Useless Ratio Dept: Taking First The Hard Way

[Note: this is an expanded version of a post from several days ago.  Why expanded?  Because this is interesting stuff]

Popular wisdom holds that sluggers like Albert Pujols and Adrian Gonzalez draw a lot of walks through plate discipline and being pitched around.  Hitters like Miguel Tejada and Jose Lopez draw almost no walks because pitchers are less afraid of them, and because they swing at everything.  Meanwhile, certain batters get hit for crowding the plate, or for being A.J. Pierzynski.

Marlon Byrd is having a fine season thus far, but as of June 20th, 2010, he is running a 9:10 hit by pitch-to-walk ratio.  Pierzynski is at 5:6.  Finding this surprising and somewhat humorous, I looked at the league leaders in HBP over the past 5 years to see which batters pitchers seem willing to plunk, but unwilling to walk.

[Note: When the player accumulated his HBP total in a surprisingly few number of PA, I noted it.  I only looked at the top-50 HBP leaders in each season.]

Since 2005, only Ryan Doumit has achieved the honor of being in the top 50 in HBP, and reaching base by walk less frequently than by getting beaned.  Aaron Rowand went 18:18 in 2006, and is a very solid 113:242 (HBP:BB) for his career.  Pierzynski for his career-to-date has been hit 91 times and has walked 198 times.  Kenji Johjima, another catcher nobody was afraid to pitch to, finished his illustrious MLB career with a 37:66 ratio in 1,722 PA.  If you included the number of times his own pitchers wanted to hit him, Johjima would have finished well above 1:1.

Of course, the ball can’t hit you if you hit it first.  Despite his maniacal adherence to that philosophy, Vlad Guerrero is only average, with 90 career HBP for an average of 6.5 in each of his full seasons.

So which hitters, then, are hardest to hit?

[Stats from Fangraphs; swinging % not available before 2002]

John Kruk’s elusiveness is well-documented (see: Johnson, Randy; All Star Game, 1993).  Both Jose Cruz and his son were incredibly difficult to hit with a thrown baseball.  I checked to see if Sandy Alomar and his son shared a similar bond, and, alas, no.  Ozzie Guillen’s few career HBP will probably prompt some current players and GMs to find those lucky pitchers and ask them to describe what it felt like, sparing no detail.

The winner of Most Elusive Active Batter is Garret Anderson pulling away.  Anderson is the only player ever with 8,000+ PA and less than 10 HBP (since these stats have been recorded).  In a career of 13+ seasons averaging well over 600 plate appearances a year, Anderson has been hit by a pitch on average once every two years.  Anderson went welt-less from 1999 to 2003, during which he stepped to the plate 3,396 times.  During that streak, Steve Bartman was hit with more baseballs than Garret Anderson.

Why are these batters so hard to hit?  There’s no obvious correlation to on-base percentage.  The plate discipline numbers have limited value because I don’t have access to stats before 2002.  But one could surmise that a player with a low O-Swing % would induce pitchers to throw fewer pitches out of the zone, resulting in fewer HBP.  Sure enough, these batters’ O-Swing % are well below the 2010 league average of 27.4%.  Similarly, these players’ contact rates are slightly higher on average than the 2010 league average of 81.3%.  So they swing at fewer pitches outside the zone, and hit more pitches they swing at.

For comparison, here are the numbers for some of the most-drilled batters in recent baseball history:

Again, Biggio, Giambi and Galarraga’s best seasons happened before 2002.  But these players have both higher OBP and higher O-Swing % than the previous group of hitters, and a lower contact rate than both that group and the 2010 league average.  So these hitters chase more pitches, and hit them less often.

I am not familiar enough with these players to make estimates based on where each batter tends to stand in the batter’s box.  I’d be interested to know if there is a correlation between crowding the plate and walk rates.  But the presence of free swinger Galarraga on the most-hit list, and patient Chipper Jones on the least-hit list, suggest that there is more than one approach to attracting or dissuading the high cheese.  Perhaps, however, we are overlooking less reasonable theories, such as the one presented by the first result when you Google image search “garret anderson hit by pitch:”

Mister Anderson, but not Garret Anderson


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