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Batters Are Getting Plunked At Historic Rates. But Why?

It’s never been more dangerous to be a major league hitter. Through Thursday’s games, batters had been plunked by pitchers 457 times, struck with a fast-moving projectile made of cowhide and densely wound yarn. Considering that MLB pitchers are throwing harder than at any time in recorded history, it’s safe to assume that getting hit by a baseball has never stung worse.

The current rate of 0.41 batters hit by a pitch per team game is the highest since 1900, the same year that the Brooklyn Superbas led by Wee Willie Keeler won the Chronicle-Telegraph Cup. (There was no American League yet and thus no World Series.)

This level of plunkings has given us some interesting results — and inevitable dust-ups. On Monday, four Reds were hit by pitches — in one inning, tying a record set in 1893. Mets batters were hit seven times on the hands just through April. Presumably in retaliation, reliever Jacob Rhame threw at the head of Rhys Hoskins, who retaliated himself with the slowest home-run trot since 2015. Rhame was suspended two games.

While the rate of HBPs has fluctuated across the game’s history, it was just 0.34 per team game three seasons ago, which is more in line with where it was for most of the 1990s and 2000s. So what is causing the recent spike? It’s a bit of a mystery.

There’s one simple explanation: There are more opportunities to hit someone now because hitters are extending counts and pitchers are throwing more pitches. The past two full seasons saw the highest number of total pitches (721,282 in 2018 and 721,279 in 2017, according to Baseball-Reference.com) on record.1 But even though the raw counts are higher, the share of total pitches that hit a batter last season is also going up: 0.266 percent of all pitches in 2018 hit a batter, the second-highest share on record. Through Thursday, this season has seen a share of 0.274 percent — which would be the highest that we’ve seen.

Some speculate that pitchers are just wilder than ever because of a focus on throwing hard in lieu of command. Walks per game (3.44) are well above the average since 1900 (3.19), but pitchers are throwing only fractionally more balls as a percentage of pitches this year (36.7) than the 2009-to-2018 average (36.6).

Of course, one specific reason for an HBP is that the pitcher meant to do it. Retaliation is as old as the game itself. And nothing gets a pitcher more snippy than giving up a homer. Balls are flying out of ballparks more than ever before, giving pitchers more opportunities to throw at the offending players. But it’s not just the act of hitting a home run, it’s what can come next: Don’t flip your bat or stand too long watching it or lollygag around the bases or trash talk the opposition in mid-trot. This year, Tim Anderson was beaned for flipping the bat too aggressively at his own dugout.

Furthermore, with home runs all the rage, pitchers may seek to expand the strike zone by moving batters farther away from home plate, effectively making the outside part of the plate more out of reach. Miss just a little in to a hitter in midlean over the plate and … kerplunk.

While we can’t measure the pitchers’ intent, we can measure where pitches are being located. According to data from Baseball Savant, more pitches than ever before are being thrown on the inside third of the plate and off the plate to the inside.

Through Tuesday’s games, more than 32 percent of pitches were inside, which is the highest rate since pitch location was first tracked in 2008. This rate is up more than 3 percentage points from 2008, which may not seem like much on first blush but would equate roughly to an increase of more than 30,000 inside pitches.

With more pitches directed inside, more batters are bound to get hit. But how much of that is on the batters themselves? Even as far back as 1997, players were bemoaning how hitters could treat the batter’s box like they owned it.

”Today’s game, you see guys digging a little trench in there,” Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn told The New York Times. “I just get flashbacks and wonder if they would do that if [Bob] Gibson or [Steve] Carlton or [Nolan] Ryan or [Tom] Seaver were out there. You can’t let a hitter go up there and think he controls both halves of the plate. If you bust a guy in, keep him honest, get him off the plate, you might be able to get him out away.”

Gibson, a Hall of Famer and the man largely responsible for the lowering of the mound, was viewed as a tiger on the field. He once dusted Reggie Jackson at an old-timer’s game. (Jackson had homered off of Gibson in a similar game the previous year.) After his close friend and teammate Bill White was traded, “Hoot” immediately plastered him on the elbow. And slugger Dick Allen said, “Gibson would knock you down and then meet you at the plate to see if you wanted to make something out of it.”

But Gibson hit “just” 102 batters in 3,884.3 career innings, or 0.24 per nine frames. That ranks 359th out of the 471 pitchers who threw at least 1,000 innings and hit at least 50 batters, according to Baseball-Reference.com. So the guy whose Hall of Fame bio says he “may well have been the most intimidating pitcher in MLB history” hit batters at a rate well below the hurlers of today’s game.

The pitcher today placing opposing trainers on the highest alert is Charlie Morton of the Tampa Bay Rays, who has led his league in hit batsmen four times in the past six years — despite never pitching more than 170 innings in any of those years. Morton nails 0.78 batters per nine innings, a career rate last exceeded by Ed Doheny (0.90), who retired in 1903. Morton’s ERA this year currently stands at a career-best 2.64. And in 2018, with the Astros, his .833 winning percentage led all of baseball: His 15 wins were one fewer than the number of batters he tattooed.

Neil Paine contributed research.

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Footnotes

  1. Pitch count data goes back to 1988.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

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