Sunday, September 12, 2021


It's a truly bizarre story that will certainly be mainstream by the time you read this: Padres reliever Austin Adams, possessor of an "unhittable" slider, is on the brink of the most astonishingly extreme seasonal record in baseball history.

Earlier today, Adams hit three batters during a relief appearance against the Dodgers (in a game the Padres lost, 8-0). That brings his total number of HBPs in 2021 up to 23 and counting, which apparently ties the "liveball era" (1920-) record for HBPs in a season. (The record since 1901 is apparently 27, but is much higher than that when you go back into the nineteenth century, when some pitchers accounted for 80% of a team's IP in a single season).

The first staggering fact about Adams' 23 HBPs is that they have come in just 48 IP, a ratio that is so elevated from the pace of any other pitcher with similar HBP totals that it beggars comparison. (OK, OK: let's think about the wheelbarrow as opposed to a rocket ship...that should be about right.) 

The second staggering fact is that, until 2021, there was little or no indication that Adams would suddenly corner the market in plunking batters. Without a doubt, he's been wild at every stop on his way to MLB: he had a lifetime 5.8 BB/9 in the minors. He'd hit 32 batters in 340 minor league innings. But prior to this season, he'd hit just 2 batters in 42 lifetime IP since making the majors in 2017.

As noted, Adams' slider, which now seems to be spinning out of control at a rate exceeding even the diligent overreach of the Statcast crew, is "unhittable." Of course it is: he's hitting so many batters that nobody can take an actual swing against him. 

Right now, Adams is on the cusp of another unthinkable record: he might actually wind up with more hit batters than hits allowed. His totals are now officially in a dead heat--23 apiece. 

Our first guess is that he's another victim of the Spider Tack™ crackdown: without enough "stick-um" to center his "eccentric, high-spin slider," he's simply at sea right now. But his '21 game logs don't really support this idea--his HBPs have been coming at a regular interval throughout all the months of this season: it's not as if he's just suddenly hitting everyone he faces in a parallel variant of "Steve Blass Disease." Of course, now that he has entered the record books and will be receiving national attention, this might mushroom further...we'll just have to see how it plays out.

The Padres, in a September tailspin that's put their post-season chances in jeopardy, are likely to make Adams' appearances a good bit more scarce. (Today's appearance came in a game where San Diego was already down 7-0.) But team rosters are tighter in September than has been in the case in the past, so they may not be able to just sit him down. Stay tuned...

Extremity (and its diabolical cousin, extremism) seems to be radiating itself ever more insistently into people's lives, and Adams' sudden case of target practice is merely a surreal reminder of that fact. In most cases, extremity/extremism takes time to build up (and this is a good time to remind Ben Lindbergh that he's still wrong about his dismissal of the "frog in pot" syndrome--it's called metaphor, Ben!)...and once allowed to fester for a foothold, it can explode into a forbidding level of prominence. To take a Jackie Robinson quote out of context: "baseball has done it!"--and we're here to show you just another example of that, so you can see what the "heroes and villains have done done" this time.

Those enamored with those pesky Three True Outcomes often overlook that the rise of the phenomenon applies more to one segment of that troika than the others. Namely, strikeouts. How the "frog and boiling water" metaphor applies here can be measured is by counting how many hitters are allowed to play at least semi-regularly while amassing a staggering percentage of strikeouts per plate appearance. 

As hard-throwing relievers proliferate and their percentage of inning pitched increase, strikeouts have soared. While there is a small sliver of hope that the rate of this increase has finally slowed, it's still instructive to see what has happened to the game's attitude toward hitters who swing from their heels with ever-increasing abandoned and rack up K/PA ratios that would have stupefied even 1960s-70s ballplayers, much less "inside baseball" ideologues like Ty Cobb

Striking out in a third of one's plate appearances for any batter with more than 200 plate appearances in a season simply didn't happen for 111 (that's one hundred and eleven) years after the founding of the National League (1876). It first occurred in 1987, when Bo Jackson struck out in 36% of his plate appearances. We won't provide you with a list of all those who've followed in Bo's footsteps since '87, but we will note that there are now two hitters--Miguel Sano and Joey Gallo--who've struck out in at least a third of their plate appearances in every single one of their years in MLB. They won't be the last...

The chart at left shows how the frog got into the pot, and how the water got incrementally warmer over time. And the data shows that we are getting closer and closer to a boil, particularly as the game went all-in for "launch angle" and other related "home run derby" approaches to hitting.

The frog is still in the pot, but the cat is out of the bag. Even if things plateau in the next several years, it's highly likely that the numbers of such high K/PA guys will continue to grow, and we'll see somewhere over 100 such seasons in the upcoming decade. This cautionary prognostication is a reminder that extremity (and extremism) is hard to get rid of once it's been given a toehold.