The 13 Single-Season ‘Hit By Pitch’ Leaders
Has it seemed to you that MLB batters are getting hit by pitches a lot more often these days? Well, there’s good news: you’re not crazy. I did a little digging and discovered that Major League Baseball is currently experiencing a true beanball renaissance.
In the 1890s, the average players HBP per game was .419. In other words, back then you could expect to see a batter get clocked almost every other game. That was an all-time high. But after the turn of the century the number of players HBP per game steadily declined. The all-time low was .120 batters plunked per game in 1947. The rate has gone up and down a bit since then, but it really only spiked since the 2000 MLB season. Yep, since then, there have been on average .384 players HBP per game.
This made me wonder: who the hell is hitting all these batters? So I started looking at which pitchers have the highest single-season HBP totals. It was just as you would suspect. The greatest single-season HBP totals occurred in the 1890s. However, there’s a simple explanation for this: dudes pitched at least 50 games a year back then during what they call the deadball era. You could afford to have inexact spaghetti armed pitchers because no one could hit the ball that far anyway. I therefore decided to look for the biggest single-season HBP totals in the modern era. So here they are, in list form: the 13 greatest HBP seasons since 1950. You might be surprised at some of the famous names on the list.
13. Randy Johnson (Arizona Diamondbacks, 2001)
In 2001, grizzly old Randy Johnson actually tied the mark for HBPs in a season set by grizzly young Randy Johnson back in 1992. In both seasons, the 6’10” lefty drilled 18 batters. The difference between those seasons was that in 2001, Randy struck out 131 more batters, walked 73 fewer batters, had an ERA that was 1.28 runs lower, and he won the National League Cy Young Award.
12. Jim Lonborg (Boston Red Sox, 1967)
Jim Lonborg won 22 games for the Red Sox in 1967, striking out a league best 246 batters en route to the AL Cy Young Award. He also led the league in HBPs, plunking 19. Maybe that explains all the strike outs—players didn’t get comfortable in the batter’s box because they were afraid of getting hit.
11. Dontrelle Willis (Florida Marlins, 2006)
Though he debuted for the Marlins in 2003, Dontrelle Willis and his funky pitching mechanics really burst onto the national scene in 2005 when he won an NL best 22 games and posted a 2.63 ERA. The very next year, however, his ERA jumped to 3.87 and he beaned a league high 19 batters. Since then, poor Dontrelle has struggled with anxiety and has struggled to remain an effective pitcher.
10. A.J. Burnett (New York Yankees, 2010)
A.J. Burnett has never really lived up to his supposed potential, yet somehow the Yankees gave him a monster contract in 2009. Yes, he led the league in strikeouts and won 18 games for Toronto in 2008, but his ERA was 4.07. In 2010 with the Yankees, Burnett had the worst season of his career, posting a 10-15 record with a 5.26 ERA. He also eld the league in HBPs with 19. As you may recall, the Yankees left him off their playoff roster.
9. Frank Lary (Detroit Tigers, 1960)
Lary was a very effective pitcher for the Tigers in the early 1950s and early 60s. He never struck out a ton of batters, but he led the league in innings pitched 3 times, in wins once, and posted solid ERAs just about every year. He also led the league in HBPs four times. The last of these was 1960, when he hit plunked 19, beating his previous single-season mark by 7.
8. Jim Bunning (Philadelphia Phillies, 1966)
Jim Bunning was never quite the best pitcher in baseball at any point in his career. However, he had one second place finish in Cy Young voting, he led his league in strike outs 3 times, innings pitched twice, and wins once. This was enough to make him a 7-time all-star and get elected to the Hall of Fame by the veterans committee in 1996. He also led his league in HBPs four times, most notably in 1966 when he racked up 19 and beat his previous record by 5.
7. Justin Verlander (Detroit Tigers, 2007)
By now you’re probably noticing that the seasons in which pitchers post really high HBP tend to be either really great or really terrible. At the moment, Detroit’s Justin Verlander could very well be the best pitcher in baseball. In 2007, he wasn’t the best, but he was very good. That year he went 18-6 with a nice 3.66 ERA and 183 Ks. And he also hit 19 batters. With a 100 mph fastball, hitters must have felt pretty uncomfortable up at the plate.
6. Jamey Wright (Milwaukee Brewers, 2001)
Jamey Wright has always been just a #5 type pitcher. But hey, he’s stayed in the big leagues for 16 seasons now, and that’s something. His greatest HBP totals came in 2000 and 2001. He led the league in HBPs both years, smacking a whopping 20 in 2001 en route to a pedestrian 4.90 ERA and 11-12 record with the Milwaukee Brewers.
5. Carlos Zambrano (Chicago Cubs, 2004)
Big Z has at times been a lights-out pitcher, but, really, he is probably most famous for his raging temper. Carlos had probably his best year back in 2004, when he went 16-8 with a measly 2.75 ERA. He also plunked 20 batters, which is twice as much as his career average and 6 more than his second highest HBP total.
4. Don Drysdale (Los Angeles Dodgers, 1961)
Pitching legend and Hall of Famer Don Drysdale is easily the greatest player on this list. Even with a ridiculous 2.95 career ERA, Drysdale only won one Cy Young Award. Of course, that was probably because he just happened to be on the same team as Mr. Sandy Kofax (probably the greatest pitcher ever). In any case, Drysdale was not stranger to the HBP. He led the league in the category 5 times, most notably in 1961 when he beaned 20 batters.
3. Bronson Arroyo (Boston Red Sox, 2004)
For a long time, Bronson Arroyo was just known as that wiener on the Red Sox with the corn rows. But you have to give the guy credit: he’s been an above-average pitcher in his career with the Sox and the Reds. In 2004 with the Red Sox—the year they broke “The Curse”—Bronson hit a whopping 20 batters, leading the league in the category. He has never hit any more than 14 in any season since.
2. Kerry Wood (Chicago Cubs, 2003)
Kerry Wood became in instant baseball superstar during his rookie season in 1998 when he struck out 20 batters in a single game. His best season, however, was probably 2003, when he struck out 266 (leading the league) and went 14-11 with a very solid 3.20 ERA for the NL Central champion Cubs. Like so many others on this list, his high K total that year must have had something to do with the 21 batters he plunked. It was the second greatest HBP total in the last 50 years.
1. Tom Murphy (California Angels, 1969)
Here we have arguably the greatest single-season HBP total in the last 50 years. Tom Murphy spent 12 seasons in the majors and only once did he hit more than 10 batters. But that one year, pitching for the California Angels, Murphy hit an amazing 21 batters. Maybe that was the year he tried to quit chewing tobacco. Who know?