The top 10 career hit batters: The method to the madnessby Steven Booth
August 18, 2011
With the recent Albert Pujols/Ryan Braun/Tony La Russa brouhaha over a couple of plunkings, it is perhaps time to shed light on the ol’ HBP. While that was pretty much about differing interpretations of “the code” along with La Russa’s understandable hysteria about an injury near-miss on his star player, this is more about the scrappers who willingly “take one for the team” with varying degrees of blatancy.
A look at the historical top 10 of players hit by pitches provides a rather colorful cast of characters. There is Hughie Jennings, the turn-of-the century (1800s/1900s) king of the hit-by-pitch, plus there are a few of his contemporaries on the list who didn’t necessarily shy away from inside pitches.
There also are a couple of modern scrappers on the list, including the active leader, Jason Kendall, and soon-to-be Hall of Fame candidate, Craig Biggio. Sprinkle in a few classic power hitters like Frank Robinson and Don Baylor with slightly old-school dirty uniform-types like Ron Hunt, and you pretty much have the list.
When you check their motives, you get a lot of similar reactions, but also some unique anecdotes. In some ways, this group of guys has much in common, but is also very different. When we take a look at each of these guys, we shall see what brings this bizarre brotherhood together and sets them apart.
10. Jake Beckley, 183 HBP
Hall of Famer Beckley played from 1888 to 1907 and in those seasons stole 315 bases and hit for a marvelous line of .308/.361/.436/.797. He didn’t hit a lot of homers, but could be counted on to hit 20-30 doubles and double figure triples in his best years. For a guy who averaged only about eight HR a year, he managed over 80 RBIs eleven times.
Unlike some of the characters in this story, Beckley’s huge HBP numbers were probably almost as much as a reflection of his long career as it was his proclivity for getting plunked. It may also be a reflection of the era where baseball, on the surface at least, was a more of a rough-and-tumble barroom brawl of a game than the comparatively quaint one today.
Four guys in the top 10 list of HBP were players in the turn-of-the-20th-century era, and seven are in the top 20. Some of that aggressiveness has returned in the last twenty years, where the careers of eight of the top 20 recipients reside. To compare eras, in 1896, when all four top-10 turn-of-the century guys were playing, 636 players got plunked in a 132-game season, amounting to five per day, averaging 53 per team over the season.
The aggression continued through the 1920s. In 1922, there were 598 HB among 12 teams playing 154 games, averaging just fewer than four per day, about 36 per team.
From the 1920s through the 1940s, the game became more genteel, perhaps a result of its increasing professionalism and stability. Teams only averaged a little over 20 HBPs per year over those decades.
Things did get more aggressive in the 1950s. In 1956, the sixteen teams averaged thirty HBP per team, while in 1965 the twenty teams managed 34 per team in a slightly longer 162-game season. The 1970s and the 1980s kept the averages in the low 30s.
The 1990s saw pitchers and batters become more aggressive once again. In 1996, teams averaged 40 HBP per team. The slightly more aggressive stance continues until today. In 2010, teams averaged over 51 HBP per team.
While it is not perhaps up to the level of the rough-and-tumble turn-of-the-20th-century teams, the number of hit batters is increasing. You can call it more aggressive pitching, thinner pitching talent due to expansion, strategic decisionmaking by batters and coaches or more hitters willing to get plunked, but over the years, the numbers are coming back up.
9. Minnie Minoso, 192 HBP
Modern baseball fans most likely remember Minoso as the old Cuban guy whom once every decade since the 1970s would make a cameo appearance with a professional team in hopes of setting the record for most decades playing professional baseball. What many don’t remember is that he was quite a player in his day, hitting for power and speed and also helping to break the color barrier. He also was the first black player to play for the White Sox.
He played in the All Star Game seven times, led the league in triples three times, stolen bases three times and had four 20-plus homer seasons, along with four seasons each where he drove in more than 100 runs and scored over 100 runs. Perhaps his best all-around year was 1956, when he had 21 HR, 88 RBI, 18 SB and hit .316/.425/.525/.950.
Minoso would do whatever it took to win, including crowding the plate to get plunked. He led the AL 10 times in getting hit by pitches, with his high being 23 in 1956. While more aggressive than some eras, the 1950s were a relatively slow period for the hit batter, so his high of 23 pales in comparison to the all-time season high of 51 set by Hughie Jennings in 1896, but beats by quite a bit the other leaders of his era.
