Valentine’s Day is about spending time with that special someone in your life. You express your love with gifts, flowers, candies, a nice meal, or simply spending time together. Winning builds love in baseball, it solves every team’s problems. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner hated losing, “Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing. Breathing first, winning next.” So what creates more love, winning, in baseball? WAR.
WAR, Wins Above Replacement, measures a player’s value in all facets of the game by deciphering how many more wins he’s worth than a replacement-level player at his same position. The higher a player’s WAR the more they help the team.
The highest career WAR for any Major Leaguer born on Valentine’s Day belongs to Charles “Pretzels” Getzien. Born in Germany on February 14, 1864, Getzien played for five teams during his nine seasons in the National League. Nicknamed Pretzels for throwing a double curve ball, Getzien’s career 18.1 WAR far outpaces his closest competitor Arthur Irwin’s career 15.2 WAR. Even Candy LaChance’s career 11.1 WAR was no match for Getzien.
Charles “Pretzels” Getzien while with the Detroit Wolverines. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs)
Baseball in the 1880’s and early 1890’s was not the same game played today. Getzien, a starting pitcher, was expected to pitch every few days; teams did not use the modern five man rotation. Starters were expected to pitch the entire game; pitch counts did not matter. Bullpen matchups in high leverage situations were never a thought. In 1884, Getzien’s first season in the National League, it took six balls to walk a batter, not the modern four. There were other rule changes along the way.
1886 was Pretzels Getzien’s best season. He started 43 games for the Detroit Wolverines, pitching 42 Complete Games, and 1 Shutout. His 30-11 record included a 3.03 ERA and 1.223 WHIP. Getzien pitched 386.2 innings, allowing 388 Hits, 203 Runs, just 130 Earned Runs, 6 Home Runs, striking out 172, walking 85, and throwing 19 Wild Pitches. At the plate, he hit .176 in 165 At Bats, collecting 29 Hits, 3 Doubles, 3 Triples, 19 RBI, 3 Stolen Bases, scoring 14 Runs, 6 walks, 46 strikeouts, for an .205 On-Base Percentage, Slugging .230, and .435 OPS. Getzien’s 1886 season was the first of five consecutive seasons with at least 40 starts.
More rule changes occurred before the 1887 season. Batters could no longer call for high or low pitches. Five balls were required to walk a batter, not six. Striking out a batter required four strikes. Bats could have one flat side. While the rules changed Getzien’s success remained. He was the only Wolverine starter to make more than 24 starts, starting 42 with 41 Complete Games. Riding Getzien’s right arm, Detroit won the National League Pennant. They faced the American Association champion St. Louis Browns in the World Series. Pretzels Getzien went 4-2, throwing 6 Complete Games, 58 innings, with a 2.48 ERA and 1.310 WHIP. He allowed 61 Hits, 23 Runs, 16 Earned Runs, walked 15, and struck out 17. Getzien was a threat at the plate too. He hit .300 in 20 At Bats, collecting 6 hits, including 2 Doubles, 1 stolen base, scoring 5 Runs, 2 RBI, 3 walks, and 6 strikeouts. He boasted a .391 On-Base Percentage, .400 Slugging, and .791 OPS. The Wolverines won the series 10 games to five.
The 1887 World Series Champions, Detroit Wolverines. (www.detroitathletic.com)
In 1888, Getzien started 46 games throwing 45 Complete Games. The Wolverines pitching staff also had Pete Conway, 45 starts, and Henry Gruber, 25 starts. Despite the team’s success Detroit owner Frederick Stearns disbanded the Wolverines after the season due to financial woes. Getzien joined the Indianapolis Hoosiers for the 1889 season. Prior to the season, the National League adopted the modern four balls for a walk and three strikes for a strikeout rule. Getzien started 44 games, throwing 36 Complete Games. After one season with the Hoosiers, Getzien spent 1890, his last great season, pitching for the Boston Beaneaters. He made 40 starts, throwing 39 Complete Games alongside future Hall of Famers Kid Nichols and John Clarkson. Nichols, a rookie, threw a Complete Game in all 47 of his starts. Clarkson made 44 starts with 43 Complete Games. Getzien’s pitching career began to decline after 1890.
Getzien started nine games for Boston in 1891 before he was released. He would sign with the Cleveland Spiders and pitch just one game. Getzien finished his career with the St. Louis Browns in 1892. It was the only season of his career where batters were forced to hit a round ball with a round bat squarely; bats could no longer have a flat side.
