The HBP Explosion (That Almost Nobody Seems to Have Noticed)by Steve Treder
January 30, 2007
It is a violent event. It's inherently dangerous: Always it causes pain, often it causes injury and sometimes it causes serious, career-threatening injury. It remains the only play ever to have taken the life of a major league player, and it's killed numerous minor leaguers.
Anyone who has ever stepped into a batter's box against a hardball pitcher, at any level from Little League on up, knows deeply—foundationally, in the pit of the stomach—just how terrifying the prospect of being drilled by a pitch truly is. One basic element of becoming and remaining an effective hitter, at every level, is the exquisitely difficult skill of overcoming, or at least temporarily suppressing, the real, powerful, instinctive and rational fear of the pitched ball. I'll never forget one of my coaches shouting the tired old encouragement at us bailing-and-ducking young batters: "Hang tough! That ball can't hurt you!" What nonsense! That ball can and will hurt you, very reliably and quite cruelly.
Even at the major league level, not just the HBP itself but the mere close call or threat of the HBP is integral to nearly every bad-blood brawl between clubs. The HBP is a white-hot, intensely fearful issue, even among the sport's most elite echelon. The HBP's ominous, menacing presence shadows every delivery within every at-bat, inescapably at the very heart of the eternal battle between hurler and hitter.
Given the centrality of this play at the sport's core, one might expect that its frequency would be monitored closely by media and fans alike. That expectation is not met by reality: HBP rate stats are extremely hard to come by, and almost totally ignored, not just by casual fans and the mainstream media, but even by serious analysts. (One exception to the latter: Our friend and THT alumnus Dan Fox wrote an excellent series of articles on the subject for Baseball Prospectus in May of 2006.)
Thus today's situation is fascinating in several regards. The incidence of hit batsmen in major league baseball has dramatically increased in the past couple of decades; a significant transformation has taken place in the very nature of the game. Yet this transformation has caught little notice, engaging neither broad contemplation nor comprehensive understanding.
What's the term to describe a shape such as this? A parabola, perhaps? A glacial valley? A good old-fashioned "U"? Whatever term we use, the dynamic is clear and startling.
Through the early decades of the 20th century, the incidence of batters being struck by pitched balls steadily declined, in both the American and National Leagues. As the sport developed from its rough-and-tumble origins to its slick and professional maturity, the pitchers' control improved, and the batters' tactic of semi-intentionally taking the HBP as a means of getting on base faded. By the 1930s, the typical team had a hit batsman little more than once every 10 games.
In subsequent decades, the rate waxed and waned, but never in either league reached the levels of the 1900s and 1910s. Until the 1990s, that is, when, in both leagues, the occurrence of batters being pelted with pitches suddenly returned to the dead-ball era norm. But not for long; swiftly the rate soared past that, and in the past few seasons we've witnessed pitched balls smacking flesh at a frequency not known in more than 100 years.
Since we see that the dynamic of hit batsmen isn't a function of the American or National League per se—the league rates have fluttered around one another, but clearly are functions of deeper factors—we'll just focus on the combined MLB rate. And we'll focus only on what's happened since HBP rates stabilized.
After reaching historic lows in the 1930s and '40s, the incidence of HBPs slightly increased over the 1950s and '60s. The explanation for this may be found, ironically, in an innovation expressly designed to improve the safety of batters: the batting helmet.
Beanings, of course, had been a sad element of the game since its earliest years. The most notorious incident was the Ray Chapman fatality of 1920. In 1937, Hall of Fame-bound Mickey Cochrane's playing career was suddenly terminated, and his life endangered, by a pitch that fractured his skull. Finally, it was the 1941 beaning of superstar Joe Medwick, a trauma widely believed to have significantly contributed to his premature decline as a hitter, that galvanized action to develop and widely implement the use of protective headgear for batters. The always-influential Branch Rickey became a prominent leader in the campaign for batting helmets.
Odd as it may seem today, helmets weren't immediately embraced. Indeed they were actively resisted in many quarters; some said that wearing a helmet might inhibit a batter's vision and alertness. More generally, using helmets was derided as a "sissy" tactic, much as fielding gloves and catchers' protective gear had been in prior eras.
