The New York Mets seem to have a target on their uniforms. Or do they? They seem to be getting plunked an awful lot lately.
If you have ever gotten hit by a pitched ball, you know that it can sometimes hurt…a lot. And it can sometimes cause injury, serious injury. One time, it even caused the death of a Major League Baseball player.
I was plunked plenty of times. I had to crowd the plate because I needed to be able to reach the outside corner and cover the entire plate. As a result, I got hit quite often, especially when facing a pitcher who didn’t have much control. Was I ever hit on purpose? I can say that, for sure, I was once. Not the time that I got hit in the head and suffered a concussion, but the time I got hit on the forearm that left the marks of the seams of the baseball embedded in my skin for days. Yeah…that was on purpose. As a hitter, you can pretty much tell when a pitch just got away or when there was intent. That one instance, not only could I tell, but the guy pointed at me afterwards. Yes…guilty.
But how many of the Mets players are actually getting drilled on purpose? Or is it accidental…a lack of control? What about the new theory about a problem with the baseballs being used or the lack of sticky crap permitted?
The New York Mets currently lead Major League Baseball by getting hit 18 times already in their first 19 games.
Frustration is already building to a crescendo as the Mets hitters are being subjected to high heat that, too often then not, has been hitting the body and not the bats.
The focus on player safety has shifted the mindset of how the game is played, and how players view the actions of their opponents. No longer can you barrel into a catcher blocking home plate. No longer can you “take out” a shortstop or a second baseman to break up a potential double play. And it is very difficult to “claim” the inside part of the plate without getting a warning, or worse, getting thrown out of the game.
Pitching up and in, throwing “chin music” is pretty much gone. Ironically, the more protective gear that is worn, the less pitchers are “permitted” to throw inside.
Getting hit by a pitch was a part of the game. Some players even made it an art form.
Hughie Jennings, who played from 1891 to 1925, holds the all-time record by getting hit 287 times during his career.
The “modern day” record is held by Hall of Famer Craig Biggio who got plunked 285 times, with a high of 34 to lead the National League in 1997. He averaged 16 HBP per season.
Don Baylor, fourth in Major League history, took a hit 267 times during his career, averaging 19 times a year, with a high of 35 in 1986.
Ron Hunt, the one-time New York Mets All Star second baseman, was known for sacrificing his body to get on base. He was drilled 243 times, an average of 27 times a year, with a high of 50 during the 1971 season. Imagine getting hit 50 times in one season!
But that was when getting on base anyway you can was stressed. Now, with the game looking more like Home Run Derby, that aspect of the game is pretty much extinct, and treated like an abomination.
What about the guys pitching? There were three guys that always instilled fear in batters, and they were well-known for their intimidation tactics.
Dodgers great Don Drysdale hit 154 batters in over 3,400 innings pitched, with a high of 20. Some pitches may have “gotten away” but it’s hard to imagine that he had no intent when he came inside. After all, Drysdale averaged only 2.2 walks per innings and was charged with 82 wild pitches in his career.
Similarly, the Cardinals Bob Gibson hit 102 batters in over 3,800 innings pitched, with a high of 13. Gibson averaged 3.1 walks per nine innings and threw only 108 wild pitches. He was not wild, but he was “mean.” Gibson said so himself.
Now, Nolan Ryan was known to be a wild one. Ryan hit 158 batters in nearly 5,400 innings pitched with a high of 15. That’s actually not bad at all. However, the fear was there because Ryan WAS so wild as he averaged 4.7 walks per nine innings during his career and uncorked 277 wild pitches.
All three of those Hall of Fame pitchers would instill fear in anyone who would step into the batter’s box. And all three of them have been known to claim the inside of the plate, throw chin music, knock a batter down.
There were always the “unwritten rules of baseball.” Just ask New York Mets star southpaw Jerry Koosman, who readily admits to drilling Cubs star Ron Santo with a pitch, nearly breaking his forearm, during the 1969 season.
In 1920, Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch thrown by Carl Mays and dies 12 hours later. It took 30 years of debate before MLB would institute the requirement of a batting helmet.
And the early batting “helmets” were just crude implements that went inside the regular cap when batting. Soon batting helmets that more closely resembled those of today came into use, but they had yet to add the ear flaps and certainly didn’t have the face guard.
In 1967, a young Tony Conigliaro, star of the Boston Red Sox had his career derailed and completely ruined getting hit in the cheek by Jack Hamilton.
The need for offense changed the game and the way it was played. The line of demarcation can be traced to the time period known as the Steroid Era and, specifically, the Home Run Chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Home runs flying out of every ballpark in record numbers and yet nobody was getting knocked down? Heck, Barry Bonds started wearing body armor, basically saying, “Hit me, I dare you. It won’t hurt at all.”
New York Mets fans gasped and held their collective breaths when captain David Wright got hit in the head in 2009 with a 94 MPH pitch from Matt Cain, leaving him sidelined with a concussion. And then he got it again in 2013 on a pitch from Johnny Hellweg.
Just last year, Pete Alonso got hit in the face by a pitch, saved from serious injury by the face guard. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Kevin Pillar, who didn’t have the luxury of the face guard and had to have reconstructive surgery to repair all of the broken bones.
Alonso and Starling Marte have both gotten hit four times already this year. The situation became combustible in the last game of the series with the Cardinals, when relief pitcher Yoan Lopez threw inside to Nolan Arenado. Arenado took exception and motioned to Lopez, and that is when the benches cleared.
In the days of Drysdale, Gibson, and Ryan, if a hitter was knocked down, they got up, brushed themselves off, and headed to first base. And those hitters didn’t have the access to all of the protective gear and body armor that players have at their disposal today. On the other hand, as intimidating as they were, Drysdale, Gibson, and Ryan didn’t hit so many batters.
Expansion over the years has opened spots for more pitchers. And teams are carrying 13, 14 pitchers sometimes when, back in the day, teams carried 9 or 10 pitchers. So there are a lot more pitchers on Major League rosters than perhaps there should be?
Major League Baseball pulled the plug last season on pitchers using any kind of sticky stuff that may have taken the control out of the hands of pitchers, literally. And word is out that the baseballs are different.
The Mets have been a lot more aggressive at the plate this year. And being aggressive usually means that your opponent will begin pitching inside so that you don’t get too comfortable at the plate. If pitchers ARE having difficulty, for whatever reason, then getting too comfortable at the plate won’t be a problem for the Mets.