MLB’s Inconsistent Domestic Violence Policy Lets Teams Benefit From Suspensions

If Julio Urías had taken a banned supplement, he would be suspended for the 2019 postseason. Fortunately for the Dodgers, all he allegedly did was shove his girlfriend. Now the 23-year-old lefthanded reliever will spend the rest of his 20-game suspension, handed down on Saturday, at L.A.’s spring-training facility, stretching out so he can start for the likely NL West champions in October.

When the league and the players’ association announced MLB’s first domestic-violence policy, in 2015, commissioner Rob Manfred said he was “proud” that baseball’s approach “reflect[ed] the gravity and the sensitivities of these significant societal issues.” What baseball has in fact put together is a well-intentioned policy that, perversely, permits teams to benefit from domestic violence.

Players who use performance-enhancing drugs are ineligible for the playoffs in the seasons in which they tested positive, even if their suspensions are complete by October. Players who commit acts of domestic violence face no such prohibition. This system produces inverted incentives.

The most egregious example came last year, after Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna allegedly assaulted the mother of his three-year-old son in May. (The woman declined to testify, so Toronto prosecutors withdrew the charge against him in exchange for his promise to stay away from her for a year and continue counseling.) Osuna agreed to a 75-game suspension. Perhaps you saw a horrifying situation. The Astros saw a market inefficiency: At the deadline, they traded a middling prospect, a pitcher with a 6.52 ERA and their own struggling closer for one of the game’s best relievers. He had not even completed his suspension when they got him, but by October he was closing playoff games.

Osuna’s postseason appearances recalled a similar situation two years earlier, when Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman helped the team to its first title in 108 years. He might not have been available to Chicago had he not allegedly choked his girlfriend and fired eight shots from a handgun into a wall and window that winter. (Authorities decided not to prosecute him; Chapman accepted a 30-game suspension.) The Reds, his then-employer, were in negotiations to trade him to the Dodgers; as rumors circulated about the police report, L.A. pulled out. “We did come to an agreement in principle, but as details came to light, we just weren’t comfortable making the move,” said then–Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi at the time.

Cincinnati dealt Chapman to the Yankees instead, for 50 cents on the dollar; when New York fell out of contention, it flipped him to Chicago, where his likeness remains, framed, inside countless homes: In the Chicago Sun-Times’s cover from the morning after Game 7, he is pictured, leaping, at the center of the dogpile.

That’s a bad look. But more important, it’s bad policy.

- Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

No one who is paying attention is arguing for zero tolerance. As satisfying as such an approach might feel to some fans, experts agree that it does not work. After the press conferences, the angry—and now unemployed—man goes home to the woman on whom he blames his misfortune. Of course players should be allowed to return to their jobs after they serve their time, either through the courts or the commissioner’s office. Of course they should eventually be allowed to take part in the playoffs. But the major goal of domestic-violence intervention is to prevent it from happening again. MLB’s current approach lags in that regard.

“What is most important if we want to affect change is that [the punishment] be important to the perpetrator,” says Rita Smith, the former head of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence who now advises the NFL. “If we institute consistent, effective consequences that will impact their playing time, it will give them the needed incentive to stop the behavior.” The threat of suspension does little to stop the initial offense, she explains. No one raises his hand for the first time and pauses to do the math. But the right deterrent might stop him the second time.

Banning a player for the postseason? “He would never forget that,” she says. And allowing him to vie for a championship? “That just totally wipes out what you just did. Now they’re better! They’re refreshed!”

The other point Smith emphasizes is the importance of consistency, another area in which MLB falls short. Consider these two cases:

1. Phillies outfielder Odúbel Herrera was arrested in May for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend at a hotel in Atlantic City. Police noted that the woman had visible neck and arm injuries. No video of the incident is known to have surfaced. The woman declined to testify. Herrera will not be prosecuted.

2. Urías was arrested in May for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend in the parking lot of L.A.’s Beverly Center mall. Witnesses reportedly told police that he knocked her to the ground. TMZ reported that surveillance video corroborated the allegations. The woman declined to testify. So long as he does not commit any other violent acts within a year, Urías will not be prosecuted.

Herrera accepted a suspension of 85 games, plus the postseason. Urías was placed on administrative leave the day after his arrest and missed five games then. The commissioner’s office announced last week that he would be suspended an additional 15 games. That will have him eligible to return on Sept. 2, just in time for his team’s final push toward the playoffs.

The inconsistency stems from the league and the union’s shared preference for settling cases rather than taking them to an independent arbitrator. This means that players have a hand in determining their own discipline.

Based on publicly available evidence, Herrera got what he deserved. Urías didn’t. In some ways, he has made himself more valuable to the Dodgers: They can limit his innings without having to invent an injury. They can build his endurance level without having to burn an option year to send him to the minor leagues. They can get a sense of how his 1.91 ERA as a reliever will translate to a starting role. They can see what they have in righthanded reliever Casey Sadler, called up to replace Urías on the roster. They find themselves better positioned for the postseason than they were before Urías’s alleged assault.

So we are left with this image: A professional athlete, a man who is revered for his strength, uses his hands to hurt someone weaker, someone he is supposed to love. Then, months later, as he and his teammates celebrate their collective progression toward a World Series, he uses those same hands to pour champagne.

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