The first batter to step to the plate this season for the Cincinnati Reds was Shin-Soo Choo. This was by design. The top of the Reds lineup was a disaster for much of last year, with Drew Stubbs and Zack Cozart competing for the out-making championship of the universe. They needed a completely different kind of hitter to take their place, someone who would avoid making outs, setting the table for other hitters, building and extending rallies.
So when Choo strode to the plate to face Jered Weaver to lead off the Reds' season, his mandate was clear. Do whatever it takes to get on base. And he did.
We rarely recognize historic events in their earliest stages. Only when confronted with reams of evidence can we clearly see what's unfolding. Only then can we go back and see those early happenings for what they were: the start of something big. When Weaver plunked Choo on the right foot on the third pitch he saw all season, that was one of those early, precipitating events. It set the stage for what could now become the second-highest total of hit-by-pitches in baseball's modern era (since 1900).
With 20 HBPs in the team's first 83 games, Choo is on pace to get plunked 40 times this year. That would thrust Choo ahead of Don Baylor's 1986 total of 35, into second place behind Ron Hunt's record season of 50 HBPs in 1971. (The pre-1900 record is held by Hughie Jennings, who got hit 51 times.) Like Choo, Hunt was an OBP fiend, someone who reached base frequently in all kinds of ways. He led the league in times hit by pitch seven straight seasons, hit over .300 twice, and walked more than he struck out, setting Montreal Expos records for fewest strikeouts in a season with more than 400 at-bats (19 Ks in 401 AB in 1973, and 17 Ks in 403 AB in 1974) and fewest double plays for an everyday player in team history (one, in 1971). Hunt retired after the 1974 season with three HBP records: most times in a career (243), in a season (50, 1971), and in a game (three, tied with many other players). He would later have his career HBP record broken by Baylor, then by Craig Biggio, who still holds the modern record with 285 (Jennings retains the all-time mark with 287).
But it was Hunt's attitude more than just the sheer numbers that defined his baseball legacy. Unlike Biggio, a surefire Hall of Famer with a diverse skill set, Hunt's talents were somewhat limited, with the kind of scant power that netted just 39 career homers and a .347 slugging average. It's not that Hunt wanted to take all those lumps throughout the years — he had to. "Some people give their bodies to science," he was fond of saying. "I give mine to baseball."
Before this season, Choo didn't have that kind of reputation. He was certainly an on-base hound, posting a .384 OBP from 2008 through 2012 that ranked tied for 11th in baseball during that time. He did get plunked often, ranking sixth in the majors from 2009 through 2012 (despite playing just 85 games in 2011) with 48 HBPs and tying for second overall with 17 in 2009. These were fairly lofty numbers. What they were not was historic.
So what's changed? How and why has Choo gone from someone who'd take a bruise here and there to the Plunk King?
To answer this question, we set out to scrutinize each and every one of his HBPs this year. Fortunately, Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus took an initial look at this topic on April 17. Choo had already been hit seven times in 14 games by then, and Miller also wanted to know how and why. Definitely read Sam's excellent piece in full, but if you're looking for a shorter summary: There was no obvious cause for the surge. Choo had actually moved slightly farther from the plate than where he stood in 2012 while with the Indians. Given his reaction to this April 14, 2012, pitch by the Royals' Jonathan Sanchez, you could argue that Choo had gotten a bit fed up with getting hit. Whatever prompted the batting stance change, Miller found no obvious pattern in the seven pitches that had hit Choo to that point in the 2013 season. Four of those HBPs came on unavoidable pitches, while three appeared to be of his "Choo's choo-choo-choosing." (Sam receives 90,000 points for the flawless Simpsons-quoting execution.)
So what of the 13 HBPs since? Could we now have a large enough sample to produce some kind of detectable pattern? Let's take a look, starting with video.
On April 21 against the Marlins, Choo got hit twice. The first time occurred at the 54-second mark of this condensed-game video taken from MLB.tv. Here, you can see how Choo naturally turns his leg toward the pitch as he strides. But there doesn't seem to be any blatant effort to get hit.
At the 5:41 mark of that same clip, Choo gets hit again. And, well
right in the Chooboose. No way he's getting out of the way of that one. Really, both of these are indicative of how Marlins starter Alex Sanabia pitched that day, with the right-hander issuing five walks along with those two HBPs, including a walk to Cesar Izturis that nearly ended with another HBP. Sanabia was terribly wild, and Choo looks like he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
On April 22, Choo's Reds faced Travis Wood's Cubs. At 5:18 of this video, Wood throws a big looper of a pitch that starts way inside and actually has to sweep back toward the plate just to hit Choo in his upper back. Though our man did look slow to react, here again it would seem tough to get out of the way. And unlike in other clips where Choo winces in pain but is otherwise content to take his base, here he looks pretty unhappy.
So fine, now we've got two clips (maybe three) where Choo seems to be an unwilling participant in the pitcher's game of target practice. But behold this pitch from Paul Maholm in a May 6 game against the Braves, starting at the 6:38 mark.
