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How One Padres Reliever Is Plunking His Way to an Unlikely HBP Record

Austin Adams is just three hit batters away from the single-season record. Here’s the thing, though: He’s pitched only 50 innings.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Despite little name recognition, Austin Adams is one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. Among all pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched in 2021, the right-handed Padres reliever is allowing the lowest slugging percentage (.201) and the third-lowest batting average (.149), behind only Jacob deGrom and Josh Hader.

Adams has come by those numbers honestly: Statcast’s “expected” statistics show that based on the exit velocities and launch angles of batted balls allowed, he ranks first in expected slugging percentage allowed and tied for second in expected batting average. He boasts the lowest hard-hit rate for any pitcher with at least 50 batted balls against, and he’s thrown by far the most innings for any pitcher who hasn’t allowed a home run.

Yet the most fascinating part of Adams’s otherwise stellar season has nothing to do with batting average or home runs or any sort of bat-to-ball contact at all. No, the weirdest, wildest, most wonderful wrinkle is that Adams, a reliever with all of 46 2/3 innings, also leads the league by hitting 20 batters; nobody else—not more frequently used relievers, not any of the qualified starters on pace for 200-plus innings—has hit more than 15. And with three weeks remaining in the season, Adams has a chance at the live ball era record.

When Adams pitches, in other words, he’s not hard-hit; rather, the batters he plunks are.

At fewer than 100 career innings, the 30-year-old Adams is already on his third MLB team, having most recently come to San Diego in the seven-player Austin Nola deal last year. HBPs were never a problem for him before. From 2017 through 2020, Adams hit just two total batters out of 183 faced, for an HBP rate of 1.09 percent. For comparison, the MLB average in that span was 1.04 percent. He doesn’t stand out at all on this graph.

Now look at the same version of the graph for just 2021—with a newly raised vertical axis to accommodate Adams’s stratospheric dot.

Just about one in every 10 batters Adams has faced this season (20 out of 210) has taken first base and a bruise. That’s an outrageously high figure. In fact, let’s take a look at a version of that graph showing every pitcher season in the live ball era (since 1920) with at least 100 batters faced.

Adams is still in his own world. The only other dot above 7 percent belongs to 41-year-old Orel Hershiser, throwing the final innings of his career in a brief run in 2000. (More on Hershiser in a bit.)

Adams is clearly on pace to shatter the HBP rate record; he could go 37 plate appearances in a row without hitting anyone and still be ahead of Hershiser. Even more remarkably, he has a shot at the absolute HBP record for a single season, which shouldn’t be remotely achievable for a reliever.

For the moment, the live ball record belongs to Howard Ehmke, who hit 23 batters while pitching for the 1922 Tigers. It took Ehmke 279 2/3 innings to reach that total. Second is Roy Roberts, who hit 22 for the 1921 Columbus Buckeyes of the Negro National League. He needed 245 1/3 innings to hit all those batters.

You get the pattern: In the live ball era, there have been 12 instances before Adams in which a pitcher hit 20 batters in a season. Those pitchers averaged 232 innings, and every one threw at least 178 2/3. Adams, conversely, is still shy of 50 frames.

Adams looks just as much an outlier from the other direction when compared to others with low inning totals rather than others with high HBP figures—and that examination yields just as absurd a graph. Hershiser, at age 41, hit 11 batters in 24 2/3 innings. In the entire live ball era, he’s the only pitcher other than Adams with an HBP count in the double digits in fewer than 50 innings.

How is Adams managing this extraordinary feat? He essentially subsists on a one-pitch diet, throwing his high-spin slider 88 percent of the time against batters of both handedness. All 20 of his HBPs have naturally come on sliders; notably, he’s allowed only 20 actual hits off his slider all year long, per Statcast tracking.

