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Bruiseball: The skill and brutality of the HBP

Over 16 years, getting hit by pitches has just become Chase Utley’s style.

Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

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People were always going to get hit playing baseball.

The trick is to remain mentally and reflexively vigilant enough to determine whether you’re going to get the fastball you’re looking for, or a 92 mph punch in the ribs, depending on anything from who the pitcher is, to what the previous hitter did during his at-bat, to what month is on the calendar.

Some inside pitches you can dance away from. Some, you were not meant to. Getting hit by a pitch has long been a part of the sport, notably in 1920, when a player was killed. But some players, like Chase Utley, who sits at the precipice of being struck by 200 pitches (8th all time), have adapted in the box and dulled their survival instincts enough to use an HBP to their advantage.

How do you train ball players to navigate around their instinct to avoid pain? This guy has some ideas.

He’s not wrong; you can ball up some socks and throw them at somebody, but that’s not going to teach them what getting hit by a baseball feels like. If that little white sphere pegs you on your bad wrist or catches a particularly sensitive nerve cluster, then it’s going to feel more like the surreal nightmare described by ESPN’s Tim Kurkijian in 2012:

” the sound of a giant bee attacking, and then it hits that batter and those red seams bore into the skin like the teeth of a buzz saw, well, the elegance and romance of that pearl is replaced by piercing, pulsating, primal pain.“

The horrors of catching one up and in is no fiction. In 1920, Carl Mays of the Yankees hit Ray Chapman of the Indians with a pitch. It connected with Chapman’s skull and he died the following day. Mays had thrown at Chapman intentionally, saying after his opponent’s passing, “I threw at him not to hurt him but just to make him think. It wasn’t a beanball. It was a thought pitch.”

Mays was an angry man. He once fought his own manager, was typically among the league leaders in hitting people with pitches, and seemed particularly disturbed by Chapman, who crowded the plate with his stance. And he’s not the only angry man who ever gripped a baseball with the intent to harm. A 2007 study at Tennessee Technological University was conducted to determine just how many HBPs were generated by aggression on the part of the pitcher. This may leave you utterly floored, but the study concluded that pitchers are far more likely to hitter a batter in one of three scenarios:

  • The batter had hit a home run in their last at-bat
  • The batter preceding them just hit a home run
  • A teammate of the pitcher had already been hit

In 2011, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business conducted another study, which determined that in the summertime, pitchers are more likely to hit batters with the ball. Not because of sweatier palms or crankier attitudes, but because heat is a breeding ground for vengeance.

“We found that heat does not lead to more aggression in general,” said Richard Larrick, a management professor at Fuqua. “Instead, heat affects a specific form of aggression. It increases retribution.”

But scientists have no explanation for Chase Utley. He just likes getting hit by pitches. Or at least, doesn’t dislike getting hit by them.

Sometimes, we know when a pitcher is throwing at a hitter intentionally, like when Noah Syndergaard chucks a heater behind your back, or Cole Hamels straight up just tells you that he was gunning for your spine. And certainly Utley has, in his opponents’ minds, earned a few of his many HBPs. Some of them he’s leaned into, and others have just been genuine whoop-se-daisies.

Utley is a frustrating player to play against, and it’s not hard to believe that in some cases, he comes to the plate with a crosshair on him. Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard were certainly channeling some anger toward him in April 2015 and May 2016.

Regardless, Utley, as it has been long known in Philadelphia, is a pitch sponge. He led all of baseball in the act from 2007-09 with 25, 27, and 24 HBPs, respectively. For those wondering, the single season HBP record is 51, a record set in 1896 when Orioles infielder Hughie Jennings got absolutely punished over 130 games. This occurred during a five-year run in which Jennings led baseball in the stat, including in 1894, when he only needed 27—Utley’s highest single season total—to do so. Mickey Mantle was hit by 13 pitches in his entire career. Mike Schmidt got clipped 79 times (though he did lead the league in HBP with 11 in 1976). Jimmy Rollins, a far more outspoken and infuriating player, was only hit by 38 pitches. Ryan Howard, a little bit larger of a target, racked up 59. John Kruk said he didn’t fear getting hit by a pitch, but was struck only twice in a ten-year MLB career (though that makes you wonder what he was so afraid during his most famous at-bat).

