The Plunks of Hazard: Baseball’s Order of the Purple Heart

Nolan Ryan was often not on speaking terms with the strike zone (via Chuck Andersen).

Nolan Ryan was often not on speaking terms with the strike zone (via Chuck Andersen).

Let’s have a quick show of hands here, how many readers pay close attention to hit-by-pitch statistics?

Hmm, just what I thought. About the same response I’d get if I’d asked for volunteers for a suicide mission.

Considering the blizzard of statistics available to the modern fan, it’s not surprising that numbers pertaining to hit batsmen are obscured. Unless a batter gets beaned or charges the mound, getting hit by a pitch doesn’t add much drama to a game.

Neither pitchers nor batters are eager to set any HBP records, but they are part of every player’s permanent record. As with many statistics, the record-keeping often approaches the esoteric. For example, I’ll bet you didn’t know that F.P. Santangelo of the Expos set the NL single-season record for switch-hitters-–in a mere 350 at-bats-–by getting plunked 25 times in 1997. Unfortunately, my source did not break these down according to left side or right side. Now that would really be esoteric.

By and large, batters getting hit by pitches, whether as a result of brushbacks or retaliation, was more common in the good old days than it is today. Hughie Jennings, the all-time leader (287 times in his Hall of Fame career), led the league with 51 (the NL single-season record), 46, and 46 from 1896-1898. By contrast, the 2013 leaders were Shin-Soo Choo with 26 (NL) and Shane Victorino with 18 (AL). But those totals are actually moderate, as there were plenty of single-digit league leaders from 1917 to 1990.

Some batters were renowned for their ability to take one for the team. In the latter half of the 20th century, Minnie Minoso led the American League in HBP 10 times; in the NL, Ron Hunt did it seven straight times from 1968 to 1974. His motto was, “Some people give their bodies to science. I gave mine to baseball.” He retired with 243 (his best year was 50 in 1971).

Hunt was notorious for not getting out of the way of inside pitches. Theoretically, the batter must make an effort to evade the ball, but umpires almost never call a batsman back to the batter’s box.

One such call-–arguably the best known-–occurred during Don Drysdale’s record (since eclipsed by Orel Hershiser) of 58.2 consecutive scoreless innings from May 14 to June 8, 1968. On May 31, in the top of the ninth inning, he hit the Giants’ Dick Dietz with the bases loaded, but home-plate umpire Harry Wendelstedt ruled that Dietz made no attempt to get out of the way of the pitch. (Perhaps Dietz had been taking lessons from Hunt, who was also in the Giants’ lineup that day.) The runner at third did not score, the inning continued, Drysdale escaped unscathed, and his streak was intact-–but not without controversy.

In more recent years, Craig Biggio led the NL four times between 1995 and 2003. His personal best mark was 34 in 1997. Even more impressive, his total of 285 plunks is only two behind Jennings. Biggio reigns as the NL career king, as Jennings had 278 in the NL and nine in the American Association.

Even so, there is little to indicate that getting hit by pitches will increase a player’s chances of getting into Cooperstown. Jennings made it on the strength of playing a key role with the Baltimore Orioles juggernaut of the 1890s and his lengthy managing career, mostly with the Tigers. There is no mention of his HBP record on his Hall plaque, and I’m sure that when Biggio enters, his plaque will ignore his status as NL HBP champ.

Getting hit by a pitch is one way to increase your on-base percentage, and typically those who are good at it hit at the top of the order. But a number of big bruisers hitting further down in the lineup also were noted for accumulating bruises. A case in point: Frank Robinson with 198 HBP for his career. I guess you could say he pretty much lived up to his potential after setting the NL record for rookies with 20 in 1956. Like Jennings, Robinson did not make the Hall of Fame because of his HBP prowess.

No Hall for Don Baylor, who accrued 267 plunks, but he is the reigning career leader in the AL. Also, his 35 plunks in 1986 are still a single-season record in the junior circuit.

Baylor was notorious for crowding the plate, which may give a hitter better plate coverage and improved offensive stats but will inevitably result in more aches and pains  And the increased possibility of injury certainly won’t help those offensive stats.

The hit batsmen statistic is twofold. If you’re into sado-masochism, this is the stat for you! For every batter enduring pain, there is a pitcher inflicting it. For every plunker, there is a plunkee…in women’s softball, I guess the term is plunkette.

