Baseball is the sport of the quotidian, a game whose charm lies in its omnipresence rather than its scarcity. In a sense, it’s like rice—one individual grain is rarely remarkable, but the world’s population is sustained because there’s so much of it. So it’s important to savor the moments when someone throws a hot pepper into the bowl. The great pitchers’ duels, the big home runs, and yes, the fights.
Yeah yeah yeah, we’re all so evolved that we don’t relish the spectacle of violence anymore. Save it. The truth is, the occasional benches-clearing brawl is fun to watch and good for the soul. My favorite baseball highlight—the one I keep coming back to like a comforting song—isn’t the Roy Halladay perfect game or an Andrelton Simmons circus catch; it’s the fight between Canada and Mexico at the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
That’s why I’m grateful to the Dodgers and Padres. Not only have they put together two highly skilled, highly entertaining rosters that will come together 19 times in the regular season—and, God willing, between four and seven more times in the playoffs—these rosters also have immense potential for getting into a scrap. Not every player, of course. (Imagine fighting Clayton Kershaw and then go do penance for having such a blasphemous thought.) But these 15 guys in particular are worth watching for their potential to stir things up in 2021’s hottest rivalry.
15. Tommy Kahnle
Kahnle is out for the year while recovering from Tommy John surgery, which would make him an odd choice for this list. But the right-hander is a gigantic Philadelphia Eagles fan, and if there’s one thing we know about Eagles fans, it’s that you don’t have to take part in the game to get in a fight at the stadium.
14. Corey Seager
Seager, by all on-field indications, is a fairly chill and upbeat guy. Nothing about his past behavior gives us any reason to expect him to instigate or escalate a confrontation. But two of Seager’s mentors as a young pro were his older brother, Kyle, and his former double-play partner, Chase Utley, who are two of the button-pushingest, shit-stirringest star players of the 21st century.
It would not surprise me, therefore, if Seager’s sunny exterior was merely a facade for a red-ass sleeper agent. Picture him seeing a pattern on the Dodger Stadium scoreboard, yelling, “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life,” and charging the mound. It could happen.
13. Chris Paddack
One of the reasons The Ringer turned into Chris Paddack Dot Com for a few months in 2019 is the mulleted right-hander’s presence. Paddack paces the mound, pumps his fist after strikeouts, and generally treats pitching like what it is: The most intense individual confrontation in American team sports. Thus far, Paddack hasn’t touched off any memorable incidents. But this is a pick based more on upside than past performance. There’s a fine line between having a bullfighter’s mentality and provoking a benches-clearing incident, as Madison Bumgarner can attest. (Not to lump all pitchers who love shouting and cowboy hats into one box.)
12. Eric Hosmer
I don’t see Hosmer starting a fight. But I could absolutely see him escalating one. When the Padres signed Hosmer in 2018, there was a lot of talk about the first baseman’s role as a leadership figure, someone who Knew How to Win because of his time in Kansas City. If Hosmer gets into a fight, it would be for Leadership Reasons, like stepping in front of a smaller or younger teammate. And then he’d make it worse because he’s 6-foot-4 and has threatening eyebrows.
11. Tommy Pham
My personal belief is that Pham’s reputation for belligerence is overblown because he talked his way out of St. Louis and because of an altercation outside a strip club. These are easy events to generalize from without wider context. Nevertheless, that reputation probably changes the way opponents would react to him talking trash, or colliding with an infielder, or admiring a home run, so he has to be on this list.
10. Max Muncy
There are two types of ballplayers who start fights. The first is the red ass: These are guys with quick tempers, who throw equipment after striking out or shout at batters who stare at a home run too long. The second is the button-pusher, the trash-talker, the player who needles his opponents because it’s fun. Hockey, as you’d expect, is full of such players, but they exist in baseball as well.
In 2013, José Fernández hit his first career home run against an Atlanta Braves team that—for some reason or other—all seemed to have the Ass. Fernández admired his handiwork, and that drew the ire of Brian McCann and Chris Johnson and ultimately caused a clear-the-benches-and-stand-around event. The photos of this event are great because they depict a scrum of 49 angry Braves and Marlins, plus Fernández, who went through the whole fight with a giant, goofy, open-mouth grin like a kid who just got a new bike for his birthday.
