RED SOX INSIDER

Tomase: Why J.D. Martinez doesn't blame pitchers for record HBP levels

RED SOX INSIDER

The moments involving some of baseball's biggest stars have been hard to miss.

Philadelphia Phillies slugger Bryce Harper took a wayward 97 mph fastball to the face and missed three games. Atlanta Braves five-tool star Ronald Acuna Jr. was plunked on the hand by a 98 mph heater and dodged a bullet after fears he had broken a bone. In both cases, relievers had little idea where the ball was going -- just one pitch after drilling Harper, for instance, St. Louis Cardinals reliever Genesis Cabrera nailed Didi Gregorius.

The incidents have not escaped the attention of Boston Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez. He highlighted the issue a couple of weeks ago with his observation that the game values stuff over command like never before, and he doesn't even necessarily blame pitchers for the resulting safety issues that leave hitters at risk.

Martinez knows what's plaguing baseball, and it's not launch angle

"It's not their fault," he said. "They're taught to throw the ball as hard as they can, up or down, not necessarily in or out. The game has changed. It's a copycat league. The teams that have done this, they've had success, so now it's just like everyone's doing it. You see it every night."

The Red Sox have experienced the issue up close, with infielder Christian Arroyo on the injured list after taking a pair of fastballs off his hand.

"How can you stop it? What are you going to do?" Martinez said. "You've got shin guards or elbow guards and wrist guards and stuff that you can wear. You see it. Arroyo got hit in the hand twice already. Hit by pitches are the highest they've ever been, right, this year? It is what it is."

 

The overwhelming power and spin rates dotting every pitching staff has the game facing a reckoning. The league batting average of .234 is the lowest ever. Hit by pitches are at an all-time high of nearly 0.5 a game. Strikeouts have reached nine per game for the first time, and hits have dropped to a level reached only in 1968, the fabled Year of the Pitcher that led to changes to the mound.

"There are guys that throw extremely hard, a lot of times they don't know where it's going, and then all of a sudden they just paint -- boom, boom, boom -- or they'll walk, or you'll have guys that chase them out of the zone, or they make a nasty pitch and they strike them out," Martinez said.

"It kind of leads to this whole game that we're playing right now, which is a strikeout, a walk, or they make a mistake and leave it over the plate, and when guys are throwing that hard and spinning the ball that much, pretty much all you have to do is touch it and it goes over the fence. So it's that kind of league right now. It's been like that for the last year and a half, two years."

Tomase: First-place Red Sox striking more defiant tone

Besides Arroyo, the Red Sox been lucky not to suffer any serious injuries. But for every young reliever who throws 97 mph at the eyes and drops hammer curves or nasty sliders below the knees without pinpoint command, the odds increase that someone's going to get hurt.

And the solution for hitters -- wearing even more armor to the plate -- comes at a cost.

"They have batting gloves that are safer," Martinez said. "They have them. They have batting gloves that are padded. You see Arroyo. He's got the whole hand guard thing, you could wear that. There's guys that do it, but it's uncomfortable. You're putting something on that feels very stiff and jagged and it's just uncomfortable. When you hit, you want that softness, that looseness in your wrists to be able to swing."