Solly Hemus led the league in HBP with 20 in 1952, while Nellie Fox won with only 17 in 1955. In comparison to modern players, Chase Utley led the league in HBP in 2007-09, getting hit 25, 27 and 24 times respectively. Biggio led in 1996 with 34 HBP, and Jason Kendall led in 1998 with 31.
The pitchers in Minoso’s time were hitting batters a lot less, so Minoso’s numbers perhaps reflect a very aggressive guy at the plate. He also led the league in caught stealing, which may reflect his aggressiveness and/or lack of base stealing skills.
His speed, combined with his large amounts of extra base hits, may reflect a fine power/speed combination, but aggressiveness surely had something to do with it. Minoso was certainly a very aggressive guy both trying to get on base and trying to advance once he did.
8. Frank Robinson, 198 HBP
For many of the players on this list, the amount of HBPs is one of the top two or things these players will be remembered for. You only need to look to Biggio’s arm guard in Cooperstown to understand this.
Robinson, needless to say, is not in that category, but he is the ringleader of a certain school of thought regarding the HBP. You have the two-fisted brawlers of the turn of the 20th century like Beckley and Jennings, and you also have the “plate crowders,” of which Robinson is a member, along perhaps with Minoso and Don Baylor.
Most of the ten guys on this list probably belong on the “plate crowder” list, because the HBP is often a result of a game of chicken pitchers and hitters play. A hitter seeks to own the plate, while a pitcher will pitch inside to drive him off. Robinson, while perhaps not blatantly looking to get hit, was the king of the guys who would not be driven back by an inside pitch.
Like we said, Robinson probably didn’t lose too much sleep about making this list. In 21 seasons, he hit 586 HR—all without chemical enhaccement. He hit at a clip of .294/.389/.537/.926, and was certainly not one-dimensional, averaging 28 doubles per season. He had four years where his OPS was over 1.000, and could be counted on, until his later years, to hit .300.
His best year was 1966 with the Orioles, where he scored 122 runs, had 49 HRs and 122 RBI, and hit .316/.410/.637/1.047, all league-leading stats. He was a shoo-in for the MVP that year.
One of his tools was the HBP, and he celebrated how much he liked crowding the plate. He led the league seven times, getting hit 20 times in 1956 (a race with Minoso?), and 18 times in 1966. Even late in his career, he would still rack up double figures in HBP. His batting average declined later in his career, but his OBP remained high, along with his power numbers, and the HBP was prominent in his bag of tricks.
Asked by an announcer what his solution to getting knocked down and hit so much was, he answered simply, "Just stand up and lambast the next pitch," which he often did. One can say that he makes this list due to his longetivity, which may be true, but you can also say, with his aggressive hitting stance, he would‘ve racked up more HBPs in more aggressive eras.
7. Dan McGann, 230 HBP
McGann played during the turn of the twentieth century, where plunking batters was a more accepted part of the game, and there wasn’t an army of umpires, commissioners and “special assistants” to throw out warnings and suspensions every time someone got hit.
While not a Hall of Famer, McGann had a very solid career and played on some memorable teams. In his twelve-year career—virtually all as a regular—he had a .284/.364/.381/.745 average. While not known as a great slugger, he would get near to double figures in triples most years, hitting 15 in 1902, 14 in 1905 and 12 in 1899.
McGann also averaged 22 stolen bases per year. One year, he got over 100 RBIs despite hitting only eight homers and also led the league in sacrifices in 1903 with 30. He was also a solid fielder, regularly finishing near the top of the list every season on Range Factor and Fielding Percentage.
He was a valued member of the supporting cast of many great teams. McGann played one year (1898) with the Orioles on a team that featured hall-of-famers Wilbert Robinson, John McGraw, Jennings and Willie Keeler. He also played six seasons and was team captain on the Giants teams coached by John McGraw and featuring Christy Mathewson. They finished in first place twice and won a World Series.
McGann comes off as a guy who knew his role on his great teams, an unselfish scrapper who would do whatever it took to compete and win. He led the league six times in HBP, getting hit 37 times in 1899, playing part of the year as a teammate to the king of the HBP, Jennings. He was hit 24 times and 23 times 1902, also leading the league in both instances.
6. Ron Hunt, 243 HBP
Hunt was a guy who also had a decent twelve-year career as a major leaguer, making two All-Star teams, hitting .273/.368/.347/.715. He didn’t have a lot of power or speed, but as his OBP suggests, he did get on base. His batting average was unremarkable yet strong and he would get his share of walks and HBP, to make him a valued player. He helped re-introduce the HBP as a valid strategy for getting on base.
