The baseball has been a torture device this season, thumping hitters from shoulder to toe, producing injuries which have altered races. The Nationals know this as well as anyone. Anthony Rendon appeared part of Voodoo get-back when he was hit on the elbow, foot, shin and quad. He’s played 53 games this season and been hit five times. His career-high is seven. Trea Turner’s broken right index finger shifted the course of Washington’s season. Mention all the damage the baseball is doing to see Turner’s blood pressure rise.
They’re not alone. Major league players are being hit at a historic rate for the second consecutive season. This year, 0.40 batters are being hit by a pitch per team game. That number matches last season’s which was the highest since 0.41 in 1893. The only seasons with a higher frequency than 2018 and 2019 occurred between 1893 and 1900 -- an era of outgrown mustaches, high stirrups and preceding the Red Sox and Yankees. The easy explanation for beanings of that bygone time was lack of skill on the mound. What is going on now?
The core answer is velocity. It’s up. Like the number of batters being struck, pitch speed is at an all-time high. It’s also an express ticket to the major leagues. The radar gun has supplanted the art of pitching as the fastest path from bus rides through Pennsylvania to posh clubhouses where they carry your bags to the bus at your convenience.
Increase in velocity has provided a ripple effect: less time to react and more efforts to start swings early. But, it’s not just the speed. A boon in analytics has also contributed. The launch-angle era is occurring at the same time pitchers have become aware of spin rates. Whipping the ball to revolve as hard as possible cuts command. Looking to hit a homer each time means bigger loads at the plate. Add the disappearance of “fastball counts” to these other factors, and a plunkfest is underway.
“I think the No. 1 reason is velocity,” Adam Eaton told NBC Sports Washington. “You have less time to get out of the way. Less time to react. Less time for the fight-or-flight type mentality. When you get less time to do it, you’re going to get hit by pitches.
“You see so many guys get hit in the hands these days, because as soon as you fire and you check swing, and your hands go towards the plate, there’s just no way of getting your hands out of the way. When guys used to throw 88-92, you’d be able to get out of the way. You’d fire, and it’s oh, gosh, get out of the way and you’d be able to get out of the way. Now guys throw 97. That extra five mph makes a huge difference to get out of the way.”
How to get out of the way is also under scrutiny. The Nationals have tried to convince battering ram Victor Robles to tuck his chin down and turn his front shoulder in when he is at risk of being struck -- which happens all the time. In his first 509 pro games, Robles was hit 109 times. This season, he narrowly avoided taking a baseball flush on the cheekbone, which looms as the gravest concern when watching his body-sacrificing tendencies.
“There have been people before who have mentioned to me to possibly take the pitches differently so I possibly don’t get hit or get hit in certain parts of my body,” Robles said through interpreter Octavio Martinez. “Like I said, it’s part of the game. To me, it’s almost part of my plan to try to find a way to get on base. I’m not saying I want to get, but if I do get hit, I’m not afraid of the ball. I’ll take my hit and get on the base, then try to damage that way. That’s just the way I see it.”
And, the balls coming at his face?
“Those situations I try to just get out of the way as quickly as possible because I know for myself if bad luck comes and I get hit somewhere in my face, I know it’s not going to be something I come back from real quick. I’m going to be out for a little bit and can’t help my team out. Once that happens, I try to do something to get out of the way a lot quicker than I probably would with another part of my body.”
Robles shared those thoughts weeks before a 96-mph fastball from Miami’s Sandy Alcantara grazed his cheek. He fell to the ground and raised the alarm of everyone from home plate to the dugout to the Dominican Republic. He turned out to be fine. But, the interior ride on such fastballs from right-handers and Robles diving toward them will be an ongoing tussle. Robles has even been struck by would-be strikes. Davey Martinez gulps as he observes the fight Robles appears destined to lose.
“When the ball’s coming in, I actually cringe because I know how he is,” Martinez said. “He jumps out of the way, falls backward, the helmet flies off. But I get nervous because of how he approaches his at-bats and that he doesn’t necessarily get out of the way.”
Robles, Rendon, Eaton and Turner wear little protection. A light elbow pad is part of the long-sleeve shirt Rendon often wears. Eaton -- who finished third and fourth in the American League in HBP in 2014-15, respectively -- wears an external elbow guard. Not part of the arsenal is Bonds-esque, shoulder-to-wrist-level protection which could also double as a car bumper.
They apparatuses are uncomfortable. Hitting is hard enough. Players don’t want to be saddled with extraneous items -- even ones to prevent welts and injured list stints. Turner doesn’t even like to wear protective mitts when running the bases.
“There’s a lot of guys who don’t like to wear them because of the feel,” Martinez said.
Not a factor: menace. Or so it seems.
Days of dusting an opposing hitter for any nominal transgression have passed. Pitching inside now is less about intimidation than a counter to every swing being angled upward for maximum damage. To some, the lack of purposeful up-and-in is also generational.
“I don’t think there’s anything vicious on the part of pitchers,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “In the age of Millennialism, it’s counterintuitive to what Millennials are all about. They don’t want to hurt each other. They want to play well in the sandbox. It’s all there. It is. It’s counterintuitive generationally speaking.
“Where it was back in the day -- Mr. Gibson, Mr. Koufax, Mr. Drysdale, whatever -- don’t do that. You don’t dig in. You don’t take a shovel out there and plant your back foot or you’re going to get knocked down. Take a couple good swings against me, you’re going to get knocked down. That’s not the motivation these days.”
Regardless, players are being hit over and over. The current mechanics of the game have conspired to put Rendon’s elbow, Turner’s finger and Robles’ face at risk. And no change is on the horizon.
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