With the current trend of thinking in the front offices in MLB, we are seeing many aspects of the game at all-time highs and lows. A lot these are constantly talked about: strikeouts, home runs and lack of stolen bases get a lot of content created about them, but there is also something else at an all-time high … hit by pitches.
In 2019, MLB games saw 1,984 hit by pitches, which was the most ever in MLB history, surpassing the previous high of 1,922 in 2018. There has not been this rate of hit by pitches per game since 1900, and MLB is very different compared to then.
A few of you may be saying that there are more pitches thrown in games than ever before, so the rate per game may be rising because of that. But when we account for that and look at the rate per pitch (which we can do so from 2008 onwards), you can still see that sharp increase in the last two seasons.
What has gone on here? There should be something responsible for this increase in hit by pitches.
Is it the pitchers? Do we have guys who can throw hard but have less command, so they are hitting more? Are they throwing inside more often?
Is it the hitters? Do we have guys who are getting tighter to the plate or players who are just more willing to take the hit to get on-base?
Let us start with the pitchers. Thanks to the Pitch/fx and Trackman data we have the location of every pitch since 2008. I will be using the Statcast zones to bucket the data.
Using those buckets, you get what might be obvious, but over 75% of HBP come from pitches in the waste zone with the almost all the rest coming in the chase zone. Volumes from 2008-2019.
(NOTE: Before we go anywhere else, I do want to acknowledge the four HBP which have occurred in the heart of the plate. That is frankly ludicrous and thankfully one of these has video and we will be discussing it later.)
Are pitchers throwing more pitches in the waste and chase zone then, which is causing more HBP? No.
The above table shows the pitch location for each year and there is no significant increase in pitches thrown in the waste and chase zone. Even if you were just to look at inside pitches only, the rates have not changed over this time frame. So, it does not look like pitchers are throwing more pitches which have a higher probability of being a HBP.
If the volume in these areas is not changing, then the rate must be. If you look at the rate of HBP by location, you can see that over the last few seasons it has increased in the waste and chase zone as well as the shadow zone.
The fact that the rate is changing for HBP but pitchers are not changing their pitch location leads me to believe that it is the hitters who are behaving differently. So, let us look at the hitters then?
Firstly, let me convert that previous rate table into volume so you can see the increase in volume for each location.
The first part I want to highlight is the shadow zone volumes, that has gone from being in the 20s at the start of the decade to 47 in 2019. This zone is for pitches that are just in or just out the strikezone, and to see this sharp increase suggests a behaviour change or new players who have different behaviours.
If we combine 2018 and 2019, you get the following top 10 for hitters HBP in the shadow zone or heart of the plate.
Two names immediately jump out here Derek Dietrich and Victor Robles, they both have double the number anyone else does in those two years. To put that into further context, the table below shows there are only nine other hitters who have more than six during the entire 2008-2019 time period.
Let us have a look at some of those HBP from Derek and Victor. I will start with Derek as he has the aforementioned HBP which was in the heart of the zone.
This is utterly ludicrous; he just drops his elbow into the zone and gets hit on the elbow guard. You can hear the incredulity from the commentators, it was 100% a deliberate attempt to be hit there and he got his base. In this next one you can hear the commentary crew talking about him leaving his elbow in and he does it again.
He even did it twice in one game for Miami back in 2018, both just leaving the elbow in to take the hit.
Dietrich to me is doing this deliberately, he drops the elbow in and doesn’t flinch one bit in all of these. But if we look at Robles, we see an entirely different set of HBP.
He starts off much closer to the plate and is getting hit on his hands as well as on the elbow like Dietrich.
These look far less deliberate and to be honest if I were his coach, I would probably get him to stop crowding the plate as much.
If we look at pitches in the chase zone, still for 2018 & 2019, the same names are at the top once again.
There are a few new names like Rizzo and DeJong, but they have faced a significantly higher number of pitches. The top three by HBP rate are Locastro, Dietrich and Robles. With Locastro being nearly three times more likely to be hit than most of the other top players.
Some of Locastro’s HBPs look similar to Dietrich by dropping the elbow in, but most of the time he just does not attempt to get out of the way.
As you can see from those clips, his proficiency for being hit in 2019 did not go unnoticed by the Arizona commentary team. If you want to know more about Tim Locastro, which you should, I suggest you watch this excellent video by Foolish Baseball.
Rizzo’s HBP come from getting hit on the foot and lower leg much more than the three we have already discussed whose HBP are primarily upper body.
Finally let us look at pitches thrown in the waste zone.
Rizzo sits atop this list and Dietrich sneaks into the top 10, but this is quite a different list, mainly down to volume of pitches. But if we were to look at it rate wise only Brian Anderson has a higher HBP rate than Dietrich for hitters who have seen as many pitches in the waste zone as Derek. Locastro had only 79 pitches thrown to him in the waste zone, he was hit by 12; that’s a rate of 15.2%.
This is saying to me that hitters are the reason for this increase in HBP. There are some players who are looking to get hit and some which are willing to take the hit and not get out of the way. It is a free base so why not take when they are giving it to you. We may see this continue to rise if these guys get more playing time.
I leave you with these two statements.
There were six qualified hitters who were not hit once in 2019, David Fletcher, Javier Baez, Christian Vásquez, Eddie Rosario, Josh Reddick & Franmil Reyes.
The HBP rate per pitch for Dietrich and Locastro were 2.09% and 2.24% respectively, while the league rate was 0.27%.