Sure looks like he's leaning into the pitch on purpose with that front leg, doesn't it?
May 14, Reds vs. Marlins, Ricky Noalsco pitching. Nolasco plunks Choo in the back, and again, no intent appears obvious from the hitter. Ditto May 26, Reds-Cubs, Kyuji Fujikawa pitching — if Choo's trying to get hit on the right elbow here at 16:42, he's got me fooled. (Also, Choo doesn't wear armor on his elbow the way Biggio, Barry Bonds, and others did.)
But May 28, Reds-Indians, Scott Barnes pitching? Maybe that's a tough one to avoid. But tell me Choo's not purposely turning his back to the pitch at 13:36, waiting to get hit, and content to absorb a welt.
Facing the Pirates on May 31, it's pretty obvious that Choo is fine with getting smacked on the leg by a Wandy Rodriguez pitch at 2:59. Facing the Pirates again two days later, this time versus Jeanmar Gomez? Looks like an innocent HBP on the leg at 0:17.
And yet, in that very same June 2 game, Choo runs the count full against Vin Mazzaro in the fourth inning, gets a pitch headed toward his leg, and seems to stride right into it at 6:07, with no effort made to dodge.
The mixed bag continues as you keep going. Facing Scott Feldman leading off the game on June 10, Choo does seem to try to get out of the way of an inside 1-2 pitch — though ducking instead of yanking his arm out of the way at 0:14 seems either a covert way to get hit, or a very poor read on the pitch. There was almost certainly no way to avoid this Jerry Blevins pitch on June 25 at the 8:43 mark though Choo does seem to have perfected the art of spinning around quickly to absorb pitches on the back as opposed to taking a stinger, say, right off the chest.
Adding one final piece of intrigue to the puzzle is the heated rivalry the Reds and Pirates have developed going back to last year. Aroldis Chapman nearly caused a brawl after hitting Andrew McCutchen in the back with one of his trademark blazing fastballs last season. Since then, we've seen both teams retaliate. Pittsburgh's Charlie Morton so obviously threw at Choo on June 18 that the Reds announcers had to walk viewers through the entire recent history of these two teams as soon as the pitch made contact. And Choo's taken the worst of it, by far: Of his 20 HBPs this year, some appear to be intentional attempts to get hit, others unintentional but no fewer than six of those pitches were fired by Pirates pitchers.
OK, the video evidence doesn't seem to reveal any patterns. Could the numbers tell us anything about Choo's methods, and his motives? For some nuggets, we turned to our friends at ESPN Stats & Info.
First, the basics. With 20 HBPs in 2013, Choo has already surpassed last year's major league leaders — Carlos Quentin, Prince Fielder, and Kevin Youkilis — who tied with 17 each. He owns a career-high 15 percent walk rate this year, a sign that he's becoming more selective at the plate, which might augment his hit-by-pitch total. Choo's longest streak without getting hit by a pitch in 2013 is 12 games, from April 23 to May 5; Hunt's longest streak without an HBP in his record 1971 season was 13 games. Choo has totaled two HBPs in a game twice this season; Hunt was hit multiple times in six different games back in '71. Choo's just the fourth player to rack up 20 or more HBPs before the All-Star break, with Baylor doing it once, Jason Kendall twice, and Hunt twice (a record 25 in '71).
Hmmm we might need a little more context. In 1971, the year Hunt set the record, there was an average of 0.21 HBPs per game. From 1950 to 1990, there was roughly an average of 0.20 HBP per game. Starting in 1991, the rate began to rise incrementally nearly every year through 2004, when it reached 0.38 per game. It declined since then and is at 0.32 per game this year.
And here's a breakdown of Choo's hit by pitches, with pitch types and other splits:
Two strikes: 9
Before two strikes: 11
First pitch: 4
Three-ball counts: 3
Men on base: 8
0 outs: 10
1 out: 4
2 outs: 6
vs. LHP: 8
vs. RHP: 12
Well, that might be it then. Choo might just a simple outlier, someone who happens to be putting up big HBP numbers thanks to excellent plate discipline, lots of times at bat from his leadoff spot, an ongoing feud with one team, a bit of luck, and sure, some occasional leaning into pitches. That's probably it then.
Except there's this: According to Baseball-Reference.com, Choo has 15 HBPs this year by what's classified as "Finesse Pitchers" — those in the bottom third of the league in strikeouts plus walks. He's got zero HBPs by pitchers classified as "Power Pitchers" — those in the top third of the league in strikeouts plus walks. (Plus five by average Power/Finesse pitchers.) Though you can't quite draw a straight line from high-strikeout and high-walk pitchers to the league's velocity leaders (or low strikeouts plus walks to velocity laggards), there are a lot more flamethrowers like Matt Harvey and Jeff Samardzija in the first group, with far more soft-tossers like Barry Zito and Jason Vargas in the latter group.
Which means that Choo is either the master of coincidences, or maybe something else is going on. We could be looking at 2013's version of Ron Hunt. It's just that Choo might be far more subtle in his embrace of the dark arts than Hunt was in real life or otherwise.