In 1893, Getzien’s first season out of professional baseball, saw the pitching distance moved from 50 feet to 60 feet, 6 inches. The rules governing baseball in the 1800’s shed light on the games’ differences in its infancy and today. In 1901, almost a decade after Pretzels Getzien last pitched, the National League would count foul balls as strikes. Previously if a batter fouled off seven consecutive pitches to begin an at bat the count remained no balls and no strikes. Striking out a batter required a swing and miss or a called strike.
Pretzels Getzien as a member of the Detroit Wolverines in 1888. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs)
Getzien compiled a career record of 145-139, 1 Save, 3.46 ERA, and 1.288 WHIP. He started 296 games, throwing 277 Complete Games, and 11 shutouts. In 2,539.2 innings, Getzien allowed 2,670 hits, 1,555 runs, 976 Earned Runs, struck out 1,070, walked 602, hit 28 batters, and threw 111 Wild Pitches. He is the all-time leader in Wins, Loses, Complete Games, Shutouts, Innings Pitched, Hits Allowed, Runs, Earned Runs, Wild Pitches, and Batters Faced for German born Major Leaguers. Getzien led the National League in Home Runs allowed in 1887 and 1889, with 24 and 27 respectively. In an era of few home runs Getzien allowed more Home Runs than many modern day pitchers. He allowed 6.2% of the 383 Home Runs hit in 1887 and 7.2% of the 371 hit in 1889. In 2018, Tyler Anderson of the Rockies and Chase Anderson of the Brewers led the National League with 30 Home Runs allowed. They both allowed 1.1% of the 2,685 Home Runs hit.
Offensively, Getzien had 1,140 Plate Appearances, 1,056 At Bats, collecting 209 Hits, 27 Doubles, 15 Triples, 8 Home Runs, 109 RBI, 17 Stolen Bases, 78 Walks, 247 Strike Outs, .198 Batting Average, .257 On-Base Percentage, .275 Slugging, and .532 OPS. His pitching, not hitting, abilities made him dangerous on the diamond.
Pretzels Getzien is most remembered for his odd nickname. On his 155th Birthday, let us remember him as the career WAR leader for Major Leaguers born on Valentine’s Day. So in his honor, may the love of your life be kind like the warm sunshine and green grass of the coming baseball season. Happy Valentine’s Day, WAR can create love.
This MLB offseason has unexpectedly been boring. Despite a marquee free agent class and a number of teams looking to make trades, since December it has followed last year’s offseason of inactivity, at least until Manny Machado and Bryce Harper sign. But as we countdown the days to Spring Training, this period of quiet affords us a perfect time to discuss another smoldering issue: the American League Central was garbage in 2018. While the division’s awfulness is apparent from a quick glance at the final 2018 standings — one team with a winning record, two hundred loss teams, and one 98 loss team — the level of stink went much deeper.
We’ll begin with Cleveland, the Central “Champions.” A cursory look seems to indicate Cleveland had a solid season. They put together 91 wins while finishing 3rd in the American League in runs scored, 2nd in batting average, 6th in OBP and SLG, and 4th in OPS. Their pitching staff was the only one to feature 4 starters putting up 200+ strikeouts en route to the 9th best ERA, 7th fewest runs allowed, and a collective 7.7 WAR, good for 6th best in the league. With the 5th best run differential in the league, Cleveland appeared to be a solid playoff team in 2018.
Francisco Lindor and Cleveland were not the World Series contenders their record said they were. (Ron Schwane/ Getty Images)
But this impression starts to fall apart when you take a deeper look into their stats, particularly when focusing on Cleveland’s splits again divisional and non-divisional opponents. In 2018, Cleveland put together a 49-27 (.645) record against their division and a 42-44 (.488) record against non-divisional opponents which included a 22-31 (.415) record against teams above .500. While their divisional record is to be expected given the sorry state of their opponents, the non-divisional record isn’t the result of bad luck, they were awful against better quality opponents.
