: during Tuesday night’s game, Aroldis Chapman threw a 101 mph fastball over Rays infielder Mike Brosseau’s head.

Home-plate umpire Carlos Torres conferred with the rest of the crew before ejecting Heller.

In thinking about the umpires’ decision to toss Heller, I decided to take a closer look at the Official Baseball Rules. I wanted to re-examine the language used to articulate rules surrounding pitcher ejections and hit batsmen. I was especially curious: how does the rulebook delineate or describe the umpire’s authority to determine those calls?

The rules outlined below are excerpted from Major League Baseball’s 2019 Official Baseball Rules as they appear on Major League Baseball’s website. (Note: MLB.com has not updated the site with a 2020 version.)

Rule 6.02(c)(9) - The pitcher shall not intentionally pitch at the batter.

If, in the umpire’s judgment, such a violation occurs, the umpire may elect either to:

(A) Expel the pitcher, or the manager and the pitcher, from the game, or

(B) may warn the pitcher and the manager of both teams that another such pitch will result in the immediate expulsion of that pitcher (or a replacement) and the manager.

If, in the umpire’s judgment, circumstances warrant, both teams may be officially “warned” prior to the game or at any time during the game.

Rule 6.02(c)(9) Comment: To pitch at a batter’s head is unsportsmanlike and highly dangerous. It should be – and is – condemned by everybody. Umpires should act without hesitation in enforcement of this rule.

There is a degree of subjectivity with this rule, as determining intent is predicated on the “umpire’s judgement.” The umpire must use his or her judgement to determine whether the pitcher intentionally hit the batter. That said, the rules do not specify what sort of information the umpire can take into account to make that judgement.

Heller, a reliever the Yankees recalled from the team’s alternate site, is known to struggle with control issues. His cringing body language after making the pitch that hit Renfroe suggests Heller did not intend to hit Renfroe. He just made a bad pitch.

But assuming the umpires followed the rulebook to a tee, they must have determined Heller intended to plunk Renfroe. Otherwise, Heller’s ejection wouldn’t be warranted.

So, if Heller didn’t intentionally pitch at Renfroe, why was he thrown out of the game? Did the umpiring crew consider the context of Heller’s situation before determining if the pitch was intentional?

The context of Heller’s pitch:

  • Ben Heller is a relatively inexperienced relief pitcher who struggles with control. Until recently, Heller was at the Yankees’ alternate site, pitching in simulated games. He has just 35 major-league games under his belt. In all likelihood, he didn’t want to get ejected and didn’t want to put any guys on base.
  • Heller’s body language and reaction after hitting Renfroe is telling. He cringes after releasing the ball. He appeared to motion to the home plate umpire, so as to say he didn’t do it on purpose.
  • The Yankees’ bullpen was spent on Wednesday night and needed rest. Relievers had to carry the game after the Yankees’ starter was pulled. I can’t imagine Heller wanted his workload to be outsourced to his peers.

Notably, and relative to the way the Official Baseball Rules define and elaborate on other pitching-related prohibitions, the section of the rulebook explaining what happens if a batter is intentionally hit is relatively brief. The rules provide much more information on penalties for balks and defacing the ball than it does for intentionally hit batsmen.

I think MLB players and umpires alike would benefit from an annotation to the rules that urges umpires to consider the context and particular situation at hand when determining the intent behind a pitch. Wednesday night’s umpiring crew may have understood the circumstances under which Heller hit Renfroe, but they didn’t choose to consider that information in making their decision to eject Heller. I think they should have.