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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COMMENTS: 38


  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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  9. Erik says:

    Pure noise. 53 AB is a laughable sample size.

    Apr 4 – Apr 24, 74 PA: .185/.392/.352

    May 1 – June 4, 67 PA: .212/.358/.654

    After Utley gets 2 HBP with Howard in the hole on September 19:

    44 PA: .412/.545/1.059

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  10. Jon Klick says:

    or, he no longer had Utley hitting ahead of him in the lineup (because of the injury that kept him out of the next 28 games), making it easier for pitchers to give Howard bad pitches to swing at.

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  11. Jun says:

    #2, that’s pretty much what I was thinking too…

    Baseball players see other players get hit by pitches all the time. I can see how the theory of mirror neurons may come into play, but I don’t buy it completely.

    I always thought the traditional thinking for a batter following a hit batsman is to look for an outside pitch, reasoning that a pitcher may be a little skittish pitching inside (close to the batter) and possibly hitting another batter (and most likely getting ejected). Perhaps Howard, after getting hit right after Utley, threw out this traditional thinking, effectively widening his strike zone, making him less effective at the plate.

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  12. Mike B says:

    Woah, 52 HPB in 2 years. Watch out Craig Biggio, Chase Utley is gunnin for your record!

    If getting HBP decreases the ability of the new batter to succeed that might change the value of getting HBP. Perhaps this could be cross posted on the Moneyball blog.

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  13. jonathan says:

    I was wondering if you could show us how well the Phillies did before and after this game. It is plausable that Howard had more sacrafices after this game, because corrolation is not causation.

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  14. Jason says:

    Wow, this is the toughest crowd of nerds I’ve ever heard.

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  15. Finn says:

    I agree with everyone else crying foul over the tiny sample size. The conclusions drawn in this post border on the absurd. Making a claim about a person’s neurological condition from observing 7% of their behavior? Please.

    In addition, it is laughable to argue that ANY Major League batter is afraid of the ball.

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  16. John Rosenthal says:

    1) Small sample size.

    2) A simpler explanation is that until Utley broke his hand, Howard hadn’t considered all the risks of getting hit by a pitch. People who haven’t heard about the peanut contamination scandal have much less fear about eating peanut butter than those who have.

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  17. Kimota94 says:

    Add my voice to the chorus singing about the sample size being too small.

    Over something as tiny as < 100 at-bats (which is what we’re talking about here), you could see ALL KINDS of bizarre results (like a 0.500 batting average) that really mean nothing.

    But it was still an interesting article to read, and I’m already getting excited about the start of another season in just over a month!

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  18. tom p says:

    I always had a strange feeling about the HBP. Two or three batters in a row get big hits/HRs and because the pitcher is doing a lousy job he gets to plunk the next batter. Then we have to wait for the next inning for the other pitcher to get retribution (and probably thrown out.) I always thought the answer was for the next batter to have the bat mysteriously slip out of his hands in the direction of the pitcher. (He could always use the same line the pitcher uses, “I swear I wasn’t aiming for him it just slipped.”) Dave Winfield used to have the bat slip out of his hands a number of time during the year and I don’t remember him ever getting plunked. Just a thought.

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  19. Jamie Reidy says:

    When I arrived at the US Army Airborne School, I was already shaking. (Terrified of heights my whole life, I only signed up to make me – an “HR” lieutenant – look less wimpy.)

    But on the C-130 en route to the first drop zone, my adrenaline kicked in as never before (perhaps I would’ve had a more successful collegiate wrestling career had I feared for my life going in). I felt bullet proof, indestructible. Bring it on, baby!!!!

    Then, I landed feet…face. There were supposed to be three other “points of contact” (side of calf, side of thigh, rear end) between feet and face. Big bruise. But alive.

    And my fear of death magnified 10-fold! The knowledge of what could actually happen to me, what could go wrong, wreaked havoc in my mind. I became more and more of a quivering mess for each of the last four jumps required for graduation.

    So, I believe knowledge, er, impacted Ryan Howard more than empathy.

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  20. AaronS says:

    Nah, he’s just afraid of the ball.

    Many years ago, at the Skyway Little League Park in Tampa, Florida, I was a pretty good hitter. In fact, one year I was the homerun champion.

