As Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo is well aware, number of HBPs is high

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BY JOHN GROCHOWSKI

For the Sun-Times

Through Sunday, Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo led the major leagues with 13 times being hit by a pitch. Not quite a third of the season is gone, so he’d wind up at about 40 — shy of Ron Hunt’s major-league record of 50 for the Montreal Expos in 1971 but well ahead of the Cubs’ post-1900 record of 17 set by Frank Chance in 1905 and tied by Marlon Byrd in 2010 — if that pace were to continue.

Rizzo crowds the plate, and HBPs are going to happen when pitchers work inside. Old-timers sometimes suggest the plate-crowders of today would have been low-bridged in the 1950s and 1960s, when pitchers such as Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson were determined to own the outer portion of the plate.

Nevertheless, there are more HBPs today than there were in Drysdale’s time. The 1990s and 2000s have reversed a long-term decline in hit batsmen.

Baseball’s origins were as a rough-and-tumble game. Honus Wagner, playing for Louisville in the pre-1900 National League, once told about hitting a triple against the Orioles that would have been a home run, except that the first baseman bumped him, the second baseman tripped him, the shortstop gave him a couple of shots when he went by and, when he got to third, John McGraw pulled out a shotgun.

Hyperbole aside, the game has been cleaned up through the decades. In one of his 1980s ‘‘Baseball Abstracts,’’ Bill James wrote that baseball and football were similarly rough in the early days before the once-a-week game became more violent and the game played every day toned it down.

You can see that in the HBP averages. By decades since 1901, the major-league averages were .33 HBP per game in 1901-10, .27 in 1911-20, .20 in 1921-30, .15 in 1931-40 and .13 in 1941-50.

Then there’s a blip. After World War II, the decline was interrupted, and HBPs rose to .19 in 1951-60 and .22 in 1961-70.

Late in that period, baseball instituted a rule by which umpires can warn both benches after a hit batsman that the next by either team would result in the ejection of the pitcher. HBPs resumed their decline — to .19 in 1971-80 and .18 in 1981-90.

Since then, HBPs have risen dramatically. Perhaps hitters have been emboldened to crowd the plate, knowing pitchers risk ejection. And maybe there’s a reaction to another trend: rising home-run rates. Of the 18 seasons in which major-league teams averaged at least one homer per team per game, all but one have been since 1994.

At the same time, HBPs have risen, with averages of .29 in 1991-2000, .36 in 2001-10 and .32 in 2011-14. So far this season, the rate is at .33 per game, holding at 174 percent of its 1981-90 average.

Baseball isn’t static. The way it’s played evolves as conditions change. And conditions today have given us a game with HBPs at an early-20th-century rate.

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