BY DENNIS RICHARDSON
09 August 2021
ORLANDO, FL -- Where have you gone Craig Biggio? A league of bruised batters turn their uneasy eyes to you. Woo, woo, woo.
OK, so that’ll never make a great song lyric; too close to something written by some guy named Paul Simon. Still, Biggio’s name comes up in conversations around Major League Baseball these days. You see, back in 2007 the Houston Astros’ future Hall of Famer set the league’s modern-day record for most times being hit by a pitch: 285, during his 20-year career. Think about that for a second: He got drilled 285 times.
(For the record, former Montreal Expos’ infielder Ron Hunt holds the modern-day mark for most times hit by a pitch in one season: 50).
Naturally, hitters around the league have a question for Biggio: how in the world did you stand getting hit 285 times?
They want to know primarily for two reasons: One, whatever you want to call it – hit, beaned, dinged, drilled, plunked, whacked – getting hit with a baseball traveling in excess of 90 mph can hurt, and leave the assaulted part of the body black-and-blue, sometimes even with a welt that shows the imprint of the ball. Secondly, the Hit-By-Pitch abbreviation (“HBP”) is showing up in box scores with frightening frequency these days. It’s not just a nuisance; it’s become an epidemic. Guys are getting plunked at a rate of almost one a game, a pace that would be an increase for the fifth straight year – with a record 2,220 batters hit this season. That’s a rate not seen since the early 20th Century’s Dead Ball Era when hitters purposely leaned into pitches in order to reach base.
Major-league hitters should put in for hazard pay, because it’s risky stepping up to the plate these days. Players are getting hit more often, in more dangerous places (above the shoulders), and by faster pitches than ever. Already this season, the Philadelphia Phillies’ Bryce Harper and the New York Mets’ Kevin Pillar have been hit in the face by fastballs – Harper on a 97-mph pitch and Pillar by one traveling 95 mph -- in high-profile incidents. Harper missed just three games, but Pillar was out two weeks after undergoing facial surgery to repair multiple nasal fractures.
"That’s about as sickening a thing you can see on a baseball field, when a kid gets hit like that," Atlanta Braves’ manager Brian Snitker said after Pillar was beaned.
In both cases, it could have been a lot worse. And, there’s genuine concern around baseball that it’s only a matter of time before that happens. Nobody wants another Ray Chapman incident. In 1920, the Cleveland Indians’ infielder died after being hit in the head by a pitch from New York Giants’ right-hander Carl Mays. (MLB did not require batters to wear helmets until 1940.) Chapman is the only player in league history to die from injuries sustained during a game. He was 29 years old.
“It’s the most dangerous part of baseball, that someone can get hit with a 100-mph fastball and get seriously hurt,” pitcher Jared Hughes told Jared Diamond in a 2019 Wall Street Journal story. “It’s definitely not OK, and pitchers need to be better.”
Because one wayward pitch and a split second can end a career, or even a life.
It takes a 100-mile-per-hour pitch approximately four one-hundredth of a second (0.04 seconds) – literally the blink of an eye -- to travel from the pitcher to the batter. That leaves very little time for the batter’s eyes to send a message to the brain, and for the brain to relay it to the needed muscle groups: “Hey, we’ve got this hard orb headed our way at a high rate of speed, and we need to get out of the way.”
The Need for Speed
Any conversation explaining why batters are getting dinged in record numbers invariably begins with the fastball. In today’s game, the heater (other nicknames for the fastball are gas, mustard, cheese) is king of the pitching side of baseball.
The triple-digit fastball is a golden ticket to the major leagues. Throwing hard gets you noticed; throwing harder gets you a contract. Teams want young pitchers that light up radar guns, and tend to promote more quickly through the minors prospects that throw “gas.”
Pitching coaches used to preach “pitch to contact,” as a way of getting starters to throw fewer pitches and work deeper into games. Now the emphasis is on swing-and-miss stuff. And, the sexiest way to make batters miss is with a turbo-charged fastball -- the faster the better. While that maximum-effort delivery can go astray at times, (walks, wild pitches, and HBPs all are being seen in record numbers this season) the hit batsman is considered an acceptable, if unfortunate, side effect. In today’s game, speed not control is the prescription for success.
“We’ve brought guys up in a velocity world,” Miami Marlins’ manager Don Mattingly told Dave Brandt in an Associated Press story on May 27. “We gotta throw harder, you gotta get more spin rate, guys are trying to get more all the time. When you do that, you’re sacrificing the accuracy of what you’re doing.”
“I went to one of those development centers where they try to build velocity,” one major-league executive told Peter Gammons of The Athletic recently. “Some things were excellent. They helped kids learn about shaping pitches and certain forms of conditioning. But it was too much about velocity. A kid would throw a ball, it would register over 100 and everyone would cheer. The fact that it went up on the wall didn’t matter.”