Hunt’s motto was, “Some people give their bodies to science; I give mine to baseball.” He thought it ironic that he started getting plunked mainly when he was a member of the Giants. "Why would you hit me to face Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Jim Ray Hart?" he said to Baseball Digest in 2000.
Hunt always insisted he never deliberately got hit by a pitch, but simply stood his ground at the plate, leaning into the pitch. Some disagreed. He had some notable run-ins with Leo Durocher and Milt Pappas, and Sparky Anderson also accused him of never trying to get out of the way of pitches.
Either way, Hunt led the league in HBP each year from 1968 to 1974. His 50 HBP in 1971 is the modern record (only one behind Hughie Jennings). He also has a record for being hit three times in an April 29, 1969 game against the Cinnicinatti Reds. When he retired in 1974, he held the modern record for HBP, which would eventually be broken by Baylor and Biggio, whom he certainly inspired.
5. Jason Kendall, 254 HBP
Jason Kendall is the current active leader in career HBP, but “active” may be a technicality. He is 35, his stats have been in decline, plus he has been out all year with shoulder problems. If his career is done, he has indeed had a good one.
His career batting line of .288/.366/.378/.744 reveals a pure hitter. Kendall was never the power guy, but got plenty of singles and doubles, not to mention walks and hit-by-pitches. He rarely struck out, finishing in the top 10 in the National League in at-bats per strikeout most seasons of his career. Kendall has 189 SB, with over 20 in three straight years (1998-2001), remarkable for a catcher. Among his biggest assets was his durability. Ten times in his 15 seasons, he caught over 140 games, the latest being in 2008.
Contributing nicely to his OBP was his tendency, purposefully or otherwise, to get hit by pitches. He led the league in 1998 with 31, which equaled his previous season's total. Five times in his career, he got hit 20-plus times, and nine times he was hit in double figures.
These numbers may not be huge and gaudy, but when you compare him to a member of the non-arm pad crowd, check out Edgar Renteria, who has been in the league about as many years as Kendall. He has been hit a grand total of 31 times in his career. Derek Jeter, who conceivably could get in the top 10 of HBP before his career is done, has been hit 158 times, compared to Kendall’s 254.
Kendal is the son of legendarily hard-nosed catcher Fred Kendall, and Jason’s coaches, some of whom played with Fred, poke fun at Jason. "I've got to ask Fred what he thinks about his son wearing that pad (on his left biceps)," joked Tim Flannery, a former teammate of Kendall's father told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. "Fred wouldn't wear that pad."
"It's not something I work on in the offseason," the son said to the Gazette about being hit so much. "I'd rather get hit on the (biceps) and have a bruise for a week than get hit in the ribs and have it hurt for a month.
4. Don Baylor, 267 HBP
As much as Don Baylor will be remembered for being plunked 267 times in his career, he certainly will be remembered for something besides that. He hit 338 HRs in his career, including 36 in 1979, 34 in 1978 and 31 at the ripe old age of 37 in 1986. He stole 285 bases, including 20-plus in eight straight seasons. While his lifetime batting average was a less-than-stellar .260, he more than made up for it with a nice .342 OBP.
His best season was probably 1979, where besides the 36 HR, he scored a league-leading 120 runs and had 139 RBIs, plus 22 steals. His .296/.371/.530/.901 hitting line was also at or close to his personal highs in those categories. He got his only MVP and All-Star appearance that year. He was also a pretty decent manager, helping to make the expansion Rockies respectable before going out with the Cubs.
As far as the plunking went, Baylor was open and philosophical about it. No evasive, winking answers from him. To none other than People magazine, more known for celebrity gloss-ups than hard-hitting baseball stories, Baylor laid it on the line.
He summed up his philosophy simply, saying, "My first goal when I go to the plate is to get a hit," he said. "My second goal," he continued, "is to get hit." He expanded on it, saying. "When the ball is inside, I don't back away," he stated, as he strode into an imaginary pitch. "Common sense says back away, but I guess common sense isn't that common. I just stiffen up and take the blow."
He saw getting hit as part of the battle between a pitcher and a hitter, and the pitcher trying to chase the hitter off the plate. "(G)etting hit is my way of saying I'm not going to back off," he said.
