What with it being December and all, another baseball statistics essay is not at all relevant, but I came up with a baseball statistic that I’d never heard of before: a pitcher’s ratio of the number of batters he hit with his pitches to the number of wild pitches he threw to the backstop.
This ratio offers a certain amount of insight into famous pitchers’ strategies and attitudes.
Baseballs are hard. Getting hit by a pitched ball hurts and can be very dangerous. A big leaguer was killed by a pitch in 1920, and other ballplayers have never been the same after getting hit in the head, such as Mickey Cochrane, Tony Conigliaro, and Kirby Puckett.
In contrast to the famously entertaining Nolan Ryan-Robin Ventura video above, here’s a video of Giancarlo Stanton getting hit in the face by a pitch in 2014 that’s not entertaining at all: warning, not for the squeamish.
A simple but useful ratio for getting a flavor of the personalities of different baseball pitchers is their career numbers for batters hit by their pitches and their wild pitches.
A wild pitch is one thrown so inaccurately (usually in the dirt but sometimes in the air) that the catcher can’t grab it and a baserunner advances.
If a pitch hits the batter, the pitcher is penalized by awarding the batter a free pass to first base.
So, both HBPs and WPs correlate with a pitcher’s lack of “control” or accuracy. But Hit By Pitches also correlates with how aggressively a pitcher challenges batters who try to get close to the plate or just feel unafraid at bat (not to mention how often a pitcher intentionally throws at batters). The more a pitcher feels entitled to throw inside the more he’ll now and then hit a batter.
In contrast, pitchers who aim low tend to have more wild pitches.
The overall major league average per team has floated up and down over time. In the Dead Ball 1919 season before Ray Chapman was killed the next year by a Carl Mays pitch, the average team hit 33 batters and threw 23 wild pitches. (By the way, if you are wondering about Mays, his ratio was 89 HBP to 34 WP, so, yeah, he was kind of mean.)
Then the cultural norms changed against pitching inside. In 1941, the average team hit only 19 batters and threw 30 wild pitches.
By 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, the average per team was 39 HBPs and 50 WPs.
In 2016, the average team hit 55 opposing batters with pitches and threw 60 wild pitches over the course of a 162 game season. This would seem to reflect the frequent observation that pitchers tend to go more all out on each pitch these days than in the past, so they suffer more glitches as well.
But it also could be that the fact that batters are better armored these days (Barry Bonds looked as if he were dressed for a firefight in a Schwarzenegger movie) means that pitchers feel more entitled to throw inside.
So Hit By Pitches and Wild Pitches have generally been pretty similar in frequency. At present the average pitcher has a ratio of almost 1 to 1 for HBPs and WPs. There are a lot of influences on the two numbers (I would guess that sinkerball pitchers throw more wild pitches, all else being equal: e.g., Tommy John was 98 HBP to 187 WP), but it’s not all that unreasonable to say that a pitcher who hits twice as many batters as he throws wild pitches is, shall we say, aggressive, while a pitcher who hits only half as many batters as he throws wild pitches is cautious and gentlemanly.
There are a lot of legends and mythmaking about mean pitchers who throw inside. For example, the 1960s pitching legend Bob Gibson has a huge reputation for having thrown at batters. Fans love to congratulate Gibson at nostalgia events for being so vicious.
Among 1960s National League superstars:
Bob Gibson 102 batters hit by pitches to 108 wild pitches
Juan Marichal 40 / 51
Sandy Koufax 18 / 87
Don Drysdale 154 / 82
Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) 160 / 47
A few comments: As Joe Posnanski wrote last year, Gibson’s reputation as a headhunter is overstated, somewhat, and perhaps Gibson encouraged it. Gibson hit quite a few batters by the standards of the 1920s through 1950s, but not as many as Don Drysdale or Jim Bunning. But he didn’t mind a reputation for ferocity that kept righthanded batters from digging in against him with much confidence. The great man had played on the Harlem Globetrotters and presumably took notes on showmanship.
Marichal of the Giants had such pinpoint accuracy that when he did knock somebody down, the other team assumed it was not an accident, but personal. The longest brawl I ever saw was in September 1971 when Bill Singer of the Dodgers hit Willie Mays, so Marichal retaliated by knocking down Singer and Maury Wills, and then hit hot-headed Bill Buckner who charged the mound. It took the umpires close to a half hour to restart the game.
