August 12, 2014
Notes About Baseball
Hit By Pitches: On Accidents, Revenge, and Headshots
In The Room
87 foot pounds is enough to break most bones in the human body, and it's plenty enough to kill a man if the placement is right. Unfortunately, I can speak from experience here.
So it would seem being hit by a major-league fastball is unpleasant and something to be avoided. But I wanted to find out how unpleasant.
We'll begin with Tommy Medica of the Padres, owner of 41 professional HBPs.
"There was a guy for Inland Empire (High-A Angels affiliate)—I don't remember his name—but he was in the high 90s. 6-foot-7. Big guy. He had to get me three or four times. Most of the time in the arms, but I got one in the ribs. That was probably the most painful.
"I've never been hit in the head, which is a blessing. Knock on wood. Hopefully that doesn't happen tonight after saying that." Tommy and I had a nice laugh about his reflexive jinx avoidance. Silly ballplayers and their superstitions. That was Friday evening.
I don't understand how it works, or what forces are at play, but please—respect the jinx, people. It is omnipresent. It is not concerned with our fancy numbers or our logical world. Our firearms are useless against it.
We'll try to move on now, refocusing on the worst HBP Tommy had seen in person, 24 hours before receiving his own headshot.
"Actually, I saw (Jeff) Francoeur get drilled by... hey what was that guy's name? Frenchy--what was that guy's name with the Mets, that closer? That hit you in the head?"
"No, the Dodgers. Dominguez," Francoeur offered. He threw a shirt on and joined our chat. "Chris Dominguez, Albuquerque Isotopes. He hit me with 99 in the head," said Francouer with his big, goofy smile.
“Ninety-nine to the head," confirmed Medica, with 75 percent of the tempo and cadence made famous here.
Flush or glancing?
"Flush," said Francoeur. "I got a hard head. Got up, shook it off." Another large helping of the trademark Francoeur smile.
"It came off the helmet," remembered Medica, "I think it almost went into the outfield. He stayed in the game, which is unbelievable."
At this point, Francoeur thanked me for the shout-out and went on his merry way. But I later confirmed with Medica that "Frenchy" had indeed avoided a concussion.
"Yeah, we were wearing those big, ridiculous helmets. That was in Triple-A earlier this year. In the minors they have those bigger helmets, double flap. It's supposed to protect against a concussion a little better. He (Francoeur) played the rest of the game. They ran the tests on him and took him to the hospital that night, and he cleared everything. So the (oversized) helmet worked in that situation.
"Still, though. Ninety-nine to the head, square. That was the worst one I've seen."
Travis Snider also took one to the head, when he was still in the Blue Jays’ system.
"In Triple-A, 2011 or '12, I was hit in the brim of my helmet, where the brim hits the earflap, and wasn't really shaken at the time," said Snider, who's been hit just 18 times professionally. "Didn't really square me up, just kind of grazed the side of my helmet. I went to first, the trainer came out; I sent him back—you know, the competitive juices are flowing. A couple innings later after (having) no symptoms running the bases, I was playing center field and the stadium started to close in on me. Next thing I know I'm in the training room and I couldn't remember the month of September.
"It was really a different experience from the more mild football concussions. For about five to seven days, I was kinda of feeling like I was half-awake. Yeah, it was crazy."
So we've established that getting hit in the head is a worst-case scenario, and we knew that coming in. Another common sense tidbit we can confirm: To a man, the players agreed that getting plunked in a padded area—the butt, the back, upper legs, upper arms—is ideal, and any kind of contact with a bone should be avoided at all costs.
But there's another angle to cover here, and it's from the men doing the throwing.
Marlins reliever Bryan Morris has hit 18 opponents with thrown baseballs in his eight-year baseballing career.
"I'll never apologize for hitting a guy because, you know what, as a pitcher, I put my life on the line every time I get out there," Morris said. "The balls come off the bat a lot faster than they do then when I'm throwing. It's part of the game.
"As a pitcher, you gotta be able to pitch on the inner half of the plate, or guys are gonna be all over your pitches on the outside of the plate. Obviously you're not trying to hit anybody or hurt anybody when you do that."
If there's a pitcher out there who disagrees with Morris' sentiment, I couldn't find him. In my wildly undersized sample of eight, the responses from hurlers were basically identical to Morris'. Unless they really injure a guy, pitchers said they felt zero remorse for accidentally drilling an opposing batter with a baseball.
But what about when a HBP is intentional? Intent might change that dynamic. After all, it isn't always the pitcher's idea to order a Code Red. As for getting someone to go on record about intentionally beaning a guy... easier said than done. Beanballs are against the rules, after all.