Muncy falls into our button-pusher category. In 2019, when Muncy went deep off Bumgarner and Bumgarner took exception, Muncy told him to “get it out of the ocean.” That’s good trash talk.
9. Justin Turner
Turner combines Hosmer’s lead-from-the-front energy and Muncy’s button-pusher energy, plus if there are two kinds of guy you don’t want to fight, it’s the short guy and the old guy. If they want to fight, they know something you don’t. Turner has also been hit by 20 pitches since 2019, more than any other Dodger or Padre over that span, putting him at the center of a potential flash point.
8. Trent Grisham
Baseball fights are like chili: They’re best when they have a while to stew. Grisham isn’t a notable red ass or button-pusher, but he got under the Dodgers’ skin last year when he rounded the bases slowly after a home run. Ballplayers have long memories, and Grisham has already laid the groundwork for a confrontation.
7. Walker Buehler
I think Buehler has enormous untapped fight-starting potential. He’s just as intense as Paddack, but that intensity is always at a controlled simmer—palpable enough to make you grind your teeth as you’re watching him pitch, but never so intense that Buehler loses his cool. We’ve seen him come close a couple of times: His response to a question about his pants after losing Game 1 of last year’s NLCS became as much a meme as the pants themselves. If and when he does go off, it will be spectacular.
6. Fernando Tatis Jr.
Baseball is not hockey. Fights don’t happen because one player challenges another. Fights happen when one person, or one team, is pissed off about losing. Tatis will never charge the mound or drop the proverbial gloves, but he will be the source of a lot of unhappiness for the Padres’ opponents—and he’s not shy about drawing attention to that misery.
Everyone gets upset when things aren’t going their way at work. For most of us, that involves taking a deep breath and going for a quick walk or a cup of coffee to give the anger time to subside. Baseball players, well, they get the ass.
5. Manny Machado
For about a six-year period early in his career, Machado was the most likely player in all of baseball to start a fight. There was the ill-advised bat throw against Oakland in 2014; the fight with Yordano Ventura in 2016; the string of bizarre incidents in the 2018 NLCS; and the ump bump in 2019 that earned him a one-game suspension. Machado has mellowed a little since then, having taken on a veteran leadership role on a young Padres team, but the old Manny still pops up sometimes. For instance, when Brusdar Graterol (more on him in a moment) dissociated from his body in a fit of joy during last year’s NLDS, it was Machado—the next hitter on deck—who took offense and nearly sparked a fight.
4. Brusdar Graterol
The seventh inning of Game 2 of last year’s NLDS was probably the most wonderfully stressful MLB inning played in 2020. The Padres were down a run but in the middle of a comeback when Tatis hit a fly ball that looked sure to be a go-ahead two-run home run. Then Cody Bellinger foiled everything with a spectacular catch. Everything about it was perfect, from the star power involved—Bellinger, Tatis, and Machado, who’d homered and flipped his bat the inning before—to the season-altering stakes, to the sense that this was just the first of many memorable confrontations between these two California powerhouses.
In the middle of all of this was Graterol. With Tatis up to bat and representing the go-ahead run, Graterol caught a little too much of the plate with a fastball and was probably convinced he would give up a season-altering dinger that would get played on SportsCenter for years to come. Tatis is the emerging star in the game, and if that home run had put the Padres ahead for good in Game 2 and turned the series around, it could have ended up defining Graterol’s career.
So when Bellinger pulled the ball back over the fence, saving Graterol’s bacon on national TV, the 22-year-old went absolutely berserk. He flung his equipment hither and yon and danced around the infield in an actual fit of glee.
