When a Batter Is Hit by a Pitch, What’s the Next Batter Thinking? A Guest Post

Now that A-Rod has delivered the annual Yankees Substance Abuse Lecture to kick off spring training, I think we’re all ready for some actual baseball.

Micah Kelber is a writer and freelance rabbi who lives in Brooklyn, currently writing a screenplay about divorce in New York in the 1940’s. He has written a terrifically entertaining guest post on the oft-neglected subject of batters hit by pitches.

Don’t Call It Failure, Call It Empathy: The Case of Ryan Howard
By Micah Kelber
A Guest Post

In sports, it’s taken for granted that feeling compassion for the other team gets in the way of winning, but what about feeling for your own teammates?

On July 26, 2007, Washington Nationals pitcher John Lannan hit Phillies batter Chase Utley with the ball. The next batter, Ryan Howard, was hit with the very next pitch — a first, and so far only, occurrence for Utley and Howard. Utley’s hand was broken and he went on to miss the next 28 games; Howard went 0 for 2 the rest of the day.

Over the last two years, in 2007 and 2008, Utley has led the majors in being hit by a pitch (HBP) 52 times. Ryan Howard was the next batter up after Utley in 44 of those games, in which he came to bat 95 times in those games after Utley was hit.

Before July 26, it appears that seeing Utley get hit had little effect on Howard’s psyche: in his 42 at-bats after Utley was hit before July 26, Howard’s stats were excellent. He had a batting average of .471 and an on-base percentage (OBP) of .571, substantially better than he usually does with men on base.

But after July 26, his after-seeing-Utley-hit stats plummeted: in 53 at-bats, he hit .184 and had an OBP of .327.

It is possible that after July 26, Howard updated his assumptions about pitchers who had just hit Utley and this changed his success at the plate. And it is possible (but I wouldn’t want to tell him) that he became afraid of the ball and that accounts for his worse at-bats.

But it is also possible that his feelings of empathy got in the way.

Since the discovery of mirror neurons, a neural system in macaque monkeys that fire both when monkeys perform certain actions and when they observe those actions, scientists have used MRI’s to suggest that humans also have mirror neurons. When we watch other people act and feel pleasure, disgust, and pain, our brains react in similar places to when we experience these things ourselves (in the anterior cingulate cortex, for example).

In Howard’s case, perhaps the empathetic neurons that fire when he sees Utley hit intensified after July 26, impeding his performance due to preoccupation, over-identification, or perhaps an even more direct (and as yet undiscovered) connection between “empathetic” mirror neurons and the parts of the brain that control motor skills.

Empathy might be motivational in some sports like basketball, where success is dependent on teamwork. But in baseball, it can be counterproductive. It is true that “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team,'” but there is also no “we” in “on-base-percentage.”

In the end, it was the Phillies’ skill that made them World Series Champions. The empathy of teammates ends up being inconsequential once the champagne is poured — but it may matter again next spring.

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  1. David Rasmussen says:

    “But after July 26, his after-seeing-Utley-hit stats plummeted: in 53 at-bats, he hit .184 and had an OBP of .327.”

    So, Howard had either 9 or 10 hits– the math does not suggest an even number. But, in the other case, pre-Utley injury, Howard had 20 hits.

    I am fine with the mirror neuron theory in principle. But, for a numerate Freakonomics audience, why indulge in junk statistics?

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  2. Ezzie says:

    How about a more simplistic explanation?

    As soon as I saw the title of the post in my Reader, I started thinking about the question. The first thought that came to mind was “If the guy before me got hit, I’m leaning out over the plate, because no pitcher wants to risk hitting two guys in a row.” Not only would the pitcher risk being thrown out if the umpire thinks it’s on purpose, but he doesn’t want to put two guys on – especially in that way – and get pulled from the game by his manager or risk giving up runs on stupid mistakes like that.

    Until Jul26, Howard probably assumed that he could lean out and expect pitches on the outer half of the plate. That’s why his numbers weren’t just good, but substantially better than his norm.

    After Jul26, that concept no longer held true in his psyche. Howard was now concerned about getting hit himself, and viewed pitchers who had hit Utley not as pitchers worried about hitting another batter but as pitchers who were lacking control and could hit him as well. Now he’s batting “scared”, which brought his numbers not just down, but way down.

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  3. frankenduf says:

    i don’t buy the assumption that once you’ve been HBP, you are more afraid- i would argue the opposite- once you’ve been HBP, you are less afraid- the suspense is over
    i used to play alot of air hockey- when you play someone good, they can slap the puck at high speeds- the usual problem is the puck can hit your fingers, which is very painful, and causes suspense on the ‘serve’ (where the opponent blasts away from a setup puck)- 1 day, the worst scenario occurred: i got hit in the face with a serve!- but ever since then, i have no fear anymore- i had finally gotten HBP, and knew what it was like- in other words, being HBP in air hockey made me a better player with less fear
    ps- there’s no i in team, but there’s me

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  4. Vince says:

    Sounds like another case of small sample size theater. Over the past 2 seasons, Howard has a .259 average and a .365 OBP. That means that in the 53 plate appearances since July 26 that followed a HBP he reached base about 2 fewer times than expected based on his .365 OBP. If the 53 plate appearances included 38 official at-bats (as the rounding to .184 suggests), then he had almost 3 fewer hits than expected.

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  5. Mitch says:

    Or we’re letting small sample size lead us to ridiculous conclusions.

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  6. AK says:

    Uh, small sample size? Obviously any 42 or 53 at-bat sample of a 500+ at-bat season will be subject to a lot of statistical noise. Probably shouldn’t read too much into it.

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  7. nate says:

    holy small sample size batman….

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  8. b says:

    Or, the even more simplistic answer…

    Small sample size

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