Needless Beanball Drama

It’s March 7 as I write this, and already I’m having to write about beanball wars.

In a spring training game at the Phillies facility in Clearwater, Stephen Strasburg hit Chase Utley in the back leg. I wasn’t at the park, but on TV, it sure as heck looked like Strasburg was out of control and hit Utley accidentally.

The Phillies, apparently, weren’t going to take this “insult” lying down. Next half-inning, Doc Halladay threw one behind Tyler Moore’s back. A beanball war in spring training? I’ll let the beat writers tell you all about the rest of it. 

This blog is no stranger to Philadelphia/Washington beanball wars, alas. As far as anybody can tell, this all began on on July 26, 2007 in Philadelphia, where John Lannan hit both Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, earning himself an ejection in his major-league debut. Last year, during the Cole Hamels/Bryce Harper affair, I examined it from the pitcher’s point of view:

Let’s set aside the fact that Hamels freely admitted that he beaned Bryce Harper on purpose–supposedly in the service of “old-school” prestige.  Even without Hamels’ boasting, we could have easily surmised that Hamels beaned Harper intentionally. Lannan was not suspended because, in all probablity, he had no idea where those balls were going when they left his hand.

***

And what about the other protagonist in Sunday’s beanbag war–Jordan Zimmermann? He hit Hamels in the shin, but has continued to maintain his innocence. The stat sheet should make us doubt that claim, as well. He has a career BB/9 that rivals Hamels at 2.15, and only 3 wild pitches in 323 innings of work. I don’t think anybody can doubt that he knew where he put that fastball.

[Parenthetically, I must not be the only one amused that John Lannan has gone from Public Enemy Number One in to Starting Pitcher Number Five in Philadelphia.]

So, what to make of the Crisis in Clearwater?

First in the dock is Stephen Strasburg. In his brief career, Strasburg posts a 2.40 BB/9, 7 wild pitches, and 4 hit batsmen. That’s tremendous control–especially compared to Lannan.

But in mitigation, it was Spring Training. Strasburg is manifestly in “working on stuff” mode–and it’s possible that at least for one pitch, stuff did not work for Strasburg today. It happens.

And, speaking of stuff happening, here’s something interesting: Since his debut in 2003, nobody in baseball has been hit by more pitches than Chase Utley. Chase Utley has been hit by pitches a staggering 151 times in his career. Since 2003, the next-nearest MLB player is Jason Kendall, plunked 121 times. Trailing Utley on the National League leaderboard for HBP since 2003 is Rickie Weeks, a distant second at 108 HBP. 

Utley’s staggering ability to be hit by pitches is even more remarkable when we consider that Jason Giambi leads active MLB players in this category, with 175 HBP. But Giambi’s been playing since 1995, which makes Utley’s 151 HBP since 2003 a staggering achievement in being hit by pitches.

Indeed, if we take Utley’s career average, we would expect him, in any 162-game stretch, to be hit by pitch 21 times. To put that in perspective, in 2012, any given team in the major leagues could have expected to be hit by a pitch around 50 times. Utley’s career average HBP would, by themselves, account for nearly half of an average team’s HBP.

That’s astonishing. Could it be that there’s just something about Chase Utley that makes him that much more likely to be hit by pitches? Is it his batting stance? Is it a habit of crowding the plate? Is it a failure to make a reasonable effort to avoid being hit by the pitch? (To be fair, Utley DID make quite an effort to avoid Strasburg’s wayward pitch yesterday).

But if the Phillies want to react to this by bristling and hurling beanballs willy-nilly, I guess there really isn’t anything we can do about it.

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Nats Fans Around the World (First in an Occasional Series)

I promised an occasional series of profiles of Nats fans in far-away (from DC) places. For our first installment, let’s meet Will Henline (@willbhenline on twitter), who roots for the Nats in Jersey City, NJ, just over the river from Mets country. I caught up with Will over e-mail.

Editor’s note: I’ve added links for convenience. And also because they will make you smile, every now and again.

When did you first become a Nats fan?
Day of franchise creation, late 2004. I watched the logo unveiling on a crappy livestream in my dorm room.

How do you follow the Nats in NYC?
I shell out for MLB.tv, first and foremost. Have it on iphone, ipad, and Apple TV so i rarely miss a game unless I have to work past 7. I read every Nats blog out there each morning with my coffee, and I read the Post online for traditional reporting.

How often do you get down to Citi Field for a Nats/Mets series?
I try to get to Citi once a series. I live over the river in Jersey City, so it’s a pain in the ass to go home late, but I have an old college roommate who lives in Queens and is a huge Mets fan, so it’s a good excuse to catch up. Also, with the current state of the Mets, you can’t beat $3 stubhub seats. Very Wizards-esque.

Are there any other Nats fans in NY?
Probably, but I’ve never met one. I did have a Yankees fan who saw my cap in the subway the other day stop me to talk about Edwin Jackson. So word is spreading.

Who’s your favorite active Nat? how about all-time?
Jeez. Active? Love Zim (Pay that man his money, Rizzo!) but I also have a soft spot for Ankiel. I remember his 2000 meltdown with pain to this day.

All time? My buddy and I used to quote The Life Aquatic and yell “ESTEBAN!” at Esteban Loaiza from the RFK cheap seats.

