Julio Urías, Odubel Herrera, and the newest questions about MLB’s domestic violence policy

Perhaps the subject I’ve written about more than any other is Major League Baseball’s Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Child Abuse policy, Attachment 52 to MLB’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement. That’s due to a variety of factors; the number of players whose behavior warranted investigation under the policy (not including those baseball executives excluded from it) has been at times equally depressing and shocking.

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Thus far this year, two players have been suspended under the policy (down from four players last year). Phillies center fielder Odubel Herrera, 27, was suspended 85 games for violating the policy by allegedly assaulting his 20-year-old girlfriend. Last week, Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Julio Urias became the latest player disciplined for violating the policy, receiving a 20-game ban for allegedly shoving a woman to the ground. Yet the more jarring disparity was that Herrera was deemed ineligible for postseason games, whereas Urias was allowed by Commissioner Rob Manfred to return for the playoffs.

As I’ve written before, it’s not at all clear what factors went into determining the players’ respective punishments. In fact, it’s likely that the players themselves had some control over their own discipline. As I wrote last summer for FanGraphs when discussing Roberto Osuna’s suspension,

“We learn here not that Osuna decided not to appeal but rather that he agreed not to appeal. Osuna, in other words, effectively settled his case with MLB, agreeing to a shorter suspension in exchange for not appealing. This sort of resolution isn’t necessarily dissimilar to a plea bargain or civil settlement, both of which have their utility. It’s an open question, however, whether baseball’s accused domestic abusers ought to have a say in their own discipline, particularly when that discipline is being enforced by their employer. And Osuna’s case isn’t an isolated incident; rather, it’s standard policy. The same thing happened with Aroldis Chapman, for example.”

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The same is true of both Herrera and Urias: they effectively settled their cases with MLB, with “agreed” and “accepted” the operative language. That raises more questions than it answers.

Equally unknown, for example, is why the MLBPA took such a harder line in defending Urias than it did Herrera. For example, Manfred issued multiple extensions of Herrera’s seven-day administrative leave while the league was investigating his conduct, evidently without challenge by the union. On the other hand, the union refused to consent to an extended leave period in Urias’ case. I reached out to the MLBPA for comment on this disparity; through a spokesperson, the union declined to comment on the record.

Still, even if the two settlements were negotiated, their respective lengths suggest Herrera’s alleged conduct was significantly worse, and it was, if accurate, horrifying; police reported that “handprint markings were found on h[is girlfriend’s] neck, in addition to scratches.” Certainly that merits the punishment Herrera received. But was Urias’ conduct that much less egregious as to justify the disparity in punishment?

To examine this, let’s see if we can recreate the analysis that Manfred and MLB might have used. Now, obviously, this has a number of limitations. We don’t have all of the evidence that MLB had at its disposal, and we certainly don’t know the extent of that evidence. We’re also going to focus primarily on these two cases, to see what differences might have led to the disparate punishment.

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The natural first step is to look at who faced criminal charges. In this instance, both Herrera and Urías were arrested, and neither was convicted; the charges were dropped in both instances. Against Herrera, the charges against Herrera were dropped entirely, subject to an agreement to attend court-ordered “batterer’s counseling,” after Herrera’s girlfriend declined to testify and prosecutors decided they lacked enough evidence to proceed without her.

*Note: there have been some reports saying that the charges were dropped because Herrera’s girlfriend did not want to pursue them. That’s incorrect. The victim in a domestic abuse criminal proceeding is not the plaintiff, and does not have the authority to decide to press, or not press, charges. Only the prosecutor can make that determination based on the available evidence. All Herrera’s girlfriend did was decline to testify for the prosecution, leaving them without sufficient evidence to convict him.

On the other hand, Urías, too, was arrested and initially charged criminally before the charges were dropped. Unlike Herrera, though, Urías reached a deal with prosecutors called a deferred prosecution agreement which required, among other things, that he attend domestic violence counseling and “accept responsibility for the abusive behavior perpetrated against the victim.” The effect of the agreement is similar to that in Herrera’s case, but the legal import is different; the requirement that Urías “accept responsibility for … abusive behavior” makes the case against Urías was stronger, not weaker.

But there are two major differences between Urías and Herrera. The first is in how their actions came to light. In Urías’ case, witnesses called the police after seeing the pitcher allegedly shove a woman to the ground. The victim, however, was evidently uninjured and told police that she fell on her own, and the fall wasn’t the result of a physical altercation. On the other hand, Herrera’s victim approached security guards on her own at the hotel where she and Herrera were staying. Certainly, this isn’t by itself dispositive. That said, it does lead to an inference that what Herrera did was worse.

Nor does it seem that the harsher suspension was the result of a request by the victims in either case. Neither victim, it seems, wanted to testify. That’s not uncommon.

Perhaps it was a matter of stronger evidence? Doubtful. TMZ reported that video evidence allegedly backed up the allegations against Urias, whereas there were no reports of video recordings in Herrera’s case. That said, the video evidence evidently was weak. According to TMZ,

“We’re told the video of the incident does show Urias making physical contact with the woman during the March 13 altercation in the Beverly Center parking lot — but as one source puts it, ‘It doesn’t appear there’s criminal intent to injure her’

One source says it appears Urias used his hands in an attempt to stop her from leaving the area during a heated argument.

In other words, it seems as though he was trying to restrain her, not strike her … though the woman DID go to the ground at some point during the argument.

We’re not trying to minimize the seriousness of the situation — but rather, this is what we’re being told by people who are involved in the case.

We’re told both parties have been very cooperative with investigators and are telling consistent stories about what happened.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start by assuming that this description of the video is accurate. Clearly, the conclusion drawn by Manfred and MLB was that Herrera’s actions— allegedly choking his girlfriend hard enough to leave handprints—was more severe than Urías’ actions, which amounted to restraining his girlfriend from leaving.

I’m not going to decide here whether that conclusion is accurate, but it should be noted that the disparity in MLB’s punishments pretty much answers the question that Michael Baumann asked last year: does MLB believe that there’s some sort of graduated scale of badness for intimate partner violence? The answer is yes, and these two cases establish that answer firmly.

To MLB, restraining your partner using force to keep her from leaving is less severe than inflicting force with intent to injure. MLB is, in essence, making a value judgment. That said, it’s not the case that Urías needed to intend to injure his girlfriend to commit a criminal act; restraining someone without their consent is, in most jurisdictions, the crime of false imprisonment.

Restraining someone without their consent can be other crimes as well. But according to these suspensions, MLB believes that physically restraining your partner to prevent her from leaving, even if it is done so roughly that she ends up falling, is only 25% as bad as choking her. That is, regardless of your opinion on the value judgment involved, a rather dubious metric.

The next question is why Herrera’s conduct merited being barred from the postseason. Looking at past offenders, there’s no clear precedent. Herrera choked his girlfriend; but so did Aroldis Chapman, whose offense also involved the use of guns, but Chapman didn’t receive a postseason ban. Neither did Jose Reyes, who choked his wife and threw her through a glass door. In short, we don’t know why Herrera’s situation merited harsher punishment than Chapman or Reyes, except that once again, MLB is making a value judgment regarding degrees of domestic violence.

So where does that leave us? If we’re looking for some type of predictability or baseline from the domestic violence policy, we’re not going to get it. The simple truth is that MLB is composed of (mostly male) human beings, in this context making subjective value judgments about a subject which impacts (mostly non-male) victims. There’s no quantifiable way to decide that certain types of intimate partner violence are better or worse than others. The league which prides itself on data and analytics is making emotion-driven judgment calls on issues of domestic abuse. I’ll leave to you to decide if that’s a good thing.

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