Against non-divisional opponents, Cleveland was a sub-.500 team with a pedestrian +3 run differential. This is partly the result of a decline in pitching performance, as their staff’s ERA and RA/G against non-divisional opponents increased by over a run, falling below the league averages of 4.14 and 4.45, respectively.
|2018 Cleveland Pitching Stats|
They fared better offensively against non-divisional opponents, putting up a batting line that was above the league average in all categories but markedly below their overall numbers as a top offense.
|2018 Cleveland Batting Stats|
|Win-Loss (%)||Runs Scored||R/G||Avg.||OBP||SLG||OPS|
This split in performance was an outlier among the AL playoff teams. The other AL playoff teams, with the exception of Oakland, performed well against teams both inside and outside their division. The run differentials are against divisional and non-divisional opponents for each playoff team are broken out below with Tampa Bay added in to show how Cleveland compares with the best non-playoff team (Seattle was left out due to their improbable record in close games in 2018).
|2018 American League Playoff Team and Tampa Bay Run Differentials|
|Team||Overall||Against Division||Against Non-Division||Against AL Central|
With the exception of Oakland having a similar split in the opposite direction, no other playoff team was even close to the type of split that Cleveland put up, despite the AL East teams having the privilege of playing Baltimore more often. Houston may have even performed better against the AL Central than Cleveland, putting up a 102 rdiff against the division in 44 fewer games. That Cleveland played so poorly against opponents outside its division while the rest of the playoff teams did not, is not just the result of Cleveland being a weak playoff team but the division winner from one of the historically worst divisions in baseball since the beginning of the divisional era in 1969.
Corey Kluber may leave Cleveland if the team is going to become a real contender. (www.mlb.com)
In June 2018, The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh wrote an article detailing the strength of each division since 1969 using an analysis supplied by Dan Hirsch of The Baseball Gauge. The method is similar to the “Simple Rating System” at Sports Reference Sites and adds the average RDiff of a division against teams from outside its division (“RDiff”) to the average run differential of the division’s opponents in their own non-divisional games, excluding games against the division listed (“SoS”) to produce an overall rating (“SRS”). You can find the full list here, noting the AL Central results are from June 2018.
At the time, the AL Central was on track to beat the awful 2005 NL West (which the Padres won with a 82-80 record) for weakest division. Using stats from Baseball Reference to calculate the AL Central’s final 2018 SRS shows they managed to avoid the embarrassing mark of worst division by finishing as the second worst division since 1969.
|2005 NL West||-1.014||0.099||-1.005|
|2018 Al Central||-0.977||0.092||-0.885|
While this may seem as another historical curiosity produced by baseball, under MLB’s current schedule and playoff structure, having a division that performs far below the others could add to the trend of teams committing to lengthy rebuilds instead of improving to make a playoff push.
A good example of this is Seattle. The Mariners finished 2018 with 89 wins, good for 7th best in the AL, but 8 games behind Oakland. This offseason, Seattle has decided to undergo a full rebuild, seemingly concluding that they can’t make the necessary improvement to catch up to Oakland or Houston. But that calculus might have been different under a playoff system that sent the top-5 teams in each league to the playoffs instead of the division winners and 2 wild cards. Catching up to Houston and Oakland would still be out of reach in 2019 under such a system, but Seattle making enough smaller improvements to compete with Cleveland, Minnesota, or Tampa Bay for the 5th playoff spot seems attainable.
Cleveland has to point the finger at themselves and take a hard look at their team if they want to win in the Post Season. (John Kuntz/ http://www.cleveland.com)
Instead, none of those teams just mentioned are doing much to improve their rosters. Seattle is rebuilding, Minnesota has made a couple of tweaks (claiming C.J. Cron and signing Jonathan Schoop and Nelson Cruz) but hasn’t improved their pitching, Tampa is pursuing its usual strategy, and Cleveland is shedding payroll and looking to trade Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer.
Maybe a Kluber or Bauer trade will bring back current players to improve their outfield and bullpen, it appears that Cleveland may focus on the future and seek prospects and young players. A prospects orientated trade would make Cleveland worse in 2019, yet they likely would still be favorites to repeat as AL Central champs. This is made possible because the AL Central is crud and, at a time when MLB revenues are rising, AL Central teams aren’t spending money to improve (all of its team’s 2018 payrolls were in the bottom half of MLB). This removes a playoff spot from being truly competitive, and may add to the growing list of teams undergoing rebuilds and results in less meaningful and interesting games for fans.
The Championship Series to decide the American and National League pennants are set. The Boston Red Sox against the Houston Astros in the American League and the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League. My personal favorite teams are not among the four remaining, so what better time to take an unscientific approach to decide who I want to win the World Series.
