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Rumble on the Diamond: A Brief History of Basebrawl

Has there been an increase in benches clearing brawls in baseball, or does it just seem that way?

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Now that all of the dust has settled, you’ve probably heard that last week in baseball was a little crazy. There were three benches clearing brawls — one on Sunday between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the St. Louis Cardinals, and ones between Colorado Rockies and the San Diego Padres and the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday.

Benches clearing brawls are nothing new in baseball, but they usually happen later in the season when tensions are higher and playoff spots are looming. Since there were three incidents in 72 hours, it may seem as though these melees have been on the rise in recent years. However, that does not seem to be the case.

So why do they keep happening?

First off, why is it that benches clearing brawls seem to happen in the MLB more than other sports? The simple explanation is that the NFL, NBA, and NHL all have rules in place prohibiting players from entering fights off the bench, and the NHL and NBA specifically discourage it with fines and suspensions. The only restriction that the MLB has is that players on the disabled list are forbidden from entering the field of play.

Jorge L. Ortiz from USA Today wrote an interesting column about why the MLB will continue to have bench clearing incidents. His major point is that there is an obvious disparity in personnel between the offensive and defensive teams. The defensive team has an obvious advantage over the hitting team, having nine players on the field as opposed to one (unless you include the on deck hitter, coaches, and/or baserunners). He also points out how silly that is, since many times bullpen pitchers run all the way across the outfield to reach the skirmish. It also means the umpires have to separate upwards of 50 men instead of a just a handful, which can lead to more injuries of players who get caught in the middle or who injure themselves trying to get to the middle.

As a teacher, I know how difficult it can be to keep 30 young children on task (and sometimes from hurting each other). I can’t imagine how difficult it is trying to separate that many grown men in a rage. Major League Baseball has rules protecting catchers and middle infielders from base runners, but they have no such rules protecting players from other players who want to beat the snot out of them.

A brief history of benches clearing brawls

It definitely seems like there has been an increase in benches clearing altercations in Major League Baseball recently. So far in 2018, we have the three listed above. In 2017, the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your perspective) included:

In 2016, there were 12 total benches clearing incidents. Some of them turned out to be nothing (see: Toronto Blue Jays vs. Tampa Bay Rays, 9/12/16 or Los Angeles Dodgers vs. San Francisco Giants, 9/19/16) and others turned into full out brawls (see: Baltimore Orioles vs. Kansas City Royals, 6/7/16 or Texas Rangers vs. Toronto Blue Jays, 5/15/16). 2015 saw 13 total bench clearings.

2013 had its fair share of fights too. Two were caused by then-Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann taking exception to Jose Fernandez and Carlos Gomez admiring home runs on two separate occasions. Another was between the Diamondbacks and Dodgers after a series of batters being hit by pitches. The catalyst for the big fight was when Arizona pitcher Ian Kennedy plunked Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke on the shoulder, resulting in cleared benches, five ejections, and eight suspensions.

Not all benches clearing brawls are just a few guys pushing and shoving, resulting in some ejections and suspensions. Some of them result in serious injuries. In 2013, the marquee fight was between Carlos Quentin and Zack Greinke that left Greinke sidelined with a broken collarbone for a month. 2010 gave us the big fight between the Cardinals and Reds. That one was so bad that Jason LaRue was forced to retire from a concussion at age 36 as a result of a kick to the face by Johnny Cueto.

So are there more bench clearings happening, or does it just feel like there are?

At this point, it does not seem like there has been an increase in benches clearing incidents in baseball. It might seem that way just due to the fact that there were three brawls last week and there have been a few memorable ones in recent years. An increase in internet usage and social media presence might also make it seem like fights are more frequent since it is easier to report on them. However, they really only happen at a rate of about a dozen or less per year and until there are some rules to curb free-for-all, benches clearing rumbles, expect them to keep happening.