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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.
So given the risks and the general undesirability of the event, is a tendency to get hit by a lot of pitches something we should call a skill? Or is it a curse, or something in between? I plan to explore this more thoroughly and empirically (to the extent possible) in a future post, but for now, I’ll offer a few facts and my theory.
First, I think it’s clear that at least at the very extreme end of the scale, guys who get hit by pitches a lot tend to be hurt a lot. By my reckoning, over the years during which they should have been full-time players (not counting 2012 for active players like Quentin, and not counting career backup Charlie O’Brien), the top twenty in HBP rate managed an average of about 125 games per season. The only iron man is Craig Biggio (who checks in at no. 19 in rate, despite being the modern record holder in total HBP), although Don Baylor (no. 11) and Jason Kendall (no. 9) had pretty long and full careers.
On the other side of the scale is Quentin, who has had a significant injury in every year of his career. Ron Hunt, who led the National League in HBPs every year from 1968 to 1974 and easily holds the post-1900 single season record with his 50 in 1971, played in more than 132 games only twice in his 12-year career (148 in 1968, 152 in ‘71), retired after his age-33 season, and has been quoted many, many times as having said: “Some people give their bodies to science. I gave mine to baseball.” The rest of the top 20 is full of very frequent disabled listers, mostly of modern vintage. Craig Wilson, Fernando Vina, Josh Willingham, F.P. Santangelo, Aaron Rowand. Heck, Nick Johnson comes in at no. 21.
So, if a player gets hit by pitches a lot, there’s a very good chance that he also gets hurt a lot. (It may be somewhat surprising that the converse doesn’t appear to be true; none of these guys were what you’d call unbreakable, whereas Cal Ripken Jr. actually cracks the top 200 in post-1961 HBP rate, among a sample of over 1300.)
However, I’m not a statistician or a scientist, but people I know who are have told me that “correlation does not imply causation,” and I tend to believe them. In fact, researching historical injuries is incredibly difficult, but of all the many injuries the players in the top 20 in HBP rate have suffered, I’ve been unable to confirm any that were the direct result of being plunked. Quentin hurt his hand on a bat, but that was self-inflicted, among many other injuries having mostly to do with his legs and running around the outfield; Hunt’s most significant injury happened on a collision on the basepaths, and he suffered off-field injuries from a car accident and handball. We know that HBPs can create injuries—bad ones—but I don’t see any anecdotal evidence that players who get hit a lot are more likely to be hurt by getting hit than other players.
So here are my theories (which, again, I hope to find some way of testing in this space on some later date):
First: players who get hit a lot tend to get hit...differently than players who don’t. It’s not as though Quentin and Biggio have made a habit of getting to first base by getting their noses and eye sockets in front of as many baseballs as possible. It’s a glancing blow off the elbow pad, a grazing of the billowing jersey. It’s an art form, really, and I suspect that the actual, added danger to these players vis-a-vis the average hitter is pretty minimal. The pitches that injure are crazily wild, and impossible for anyone to get away from; no one wants one of those. Anyone can get Conigliaro’ed, of course, but my suspicion is that it’s only marginally more likely to happen to a player to whom HBPs is a part of his game than it is to any other player (if it’s more likely at all). For what it’s worth, Conigliaro was hit fairly often, landing in his league’s top 10 three times, while Thon was hit just nine times in 15 years.
Second: players who get hit a lot tend to get hurt a lot, not because they get hit, but because they tend to share common characteristics with each other that make injuries more likely. I expect that they break down into two groups. Group A are your sportswriters’ favorites: David Eckstein (no. 14 on the post-’61 list), Santangelo (no. 2), Biggio, Hunt (no. 3), Rowand (no. 13), Chase Utley (no. 10), Reed Johnson (no. 7). Gritty, gamers, hearty, etc., etc. They get hit by pitches a lot because they’ll do anything to help the team, however dangerous or ill-advised: take a pitch off the arm, crash into walls, crash into teammates, crash into catchers. (N.B.: I’m surprised Rusty Greer wasn’t hit more often.) It’s all a part of the same all-out-all-the-time compulsion, but my theory is that the injuries themselves come a lot less from the HBPs than from all the crashing into things.
Group B, on the other hand, are quite different: Quentin, Jose Guillen (no. 20), Baylor (no. 11), Willingham (no. 16), Wilson (no. 5). These guys may or may not be what their beat writers would call gritty, but what they definitely have in common is reflexes, or fast-twitch muscles, or flexibility and conditioning, or what-have-you, that are probably a bit slower than the average professional athlete’s. They certainly don’t mind getting hit by the odd pitch now and then, but it’s likely that part of it is that they don’t have the ability to avoid a high-and-tight pitch that many other hitters do. Those qualities (my theory goes) don’t seem to lead to more HBP injuries, but manifest themselves in other aspects of the game, and he’s more likely to pull a hamstring or quad running the bases or changing after a fly ball.
Not everyone in the top 21 fits one of these categories perfectly—that’s probably not fair to at least the younger Baylor, for instance, and I don’t see a place here for Kendall or Rickie Weeks (no. 12)—but most do. So high-HBP guys are also high-injury guys, but I don’t believe it’s the HBPs themselves that tend to cause that.
But, third, I do suspect that a lifetime of bodily contact with 90-mile-per-hour fastballs tends to take its toll on you, in the same way the bumps and bruises from 130 games caught a year can (which makes Kendall’s longevity doubly impressive). This gets back to Hunt’s quote above; after 12 short years, his body really was worn down, and he quit at 33. Santangelo’s career was far too short relative to his offensive productivity, as was Vina’s, and Wilson’s was very short as well. The players’ style of play more generally would have something to do with that, too, but all the HBPs can’t help. I’m sure that this effect has diminished over the years with improvements in body armor and the like, but it still can’t feel good to be hit by all those pitches.
This would have some contract implications; if you’re looking at Carlos Quentin’s HBPs and thinking about signing him, you might consider them a benefit for this year, and not worry about the injury risk (worry about his myriad other injury risks). If you’re considering him on a long-term deal, on the other hand, you might worry about the long-term effects of the plunkings (among other things).
So that’s my theory, based entirely on anecdotal evidence and some commonsense thinking. I do think this is an area that we don’t know a lot about, and that deserves to be tested (by me, but also by people much more qualified). Those extra 15-30 times on base per year can be awfully valuable to a team; I just don’t think we know quite whether that value outweighs the risks, or even what the risks really are.