The ratios of the Dodger Hall of Famers, Drysdale and Koufax, are instructive. Under his affable exterior, Drysdale was a crafty, determined competitor. In 1956 he studied under the tutelage of veteran teammate Sal “The Barber” Maglie how to throw inside. Maglie didn’t hit that many batters by 1960s standards, never more than 10 in a season, but he came close a lot. Maglie had a career record of 44 HBPs to only 18 WPs, which was scandalous by norms of the day.
In Drysdale’s defense, 1956 was the year the National League ordered batters to wear helmets, although the rule wasn’t much enforced and helmets weren’t as effective as they are now. Drysdale led the league in HBP from 1958 through 1961, and his career-high of 20 in 1961 was the most in the major leagues since 1923. The 6′-5″ Drysdale threw sidearm and so the ball started out way behind the heads of righthanded batters and the knowledge that Drysdale wasn’t going to lose sleep over hitting you was a reminder that the feeling of danger wasn’t just an optical illusion.
In contrast, it’s clear from Koufax’s tiny number of hit batsman that he was actively trying not to hit batters with his dangerous fastball. Koufax had some remarkable seasons, such as in 1958 before he found his control hitting only 1 batter while throwing a league leading 17 wild pitches.
When I wrote a Taki’s column about Koufax last summer, it occurred that I couldn’t recall any anecdotes of Koufax ever outsmarting opponents or doing anything ethically marginal to get an advantage, while I knew lots of such stories about Drysdale. Koufax really was like a Gary Cooper character in the movies who didn’t connive for an unsporting edge, but just went strength against strength. I think that helps explain the Brooklyn-born Koufax’s unparalleled magnetism to this day among Jewish sports fans: he was this strong, silent cowboy movie hero-type.
The top current pitcher Clayton Kershaw has a HBP to WP ratio of 29 to 67 — not quite as gentlemanly as Koufax, but impressive.
Another fine present day pitcher Zack Greinke has an interesting story. In his first two seasons in the majors, he hit 21 batters to only 5 wild pitches. The next season he suffered an emotional breakdown and took a mental health leave from baseball for awhile. In the ten seasons since his successful return, his ratio has been a more neighborly 38 to 63. That may just be random noise, but the stats might be relevant.
Current day pitchers with high HBP to WP ratios include Johnny Cueto (91 to 26) and Chris Sale (63 to 29).
I found a sabermetrician calling himself Gee Walker who calculated HBP / WP ratios for many pitchers back in 2009.
The hard throwing Nolan Ryan hit 158 batters and threw 277 wild pitches (the most wild pitches since 1901).
The video at the top of the post is of 46-year-old Nolan Ryan of the Texas Rangers hitting Robin Ventura of the Chicago White Sox in 1993. Ryan denied it but it looks like an intentional message pitch aimed at a less dangerous part of the anatomy and not thrown full velocity. However, the umpire didn’t throw Ryan out of the game, judging it an accident.
George W. Bush claimed he was going to storm on to the field from his owner’s box to defend Nolan but then he saw Bo Jackson lumbering out of the White Sox dugout and thought better of it. Also, Nolan didn’t need any defending.
The anti-Ryan, super-accurate soft-throwing reliever Dan Quizenberry hit 7 and walked 5 in his entire career.
Some highly competitive pitchers didn’t hit people much. Steve Carlton was 53 and 183, while Jack Morris was 58 and 206.
Bob Feller, the fastball king of WWII era was 60 and 69 despite walking huge numbers of batters.
Of the Big 4 all-time great pitchers of the end of the 20th Century, most were pretty aggressive:
Pedro Martinez 141 / 62
Greg Maddux 137 / 70
Randy Johnson 190 / 109
Roger Clemens 159 / 143
How about middle aged junk baller Jamie Moyer who stayed in the majors until he was 49? Was he a nice guy? Nah: 146 / 57.
What about potential senatorial candidate Curt Schilling? Was he in the brushback tradition of Jim Bunning?
Nope, Schilling was 52 / 72.
Anyway, it’s a pretty interesting statistic. There are a lot of technical influences (e.g., sinker pitchers will probably throw more wild pitches, all else being equal), but for a very simple ratio it offers some insights into pitchers.