Starting with the team’s success every team has won at least one pennant. Their last pennants were: the Red Sox in 2013, the Astros and in 2017, and the Brewers in 1982 (American League). The 1982 American League Pennant remains the Brewers only trip to the World Series. The Red Sox last won the World Series in 2013. The Astros are the defending World Series Champions. The Dodgers last won the World Series with Kirk Gibson in 1988. The Brewers are still waiting to win their first World Series Championship.
In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened. (www.mlb.com)
Looking at the home cities I have visited Boston, Houston, and Los Angeles. Sorry Milwaukee, maybe another time. My positive take from Boston is the rich history of the city colonial days to present. The food and drink is wonderful, which is made better by having extended family in Boston. Houston is a fun city. The food and culture is diverse and it never hurts to have a friend working for NASA to show you around. Los Angeles has great weather, great food, and beautiful scenery from the mountains to the beaches. Never visiting Milwaukee, I would guess the beer and brats are delicious and the lakefront area by Lake Michigan is nice. I would guess.
However, for all the great things about these cities there are drawbacks. Boston is cold and the people are not always warm and welcoming. Houston is the epitome of flat, urban sprawl. Los Angeles has its world famous traffic and pollution, not to mention it is expensive. In my mind, Milwaukee is always cold, and I hate the cold.
The ballparks the teams play in a different as well. Fenway Park is a historic park with a unique configuration and appearance. Baseball legends have played on this diamond for over a century. The history of the park all but speaks for itself. Minute Maid Park is modern with all the amenities baseball fans have come to expect. The weather outside rarely matters as the retractable roof creates perfect baseball weather inside every day of the year. Dodger Stadium is timeless in its simplicity and longevity. Legends, including the voice of baseball Vin Scully, have spent decades within its inviting confines. Miller Park remains on my list of Major League stadiums to visit. Beyond the ability to close the roof and have perfect baseball weather, the Uecker seats and the slide for Bernie Brewer are clearly the most important features of the park.
Celebratory slide for Bernie Brewer. (www.mlb.com)
The good comes with the bad. Fenway Park was built when people were smaller. There is not enough legroom between seats, especially for people who are claustrophobic. It is also an expensive park to visit as people flock to historic Fenway to watch the Red Sox continued success year after year. The roof on Minute Maid Park is not perfect. I had the pleasure of sitting under a leaky portion of the roof a few years ago. Luckily I was able to change seats, otherwise the torrential rain outside would have soaked me inside the stadium. The closed roof also means the cannon fire after an Astros home run is deafening. Dodger Stadium is expensive but the biggest complaint I have is the team does not market their history well. I could not find any memorabilia from their storied history. Maybe keep a few Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella shirseys around, people will definitely buy them. Where do I start with Miller Park. Ummm…it looks a little dark when I watch a game on television.
Everything else is superficial, it is the team on the field that matters the most. The Red Sox have a solid rotation with Chris Sale and David Price, arguably the best closer in Craig Kimbrel, stars like J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts, and the Most Valuable Player in Mookie Betts. The Astros have a proven winning lineup with Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa. A rotation of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Dallas Keuchel does not hurt either. The Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw leading the charge with Yasiel Puig, a resurgent Matt Kemp, Justin Turner, and a host of other All Star caliber players. The Brewers have the National League Most Valuable Player in Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, and Jesus Aguilar supported by an almost unhittable bullpen with Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, and Corey Knebel.
Mookie Betts and the Red Sox look unbeatable. (Boston Herald/ Stuart Cahill)
Each team also has unique drawbacks. The Red Sox have spent a ton of money to assemble a great team. World Series Championships should be won not purchased. The Astros are the defending Champions, their repeating is less than thrilling. The Dodgers have tried to buy a World Series for years, this forever rubs me the wrong way. The Brewers still employ Ryan Braun. I am not a fan of his, not was busted for using Performance Enhancing Drugs, but his attempt to smear Dino Laurenzi’s name, the test collector, to save himself from his own stupidity forever stained his legacy. I have sat in left field when watching the Brewers on the road simply to boo Braun and will continue to do so until he retires.
