One striking byproduct of a game increasingly predicated upon power — with 2019 seeing a record-setting pace of both strikeouts and home runs — is the slow disappearance, to the point of near-extinction, of certain events that were once commonplace. For example:
n Stolen bases. On a per-game basis, this season has seen the fewest (.94) since 1971.
n Sacrifice bunts. This year’s rate of .32 per game is the lowest in history.
n Singles. 10.5 per game, the fewest in history.
n Triples. 0.3 per game, the fewest in history.
n Double-plays. 1.39 per game, the fewest since 1968.
The reasons are simple: Fewer balls in play plus a higher value placed on every out (when the next swing might produce another home run) equals a decline in risk and “small ball” strategy.
But curiously, one other classic baseball event keeps growing in frequency, for reasons that beg for exploration: the hit by pitch. Last season saw batters get plunked at the highest rate in the modern era: .79 per game. And this season, the rate has inched even higher: .81 per game. With the sport on pace for 1,975 hit-batsmen in 2019, that’s an increase of more than 23% than 30 years ago.
And with fastball velocity at an all-time high of 93.0 mph in 2019, that means the pain-per-plunking ratio is also at its highest.
The increase has made people across the game sit up and take notice, if for no other reason than because batters getting drilled frequently sparks confrontations, beanball wars and brawls. This past week alone saw pitchers for the Colorado Rockies and Chicago Cubs hit eight batters in a three-game series, leaving stars such as Nolan Arenado and Kris Bryant bruised, and Atlanta Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson receive a one-game suspension (which he appealed) after he objected to being grazed by a fastball and confronted Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Joe Musgrove.
“We get hit a lot,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon told reporters. “I’ve always had a rule among my guys. ...You’ve got two options. Go to the mound, or go to first base. But don’t sit there and jabber. Make up your mind. Do one or the other.”
So what’s with the increase? The simplest explanation has to do with basic math: There are more pitches per plate appearance (3.92) and per game (302.9) this season than ever before, so it stands to reason that more of those pitches would wind up colliding with batters.
But people within the game see other forces at work:
Yes, our favorite, catchall root-cause of everything wrong with baseball is quite likely also to blame, at least in part, for the rise in hit-by-pitches. If talent evaluators and front offices are selecting pitchers for velocity as the clear, No. 1 attribute, it makes sense that overall command would suffer across the game.
“You’re getting all these younger guys who throw harder and harder, but without much experience,” said Philadelphia Phillies lefty Pat Neshsek, a veteran of seven teams across 13 big league seasons. “It’s a lot of inexperienced guys out there, just letting it go.”
This is borne out by data separating starters, who are hitting batters this year at a rate of once every 104.5 plate appearances, from relievers, whose rate is one in 83.5 plate appearances — in large part because starters (92.7 mph) don’t throw as hard, on average, as relievers (93.5 mph).
With hitters on pace to shatter the record for homers in a season, pitchers are throwing inside more than ever — not so much to “send a message,” although that still happens, but to prevent hitters from getting their arms extended. Leaguewide, pitchers are on pace to throw some 25,000 additional inside pitches than in 2008, when pitch-location tracking data first became available.
“With more homers being hit, you’re going to see guys pitching inside more,” said Baltimore Orioles right-hander Dylan Bundy. “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.”
n The launch-angle movement
With more batters than ever trying consciously to lift the ball in the air, pitchers are noticing more of them standing closer and “diving” across the plate in an effort to cover the outside corners. “You’ll see guys literally fall down on a ball that’s over the plate but high,” Bundy said. “They’re diving out over the plate and falling down, thinking it’s right at their heads.”
Although data isn’t maintained for which body parts are getting hit, at least anecdotally there appears to be a big increase in batters getting drilled on the underside of their back arm, near the triceps — perhaps because the first move of hitters trying to lift the ball is to tuck that back elbow to create a more uppercut swing.
Hitters “are getting closer to home plate,” Washington Nationals manager Davey Martinez said. “Pitchers across the league are trying to establish inside again. Over the years, everything was pitch away, pitch away. Now they’re trying to establish in, and because a hitter is standing close, they’re getting hit more.”
While batters have been wearing elbow and shin guards for decades, the equipment has become more sophisticated, with companies such as 44 Pro Guards designing customized elbow guards that extend over the triceps area. Among the company’s clients is Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Tim Locastro, whose 11 HBPs in 84 plate appearances this season makes him something of a hit-by-pitch specialist.
Montreal’s Ron Hunt holds the modern record of 50 HPBs in 1971, but at Locastro’s current pace, if he reaches 500 plate appearances he’d get plunked a staggering 65 times.
“I don’t go up there trying to get hit by a pitch,” Locastro told reporters. “But if the opportunity presents itself and the ball is coming in, I’m going to let it hit me.”
As with velocity, strikeouts and home runs, one wonders how high the number of hit-by-pitches in baseball can go. But there is one major difference: With velocity, and to some extent strikeouts and home runs as well, the theoretical maximums are tied up with the limits of human physiology.
With hit-by-pitches, it’s more a matter of pain tolerance.