Coming Inside, Hit Batters, and the Pirates

charlie morton

Neil Weinberg is the Founder of New English D, a Senior Analyst at TigsTown, and the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

We generally think of hit by pitches in two ways. They’re either intentional or they’re completely accidental. Some pitchers decide to police various rules of the game with 90 mile per hour bullets, but when they don’t, they’re very upset when they give away a free base with an errant throw. Hitting a batter is a bad outcome for a pitcher and a very good outcome for a hitter as long as you aren’t injured.

The Pittsburgh Pirates know all about this. They’ve been hit 39 times this year (entering Friday), which leads baseball. They were also hit 88 times in 2013, which also led baseball by quite a significant margin. That’s impressive. Starling Marte got hit 24 times in 2013 and Neil Walker got hit 15 times, which are both pretty meaningful tallies. Getting hit is somewhat random, but it’s also a bit of a skill. In 2014, Walker leads the Bucs with 11 HBP already with Marte and Russell Martin trailing with seven. The Pirates get hit a lot and that’s probably because they have a couple of players who stand right on the plate and don’t bail out when the ball comes up and in.

It’s not unreasonable to expect a very similar collection of players to be near the top of the hit by pitch leaderboard two years in a row. But there’s something else pretty interesting going on in Pittsburgh. In 2013, the Pirates pitchers hit 70 batters to lead the league. This year, they’ve already hit 42 batters and are leading the league again.

That’s almost unthinkable and totally unremarkable at the same time. It’s not strange that the HBP leader from one year is leading the league again in the next because there are many reasons why hit by pitches would remain somewhat consistent. But it’s also interesting that the same team leads the league on both sides of the ball.

A lot of the heavy lifting on offense is being done by the same hitters, so simply having the same players, who have the same approach as they did last year can explain more of that particular situation. The Pirates lost A.J. Burnett this offense, and he had the second most hit batters on the team last year, so while it might seem like they should be falling back to the pack, they aren’t. The reason, of course, is Charlie Morton.

At the beginning, I mentioned intent and wildness as reasons for hit batters. If you mean to hit a guy, that’s pretty straightforward and if you are very bad at throwing the ball where you want to, you’ll also probably hit a few extra batters as well. But there’s another reason why you see hit batters, one that I looked at a little last year and one that Mike Fast looked at as well prior to that. You hit batters if you throw a lot of two-seam fastballs or sinkers with late life.

Charlie Morton plays for the Pirates and Charlie Morton fits the bill. He hit 16 batters in 116 innings last year and has hit 13 batters in 80.1 innings this year. Morton throws a two-seamer about 55-60% of the time, according to Pitchf/x, but only about half of the guys he hits are victimized by the sinker. He also hits batters with his other pitches a decent amount of the time.

Put this all together. The Pirates hit a lot of batters and a lot of that is Charlie Morton’s fault, which makes sense because he’s a sinkerballer. But some of it doesn’t make sense, because he doesn’t just hit guys with his sinker. Here’s a bit of a different spin on things, at the team level.

Our system classifies pitches as in, middle, or away. In 2012, the Pirates threw 29% of their pitches inside, which ranked 8th in MLB. In 2013 it was 33.9% and in 2014 it is 34.3%, both of which rank first in baseball. Part of it is weird Charlie Morton voodoo, but part of it is symptomatic of a larger, Pirates approach.

Russell Martin might have had an effect, except both Pirates backups each of the last two seasons rank in the top seven among catcher who caught 800 or more pitches in this same metric and Martin’s inside pitch calling shot up when he moved over to the Pirates. The team has had the same pitching coach since 2010 and Hurdle was hired shortly after. In the middle of their tenure, the team started pitching inside collectively. Hurdle said this, at the beginning of last year:

Our persistence in pitching inside has been paying dividends. It’s been relentless all season long, and it’s something we want to keep doing, even when we’re not getting strikes. When you’re feeling that ball in, as a hitter, it just isn’t quite as comfortable.

This leads to a pair of final thoughts. First, the Pirates are pitching inside consciously and while it worked last year, it’s been less successful this year. It would be interesting to see if they are aware of how often it’s adding extra runners behind their starters. Second, and maybe more interestingly, is that it’s unclear where this is coming from. The Pirates on-field staff has been the same. Their catchers are new, but their catchers didn’t bring this with them. I wonder if it came from the front office, and specifically from their analytics department. The Pirates bought heavily into shifts right around the same time they starting buying into pitching inside.

It could be a coincidence, but it’s worth exploring. The Pirates hit a lot of batters and get hit a lot. We can chalk some of that up to individuals who happen to have big numbers in that regard but it could be the product of careful study. The Pirates seem to think inside pitches are challenging so their pitchers throw them and they preach to their hitters not to fear them. It looks like this is part of an inclusive philosophy. Either that, or there is some type of baseball altering gravitational field at PNC Park.