What’s your favorite Nats memory?”
Zim’s walk off on opening night 2008. Close second would be Zim’s walk off vs the Yanks, as I opened smack talk fire on a particularly obnoxious Yankees fan for the entire walk out of RFK. Wasn’t in the building for it, but my ringtone is Charlie Slowes’ call of Zim’s walk off grand slam vs. the Phils.

Have you been down to Nats games here in DC? Are you planning to come this season?
My girlfriend, sister, best friend and I will be Taking Back the Park on May 6th. We’ll be in RF defending Jayson Werth. Feel free to come say hi. Bring brass knuckles. We’ll be coming down at a later date in the season to take my Mom to a game. We took her last year and saw Morse’s walk off vs the Padres with friends from England. Mama Henline is 1-0 at Nats Park. I’ll also be at Wrigley for the opening series vs. the Cubs.

What’s the hardest thing about being a Nats fan in NYC right now?
Mets fans. I don’t feel like I have to elaborate on that one.

No, just kidding. Most Mets fans are okay people. They too, however, have to suffer through Philly fan invasions, and the Citi Field staff is just as spineless against the hordes as the Nats Park crew is. I attended a Mets/Phils game in which a Met fan was ejected from the ballpark for shouting at a Philly fan who threatened his young son. Sad stuff. Philly fans are a scourge to humanity.

Winning Cures Many Ills

The Nationals kicked up quite a fuss when they announced a new initiative aimed at taking back Nats Park from scores of invading Phillies Fans. Chief Operations Officer Andy Feffer seems to have discovered that there might be a base of home-town fans here in the Washington, D.C. region that could be worth marketing to:

“There’s a huge fan base here, and they’re excitable, and they’re ready,” Feffer said. “What we really hope is that by creating and igniting a rivalry here, it’ll be just as raucous here as they get up in Philly, and that we’ll own our own ballpark.”

How about all those Phillies fans coming into the park? Well, Feffer says they’re still welcome

But look, we’re not gonna make it easy for group sales, for buses coming from Philly. I will not make it easy for those guys to buy tickets or get into this ballpark.

O RLY?

I’m happy to see that the Nationals are trying hard to undo the lasting damage done to the franchise by former President Stan Kasten’s craven pandering to Philadelphia fans in 2009. But Feffer doesn’t even sound remotely sincere to me. Remember, folks, this is is the same genius whose idea of a “unique ballpark experience” was to introduce the finest concessions already available in New York’s Citi Field. And it didn’t take long for reports to emerge that Nationals ticket sales personnel had already been calling their preferred Philadelphia customers about Phillies tickets at Nats Park. Besides, there’s nothing the Nats can do about the thousands of quasi-fraudulent straw-man transactions that are bound to happen on the secondary ticket market.

What’s a Nats fan to do? Well, obviously, BUY TICKETS. But I fully expect it to be nearly as full of Phillies fans as usual.

True to the nature of this blog, though, Nats fans can take some solace in statistics. The lesson here is something that I’ve been saying for ages (and something that I doubt the Nationals marketing team has ever considered): there is no ballpark experience quite as good as when the home team wins.

Remember the 2005 Nationals? They played in RFK Stadium, a crumbling relic from another age. They won only 81 games. And yet, in 2005, the Nationals drew 66,689 more people than the 2005 Phillies, who played in a brand-new Citizens Bank Park. Nats fans never complained of Phillies fan invasions in those days. I remember grumbling about the odd busload of Mets fans, but, generally, RFK was mostly Nats fans, most of the time–and always pretty full.

The seasons since have not been kind. The Nats since 2005 have played some truly abysmal baseball. As you might imagine, the number of fans going to the park might be a function of the quality of the team they’re about to go see:

I had to multiply the won/loss ratio by 4000 to get a nice scale. Never mind the numbers, pay attention to the trends.

Other than a new-park bounce in 2008, the Nats fortunes at the turnstiles have tracked closely with their fortunes on the field. As the red line goes, so goes attendance. And how about our arch-rivals in the City of Brotherly love?

Same story. The Phillies didn’t contend in 2005 or 2006. Suddenly, 2007, they win the division and get a huge bump in attendance. From then on, they go from strength to strength, winning the world series in 2008, the National League Pennant in 2009, and taking the division in 2010 and 2011. Watch that red line again, folks: steady increase in win percentage, steady increase in attendance.

So don’t take Philly fans too personally, Nats town. A lot of them weren’t around in the lean times, despite their new ballpark. Put less charitably, the Phillies attendance is boosted by the thousands upon thousands of bandwagon fans that arrive when it looked like they might become contenders.

But there’s hope for the Nats. Most projections have them doing better in 2012 than they did in 2005. They play in a nicer ballpark now. They bring a much more attractive product onto the field, in the form of their strong starting pitching. Attendance should start to pick up in 2012. And even if Nats town can’t keep the vomitous hordes of Philadelphia fans away from the turnstiles this year, they’ll stop being quite so smug when they start losing.

So, Andy Feffer, if you’re reading this, pass it along to Rizzo and Mr. Lerner. The best way to keep Philadelphia fans sullen, depressed, and out of your ballpark is by building a team that beats their team and everybody else’s team besides.

EDITED: I’d erroneously called Andy Feffer “Dan Feffer” instead.