    But being a big (and growing) guy, and having been taught to tap the FAR SIDE of plate with my baseball bat, to ensure that my swing covered the entire plate, I was taught something that ended my budding baseball career.

    One of my friends, a really good (and fast) pitcher for an opposing team, had beaned me in a baseball game. I spoke to him afterward. “You’re crowding the plate,” he told me. And I suppose that I was, what with wanting to stand close enough to tap the other side of the plate.

    Well, after being beaned a few more times, I began to get the message. And the message, to my mind, was: The farther you get away from the path of the ball, the better!”

    Then, upon facing the really fast pitchers in a High School tryout, I almost couldn’t stay in the batter’s box–it was just too scary. I had been CONDITIONED by the pain of being beaned, I guess. And so, that was the end of my baseball days.

    One day, perhaps they’ll allow some sort of “body armor” for batters. Something so good that you won’t even flinch if the ball comes right at your head. If that every happens, I will surely be good enough to make the major leagues.

    Alas, so will everyone else, and so the ante will go up–perhaps armor-piercing ballistic baseballs?

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  21. Caliphilosopher says:

    Here’s a way to actually cut through all this:

    To answer the initial question “What’s the next batter thinking?”, instead of doing all of this un-needed analysis, why not do the obvious – just ask the batter?

    Being a former collegiate player, I also want to note there IS a “we” when considering OBP – simpliciter, it’s called “Team’s OBP”. I can tell you that the person in front of you (as well as behind you) in the order does have an effect on your own OBP, even if just in a counterfactual/material conditional sort of way.

    Empathy is NOT counterproductive. Making that claim after one instance of (supposed) evidence is just a terrible inductive argument (which is way worse than a deductive argument).

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  22. Thomas B. says:

    Even if the statistical sample were large enough you’re all looking at this the wrong way. In 2007 Chase Utley was on-base over 40% of the time. Ryan Howard is a great power hitter and a big RBI threat. Whoever replaced Utley in the lineup was probably on base less often than Utley was so Howard was at bat fewer times in RBI situations. That means pitchers could go after him with better pitches. Meaning he’d fair far worse with a lesser teammate batting infront of him.

    Compare Howard’s stats before Utley was hurt, while Utley was out for 26 games and after Utley came back and get back to me. I don’t have time to do it but I suspect Utley’s OBP had a far greater effect on Howard’s stats than anything else.

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  23. Drew says:

    1.) Small sample size! (as everyone has pointed out)

    2.) Anyone who kept up with baseball over the past few years knows that Ryan Howard has gone through major slumps ever since his MVP win in 2006. Could these stats not be attributed to the fact that Howard just played worse in general after July 26, 2007?

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  24. Jon says:

    Just because I feel I have to join the party..

    small sample size!

    Also, I have noticed that it has rained in New York on the last two Wednesdays. Can I get a guest post where I explain how I predict the weather?

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  25. Danny says:

    #1 – Sac-flies don’t count against your average so 4 sac-flies give an average of .184. Not so numerate after all…

    For all the people saying hitters see people hit all the time, the point of the article is that Howard was hit with the very next pitch, and that act may have changed the wiring in Howard’s brain.

    And it was a sample size of 95 at-bats geniuses (53 before, 42 after), and that’s 8% of his total at-bats for the two years. Since Utley led the majors in HBP, it’s the largest sample size you can possibly get.

    I’ll give the peanut gallery one point though: Howard’s average has gone done steadily the last three seasons (.313, .268, .251) so maybe he’s just sliding for sliding’s sake.

    Dubner: you should have crunched the numbers on his batting average in games when not hit to rule out general decline in performance.

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  26. Danny says:

    I forgot one other gaff by the gallery, the 53 at-bats-after-seeing-Utley-hit means UTLEY WAS IN THE GAME. So all the talk about Utley’s replacement not having the same OBP and pitchers throwing more aggressively is moot. The stat is only dealing with Howard and Utley in the game at the same time. Read carefully before posting.

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  27. Nick Orton says:

    Wow……saw this linked to another blog, and now I remember why I gave up on this one. After Utley was hit, Howard’s “stats plummeted: in 53 at-bats, he hit .184 and had an OBP of .327.” Yeah, his OBP plummeted from .339 (his overal 2008 OBP) to .327. If Howard had got on base literally twice more time in those 53 at bats, his OBP would have actually been higher post-July 26-seeing-someone-hit than it was in other situations. A 53 AB sample size isn’t just small in this case. It’s laughably insignificant.

