Looking at Hit by Pitch rates over the last half century

As I was researching my latest article for I-70 Baseball (yes, I really do research when I write – lots of it), I found a most unexpected trend in the number of batters that were hit by a pitch.    In fact, it was the exact opposite of what I would have expected, so I had to dig in a little bit more and see if I could come up with an explanation.

Here is a chart showing the average number of NL batters hit by a pitch between 1960 and 2010.   For the two strike shortened seasons, 1981 and 1994, I extrapolated the numbers to a full 162 game schedule.   I did the same for 1960 and 1961 when the NL only played 154 games.

HBP data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com


Let’s take a look at the assumptions that I had as I started this little project.

More players were hit in the 60s than now

Well, clearly from the data, that is not true.   There was a little bit of a blip in the early 60s that I will write off to the impact of expansion, but generally there is a downward trend in the data until the early 80s when the numbers started steadily rising.   I am not going to argue with the data, but there is no question that pitchers used to throw a lot more inside than they do now.   If you even looked like you were thinking about reaching towards the outside corner then guys like Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson would soon test your reflexes, and courage.   Surprisingly, for all of those pitches that were thrown inside, not many of them made contact with the batter.

Expansion means more AAA pitchers

I expected to see a much larger increase shortly after the league expanded in 1962, 1969 and again in 1993.  Each time the league added two teams, and that meant that about 25 pitchers would be throwing in the major leagues that wouldn’t have been the year before.  Maybe it is worth looking at strikeout rates and k/bb ratios to see more of an impact, but there is nothing in the data to suggest that expansion lead to more batters being hit, immediately or over the next few years.

Maybe I’m looking at this from the wrong direction.   Maybe these 25 AAA pitchers couldn’t hit a batter with any more regularity than they could the strike zone.   Nah – there may be something in expansion, but not the big trend shift that was expecting to see.

Umpires taking control

This is the one that gave me a huge chuckle because I generally dislike rule changes “to make the game better.”   The league started phasing in warnings when pitchers were throwing at batters in the early part of the 1980’s, reaching the mandatory state we have today in 1994.   It clearly has had the desired effect – ABSOLUTELY NOT!   I love it !!!!

The average number of batters being hit by a pitch had been steadily decreasing since a high of 40 in 1965 to a low of 21 in 1984.   After the rule changes, the numbers started going up year after year, with the rate significantly increasing after the mandatory warnings were instigated.

Equipment changes – the batting helmet

Improvements in protective equipment has led to a more ferocious game in hockey and football, so why not baseball ?   Well, mainly because there just isn’t that much protective equipment.   The league made batting helmets mandatory in 1971, but most players were either using them already or wore small protective inserts under their regular cap.   The rules changed again in 1983, requiring the use of batting helmets with ear flaps.

Perhaps if we stretch a bit, the ear flaps might have some impact (ok, that was a pun).   But we’re not buying this, are we ?   No, this is like the classic marketing data example of correlating diapers and beer, drawing the conclusion that babies drink beer.  No, ear flaps did not lead to an increase in HBP rates.   Maybe all of the arm, elbow, knee, shin and foot protection some of these modern day gladiators wear might make them less able to get out of the way of an inside pitch, but that is largely moot because the pitchers just don’t throw inside like they used to.

What is it, then ?

One possibility is that pitchers today just don’t have the control as those that played the game before them.   I’m willing to give this some merit.   I’ve seen Mitch Williams pitch, and while Al Hrabosky used a similar Tasmanian Devil windup, the results were remarkably different.  Hrabosky could paint the corner with just about every one of his pitches, and all you could say about Williams is that the ball was generally headed in the direction of home plate.

There’s another more plausible explanation.   What started appearing in baseball in the early 90s, got real popular after about 1998 and then fell off sharply after 2005 ?

I’ll give you a clue.   It’s an 8 letter word that rhymes with spairoids (if that were an actual word).

It might be just as simple as that.   It might be simple retaliation for batters hitting some moonshots that they weren’t capable of in prior seasons.   Maybe just a little bit of chemically induced rage might make a pitcher throw at a batter in anger when he wouldn’t have under different circumstances.

We will never know, but it is fun to try to speculate the cause behind the effect.

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