A wild pitch is one thing. But what if a pitcher purposefully hits a batter?
That appears to be what happened last Thursday in a matchup between the Los Angeles Angels and the Chicago White Sox.
In the top of the ninth, White Sox pitcher Mike Wright threw two pitches that barely missed hitting Angels star Shohei Ohtani before delivering a third that hit him in the leg.
Here was the sequence that ended with Shohei Ohtani getting plunked
— Jack Harris (@Jack_A_Harris) September 16, 2021
The umpires quickly took action. Because he seemed to intentionally hit Ohtani, Wright was immediately ejected from the game and suspended for the next three games.
Manager Tony La Russa was also ejected and banned for one game after arguing the call.
This was more than your average hit by pitch. In fact, it seemed to be a pretty clear-cut case of plunking—an occurrence that appears to be increasingly common in Major League Baseball.
What does plunked mean in baseball?
When a baseball player is plunked, it means they have been intentionally hit by a pitch while at-bat.
It’s the “intentional” part that makes this term distinctive. Players who are hit by a wild pitch or accidentally step into the path of the ball aren’t said to be plunked.
Instead, this term is specifically applied when the hit by pitch appears to happen on purpose.
Why does this happen?
In many cases, plunking occurs when a pitcher is trying to accomplish one of the following things:
- Retaliate against a player
- Injure a player to hinder their performance
- Send an intimidating message to the opposing team
- Avoid a possible home run
Retaliation is often cited as the most common reason for a plunk.
In fact, there have been plunkings that occurred for something as simple as a bat flip after hitting a homer or stalling to watch a dinger sail over the outfield before running the bases.
What do players do when they get plunked?
After a plunk occurs, the batter is awarded first base immediately after being hit by the ball.
If other players are on base, they also advance if forced.
For example, if there are already players on first and second, those players would advance to second and third, respectively.
If the player is injured as a result of being plunked, they may have to leave the field for medical treatment.
What are the consequences if a batter gets plunked?
There are no set penalties for a pitcher who intentionally hits a batter.
Plunking is often murky territory for umpires, because it’s not always easy to determine whether a player was hit intentionally or accidentally.
Regardless, the penalty is left up to the discretion of the umpires, some of whom simply issue a warning when a batter gets plunked.
In cases that seem particularly egregious, like in Thursday’s matchup between the White Sox and Angels, the umpire can eject the pitcher from the game.
The difference between plunking and hit by pitch (HBP)
Plunking is just one of the terms associated with getting hit while at-bat.
There are a number of synonyms and other related terms that often come up around this topic, such as:
- Beanball: A beanball is a pitch thrown with the intention of hitting the batter in the head (or in the “bean”).
- Headhunter: Headhunter is a name used to describe a pitcher who often throws beanballs/plunks.
- Drilled: Drilled is a term used to describe how a batter is hit by a pitch (“drilled in the face,” for example).
There’s also a specific statistic applied whenever a player gets hit at-bat: hit by pitch, or HBP.
What does it mean when a player is hit by a pitch?
When a batter gets hit by a pitch without swinging at it, it’s considered a hit by pitch (HBP).
Many HBPs are fairly mild, and no major injuries are sustained. Others may be more serious.
For example, in May of this year, Braves pitcher Jacob Webb threw a 94 mph fastball that hit New York Met Kevin Pillar in the face.
So much blood gushed from Pillar’s nose that the grounds crew had to come out to clean the batter’s box before play could resume.
An HBP occurs whenever a batter is struck by a pitch, regardless of the intention.
In most cases, hits by pitch are accidental, like Webb’s pitch to Pillar. However, they can also involve plunking.
If a batter has a high HBP total, it may indicate that they stand very close to the plate, which puts them in the path of the ball more frequently.
If a pitcher has a high HBP total, it typically signals that they have issues with consistency and control.
When a number of a pitcher’s HBP’s involve plunking, however, it shows that the issue may be with managing their reactions on the field rather than problems with pitch performance.
What happens if you lean into a pitch?
In any plate appearance, batters are not permitted to lean over home plate in order to draw an HBP.
If the batter is hit while swinging or in the strike zone, it’s called as a strike and the batter is not awarded first base.
When about to be hit by a pitch that is outside the strike zone, the hitter is tasked with moving out of the path of a pitch when possible.
If a batter simply allows a pitch to him them without attempting to get out of the way, the umpire can use their discretion to determine whether the pitch should be called as an HBP or a ball.
If the umpire determines that the batter was trying to get hit on purpose for the automatic advance to first, they’ll likely call it as a ball.
How often does a batter get hit by a pitch?
Some bad news for batters: the frequency of HBPs is increasing.
Over the last decade, the rate of batters hit by a pitch per team game has been ticking upward.
In 2010 to 2013, the HBP rate held steady at 0.32 or 0.31. But then it rose to 0.34, and over the last five years, rates have continued to increase pretty steadily:
- 2017: 0.36
- 2018: 0.40
- 2019: 0.41
- 2020: 0.46
- 2021: 0.44
Why is the rate of HBPs going up? No one can say for sure, but there are several theories floating around, including:
- Pitchers are throwing more pitches in baseball games overall
- Pitchers are focusing more on throwing as fast as possible, which reduces control
- Pitchers are throwing toward the inside of the strike zone to make it harder to hit home runs
Despite all these potential factors, plunking incidents are increasing, too. So one factor affecting the rise in HBPs could be more retaliation among teams.
What is the most famous plunking in baseball?
In the MLB, there have been a number of high-profile plunkings over the years.
A couple recent ones that stand out include:
- In 2018, Red Sox pitcher Joe Kelly plunked Yankees batter Tyler Austin, prompting an all-out brawl on the field (both players were ejected from the game).
- Since 2018, Ronald Acuña Jr. has been hit a total of seven times by Miami Marlins pitchers, including two which occurred over the course of a single week earlier this year.
Sadly, one of the most famous plunkings in MLB history is also the most tragic.
In 1920, Cleveland Indians player Ray Chapman was hit by a pitch from Carl Mays of the New York Yankees.
At the time, pitchers often scuffed the balls in order to make them more difficult to see. Based on how Chapman was hit, witnesses believed he couldn’t see the ball coming.
To make matters worse, batting helmets weren’t in use yet at that time.
The ball struck him in the head, and Chapman immediately fell to the ground. He died the next day.