2020 Campaign Promises: Did MLB pitchers fail to back up their bluster in Houston?

During this time of evaluating early returns on campaign promises (no, not those ones), retrospective data on the 2020 MLB season allows an assessment of whether opposing pitchers actually delivered on their commitments to punish Houston Astros batters for their revealed roles in an on-field cheating program perpetuated in prior seasons.

To be fair, I don’t think any pitchers actually promised, publicly, to plunk a Houston hitter, but the notion propagated readily and rapidly throughout the broader baseball discourse during the offseason. Video clips of Houston HBPs spread swiftly and to great general approval. Intentionality of individual encounters unknown and therefore aside, was this really happening, though?

The hit-by-pitch rate across all teams hit a historic high in 2020. Evidence of a spike in beaned batters in Houston? Not so. (A missed opportunity for a beaned, battered burrito? Absolutely.) Even though 2020 saw a record one hit hitter for every eighty-one plate appearances, pitchers only hit Houston batters once every ninety-seven plate appearances, well below average for this past season. In 2018 and 2019, pitchers hit Astros batters at almost exactly average rates relative to all other teams, indicating that what happened was the exact opposite of what many people expected to happen: Astros players were hit less frequently than they had been in past seasons and less frequently than most other teams’ players in 2020.

There’s no doubt that civic upheaval due to a global pandemic and policing tragedies contributed to dramatically differ the demeanor with which players and fans approached sports in the spring of this year. It would be little surprise if the zeal of those plotting revenge against the Astros diminished substantially as the season shortened and attentions diverted to more pressing matters.

Before those realities unavoidably presented themselves, though, the teams played relatively unencumbered spring training schedules. That would have been opposing pitchers’ first chances to leave their marks on this conversation, and perhaps their best ones, given the general insignificance of the outcomes of these games.

What do the spring numbers say? Across all games and teams, a batter was hit once every seventy-eight plate appearances, an even higher rate than the high water mark of the regular season. And this time, Houston was near the top, with a hit batsman once every sixty-five plate appearances. Of course, that only adds up to twelve total HBPs, but the relative rate supports the suggestion that opposing pitchers in fact took their best first chances to submit a statement on the record with signal clear and significant consequence low. Whether that would have satiated the opposition or exhibition attitudes would have sustained through the regular season absent the significant intervention of external circumstances is impossible to say.

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Related
Six Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About the 2020 Season – Baseball Prospectus

Baseball’s growth spurt, visualized

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Baseball is a sport that is susceptible to, and, indeed, has subjected itself to what most regard as extremely fine-grain analysis. For example, in just a few clicks, you can pull up the spin rate of the ball on any pitch thrown in any MLB game last night. Whether we’re examining something, like baseball, for which we have relatively precise analytical tools, or something our ability to probe is more limited, we necessarily operate with certain assumptions practically taken for granted. Gravity. Air. Taxes. The general inflation of the value of U.S. currency over time. The general improvement in human health over time. While we need to monitor these somewhat ambient, environmental facts and trends, it usually doesn’t make sense to address them with great frequency and detail. We all generally know that Al Kaline’s $35,000 rookie signing bonus probably was a lot of money in the 1950s even if it doesn’t sound like a lot by today’s standards, just like we generally know 6’2″, 215 lb. Babe Ruth probably was a lot bigger than his peers, even if he wouldn’t appear out of the physical ordinary today.

On this last point, of course, we’re aware that medical and nutritional advances have resulted in general improvements in human health. Humans today live longer and grow larger than they did in the past, and baseball players are no exception.

That growth hasn’t occurred at a steady rate, however, at least as far as the population of baseball-playing humans is concerned. Here’s a graph from Russell Carleton’s article yesterday at Baseball Prospectus showing the median (50th percentile), 70th percentile, and 90th percentile Body-Mass Index (BMI) of all players who appeared in the majors between 1900-2016:

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As Carleton remarks:

We see that in the mid-90s, something (*cough*something*cough*) happened that caused an inflection point in MLB. After most of a century of the same body types, players started getting bigger. Mostly, they got heavier, although players today are also taller than they had been. The median player in MLB right now would be larger (in terms of BMI) than 90 percent of players who played in any year before the 1990s.

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