Think about this: In 345 career games, Braves right fielder Ronald Acuña Jr. has been hit by 22 pitches. In 3,298 career games, nearly 10 times as many, Braves Hall of Famer Hank Aaron was hit by only 32.
Think about this as well: While the season is less than six weeks old, the rate of hit by pitches entering Sunday was the highest in Major League Baseball history, and last season’s rate was the highest since 1899, according to STATS Perform.
Pitchers throw harder than ever, and increasingly work up in the zone. Many, however, struggle to command their elevated, high-velocity baseballs, and the latest frightening moment in the disturbing trend occurred on Saturday night, when Phillies reliever Sam Coonrod drilled Acuña in the left hand with a 97.8-mph fastball.
Acuña, 23, initially appeared seriously injured, grabbing his hand, slamming his helmet, bending over at the waist, grimacing in pain. He left the game immediately, the Braves fearing the worst. But X-rays revealed no break, only a contusion on his left pinky finger.
The moment likely will fade from memory during the long march of the season. Acuña was back in the lineup against the Phillies on Sunday night, continuing his early bid for National League MVP by drawing a first-inning walk, stealing second base and scoring the Braves’ first run. The conversation, though, would be quite different if Acuña had been forced to miss significant time.
“Pitching inside never had the elevation behind it that it does now,” Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz said on the FS1 broadcast of the Phillies-Braves game. “When you match the velocity with the elevation, you’re playing with fire.
“To pitch inside waist-down, there’s nothing really bad that can happen to a (hitter). And there’s nothing really bad that can happen to a pitcher, other than you maybe leave it over the plate and it’s a homer. Now everybody through analytics is trying to get it to the letters. You throw that at 98 mph, there are not a lot of pitchers who know where that pitch is going.”
Coonrod, a right-hander in his third season, was not trying to hit Acuña, who represented the tying run with two outs in the seventh inning. He was trying to pitch Acuña inside, surely mindful of the game-tying homer he allowed to him on April 11 on a slider away. His first pitch, in fact, was even further up and in than the second, which resulted in the HBP. Former major-league reliever Eric O’Flaherty, a member of the Braves from 2009 to ’13 and in ’16-’17, said on Twitter, “Coonrod just didn’t want to miss over the dish and get torched by one of the best hitters in the world.”
One scout who watched the game said he did not blame Coonrod, saying pitchers need to work inside and noting that Acuña frequently “dives” toward the plate, resulting in him getting hit in the hands. But as Smoltz pointed out, hitters take that approach trying to attack velocity, and often don’t have time to get out of the way and turn their shoulder in toward a ball.