    In 99 at bats in April, Howard hit .172 with .297 OBP.
    In 101 at bats in late and close situations, he hit .153 with a .306 OBP.
    In 39 at bats on an 0-1 count last year he hit .385 with 5 home runs (I guess he should just take a strike first pitch every time!)
    It took me about two minutes to look that all up.
    Inferring anything about Ryan Howard’s empathetic neurons from any of these stats is intellectually dishonest.

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  28. Dave Studenmund says:

    This was covered in detail in a great study by John Walsh in this year’s Hardball Times Annual. In general, batters did perform better than expected after a HBP, but the results probably weren’t statistically significant.

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  29. Matt says:

    There is an alternate explanation for Howard’s reaction to Uttley being injured. Thomas Timmerman has done research on the “culture of honor” in the south that shows that the best indicator of retaliatory beanings is whether the retaliating pitcher is from the south. Howard is from St. Louis (Missouri is borderline south, though St. Louis is the culturally most northern part of the state). It may be that after seeing Utley hit so many times, with insufficient retaliation from the Philadelphia pitching staff, that Howard felt that his team was not doing enough to protect its hitters, which would affect not only fear of getting hit, but also the value of being attached to such a team.

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  30. splint.chesthair says:

    No MLB player is afraid of the baseball. If they are, they won’t be in the MLB long. You can’t hit if your afraid of the baseball. If you’ve never stood at the plate against a 90 mph fastball then you have no idea how impossible it would be to hit it if you were afraid.

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  31. jason says:

    So, Howard’s similiarities to a monkey is why he struggles? I think I’ve heard this theory before, only from much less educated people, and much fewer and small words.

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  32. Caliphilosopher says:

    #30 –

    Thank you.

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  33. Bill says:

    Most importantly, it’s pretty unlikely Howard is scared of the ball.

    Anyone who watches the Phillies knows that Utley stands about as close to the plate as possible, while Howard stands about as far from the plate as one could. Howard rarely, if ever gets hit.

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  34. Bobby G says:

    “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team,’”

    But there is a “me.” Oh, did someone say that one already?

    Also, so many factors eliminated. An HBP counts as a runner on, possibly a runner in scoring postion… even in 95 ABs I think it’d be hard to find isolated scenarios with which to judge performance.

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  35. Stephen says:

    First of all, people need to read this article and actually understand what is trying to be explained before yelling foul with the whole ‘sample size’ dilemma.

    Of course the sample size is small. It involves a rare occurrence, being that of the HBP. These are not arbitrarily chosen at-bats for Howard. It’s simply an observation of a statistical split, not unlike defining how a player hits in a day game after playing the previous night. There may not be a large sample size, but that doesn’t mean that something physically or psychologically, in this case, is effected.

    I found the idea fascinating and I especially appreciate the author supporting his statistical find with a scientific hypothesis.

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  36. Dr. Bob says:

    I think the type of HBP and the damage done may play a difference in the next batter’s response.

    Suppose in one case the pitch merely got away from a pitcher and in another case was a deliberate drilling of the batter.

    I suppose in the first case, the next batter may be a bit guarded, in the second, the next batter may be more highly motivated for revenge.

    Suppose in one case the batter got beaned and in another case got hit in the butt.

    In the first case, the next batter might be worried about his teammate and perhaps a bit scared, in the second, the batter probably would be concerned at all.

    Now, if I were a MLB player, I’d sure as heck want C.C Sabathia on my pitching staff – that’s one less plunker I’d have to face during the season.

    One last observation – since we’re talking baseball, spring must be coming soon, eh?

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  37. Mike says:

    Batters hit better with a runner on base, and even BETTER when that runner was hit by a pitch. 2008 MLB batting average with runners on 1st was .273, but it was .282 when the runner on base was hit by a pitch. The blog “plunkeveryone” did the math on January 24th.

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  38. Phil Downs says:

    Read Tim Kirkjian’s book. All baseball players are afraid of the ball while batting. Those that deny it are lying. It’s the fact they are able to overcome the fear and hit that separates them from the rest of us…that and super-human hand/eye coordination.

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