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February 5, 2016

Players Prefer Presentation

The Year's Most Literary Hit By Pitch

by Meg Rowley

It seems like a fairly routine at-bat when you look back at the play by play. First pitch: Ball. Second pitch: Hit Batter. It’s an outcome that happened 1,602 times during the 2015 regular season, and a sequence that occurred 84 times. Most instances of hit by pitch are the result of a momentary lapse in control, a slip of the ball, an imprecise targeting of “inside.” Some were brutal in their impact, others no more than a momentary stinger, but more often than not, they were dismissed as a mistake, clearly signaled as such by the pitcher’s body language or post-game interview. Some escalated and led to hand wringing and talk of what boys will do when they are being boys, but mostly hit by pitches are trivialities that fade from our memories like the bruises they leave. In that respect, this hit by pitch is like all the rest; but for particularly cruel placement, the pain from an 83 mph fastball—especially an 83 mph fastball—is relatively easy to bounce back from.

Things weren’t going as planned for Jered Weaver. His June was a disaster. Having lost time to the disabled list with a bum hip, this was just his second bout against the Mariners in 2015. The previous had been a losing affair on Opening Day, during which his fastest pitch was an 86.6 mph cutter, and his nadir a 65 mph curveball Austin Jackson hit for a double.

On September 16th, things weren’t going much better. There he stood in the bottom of the fifth inning, facing a three-run deficit. He’d lucked into two outs, after a mildly embarrassing Jesus Sucre hit (embarrassing in the sense that the batter was Jesus Sucre, and he registered a hit) was wiped away by Ketel Marte hitting a double play ball very hard right at the first baseman. Then Kyle Seager came up to bat.

Weaver threw a ball that Seager declined to swing at. And then? Magic. Seager’s routine might be annoying to batter’s box purists, but it is a predictable sort of annoying. Seager had faced Weaver 34 times prior to this at-bat, and every single one began the same way; Seager would step into the batter’s box, dig in his feet a bit, extend his left arm back to signal for time, scooch down into his stance, dig dig dig, scooch, then pause, prepared to hit. It is a routine seen in every professional at-bat he has taken. But often when facing Weaver, it was the deep breath before a strikeout or a groundout. Seager’s career slash line against Weaver is an unremarkable .235/.297/.353. But maybe it was the relative dearth of plate appearances in 2015 that made the routine unusual. Maybe it was that the Angels were losing when they desperately needed to win. Maybe it was the sharply stroked double Seager hit in the first inning off a 77 mph changeup that broke the camel’s back, part of a mounting frustration resulting in Weaver’s insistence that on this night, despite time lost and runs surrendered, Seager do things on Weaver’s schedule. Maybe.

It felt less like a car wreck and more like fencers locked in a semi-polite battle scripted by the Marx brothers. Seager offered an initial parry as he was granted time late. Weaver offered a jab unheard and unseen by the broadcast camera before Seager’s riposte composed of swears and incredulity. On the ROOT Sports feed, you can clearly see him mouth, “Have you ever seen anything like that?” to the umpire. After the initial exchange, Seager sassily called for time again, jutting his left arm out with the look a surly older sibling gives his younger sibling during a fight he knows he’ll win before declaring, in no uncertain terms, that he was flipping ready. And that’s when the impact of the collision is made manifest, even though these two objects have been heading toward one another at speed for some time. Jered Weaver sent that 83 mph fastball at Seager’s back. He glared as Seager jawed at him on his way to first base, an expression of frustration as inevitable as Weaver’s ejection.

Some of the points of impact are obvious: Weaver’s personality against Seager’s routine; the heat of the moment edging up against this game’s potential importance; the literal strike against Seager’s body. The jokes of the broadcasters land with equal weight: Aaron Goldsmith remarked, “For his sake, it’s a very good thing it’s Jered Weaver and not Garrett Richards on the mound tonight.” All of us were in on the joke, seeing a velocity chart in our mind’s eye without trying. It was a moment of things that might matter a great deal (the Angels were still within striking distance of the playoffs) colliding with those that didn’t matter much at all (the 2015 Mariners).

The interplay between the macro and the micro beats of this game and this season was a bit subtler. This at-bat would prove to be inconsequential. Seager reached base with two outs already banked; Nelson Cruz struck out looking once Mike Morin replaced Weaver. The Mariners failed to capitalize against the Angels bullpen, but wouldn’t need to. The most significant at-bat of the game came two innings earlier, when Jesus Montero sent a 68 mph mistake of a curveball over the left field fence, scoring Seth Smith and Cruz. David Murphy hit a home run off of Hisashi Iwakuma to open the sixth, but the Angels’ bats were largely quieted, unable to muster anything before and only vaguely threaten after. The cumulative effect of their failure went well beyond Weaver’s bout of red-ass. They had the game in front of them until they didn’t and it was just another nine innings recorded and registered.

This at-bat didn’t matter any more than this game did, but we didn’t yet know that. In the moment, it carried with it the knowledge that the Angels were three games back of the second AL wild card, and that their starting pitcher had just elected to be tossed from the game. The Angels missed the postseason by one game, but they lost others down the stretch. This loss determined their fate as much as any other but no more so. Weaver shouldered the blame as much as anyone but his damage was done before the fifth. We danced back and forth between win probability added and final score, not knowing what mattered until we did.

Freed from the concern of injury, this plunking was a case study of when players lean into and away from what we think we know about them. Kyle Seager has a $100 million contract and is the 13th-most valuable position player by WARP since entering full-time duty in 2012, but he isn’t especially well known or appreciated. There is no dominant personality, no controversy. He’s a grit player who actually happens to be very good at baseball, and what flashes of the man underneath Seattle fans have seen have largely been ones of silliness and self-deprecation. He’s understated, painfully aware of how much better the baseball world believes his brother Corey to be. When Weaver remarked the next day that he didn’t “even know who that kid is,” in response to Seager’s chirps about Weaver quitting on his team, he wasn’t wrong. Seager is very good, but outside of Seattle, not noteworthy. But here was a bold assertion of feeling, a flurry of swears and sass, declaring that he was effing ready. He took all we knew, and uncovered something hidden, human, feisty.

Jered Weaver has a bit of a history; mercurial and glaring, the former All-Star’s career is clearly entering its twilight. With this incident, the specter of a 2011 throw at Alex Avila’s lurked. Weaver leaned into the sense some had of him, while Seager uncovered a new well of emotion. It was exhilarating in the moment, a very serious exchange over a very silly perceived violation of procedure, as if parliamentarians were jawing and throwing quills over Robert’s Rules of Order.

This at-bat didn’t mean anything. It won’t be recorded in any baseball tome or spoken of much. Had it occurred between playoff teams, rivals met again in pitched battle, it might serve as evidence of animosity between the two players, something the booth speculated about as a Weaver start approached. As it stands, it’s the sort of moment we idly consider in February, desperate for “real baseball” and keen to revisit quirks and oddities that might distract us in the long countdown to Spring Training. We look to at-bats like this, collisions between the moment and the game, the known and the unknown, the pitcher and the batter, because they are baseball in its more pure. Often silly, fiery, and ridiculous. Dangerous and humorous in turn. Deeply flawed, but deeply baseball.

Meg Rowley is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Meg's other articles. You can contact Meg by clicking here

Related Content:  Seattle Mariners,  Los Angeles Angels

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