July 21, 2015

Craig Biggio & the “Art” of Getting Hit by a Pitch

Hall of Fame Week continues. Today we look at 2015 inductee Craig Biggio and one of my favorite records of all-time: Most Career Hit-by-Pitches.

Craig Biggio Biggio politely asking pitchers to calm down and would they mind not throwing at him.

Technically, Biggio holds the modern era (1901-present) record for most times hit by a pitch. Biggio was plunked 285 times in his career but Hughie Jennings was hit 287 times. The reason that Jennings’ record is generally not considered on par with Biggio’s is, well, players got hit a hell of a lot back in the 1800s (seriously).

Of Jennings 287 hit-by-pitches, 221 (77%) of them came in just the six seasons from 1984-1899. In the five seasons from 1894-1898 he averaged just over 40 hbp per year! Of the top ten all-time in hit-by-pitch, four played in the 1800s, and of those four, only one was hit more in the 20th century than the 19th (the immortal Dan McGann). Of the top 12 highest single-season totals, 9 of them are from the 1800s.

Stars players of the Baltimore Orioles

Since 1910, only four pitchers have hit more than 20 batters in a season, with the highest total belonging to Howard Ehmke in 1922 (23). From 1884 to 1901, the Major League leader in hbp was no lower than 21 and in 11 of 18 seasons, the league leader topped 30. In 1891, three pitchers tied for 9th in the league with 20, the 2nd place pitcher hit 43 batters, and the league-leader Phil Knell hit 54 batters (with that statistic, if his nickname wasn’t “Death Knell” someone failed horribly).

Needless to say, the early years of baseball were quite the batter-plunking-y time.

Biggio and the Modern Record

When Biggio broke the hit-by-pitch record in 2005, he moved ahead of Don Baylor, who along with four other modern-era players (Jason Kendall, Ron Hunt, Frank Robinson, and Minnie Minoso) round out the top ten all-time. One of the reasons this is one of my favorite records is that these six players run the gamut of what MLB has to offer.

Frank Robinson 1961

Frank Robinson is one of the all-time greats, topping 100 WAR, hitting 586 home runs (9th all-time and 4th at his retirement), and driving in 1812 runs (good for 20th all-time). Robinson is the only player in the history of the game to win MVP awards in both leagues, he was the first black manager in both leagues (with the Indians in 1975 and the Giants in 1981); in short, Robinson was a bad dude (It’s hard to imagine pitchers brave enough to plunk him once, much less 198 times).

The previous record holder, Don Baylor, was similar to Robinson in that he was a home run hitter (who also went on to a managerial career), but he certainly wasn’t Robinson’s equal on the field (few were). Baylor’s slugging was 100 points lower and his career wRC+Weighted Runs Created Adjusted – a comprehensive stat measuring offensive production relative to the league average was only 118 to Robinson’s 153. Surprisingly, Baylor has the lowest on-base percentage of any of the players in the top ten (.342).

On the other end of the offensive spectrum are Ron Hunt and his 39 career home runs (Robinson had 11 seasons with 30+ home runs) and Jason Kendall with his career wRC+ of 99. Hunt is the proud owner of the modern single-season record of 50 hit-by-pitches (Jennings holds the all-time single-season record with 51 in 1896) and is the only one of the six whose career slugging is lower than his on-base percentage (.347 to .368). For his part, Kendall (5th all time, 3rd in the modern era) is the only one of the six who led the league in hbp fewer than five times (he only lead once, in 1998 with 31).

The “Art” of Getting Beaned

With the variety of players on the career leaderboard, are there any characteristics they share? Any commonalities that suggest there’s a skill behind getting hit a lot? In a word: no. (disappointing, I know, but that’s the answer to some research questions). In addition to the wide spectrum of player types mentioned above, there are few things to suggest a certain profile of a “hit by pitch artist” type.

The six have a wide range of BB/K ratios, with Biggio and Baylor at the low end with 0.66 and 0.75 and Minoso and Hunt at the high end with 1.39 and 1.45. For all six, their on-base percentage is between .78 and .95 higher than their batting average (league average difference is usually 60-65 points), not surprising given we’re talking about a counting stat that contributes to obp and which few in the league “exploit” like these players (for instance, on the extreme end, in 1971 when Hunt lead MLB with 50 hbp, 2nd place was hit 12 times).

Jason Kendall RS P7242002

Despite this proficiency, only Robinson ever led the league in the on-base percentage, and only Robinson and Minoso have an obp substantially above league average. Also despite their ability to get on base without getting a hit (not to be confused with “getting hit”) they run a wide spectrum of walk rates, with Kendall (surprisingly given his reputation as an “on-base guy”) and Baylor the low at 8.3% and 8.6% (below league average) and Robinson the high at 12.1%.

Perhaps with more advanced data on swing rates, heat mapsA method of plotting data by graphically showing how often an event occurs. For instance, if a player often swings at high pitches but rarely at low pitches, a heat map of his pitch selection would show red near the top of the strike zone – because he swings often and thus it’s “hot” – and blue (i.e., “cold”) at the bottom. on pitch selection, etc. a strong correlation will emerge. Until then it seems that the key to getting hit by a lot of pitches is the willingness to stand in the box and wear one for the team (or maybe really slow reflexes, but since we’re talking about MLB hitters, that’s probably not the case).

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