Are Pitchers More at Risk of Dangerous Comebackers in Today's MLB?

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Are Pitchers More at Risk of Dangerous Comebackers in Today's MLB?
Ben Margot/Associated Press

Major League Baseball has decided to be safe rather than sorry when it comes to protecting pitchers from dangerous comebackers, and that's a good thing. The time is right.

...Possibly in more ways than one.

If you missed last week's big news, ESPN's Outside the Lines reported that MLB has approved (optional) protective caps for pitchers to wear on the mound starting this season. 

It's no surprise that protective caps would be coming along now. In addition to offering pitchers protection from batted balls being simple common sense, awareness of dangerous comebackers has likely never been higher.

ESPN's research found 12 incidents of pitchers being hit in the head by line drives since 2008, including five since September of 2012. The first of those was Brandon McCarthy, who found himself in a life-threatening situation after being hit by a liner off the bat of Angels shortstop Erick Aybar. 

These recent incidents and the awareness they've generated are why the time is right for protective caps to become ingrained in MLB. But we're here to discuss another possibility: Whether today's pitchers might actually be at more risk of being struck by dangerous comebackers than in years past.

Here's a fair warning that it's not obvious that they are. But one thing that's scary enough is that...

 

Line Drives Are Up, And Line Drives Up the Middle Appear to Be as Well

It's clear that the first part is true, anyway. Regardless of whether you consult Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs, line drives are on the rise:

Line Drives on the Rise
Year B-R LD% FanGraphs LD%
2002 25.1 21.3
2003 19.0 22.5
2004 19.0 18.9
2005 18.9 20.9
2006 19.2 19.6
2007 19.6 18.6
2008 19.5 20.2
2009 19.4 18.9
2010 19.3 18.2
2011 18.8 19.6
2012 19.5 20.9
2013 23.5 21.2

Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs

Note: The Baseball-Reference.com percentages were calculated by dividing the number of line drives in play by the number of total balls in play. 2002 is the starting point because that's as far back as batted ball data on FanGraphs goes.

The two sites obviously have different opinions about what constitutes a "line drive," but they both agree that there was an uptick in line drives in 2012 and an even bigger uptick in 2013. If they are to be believed, line drives happened more frequently last year than they had since the early 2000s.

Just as concerning is that it might not just be line drives that are on the rise. Baseball-Reference doesn't let you do it, but FanGraphs' batted ball data can be broken up into directional splits. Here's what you get if you filter the league's LD% for only balls up the middle of the field:

Center-Cut Line Drives
Season Center LD%
2002 22.0
2003 24.2
2004 20.7
2005 21.0
2006 19.2
2007 18.2
2008 19.4
2009 18.3
2010 17.9
2011 19.9
2012 21.0
2013 20.9

FanGraphs

Here you have pretty much the same big picture as the one above. There was an uptick in line drives up the middle in 2012, and there was more of the same in 2013.

Now, as scary as it may be, this data is only worth so much in and of itself. Take a couple looks at both those tables, and you'll walk away thinking that line drive rates can fluctuate. This is true. And frankly, no tangible reasons for the rise in line drives or up-the-middle line drives will be forthcoming if you go digging around in publicly available data (trust me on this one).

We can, however, hazard a few educated guesses for why line drives are on the rise. It might just have something to do with how...

 

Platoon Matchups Are Also on the Rise

Of the last five pitchers to be hit in the head by a line drive—McCarthy, Mickey Storey, Doug Fister, J.A. Happ and Alex Cobb—four were victimized by a platoon matchup. Right-handers McCarthy, Fister and Cobb were struck by a liner hit by a lefty and Happ, a left-hander, was struck by a liner hit by a righty.

Coincidental? I'd say so, especially given that the four players who did the damage were/are everyday players.

However, this speaks to the lesser advantage that pitchers have in platoon matchups. They afford hitters a better look at where the ball is coming from, rendering them more able to put a good swing on the ball and, in turn, make solid contact.

That much can be taken for granted. And if we also take it for granted that more platoon matchups will translate into more solid contact, what MLB pitchers should take note of is that more platoon matchups are actually happening:

The Rise of Platoons
Year vs. RHP as LHB PA vs. LHP as RHB PA Platoon PA Total PA % Platoon PA
2000 66773 34052 100825 190261 52.99%
2001 65930 32675 98605 186976 52.74%
2002 66374 33463 99837 186615 53.50%
2003 64762 36471 101233 187449 54.01%
2004 66722 37348 104070 188539 55.20%
2005 65865 36431 102296 186292 54.91%
2006 62687 37973 100660 188071 53.52%
2007 63706 37867 101573 188623 53.85%
2008 64499 37669 102168 187631 54.45%
2009 67269 35972 103241 187079 55.19%
2010 62883 37352 100235 185553 54.02%
2011 65086 35023 100109 185245 54.04%
2012 63620 38100 101720 184179 55.23%
2013 65554 37077 102631 184873 55.51%

Baseball-Reference.com

The 2012 season brought the highest percentage of platoon matchups of the new millennium, and the 2013 season one-upped it.

