Yankees vs. Red Sox: Tale of the Bean Ball

As the Yankees head into their final meeting of the year with the Red Sox, looking up at them like at a distant star, one has to wonder what all this means to them. If we are to believe what the commentators say, every Red Sox game is special, and despite the standings, the Yankees will not go into the game as “spoilers” but as competitors, dignified and determined to show the true colors under their pinstripes.

This year, all the hullabaloo about A-Rod’s dalliances, the ascension of the Steinbrothers and the readying of the stadium for eBay makes one wistful for the old days when the Yankees could be seen on the streets with scarves and top hats. Maybe the Yankees need to be reminded there are still people who listen to their games on the radio.

You heard the bemoaning early—“This team is as good as done”—but it seemed for most of the year that they were more done than good.

The phrase makes you wonder, especially as they go into Boston, where historically the behavior of both sets of fans (and sometimes the players) has inclined towards problematic— how good has the team been? I don’t mean how effective or triumphant, but as compared to their rivals, how good have they been? Could one measure their virtue and while we’re at it, show whether virtue pays off?

Some will say that sports is a business and therefore the question is irrelevant. For others who truly appreciate the dignity of the game, the question could have restorative power—redemptive implications.

One could assert that this is what Nietzsche labeled a “slave morality.” Only now that the Yankees are done do we attempt to divert attention from the most powerful to the question of goodness.

One could look at the charities of the respective teams, or how often the players flipped a three-dollar ball to the kids in the cheap seats. But the most obvious on-the-field event that one should use to consider character is the hit-by-pitch statistic.

The hit-by-pitch statistic is an important one in the sociology of sports because it is the most violent event in baseball, and the thing that players do to take things into their own hands. Sometimes balls just get away from the pitcher, other times managers call for retaliatory “bean balls” to protect their players, but sometimes players’ egos make them fire away on their own.

Given the intensity of the rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees, these events are particularly pregnant for consideration.

In the last 16 years, the Yankees have played other American league teams 2,283 times in the regular season. Individual Yankee batters have appeared before those other teams 90,567 times. Of those plate appearances, 772 have resulted in a hit Yankee— a percentage of .85 percent of the time.

That may not look like a lot, but ask some of the recipients of those 772 and they will probably tell you that they would have preferred to hit the ball, than have it be the other way around.

Over the same time period, 88,221 of the opposite teams’ batters have appeared before Yankee pitchers and 749 have left slightly battered, for the same rate of .85 percent.

That parity is by no means enough to decide that the mighty Yankees are just as Other-regarding (or non-Other-regarding) than their opponents. It could just mean that one is intentionally mean and the other is unintentionally bad, or vice versa.

In order to have these numbers point towards intentionality, we have to look at something that serves as a control for control. ERA won’t do, because it might just mean the other batters aren’t very good. Wild pitches vs. hit batsmen won’t do, because of the false positives. So to the most prosaic of statistics—(but a statistic that is as good as a hit): walks.

Over the same time period, Yankee pitchers threw 7,487 walks for a rate of 8.41 percent of the batters they faced. Their opponents threw 9,144 for a rate of 10.09 percent— meaning that although their opponents threw more bean balls, they could also point to an exculpatory reason —less control.

Then, if we wanted to get some kind of read on which is more egregious, we can create a rate by dividing the hit batsmen by walks per plate appearance in the last 16 years—the higher the number, the more questionable the behavior, because a high number of walks would explain for the high-number of HBP’s and create a lower number.

In this case the Yankees pitchers have a rate of .100 whereas their opponents have a rate of .084—meaning that despite virtually the same percentage of bean balls per plate appearance, their skill on the mound should produce better less violent results.

There is room for them to be a little nicer vis-à-vis the rest of the league.

Now to the Yankees and the Red Sox—

Over those same 16 years, 9,473 Yankees have faced down the Red Sox in 244 games. 120 Yankees have been hit by pitches for a rate of 1.27 percent. For the other side: 9,481 have been up to bat and 100 have been hit for a rate of 1.05 percent.

Taking control into account by considering walks, Red Sox pitchers walk Yankee batters 9.78 percent of plate appearances, while Yankee pitchers walk Red Sox batters 9.08 percent. Their OBP’s against each other are: BOS.334 and NYY.339, suggesting slightly better control on the part of Yankee pitchers over the years. Dividing hit-by-pitches by walks yields a rate of suggested egregiousness of .1156 for Yankee pitchers and a higher .1298 for Red Sox pitchers.

The Yankees may need a lesson from the rest of the league on civility and the spirit of the game, but the Red Sox should deal with their aggression towards the Yankees.

There are some pitchers who don’t hit intentionally, like knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, and there are those like Pedro Martinez, who do. Sometimes pitchers exhibit extraordinary control of their emotions: When the Yankees beat the Red Sox 22-1 on June 19, 2000, not a single batter was hit. But on May 24, 1998, six different batters were hit. Mo Vaughn hit three home runs off David Wells on Sept. 24, 1996 (granted he wasn’t with the Yankees then), and then he had a whole summer to think about them. Then, in 1997, Wells faced Vaughn 14 times and didn’t plunk him once.

Sometimes pitchers seem to have it in for certain batters—Daisuke Matsuzakas has hit A-Rod three times so far, including the first time they met. Greetings! Manny got hit three times in one game this year on July 5, twice by Mike Mussina and once by Mariano Rivera. People who insist that HBP’s are not personal always point to what a nice guy Craig Biggio is, and the fact that Gary Sheffield is not higher on the all time HBP list (he’s 34th). But even when an individual’s psychological wiring doesn’t inspire or give meaning to an action, the culture around it can. Perhaps that explains how Giambi can be hit 15 times in 10 years by the Red Sox alone.

The question of the efficacy of hitting batters is in need of examination. Some pitchers might believe that hitting the batter helps them “get the plate back.” In some cases, depending on the player, it may. Prior to being hit by Jeff Weaver on July 27, 2003, Nomar Garciaparra was 10-20 with 5 HRs against him—after, he dropped down to 3-14 with only one home run.

On the other hand, prior to being hit with a ball, Derek Jeter hit .242 with 2 home runs against the pitchers who would later hit him. After being hit, against those he faced again (all except one), he hit .307 with 8 home runs. In general, plunking a batter has not intimidated Yankee or Red Sox batters. One might have thought that players would back off the plate after being hit. But, in the last 10 years, of the 141 batters that came up again after having been hit, only 82 (.418 OBP) made an out the next time up, including only 20 strikeouts.

In the last 10 years in 183 games between the Red Sox and the Yankees, the team who hit more batters has only won 33 times; the pitcher who ended up winning only hit a batter 30 times—16.3 percent.

Of the 181 events where batters were hit, the next batter to come up to the plate struck out 30 times and made an out 101 times (including the strikeouts) for a .441 OBP average. This compares with a combined OBP average for the Yankees and Red Sox when a runner was on base over the last 10 years of .347.

We might think that the batter on deck wouldn’t have enough time to think about how much pitches sting before coming to the plate. But, the batter “in the hole” watching from the dugout would. The second batter after the original hit batter made an out 120 times, a .337 OBP—10 points less than the combined OBP average with runners on base— and struck out 29 times.

The neo-classical Yankees would do well to consider all this because it suggests that goodness and success are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the game may even reward those who extend kindness to their rivals.

Yankees vs. Red Sox: Tale of the Bean Ball