August 22, 2012
The Platoon Advantage
You don’t read much about the hit by pitch, except tangentially, and then only when some pitcher gets in trouble for throwing at some hitter. For the most part, the HBP just isn’t that interesting; it doesn’t happen often, and when it does, it doesn’t mean all that much. The run-value result of an HBP is basically indistinguishable from that of a walk, and it happens about a tenth as often. HBPs can be exciting or aggravating or scary when they happen while you’re watching a game, but after the fact, if no one got hurt or suspended, they’re hard to care about.
Some guys are really, really good at getting hit, though, and I’ve always thought they were pretty interesting. Carlos Quentin is the overall leader among players to have compiled at least 2000 plate appearances since 1961 (I put the cutoff, somewhat arbitrarily, at the onset of the 162-game schedule; here’s the top 200)—he’s been hit by pitches in 4.1 percent of his career plate appearances, better than the career walk rates of Yuniesky Betancourt, Miguel Olivo and Bengie Molina. All those plunkings do add up; if Quentin’s 4.1 percent HBP rate were reduced to the 2012 NL average of 0.76 percent, he’d have 21 career HBP instead of 112, and his career .349 OBP would drop all the way to .326.
So it’s not a small thing, not at the extremes. Quentin’s skill at getting hit by pitches has, on a per-PA basis, been a big part of his value, transforming him from a more or less average hitter into quite a good one.
But here’s my question: is it a “skill”?
Most hitters go to significant lengths to avoid being hit by pitches, as I imagine any of us would. Technically speaking, of course, the rules of baseball require a batter to attempt to get out of the way. (Rule 6.08(b): a batter “touched by a pitched ball” at which he didn’t swing is awarded first base unless the pitch is a strike or “the batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball.”) Most fans boo when a player on their team is hit, or nearly hit, by a pitched ball; in most cases, it’s not considered a good thing, even though the result on the field, the free base, is invariably good.
And of course there’s the injury risk, real or perceived. A submarine pitch to the skull was the cause of Major League Baseball’s only direct fatality. Tony Conigliaro and Dickie Thon both had promising careers substantially destroyed by HBPs. The last regular-season MLB pitch Kirby Puckett ever saw was a Dennis Martinez fastball that he actually probably didn’t see, as it broke his jaw and is widely thought to have caused the glaucoma that prematurely ended his career.