RIP to the HBP Maestro

Don Baylor died over the weekend. It can’t be said enough, but screw cancer.

For many, Don Baylor will be remembered as the 1979 AL MVP, the first DH to earn the honor, even if further examination shows he was not the most meritorious selection in the award’s history. Others will remember him for his undeniable leadership skills, both during his days as a player for six different AL clubs and then as a manager of two different NL teams. Still other fans might recall him as one of baseball’s most imposing figures, whether in the batter’s box or on the basepaths, where he was remarkably nimble for a man so solidly built.

But to me, none of that is what defines Baylor. The essence of Baylor was the pivot.

Don Baylor is No. 4 on the all-time hit-by-pitch list, and second among players whose career took place when the world was in color. Yet Baylor’s got a legitimate stake on the modern-day crown, given his higher rate of HBPs than Craig Biggio and the fact that Biggio’s post-19th century record was helped by PEDs (his enormous, space-age-fibered elbow guard was unquestionably a Plunking Enabling Device). And, most important, lil’ Craiggy didn’t perfect the pivot.

Of Baylor 267 career HBPs, an imaginary 86 percent were of the exact same type. The pitcher would deliver a fastball up and in, and Baylor would rotate his shoulder inward about three inches, allowing the ball to catch him on the soft space (to the extent Baylor’s body had any soft areas) on his upper back, while satisfying the rule mandating the batter try to get out the way while not actually doing anything to get himself out of the way. Baylor was as interested in getting out of the ball’s path as Pete Rose was of verifying the ages of his spring training conquests.

And after each plunking, Don would saunter down to first, no hesitation, no glares at the pitcher who just gifted him a base and absolutely no rubbing. The ball was the only participant in the exchange to suffer any damage.

No one took a hit by pitch like Baylor did, at least in my baseball-watching lifetime. And now that he’s gone, perhaps MLB can make it possible that no one ever has to.

The idea that batters need to make an attempt to get out of the way of inside pitches to earn an HBP has simply never made sense. It should be the pitcher’s responsibility to avoid hitting the batter, not the batter’s obligation to bail him out for his wildness.

It’s a simple change, and one that would be easier for the home plate ump to determine. If a pitch hits the batter on a ball that’s anywhere inside the vertical plane of the batter’s box, the batter gets first. And if the batter is hit anywhere outside the box, it’s simply a ball or strike, depending on the pitch’s location. C’mon Rob, don’t just be open to talking about considering the idea of a change. Do it for Don.

After that, then we can find a way to honor fellow weekend loss Darren Daulton, perhaps with a rule requiring at least one World Series participant per decade be comprised of oddballs, cranks and future felons.

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