Thursday, November 3, 2011
In 10,876 plate appearances, Craig Biggio was able to take first base 285 times after being hit by a pitch (2.6% of his plate appearances). Hughie Jennings came up just 5,639 times, but was hit a record 287 times (5.1%).
I think of Luis Castillo as a similar type of player, if not quite the same quality, as Biggio (and as Jennings, if I've ever stopped to picture Jennings) -- slight, scrappy, willing to do anything he can to get on base and make things happen. Yet, in 7,471 plate appearances, Castillo was hit just twelve times -- 0.16% of his plate appearances. Biggio was hit over sixteen times as often as Castillo, Jennings nearly thirty-two times as often. It's not that hard to see why if you look at a video; Castillo generally stood straight up and down, and well back in the box, so that he can reach out and slap at even inside pitches. He's also moving all the time in the box, which probably makes him a bit more ready to get out of the way.
Taking one for the team can actually be a highly valuable skill. Biggio is a great player either way, and Jennings is at least a good one, but how about Ron Hunt? His on-base percentage in non-HBP plate appearances was .334; with the HBPs, .368. He had no other skills.
Nonetheless. Who were the best players at avoiding HBPs, or the worst at drawing them? I'm not aware of any site that carries HBP% or something similar, so I've had to piece it together through various Play Index searches, but here's by best shot at a "top" ten at avoiding getting hit, since 1901. It's largely subjective; there are a bunch of guys who batted three to five thousand times and were hit once or twice, but I'm choosing to ignore them because they're not as interesting to me as someone with a much longer career who was almost never hit. Then again, if you lasted three thousand or so PAs and were never hit, that's pretty interesting. If you want to be more objective about it, here's a list of fewest career HBPs with a minimum of 5,000 PA.
So here's my own list:
10. Harold Baines (14 career HBPs, 0.13% of total PA)
I think these will quickly break down into two categories: (1) big, immobile guys like Baines who would be easy targets if they crowded the plate, but who stand back from the plate to get their arms extended; or (2) little, scrappy guys like Castillo who stand back from the plate to slap at the ball and/or are agile enough to avoid it.
We were discussing this earlier, and TCM found this video of highlights of Baines' career. He was completely immobile, but stood about as far in the back corner of the box as any hitter I've ever seen. The rare pitch that hits Harold Baines has to be one of the wildest pitches you've ever witnessed.
9. Granny Hamner (6, 0.10%)
Hamner, a three-time All Star and a very good defender by reputation who OBPed .303 for his career and grounded into a ton of double plays, could definitely have benefited from leaning into a few more pitches during his 6,291 plate appearances. Hamner also pitched in seven games during his career, including two relief appearances and a start in 1956. He didn't hit any batters himself, either, though he did walk eight of them in 13.1 innings.
Luke Appling (11, 0.10%)
The Hall of Fame shortstop managed to keep playing a really demanding position until age 43, and you don't get to do that by diving into 90-mile-an-hour fastballs. Six of his eleven HBPs came between ages 33 and 36; then he headed off to war at ages 37 and 38, and came back with a cooler head, drawing just one HBP in 2,658 PA between ages 38 and 43.
7. Garret Anderson (8, 0.09%)
Harold Baines, but not nearly as good at the plate, and somehow allowed to play a lot of center field. He didn't set up nearly as far from the plate as Baines did, but you can see here that he had a pronounced version of what my dad would've called stepping in the bucket -- moving rather drastically toward first base, and thus well away from the pitch, with his stride. He had a longer career than you probably realize, amassing 9,177 PA, and was hit less than once in every thousand of those.
6. Vern Stephens (6, 0.08%)
Like Hamner, Stephens had the kind of frustrating combination of almost never getting a free base by way of the HBP on the one hand, and way, way too many double plays grounded into on the other. I haven't seen video of either, but both being right handed, my best guess is that both, like Anderson above, strode away from the plate (and thus away from first base) with their swings.
Ruben Sierra (7, 0.08%)
4. Jose Cruz (7, 0.08%)
Sierra's 7 came in 8,782 PA, Cruz's in 8,931. I can't find any video of either, but if you ever saw Sierra, you remember that he had a huge leg kick (at least from the left side) that often carried him away from the plate. Cruz may have made an adjustment early in his career, as he was hit five times in his first five seasons and then just twice in over 7000 PA from 1976 through 1988.
3. Sam West (5, 0.07%)
I wish I had something interesting to say about Sam West, but other than that he was hit by a pitch very, very rarely, there isn't much. Four-time All Star. Career .299 hitter and an excellent center fielder. Did draw plenty of walks, so at least he wasn't averse to getting on base itself.
2. John Kruk (2, 0.04%)
Kruk was an excellent hitter in his short career (4603 PA). so he's not one of those guys in that range (like Sandy Alomar, Sr. or U.L. Washington) who was never hit because hitting him would be such a complete waste of an automatic out. He didn't naturally start way off the plate or bail out on his swing, either, as far as I can recall (again, no reliable video). If you've seen this, though, it seems entirely possible that Kruk was just deathly afraid of the ball and sought to avoid it at all costs. He sure played defense that way! Hyuk hyuk hyuk.
Mark Lemke and Bill Bergen (0, 0%)
Cheated! Actually, Bergen doesn't really belong here. He was easily the worst-hitting position player who has ever held down a job for any significant amount of time in MLB history, and he played in an age when pitchers saved their best stuff for the best hitter. There was no reason to do anything but toss it right down the middle to Bergen, and no reason to exert the kind of effort that might result in a pitch that misses so badly it hits him.
Lemke, on the other hand? Amazing. In 3,664 plate appearances, and 257 postseason plate appearances, no stray pitch ever found Mark Lemke's tiny little person (note on the picture to the right: I didn't know Donruss ever made Little League World Series cards! That's adorable). Meanwhile, in at least 4,000 minor league PA, he was hit at least 18 times. The pitchers' average control is a lot worse in the minors, of course, but that's still a huge disparity. Lemke was never a remotely good hitter -- except for a few days in October 1991 -- but in an age when pitchers did exert max effort (or close to it) on more or less every pitch, even to the Lemkes of the world, you've got to think at least one of the nearly 12,000 pitches he saw in his career would have found its way to him. That not a single one ever did is pretty astounding.