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March 21, 2014
Painting the Black
The Predictive Power of the Hit By Pitch
The hit by pitch—or at minimum the threat of one—is supposed to be a tool for pitchers to use against hitters. Not just in the Bob Gibson sense, but in a nuanced understanding that goes something like this: humans can only be so accurate when throwing a projectile over long distances. Accidents happen, regardless of intent, and both sides know it—but only one side faces the projectile on each pitch. As Roger Angell writes in Five Seasons, "Most pitchers seem hesitant to say so, but if you press them a little they will admit that the prime ingredient in their intense personal struggle with the batter is probably fear."
If fear buys the pitcher another inch on his fastball, or causes the batter to bail on his breaking ball, then he becomes more likely to realize success than he would otherwise. Instilling fear is an unhealthy aspiration, but nonetheless passes as legitimate strategy. Most hitters react like normal beings; after all, getting drilled by a firmly thrown ball hurts no matter the location. Yet there are some batters who have turned the hit by pitch into their own weapon against pitchers. These batters fear not getting hit; instead, they embrace it—some even hunt for pitches to throw their limbs toward. These batters are the stupidest smart guys in the game.
Shane Victorino became the most popular bruise-seeker last postseason, when he set a playoff record with nine hit by pitches. Victorino's eagerness to lean into pitches irked the opposition, including Justin Verlander, who aired his grievances. "Anything on the inner half, occasionally he’s looking to get hit," the Detroit mainstay told reporters in October. "He’s up there, he’s right on top of the plate. And his arms are over the batter’s box and over part of the plate. If he doesn’t get out of the way, there could be an occasion that it could be a strike and it actually hits him."
Victorino's exploits have been covered (and defended) plenty since, but he's not the only guilty hitter. Pittsburgh's Starling Marte finished second in the National League last season with 24 hit by pitches, trailing only Shin-Soo Choo. His tendency to wear the baseball buoyed his on-base percentage and made concerns about his approach (mine included) appear misplaced. As Marte begins his second full season in the majors, the question everyone wants to know the answer to is whether the plunkings will sustain at a high enough rate for him to remain a leadoff hitter.
Unlike Choo, who has served as a human dartboard for pitchers over the years, Marte is an unknown quantity. Getting plunked is a repeatable skill, with r-squared values ranging from .31 to .43 in recent season-to-season comparisons. (Batters with 300-plus plate appearances in 2011 and 2012, then 2012 and 2013 were used.) There is randomness involved, too: the median hit by pitch rate over the past three seasons equates to four or five beanings per season. Still, various batters have proven more likely to getting hit than others for various reasons. For instance: some batters crowd the plate, while others are pitched inside at a higher frequency, increasing the odds that a wayward pitch strikes them.
The most obvious piece of the puzzle is the toughest to measure: a batter's intent. Consider two scenarios. In the first, a batter is struck on the back foot by an ill-placed curveball; in the other, a batter leans into a fastball a few inches off the inside corner. If asked which felt more repeatable, most people would choose the latter; in large part because the batter made an effort—he went to the ball, the ball didn't just come to him. It's intuitive and passes the necessary smell tests. Unfortunately, the theory is difficult to verify without massive amounts of video work. (PITCHf/x alone is unable to tell us about the batter's behavior.)
But those large-scale difficulties don't prevent small-scale experimentation—even if an ironclad conclusion is unattainable. As such, four players with varying profiles were selected for comparison purposes: Josh Willingham, a veteran who possesses the HBP gene; Prince Fielder, a vet whose hit by pitch rates vary; Edwin Encarnacion, another player long in the tooth, albeit one who gets drilled on rare occasion; and Marte, of course. Each players' hit by pitches over the past two seasons were viewed on video, and the following variables were logged:
The last one offers subjectivity—what one person calls a wrist might be what another calls a forearm, especially without the benefit of high-res slow-motion replay—but only to a degree. In addition, BP's Nick Wheatley-Schaller was a) kind enough and b) talented enough to include an interactive chart with select hit by pitches from the past two seasons; click on the points on the strike zone plot to play the accompanying video. On to the fun.
The Consistent Veteran (Willingham)
Willingham has consistently placed among the league's most hit batsmen, pushing him to 13th among active batters, and has been struck by 14 pitches in each of the past two seasons. Half of those beanings came on the elbow, with another seven striking him around the arm, wrist, or shoulder. Willingham wears no protective armor, yet shows a keenness for throwing his body, particularly his elbow, into the ball's trajectory without hesitation. They don't call him Hammer for no reason.
The Inconsistent Veteran (Fielder)
Fielder is an odd inclusion since he's a lefty. As Mike Fast explained, "Because of the geometry of pitch trajectories, pitchers hit same-handed batters at about twice the rate that they hit opposite-handed batters." Yet Fielder has been plunked in at least one percent of his plate appearances in each of his big-league seasons, and at least two percent in three of them, including 2012.
Texas's new first baseman saw his overall hit by pitch rate decline from 2012 to 2013, but his elbow percentage increased from 47 percent to 56 percent. Fielder doesn't wear any protective gear, but he's as aggressive as Willingham at throwing his elbow into the pitch. On separate occasions, he noticeably lifted and dropped his elbow into the pitch's plane in order to reach base—or, as T-Pain might say, his elbow goes up, down.
The Reluctant Veteran (Encarnacion)
Watch Encarnacion's reaction to getting hit and his shyness toward the ball makes sense: he seems to have less pain tolerance than the others in this piece. He is, in other words, the most human of the bunch. After each HBP he glares at the pitcher and nurses his bruise en route to first base. Encarnacion was struck four times in 2013, and 11 times in 2012, so the small sample is even smaller for him than the rest. Yet fewer than a quarter of his hit by pitches came to his elbow area; in fact, he was struck on the back knee more often than the elbow.
The Hopeful Youngster (Marte)
Marte's 2014 season should serve as a nice litmus test for the predictive power of the theory. Last season, the Dominican native was struck with pitches 24 times, but hit in the elbow just 21 percent of the time. That rate might set off sirens were it not for the fact that he was pegged in the hand, arm, and shoulder area often enough to account for more than an additional 40 percent of plunkings. Judging Marte's intent is difficult. On the one hand, he didn't wear an elbow or wrist pad for much of the season; on the other, he seemed to bring his arms toward the pitch even when the trajectory would lead to a collision. Plate discipline is not a strength for Marte, so perhaps he misread some of the pitches.
Whether you buy into the theory or not, it's safe to expect Marte's hit by pitch rate to decline. He was pegged in more than four percent of his plate appearances, which was the 21st highest rate since 1980 for a batter who exceeded 300 plate appearances—Choo's career rate, for reference, is about 2.2 percent. Righties are more likely to get hit by pitches than lefties, but that's not enough to bank on Marte repeating—even if he uses his elbow like a second bat.
Special thanks to Nick Wheatley-Schaller for making the piece cool.