Cleveland’s Brandon Guyer was, last April, one of the more common targets in baseball, leading the American League in the stat in both 2015 (24) and 2016 (31). As Tim Kurkjian documented, that’s one HBP in every 16.1 AB. Last year, however, he was only hit eight times, perhaps due to a shift in his approach, or perhaps due to the lingering memory of a weird bruise given to him by Charlie Morton that kept expanding across his right bicep.

But unlike Utley, Guyer didn’t confess to any particular strategy:

“It’s crazy. I’m not trying to get hit. I don’t want to get hit. I definitely don’t stand right on top of the plate. But when I stride -- my natural stride -- I kind of close myself off, my left [front] leg comes close to home plate... My instinct is not to move; I kind of freeze up. So I get hit a lot.”

With 199 HBPs to his name, Utley is eighth all-time, behind Dan McGann, Ron Hunt, Jason Kendall, Don Baylor, Tommy Tucker, Craig Biggio, and—you guessed it—Hughie Jennings, the official leader, waiting to be dethroned from his painful top spot with 287 bruises to his name.

Jennings was a walking brain injury. While a student at Cornell, he once dove headfirst into a pool he didn’t realized was empty and cracked his skull. “The feat became campus legend when he not only survived but attended class the next day,” reported Cornell Alumni Magazine. As a player, after being gifted a car by adoring fans, he flipped it crossing a bridge and cracked his skull a second time. While playing for the Orioles, Jennings took a pitch to the head, finished the game, then collapsed and was unconscious for three days.

As a manager, Jennings found new ways to frustrate and taunt opponents outside of surviving assassination attempts—as the manager of the Tigers, he not only kept Ty Cobb in check, but also blew a tin whistle in the dugout to mess with people, rang a bell in the dugout, and screamed “Ee-yah!” while standing on one leg and coaching third base.

Utley, while similarly comprised of beaten bones and bruised flesh, is far more quiet and calculating in his execution than raucous and one-legged. He’s been fighting his instincts for years, standing his ground when facing down a ball headed for a limb or his back, but having trouble not jumping away from something at his feet, as he told the L.A. Times. And naturally the hand, a notoriously vulnerable body part during an at-bat, is an area to avoid, as Utley learned in 2007 when a pitch from John Lannan of the Nationals caught him there.

Utley’s HBPs have tapered off since 2009, as he has never gotten hit over 18 times in a season since and occasionally has even totaled only in the single digits. Still, he only appeared in 34 games for the Dodgers in 2015 and managed to get hit by a pitch six times. It’s not the defining trait of his playing style—in which pain is simply an outcome of going hard—it’s just one of the ways he uses to reach base.

Utley can’t control where the pitcher is going to throw. But he can influence it by crowding the plate, Ray Chapman-style, and invoke the inside pitch that grazes him, either intentionally by a vengeful arm or unintentionally by a less accurate pitcher.

Not every pitcher is mad at Utley when he comes to the plate, so at least part of the time, these HBPs aren’t intentional. So how, then, does he do it so often? By leaning into it. And also, as you must have realized, by sitting in the video room.

“To prepare for opportunities, he cataloged the pitchers who pumped inside fastballs and the pitchers who lost breaking balls in the dirt.”

Amid the flickering lights of a monitor, and the farewells for the evening by departing teammates, Utley sat there, studying weaknesses in his opponents to exploit at the cost of his own body.

I know what you’re thinking: “Won’t someone please think of the children?” Given the hissy-fits that occur in Philadelphia when a player doesn’t run out a pop-up, surely the local media has framed Utley’s occasionally purposeful beanings as harmful to the kids watching. Who would want their little leaguer idolizing a player who leans into a fastball just because it will get him on base? Next thing you know, disturbed Delaware Valley coaches will be watching the 12-year-olds on their teams load the bases while clutching their arms and holding back tears.

By 2014, the kids were starting to notice players like Utley getting a boost in their OBP from getting in the way of a pitch. That year, the NCAA had to hold a press conference to address the self-flagellation occurring in college batters boxes.

