Probably the biggest baseball story of last week was Carlos Quentin charging the mound after a hit-by-pitch and in the process badly injuring Zack Greinke. At first it looked like Quentin had done something completely stupid, then after some additional consideration, it looked like Quentin had done something completely stupid and Greinke also hadn’t helped himself. (Nuance.) The pitch that hit Quentin wasn’t that bad of a pitch. Quentin is no stranger to wearing it, and generally when you have a guy who gets hit a lot, that selection will include both wild pitches and surprisingly close pitches.
Dave put up a post about Carlos Quentin’s hit-by-pitch zone, which you can see here. As can be observed from the image, over the years Quentin has been hit by a few pitches that might’ve otherwise been borderline strikes. That gave Dave the idea to ask me about other hit-by-pitches that were at least borderline strikes. With the invaluable help of friend and colleague Matthew Carruth, I present to you an overall, league-wide hit-by-pitch zone map.
That covers the PITCHf/x era dating back to 2008. I eliminated data from 2007 because I find it to be unreliable, and it’s not like it would’ve changed very much. For the record, some of these pitch locations are wrong — the system has been kind of glitchy, and I hand-deleted a few data points before giving up. But the overall map looks about right. We’re seeing a pair of kidneys, or a pair of kidney beans, or angel wings, depending on your personality and what you were thinking about previous to reading this article. The strike-zone box is approximate, and included only for visual reference. It is an approximation of the rule-book strike zone, not the strike zones that actually get called in games.
The image is exactly what you’d expect, more or less. You get rough silhouettes of hitters on both sides of the plate, with bulk at the top around where the elbows and shoulders are. What you notice is that there are some pitches in and near to the zone box. Even if guys haven’t been hit by pitches right down the middle, they have been hit by pitches that at other times have been called strikes. Let’s quote an official rule, shall we:
The batter becomes a runner and is entitled to first base without liability to be put out (provided he advances to and touches first base) when –
(b) He is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit unless (1) The ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, or (2) The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball;
If the ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a strike, whether or not the batter tries to avoid the ball. If the ball is outside the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a ball if he makes no attempt to avoid being touched.
I have never in my life seen a pitch hit a batter and then get called a strike, not counting the instances where it’s determined the ball hit the bat. Most pitches that hit batters, of course, are nowhere close to the strike zone, but every so often, there’s a borderline case for enforcement. But because it’s borderline, it isn’t enforced, because that just wouldn’t go over well. A team would feel like it’s being selectively enforced against, and that’s when teams start to think about the possibility of a bias.
The closest pitches within the data set, though? According to PITCHf/x, on May 18, 2008, Justin Duchscherer hit Jeff Francoeur with a pitch three inches from the center of the plate and a little over three feet off the ground. I have it at nine inches from the center of the zone, but because it happened so long ago I can’t confirm. Gameday doesn’t work and MLB.tv certainly doesn’t work. I’m inclined to believe this is a glitch, and not a truth.
Then we get Jason Vargas hitting Ryan Garko on July 26, 2009. I have this at 11.6 inches from the center of the zone, over the plate and more than three feet off the ground. Ryan Garko got hit by a lot of pitches, back when he faced pitches, and though I can’t confirm this with anything visual, we can turn to a Geoff Baker game blog post:
Vargas then saw his day end when plate umpire Delfin Colon ruled he’d hit Ryan Garko with a pitch. Garko barely reacted and appeared to lean in to the ball. The replays made it appear the ball never touched him. Vargas was incensed.
I have no recollection of there having been an umpire named Delfin Colon. I have less of a recollection of Ryan Garko than ever. Eventually, my recollections of Delfin Colon and Ryan Garko will converge. Colon is no longer a major-league umpire, perhaps thanks in part to rulings like this.
After that, Erik Bedard hitting Jason Giambi on May 2, 2008. Again, because it was 2008 I can’t post an image, but for the record I do actually remember this one, and it wasn’t a Gameday glitch. The pitch was an 0-and-2 curve 11.9 inches from the center of the zone, and it clipped Giambi’s elbow more than three feet off the ground but over the inner half of the plate. Giambi made no attempt to move, but he was awarded first base anyway, and I remember complaining at the time. At least, it should’ve been ruled a ball. At most, it could’ve been ruled a strike, if the umpire wanted to send a message.
Those are hit-by-pitches for which I don’t have visuals. Because you all want visuals, probably, here are the three closest hit-by-pitches just from the 2012 regular season. We begin with Octavio Dotel hitting Eduardo Escobar on September 28, with a pitch 12.0 inches from the center of the zone:
We move on to Sergio Romo hitting Danny Espinosa on July 5, with a pitch 12.1 inches from the center of the zone:
And here’s James Shields hitting John Jaso on July 20, with a pitch 13.4 inches from the center of the zone:
They’re probably not quite strikes. At the same time, they’re pitches that probably shouldn’t be hitting batters and sending them down to first base. Just in case you’re curious, here’s the opposite — here are the wildest pitches to hit batters in the 2012 regular season. This isn’t pertinent to the topic, but I couldn’t help myself:
And here’s 2013′s hit-by-pitch closest to being a strike, so far. We’ve got Jeff Locke hitting Shin-Soo Choo, and we’ve got a pitch 18.0 inches from the center of the zone:
No team in the NL has been hit by as many pitches as Shin-Soo Choo
— Sam Miller (@SamMillerBP) April 15, 2013
Most hit-by-pitches are the result of bad pitches. Most hit-by-pitches are entirely inarguable. Every so often, a batter won’t make much of an effort, and there will be an opening for the umpire to just call the pitch a ball. Far less frequently, but not never, there will be an opening for the umpire to actually call the pitch a strike. To my knowledge no umpire has done this, and it would be a hell of a controversial decision, but by the letter of the law, it wouldn’t be wrong, and these situations don’t never happen. They just almost never happen, such that it’s not really something to worry about. Batters aren’t usually taking up space in the strike zone. They’re just sometimes taking up space really close to the strike zone.