So who were the all-time sadists? One immediately thinks of such renowned tough guys as Drysdale (who led the NL in hit batsmen five times) and Bob Gibson, but the top three plunksters all-time are Gus Weyhing (278), Chick Fraser (219) and Pink Hawley (210).

Contemporary fans-–even the most knowledgeable-–may not be familiar with the big three. Gus, Chick and Pink? Whatzat? Some old vaudeville act? Nope, they combined for 707 take-your-bases the hard way! That’s gotta hurt.

Name recognition is not a problem with No. 4 on the list, Walter Johnson with 205 hit batsmen, the American League career record. After him, nobody else on the all-time list has more than 200. Johnson, however, is the all-time American League leader in innings pitched with 5,914, so his HBP total isn’t really out of line. In Ty Cobb’s assessment (which should count for a lot), Johnson was anything but a headhunter. But what about Gus, Chick and Pink?

Given their HBP totals, it is not surprising that Weyhing, Fraser and Hawley had lengthy careers and plied their trade during the deadball era when starting pitchers and innings-eaters were synonymous. Each man threw more than 3,000 innings, which is certainly ample for a sample. For what it’s worth, all three had more hit batsmen than victories.

The biggest of the big three was Weyhing, who had both a long career and a long life. Born on Sept. 29, 1866, he died just a few weeks shy of his 89th birthday. From 1887 to 1901, he pitched for the Philadelphia A’s, the Brooklyn Wonders, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Louisville Colonels, the Washington Senators, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Brooklyn Superbas, the Cleveland Blues and the Cincinnati Reds.

Weyhing’s log stood at 264 wins and 232 losses when he retired. The fact that he isn’t better known despite almost 500 decisions (and four 30-victory seasons from 1889-1892) speaks volumes about the obscurity of 19th-century ballplayers in the 21st century. I’m guessing that in the past, his name has turned up on the list submitted to the Veterans Committee for induction into Cooperstown. Certainly, his career is noteworthy if not Cooperstown-worthy.

In all, Weyhing pitched 4,324.1 innings, yielding 1,566 walks (3.3 per nine innings) and 240 wild pitches. His lifetime ERA of 3.89 likely explains why his won-loss record wasn’t better and why the folks at Cooperstown remained unimpressed.

His best (or is it worst?) year for HBP was 1888, when he nicked 42 batters. Not surprisingly, that same year, 56 of his offerings went for wild pitches. Still, he went 28-18 with a 2.05 ERA for the Philadelphia A’s (then of the American Association), so a little wildness could be countenanced. Besides, he was only 21. The year before, as a rookie, he led the league in HBP with 37 and uncorked 49 wild ones-–the latter, surprisingly, was not a league-leading total.

One of Weyhing’s quirks was his refusal to play with a glove, even in the early 20th century, long after barehanded baseball was passé. Generally, fielding averages were lower in deadball days, but Weyhing’s career average of .881 (based on 1,072 chances) is particularly egregious.

In the case of Fraser and Hawley, Cooperstown was not even a remote possibility; both men had losing records to go along with relatively high ERAs.

Born in 1873, Fraser came along a bit later than Weyhing and actually pitched more years in the 20th century (1900-1909) than in the 19th (1896-1899). He actually holds the NL record for hit batsmen with 201 (his remaining nine hit batters occurred during his 1901 stint with the AL Milwaukee Brewers).

His rookie year with the Louisville Colonels was busy but ultimately unimpressive (12-27). The team he played for, however, was even worse. In 1896, the Colonels went 38-93, finishing in last place (for the third straight year), 53 games out of first. Of those 93 losses, five came in two days, as the Colonels lost a double-header and a triple-header on consecutive days. Fraser, the only pitcher on the staff in double digits in the victory column, pitched 349.1 innings. His ERA, although 4.87, was the lowest on the staff.

In addition to the Colonels, Fraser played for the Cleveland Spiders, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Philadelphia A’s, the Boston Beaneaters, the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs. His best years were from 1904 to 1906 when he won 24, 21 and 20 games.

Fraser’s career ERA was 3.68, but his best years ERA-wise came in the twilight of his career. His ERA was 2.67 in 1906, 2.28 in 1907, and 2.27 in 1908 when he was 35 years old with a record of 11-9. He probably enjoyed those last three seasons with the Cubs–they won the NL pennant all three years. For all practical purposes, 1908 was Fraser’s final season; he pitched only three innings in 1909. He retired with a record of 175-212, having thrown 3,356 innings that  included 1,332 walks and 146 wild pitches.

