Jose Ureña's cowardly actions and why Ronald Acuña's injury is a call for longer suspensions

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

Jose Ureña was too much of a coward to challenge Ronald Acuña Jr. on Wednesday night, so instead he hit him with a 97-mph fastball.

Isn’t it time we started calling pitchers who do what Ureña did – bury a baseball into a hitter because the hitter had the audacity to be great – exactly what they are? Coward works. So does chicken. Or yellow. Anything to stigmatize the stupidity of this act, which is so old, so tired, so beyond stupid and so contrary to the objective of the game: be better than your opponent.

Call him a weakling, and compound that with the sort of significant suspension Major League Baseball should have been handing out for years, and just watch. This will not disappear, not entirely, but players will think much longer and much harder about just how satisfying something can be when it brings side-by-side attacks on their manliness and bank account.

The particulars of Wednesday’s incident made it that much more ridiculous. Baseball’s unwritten rules are like Bible translations: There are 50 different versions of the same general tenet, which, in this case, was that the repercussion for ____________ is to hit a guy. Any number of grievances can fill in that particular blank. Acuña’s was that he had hit a leadoff home run in three straight games and homered in five straight altogether, both unprecedented for a 20-year-old.

Jose Ureña was too much of a coward to challenge Ronald Acuña Jr. on Wednesday night, so instead he hit him with a 97-mph fastball. (AP)

Another unwritten rule is that if you’re going to enforce an unwritten rule, do so with a measure of subterfuge. Ureña, the hard-throwing Miami Marlins right-hander, must’ve skipped that page. He chose the first pitch to drill Acuña, the Atlanta Braves rookie phenom whose left elbow was clipped as he tried to squirm out of the way. The benches cleared. Umpires ejected Ureña. Acuña stayed in the game before exiting the next inning because of the plunking’s after-effects.

Never mind the most obvious point here, which is that Major League Baseball is demonstrably worse when great players do not play. When they do not play because of invisible and illogical conventions that rooted themselves decades ago and are begging for a Costco-sized tub of Roundup, it only exacerbates the embarrassment of it. Between that and the notion that this might have been Acuña’s comeuppance for the itty-bitty bat flip he unleashed after his leadoff home run Tuesday, it’s almost like baseball players want to police themselves into irrelevance.

Those ideas are fairly clear and agreed upon by the masses. Two more important – and more contested – ones warrant greater inspection.

First, let’s address the view that hitting a batter with a pitch is some kind of a power move. It is not. Hitters often interpret it as a sign of weakness, an implicit admission that the pitcher is not good enough. The counter to this argument is some version of: “Well, that’s what Bob Gibson did when real men played real baseball.” And that would be all well and good were it factual. Which, of course, it isn’t.

In the 3,884 1/3 regular-season innings Gibson pitched over 17 years, he hit 102 batters. CC Sabathia has thrown 3,436 1/3 innings and hit 118 batters. Johnny Cueto isn’t even at 2,000 innings and has more HBP than Gibson. Charlie Morton is one shy of Gibson in 1,177 career innings. Gibson’s reputation as someone who would blow up a hitter is baseball’s version of a game of telephone.

What is true is that Gibson would throw inside, and that is where Ureña failed. SNY color analyst Keith Hernandez alluded to this when he tried to rationalize what Ureña did and stepped all over his mustache in the process. “They’re killing you, you’ve lost three games, he’s hit three home runs,” Hernandez said. “You’ve got to hit him. I’m sorry. People are not gonna like that. You’ve got to hit him, knock him down. I mean, seriously knock him down if you don’t hit him.”

At least toward the end he’s not wrong. Backing a hitter like Acuña off the plate isn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, when someone is that hot, that locked in, throwing inside serves to remind him that the pitcher controls the game. And, yes, that infringes on a thin line, particularly among pitchers without great command like Ureña, who led the National League last season with 14 hit-by-pitches.

To better understand that line, I reached out to an evaluator who pitched once upon a time and had something of a reputation for hitting guys. He found Ureña’s tack wrong – as did another evaluator, who wondered whether Ureña was simply fulfilling the mandate of a teammate or coach, because going after Acuña on the first pitch was just so odd.

“If Acuña’s been crushing first pitches, then bounce something,” the first evaluator said. “Or just have fun like they did with [Alcides] Escobar during his run and throw it 10 feet high.”

Remember that, Game 3 of the 2015 World Series? Escobar, Kansas City’s leadoff hitter – Acuña’s cousin, funny enough – had spent the postseason swinging on the game’s first pitch. Mets starter Noah Syndergaard knew this and began the game with a head-high 99-mph fastball. It wasn’t dangerously inside, but it made a point: That the second pitchers see a hitter getting comfortable at the plate, they are taught to make him uncomfortable.

“The most effective thing, I think, is to move someone’s feet,” the evaluator said. “No one wants to get hit in the knee or ankle. I’d rather take one in the back.

X-rays on Ronald Acuña’s elbow came back negative Wednesday night. (AP)

“Acuña is probably still locked in tomorrow night. Hitting him gets Ureña five games and lets Acuña know they fear him. Marlins gained nothing from this particular HBP.”

The five-game guess is an important one because it leads perfectly into the second point: MLB’s punishment for intentional hit-by-pitches is anemic and inadequate. Last year, when Boston reliever Matt Barnes buzzed Manny Machado with an up-and-in pitch, he received a four-game suspension. Similar incidents typically get five games. For a starting pitcher, they might miss a start – or just get an extra day’s rest between starts. It’s a penalty that doesn’t penalize.

While it’s true that players aren’t inclined to increase the length of suspensions – both because it alters precedent and could give MLB an argument to implement longer suspensions in other areas – the league can’t seriously believe players’ attempts to police themselves will end well when that police handbook includes a how-to manual on getting angry at bunting during no-hitters and stealing bases during blowouts. If one were to try and sum up the unwritten rulebook in one sentence, it would be: U MAD BRO?

Relations between the league and players are bad already, and if players are that willing to potentially sideline one of the best stories in the game right now, MLB would be well within its rights to drop a 20-game suspension on Ureña and let the union challenge it. Which it would, even though Acuña, the plunkee, and also a union member, was the one harmed. It’s a dangerous position for the union when it allows MLB to ask: Why are the fortunes of a pitcher who made an obviously terrible decision more important than those of the hitter he intentionally tried to hit and injured?

The pressure point is there, and it can be squeezed. This has gone on for far, far too long, and even if the X-rays on Acuña’s elbow came back negative Wednesday night, it doesn’t lessen the depths of what Jose Ureña did. It was cheap. It was feeble. It was too easy. And the sooner baseball can get rid of that kind of thinking – among players, among fans, among everyone who sees hitting a player with a pitch as a noble act – the better off the game will be.

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