'It’s as dangerous now as it’s ever been:' Unease grows in MLB with hit batters on the rise

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·10 min read
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As Kevin Pillar lay facedown in the dirt of the batter’s box, a collective gasp and then a grim silence fell over the crowd in Atlanta’s Truist Park.

Joe Girardi screamed.

The Phillies manager was alone in front of the TV in his Philadelphia home Monday night when a 94.5-mph fastball from the BravesJacob Webb struck Pillar flush in the face, fracturing the New York Mets outfielder’s nose in multiple places, blood gushing from his nostrils in such heavy bursts that a clean-up crew would have to sanitize the dirt. Girardi’s exclamation brought concerned family members to his side, thinking something was terribly wrong.

Forgive Girardi for his distress. Just three weeks earlier it was his player, Bryce Harper, who ended up in the hospital after a 97-mph fastball from St. Louis left-hander Genesis Cabrera struck his cheekbone, knocked off his helmet and ricocheted off his wrist.

Bryce Harper reacts after getting hit in the face by a pitch on April 28.
Bryce Harper reacts after getting hit in the face by a pitch on April 28.

Ultimately, Harper’s wrist would be the most nettlesome injury from his beaning. Pillar needs reconstructive surgery on his nose, but he, too, shall return, perhaps next month.

These horrifying moments are part of the game, as both Harper, the superstar $330 million outfielder, and Pillar, the itinerant but valued underdog, were quick to note. Yet they are also stark reminders that today’s game is an increasingly dangerous one: In an era when teams hunt velocity first and worry about a pitcher’s command later, batters are being hit by pitches at a rate that hasn’t been exceeded since 1898.

Not all shatter noses, strike cheekbones or injure wrists. But baseball is a game largely of probability, and with a 28% spike in hit batters per game since 2017, there is a growing concern more players could end up in ambulances rather than shaking it off and ambling to first.

“I think it’s as dangerous now as it’s ever been,” Girardi said Tuesday, “and it’s concerning to me.

“There’s something that we have to try to do so we can reduce these types of injuries.”

For the moment, statistical and anecdotal evidence suggests Major League Baseball franchises are reaping what they’ve sown.

Velocity posse

Pillar’s beaning shook the industry in a manner few do. A 32nd-round draft pick in 2011, Pillar, now 32, played parts of seven seasons with Toronto, though the Mets are his fourth team in three seasons.

He’s left connections throughout the game, leaving an impression on Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly – “He’s just a great guy” - as part of a squad that toured Japan one postseason.

Kevin Pillar bleeds from the nose after being hit by a 94.5 mph pitch.
Kevin Pillar bleeds from the nose after being hit by a 94.5 mph pitch.

Pillar described the beaning “like a weird out-of-body experience,” he said Tuesday, one that seemed to leave him introspective.

“If people talk about me as a guy that was reliable, was available and was tough as hell, that's more than enough for me to ride off another sunset with,” Pillar said Tuesday on a 20-minute media video call, his face badly bruised.

Yet Pillar’s legacy may take on another dimension, putting him alongside catcher Buster Posey and infielder Ruben Tejada, players whose gruesome injuries in 2011 and 2015 resulted in rules changes designed to make engagements at home plate and second base safer.

Solving the velocity-command-hit batter conundrum is far more complex than simply telling catchers and middle infielders where they can stand, and baserunners how they can and cannot slide.

Particularly when it is a monster of the industry’s creation.

“We’ve pushed for velocity, pushed for velocity,” says Mattingly. “Players know it; they’re reaching for it all the time and when you’re reaching for that little extra, sometimes you’re out of control and the ball’s going to go everywhere.

“We bring guys (up) quicker. It’s probably velocity over command right now, with bullpens especially. It’s what we as an industry have asked our guys to do.”

The Pillar and Harper beanings can’t necessarily be correlated to industry behavior, though Webb (5.52 ERA, 1.64 WHIP, 22 walks in 57 career innings) and Cabrera (5.0 walks per nine innings, 73 strikeouts in 63 career innings) are the sort of hard-throwing, command-questionable arms who help conspire to send batting averages to historic lows – and batters scattering.

Instead, there’s plenty of leaguewide data to suggest the velo quest has created dangerous work conditions at the plate:

  • Batters are getting hit by pitches 0.46 times per game this year, a 28% increase from 2017 and the highest mark in the modern era. It’s also a 44% leap from 2013, after which velocity gains were far more noticeable.

  • From 2014 to 2015, the major leagues saw a significant increase – 14% to 19% - in the percentage of pitchers whose average fastball measures at least 95 mph, based on StatCast data for pitchers facing at least 50 batters. It’s settled in at 20% since and is at 22% among all pitchers at this one-quarter mark of 2021.

  • The average fastball is currently at an all-time high of 92.7 mph, just a tick above the 92.6 mark from last season but a fair leap from 92.0 in 2013.

