An accepted piece of baseball wisdom that I understood growing up is that a pitcher is less likely to go headhunting if he has to step into the box himself. As J.C. Bradbury and Douglas J. Drinen wrote in the 2007 article “Crime and punishment in Major League Baseball: the case of the designated hitter and hit batters,”

The DH succeeded in turning the AL into the "power league" as intended, but an unintended consequence of the rule change is that the AL now has more batters hit by pitches than the NL. Traditional baseball lore holds that the lack of retaliatory punishment in the AL for hitting batters is the cause of this phenomenon. Veteran NL manager Dusty Baker describes the deterrent impact from a pitcher's point of view, "You can be bold in (the American) League and get away with [hitting batters]. It's different in our league where you have to hit." Pitchers who do not have to bat (where they might face retaliation) are more willing to risk hitting batters than pitchers who do bat.

Bradbury and Drinen say that “the deterrent effect of requiring pitchers to bat explains 60%-80% of the difference in hit batsmen between leagues.”

If this is true, then the ramifications would go beyond a few intentional beanings each year. We would expect the American League pitchers to feel more comfortable pitching inside; we would essentially allow that American League pitchers have an advantage over National League pitchers. I’m not interested in denying that it’s true. I’ll assume for today that the conclusions of Crime and Punishment are accurate, and that pitchers really do fear direct retribution for hitting batters. The simpler question I’m interested in is whether they should.

There were 12 pitchers hit by pitches last year. Among the many things pitchers do poorly on offense, reaching first base via HBP is one. Pitchers were plunked with about one fourth the frequency of position players. This makes sense: the opposing pitcher has, in normal circumstances, much more incentive to avoid hitting a pitcher with a pitch, because that pitcher is essentially an automatic out. (In a zero-sum game, the batting pitcher would have an equally strong incentive to take the free base and stick his elbow out farther, but, of course, getting hit by a pitch hurts and can injure, and pitchers generally choose safety over strategy on the offensive side, so we wouldn’t expect pitchers to try to get hit by pitches.) Furthermore, pitchers are lousy enough at hitting that the man on the mound likely need not get fancy, work on the inside of the plate, throw many breaking balls, etc. So 12. Small number.

If pitcher-on-pitcher retribution were a thing, we would expect these 12 pitchers to have done some misdeeds in the recent future to earn the bruise. These are the 12, and their recent history of hitting, or not hitting, their opponents:

Wade LeBlanc: Had not hit a batter that game.
Tim Hudson: Had hit a batter that game.  
Kip Wells: Had not hit a batter that game.
Sam Lecure (reliever): Had not hit a batter that game
Jason Marquis: Had not hit a batter that game.
Josh Roenicke (reliever): Had not hit a batter that game.
Mat Latos: Had not hit a batter that game.
Ryan Vogelsong: Had not hit a batter that game.
R.A. Dickey: Had not hit a batter that game.
Stephen Strasburg: Had not hit a batter that game.
Cole Hamels: Had hit a batter that game.
Joe Blanton: Had not hit a batter that game.

(I also went back and looked at every pitcher’s most recent performance against each team, within the previous two seasons. None had hit a batter in that previous game.)

On average, a batter in Major League Baseball is hit every 29 or 30 innings. But these 12 pitchers had thrown 32 innings in these games before being hit, and they had hit two batters. That’s double the norm! Wow oh wow what a finding!

But not really, because “double” just means one extra hit-by-pitch. And if we go back a year earlier, when there were 11 pitchers hit by pitches, we find that none of those 11 pitchers had hit a batter earlier in the game, in a total of 45 innings thrown. (Nor had any hit a batter in the most recent start against the same opponent.) In 2009 and 2010, a total of 40 pitchers (not counting Aaron Miles in a blowout) were hit by pitches. They had thrown 125 innings in those starts and hit three batters before their own HBPs.

So, over the past four years, starters who were hit by pitches had thrown a cumulative 200 innings and hit five batters before their own HBPs, or a bit less than pitchers always hit. And yet, if this suggests that there’s no direct retaliation going on, the facts on the ground suggest otherwise.

Here are the two pitchers hit by pitches in 2012 after hitting an opponent in the same game. First, Tim Hudson:

It’s at his ribs, it’s a fastball, it’s the first pitch of the at-bat. That would be suggestive, except that a) it wasn’t his first at-bat after hitting Astro Brett Wallace, and b) the pitch he hit Wallace with was a barely-inside cutter. Wallace stuck his leg out to allow himself to get hit. Hudson routinely finishes among the league-leaders in HBPs, but unless the Astros were responding to this reputation, there was no reason to retaliate.

Next, Cole Hamels:

There’s virtually no doubt that this was intentional. It was the first pitch of Hamels’ first at-bat after hitting Bryce Harper, an intentional beaning that he later publicly took credit for. Both benches were warned, announcers declared the score settled, etc.

Of the three other pitchers since 2009 who were hit after hitting an opponent, two might reasonably be seen as retribution. Famous headhunter Vicente Padilla was hit on the first pitch of his first at-bat after hitting Robinson Cano. Mike Leake was hit in his first at-bat after hitting Andrew McCutchen—though, curiously, the first pitch of the at-bat was well outside. Kyle Lohse was hit after hitting Jose Guillen, but it wasn’t in the following at-bat and it was on an 0-1 count.

That’s not to say that retaliation wasn’t a factor in some of the other cases. It’s possible that there was retaliation for a pitch up and in that didn’t hit a batter, or for a spring training HBP. That’s also not to say that other pitchers didn’t get dusted after beaning an opponent. But, limiting this to retaliation for hit batsmen, we find two, maybe three cases in a four-year period. Against those two, maybe three cases, there were more than 6,000 pitchers who hit an opponent and totally got away with it.

There is strong evidence that pitchers really are less likely to hit a batter if they must bat themselves. Interleague play, for example, gives us a great opportunity to see how behavior changes with one rule change. Over the past 10 years, NL pitchers and AL pitchers have hit more batters when they don't have to bat: one HBP every 5.0 games in AL parks, and one every 6.1 games in NL parks. Some of that difference can be attributed to the fact that designated hitters are more likely to draw a HBP than pitchers, but by my math only about a quarter of the difference.

If pitchers are truly hitting fewer batters because they’re scared of getting hit themselves, they should probably stop that. It’s incredibly unlikely.

Thank you for reading

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Hey Sam,

Are you considering following up this Freakonomics of Pitcher Plunking with a re-evaluation of the conclusions of the original study you cited by Bradbury and Drinen?

There's so much more reliable and fine-grained PBP data now than they had available in 2007. It would be interesting to consider both their data set, an alternative data set for the same period if such exists, and then see what the results show from the half decade since their study.

I cannot recall when the two-bench warning rule came into effect regarding HBP, but any study of the strategies of retaliation must incorporate this basic change of the rules of the game of Cur-Plunk.

Anyway, a very enjoyable short piece. I hope you follow up on this work again soon.