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Why MLB players are being hit at a historic rate

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Why MLB players are being hit at a historic rate

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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2019 MLB Postseason Predictions: Where the Nationals stand

2019 MLB Postseason Predictions: Where the Nationals stand

A week after the Midsummer Classic, the Nationals' comeback June looks less and less like a fluke as Washington continues its push to the postseason and the NL East Wild Card race.

In the 2019 MLB Postseason fight, the Dodgers (62-33) of the NL West are predicted to finish the regular season as the top team in the league, while each wild card race remains fairly close. Right now, the NL Central Cubs (50-43) and NL East Braves (57-37) round out the current National League leaders, while the Nationals (49-43) and Phillies (48-45) are the two wild card teams. 

Washington, 1.5 games ahead in the wild card race, revived its playoff chances after a slow start to the season. The Nationals' comeback June propelled them back into a wild card position. But the NL wild card race is far from set, as the Brewers (48-46) are 0.5 games back from the Phillies (and the Cardinals (46-45) are 1.0 games behind). 

 Here are the MLB playoff standings if the season ended Monday:

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Division Leaders
Houston Astros (West)
New York Yankees (East)
Minnesota Twins (Central)

Wild Card
Tampa Bay Rays (55-40, +1.5 Wild Card Games Behind)
Oakland A's (53-41, - WCGB)

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Division Leaders
Chicago Cubs (Central)
Los Angeles Dodgers (West)
Atlanta Braves (East)

Wild Card
Washington Nationals (49-43, +1.5 WCGB)
Philadelphia Phillies (48-45, - WCGB)

2019 MLB POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS
(As of July 15)

All three projections for the playoffs have the Dodgers finishing at the top of the league, though Baseball Reference has Los Angeles winning a whopping 110 games––at least seven more wins than either FiveThirtyEight or FanGraphs projects. 

Baseball Reference predicts the Nationals and Diamondbacks will be the NL Wild Cards, with the Athletics and the Rays as the AL Wild Cards. FanGraphs also has the Nationals making the playoffs as a wild card, while FiveThirtyEight lists the Nationals as having a 56% chance of making the playoffs at all. 

FanGraphs is the only site that lists the Nationals' chance at winning the World Series as above 2.5% (5.8%), while it also gives Washington an 82% shot at making the playoffs overall (and a 63.7% chance to win the wild card). 

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Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Davey Martinez had no hesitation in his answer or decision on Friday in Philadelphia. First game out of the break, facing a team right next to the Nationals in the standings, a 4-0 lead. Closer Sean Doolittle was coming in to end it, though it was a non-save situation and he is being used at an extreme level.

“Here’s my thoughts: It took me about three seconds,” Martinez said Friday. “Playing at Citizens [Bank] Park. Four runs. That ain’t much here. Those guys can hit. Doolittle’s coming in the game. It’s a big moment. And, he’s my guy. To me, that game right there, it’s huge coming off a four-day break.”

So, Doolittle made his 40th appearance of the season. Saturday brought his 41st appearance. He did not pitch Sunday, a day game after a late night.

Trends are emerging through his high usage rate. Doolittle’s velocity is down for the fourth consecutive season. The dip is slight year over year, from 93.9 mph average fastball velocity to 93.6. His velocity was distinctly down in Philadelphia over the weekend despite four days off. Doolittle threw 12 fastballs Friday, 10 of which were slower than his average fastball velocity this season. He threw 19 fastballs Saturday; 13 were below his average velocity (two others matched it). 

“I’m not exactly sure why it’s down,” Doolittle said Saturday. “I know from past experience, not to panic if I see the 91, 92. I feel pretty good -- everybody gets a little tired around this point of the season, but if I stay in my mechanics and don’t try to overthrow, I can still get that life and deception on my fastball. I can still, like [Saturday], I can still navigate innings and get guys out. These last two nights I’ve been really pleased with how I’ve been able to manage my energy level without maybe my best fastball.”

He is on pace for a career-high 72 appearances and 1,214 pitches. The latter would exceed his career mark of 1,019 by almost 200 pitches. One of the most telling numbers around Doolittle is his games finished vs. saves. He leads the league with 37 games finished but has just 20 saves, which is tied for fourth with three others. National League saves leader Kirby Yates has finished 35 games, but has 30 saves. Kenley Jansen: 33 games finished, 23 saves. Will Smith: 35 games finished, 23 saves. No other closer has appeared in more non-save situations.

Doolittle’s velocity also dropped earlier in the season before a mechanical adjustment kicked it back up to the 94- and 95-mph range for a spell. He did turn loose a 95-mph fastball Saturday. He half-joked about it.

“See it’s in there,” Doolittle said. “I just got to pick and choose, I guess, when to use it.”

His manager is using a more straight-ahead approach. Doolittle is out there, so he is using him. A lot.

And all this is more for recognition of the situation as opposed to blame assessment, When the bullpen was at its worst, Doolittle was summoned at times because his teammates were in the process of blowing a game or couldn’t be trusted in the first place. The Nationals were also rapidly losing ground, so Martinez had to be sure he was sure whenever possible. But, also, there have been times when Doolittle’s appearance in a non-save situation appeared unnecessary.

Piled together, the Nationals have an ongoing conundrum: they need to manage Doolittle’s appearances while in the middle of a push up the standings and without a definitive backup. Fernando Rodney has helped. An acquisition before the trade deadline could help further. And the coming week we’ll clarify if two games in Philadelphia were a blip or more foreboding.

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