  • A baseball truism states that relief pitchers are merely failed starters – and now there are more of them carrying an increasingly heavier load. The number of pitchers deployed by teams skyrocketed by 28% from 2013, when the average team used 24.2 pitchers, to 2019, the last full, pre-pandemic season in which teams averaged 31 pitchers per staff. Meanwhile, the average length of a starting pitcher’s outing has cratered, from 5.9 innings in 2013 to 5.2 in 2019 and 4.8 in the pandemic-shortened 2020.

In short: A gaggle of underqualified arms throwing harder than ever are being relied upon more and more. And in 2021, pitchers hopping on the shuttle to and from the big leagues are coming off a 2020 in which there was no minor-league season due to the pandemic.

“It’s an excellent point,” says Cardinals manager Mike Shildt. “Having a pause in last year, especially with the guys on the minor-league side who didn’t pitch at all last year, and you go pitch at the highest level with as much stimulation and exposure as takes place now, it can create more anxiety than guys maybe are ready for, in some cases.

“Last year, we had two guys throw in a major-league game in Chicago that hadn’t thrown a live batting practice all season.”

So, who wants to grab a bat and get in the box?

'You still have a living to make’

Hitting a major league fastball has always been a mind-over-matter proposition. Yet it’s no small task to get a major league pitcher back on the beam after he could have ended a colleague’s career, or worse.

Webb and Cabrera are both fortunate their victims unhesitatingly offered forgiveness and empathy.

Shildt wanted to remove Cabrera after the Harper beaning; alas, the three-batter minimum rule compelled the lefty to finish his outing, and Cabrera, clearly shaken, proceeded to hit Didi Gregorius in the ribs.

KEVIN PILLAR: Mets outfielder after getting hit: 'My face will heal'

JACOB WEBB: Braves pitcher who hit Pillar says it's 'tough moving forward'

The Cardinals’ message to Cabrera was simple: One poor outing and one sickening beaning do not define his career. Shildt gave Cabrera a day off and then plugged him into his usual roles, to great results: Cabrera has a 0.90 ERA in eight outings since.

It didn’t hurt to know Harper believed the beaning was unintentional.

“It bears repeating that Bryce was great about that, too,” says Shildt. “He messaged to me to get to Cabrera, no hard feelings, that’s part of the game, and he was very empathetic, which was impressive making sure a young player moved forward in his career.

“It helped Genesis get past this.”

The Braves now face that task with Webb, whose public anguish came in a nationally-televised game, his shell-shocked expression as blood gushed from Pillar’s nose prompting coaches and teammates to continually approach him in the dugout moments later.

Braves reliever Jacob Webb reacts after hitting Kevin Pillar with a pitch.
Braves reliever Jacob Webb reacts after hitting Kevin Pillar with a pitch.

“It’s tough mentally to absorb that,” says Webb.

“The next time he gets the call, he’s going to have to come in and pitch,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “You have to face those kinds of things in the game. You have to face it. You’re not going to duck it. You still have a living to make, also. Those type of things happen, we hate it.

“But you have to get right back out there. That’s the beauty of this game; you’re going to get that kind of opportunity.”

To that end, Pillar texted Webb on Tuesday morning. Webb asked if they could meet that afternoon and in a tunnel at Truist Park, Pillar said, they hugged it out.

“I’m almost more worried about him than I am myself,” says Pillar. “I saw his reaction. I know how tough that can be when someone feels responsible for someone getting injured.

“I tried to relay that message that it was unintentional and that he needs to trust himself and trust his stuff.”

The exchange amplifies that there is no visible enemy here. In a sense, Pillar believes it was not Webb that sent him to the hospital but rather Big Velo – baseball’s prioritizing gas over command.

“It’s a pretty simple answer: Velocity has become the primary factor in determining whether a guy can pitch at the highest level of baseball, as opposed to pitchability,” says Pillar. “Velocity is key right now and trying to develop the secondary part of pitching is something that all teams feel like, once they get a guy with a big arm, they can teach.”

When major league hitters, many emphasizing elevating the ball and increasing their launch angle, crushed a record number of home runs in 2017, pitchers fought back in coming years with nasty four-seam fastballs high in the strike zone. Pillar’s teammate, Jacob deGrom, used that weapon to great effect in posting Cy Young Award-winning seasons in 2018 and ’19, and a third-place finish last year.

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Alas, there is only one Jacob deGrom, and there are dozens of virtually anonymous relievers shuffling from the minors and back, almost all of their fastballs exceeding 95 mph on the radar gun, intent on attacking hitters north and south rather than across the plate. Some may even have a decent idea of where it’s going.

It is no time to be a hitter, particularly one coming off a career-threatening episode, but Pillar claims he’s not so worried about his own mental state. He texted his manager, Luis Rojas, that were his eye not so swollen, he’d be in Tuesday’s lineup.

With his facial fractures, physical activity was a no-no, but he pondered standing in against a pitching machine, tracking right-on-right curveballs.

“Just to know I’m OK,” he says. “I remind myself I’ve had over 3,000 at-bats in my career. I’ve been hit in the face twice. That’s a pretty low percentage. I think I’ll be fine.

“Time’s going to heal this.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB batters are getting hit more often, and unease grows: 'Dangerous'