WASHINGTON D.C., DC — It’s America’s pastime, but sometimes baseball becomes dodgeball. This season, players have complained about batters getting hit by fast-flying pitches--and it's gotten quite a bit of attention in sports media. While the number of "hits by pitch" is relatively high, it's not quite surpassed the past two seasons.
Are players getting hit by pitches at a higher rate this season?
At this point in the season, the rate of hit by pitches per game is still lower than the past two years—though it is relatively high.
WHAT WE FOUND
We ran the numbers from Baseball Reference, the authority on sports stats, looking at “hit by pitches” for the last 40 years.
You can see here a steady incline in the rate of “HBP’s” per game since 1982. But right now, 2022’s average is still lower than the last two years.
“It's on the high end of the spectrum, but it's not that unusual,” said Peko Hosoi, professor of mechanical engineering and co-founder of the MIT Sports Lab.
But what we are seeing — players hit by baseballs traveling nearly 100 miles per hour — can be hard to watch.
“There's 100% a safety concern here,” added Hosoi.
So what could be causing these problematic pitches?
“In my opinion, I don't think it's any one smoking gun,” said Professor Lloyd Smith, professor of mechanical engineering at Washington State University and faculty of the school's Sports Science Laboratory.
Where the batter’s standing relative to the plate, temperature, wind, humidity, how fast the ball’s traveling: “There's variability coming from all kinds of places now,” said Hosoi.
Some players have spoken out about what they say are problems with the balls being used in games. While the scientists cannot speculate as to what extent there could be an issue, they say despite MLB standards for ball composition and storage, the ball itself can be hard to grip by nature.
“It's made out of leather, it's made out of wool. So these are things that are really hard to control,” said Hosoi. “I think one thing that it's important to appreciate is that a baseball is really slippery.”
Last summer, the MLB began cracking down on a ban on sticky substances pitchers would use to get a better handle on the ball. Smit points out that it’s the first springtime of the rule’s enforcement—a time of year when the air, ball, and pitcher’s hand are all colder than in the sticky summer.
“It could be that once in a while, all these circumstances align in a way that that doesn't allow the pitcher to get the grip on the ball that he's used to having,” said Smith.
The MLB could conduct official studies on batters getting hit, and study the baseballs as they have in the past — though this might be a good time to remind baseball fans: we’re still early in the season.
“I can't say when they would draw the line, but I think it's going to be more than spring baseball,” said Smith.