He wasn’t above some gamesmanship, either. On close plays, where the ball would skim his forearm, Baylor had been known to assist the umpire. "Sometimes you can't hear the ball hit," he says. "It just goes breezing across your arm. When that happens I go right to first. I don't wait for a call."
Baylor falls somewhere in between '60s/'70s guys like Robinson, who crowded the plate to intimidate pitchers and would willingly accept getting hit by a pitch, and modern guys like Kendall and Biggio, who unashamedly looked at it as a tool in their repertoire for getting on base.
3. Tommy Tucker, 272 HBP
Tucker was a first basemen who played most of his thirteen seasons (1887-99) for the Boston Beaneaters, the precursor to the Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves. His best season was in 1889, when he hit .372/.450/.484/.934 for the Orioles. He also scored 102 runs, had 99 RB’s and smacked 22 doubles. While he didn’t have much home run power, he didn’t strike out much and had quite a bit of gap power.
His lifetime numbers of .290/.364/.373/.737 further reveal a guy who was a truly skilled hitter who made good contact and found ways to get on base. Among his skills at getting on base was his getting hit by pitches frequently, at least early in his career. In five of the six seasons between 1887 and 1892 he led the league in HBP, with the most being 33 in his best career year of 1889.
Although he would continue to get hit at double-figure rates throughout the rest of his career, it was those early years where he was at his peak. Tucker was hit 272 times, and his biggest misfortune was being a contemporary of Jennings, the king of the HBP. He never got to truly enjoy his fame.
2. Craig Biggio, 285 HBP
Biggio is the modern leader of getting hit by pitches. At the plate, he was a gutsy, competitive hitter. He had a strong, but not spectacular, batting average, and he could hit for power and made the most of his opportunities on the basepaths. His .281 career BA may not seem HOF-worthy, but combined with a decent amount of walks and HBP, his .362 career OBP was very good.
In his peak years, Biggio could be counted on to score well over 100 runs, made easier with guys like Jeff Bagwell, Luis Gonzalez and Lance Berkman hitting behind him. He also had power, leading the league in doubles three times, including 51 in 1998. He was good for 30-40 a year, even hitting 40 at age 39 in 2005.
Biggio would get 15-20 HRs a year, hitting as many as 26 in 2005. He averaged 20 steals a season but had as many as 50 in 1998 (at age 32) and 47 in 1997. He found ways to help his team win, and the HBP was one of them.
He led the league in HBP five times, the most being in 1997, when he was hit 31 times. Most of his HBP came in the middle of his career. In his first full six seasons, he was hit a total of 35 times, pretty much equal to his one-season mark in 1997. In 1995, he got hit 22 times, and it started a trend.
For his next 11 seasons he was hit an average of 21 times, which seemed to roughly coincide with the Astros’ rush of success over those years. Between 1997 and 2005, they made six playoff appearances, including winning a pennant and making it to the NLCS twice. Did Biggio’s getting plunked frequently play a role in this? Let the reader decide.
Biggio’s HBP rate would perhaps be higher, but in his last two seasons, he either would avoid the inside of the plate or pitchers pitched away from him. In 2006 he was hit only nine times, while in 2007 only three. Another respected baseball journal, The Onion, had some fun with this:
"You guys perpetuated this by comparing me to Hughie day in and day out," said a chain-smoking Biggio, showing reporters from over 50 media outlets the bundles of hate mail he has received from baseball fans.
"Listen to these people: 'Quit now before you break the hearts of fans everywhere, Craig.' 'Hey Craig Bitch, I'll kill you and your family if you break the record.' 'Jennings did it without an arm guard.' Do you think they had even heard of this guy before you people had my countdown on the front page every day? Jesus Christ!"
"More than anything, I just want to be hit by three more pitches so all of this will go away," said Biggio, who claims he has not slept in weeks and has developed multiple stomach ulcers. "Now I know why Don Baylor quit at 267."
It will be an interesting conversation to see if Biggio makes it in the Hall next year. But even if he doesn’t, his old arm guard has a cherished place.
1. Hughie Jennings, 287 HBP
Jennings is probably one of the best players nobody except history junkies and HBP obsessives has ever heard of. His record of 287 HBP is just one of the things he was good at. He played parts of eighteen seasons, but was a regular for seven. He could hit for average, did not hit a lot of homers, but had plenty of extra base hits. He also stole his share of bases.