Here was Brusdar Graterol's reaction to Cody Bellinger robbing Tatis Jr. of a home run. . pic.twitter.com/1RpWrGZcQo— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 8, 2020
It was absurd behavior, but also entirely understandable. “Act like you’ve been there before” doesn’t apply because almost nobody has been there before—least of all the rookie pitcher. It was likewise understandable for Machado, who must have been as angry as Graterol was joyful, to lose his shit in response. Losing is bad enough; getting dunked on is even worse.
If I’d been in Machado’s shoes, I would’ve done the same thing. And if I’d been in Graterol’s shoes, I would’ve done the same thing he did, except I wouldn’t have been in his shoes long because I would’ve taken those off and thrown them, too. And so would you. We invest so much in the conceit that baseball is important and that who wins the World Series is important. If that’s true, then every so often something will happen on the field that will drive every participant to momentary madness. That’s a good thing, even if it ends in a shouting match or even a fight. Great emotional moments need that kind of catharsis.
3. Trevor Bauer
This ranking isn’t so much about Bauer’s self-proclaimed talent for pissing people off. Bauer does most of his talking online; I could see him and Blake Snell getting into it on Twitch or something, but that rarely if ever spills over onto on-field action. Bauer’s feud with Alex Bregman never did, for instance, and when Bauer does act out on the diamond, it tends not to be directed at other players or it gets cloaked in the veneer of edgelord-ian plausible deniability. There’s a chance some Padre gets tired of his antics and takes a run at him this year, but given the levels of active beef between these two teams, that possibility alone isn’t enough to get him into the top five.
What worries me is that through the past two seasons, Bauer has hit more batters than any other pitcher in baseball. And more than slow home run trots or moments of competitive fury, the hit-by-pitch remains baseball’s primary instigator of on-field donnybrooks. The Padres and Dodgers themselves are no stranger to the phenomenon. In 2013, Dodgers righty Zack Greinke plunked Carlos Quentin, a Padres outfielder who was known as much for standing on top of the plate as his periodic fits of red-ass-ery. Quentin charged the mound, and Greinke broke his collarbone in the ensuing fight.
2. Joe Kelly
Kelly is the only player on this list who’s famous mostly for starting fights on the baseball field. He did this most notably last season, when he threw at Bregman’s head and earned an eight-game suspension. At the time, everyone was too blinded by irrational anger at the Astros to appreciate the multilayered irony of the situation. (Or the fact that Kelly’s actions crossed the line from dramatic to genuinely dangerous.) Kelly wasn’t on the Dodgers when they lost the 2017 World Series; in fact, he was on the Red Sox, a team that also won a World Series at the Dodgers’ expense thanks to a sign-stealing operation that got the team’s manager fired and suspended. It was an all-time “She doesn’t even go here!” moment that went under the radar.
Not only that, but many Dodgers fans held (or still hold) a grudge against Kelly for plunking a red-hot Hanley Ramírez in the first inning of Game 1 of the 2013 NLCS. Ramírez had hit .345/.402/.638 that regular season and went 8-for-16 with six extra-base hits in the NLDS; after Kelly broke Ramírez’s rib, he went 2-for-15 and Kelly’s Cardinals won the pennant.
And yet after all that history, Kelly’s first instinct when he found himself up against the Astros was to wield a beanball like an instrument of righteous retribution. That’s a man to watch as the Dodgers-Padres rivalry heats up.
1. Keone Kela
Kela comes to San Diego after a six-year career marked equally by periods of dominance and bizarre breaches of discipline. In 2017, Kela was a key setup man on the Texas Rangers, but he got demoted to the minor leagues under unusual circumstances involving an intrasquad game and a confrontation with a group of Ranger veterans that included Adrián Beltré. In 2019, the Pirates suspended Kela after an altercation with a team staff member. Two weeks later, Kela earned a 10-game suspension for throwing at Derek Dietrich’s head and eventually sparking a benches-clearing brawl. Kela admitted that the purpose pitch was, well, on purpose, and came in retaliation for slow home run trots in games that Kela himself didn’t even take part in. That makes Kelly’s attempted beanball look positively chill by comparison.
I don’t know how big a role Kela will play in a pretty deep Padres bullpen, but history indicates the Dodgers will have to keep an eye on him.