Numbers show pitchers decline to deal in tight

Numbers show pitchers decline to deal in tight

It's been a common complaint for at least a generation: pitchers are either unwilling or simply don't know how to throw inside.

"Pitching inside is an art, and in Major League Baseball, it's a lost art," said Nolan Ryan, the Rangers' president and Hall of Famer who was never afraid of delivering some chin music. "There are still pitchers who do go inside, like Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson, but a lot of young pitchers don't do it."

It's a fair assessment, but one that deserves some clarification.

Not even a decade ago, pitchers had no problem coming inside. Their problem, whether by choice or not, was having those inside pitches reach the catcher's mitt and not the batter's box.

Starting in the mid-'90s and through the turn of the century, the rate of hitters getting plunked and bruised -- if they didn't have body armor, that is -- reached levels not seen in Major League Baseball in a century.

The rate at which batters were hit had been steady for 42 years. Not one season from 1950 through 1992 finished with a lower frequency of HBPs than .18 per game, or one higher than .24 (a mark reached once).

Then came the offensive explosion of the mid-'90s, and suddenly, as hitters were doing more damage, pitchers were replying in kind. By 1998, the rate of HBPs had climbed to .33, a mark not matched since 1911.

It didn't stop there. In 2001, just one year after batters league wide hit home runs and scored at the greatest pace in history, HBPs skyrocketed to .39, the highest in the Majors since 1900.

The need to pitch inside, very far inside, was a matter of survival. Even if it meant ejection, how else could they impede sluggers at a time when offense and, well, sluggers themselves, were so prevalent?

Bluntly, "you have to pitch inside to be able to pitch away," said Rays reliever Kyle Farnsworth, who debuted during the peak in '99.

A turnaround on both fronts came rather quickly. In '03 and '04, the rate of HBPs was .38, and every year since, it's dropped. Down to .36 in '07, to .33 in '09, and it's fell again this year, to .31.

That offense, too, started its decline around the same time, a recession that's given way to the renaissance "era of pitching" the game's enjoying now, is likely no coincidence. Fewer home runs could add up to less of a need to back someone off the plate, though most pitchers might disagree. That's OK, because there are plenty of other explanations.

"I wouldn't have said for sure I knew exactly what the numbers would be, but I would have guessed that [they've declined]," said Orioles closer Kevin Gregg, who was suspended after a July fracas with the Red Sox that centered on some inside pitches. "Because now, anytime we pitch in, hitters get all upset about it and now you are putting the judgment in the umpires' hands, saying we are doing it on purpose or we are just actually pitching in for effectiveness."

More than anything, those around the game credit the reduction to how stringent umpires and how irate batters have become when they're hit.

Whether a pitch is thrown inside intentionally or not, umpires appear hyper-sensitive to batters' safety and the prospect of on-field altercations, and they might be as quick to toss a pitcher as hitters are to overreact.

"You see it, people complaining about balls anywhere near 'em," Farnsworth said. "I've done it a couple times, I've thrown the ball inside and it wasn't anywhere near somebody, and they freaked out like it was a big ol' deal."

"I think Major League Baseball has cracked down a little bit," said Kevin Youkilis, who's the Red Sox all-time leader in HBPs. "Everything's amplified, too, by the media and being on TV a lot more. Back before games weren't on TV as much, it wasn't about perception and guys getting scuffles and stuff like that."

There are other theories. Farnsworth suggested pitchers have better control than they used to. Ryan believes that the use of aluminum bats on the amateur level could be a contributor, because metal bats don't punish hitters when they don't get around on an inside pitch the way wood bats do. Pitchers, therefore, are learning early to avoid the inner half.

"They don't preach it as much as they used to," Rangers veteran reliever Darren Oliver said. "It's kind of 'down and away.'"

And then there's body armor.

Barry Bonds and Craig Biggio were the most iconic hitters who employed gaudy protective pads, but they weren't alone.

Perhaps pitchers in the late '90s and early 2000s were pitching inside as they should, and not attempting to hit batters any more frequently than their predecessors. If batters could lean out over the plate with no fear or sting, then pitchers had no recourse.

Once a hot topic, Major League Baseball mandated before the 2001 season that hitters must use pre-approved "standard pads" unless there was a documented medical exception, and the subject hasn't had much traction since then. Those original regulations still stand.

While the drop in HBPs has been steady, it's not gone noticed league wide. Youkilis has a propensity for getting hit, but Boston's pitching staff has hit more batters than any this season.

Asked if he had noticed a gradual change around the league, Sox manager Terry Francona said he hadn't.

"You're talking to a second-semester freshman at the University of Arizona. Don't be dropping any decimal points," he joked about the numbers. "I don't know."

One manager, though, felt similarly to Ryan, and felt strongly enough that his team had to change. Around the All-Star break, Royals skipper Ned Yost had seen enough of opposing batters standing in comfortably.

The remedy that was implored was to come inside more: not to throw at hitters, but keep them off-balance. The game doesn't need the number of hit batsmen to rise again, or even to stop declining, but pitchers still need to own the inside.

"I don't know about the whole scheme of things. I just focus on my team and our team needed to pitch more inside," Yost said. "Hitters were too comfortable when guys got up there. Our pitchers were too predictable, knowing they were going to stay away, and we needed to disrupt some of that."

Evan Drellich is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @EvanDrellich. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.