Beyond normal hit by pitches, batters purposely moved into pitches as they were drilled in many parts of their bodies to get on base

According to the 2014 final NCAA Division I statistics, batters were hit 91 times or more on 23 different teams last season.

Incredibly, 10 teams were hit 101 or more times last season.

So intense was the surge that officials changed the rules of college baseball: Players now had to make an umpire-deemed attempt to get out of the way of a pitch to be awarded first base.

It’s a painful, but not ungodly practice. Even Derek Jeter saw the value in sacrificing his body for a free pass—or at least, the idea of doing that. Utley, just interested in getting on base, made “thought pitches” into another part of his toolkit, using them to add to his RBI total when possible.

The most important part of Chase Utley getting hit by a pitch is, of course, not caring that it happened. In the moments when a pitcher like Matt Harvey takes matters into his own hands and hits an offending hitter with a pitch, they live for the reaction. It’s an invitation to come visit the mound, or at least say something as you jog to first, just to fulfill that juvenile instinct to get in the last word. In either case, it’s begging for escalation. And Utley doesn’t allow it.

As seen in the video above, on April 14, 2015, Matt Harvey hit Utley. It was Harvey’s glorious return to Citi Field after an early exit from the previous season due to injury. The crowd was howling with every batter he retired, but with two strikes on Utley got a hold of a Harvey offering and deposited it in Utley’s Corner, ruining the moment. Add to that Phillies starter David Buchanan hitting a pair of Mets batters later in the day, and you’ve got a set-up for an inside pitch.

Harvey put a 95 mph heater in Utley’s back, but Utley didn’t even look at the New York pitcher. As Harvey glowered purposefully, Utley literally walked backwards toward the mound, disposed of his bat, and jogged to first base without so much as a hint of a brawl. Harvey needed that reaction to feel like his message had been sent, but Utley refused to confirm what everyone in the stadium knew. Later, in the post season as a member of the Dodgers, Utley would further endear himself to the Mets pitching staff by performing an egregious take-out slide that broke Ruben Tejada’s leg. It was a move that not only changed the rules of baseball, but also resulted in him being further targeted by Mets pitchers looking for justice.

Though remaining low-key is his intention, it isn’t always the case for Utley. During the definitive Game Six of the 2010 NLCS, Utley squared off with a particularly cantankerous Jonathan Sanchez of the Giants.

Again, Utley took his spine-tickler and jogged to first base without another thought. But that wasn’t enough for Sanchez. He needed Utley to know what, again, everyone in the stadium already knew. Sanchez stared at first base and tried to instigate Utley further. At one point Utley, failing to hear something Sanchez was barking at him, strode casually toward the mound, then waved off whatever issue Sanchez was trying to convey. At the end of it, despite the benches clearing, Sanchez was far more worked up and emotional than Utley.

They say guys who play the game like Utley are playing it the way it was “meant to be played.” But at the end of the day—or the end of a career, as many assume Utley is approaching—a player plays it the way they mean for it to be played. Some players most likely do dislike getting hit by a pitch. Some players freely deploy their instincts to evade incoming missiles. And other players are Utley, whose ability to withstand a way inside pitch is considered to be anything from a characteristic quirk to a legitimate strength. Would that be the case if one of those many HBPs during 2007-09, a central segment of his career, had broken his hand and cost him even more playing time? If Utley hadn’t been at second base during September 2007 or October 2008? When the Hall of Fame conversation begins in earnest for Utley, it will already have caveats that boil down to a lot of intense success that just wasn’t as prolonged as Cooperstown typically enjoys. His knees kept Utley out of a lot of baseball games; who knows what injuries a player who doesn’t get out of the way could undergo over the course of a season?

But we can’t retcon his career for anything more than a conversation topic. The reality is, Utley has been this type of player for his entire career. It’s made him some enemies. It’s made him some friends. But mostly, it’s successfully—albeit painfully—gotten him where he’s always been trying to get: on base. Without his 199 HBPs, Utley’s career OBP drops 17 points. And those 17 points, to him, are worth the pain.

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