Last night the Cincinnati Reds hit Andrew McCutchen for the fourth time this season. This time it was Sam LeCure, and it happened in the eighth inning. After the game, Dusty Baker denied that the hit by pitch was intentional. David Manel of Bucs Dugout has the full quote here. It’s not a surprise that Baker would deny it. If it was intentional, he’d never admit that. But let’s look at some of the trends to see if there is a pattern emerging.
May 31st: McCutchen was hit by Johnny Cueto in his first at-bat, first pitch. There was one out and a runner on first. This was the first game of the series.
June 17th: This time it was Mike Leake hitting McCutchen with an 0-2 pitch in the fourth inning with no outs. This was also the first game of the series.
June 20th: With one out and Starling Marte on third, McCutchen was hit with a 3-2 pitch by Homer Bailey. This was the final game of the same series.
September 20th: McCutchen was hit with a 2-2 pitch leading off the inning in the eighth, with the Pirates leading by three.
Johnny Cueto – He only has one hit batter this year, and that’s McCutchen. However, Cueto has a history of hitting batters, including 12 last year.
Mike Leake – He has six hit batters in 190 innings this year. That ties for 29th in the majors out of 81 qualified starters.
Homer Bailey – He has hit eight batters this year, after hitting eight last year. His eight ties for 14th in the league.
Sam LeCure – This was his first hit batter of the year, and his second hit batter in the last two seasons, spanning over 100 innings.
Does it Make Sense to Hit McCutchen?
You don’t want to give up free base runners, but at the same time you don’t always want to pitch to Andrew McCutchen. So let’s look at whether, in theory, it makes sense to hit McCutchen. The goal here will be to determine whether hitting McCutchen is better than pitching to him.
May 31st: MAYBE. You don’t want to start the game by putting runners on first and second with one out. Cueto had just walked Neil Walker, so it’s not like his control was there that inning. At the same time, the Pirates had Garrett Jones and Travis Snider up next, and both had been struggling in the month of May. That was followed by Michael McKenry, Brandon Inge, and Clint Barmes. So it’s not like there was a threat after McCutchen. Still, I’d lean a little closer to “NO”, as you don’t want to start the game with two runners on base and one out.
June 17th: NO. Why would you hit a batter with an 0-2 count and no outs?
June 20th: YES. You don’t want to pitch to McCutchen with one out and a runner on third. Putting him on base is a safe play. That’s not to say that Bailey hit him on purpose. I’d just lean more to “YES” in this case, since the goal here is to see if hitting McCutchen is better than pitching to him.
September 20th: MAYBE. I can’t fully buy the “why would we want to hit McCutchen down by three” argument. At that point the game looked pretty much over. At the same time, this is like the June 17th incident where you question why someone would intentionally hit a batter with two strikes.
The only case where it makes total sense to hit McCutchen is the June 20th game. The theory is questionable for two other games, and made no sense on June 17th.
McCutchen’s Zone Profile
A few weeks ago John Dreker wrote about how the Pirates farm system throws inside so often. There are benefits to throwing inside, with most of those benefits coming from the fact that inside pitches are harder to hit. I wanted to see if that was the case with McCutchen, so I went to Brooks Baseball for his zone profile. The image below is from the catcher’s point of view, and shows McCutchen’s batting average per zone throughout his career.
The worst zone? The top left corner. If you miss that a bit outside, you hit McCutchen in the shoulder, which is where most of the hits happen. The fact that there’s another bad zone right next to that means it makes sense to keep the ball high and inside. No other two zones that are side by side are as favorable to pitchers as that area. So it definitely makes sense that pitchers are throwing to that spot against McCutchen. And if you miss in that area, you’re probably going to hit him.
The Dirty NL Central
I mentioned this on Twitter last night after reading Dusty Baker’s quote about how the Pirates pitchers lead the league in hit batters: they also lead in hit batters. Looking at it further, the entire NL Central has a HBP problem.
Here are the top six teams in the league in batting HBP:
1. Pirates – 83
2. Reds – 74
3. Brewers – 70
4. Red Sox – 69
5. Cubs – 63
6. Cardinals – 61
The five NL Central teams rank in the top six in getting hit by pitches. Now here are the top teams in pitching HBP:
1. Pirates – 67
2. Blue Jays – 63
3. Cardinals – 62
4. Phillies – 61
5. Cubs – 60
6. Reds – 59
27. Brewers – 39
It’s not a surprise that these two are linked. If the NL Central teams are the highest in one category, then they would be the highest in the other category. The exception would be the Brewers, who are getting hit, but not hitting batters (sorry Brewers).
McCutchen has nine HBP on the season, but the guys who drive up the total for the Pirates are Neil Walker (14) and Starling Marte (22). McCutchen’s total ranks third.
The Reds Are a Baseball Villain, Not a Comic Book Villain
I know the knee-jerk reaction is to assume the Reds did this intentionally. They have turned into the biggest rival the Pirates have. The games between the two teams are heated, and neither team has an advantage over the other team (the season series is tied 7-7). The Reds are a baseball villain.
The Reds aren’t a comic book villain though. They’re out to win baseball games, not hit Andrew McCutchen with pitches. In most cases, it doesn’t make sense in theory to hit McCutchen. When it does make sense, it still is only in the theory of “hitting McCutchen would be better than pitching to McCutchen”. But that ignores all of the other times where it didn’t make sense to pitch to McCutchen, and yet they did.
The biggest thing here is the tendency of pitching inside. There is clearly a benefit of pitching high and inside to McCutchen, since that is his weakest area. And it would be hypocritical for Pirates fans to go against that practice, since the idea of pitching inside has been embraced so much by the organization at every level. From the looks of things, it has also been embraced by other teams in the NL Central.
As much as you’d want to say that the Reds were throwing at McCutchen intentionally, I don’t think that’s the case. That would make it easier to hate the Reds, but the fact is that the Reds are only taking the same approach the Pirates embrace.