The 1896 season was his year for the ages. He hit .401, had a .472 OBP (despite walking only 19 times), and slugged .488. He scored 125 runs and knocked in 121 despite not hitting any home runs. He was hit 51 times, a single-season record to this day.
His best years were with the Orioles, where he helped them win three straight championships in 1894, 1895 and 1896. In 1984, he hit .335/.411/.479/.890, scored 134 runs, drove in 109, and had 37 stolen bases, 16 triples and 28 doubles. In ’95 he hit .386/.444/.512/.957, scoring 159 runs, hitting in 125, smacking 41 doubles and stealing 53 bases.
Perhaps spurring him on was the fact that he was playing for a very good team. The Orioles he played for were one of the best teams ever. The teams featured Hall of Fame manager Ned Hanlon and a lineup with six future Hall of Famers: first baseman Dan Brouthers, second baseman McGraw, shortstop Jennings, catcher Wilbert Robinson, right fielder ”Wee" Willie Keeler, and left fielder Joe Kelley.
In those five years with the Orioles, he took on a role not unlike the role Biggio had with the Astros of the late 90s and early 2000s. He set up the guys behind him by getting on base—and since he normally didn’t walk a lot, he took his share of hit batters. He got hit 27 times in ’94, 32 in ’95, 51 in ’96, and 46 each in ’97 and ’98.
Jennings did have one scare, when he was hit in the head by a pitch from Amos Rusie in the third inning, but he managed to finish the game. As soon as the game ended, Jennings collapsed and was unconscious for three days.
Those were his main years as a regular, and while he continued to get plunked at a high degree even later into his career, he didn’t play a lot of games. Only once after 1897 did he play more than a 100 games, and many of his later playing seasons were primarily as a coach, where he would make cameo appearances on the field.
So he got the record of HBP by, for all intents and purposes, playing eight seasons. That can be figured by dividing his 1284 games by 140 (the amount of games that probably constitutes a full season by a starter). That makes his HBP figure even more impressive.
Others worthy of mention
Besides Kendall, there are three other active players in the top 20 of HBP, with varying chances of making it in the top 10. Jason Giambi is tied for 13th with Carlos Delgado, and while it is conceivable he may hang around another year, he needs 11 to catch Beckley, and he won’t do it as a reserve in this stage of his career.
Derek Jeter is No. 16 with 158, 25 behind Beckley. If he can play three or four more years as a regular and not get the museum piece treatment Biggio got in his last year or two, he may have a shot at the top 10.
Alex Rodriguez is 18th with 156, 27 behind Beckley. He should make it in the top 10 barring injury or a sudden drop of effectiveness. He wants to make a run at Barry Bond’s home run record, and probably someone will pay him to do it. He should be able to pass Robinson on the list and make a run at McGann or Hunt. Other modern players in the top 20 include Delgado, Fernando Vina and Brady Anderson.
Other players on the Top 20 list include turn-of-the 20th century guys like Curt Welch, who besides getting hit 173 times in ten seasons, had years where he stole 89 and 95 bases, respectively (1887 and 1888) There is Kid Elberfeld, known as “the Tabasco Kid,” who got hit 165 times in 14 seasons and Hall of Famer Fred Clarke, who besides being a model of consistency behind the plate, was hit 154 times in 21 seasons.
Notably absent, or nearly absent, on the list are guys that played from 1920-1980. Robinson, Hunt and Minoso are the only ones in the top 20. The list is overloaded with players from the last 20-30 years or players that played during the 1890-1910 period. Even the top 30 is overloaded with players from these eras. Nellie Fox, who played from 1947-65 is an exception, as is red-ass Carlton Fisk, whose career was split up evenly between the 1970s and 1980s.
It must come down to more aggressive hitters and pitchers in the modern and turn-of-the-20th-century eras. The latter game was more physical and aggressive, plus it probably had less oversight than the modern game, while the game throughout most of the twentieth century became more professional and fan friendly. Things game did become more aggressive in the 1990s, with pitchers pitching more aggressively and batters not only willing to take a hit for the team, but also deliberately seeking to get hit.
It's difficult to say where it goes from here. Utley led the NL in HBP three straight years, from 2007-2009, with 25, 27 and 24 HBP, respectively, while Carlos Quentin has 23 so far this year. It looks like the aggressive trend is continuing as far as the HBP goes. With a few exceptions, most HBP leaders in the 1920s-1980s had fewer than 20, while the trend continues in 2011 that the leaders will finish in the mid-20s. In the near future, at least, body armor may be a pretty safe investment.