It wasn’t long ago -- the blink of an eye from an historical perspective -- that a 100-mph pitch was a rarity. Officially, Nolan Ryan is considered the first to reach triple digits with a pitch in an MLB game, when he was clocked at 100.8 mph on Sept. 7, 1974, while pitching for the California Angels. (Unofficially, Cleveland Indians’ Bob Feller may have been the first. He was estimated to have thrown a number of pitches at speeds up to 107 mph in the 1950s.) Now, seemingly it happens every game. The number of 100-mph pitches thrown during the course of a season has jumped from a couple dozen to a couple hundred to a couple thousand.
In fact, 100 mph might soon become the new 90. The owner of one Fort Worth, Texas, facility that teaches young pitchers how to increase their velocity speculated to CBS This Morning that “there's potential to throw 112, 113 if bio-mechanics were perfect and it's the perfect specimen and they leverage gravity off the mound.” Imagine trying to hit – or get out of the way of -- that pitch.
The simplest, most convenient explanation for the HBP epidemic is pitchers throwing, and losing control of, more fastballs. That’s an oversimplification, though. As with many things in baseball there is no simple, singular explanation. There are other factors besides high-octane fastballs that explain why more batters are trotting to first base nursing a pain and a welt. They include a change in pitching philosophy to emphasize more inside pitches, lack of control, and the increased use of inexperienced pitchers. Mix all those ingredients together and it’s a dangerous recipe for hitters.
Go North, Young Man
Up until the early 2000s, down-and-away was considered a good spot for a pitch. The thinking was, at worst it might go for a single, or perhaps a double, but generally the ball stayed in the ballpark. Then sabermetrics introduced hitters to “lift” and “launch angle.” As a result, that once-safe pitch increasingly was smashed for home runs, and that flipped the pitchers’ script to “work the inside corner.”
“If you throw outside, you’re gonna get crushed,” veteran catcher Stephen Vogt told the Associated Press’ Brandt. “You have to be able to hit that inside corner.”
So, the mantra for pitchers became “go inside” – and up, preferably. The numbers showed that pitchers who threw up-and-in, particularly with hard stuff, enjoyed more success. Why? For one, that pitch is hard to handle; two, batters are not able to extend their arms to generate power as they are with pitches over the plate or down-and-away; and three, because “inside” is where the holes in swings exist for most hitters.
Thus, pitchers increasingly have tried pitching to the inside portion of the plate -- not to hit or intimidate batters, but to keep the balls from going over the fences. “There’s a lot of spots right around the player – the hand, the body – it’s not going to be put in play,” outfielder AJ Pollock told JP Hoornstra of the Orange County Register in a May 12, 2021 story. “Pitchers don’t want the ball put in play right now. Find a way to get outs without putting the ball in play.”
A breaking pitch down-and-away that moves in that direction still can be effective, especially if you can get the batter to chase one out of the strike zone. Yet, according to data from Baseball Savant, more pitches are being thrown on the inside third of the plate and off the plate to the inside than ever.
Simple math tells you that the more pitches that are inside, the greater the chances of a batter being hit. And, since pitchers generally would prefer a ball be too far inside rather than stray out over the plate where it can be mashed, you know where the wayward pitch is going: at the batter.
“With more homers being hit, you’re going to see guys pitching inside more,” right-hander Dylan Bundy said. “You’re not trying to necessarily hit a guy, but you’re trying to throw it maybe six inches away from him — to keep him from getting his arms extended – and that’s a small window to throw through.”
“Pitching inside never had the elevation behind it that it does now,” Hall of Fame right-hander and color analyst John Smoltz told Fox Sports. ”When you match the velocity with the elevation, you’re playing with fire.”
The most dangerous offering is the armside, inside fastball: a pitch by a right-handed pitcher inside to a right-handed batter, or a left-handed pitcher inside to a left-handed hitter. When the pitcher loses control of that pitch, it generally sails into the hitter. And, if it’s up, the pitch is going toward the head area. It was that type of pitch that felled Harper and Pillar.
“Today, pitchers are told to pitch up,” one general manager told Gammons. “If there is any mechanical glitch, and with armside run, right-handers are throwing 100-mile-an-hour Frisbees running at right-handed hitters’ heads, lefties at left-handed hitters’ heads.”
Up-and-in is fine if you have control like Greg Maddux, or Warren Spahn, or Jim Palmer, or Tom Glavine, or Zack Greinke, or Kyle Hendricks. Since very few pitchers possess that type of command, it leads us to the next factor.
Lack of Control
Consider that hit-by-pitch numbers are at a record pace for the fifth straight season. That wild pitches have increased by 28 percent over the last decade. That walks are on pace to set a record again. Plus, as Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci has pointed out, this year more batters are being hit with breaking pitches (51.6 percent) than fastballs.
It all points to increased lack of control by pitchers. “Guys need to command the baseball better,” Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts said.