After weighing the good and the bad for each team my decision on which team to root to a World Series Championship comes down to a single person. Bob Uecker. Mr. Baseball. Bob Uecker has given his life to baseball. He has been the voice of the Milwaukee Brewers since 1971. He was Harry Doyle in the Major League movies. His appearances on Johnny Carson. Andre the Giant choking him. The Miller Lite commercials. He continues to complain about his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame only as a Broadcaster, the Ford C. Frick Award in 2003, and not as a player. A career .200 hitter with 14 lifetime home runs, including off Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, and Sandy Koufax. Yes that Sandy Koufax. The stats speak for themselves. Come on Brewers, give Milwaukee the World Series they deserve with Bob Uecker making the call.
Come on Brewers, let Bob Uecker announce a World Series Champion!!! (Scripps Media-2016)
The Washington Nationals had a stranglehold on the National League East during Spring Training, at least on paper. The rest of the division was vying for a Wild Card spot at best. When the season started the Nationals turned into a paper tiger, while the Phillies and Braves vaulted to the top of the East as their rebuilding efforts bear fruit. Few people expected either team to play this well into mid-September.
Leading the Braves resurgence is a consummate professional. The breakout season by rookie duo of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña, and another outstanding season from perennial All Star in Freddie Freeman have gotten much of the attention. However, it is the veteran Nick Markakis leading the charge in Atlanta.
It is past time to appreciate and honor the consistency of Nick Markakis. Markakis is leading baseball in hits, and leading the National League in sacrifice flies and is tied for the National League lead in doubles. He is a compiler, like Craig Biggio. Compilers are rarely given the respect they deserve as they grind, often under the radar. Markakis rarely misses a game, playing an average of 155 games each season. He has played fewer than 147 games in a season only once in his 13 year career.
This season he ranks in the top 10 in baseball in Batting Average, Plate Appearances, At Bats, Games Played, Hits (leads all of baseball), Singles, Doubles, Times of Base, Sacrifice Flies, Intentional Walks, and At Bats per Strikeout. While these stats do not make him a super star in the eyes of fans, teams know a player like Markakis is critical to their success.
Nick Markakis consistently puts the ball in play. Could he quietly be grinding his way towards Cooperstown? (Hyosub Shin/ HShin@ajc.com)
2018 is not an outlier for Markakis, he has been a force his entire career. He has eight seasons with 170 or more hits. He averages 182 hits per season, yet has never had a 200 hit season. He will finish close to 200 hits yet again as he has 174 hits with two weeks left to play. Markakis has nine seasons with 30 or more doubles and five seasons with 40 or more doubles. He already has 40 doubles this season, above his 39 doubles in an average season. He has scored 75 runs, hit 14 home runs, and drawn 63 walks which are around an average season for him. His .306 batting average is the best of his career, he will have his third season hitting above .300, yet his career .289 average shows his consistency at the plate. Markakis has struck out 70 times, well below his average of 93 per season. His career 6.8 At Bats per Strikeout is well below the Major League average of 4.6. A career .359 OBP, with .371 this season. He has never been a power bat, but he puts the ball in play and sets the table for the power bats behind him in the line up.
Markakis finished sixth in the crowded 2006 American League Rookie of the Year. He is a two time Gold Glove winner, 2011 and 2014, winning both awards without committing an error in over 1,300 innings in the field each season. He was voted to his first All Star game this season. He played the most games and collected the most hits before playing in his first All Star game in baseball history.
Grinding away, Markakis is quietly sneaking up on 3,000 hits. He currently has 2,226 hits. If he can remain healthy and continue collecting an average of 182 hits every year, Markakis would reach the mystical 3,000 hit mark before his 40th birthday. This would present the baseball writers with an intriguing question. Does collecting 3,000 hits automatically make you are a Hall of Famer? A few more good seasons by Markakis could force the baseball writers to confront this question.
Much of what Markakis provides Atlanta is not found in the stats. His veteran leadership has helped the young Braves rise to the top of the division earlier than expected. Veteran leadership is disappearing as teams are unwilling to pay veteran prices for players past their primes. In Markakis, the Braves have a veteran leader in the clubhouse and on the field. Time will tell how far his leadership can lead Atlanta and how valuable he is on the free agent market after the season.
It seems like only yesterday the Mets were poised to have a scary starting rotation for years to come. A rotation rivaling the Braves’ rotation in the 1990’s which had three Hall of Fame pitchers coming at you night after night. The future of the Amazings had Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Steven Matz, and Jacob deGrom. This rotation would dominate the division and baseball for years to come. Yeah…about that. The Dark Knight was banished from Gotham and is now pitching for the Cincinnati Reds, and even the Reds are beginning to discuss trading high on Matt Harvey before he crashes again. Noah Syndergaard has not pitched since before Memorial Day due to injury. Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler are having forgettable seasons and rumors are swirling about one or both leaving Queens. Neither would yield a huge return, but the Mets may be more concerned about getting something before their trade value becomes nothing. This leaves only Jacob deGrom on the mound for the Mets.
