A few months ago, I wrote about catchers – how complex their position actually is and my admiration for anyone voluntarily playing that position. In the piece, I alluded to a similar admiration for pitchers.. While catchers have to be versatile (in a single word), pitchers have to be precise. (Obviously, since pitchers are out there to throw strikes and get outs, not to walk batters and give up runs.)
According to the Major League Baseball rule book, the strike zone is defined as: “that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap.” While there is no specific measurement, and each umpire has their own strike zone (sometimes for each pitcher/team), it’s still a small target from 60 feet away at 80-90 (sometimes up to or over 100) mph. It takes incredible talent and accuracy just to throw the baseball, not to mention the added challenge of an MLB batter standing there waiting for the pitch. It’s really an incredible action.
Sometimes, that incredible accuracy fails a pitcher and an errant pitch will hit the batter. Even the best pitchers hit batters. On the list of pitchers HBPs, Hall of Famer (and arguably the best pitcher in the history of the game) Walter Johnson ranks #4 with 205 hit batters in his 21 year career. Cy Young is #12 with 161 hit batters in 22 years and has a pitching award named after him. Greg Maddux, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame this past summer, hit 137 batters in a 23 year career.
What if the batter is intentionally hit by a pitch? Whether it’s good baseball or not is debatable., and sometimes an opinion might change based on the teams and players involved. Personally, I am against it in all situations.
First, it takes away from the pitcher’s talent. Any pitcher, whether I like them and their team or not, has my respect for being able to do that job. Pitching isn’t easy! I have never been able to pitch (in my youth softball leagues) and I certainly would never be able to pitch at a major league level like these guys do. To purposely hit a batter, rather than pitching to them and working toward an out, is a waste of talent. It may spark strong reactions from players, fans, and umpires – but no matter what the emotional reactions are, they’ve still put a man on base who wasn’t there before. There’s a chance the batter might have gotten to first (or further) anyway, but that intentional hit removes any possibility of getting the out before the batter reaches base.
Any batter hit by a pitch – intentional or not – is at increased risk for injury; even the weakest and slowest pitch can hurt. Consider the pitches that hit Yankees’ Chase Headley and Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton: both on September 11, 2014 and both (in my opinion) accidental hits. Without a doubt, Headley sustained less injury than Stanton, but both cases are examples of what kind of physical injuries a wild pitch can cause.
Headley was hit in the chin by a 98mph fastball from Rays’ closer Jake McGee. In the video, you can see McGee is stunned and says a few choice words to express that. Chris Young later hit a 3-run homework off McGee to win the game for the Yankees, quite possibly a result of the closer still being shook up after the hit. While he was lucky enough not to suffer any fractures or serious injuries, Headley did not play again until September 15. Even then, he wore a special attachment to his batting helmet to protect his jaw, and had noticeable bruising on his chin, neck, and apparently onto his chest (even though Rays’ managed Joe Maddon said the pitch only “grazed” Headley).
Stanton’s hit by a fastball from Brewers’ Mike Fiers was obviously worse. Immediately after being hit, Stanton fell to the ground and Fiers – along with the rest of the Brewers’ and Marlins’ – looked stunned. Medical staff transported Stanton off the field and to a hospital near Miller Park in Milwaukee, where he was found to have multiple facial fractures, dental damage, and a laceration requiring several stitches. He recovered well and documented it on social media, although he did not play another game during the 2014 season.
While I am against purposely hitting a batter with a pitch, I do understand the pitcher’s motivation. They’re often throwing at the batter in retaliation for something he did against them, their team, or baseball. For example, when Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster intentionally hit Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez in August 2013, it was a clear demonstration of Dempster’s disapproval of Rodriguez’s involvement with PEDs and subsequent suspension (Rodriguez was playing while awaiting a suspension appeal). Most baseball fans and players were unhappy with the situation – there were loud boos in Fenway Park when Rodriguez came up to bat, and loud cheers when Dempster finally hit him – but the hit did nothing more than prove a point.
Dempster’s first pitch went behind Rodriguez (point made), the next two were inside (we really get it now), and the fourth consecutive pitch hit Rodriguez in the side (who didn’t see that coming?). Later in the game, Rodriguez hit a homerun off Dempster, the Yankees went on to win 9-6 (Boston was winning 2-0 at the time when Rodriguez was plunked), and two days later MLB gave Dempster a five game suspension. Again, any MLB pitcher has my respect (whether he plays for my least favorite team or not), but Dempster could have used his abilities in a better way. Rodriguez had just made his 2013 debut less than two weeks before the incident; he wasn’t in the middle of an MVP season and was not the threat at the plate he once was. In all reality, he could have been an easy out.
If the best pitchers in the game hit batters, and any pitcher risks seriously injuring a batter with an unintended wild pitch, purposely throwing at a batter could easily do just the same. Major league pitchers are incredibly talented and intelligent. Not only do they have to have the physical ability to throw, but they also have to have the mental ability to know each batter and pitch to their strengths and weaknesses. If a pitcher truly wants to make a point, go ahead and pitch inside to brush the batter off the plate. Throw a wild pitch that is completely out of the strike zone and has no risk of hitting the batter.
Regardless of who is standing in the batter’s box and what they’ve done (and there can be some real assholes standing there), they’re still human. It is their career as much as it is the pitcher’s. Any pitcher, especially at the major league level, is better than throwing at a batter. Save the baserunner, don’t risk unnecessary injury to the opposing player, and do what a pitcher does best. If pitchers want to make a point and embarrass a batter, they should do so with the talent and precision they already have. Throwing at an opposing player diminishes those skills.