Pain Profiteers

When baseball fans think of players who get hit by pitches, they probably think of Craig Biggio, Don Baylor, or, in more recent times, Carlos Quentin, and rightly so. Those players did (and do) get hit often. But how much does their career offensive production rely on the hit by pitch? That is a different matter — some players who get hit a lot do a lot of other things well, and are thus less reliant on pain for offensive profit. Using our old friend linear weights for measuring offense, here are five modern players who have the great proportion of their offensive production from getting hit.

Sky Kalkman recently wrote about dividing up offensive production according to value, and that inspired me to get it together and do something like this. I simply took a player’s career hit by pitch production and divided it by his offensive production according to linear weights. I stuck with the modern era (since 1955), since the hit by pitch records are better since then, and also because the linear weights formulas commonly used are tuned for that era.

Without getting into all the details, for the sake of simplicity I used one of Patriot’s versions of Paul Johnson‘s Estimated Runs Produced to establish total career runs created for each player. It is an “absolute” run estimator, as opposed to one baselined against average, but one can be converted into the other easily. It is not tuned to each specific season like our wRC (FanGraphs’ absolute run estimator) or wRAA and it uses a slightly different set of events, but the underlying principles are the same — they are both linear run estimators.

[The version of Patriot’s ERP I used is: .483S+.805D+1.127T+1.449HR+.322(W+HB)-.161IW+.225(SB+SF-DP)+.097*SH-.322CS-.097(AB-H). Yes, it uses outs rather than plate appearances, but again, the general principles are the same.]

Since I was doing this on a career level for post-1955 players, I had to decide on what the minimum amount of playing time would be. Originally I started with 5000 plate appearances, but that made the list a bit predictable, and only included players who were obviously good enough to stay in the league for a while without excessive HBP-ability (and it is an ability — hit by pitches per plate appearance correlates year-to-year about as well as wOBA). If I set it too low, it would include players who either lasted only a few seasons in part time roles. I finally decided on 3000 plate career plate appearances as my minimum. (That leads to one omission, but he’ll catch up soon enough.)

Without further ado, here are the players since 1955 with the largest percentage of their career offensive value (as opposed to just rate) being due to hit by pitches.

5. Alex Cora, 8.4 percent. I would imagine that upon hearing of Cora’s official retirement from baseball in January 2012, many Dodgers, Red Sox, and Mets fans thought something along these lines:

[/timely reference]

That isn’t completely fair. Cora actually managed a 119 wRC+ in 293 plate appearances for the Dodgers in 2002, although when they rewarded him with 514 plate appearances in 2003, he amazed everyone with a 66 wRC+. He was a decent enough second baseman, I guess, but he just couldn’t hit, most of the time, putting up a .243/.310/.338 career line. There are plenty of players who got hit more than Cora, he just didn’t do enough of everything else, so it was a big part of his “production.”

4. Reed Johnson, 9.1 percent. Johnson is still in the league almost completely due to his ability to hit southpaws. Early on in his career, he was an everyday player, and had a legitimately very good 2006, hitting .319/.390/.479. He was pretty much relegated to being a part-timer after that, and has been a useful .283/.340.410 (98 wRC+) hitter. What is really stunning about that .340 on-base percentage is that Johnson has never walked very much at all. His walk rate peaked at seven percent in 2009, and that was the last time it was ever over five percent. He is not much of a contact hitter, either. The beanings have definitely been a big part of his usefulness over the years.

3. Fernando Vina, 9.3 percent. You may only know Vina as a brilliant Baseball Tonight commentator from a few years back, but he played in 12 seasons in the big leagues. Vina was also mentioned in the Mitchell Report, which probably explains the nine towering homers he smoked for the Cardinals in 2001 (.116 ISO!).

Unlike Cora and Johnson, Vina was actually a full time player for most of his career, and he had a good reputation as a defender at second base. He never walked much, but more than Johnson, but he was good at making contact, only striking out four more times in almost 5000 career plate appearances than he walked. Despite the lack of power and walks, and without an exceptional batting average, his offense turned out to be adequate for a second baseman, and his ability to absorb hits played a significant part in his .282/.348/.379 (93 wRC+) career line.

[Carlos Quentin would have been in third if he had the requisite 3000 plate appearances. See Eno’s post from a couple of years ago. Obviously, Quentin’s explosion at Zack Greinke earlier this year was due to his surprise at getting beaned.]

2. Jason LaRue, 11.1 percent. LaRue had a few decent years as the Reds’ primary catcher in the early 00s, but after that his liners turned into grounders with too much frequency, and his fly balls started falling into the hands of fielders too often, and he became a backup. His ability to get beaned truly heroic, though, especially in from 2002 to 2005, and kept his on-base percentage decent despite (mostly) having poor walk rates and batting averages. LaRue misses the top spot on out list, but just barely.

1. Ron Hunt, 11.6 percent. Hunt is no one’s idea of a Hall of Famer, or even a Hall of Very Good-er, but he had a nice career, and was well-known in his time for getting hit. His apparently said that “some people give their bodies to science; I give mine to baseball.” Matthew Carruth wrote about Hunt a bit a couple of years ago, so I will try to avoid repeats, though. While Don Baylor and Craig Biggio would eventually exceed Hunt’s career hit by pitch record, they do not really come close to him in the proportion of their offensive value gained from getting drilled: Biggio sits at about 5.5 percent, Baylor at 5.5.

Hunt came in second in the 1963 Rookie of the Year voting when he hit 10 home runs, but he never hit for even that kind of mediocre power again. Hunt did make the All-Star team 1984 and 1966, and as he got older, did add walks to his ability to get on-base. He also almost never struck out (6.2 percent career strikeout rate). Despite the lack of power or much of a batting average, he was able to get on base, and his willingness to lean into one played a huge part in that, enabling him to be an above-average hitter (.273/.368/.377, 109 wRC+) for his career.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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Turbo Sloth
Turbo Sloth

Interesting and entertaining read, especially because it’s always fun to bring up near-forgotten players of the past.