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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Blood feud: Hit By Pitch. Can technology determine the pitcher's intent?

Ken Singleton was a switch hitter.  In 1979 he finished second to Don Baylor, a righty batter, for American League MVP.  Their teams finished first in the two divisions, which contributed to their MVP votes.  Fred Lynn, a lefty batter, had the best numbers but his team was third.  Here are their Hit By Pitch (HBP) and plate appearance (PA) :

Singleton 1 in 688; career high: 2
Baylor 11 in 722; led league EIGHT times; high 35 in 1986
Lynn 4 in 622; that was his career high

This supports something said yesterday on MLB Network by writer Tom Verducci; in 2014 pitchers tend to hit batters of the same side (lefty/lefty, righty/righty) much more per PA than opposites.  He attributed that to pitchers throwing very hard with movement and trying to pitch inside.  He thought batters getting hit tended to be accidents.  The small anecdotal data above suggests that the same side dynamic may have been true in 1979.  In fact I wonder if it isn't always true since 72% of pitches are thrown by righties and 63% of PA are by righties.  Maybe someone has those numbers over many years and can share.

I mentioned Singleton because a year or two ago while announcing a Yankee game he recalled being at bat and suddenly noticing that during his windup the pitcher was looking at him and Singleton wondered why and instantly realized that he, the batter, was the target and not the catcher's mitt.

It makes perfect sense.  The pitcher needs a target, which is why the vague notion of pitching inside but not at the batter is such nonsense.

I recall many years ago that high speed film of tennis players revealed that Ille Nastase, a Romanian former world No. 1 professional tennis player, one of the world's top players of the 1970s, did not always watch the ball as long as he should.  I also recall an interview during his playing days with Joe Pepitone in which he could not give a coherent answer as to when he picked up the pitch.

Batters should be too busy to notice what the pitcher is looking at when the pitch is released to see what Singleton saw in that unusual PA.  The obvious candidate to watch that is the plate umpire but who knows what, if anything, they watch when the ball is released by the pitcher.

And who says that the pitcher actually looks at the mitt or the batter when the ball is released?  Remember Dodger southpaw Fernando Valenzuela in the 1980s?  Fernando looked up at the sky during his high leg kick.  Did he spot the target at the instant of release?

Let's find out.  This could be both a good teaching tool and also a way to finally end the barbarism of pitchers intentionally hitting batters.  How about a special camera that looks at the pitcher's eyes and determines his target, if any?  Something like gopro.com.  Maybe mount it on the umpire's head.  Many people have used it that way, such as on a cycling helmet.  Live stream it to that review headquarters and let them decide if there is sufficient evidence to determine the target of the pitcher when a batter is hit in such a way as to reasonably cause suspicion.  That just occurred in two series this week: Orioles v. Blue Jays and Yankees v. Rays.  Bad blood ensued and blood feud erupted.  Maybe that can be eliminated, but only if there is swift, sure and severe punishment.

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