September 22, 2017
Half-Truths and Collision Courses
At least three league records for offensive events will be set by the end of this regular season. There have already been more home runs hit in 2017 than in any previous season, breaking the record set in 2000. By the close of business on Sunday, there will also have been more strikeouts than in any previous season, breaking the record set in 2016, and in each of the previous five seasons. The third record, like the one for homers, is already set. Forty-two batters have reached on catcher’s interference in 2017, more than in any previous season. As with strikeouts, this record eclipsed one set by the league’s hitters just last year.
There’s a much smaller chance that the record for batters hit by a pitch in a season will fall. In fact, there’s virtually none. Not counting the years before 1900, the highest total of hit batsmen in one season came in 2001, when pitchers plunked 1,890 batters. Entering play on Thursday, only 1,670 batters had been hit in 2017.
Well, I should clarify that, because the “only” there is misleading. There have already been more hit batsmen in 2017 than there were in all of 2016. On a rate basis, there have been more HBP per team game than in any season except 2001, 2003, and 2004—and those three seasons averaged about 1.4 more plate appearances per team game than 2017 has averaged. Batters are being hit at a remarkable rate, if not quite an all-time-record one.
This has something to do with the juiced ball, but I’m not sure it can be entirely explained away by that. Here are the slugging percentages for right-handed batters on pitches over the inner third of the plate, and over the outer third, for all the years we have good data (alas, only since 2008).
Slugging Percentage by Pitch Location for Right-Handed Batters, MLB, 2008-2017
Again, this is consistent with a juiced ball, especially because the swings on which one might benefit most from the extra exit velocity or fly-ball carry are the ones where one might get the ball off the end of the bat a bit. However, it’s also consistent with another possible explanation, one that has been kicking around in my head for a little while now.
Anthony Rizzo couldn’t hit lefties in 2013. In 216 plate appearances against them, he batted .189/.282/.342. His .207 BABIP in that small sample certainly shaped those numbers, but it wasn’t all bad luck that led to those problems. Rizzo wasn’t seeing the ball well against lefties, and against tough ones, he often didn’t have a real chance. In 107 PA against southpaws that reached two strikes, Rizzo fanned over 41 percent of the time and posted a .198 wOBA.
I don’t know whether Rizzo ever studied the hitting advice of Ty Cobb, or whether he’s ever read Harvey Dorfman’s The Mental Game of Baseball, but starting in 2014, he solved his platoon problems by literally taking a page from that book—and a cue from Cobb.
Rizzo made his move in 2014, and has never really moved back off the plate. It’s allowed him to become one of the best left-handed hitters in baseball, when it comes to hitting lefty pitchers. Even with two strikes and a southpaw on the mound, since the start of 2014, he’s batted .221/.295/.305, good for a .272 wOBA. What Rigney didn’t have the vocabulary to express, we can infer from his comments, and from Cobb’s concept: parallax is an underrated element of hitting. The closer a hitter can stand to the plate, the better he can see a pitch from the same angle the catcher and umpire have, and the more likely he is to judge the pitch correctly, in terms of location, spin, and movement. This effect is particularly pronounced when facing same-handed pitchers.
Of course, Rizzo has paid a price for claiming this advantage. In a bit over 1,200 plate appearances through the end of 2013, he had been hit by 13 pitches. In about 2,650 plate appearances since the start of 2014, he’s been hit 84 times. That makes 97 for what is still a fairly young career. Since 1913, only Jason Kendall was hit by more pitches by the end of his age-27 season. Only Kendall and Starling Marte have had as many seasons of at least 15 times hit by pitch (four) by age 27.
Rizzo was part of a rising tide. Using tOPS+, a Baseball-Reference stat that compares performance for a given player or group in a certain split to the performance of that player or group as a whole, 2012 and 2013 were the hardest seasons in over 40 years for left-handed batters facing lefty pitchers. The league’s lefty batters hit .233/.294/.352 against lefty pitchers during those two seasons, good for an aggregate tOPS+ of 80. (In other words, they were 20 percent worse in those plate appearances than they were overall.)
That changed starting in 2014, however. For the last four seasons, the tOPS+ figures for lefties facing lefties are 86, 86, 83, and 84. These are still lower than the historical norm, but they’re no longer radical. Around that time (2012-2013), there was considerable talk about a distortion in the strike zone for left-handed hitters, one that especially affected them when they faced left-handed pitchers.
Umpires, it seemed, were setting up over the catcher’s right shoulder, toward the inner half for lefty hitters. When a pitcher would take aim at the outside corner, though, it was sometimes very difficult for the ump to correctly gauge where the ball was crossing the plate, or if it was at all. Specifically, their angle on the pitch was likely to make it look closer to them than it actually was, so the outside corner to lefty hitters got distended. As that issue corrected itself (through feedback to umpires and some changes in the way many of them set up), hitters had more of a chance again, especially if they made adjustments akin to Rizzo’s.
