Hit-by-pitches always cause such a stir. No matter the situation, they provoke questions of intent, with blame and accusations getting thrown around all willy-nilly by fans even if the players themselves have moved on. And sometimes the players don't move on. Sometimes the players get mad, too, and sometimes the players decide to fight with one another, or at least come streaming out of their respective dugouts to mill around all belligerent-like for a few minutes before going back.
And yet, despite all the problems they can cause, and despite all the emotion they can tap into, hit-by-pitches don't really seem to get much attention off the field. They're all but ignored as a means of getting on base, and they're conspicuously absent from the denominator when calculating a player's K/BB ratio. Hit-by-pitches are a part of the game that's talked about when they happen, but set aside when they don't.
If I had to guess, I'd say a big reason why this is is because hit-by-pitches as seen as fluke events. They just kind of happen randomly, and there isn't much in the way of skill involved, so they aren't worth the time to discuss. They happen only occasionally, and they seldom have a big effect on the game.
But then, there is talent involved, or at least some sort of sustainable ability. On the hitters' side, you have guys like Craig Biggio and Jason Kendall, who got hit by way more pitches than the average. And on the pitchers' side, you can see some patterns, too. Sometimes these things are random, but other times the frequency with which a pitcher hits a batter is a consequence of the way that he pitches.
I found myself curious about pitcher HBP tendencies this afternoon, so I decided to take my curiosity to Fangraphs to find out which recent pitchers have posted the highest and lowest HBP rates over the past several seasons. Fangraphs shows pitch totals dating back to 2002, so I looked at all the data for pitchers who have thrown at least 200 innings over the past ten years.
A total of 579 pitchers came up. The following two tables show the ten pitchers with the most frequent HBPs, and the ten pitchers with the least frequent HBPs.
In first by a healthy margin in the top table we find retired long-time sidearmer Steve Reed. Only four of Reed's 14 career seasons are included in our sample, but over those four years between 2002-2005, Reed threw 3,652 pitches and hit 27 batters, with 22 of them being right-handed. In other words, he hit one batter for every 135 pitches thrown.
Also included in the top table are more contemporary pitchers like Thompson, Green, and Vogelsong, who is suddenly a contemporary pitcher again after spending so long as a Remember When?. One can't help but note how many of those pitchers had or have low arm angles. When you release the ball from behind the batter, you can't always be sure it'll end up out in front.
As for the bottom table, the winner is Rafael Betancourt. Betancourt has thrown 510 innings and 8,043 pitches since breaking in with the Indians in 2003. Over that span, he has hit exactly one batter: Marcus Thames, in his tenth career game. In the 500 games since, he hasn't hit a single guy. Since August 4th, 2003, Rafael Betancourt has hit zero batters, and Vicente Padilla has hit 79.
It's interesting to see Wuertz right behind Betancourt, given that you think of Betancourt as having pinpoint command, while you think of Wuertz as being wild. Wuertz, it seems, is wild, but wild far away.
So there's your interesting data dump of the day. If you'd like to peruse the entire spreadsheet, you may do so here. And remember: hit-by-pitches are not to be ignored. They're kind of a weird part of a player's skillset, but they are part of a player's skillset, and they should be treated in kind. Where the HBP can so often stir up a little hate, let's try to give the statistic itself a little love.