Emerson Pink (his given middle name, not a nickname) Hawley pitched from 1892 through 1901. I’m guessing he took a fair share of ribbing because of his name, but today he would likely be the spokesmen for those Mother’s Day/breast cancer awareness day games.

Toiling for the St. Louis Browns (19th-century NL version), Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, New York Giants and Milwaukee Brewers, Hawley logged 3,012.1 innings and compiled a record of 167-179. He gave out 974 bases on balls and unleashed 83 wild pitches to go along with a 3.96 ERA.

One oddity of Hawley’s career is that he was involved (sort of) in a triple steal. On Sept. 14, 1900, having started the game for the Giants, he was at bat with the Cubs’ Ned Garvin on the mound. The extent of his involvement was getting out of the way of runner Jack Doyle barreling down the third-base line.

Some researchers think this triple steal with Hawley at bat was the first time it happened in baseball history. Of course, given the murkiness of much of 19th-century record-keeping, it is just as likely it was the first time such an incident was duly noted and recorded. Since a triple steal necessarily involves stealing home, and that feat has become increasingly rare, the triple steal is now all but extinct. (In recent years, however, the Vanderbilt University Commodores turned heads by executing triple steals in 2011 and 2012.)

But I digress…back to Gus, Chick, and Pink:

Given the Big Three’s penchant for plunking hitters, it would be instructive to look for other markers of their control (or lack of same), so let’s see where they rank in terms of bases on balls and wild pitches.

Weyhing is way up there in terms of wild pitches, having unleashed 240 in his career, good for a tie for fifth place all time. Fraser is tied for 38th place with 146, and Hawley is tied for 173rd with 83.

As for walks, Weyhing issued 1,570 free passes (good for 10th place all-time). Fraser walked 1,338, placing him 26th in major league history. Hawley missed triple digits (his total was 974), so his ranking is way down in 124th place.

First of all, it must be noted that when perusing these all-time lists there are some pretty respectable names ahead of and behind these guys. If you’re going to hit that many batters, walk that many batters, or throw that many wild pitches, you must have some compensating talents; otherwise, you wouldn’t be around long enough to accumulate the negative statistics.

In fact, the psychological advantage may belong to a Wild Thing pitcher. A control pitcher may frustrate the batter by working the corners, changing pitches and speeds, but the batter isn’t terribly worried about getting hit. Now, when there’s a pitcher on the mound who isn’t sure where the ball’s going, the batter doesn’t know, either, and he’s probably not going to dig in at the plate (unless the pitcher is a knuckleballer).

Exhibit A in the wildness-is-good theory is the all-time leader in walks, Nolan Ryan, with 2,795. Steve Carlton is a distant second with 1,833. Ryan hit 158 batters during his lengthy career. One of them, of course, was Robin Ventura, which gave baseball fans a moment to cherish forever, thanks to videotape:

Carlton hit a mere 53 batters in his 24-year career, a tad more than two per season. I think we can safely conclude that Carlton did not habitually throw at hitters. Still, in any given incident, only the pitcher knows for sure if an HBP is deliberate, though the catcher and the manager are usually in the know.

Hitting batters deliberately is sort of like smoking. People still do it, but it isn’t as socially acceptable as it used to be. With a nod to Dale Carnegie, it is no way to win friends, but it is a good way to influence people.

Now let’s take a closer look at wild pitches. If you already know that Tony Mullane is the all-time leader in wild pitches with 343 (from 1881 to 1894), then go to the head of the class. His best/worst season was 1884 when he hit 63 on the WP counter (surprisingly, he also achieved a career-high 36 victories). Mullane, however, was originally a right-hander and didn’t become a southpaw until he hurt his right arm. Given those circumstances, I think he deserves to be cut some slack. He may be the only guy in baseball history with “Bats: Both; Throws: Both” in his vitals.

Number two on the wild pitch list is no dead ball relic: Ryan with 277. In fifth place we find Weyhing (tied with Tim Keefe) with 240 wild pitches.

Fraser rests in 38th place with 146 wild pitches. Technically, he is tied with Ed Crane, but since Crane accomplished his total in eight years, as opposed to Fraser’s 14, I think Crane definitely checks out as “wilder” than Fraser.

Hawley languishes in 173rd place with 83 wild pitches, but he has a lot of company; five others also have that total. Hawley accomplished his total in 10 years; only Clay Kirby was “wilder” with 83 in eight years. The other pitchers were Tom Hughes in 13 seasons; Gary Peters in 14; Kid Gleason in 22, and Dennis Martinez in 23.

