The man who got hit by pitches

Wanted to point you in the direction of a fun piece from ESPN colleague Jonah Keri over at fivethirtyeight.com. He wrote about Ron Hunt and the 1971 season when he got hit by 50 pitches. Hughie Jennings got hit by 51 pitches in 1896 and 46 in both 1897 and 1898, but No. 2 on the post-1900 list is Don Baylor, who got hit 35 times in 1986.

From Jonah's piece:

"His hitting style was that he crowded the plate," said Bill Stoneman, Hunt’s teammate for three seasons in Montreal, including his record-breaking campaign. "Back when we played, pitchers pitched inside a little more than they do now. When that pitch came inside, he didn’t budge. He just let the thing hit him."

"First I would blouse the uniform -- this big, wool uniform, I would make sure it was nice and loose," Hunt said. “Then I’d choke way up on the bat, and stand right on top of the plate. That way, I could still reach the outside pitch. That was the Gil Hodges philosophy on hitting: The two inches on the outside corner were the pitcher’s, the rest was his. I thought, ‘If I can take away those two inches, and he’s not perfect, I can put the ball in play and get some hits. And if he comes inside, I can get on base that way, too.'"

I'm most interested in Stoneman's quote. He was a big league pitcher for eight seasons and later the general manager of the Angels. So he was in the game for a long time.

But did pitchers really throw more inside back then? Everybody says they did. You can find many quotes, usually from players in the 1960s, referencing this aspect of the game, often mentioning Don Drysdale or how pitchers were simply meaner back then. In 1971, there were 0.21 hit batters per game per team -- an average of 34 hit batters per team over 162 games. In 2014, the average was 55 hit batters per team over 162 games. You could argue that pitchers are simply more wild than 1971, but there were fewer walks per game in 2014. So ... what explains such a drastic growth in hit by pitches?

A few suggestions:

1. Pitchers didn't really throw inside as much as the old-timers want you to believe.

2. Hitters crowd the plate more than ever.

3. Hitters are more willing to take one for their team now (with the help of body armor in some cases).

4. Hitters aren't as adept at dodging inside pitches.

5. Pitchers don't throw inside as much as they used to so when they do they don't do it with much command.

The most likely culprits, to me, are 1 and 2. Since I've been a fan in the late '70s, there's no doubt hitters stand on top of the plate more than they used to; you can watch old videos from that era and easily notice how far off the plate a lot of hitters stood. Hit by pitch totals actually decreased from 1971 through the late '70s and into the '80s. As offense picked up around 1993, hit by pitch totals increased. After all, it's easier to hit home runs if you can reach that outside pitch and swat it with power to the opposite field.

Of course, hit by pitch totals have declined a bit since peaking in 2001, perhaps indicating that a lot of the hit batters were intentional, the result of all the home runs. Now that home runs have decreased, pitchers are less angry.

Anyway, Ron Hunt. An odd player. Jonah didn't address this in his piece, but Bill James has written that Hunt was intensely disliked by opposing players and teammates. There was an article in Sport magazine in 1965 titled "Ron Hunt, Loner."

But the hit by pitch trick worked for him. He didn't have any power and wasn't a good second baseman but he got on base and extended his career an extra five years or so.