Skulled

Ever since the dawn of baseball, pitchers getting hit in the head by line drives have been a sobering part of the game.

The worst sight on a baseball diamond? Maybe a pitcher, in the middle of his follow through, getting skulled with a line drive. A batter getting beaned by a pitcher isn't very pleasant either, but it's a little less shocking. Why? First, the pitcher IS throwing a hard ball very close to the batter, often in excess of 90 MPH, and, second, the batter IS wearing a helmet, which theoretically provides some protection against an horrific accident. (Although Tony Conigliaro's case proved otherwise.)

The pitcher, on the other hand, isn't wearing any kind of protective head gear, and the batter's object isn't to hit the ball near someone wearing a glove but, as Wee Willie Keeler said, to "hit ‘em where they ain't." Certainly, the pitcher isn't expecting the ball to come right back at him at a rate of speed faster than which it was delivered. If he was, he wouldn't be a very effective pitcher, now would he?

Fortunately, pitchers getting hit are a lot rarer occurrence than hitters getting hit, although there are no statistics kept on HBBB (Hit by Batted Ball) as opposed to HBP. Still, when it happens, it's a memorable occurrence, because it is often so horrific. Tales abound in baseball history of pitchers getting nailed by line drives, but, more importantly, it seems to be happening more often. This is strictly an anecdotal observation, since said statistics aren't kept, and maybe it's just our memory playing tricks, because these instances are so awful. However, it's worth noting that, after this past weekend's incident involving Pirates pitcher Chris Jakubauskas, there's been at least one really bad skulling of a pitcher in each of the last three seasons. Four times in less than two years, for that matter. Maybe it's because there are a lot of bad pitchers throwing hittable pitches down the middle to major league hitters, or more likely it's because a lot of pitchers don't complete their motion in a good fielding position, to say nothing of being in position to defend/protect themselves. It is worth noting that the most common place for a right-handed pitcher to get skulled seems to be near the right ear, or the side of the head that's turned towards the batter if the pitcher is not ready to field his position. Whatever the cause, it's a traumatic experience for both the batter and pitcher, and there's some evidence that a pitcher so ill-treated may have some lasting effects from a skulling as well.

Maybe it's not even true that it's happening more often in the major leagues (though one would guess it's happening more often in college, high school and Little League baseball since the introduction of metal bats), but don't tell Chris Young, Joe Martinez, Hiroki Kuroda or Chris Jakubauskas that.

On May 22, 2008, the Padres Chris Young was pitching to Albert Pujols. Now maybe a former Princeton basketball player would be smart enough to know that pitching to the best hitter in baseball is a dangerous proposition in any case (of course, you never hear about former Penn players like Doug Glanville or Mark DeRosa having these problems), but the 6-10 Young was nailed right between the eyes by a Pujols line drive. Afterwards, a visibly upset Pujols was quoted as saying he thought he'd hit the ball up over Young's head. However, that 15 inch mound made Young, in effect, eight feet tall in relation to where Pujols was standing in the batter's box, and the ball broke his nose. In what could be a tribute to the hardheadedness (if not the intelligence) of former Princeton players, Young was back pitching on July 2, 2008, and finished the season 7-6 with a 3.96 ERA. However, his 2009 season (4-6, 5.21 ERA) was cut short on June 14, and he's on the DL right now with shoulder trouble. Coincidence?

Less than a year later, Joe Martinez started his major league career with the Giants. After picking up a win in relief in his first game on Apr. 7, 2009, he was sent in to mop up a game against the Brewers three days later. A line drive by Mike Cameron caught him on the right side of the forehead, causing a concussion and three small fractures. The ball ricocheted all the way to the Milwaukee dugout, and Martinez was out until August. Despite prepping with 10 games in the minors, his ERA for 2009 was 7.50, and he's back in Triple A at the present. Coincidence?

