People naturally try to avoid things they know will cause them pain. You only touch a hot stove once to understand it is not something you want to experience again. Getting hit by a baseball is not something people enjoy, it hurts. Baseballs can leave nasty bruises and broken bones if they hit a person just so. A batter’s natural reaction is to jump out of the way of the baseball when they believe the pitch is going to hit them. This is part of the reason most people have difficulty hitting a curveball. Your mind is telling you of the impending danger, yet you also know you need to hit the ball. The vast majority of people are never able to conquer this fear, stay in the box, and drive a curveball.
Baseball is a hard game played by hard people. It takes a toll on your body. Among those who are able to withstand the fear induced by curveballs is an even more select group, these players are those who turn getting hit by a pitch into an art form and a weapon. A run counts the same if you hit a home run or if you get hit by a pitch and then come around to score. These brave souls sacrifice their bodies to get on base. They are sacrificing themselves for the good of the team.
The official rule governing the hit by pitch (HBP), 5.05(b)(2), states:
“(b) The batter becomes a runner and is entitled to first base without liability to be put out (provided he advances to and touches first base) when:
(2) He is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit unless (A) The ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, or (B) The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball.”
It is the second part of the rule, “The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball”, which often leads to heated debates about whether a batter attempted to avoid being hit by the pitch. Ultimately it is a judgement call by the umpire. This has lead to some players becoming creative in an attempt to be hit by the pitch. Some players are not afraid to be hit by a pitch and will subtly go out of their way to get hit.
The hit by pitch king is Hughie Jennings. He was hit by a pitch 287 times during his career. Jennings led the National League in HBP five consecutive seasons, 1894-1898. He was hit 51 times during the 1896 season, which remains the single season record. Jennings followed up his record setting season by being hit 46 times in 1897 and 1898, which are still the third and fourth highest single season HBP totals. Career record require longevity, Jennings played in the majors in 18 seasons, his last was in 1918 at the age of 49. However, he appeared in six or fewer games during his final six seasons, during which he had only one HBP. Jennings averaged 36 HBP per 162 games. All those bruises from being hit raised Jennings’ career OBP from .357 to .391. Was it all worth it? It is hard to judge but Jennings is forever enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. You be the judge.
The art of the HBP was not a weapon only during the dead ball era, it is alive and well today. Baseball could be in its Golden Age of the HBP. Eight of the top 20 in the career HBP rankings have played in Major League Baseball since 2002. The art and weaponization of the HBP was championed by Craig Biggio and today continues to be carried on by Chase Utley and Anthony Rizzo.
Chase Utley will take a pitch to the shoulder if it means getting on base. (Jenny Goldstick and Gemma Kaneko/ MLB.com)
Craig Biggio made a career out of doing whatever was necessary to win a baseball game. He willingness to transition from catching to the outfield to second base to help the team with his defense skills wherever they were needed on the diamond. When it came to the offensive side of Biggio’s game he understood his job was to get on base ahead of teammates like Jeff Bagwell. Driving the ball and hustling out of the box or using his elbow guard, and the rest of his body, to reach first base did not matter to Biggio. During his 20 year Major League career, Biggio was hit 285 times, just two behind the all time record. He led the National League five times in HBP. He was hit by a pitch 16 times per every 162 games played during his career. This durability and toughness are what helped Biggio be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The same sort of durability and toughness Biggio displayed throughout his Hall of Fame career is seen in Chase Utley. Utley is playing his 16th Major League season and has been hit by a pitch 200 times. He is the active leader in HBP, he ranks eighth all time, and first all time among left handed batters. Utley’s willingness to use hit body to get on base has seen him lead the National League three times in this painful category. Averaging 17 hit by pitches per 162 games played, Utley has put together a career that will get him some serious consideration for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
It hurts, but Anthony Rizzo uses hit body to get on base. (www.sportsonearth.com)
The old guard of players like Biggio and Utley have shown the younger generation of players the value of using their body to reach first base. Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is positioning himself to make a legitimate run at the upper echelons of the record book. In his eighth Major League season, Rizzo has already been hit by 106 pitches, which ties him with Barry Bonds for 74th all time. He is currently ranked 22nd all time for left handed batters. Rizzo could threaten to break into the top 50 all time by the end of this season. He is averaging 18 hit by pitches per 162 games played, and as he enters his prime Rizzo is demonstrating his durability and toughness. Rizzo will turn 29 in August, he should have many more seasons of practicing this painful art ahead of him.
There is an art to getting hit by a pitch. Sometimes it is unavoidable, other times a batter attempts to avoid a fastball to the head. Some players willingly stick a leg or shoulder out on a hanging curveball to reach first base. No one enjoys unnecessary pain. However, baseball is a hard game played by hard people, at every levels. The willingness to endure pain to help the team win is a skill few possess. There are a select few who are willing and able be hit by a pitch if it means helping the team. Rizzo and the next generation of HBP artists need to remember one thing. Whatever you do, do not rub it.