Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pitching inside works both ways

The Yankees and Blue Jays had an on-field skirmish Tuesday night. The condensed version, if you don't want to bother with the Daily News' link above:

Toronto took an early lead; the Yankees hit a couple of Blue Jays hitters; Toronto relief pitcher Jesse Carlson threw a pitch behind Jorge Posada; Posada, after scoring a run, threw a forearm at Carlson; and there they go.

A few points here, some of them specific to the incident, some in general:

1) Plate umpire Jim Joyce blames Posada for the brawl, calling the forearm a cheap shot.

2) The Yankees pitching staff leads the majors in HBP, 7.6 percent more than the runner up Phillies. No. 6 in HBP is closer to No. 2 than No. 2 is to No. 1.

Put another way: No team with A.J. Burnett (9 HBP), Joba Chamberlain (12) and CC Sabathia (7, including the one that ended Carlos Pena's season) on its roster has any right to complain about opposing teams buzzing its hitters.

3) "They started it" may sound childish, but it's still true on an emotional level.

4) The Yankees — and the Red Sox and Cardinals, for that matter — tend to react to an opposing team playing well by trying to physically intimidate them. The Rays last season had a number of incidents with both the Yanks and BoSox. At their core, the Yankees, Red Sox and Cards are bullies.

5) There are a LOT more HBP than there used to be. In 1976 (picking a year at random) the average AL team was hit 31 times, the average NL team just 26. The low in the majors this year is 33.

Why is that? A few factors:

1) Hitters have learned that — contrary to what was thought 30 years ago — that they can hit the opposite way for power. They crowd the plate and even dive over the plate to do that. This makes it more difficult to get out of the way.

2) The tendency of some umpires to follow the catcher outside almost encourages hitters to crowd the plate and dive. If the ump is calling strikes on pitches three or four inches off the plate, they have to.

3) Hitters wear more protective padding than they once did. Everybody has ear flaps now (it's mandatory). There are elbow pads, hand pads, forearm guards. Again, that encourages them to set up closer to the plate.

4) Baseball's powers want umpires to be assertive about warning against brushbacks/purpose pitches. This, I think, has the opposite effect of making "deep inside" pitches more of a surprise.

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