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Lucas Duda and the art of the hit-by-pitch

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Getting hit by pitches may be more than a matter of chance.

Cincinnati Reds v New York Mets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

As we noted in this week’s Mind Boggler, Lucas Duda has the distinction of being the Mets’ all-time leader in hit-by-pitches. This seems counterintuitive. Being hit by a pitch seems like a random event over which the batter has little control. Therefore, one would expect a franchise’s hit-by-pitch leaders to simply be the players with the most plate appearances. But that’s not the case. In fact, 25 players in Mets history have come up to the plate more times than Duda.

So what gives? Is Duda simply the victim of bad luck—or perhaps good luck from the standpoint of getting on base—or does he do something as a hitter that makes him uniquely prone to getting beaned?

To answer that question, let’s first look at the 11 players who led baseball in hit-by-pitches from 2012 to 2016, the last five full seasons. These hitters don’t appear to have any one thing in common. However, it’s hard not to notice three attributes that seem prevalent among these hitters: standing close to the plate, hitting with a closed stance or striding toward the plate, and using a high leg kick. Virtually all of the hit-by-pitch leaders exhibit at least one or two of these characteristics. Some exhibit all three.

Intuitively, it makes sense why each of the three characteristics would contribute to hit-by-pitches. The closer a hitter stands to the plate, for example, the more likely it is that an inside pitch grazes his arm or leg. Hitters like Brandon Guyer, Derek Dietrich, and Chase Utley start their swing with their arms practically hanging over the strike zone. It’s not hard to see how inside pitches could end up making contact with their bodies.

Brandon Guyer (66 HBP)

Derek Dietrich (54 HBP)

Chase Utley (51 HBP)

Hitting with a closed stance or striding toward the plate also seem conducive to getting beaned. If you look at Starling Marte, Shin-Soo Choo, Jon Jay, and Danny Espinosa, you’ll notice that their front feet end up closer to the plate than their back feet right before they swing. Marte is angled so far toward the plate that you can actually read his entire name on the back of his uniform. When a hitter’s momentum is moving toward the plate, it becomes harder for him, once he notices that an inside pitch is coming his way, to spin back around and move away from the dish.

Starling Marte (79 HBP)

Shin-Soo Choo (74 HBP)

Jon Jay (66 HBP)

Danny Espinosa (54 HBP)

Using a high leg kick also makes it harder to adjust to pitches thrown inside. When a hitter’s leg is high in the air—especially if, as is the case with some hitters, his thigh is almost parallel to the ground—it takes a while to get the leg back on the ground in time to jump away from the pitch. Anthony Rizzo, Carlos Gomez, Matt Holliday, and Russell Martin all use high leg kicks to generate power. Another byproduct of the leg kick, however, is to make the hitter less mobile in the batter’s box.

Anthony Rizzo (70 HBP)

Carlos Gomez (49 HBP)

Matt Holliday (49 HBP)

Russell Martin (49 HBP)

This brings us back to Duda. The following four photos were taken in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017, respectively. As you can see, Duda exhibits each of the three characteristics common among the hit-by-pitch leaders of the last five years.

Lucas Duda, 2014

Lucas Duda, 2015

Lucas Duda, 2016

Lucas Duda, 2017

While Duda doesn’t necessarily crowd the plate, his arms and legs are basically at the inner edge of the strike zone by the time the pitch is delivered. He clearly strides toward the plate, as his front foot moves closer to the plate than his back foot as he loads. Finally, and most noticeably, Duda has a high leg kick. Although it’s gotten far less pronounced over the years, it’s definitely still there.

The implication here is pretty interesting. While getting hit by pitches probably isn’t an “art” or a “skill” per se, it’s probably not the result of mere happenstance, either. It appears that certain hitting attributes increase the likelihood of getting hit by pitches that are thrown inside.

This also doesn’t appear to be a fluke resulting from a small sample size of 12 hitters. If you look at both the Mets’ and Major League Baseball’s all-time hit-by-pitch leaders, you’ll see a number of hitters who share these attributes (Cliff Floyd, Edgardo Alfonzo, Craig Biggio, among many). Ron Hunt, of course, appears on both leaderboards as one of the most famous victims of the beanball, having been hit a remarkable 50 times in the 1971 season alone.

Lucas Duda being the Mets’ franchise leader in hit-by-pitches is the kind of quirky, overlooked achievement befitting Lucas Duda. Duda’s proclivity for getting hit by pitches is not just a trivial quirk, however, but a useful tool for getting on base. While hitters probably won’t—and shouldn’t—change their offensive approach solely for the purpose of getting hit more often, those with stances and swings similar to Duda’s probably have an advantage when it comes to reaching base via the beanball.