“To pitch waist-down, there’s nothing really bad that can happen (to a hitter). And, there’s nothing really bad that can happen to a pitcher, other than you maybe leave it over the plate and it’s a homer,” Smoltz said. “Now everybody through analytics is trying to get it to the letters. You throw that at 98 mph, there are not a lot of pitchers who know where that pitch is going.”
Too Young at Heart
In years past, young pitchers learned their craft by making mistakes in the minor leagues. By pitching innings over four or five seasons, they learned to control their fastballs and develop their breaking pitches before being called up.
Now, increasingly, they are learning on the sport’s toughest stage. The game today has become more youthful, and pitchers are throwing fewer innings before they reach the majors. That’s particularly true in 2021, following last year’s pandemic-shortened season. The sudden ramp up of innings has meant more injuries to pitchers and more innings to cover. Those innings have to come from somewhere, and that burden generally falls on younger, less experienced hurlers. A number of teams are, by necessity, carrying 14 pitchers on their 26-player roster, some of whom may not be ready for the majors, or shouldn’t be in the league at all.
“A lot of times these guys have good arms, but what’s keeping them from being on the roster all the time is probably consistency and command. And the hitters are taking the brunt of that,” Philadelphia Phillies’ manager Joe Girardi told Marc Craig of The Athletic.
Some clubs have had to dip into their Double-A pitching ranks because their Triple-A team has suffered the same ramp-up injuries to pitchers as the parent club. While MLB at least had a 60-game schedule last year, all of the minor leagues were canceled because of the pandemic. So, many minor-league pitchers are coming off a year when they didn’t pitch at all. As a result, they not only are rusty, they lost a year of development.
Washington Nationals’ first baseman Ryan Zimmerman has been particularly vocal about baseball’s infatuation with power arms, and with premature promotions. It’s endangering players, he says.
“All these guys throw 95 to 100, and half of them don’t know where it’s going or know how to pitch … and the team doesn’t really care,” Zimmerman said recently to the Sports Junkies (a Washington, DC, sports radio show). “They’re just trying to see if they have anything in them.
“A couple years ago, these guys would be in Double-A or Triple-A for another year, trying to learn how to pitch, but these teams just call them up to see if they can kind of hit lightning in a bottle. If not, they send them back down. They don’t care if they hit four guys on the other team — what does it matter to them? The GM for the other team is not in the (batter’s) box, so he doesn’t care.”
In Defense of Pitchers
There is an old saying in baseball: “Don’t pitch inside if you don’t have command.”
Well, what’s a pitcher to do? Where’s he supposed to throw the ball? Down the middle is no good, unless you’re Nolan Ryan or Sandy Koufax or Roger Clemens. Low and away used to be good, but with more and more hitters crowding the plate – in some instances, almost leaning over it – so they can reach that outside pitch, it’s become less appealing.
That leaves pitching inside. Which increases the risk of batters getting hit.
But, before we condemn all pitchers as bloodthirsty, headhunting monsters, keep in mind that hitters bear some responsibility, too. Their actions contribute to the high HBP rate as well.
For one, a hitter standing too long in the batter’s box to admire the homer he hit, to celebrate with too enthusiastic of a bat flip, or to take too long trotting around the bases is almost asking to be knocked down or hit by a pitch.
Second, more hitters are crowding the plate these days -- “to make the outside pitch middle”, as one player described it – so they can “dive over the plate” and do damage on the down-and-away pitch.
“You’ll see guys literally fall down on a ball that’s over the plate but high,” Bundy told Dave Shenin of the Washington Post. “They’re diving out over the plate and falling down, thinking it’s right at their heads.”
Third, more batters are wearing elbow or upper arm guards, or both. The protective gear has emboldened hitters to the point where they aren’t concerned about getting drilled in the sensitive elbow area. “Hitters have no fear getting close to the plate,” a longtime club official told Craig of The Athletic recently.
In 2002, Major League Baseball adopted a rule that limited elbow guards to 10 inches in length, and had to be covered in fabric. It put an end to the bulky, hard plastic body armor that players like Barry Bonds wore; protection so heavy that a ball could have been shot out of a bazooka and not have penetrated the armor.
That rule, though, doesn’t seem to have done much to move batters off the plate. “Hitters are getting closer to home plate,” Washington Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez said. “Over the years, everything was pitch away, pitch away. Now (pitchers) are trying to establish in, and because a hitter is standing close, they’re getting hit more.”
And, they’re not particularly happy about it, as witnessed by the comments from the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman.
In a 2006 interview with the Washington Post, when Biggio was nearing the hit-by-pitch record of 277, he was asked about all the dings he’s taken.
He never complained, never charged the mound, never even rubbed the spot where he’d been hit. If he suspected a pitcher drilled him deliberately, Biggio had faith that Astros’ pitchers would honor baseball’s “unwritten rules” and dispense justice appropriately.
“(Getting hit by a pitch) happens,” Biggio said. “It’s always gonna happen. Some guys don’t mind it. Some do. To me, it’s part of the game.”
That’s true now more than ever.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.