About four months after Martinez was hit, the Dodgers Hiroki Kuroda, a veteran of the Japanese leagues as well as the major leagues, found out they hit the ball back to the mound a little harder in the U.S. Rusty Ryal of the Diamondbacks (hardly even a Mike Cameron as a slugger) hit a line drive back at Kuroda on August 15 that caught him, that's correct, above the right ear, causing a concussion and also causing the ball bounce back almost into the stands. Remarkably, Kuroda was back pitching on September 6 and finished 3-2 with a 2.79 ERA AFTER getting hit. Of course, he was shelled (six runs in an inning-and-a-third) in the NLCS by the Phillies, but that could happen to almost anyone.

This past Saturday, it was Jakubauskas' turn. Having been called up the day before to try and bolster a Pirates staff that had just given up 36 runs to the Brewers in three games, he lasted exactly two-thirds of an inning against the normally inoffensive Astros. Having the misfortune to throw a fastball down the middle to Houston 's only really good hitter, Lance Berkman, Jakubauskas got tattooed on, you guessed it, the right side of the back of his head by a line drive. The ball ricocheted directly back over catcher Jason Jaramillo's head on the fly, so high that he jumped in a futile attempt to try and catch the ball. To add insult to injury (a concussion and a trip to the DL), Jakubauskas got stuck with the inevitable (after all, these are the Pirates he was pitching for) loss in the game.

As noted, baseball lore is replete with stories about pitchers getting hit in the head. There's a story, possibly apocryphal, of Bobo Newsom taking a line drive off his notoriously hard forehead and the ball landing in the outfield. Bobo stayed in the game, and asked a woman that evening if she would like to "feel the bump on my haid?"

My dad still tells the story of the game he saw at Shibe Park on September 15, 1950 in the middle of that year's National League pennant race. The Reds Ted Kluszewski hit what Robin Roberts described as a "vicious line drive" that caught Phillies pitcher Emory "Bubba" Church just below (yep) the right eye and caromed all the way into right field. Church amazingly did not suffer any eye damage, and nothing was broken. And he came back after only nine days, but he was also ineffective for the rest of the year.

Less dramatic, but equally memorable to the individual involved, was a story Jim Bouton told about himself in "Ball Four." When one of the Seattle Pilots' minor league pitchers, Paul Click, was hit in the back of the head by a line drive during batting practice in Spring Training 1969, Bouton recalled Jackie Brandt of the Orioles reaching out for a pitch and lining the ball back at him (Bouton) a few years before. Bouton, who at that time threw with such effort that has cap used to regularly come off, wrote that he never saw the ball before it smacked into his jaw, opening a cut worth a dozen or so stitches.

The most famous instance of a pitcher getting hit in the head with a line drive came on May 7, 1957, when the Indians young lefty ace, Herb Score, was hit in the eye socket by a shot hit by the Yankees Gil MacDougald. The blow broke numerous bones in Score's face, and he was out for the rest of the year. Although it is reputed that he was never the same again, Score was the Indians' starting pitcher on Opening Day 1958, and went 2-2, including a shutout, during the month of April 1958. However, pitching on a damp Washington day on April 30, he hurt his arm, and after THAT he was never the same again. He didn't pitch again until September, and seldom showed the form that made him the hottest pitcher in baseball in 1955 and 1956.

No one will ever mistake Chris Jakubauskas, a 31 year old journeyman with just one year of major league experience, for Herb Score. Hopefully, his getting skulled won't have any direct dire consequences, either. However, you have to wonder… it's been almost exactly 90 years since Ray Chapman died after getting beaned on his unprotected temple by Carl Mays, and hitters like Lance Berkman and Albert Pujols most surely can hit a baseball coming towards them at 90 MPH a lot harder than Carl Mays could throw, even given the fact that Mays threw underhand. Is an incident like Chris Jakubauskas' a precursor of a tragedy waiting to happen? Should pitchers consider wearing helmet liners like batters used to wear in the 50s and 60s? Or should pitchers just pay more attention to their positioning AFTER they let go of the ball?



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