Thus the batting helmet's voluntary adoption was spotty. It wasn't mandated by either league until 1956, and even then existing major leaguers were "grandfathered," allowed to eschew the helmet at their discretion, and many players in the 1950s and 1960s (for example, Willie Mays until 1962) wore only a lightweight plastic lining inside their cloth cap while batting. But resistance gradually gave way to prudence and common sense. By the early 1960s, the batting helmet was the norm, and by the late 1960s it was universally employed.
We may see an unintended consequence of the batting helmet illustrated in the graph above. As more and more helmeted batters dug in, they may have done so with newfound confidence, crowding the plate more than in the past. The steadily increasing use of helmets across the 1950s and '60s may explain the slow-but-steady growth in HBP rate. (An alternative explanation, that the black hitters being integrated into the game in this era attracted disproportionate HBPs, is simply not supported by the data.)
By the late 1960s, the slow-but-steady growth stalled, and across the 1970s and into the 1980s the HBP rate slowly but steadily declined again. How might we explain this? Once again it's pure conjecture, but it might be that the same larger forces that had driven down the rate into the 1930s were coming to the fore again, as the now-universal use of helmets had stabilized. As pitching quality improved, the ability of pitchers to avoid the error of plunking hitters increased.
Whatever was happening, in the mid- to late-1980s the dynamic suddenly and profoundly shifted.
Let's take a closer look, focusing strictly on the past 20 seasons.
In 1988 the HBP rate went up a bit, and in 1989 it went back down. But in 1990 it rose again, and would rise further, every season through 1998. After finally plateauing in 1999-2000, the rate dramatically spiked again in 2001, reaching a level more than double that of just a dozen years before. The rate has since leveled off (at least temporarily), remaining in a territory never approached in the previous century's worth of baseball.
We found it plausible to explain the steady decline in HBP rates that characterized the 1900-1935 and 1970-1985 periods as a function of steadily improving skill among pitchers. Does it therefore follow that the rapid boom in HBP rates since the late 1980s indicates suddenly declining skill in the average major league pitcher? No doubt, people who say "expansion has watered down pitching staffs" would offer that argument. But I've never found it compelling in many regards, and in this case it clearly doesn't fit the shape of the change. The expansions of 1969 and 1977 didn't correspond with HBP rate increases, and the modern HBP boom gained momentum before the 1993 expansion. So it must be something else, something that overrides the historical trend toward ever-more-competent pitchers.
The Banishment of the Brushback
Younger fans in every era have no doubt rolled their eyes when some old geezer launches into a tedious lecture on how different the game used to be, when life was tough and men were men, blah blah blah. While everyone is always well-advised to be skeptical of self-serving blather, it doesn't follow that the geezer never has the facts on his side. And that particular familiar rant: when Drysdale or Gibson would routinely serenade Mays or Aaron with chin music, those batters didn't whine to the ump or charge the mound or wet their panties the way these modern prima donnas do, no sir, they just brushed themselves off and dug in again, by golly—well, tiresome as the old coot may be, it's clear that this time he's revealing a profound truth.
It was in the 1980s, after all, that modern-day MLB policies dealing with brushback pitches—involving escalating umpire warnings, ejections, fines and suspensions—first came onto the scene, enacted in stages that fully assumed the current status in 1994. Before then (hey, stop rollin' them eyes there, young fella!), umpires weren't expected to police brushback pitching, and except in extreme circumstances, they didn't. Before then, teams truly were, for the most part, allowed to deal with perceived violations of the unwritten code of appropriate-versus-out-of-line brushback pitching on their own terms.
This hardly made for a perfect world. A pitch intentionally hitting a batter is an ugly act, and while there's a real distinction between a true brushback pitch and a pitch "with intent," it's obviously a very fine line, and not one that every pitcher always has the control, and the temper, to master. And the full-on brawls between teams that would sometimes arise as they dealt with the issue "on their own terms" were often quite ugly as well. It was and is right and sensible for MLB to avoid having its sport degenerate into a cycle of assaults and melees.