This wouldn't appear to be a fluke. MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince has a piece up about how platoons are rising in popularity, and the apparent why is easy to read. The league has settled into a tough run-scoring environment, as I'm sure you've noticed. Creating more favorable matchups through platoons is a good way for teams to fight it.

Whether or not these platoons are a driving force behind the increased number of line drives is something that's hard to prove with numbers. Neither FanGraphs nor Baseball-Reference keeps platoon splits for batted balls, nor does either site offer the numbers for one to calculate it on one's own. 

That's the reason we're strictly in educated guess mode here. But since platoon matchups do afford hitters a better look at the opposition, and because good contact can be born out of these better looks, it will certainly do for a solid educated guess.

There might, however, be another, simpler explanation at work: Maybe the increase in line drives is a natural offshoot of the decrease in power.

And about that...

 

Power Is Down, and so Are Fly Balls

You've probably noticed this as well, but what might interest you is that it's not just power that's down. 

If we take a look at some more batted ball data, we see that fly balls are down too:

The Decline of Power and Fly Balls
Season ISO Baseball-Reference FB% FanGraphs FB%
2002 .155 31.7 35.4
2003 .158 33.5 34.2
2004 .162 34.0 36.9
2005 .154 34.2 34.9
2006 .163 34.1 36.7
2007 .155 34.1 37.9
2008 .152 34.1 36.0
2009 .155 34.4 37.8
2010 .145 33.9 37.5
2011 .144 34.0 36.0
2012 .151 32.6 34.0
2013 .143 29.1 34.3

FanGraphs

It's once again apparent here that batted ball data isn't exactly consistent. What's happened in the last two years, however, should be eye-catching. Like with the line-drive data, it looks like a possible trend is taking hold.

It's a safe guess that the outlawing of performance-enhancing drugs has something to do with this. There just aren't as many sluggers in the game today as there were in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the population only seems to be thinning out more and more as we get further away from the Steroid Era.

Fewer sluggers in general will inevitably mean fewer fly balls, not to mention more at-bats for lower-power guys like Aybar, Dave Sappelt, Gregor Blanco and Desmond Jennings, who are responsible for four of the last five ill-fated comebackers. Even Eric Hosmer, who hit the line drive that struck Cobb, isn't much for hitting the ball in the air. He has power, but he owns just a modest career FB% of 28.0. 

It's not even a given that the top power hitters in the league are also going to be fly-ball machines. Of the 14 hitters who dropped 30 bombs in 2013, for example, only half finished with a FB% under 40.

It might not just be that hitters are different these days, though. Another force at work could be the kinds of pitches they're being forced to swing at.

 

Pitchers Aren't Making It Easy to Elevate the Ball

There's not much that ties the pitches that hurt McCarthy, Storey, Fister, Happ and Cobb together, save for one thing:

They were all intended to be low in the strike zone.

McCarthy's was supposed to be a low sinker, Fister's was supposed to be a splitter in the dirt, and Storey, Happ and Cobb were looking to throw knee-high fastballs. Rather than illustrate the point with five separate still images, I'll just invite you to go check out the videos to see for yourselves.

Not exactly a shocking revelation, I know. That it's good to keep the ball low in the strike zone has been conventional wisdom for a long time. 

What must be noted, however, is that pitchers are only getting better at pitching down in the zone.

That's what Jon Roegele of The Hardball Times found out when he went looking for ways that the game has changed since the implementation of PITCHf/x. He found that umpires have gotten more consistent in calling the low strike and that, in turn, pitchers have been more aggressive in pursuing the low strike.

Shoot, why wouldn't they? Keeping the ball down was already in a pitcher's best interests. The lower the ball goes, the harder it is for a hitter to elevate it. With umpires inviting pitchers to keep their targets low in the PITCHf/x era, it's no surprise that pitchers have taken the invitation.

But hitters have adjusted too. Their swing rate on low pitches is on the rise, an indication that they have adjusted to the fact that many calls that used to go their way don't anymore.

It's hard to get a grasp on what sort of impact this is having on batted balls, as Roegele's research was more focused on how this has impacted the league's ever-increasing strikeout rate. But since low pitches generally are harder to elevate, this could well be a factor in the decreased number of fly balls and, by extension, the increased number of line drives.

Again, that there are more line drives happening is really the only thing we know for sure. And given the inconsistent nature of batted ball data, it's possible that it's a fluke.

That there's even so much of a hint of line drives becoming trendy, however, is a good enough excuse for head protection for pitchers to become a part of the game. And because it's plausible that this trend can be chalked up to other trends—more platoon matchups, fewer power hitters and/or more tough-to-elevate pitches—what you're left thinking is that, yeah, better safe than sorry is the way to go.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

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