The Cubs and Pirates are not exactly best friends in the Maddon era. It’s always a bit hard to pinpoint the exact moments these rivalries start, but in this instance one moment stands out: the 2015 Wild Card game. It was the start of the Cubs’ contention window, it was the end of the Pirates’ contention window. The Pirates had lost the 2014 Wild Card game and were about to run into the best pitcher on the planet in the fall of 2015 in Jake Arrieta.
Tensions were high before the game, with some social media back and forth, but Jake was Jake. So, with the Cubs up 4-0 in the seventh a frustrated Tony Watson hit Arrieta with a 93 MPH fastball and Arrieta and the Cubs were having none of it:
Now, I want to be really clear about something - it’s not just the Pirates. Since 2016 the Cubs have been hit by more pitches than any team in MLB. Through yesterday’s game the Cubs have taken their base 298 times after being hit. You can see the top 10 teams below:
Most HBP by team 2016-2019
One of the things that jumped out at me in that list is the prevalence of N.L. Central teams on it. Notably, four of the five N.L. Central teams are in the top ten in HBP (the Brewers are well out of the top ten at 185 HBP over this time period.) Basically the N.L. Central is not shy about throwing inside, but the distribution of those HBP is not exactly equal. To illustrate this I created a matrix of the HBP in the NL Central since 2016. Across the top is the team batting, on the left is the team pitching, so for example, the Cubs pitchers cannot hit the Cubs batters, but the Pirates pitchers have hit the Cubs batters 36 times:
Matrix of HBP in the NL Central 2016-19
A few things are clear from this matrix. The Cubs get hit more than other teams in the NL Central, but it’s in proportion with how often they get hit vis a vis the rest of the league for the most part. That said, there are a few notably high totals. The Reds throw at the Pirates a lot, the Cubs and Cardinals seem to have a relatively high back and forth, and in news that will shock no one, so do the Pirates and the Cubs.
It’s also not just hit by pitches with the Pirates and the Cubs. There have been more than a few slide controversies between these two teams during this time period. Specifically, this slide by Chris Coghlan that took out Jung Ho Kang and this controversial play at the plate between Anthony Rizzo and Elias Diaz.
So I was not surprised that three Cubs and two Pirates were hit by pitches over the last four game series. However, the nature of those pitches were not equal and when Jordan Lyles went in on Javier Báez and hit the nob of his bat with a 93 MPH fastball that was the third pitch up and in on him in that at bat, Joe Maddon was done. He had some choice words for the Pirates coaches and was ejected [VIDEO].
Maddon was really clear that his problem wasn’t throwing inside, it was throwing up and in, as you can see in his postgame comments in The Athletic:
“It was getting way too out of control,” Maddon said after the game as he sent a message to the Pirates. “They just need to be careful. I love their players. This is a good team. It’s a real good team. And they’re good guys. I like the guys on this team. But if they keep pitching like that, a lot of these guys are not going to like their pitching staff.
“Pent-up frustration is one thing. But when your guys keep getting thrown at their head, that’s another thing, too. It’s not just us. It’s an industry-wide concept that we know that they’re into, and I have it from really good sources.”
Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle claimed this was all just a big misunderstanding as you can see in his postgame press conference below [VIDEO].
I don’t know what game Clint was watching and he may be right about the number of batters Lyles has hit (notice he said nothing about Clay Holmes hitting David Bote in the head with a 94 mile per hour fastball later in the game) but below are the pitch maps for RHB and then all batters for the Pirates and Cubs from Thursday’s game. I’m showing handedness so you can see that only the Pirates went up and in during the game. Any pitches the Cubs threw up were away.
First the Pirates:
Next the Cubs:
But was it just a fluke that both Lyles and Holmes were pitching up and in? Here is the Pirates pitch map for Wednesday, but focusing LHB to highlight a Chris Archer 96 mile per hour fastball up and in that dropped Anthony Rizzo to the ground:
This is an admittedly small sample size, and as a Cubs fan writing on a Cubs blog, I obviously have a dog in this hunt, but Hurdle’s explanation doesn’t look particularly credible with three different pitchers throwing fastballs up and in over two days.
While others have noted that Joe may have picked a strategic moment to let his temper flare in order to rally the troops, it also seems clear that he had a legitimate reason to be fired up. We’ll probably never know how much of Joe’s ejection was calculated and how much was spur of the moment. I imagine he was looking for an opportunity and the Pirates went headhunting one too many times, providing him the perfect opening.
Regardless of the motives for Joe’s reaction I want to be really clear that what the Pirates are doing here is incredibly dangerous and I don’t think any of their pitchers have the type of control they’d need to throw 96 up and in on hitters. Frankly, given what we know about the spike in HBP and differences in the ball, I’m not sure there is any pitcher in baseball who should feel comfortable with that strategy in 2019.
The N.L. Central is the closest division in baseball and the Cubs and Pirates rivalry isn’t going to die down any time soon, but it’s unacceptable for the Pirates to have a strategy that involves throwing fastballs up and in on any team. I hope they reconsider that over the All-Star break so no one gets hurt in the second half.