Definitely, there were more wild pitches in the 19th century. For example, the top 100 wild pitch season totals belong to 19th-century pitchers. No 20th-century pitcher appears until 1905, when Red Ames (No. 105 on the list) let loose with 30 errant offerings. Still, Ames went 22-8 for the Giants that season, so that total (and his 105 walks) probably didn’t overly concern manager John McGraw.

A lot of those deadball-era wild pitches could have been attributed to primitive (if not non-existent) catching equipment and changes in the catcher’s placement behind the batter. In other words, the old-time moundsmen weren’t wilder, but the backstops just didn’t stop as many as they do today.

Going beyond Ames, however, we have to go all the way down to No. 132 to find the next 20th-century pitcher, the Braves’ Tony Cloninger, who threw 27 wild ones in 1966. I don’t think the move to Atlanta traumatized him; he had led the league in wild pitches and walks the year before while pitching half his games in Milwaukee.

So I think Gus, Chick and Pink, the big three of HBP, were no more bloodthirsty than their peers. They tended to overachieve in terms of wild pitches (which were more common in their era anyway) and walks, so a greater number of hit batsmen is an inevitable corollary.

If any pitcher should have excelled at HBP, it was Eric Plunk (1986-1979). His career total, however, was just 32 in 1,151 innings pitched.

On the other hand Lew Drill (AL, 1902-1905) got drilled 18 times in 896 at-bats. Not too shabby.

Call it chin music, call it plunk rock, as far as I know, no separate stats are kept on beanings. If so, it might be instructive to know how Belve Bean (1930-1935), Bill Bean (1987-1995), Colter Bean (2005-2007), and Joe Bean (1902) fared in that regard.

Branch Rickey had a theory about beanballs (as he did about most things), and it is worth repeating. As related in the book Good Enough to Dream by Roger Kahn:

In getting out of the way of a fastball at your head you lose all dignity. Your bat goes one way. Your cap goes another. You sprawl in the dirt. Loss of dignity. That bothers all of us who are worthwhile.

Still, as the travails of the recently deceased Don Zimmer show, loss of face can be literal as well as figurative. The infamous death-by-beanball of Ray Chapman as the result of a Carl Mays pitch in 1920 is still the only time a player has been killed while on the field.

That incident did result in switching out older, darker balls for whiter, fresher ones, which might be one reason why HBP stats, by and large, aren’t as elevated as they were in the deadball era. Prohibiting spitballs also played a part.

No matter what era is under consideration, you have to wonder how a guy can stand upright in a batter’s box while another guy standing just 60 feet and six inches away fires a series of missiles so close to him. If you really, really thought about it, you probably wouldn’t do it. But if you want to be a ballplayer…

Of course, if you’ve ever zipped along a freeway at 70 mph or so with cars changing lanes all around you (and I’m thinking most of you have), you probably wouldn’t do that, either. But if you want to get somewhere…

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Comments

  1. Bill said...

    This is a topic that has fascinated me for a long time, and I think the HBP, or the threat of guys getting hit, plays more of a role in major-league baseball than is generally believed. For one thing, it happens a lot more today than in the old days — a lot more. Bob Gibson, who was known in his career as someone who’d just as soon hit you as look at you, only hit one guy per roughly every 160 batters faced. Compare this to active players like Jamey Wright, who has hit more than one out of 60 batters in a 19-year career, or Johnny Cueto, who nails one in 70, and even those guys pale before recent retirees like Kerry Wood (one in 59) and Byung-Hyun Kim (more than one in 49). It’s hard to believe that these pitchers were not actively throwing at hitters.

    • hopbitters said...

      Gibson has said on a number of occasions that he didn’t throw at people. He threw inside to establish that part of the plate and if they didn’t want to get out of the way, that was their choice, but it wasn’t his intent to hit them. The numbers back up that assertion. He wasn’t afraid to hit somebody, but that wasn’t his goal with those pitches. To be fair, he also had a lot more control in general than the others mentioned (and most everybody else too).

  2. Paul G. said...

    I’m not sure if Pink Hawley would have been teased at the time. At some point in time, pink was the color for boys, not girls, and when that changed to the current convention is not clear. He also had a twin brother named “Blue” and there are various stories about the use of pink and blue ribbons for the purpose of telling the two apart. How truthful those stories are is unknown, but one shows up in Pink’s obit. They had a third brother Fred who presumably was pretty easy to identify as not being especially colorful.

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