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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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