Would you step up to the plate in a Major League game if you knew there was a 10 percent chance you were about to get hit by one of the pitches? Maybe you’d put a foot in the box and stand in the corner and hope the pitcher had enough control this time, but every time that pitcher started his windup, wouldn’t it be racing through your mind, “Where is this one going to go? Am I about to get hit in the face? Am I too worried about getting hit by this next pitch that he’ll just blow a fastball right by me? What if he throws a slider that starts in and looks like it is going to hit me and then breaks into the strike zone?”
All good questions! (That you would have milliseconds to ponder.) Luckily for hitters at the Major League level, pitchers have developed their control enough to the point where they no longer have to worry about being hit by a pitch so often… right?
Meet Austin Adams, a reliever for the San Diego Padres. He’s got a solid two-pitch arsenal (fastball-slider) with a 4.17 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, a 13.0 K per nine, and... 24 HIT BATSMEN?!?!
Yeah, in 49.2 innings pitched in 2021, Austin Adams has hit 24 batters. He has faced a total of 230 batters, and in more than one out of every ten cases, a hitter gets a free pass to first to go along with a bruise on their lower back. This unfounded lack of control is new for Adams. Prior to 2021, Adams had thrown 38 innings for the Nationals and Mariners and hit only two batsmen. Did something change during the offseason, or is this just a recreation of that famous scene from Bull Durham where Kevin Costner’s character, Crash Davis, tells Robbins’ character, LaLoosh, to throw the next pitch at the mascot in order to throw the hitters off.
If Adams is hitting any of these batters intentionally, he’s doing it in the worst way possible. He throws his slider, which has an average velocity of 86.9 mph, 87.4 percent of the time. If you’re going to hit someone and mean it, you throw the heater. When you look back at some of these HBPs, none of them seem intentional. I mean, for goodness sake, Adams has plunked TWO hitters while the bases were loaded! That’s two runs given to the opposition by way of the hit-by-pitch — once against the Phillies on August 21 and once against the Dodgers on September 12. That one against the Dodgers was his 23rd hit by pitch of the season, tying him with Howard Ehmke for the most HBPs in a single season. Ehmke hit 23 batters as a member of the Detroit Tigers… in 1922. It had been almost 100 years since someone had allowed as many free passes via the plunk. Not to mention, Ehmke hit his 23 batters across 279.2 innings, whereas Adams has done it in just under 50. If you listen to the clip of Adams hitting Mookie Betts to drive in a run, the announcers don’t even care that a run was scored. They just can’t believe that Adams had tied the record.
Of course, Adams has since broken the record — earning his 24th HBP last night against the Cardinals.
It’s clear that Adams’ ability to smoke opposing hitters is unrivaled! Even in an era where velocity is king and control comes second, Adams stands head and shoulders above his comrades. Adams is hitting opposing batters at a 10.43 percent clip. Of the four next highest rates in a single season, three have come in the last 15 years: 2021 Dillon Maples (5.76 percent), 2013 Johnny Hellweg (4.94 percent), and 2007 Sean White (4.85 percent). However, none of those guys pitched more than 36 innings. Adams has pitched 50, and that hit batter rate just continues to climb.
Pedro Martinez, who was famous for brushing hitters back, never plunked more than 16 batters in a season, and that was in 217 innings. Bob Gibson, reputedly the meanest pitcher who ever lived, never hit more than 13.
The question now is: “Is Adams’ habit of plunking batters worth everything else he brings to the table?” For the most part, I’d say yes. In 50 innings, the man hasn’t allowed a home run. Home runs happen all the time nowadays, and this guy hasn’t allowed one! That’s impressive. If you’re asking yourself why Padres manager Jayce Tingler would even humor the idea of putting someone as volatile as Adams on the mound with the bases loaded, look no further than Adams’ strikeout rate. If you’re trying to get out of an inning with minimal damage, Adams is a huge gamble, but the upside is enormous. Let’s say there’s no outs and the bases are loaded. With Adams’ 13.0 strikeout per nine rate, it’s more than likely that Adams can send the first guy back to the bench via the K, and at that point, all your team needs is a double play to get out of the inning. That’s easier said than done, but the blueprint is there. It’s much more likely that Adams punches out two hitters in a row than Adams knocks in a run by hitting the man at the plate.
If Adams can get his control under.... control (I couldn’t think of a better way to put that), he obviously has the tools to be a high-level reliever in Major League Baseball. His slider is missing bats at a 34.7 percent clip, and the xwOBA against that pitch is just .306 in 2021. However, do we want Adams to figure out his control? Sure, we want to protect the hitters. That should be of the utmost concern. However, there’s something strangely beautiful about what Adams is doing. We’ve never seen someone at baseball’s highest level with as little control as Adams. If he doesn’t know where the ball is going, how are the hitters supposed to know? The number one job of a pitcher is to confuse the hitter, and Adams has done a remarkable job of that.
Maybe we need to keep Adams around for the sake of science, because something like this should never happen, and either one of two things will happen in just a few years time. Either more pitchers get called up with great putaway pitches but a lack of control leading to more hit batsmen, or Adams’ 24 hit batters will never happen again. That’s my hypothesis, and I’m sticking to it.