On April 7 last season, the Kansas City Royals were playing the Tampa Bay Rays. In the bottom of the seventh inning, Tampa Bay pitcher Heath Bell was on the mound and Kansas City second baseman Omar Infante was at the plate.
It was Infante’s fourth plate appearance of the night. He’d already singled and walked; he was having a good game. Now Infante was leading off the inning by facing Bell, a Tampa Bay reliever. On the fifth pitch of the plate appearance with the count 2-2, Bell threw an 89-mph fastball up and in. The pitch hit Omar Infante in the face. Infante went down, left the game and would not play again until April 11.
At the time Infante was hit by that fastball, his batting average was .348. After getting hit in the jaw, Omar’s batting average suffered a steady decline, eventually winding up at .252.
To be fair — whether he got hit in the face or not — it was unlikely that Infante was going to hit .348 over an entire season. Omar hit .318 in 2013, but his lifetime average is .276. After taking that fastball to the jaw, Infante hit .247 the rest of the way, almost 30 points under that .276 lifetime average.
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One of the ways pitchers get hitters out is to make them uncomfortable, and one of the ways you make hitters uncomfortable is to throw a pitch up and in — back the hitter off the plate — and then throw a pitch down and away. If a hitter is worried about taking a fastball in the head, he might not be eager to lean out and take a healthy swing at a pitch on the outside corner.
I have no idea if that explains Infante’s drop in average — I don’t fully understand what goes on in my head, much less anybody else’s. Maybe Infante was going to hit .252 whether he got hit by that pitch or not. During Infante’s 2014 season, getting hit in the face by a fastball was just one factor among many. It would be unfair to say getting hit by a single pitch explains absolutely everything that happens afterward, but when a hitter gets beaned it can work on his mind.
Take Giancarlo Stanton.
On Sept. 11, Stanton took a pitch to the cheek from Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Mike Fiers. Here’s what the Marlins slugger had to say about getting back in the box after getting hit in the face:
“I’ve wondered about that,” Stanton said. “I think I’m in a great mental state for what has gone on. But to be able to be back into the box, and in competition, I’m not quite sure. I think when we decide the protection that will be on, I’ll have more reassurance wearing that. I don’t know.”
That pitch ended Stanton’s season. The Marlins then signed Stanton to a 13-year, $325 million contract — a lot of money for a guy who’s not sure how he feels about getting back in the batter’s box.
Getting hit in the face with a baseball is understandably scary. Every big league hitter has seen a zillion pitches go by without incident. Then — if a hitter’s unlucky — one of those pitches slips through the radar screen that tells a hitter when to duck. Now that hitter has concrete evidence that under the right circumstances — bad pitch location, pitch velocity and movement, failure to pick up the pitch visually — getting hit in the head is entirely possible. Putting that possibility out of your mind can be difficult.
Those of us in the media spend a lot of time talking about numbers because those are easily available. Understanding how personality, attitude and thought process affects those numbers is much harder to understand — but they do have an effect. Baseball fans might want to watch how pitchers go after Stanton and Infante in 2015; do the pitchers go up and in to set up pitches away?
And if that tactic works, we might know why.
To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.