Someone—and I wish I could remember who it was but I can’t—recently asserted that there’s just no way Jacoby Ellsbury isn’t inducing catcher interferences on purpose. Ellsbury now holds the career record for times reaching on catcher interference, of course, and he raced up on and past former all-time leader Pete Rose in the blink of an eye: 17 of his 31 have come since the start of last season.
I think the better way of putting it, though, is to say that Ellsbury is doing something intentional that is contributing to his likelihood of hitting the catcher on his swing. That’s not the same as saying that he’s intentionally trying to hit the catcher, though. Even before the last two seasons, Ellsbury ranked eighth all time in catcher interferences, so he’s always done this to some extent. Of all 31 in his career, 24 have come with two strikes, so it would make sense if he were trying to reach base this way because his back was to the wall, but six of the seven instances of it happening with fewer than two strikes have happened in the last two years, when everyone alleges that he’s started doing it deliberately. Why would he give up on plate appearances earlier now?
A couple of things help explain Ellsbury’s quirk, including its acceleration over the last two seasons. Firstly, he has a swing in which his hands separate from his body and start to do the work of the swing earlier than they do for most hitters. That’s a trait he shares, by the way, with Josh Reddick, who came up through the Red Sox system at about the same time as Ellsbury and who is now racking up reaches on catcher interferences himself. Reddick didn’t have any catcher interferences until 2014, though, and of the 13 in his career, only three have come with two strikes. Six have come when he was ahead in the count, so it’s very doubtful that he’s doing it on purpose.
Both Reddick and Ellsbury have moved incrementally closer to home plate over the last few years, and Reddick now sets up at the back of the box, ever so slightly back toward the catcher from where he used to set up. Combine those things with the inevitable drag on bat speed created by age, and there’s a strong case to be made that both guys (as well as Edwin Encarnacion, Paul Goldschmidt, and Jason Heyward, each of whom are among the top 30 players all time in reaching on catcher interference) are simply going about their business, and running into the catcher’s mitt more often.
As pitch velocity continues to trend up, hitters will continue to get as far toward the back edge of the box (nearest the catcher) as possible. As the league continues to value (and indeed, depend upon) home runs, hitters will continue to start their swings low, and to work uphill through the hitting zone. That’s going to put more bats in the airspace catchers want to claim.
It’s important for catchers to claim that space, of course, because they want to keep stealing strikes. In fact, more to the point, many of them are trying to avoid losing strikes. As breaking-ball usage increases league-wide, so does the need for catchers to be able to go get the ball—to catch it as far out in front of them as possible, lest umpires think a good curve has dipped below the zone. Of late, that’s been an issue across the league. Umps are having a hard time calling the curve.
A hitter who knows a curve is coming, especially if he thinks it will be in the zone when it crosses the plate, is also looking to go get the ball. The way to make solid contact on a breaking ball is to contact it well out in front of the plate, denying the pitch the chance to dip so low that it can’t be squared up. So, when the hitter guesses correctly, there will rarely be a problem. When a hitter guesses fastball and gets a curve, though, or guesses breaking ball and gets the heat, the timing becomes dicey.
Either the late swing on a good heater is going to have the batter swinging through the deep part of the hitting zone after the catcher has already started to move his mitt toward the ball, or the catcher’s reach for the breaking ball is going to intrude on the hitter’s effort to get their bat through the zone early enough to catch up to a fastball. This is all hypothetical. It’s just what I’m observing, and guessing, about the spike in catcher interferences.
The walls are closing in. That’s really what this article boils down to. In a few different ways, I’m trying to point out that batters have more reason than ever to stand close to the plate and deep in the batter’s box. Catchers are trying to creep to the very front of the catcher’s box for pitch-framing purposes. Pitchers are using Statcast and other pitch-tracking data to design deliveries and pitches that give the hitter little time to make decisions, and even less time to execute. As more and more of the action in a baseball game concentrates upon these three actors (plus the home-plate umpire), we’re also seeing the action within that interaction compressed into a smaller physical space than ever.
It’s fascinating, and it’s fun, and there’s nothing overwhelmingly wrong with high numbers of hit batsmen or catcher interferences. It’s just that if the league wants to open the game up again—speed it up, take some of the moment-to-moment tension that gets packed into every pitch and spread it around the field, make it bigger and easier for fans to see and understand—they’re going to have a hard time of it. It’s going to require radical change. As things stand now, the intensity of the fight for every millimeter and millisecond as the ball flies toward the plate is too great to be matched by anything that happens before or after. The three true outcomes, plus the half-truths of hit batsmen and catcher interference, are taking over baseball, and it’s because every pitch is close quarters combat.