Even as Jacob deGrom is producing a career year, the Mets are wasting the work of their best pitcher. The Mets are terrible this year, may be time for a rebuild in Queens, even when deGrom is lights out. deGrom is leading all of baseball in ERA, FIP, and ERA+. Regardless what you think about FIP and ERA+, leading MLB in ERA, with a 1.79 ERA is no small feat. In 18 starts this season, deGrom has pitched 115 ⅓ innings, allowing 23 Earned Runs, with 142 strikeouts against only 29 walks. He also has a 0.988 WHIP. He has gone at least seven innings in 11 starts. Yet despite his brilliance, deGrom has a 5-4 record and the Mets are 7-11 when deGrom starts. No team is successful when they struggle to win with their best pitcher on the mound.
Jacob deGrom has had to grin and bear it this year as he watches his great starts wasted by the Mets. (Michael Reaves/ Getty Images)
The Mets have scored 69 runs, 3.83 per game, in games deGrom starts. However, they have given up 70 runs, 3.88 per game. The bullpen is letting the team down, having allowed 46 runs in deGrom starts. Any close game deGrom leaves the bullpen is struggling to hold the lead or keep the game close for the offense. deGrom is 2-2 at Citi Field and 3-2 on the road. The Mets are currently 35-51 and in 4th place in the National League East, ahead of only the disaster in Miami in the standings. Not a great return for the pitching deGrom is delivering every fifth day.
The Amazings cannot expect deGrom to continue putting up these numbers with nothing to show for it. The Mets need to rebuild around deGrom or find a trade while he is hot. A pitcher like deGrom should bring back a slew of prospects that could turn the franchise around. deGrom does not reach free agency until 2021, he would be more than a trade deadline rental. Regardless what the team does, the Mets should not waste deGrom’s brilliance. The Mets are ridiculed for their decision-making, such as Bobby Bonilla and the Wilpons, but at some point the team needs to either act like a small market team that happens to play in New York or responsibility act like a big market team. Stop giving big contracts players at the back-end of their prime like Jason Bay, 4 years $66 million, and Yoenis Cespedes, 4 years $110 million. Spread the money around, spend money on the bullpen, spend money on developing a retaining guys like you did with David Wright, and hope they can avoid injury. Yes, Jacob deGrom is having an amazing season wasted by the Mets, but this is the latest symptom of the Mets inability to capitalize on the talent they draft and develop. The team needs to focus on putting a winning team on the field. Winning baseball will attract the fans and media attention and make New York a two team town.
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.
It has been 20 years since the dawn of the 1998 baseball season. The season would see one of the great teams of all time as the Yankees marched towards the World Series, meanwhile Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing the single season home run record. Knowing what we know now about many of the players who helped revive baseball that summer does diminish some of the fondness. However as Mark McGwire famously said before Congress, “I am not here to talk about the past.”
The 1994 players strike severely damaged baseball. The cancellation of the World Series and the delayed start of the 1995 season saw fans turn their backs on the game. Arguing who is blame, the players or the owners, for this dark time in baseball is for another day, what mattered then was how would the game win back the fans it lost. Some fans still see 1994 as the death of baseball, don’t believe me check out this Facebook group which has more than 22,000 members. Right or wrong baseball needed a season to get its fans back.
Cal Ripken Jr. gave baseball a moment it needed to draw fans back to the game. (REUTERS/ Gary Hershorn/Files)
Baseball got a much needed boost when Cal Ripken Jr. played his 2,131st consecutive game, passing Lou Gehrig for most consecutive games played on September 6, 1995. This was a moment baseball desperately needed showing the good of the game. It was however, a moment. Baseball needed more than one night of glory, it needed a season of suspense and wonderment.