And so the zero-brushback-tolerance protocol we know today came into effect. There is strong argument in its favor, that the game is better and healthier for it. And yet, as we clearly see in the graphs above, The Law of Unintended Consequences remains mischievously in effect: Under the protocol specifically intended to prevent batters from being struck by pitches, they're in fact being struck about twice as frequently as before.
Armor and Posture
A related factor, to be sure, has been the increasing deployment of so-called "body armor" through this period, allowing batters who receive specific league approval (based on current or recurrent injuries) to wear shin and/or elbow guards to the plate. Craig Biggio, perhaps the most obvious armor practioner, has been plunked 282 times in his career, poising him in 2007 to surpass 19th-century star Hughie Jennings for the all-time record. But no one of conscience would suggest it to be proper for MLB to disallow the use of batting helmets, and it's problematic to find clear distinction between the validity of protective gear for the head versus that for other vulnerable body parts.
While the increasing use of body armor is obviously relevant, it would seem that by far the more causative factor in the exploding HBP rate is the plate posture of the typical modern batter, whether wearing armor or not.
Since the 1980s, umpires, presumably discreetly directed by MLB to do so, seem to have torn from the rule book the page that describes how close to the plate the batter may legally assume his stance. Coupled with hitters' unprecedented knowledge that any pitch more than a shade inside will generate a warning from the ump that the next inside delivery will send the pitcher to the showers, the result is a hegemony that earlier hitters could only dream about.
"Crowd" the plate? Many modern batters, with or without an elbow guard, set up permanent residence on the inner half.
Thus the modern pitcher, though more skilled than ever before, and despite facing far stronger sanction than ever before against attempting to brush hitters back, finds himself unable to avoid hitting batters at a rate not seen since the sport's primitive antiquity.
If watching pitches carom off human bodies (armor-plated or not) is your cup of tea, then baseball has never been better. But it would seem true to the better nature of the sport that it's at its best when the HBP is a rarity, not a near-daily feature. Nor, of course, is there any guarantee that today's rate has stabilized; the upward trajectory of the past 15 or so years may continue over the next 15 unless something is done to address it.
Moreover, the dynamic that's produced the modern-day HBP explosion yields HBPs per se as a secondary element. Greater impact comes from the modern batter's aggressive approach, leaning over and "diving" across the plate. Hitters have never been less inhibited, pitchers never more handcuffed.
The factors that have contributed to the home run-laden offensive boom of the 1990s/2000s are many; it's never been as simplistic as the "juiced ball" or "steroid era" theories, or any other one-note-tune, would have it. But amid the jumble of compounding factors, the consequences of disallowing inside pitching must be understood as highly significant. Today's brawny, power-centric, high-scoring mode is by no means necessarily the most optimally balanced and interesting possibility this intricate sport has to offer.
In his New Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James proposed a series of six rule changes to make the modern game a more brisk and well-rounded entertainment. I don't fully agree with all six, but here's one that I heartily endorse:
I would like to see the batter's box moved back from home plate, eventually, by about four inches. Again, this could be phased in over a period of years to ensure that no one's career would be thrown into a tailspin; you could move the batter's box back one inch every four years until it is back four inches.
Again, this would be an invisible change to the fan, even to the hitter; you'd have to be Ted Williams to notice that the batter's box had moved an inch. Most hitters don't stand in the front four inches of the box, and even hitters who do like to crowd the plate sometimes step back a few inches. The effect on any one hitter would be almost inconsequential.
But if you move the hitter off a few inches, you make it a lot harder to hit the outside pitch into the seats. You make it a little bit harder to pull the fastball in the middle of the plate. The result would be fewer home runs, a great many fewer hit batsmen, and thus we would, once again, be encouraging hitters to make contact and run, rather than swing for the seats and walk. We would also reduce injuries, since broken hands and fingers sometimes result from being hit with the pitch.
James made that proposal at the beginning of this decade, before the HBP spike of 2001. Nothing since has happened to make the observation anything other than keenly perceptive, nor the suggested adjustment anything other than sensible and positive.
References and Resources
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, by Bill James, New York: The Free Press, 2001, page 323.
Steve Treder can often be found spending way too much time talking baseball at Baseball Primer. He welcomes your questions and comments via e-mail.