Before Game 3 of the American League Championship Series in Detroit on Tuesday afternoon, Red Sox manager John Farrell sat on the dais, waxing poetic about right fielder Shane Victorino's propensity to get hit by pitches. Victorino must have been watching in the Boston clubhouse across the hall, because he burst through the door, rolled up the sleeve of his T-shirt to show off a monster bruise on his left shoulder, and then ran out as quickly as he'd come.
The bruise was courtesy of Detroit starter Max Scherzer's first-pitch, 91-mph four-seam fastball in the first inning of Game 2 on Sunday night. But it was the fifth time Victorino had been plunked this postseason -- he was hit by a pitch a Division Series-record four times by Tampa Bay -- and the 23rd time he'd been hit in 2013; he led the AL with 18 HBPs this season. (For comparison, Reds leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo led the Majors with 26 HBPs, followed closely by Pirates leadoff man Starling Marte, who was hit 24 times).
Before Sunday's game, Detroit Game 3 starter Justin Verlander sounded off on Victorino in a press conference, saying he gets hit because he crowds the plate, and that Victorino often gets hit by pitches he could actually be swinging at.
"I've seen pitches he got hit on that were strikes," Verlander said. "Anything on the inner half, occasionally he's looking to get hit. He's right on top of the plate. His arms are over the batter's box and over part of the plate. If he doesn't get out of the way, there could be an occasion that it could be a strike and it actually hits him. I think just whoever is the home-plate umpire needs to be aware he's up there."
Technically, if a player is hit by a pitch in the strike zone, he should not be awarded first base. The same scenario exists if he doesn't make an effort to get out of the way of a pitch. Some of the pitches that have hit Victorino have indeed been borderline, but it is at the umpires' discretion, and they infrequently make that call.
(The most famous instance of a batter not being awarded first base when hit by a pitch occurred on May 31, 1968, in the midst of Don Drysdale's record-setting 58 2/3-inning scoreless streak, when the Dodgers righty hit San Francisco's Dick Dietz with the bases loaded. Umpire Harry Wendelstedt ruled that Dietz did not try to get out of the way of the pitch, and did not allow Dietz to take first. Had Dietz been awarded the bag, Drysdale's streak would have been stopped at 45 innings).
In early August, a persistent left hamstring issue forced the switch-hitting Victorino to hit exclusively from the right side of the plate. When hitting right-handed, Victorino uses a considerably more open stance, which does indeed put him considerably closer to the dish.
"As he's gone to the right side of the plate exclusively, he crowds home plate," Farrell says. "I think right-handers have faced him for the first time on the right side, and it's new for them. If a right-handed pitcher has a desire to pitch him to the inside part of the strike zone, there's not much margin for error. I don't see a guy who's intentionally diving into the strike zone to take a hit-by-pitch."
Intentional or not, the numbers speak for themselves. According to Fangraphs.com, 0.8 percent of total plate appearances in 2013 ended with a hit batsman. This season, Victorino has been hit 4.1 percent of the time when batting right-handed against a lefty, and a whopping 10 percent of the time when batting right-handed against a righty. Eleven of his 18 total HBPs this season came after switching solely to the right side of the plate.
"Do I love getting hit? Heck, no," said Victorino. "It starts to hurt. But I understand situations. These guys are just trying to make their pitches. They're trying to pitch in. And sometimes I get hit. I don't look at it any differently. But, you know, the little things like that, on-base percentage, a guy like me, that's what I get paid to do. That's what I'm supposed to do, is be on base."
That's something every hitter knows, including a big guy on the other bench.
Tigers slugger Prince Fielder led the AL with 17 HBPs in 2012. Heading into Game 4 of this year's Division Series against Oakland, Fielder had just three singles and no RBIs. He led off the second inning and took a 90-mph, 0-2, up-and-in Dan Straily two-seam fastball to the right elbow. No one is suggesting that Fielder leaned in to get hit, but he didn't exactly dance to get out of the way, either.
|"I don't want a serious injury to happen because of a hit-by-pitch, but I'm not going to move. That's just the way I play."|
|-- Red Sox right fielder
Fielder got a hit and scored a run later in the game, and the Tigers won, 8-6, to force Game 5. He was also plunked by Sox pitcher Jon Lester in Game 1 of the ALCS.
Fielder, though, isn't as much on top of the plate as Victorino. With any hitter of Fielder's caliber, every pitcher's M.O. is to pitch inside. And with that plan, there is an inherent risk of being hit, no matter how close or far a hitter is from home plate.
"We're never looking to hit batters, by any means," says Tigers starter Doug Fister. "But I'm still going to pitch inside. That's what I do. I throw a sinker and try to keep it down. And that doesn't change from hitter to hitter. It's a matter of we're going to make our pitch. Obviously, I've had a few that have gotten away from me, and guys who stand on the inside of the plate, I think they know that. That's just the way it goes."
But it's a dangerous way to get on base.
"I don't want a serious injury to happen because of a hit-by-pitch, but I'm not going to move," Victorino says. "That's just the way I play."
With hits, runs and even baserunners coming at such a premium in these playoffs, the Red Sox will take it.
Lindsay Berra is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @lindsayberra. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.