Jason Heyward is why Ryan Dempster should have been suspended for more than five games.
Maybe that sounds like a stretch. Maybe I'm being overreactionary. But please stay with me here, and I'll try my best to explain what I mean.
By now, you've surely heard about the Atlanta Braves outfielder getting clocked in the face by a 90 mph fastball from New York Mets pitcher Jon Niese on Wednesday afternoon. It was a rather terrifying scene with Mets catcher John Buck immediately reaching out to prevent Heyward from falling. Home plate umpire Greg Gibson emphatically waved team trainers over as Heyward lay on the ground, spitting up blood, for several minutes. Niese was noticeably shaken by what he had inadvertently done.
Heyward left the game and was taken to an area hospital. Hours later, the Braves announced that he would miss four to six weeks with a broken jaw. Though such an injury won't derail Atlanta's run to a NL East title and postseason berth, losing Heyward for what could be the rest of the regular season is a significant loss to a lineup that had already lost Dan Uggla and carries several hitters who have struggled all year.
Since Heyward began batting leadoff — a role typically not associated with a batter of Heyward's size and skills — both he and the Braves have thrived. At the top of the order, Heyward was batting .341 with a .994 OPS, six doubles, five home runs and 15 RBI in 99 plate appearances. Atlanta went 19-4 during that stretch, including a 13-game winning streak.
With a 15-game lead in the NL East going into Thursday's play, the Braves can likely get through the rest of the season without suffering too much in Heyward's absence. But as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jeff Schultz points out, this injury is something that could linger into the postseason.
Though he can presumably maintain his conditioning, Heyward could lose weight and strength as a result of his broken jaw. Missing so much time will surely have an effect on his mechanics at the plate. How long will it take Heyward to regain the form that made him such a force throughout August?
So what does Ryan Dempster have to do with all this? At first glance, nothing. (I was going to say "on the face of it," but that seemed like a poor choice of words considering how Heyward was injured.) Dempster didn't throw the pitch that hit Heyward in the face. Heyward didn't get hurt because of Dempster.
But Heyward's broken jaw is just the latest reminder of how dangerous it can be for a pitcher to throw at a batter. Niese didn't intentionally throw at Heyward's head. You can see that from his reaction. The man looked sickened by what happened. Obviously, Niese meant to pitch Heyward up and in, trying to back him off the plate and make him uncomfortable. That's baseball. Both pitcher and batter try to establish their part of the plate and control the strike zone.
Yet throwing inside does come with some hazards. Most major league pitchers are able to control their stuff. The very best, of course, have pinpoint location. But any time you're throwing something as hard as you can toward a particular area, that object may not go exactly where it was intended. Especially if a grip on the baseball, the footing on the mound or several other factors aren't just right.
When Dempster threw at Alex Rodriguez on Sunday night at Fenway Park, he did what you're supposed to do in such situations. He aimed for the lower part of A-Rod's body, presumably to send a message but not cause serious injury. Dempster lamely explained that a pitch got away from him. Red Sox manager John Farrell echoed that explanation after the fact. Of course, that's plausible. It happens all the time.
However, Dempster was obviously throwing at Rodriguez, sending the first pitch behind the Yankees third baseman and coming in tight with two more before eventually drilling him in the ribs on his fourth try. Either Dempster was trying to emphasize his message by throwing at A-Rod four times, or it took him four tries to finally hit his target. If it's the latter, then perhaps Dempster doesn't have the kind of control that would allow him to "safely" throw at a batter. (His walk rate of four per nine innings this season might further demonstrate that point.)
But what if one of those pitches really had gotten away from Dempster on Sunday night? What if the throw that nailed A-Rod in the side had sailed up and struck him in the jaw or cheekbone? What if Rodriguez had been left sprawled out on the ground, spitting up blood, with coaches and trainers looking over him? What if he'd suffered something worse than a broken jaw, perhaps a career-threatening injury?
For all the dislike directed at A-Rod these days — and all the bloodlust that had fans happy to see him plunked — what if something serious had occurred? Rodriguez is hardly a sympathetic figure these days, but does anyone — even the villainous, phony, cheating, deceitful A-Rod —deserve to get hurt like that?
Heyward wasn't the only player who suffered an injury after getting hit by a pitch on Wednesday.
Houston Astros rookie Max Stassi was also hit in the face, taking a 96 mph fastball from the Rangers' Tanner Scheppers. As of this writing, there's no word on his status for the rest of the year, but Stassi was hospitalized overnight for observation. Meanwhile, A-Rod's teammate, Jayson Nix, was plunked by the Blue Jays' R.A. Dickey, resulting in a fractured left hand that could end his season.
I understand that there are good baseball reasons for throwing at a batter, let alone pitching inside. It's the game's way of meting out justice on the field. Sometimes, a team has to retaliate for one of their players being hit by a pitch. Perhaps it's a matter of intimidation. Maybe a perceived slight or insult has to be addressed.
That's likely what Dempster had in mind when he threw at A-Rod.
We don't know exactly why he did it. Maybe he's mad at Rodriguez for cheating and was making a statement against PEDs for the presumably clean players in baseball. Maybe he was speaking for his Red Sox teammates, some of whom had a problem with A-Rod being allowed to play instead of serving his 211-game suspension. Maybe it was a Yankees-Red Sox thing. (Perhaps you've heard that's a big rivalry.)
But MLB can't enable pitchers to just wantonly throw at batters for personal reasons. However, isn't that what baseball effectively did by issuing such a feeble suspension to Dempster? As Joe Lucia wrote earlier this week, a five-game penalty is meaningless to a starting pitcher. Between the Red Sox's schedule and shuffling of their starting rotation, Dempster won't really miss a turn. He'll be fined $2,500. What is that, a week's worth of per diem money for a major league ballplayer?
I dislike sanctimonious columns as much as anyone. We've been seeing a lot of them in recent weeks in light of baseball's latest PED scandal. So I certainly don't intend to come off that way. This is not the worst thing that's ever happened in the game. Dempster shouldn't be compared to lifelong criminals and murderers. He's not ruining the future for our children. Not every pitcher who hits a batter should be suspended.
Yet what Dempster did on Sunday was wrong and might have resulted in something terrible. Heyward's injury illustrates just how serious that situation could have become. MLB should have made a statement against that. Instead, the sport is more concerned with making a statement against PEDs and embarrassing Rodriguez, Ryan Braun and other drug offenders. Those priorities feel terribly out of order.