The 1998 New York Yankees are one of the greatest teams ever assembled. The Boston Red Sox won 92 games, yet finished 22 games behind the Yankees in the division. The Yankees finished the season 114-48. The Bronx Bombers had eight players with at least 17 home runs, five players with at least 84 RBI, and eight players with 21 or more doubles. The Yankees hit .288 as a team. On the mound, all five Yankee starters had at least 12 wins, a team ERA of 3.82, with the starters averaging 6 ⅔ inning per start, plus Mariano Rivera nailing down 36 saves out of the bullpen. In the Playoffs, the Yankees swept the Texas Rangers in the American League Divisional Series three games to none, allowing only one run. In the American League Championship Series, the Yankees dispatched the Cleveland Indians in six games. In the World Series, New York swept the San Diego Padres in four games. The 98 win Padres were no match for the Yankees. The biggest team in baseball helped put the game back into people’s lives as they rolled through the season and playoffs. Yankee dominance helped, but the primary attraction was in the National League.
There was little drama as the Yankees swept the World Series. (Jeff Haynes/ AFP/ Getty Images)
Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa later became the poster children for what was wrong with baseball, but in the summer of 1998 they were what made baseball relevant again for much of the country. Divisional rivals on two of the most prominent teams in the sport, McGwire and Sosa embarked on a home run race that captured the attention of the country. When Roger Maris broke the single season home run record held by Babe Ruth, there was backlash. People felt Ruth’s record should be left alone. When Maris ultimately hit home run number 61 in 1961 he did it in game 162, which many believe meant his record deserved an asterisk as he took more games than Ruth’s 154 game schedule in 1927. If McGwire, Sosa, or some other slugger could hit 60 home runs fewer than 154 games they would hold the record.
McGwire hit 11 home runs by the end of April, only to hit 16 in May to bring his season total to 27 as the calendar turned to June. On May 22nd, Sosa had only 9 home runs against McGwire’s 24. Over the next six weeks Sosa got red hot, hitting 24 home runs. Heading into the All Star Break, McGwire lead Sosa 37 home runs to 33. The race for 62 was on. McGwire hit his 50th home run of the season on August 20th, Sosa followed with his 50th three days later on August 23rd. However in between a whirlwind began on August 22nd regarding McGwire’s use of Androstenedione. McGwire maintained his use of Andro was legal and it did not give him any added benefits on the field. This is perhaps the clearest beginning of the steroid era entering public knowledge. The use of Andro did little to distract the public from the frenzy of the home run chase. September 8th saw McGwire hit his shortest home run of the season, 341 feet, just clearing the left field wall in Busch Stadium. McGwire and the Cardinals were hosting Sosa and the Cubs that night. After initially missing first base in the midst of his joy, quickly retreating to touch the missed base, McGwire rounded the bases to officially set the new single season home run mark at 62. Sosa would tie McGwire at 62 home runs on September 13th. As the 1998 season wound down the question turned to how high McGwire and Sosa would push the home run record. For the only time all season Sosa took the lead on September 25th, when he hit his 66th and final home run of the season. McGwire would finish with a flurry, hitting five home runs in the last three games of the season to finish with 70 home runs.
The home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa helped revive baseball one home run at a time. (AP Photo/ Beth A. Keiser)
There was no doubt both McGwire and Sosa broke the single season home run record, Ruth’s and Maris’. Sosa would be named the National League Most Valuable Player, while McGwire got his name in the record books. The summer of chasing Ruth and Maris brought baseball the excitement back it lost in the 1994 players strike. The chase between McGwire and Sosa, coupled with the total dominance of the Yankees gave baseball the season it needed to win back fans and rebuild trust.
20 years have passed since the summer of 1998. We have learned so much about the men who played that summer. Far too many had their abilities aided by steroids and other performance enhancers. The steroid era was on full display, we just did not know it yet. The revival of baseball was both helped and hurt by the steroid era, many players have since fallen from grace. The game continues to grow and much of the magic I remember as a kid has returned. The summer of 1998 helped revive baseball, and yet my most vivid memory from that summer is having no interest in any of it. 1998 was my last season playing organized baseball. I had a coach who took the fun out of the game. He would scream and yell when the players, myself included, did not get a hit. He changed my batting stance over and over again. I came to dread going to baseball practice and games. The joy of playing baseball was gone. A year or so later I wanted to play for a travel team, but I was late to the tryout we did not get out of the car. This is how my baseball career ended. I am under no illusion I was good enough to play professionally, maybe not even in high school. However, one person ruined baseball, it took years for my love of the game to return. I hope he still remembers how great those handful of victories were for our Spring 11/12U rec league team 20 years ago.