The Golden Age of the Bean Ball
One of the tropes you commonly hear about major league baseball is how tough the players were back in the olden days and how quick pitchers once were to throw at hitters in a way they aren’t in these more civilized days. I’m sure you’ve heard how Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, etc. would automatically throw at any hitter who had the temerity to dig in, crowd the plate, etc.
As any of this actually true? Probably not. Today I looked at all 232 seasons in which a pitcher hit at least 18 batters in a season.
The Golden Age of the Bean Ball was between 1884 and 1910, when the vast majority of these seasons occurred. This was an era of dirty baseballs, late afternoon games, far more innings pitched by starters, and many rule changes regarding the manor in which the pitcher pitched and then threw the ball toward the plate.
Since 1920 and the advent of the live-ball era, the current generation (1998-2015) contains far and away the most pitchers to plunk at least 18 batters in a season. Don’t take my word for it — here are the numbers by season:
1922: Howard Ehmke 23
1923: Howard Ehmke 20; Walter Johnson 20
1959: Don Drysdale 18
1960: Frank Lary 19
1961: Don Drysdale 19
1962: Jim Kaat 18
1966: Jim Bunning 19
1967: Jim Lonborg 19
1992: Randy Johnson 18
1998: Rolando Arroyo 19
2000: Jamie Wright 18
2001: Jamie Wright 20, Chan-ho Park 20, Randy Johnson 18, Tim Wakefield 18
2003: Kerry Wood 21
2004: Bronson Arroyo 20, Carlos Zambrano 20
2005: Casey Fossum 18, Jeff Weaver 18
2006: Dontrelle Willis 19,Ramon Ortiz 18, Dave Bush 18
2007: Justin Verlander 18
2008: Daniel Cabrera 18
2010: A.J. Burnett 19
2011: John Lackey 19
2014: Charlie Morton 19
In short, there have been almost twice as many times that a pitcher has plunked at least 18 batters in a season in the last 18 full seasons (19 times) as there were in the previous 78 seasons (10 times). There was an HBP surge in the 1960’s, led by Don Drysdale and Jim Bunning, two hard-throwers who are both in the top 20 all-time for career plunkings, which is probably where this era gets it reputation for toughness.
However, these numbers suggest that pitchers today are every bit as willing, if not more so, to pitch inside in order to control the strike zone and prevent hitters from feeling too comfortable at the dish. In terms of career HBP totals, there isn’t much to suggest that pitchers were once willing to throw at or near hitters any more than they are today, at least once one takes into account the far fewer innings pitched that today’s starters throw than in years past.