Adams has split his 20 HBPs evenly, hitting 10 right-handed hitters and 10 lefties. (To be fair, Adams has faced 44 percent more righties than lefties, so on a rate basis, he’s much more likely to hit lefties.) His reliance on this one extreme pitch explains why. Adams lives down and in against lefties, and the occasional pitch is bound to slip when he’s walking that tightrope. Against righties, meanwhile, any slider that doesn’t properly break will stay up and in, threatening to fling free of the strike zone—he also walks six batters per nine innings—and add to his historic HBP total.

“It’s just a pitch that sometimes gets away from me, unfortunately,” Adams said back in April, when he was already making news with a mere five HBPs. “Sometimes I’m trying to throw more of a sweeper to lefties, hits the back foot. Sometimes it just backs up on righties. It’s unfortunate but not intentional, obviously.”

It doesn’t seem as if MLB’s crackdown on sticky stuff has had much of an effect: Adams had hit 12 batters before the sticky stuff ban in late June, and he’s added eight more since. Nor does it seem like these bushels of HBPs are a result of some sort of broader beanball battle between teams, as it may have been in the past; Ehmke attributed some of his HBP collection to his demanding manager, Ty Cobb, reportedly saying, “When he gave you the sign to throw at a hitter you went through with it or it cost you money.” (This factor’s importance is debatable: After leaving the Tigers, Ehmke led the majors in HBPs three more times.)

On a leaguewide scale, HBP rates have peaked from a historical perspective in recent seasons, exceeding 0.4 per team per game for the first time in 2019 and staying there in 2020 and 2021. Adams is simply an extreme outlier in a relatively extreme environment, and now he has three weeks left to challenge Ehmke’s ignominious record.

Given his low innings total relative to Ehmke and Roberts and others, however, Adams already produces delightfully wacky comparisons to any other pitcher. To list just a few:

  • Charlie Morton has hit 135 batters in 1,597 1/3 career innings, giving him, at one HBP every 11.8 innings, the highest HBP rate for any pitcher in AL/NL history with at least 1,000 innings pitched. However, 2021 Austin Adams is hitting batters at more than five times Morton’s career rate.
  • Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser hit zero batters in 313 1/3 innings in his MVP-winning campaign in 1945. In his career, he hit 19 batters in 2,993 innings—meaning he hit fewer batters in nearly 3,000 innings than Adams has in fewer than 50 this season; 2021 Adams is hitting batters at 68 times Newhouser’s career rate.
  • Orioles great Mike Cuellar has the lowest career HBP rate for live ball pitchers with at least 2,000 innings pitched: just 12 in 2,808 innings. That translates to a career rate 100 times lower than Adams’s rate this season.

All the while, of course, Adams is still an effective pitcher—even if the Padres don’t trust him like a generic reliever with a 3.28 ERA and 13 strikeouts per nine. On average, the average leverage index when Adams has entered a game this season is 0.89, on a scale in which 1 is average and higher numbers mean higher leverage. That places him behind a bunch of other Padres relievers: Mark Melancon, Tim Hill, Emilio Pagán, the injured Drew Pomeranz and Keone Kela, Craig Stammen, and Pierce Johnson.

On a more granular level, in the past month, Adams has pitched in 10 games, and only once—in the 12th inning of a game against the Dodgers when San Diego had already used all its high-leverage relievers—did he throw in a tie game or with a narrow lead. Dating back farther, only three of his 19 appearances since the All-Star break fit that criteria.

Despite Adams’s overall impressive numbers, evidently, the Padres are afraid of how frequently he clogs the bases. The stats show how much of a difference his HBPs make. Among pitchers with 40-plus innings pitched this season, Adams ranks in the 70th percentile in WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched), with a mark of 1.16. That places him near closers like the Padres’ Melancon (1.15) and the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen (1.17). Add HBPs to the WHIP formula, however, and Adams plummets down to the 11th percentile with a 1.59 mark, near post-prime starters like Matt Harvey (1.58) and Jon Lester (1.60).

But as Adams has demonstrated all season, he doesn’t need to pitch in important moments to plunk batters with abandon. He just needs to take the mound, and the HBPs will follow. They’ve never followed quite so closely, in fact, for any pitcher at the MLB level in more than 100 years.

Stats through Wednesday’s games.