PHOENIX – New York Mets pitcher Chris Bassitt has a theory about why his bat-swinging teammates have turned into targets at the plate during the season's first month.
“The MLB has a very big problem with the baseballs. They’re bad,” he said Tuesday. “Everyone knows it. Every pitcher in the league knows it. They’re bad. They don’t care. MLB doesn’t give a damn about it. We’ve told them our problems with them and they don’t care.”
It's understandable Bassitt wants to protect his teammates. The Mets have been hit by pitches 19 times through their first 20 games this season — including three times against the Cardinals on Tuesday night — which is by far the most in the league.
They've also been hit by a lot of balls in the head and neck area, which can be particularly dangerous.
But a look at MLB-wide statistics shows a complicated picture that's likely affected by April's usual cold weather and random chance. The league's HBP rate is actually down slightly from last season. The Pittsburgh Pirates played their first 17 games without anyone getting hit by a pitch.
Still, that doesn't change Bassitt's main thesis.
Are the baseballs really “bad”? Maybe “inconsistent” is the better word.
“They’re rubbed up differently by different people in different climates in different places," Braves pitcher Collin McHugh said. "I understand the challenge of trying to get a consistent product under all those different variables. There’s no doubt that the ball you get in the first is going to be different than the ball you get in the eighth and from batch to batch.
“Sometimes the ball feels small in your hand. Sometimes they feel big. Very often they’re real slick, dusty slick. So you see guys out there rubbing it. They’re really not trying to rub anything onto the ball, they’re trying to rub that layer of dust off the ball because it just feels a little slick.”
Last year, MLB cracked down on pitchers who used sticky substances — remember Spider Tack? — to try to get a better grip on baseballs. These days, umpires routinely check pitchers' gloves and hands as they're coming off the field.
The crackdown was met with tepid response. It's true pitchers can use sticky substances to make the ball spin faster to get a harder break on off-speed pitches. But it also helped pitchers know where the ball was going, particularly in cold weather.
MLB proposed during collective bargaining that hitting a batter on the head or neck result in an automatic ejection irrespective of intent, which the union rejected, a person familiar with the negotiations said. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because neither side has disclosed that detail. MLB also proposed a discussion of additional discipline for cumulative batters hit, the person said.
MLB has tried to standardize its baseballs and made humidor usage mandatory this season. The humidor is used to try to get baseballs to behave in a similar fashion, whether the game's being played in Colorado's thin air or New York or Atlanta.
The league is also providing pitchers with two options of rosin bag, which received positive reviews during spring training but have been less effective at improving grip in colder weather, pitchers say.
Over the years, there have also been complaints about the seams on baseballs. Generally speaking, the higher the seams, the easier it is to grip the ball.
Let's just say it's a work in progress.
“Sometimes, pitchers just, the ball feels like a little bit of like a cue ball,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler said. “And there’s not always like a lot of rhyme or reason for it. Sometimes, it has to do with the cold, and sometimes it’s just, you pick the ball up and it feels a little foreign.”
Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer said he sometimes alters his pitch mix on the mound in tough conditions because he's not sure where the ball will go. But almost any MLB pitcher will agree that the ability to pitch inside is paramount to success.
“Obviously nobody’s trying to hit anybody on purpose in the head or on the neck, shoulder area — nobody,” Fulmer said Wednesday. “But with these balls the way they are right now, like last night, it was very easy to let one fly up and in. I’m really trying to hold onto this ball and make sure I don’t let one go.”
MLB said it continues to look for answers.
“MLB is always concerned about keeping hitters safe from dangerous pitches,” an MLB spokesman said. “We closely analyze trends in the game and have active conversations with our players and coaches to address concerns. Through April 26, leaguewide statistics show hit-by-pitch rates and wild pitch rates are down relative to previous seasons. However, one Club has been hit more than twice as often as the league average so far in 2022, which is something we will continue to monitor.”
That team is the Mets.
The drama continued on Wednesday afternoon after Mets third baseman J.D. Davis was hit by a pitch on the foot and had to leave the game. An inning later, Mets pitcher Yoan López threw high and tight to Cardinals star Nolan Arenado, who reacted angrily.
The benches cleared. Arenado and Cardinals first base coach Stubby Clapp were ejected. Mets slugger Pete Alonso was tackled during the scrum.
And so it goes.
Alonso — who was hit in the head with a pitch on Tuesday — wasn't particularly concerned about the Cardinals' intent after Wednesday's benches-clearing incident. Just the results.
He compared the situation to a scary car accident he had during spring training.
“Whether if it’s on purpose or an accident, guys are still getting hit in the head," Alonso said. "Doesn’t matter what the intent is. Like someone T-boned me, right? Oh, it was an accident. Oh, you still flipped someone’s car over. Right? So doesn’t matter where the intent is.
"The fact of the matter is that it’s still happening.”
AP Baseball Writers Ronald Blum and Jake Seiner, AP Sports Writer Charles Odum and freelancers Patrick Donnelly, David Solomon and Joe Harris contributed to this story.
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