Rule 8.02 (d):
"Intentionally Pitch at the Batter.
If, in the umpire’s judgment, such a violation occurs, the umpire may elect either to:
1. Expel the pitcher, or the manager and the pitcher, from the game, or
2. may warn the pitcher and the manager of both teams that another such pitch
will result in the immediate expulsion of that pitcher (or a replacement) and
The consequences for breaking 8.02 (d) can include fines and/or suspensions, but usually only if an escalation of unpleasantries results from said beanball.
So yeah. After whiffing on my first several attempts to get a guy to talk openly about intentionally plunking someone, I wasn't sure it was going to happen. Luckily for me, I came across Marlins' starter Tom Koehler.
I first asked him where the order comes from when a guy is targeted.
"It's all different situations. Sometimes it comes from the manager. Sometimes it comes from the catcher. Sometimes you just want to do it yourself," said Koehler, who's hit 54 batters as a pro.
So what's the protocol there, when deliberately throwing at a guy?
"It's a very tough thing to do, because we spend the majority of our time working on throwing strikes, working the corners and down, and then you get asked to do something that... all the sudden you have to try to hit somebody. It's a totally different place—waaaay inside—so you just try to keep it as low as you can, from the ribs to the thigh. You never want to go too high, because you can really hurt somebody."
While Tom didn't speak directly to feeling remorse when it comes to weaponizing a baseball, he was clear that the goal is never to injure, but to send a message... which implies the avoidance of remorse. So I think it's safe to assume the converse—if a player would be injured by an Intentional Pitch at the Batter, the emotional equation would change; most non-psychopaths would, in fact, feel bad about it.
One of the more notable recent cases of an intentional beaning was tendered by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Randall Delgado fired a 95 mph fastball at Andrew McCutchen, delivering 87 ft/lbs of kinetic energy into the reigning NL MVP's spine. If you'd like some proof on the intent on that pitch, have a go.
I checked in with Pirates' All-Star OF/IF Josh Harrison on that front, not so much to ask about the McCutchen injury, but to see how a batter approaches an at-bat when he has a good idea he's gonna wear one. That would seem to be a unique situation.
My specific question: How does one prepare oneself?
"There's not really much you can do. You kind of get a feel from that first pitch; either they hit you or they miss, and you're like, 'alright, they're trying here', so you kind of brace yourself. It's like, 'I wanna be ready to hit but there's always that chance they're gonna retaliate.’ You don't approach (the at-bat) cautiously, but you're a little more aware, because if a ball comes up and in, you want to be ready to get out the way."
I asked Harrison, who's worn 44 pitches in his career, about potential tactics to defend against major injury when it's clear he's going to be hit.
"It's not even a matter of flexing; I guess just mentally you say, 'I'm gonna wear one here.’ I mean yeah, you're gonna tense up a little bit, but if they throw it in the right spot, you're not going to be able to avoid it. You just brace for it."
Let me get this out of the way—Jose Altuve is a fine player whose game deserves a giant-sized helping of respect. He's currently the 20th most valuable player in baseball by bWAR, 43rd by BWARP and 33rd by fWAR.
But as the shortest player in MLB, he was bound to pop up here in Outliers eventually, and may, in fact, be our (adorable) mascot. So in honor of his diminutive stature, I feel we should first attack the low-hanging fruit (because he could pick it). To wit—
Now that we've established that Jose Altuve is short, let's have a look at what 'El Pequeno Gigante' has done with those 65 inches.
The two-time All-Star leads the league in hits (160), singles (121), stolen bases (46) and batting average (.335). Altuve's 11.4 at-bats/K make him the second-most difficult man to strike out this season, and he's somehow slugging .437, which might not sound like a lot, but given the physics involved, it's a really impressive number for anyone whose levers and potential for torque is so low.
He was actually slugging .451 about two weeks ago. With a nice end to the season he could end up in that .450 range, which would place him right around the 50th highest SLG in baseball. For context, some players with a ~ .450 SLG right now are Aramis Ramirez (.456), Mike Napoli (.447), Chase Utley (.442) and Pablo Sandoval (.438).
Altuve, 24, ranks fifth among all second baseman in BWARP (3.1), and he's the youngest second baseman in baseball among qualifiers (min. 360 PA). He's also signed to an extremely club-friendly contract, which should keep him in Houston through 2019, at least.
Last but not least, Altuve is an official unit of measurement, as you may or may not have heard. I'm pretty sure we can't say that about any other player in baseball... or any sport, really... so yeah, I'd say his status as an Outlier is pretty secure.