Thursday, February 15, 2007

Astros pitchers and catchers reports

The off-season is finally over. Today marks the first official day of Astros' spring training for the 2007 season, with pitchers and catchers due to report to camp in Florida. Soon, spring training will be fully underway and teams will prepare for their 2007 campaigns. Undoubtedly the top questions on everyone's minds throughout the preseason workouts will be "when will Craig Biggio record plunk 288 and who will throw it?". Spring training may provide very few clues to help us answer those questions, but that won't stop us from looking.
On the other hand, it may not be so much of a mystery after all. If you're following the spring training ritual, you may be asking yourself "why do pitchers and catchers always have to show up a few days before everyone else?" In this era of off-season conditioning, winter ball, strength and conditioning coaches, and mini-camps, do pitchers and catchers really need a couple of extra days to get in shape? And what exactly are they accomplishing in the 6 days they have alone before the rest of the team shows up?
Well, one website has an alternate theory regarding why pitchers and catchers need a few days alone before the rest of the players - the batters - show up. Could it be that the pitchers and catchers early start in spring training is used to plan who they are going to hit with pitches in the coming season and how many times?
If so, this year's plotting should go more smoothly than last year, without being interrupted by preparations for the World Baseball Classic. Last year it seemed like there was some confusion in the plan, or maybe their note-taking was a little vague, because any plans they made to help Craig Biggio become the most plunked player of all time went somewhat awry. They may have done some kind of short hand, talking about plunking the Astros' leadoff man, or hitting the second baseman whose name starts with B, but the execution of that plan left Chris Burke as the one getting hit 14 times, Willie Taveras getting hit 11 times, and Biggio collecting just 9 plunks, leaving him 5 short of Hughie Jennings' record of 287. Batters in the top spot of the Astros lineup were hit 12 times last season, but 7 of those plunks struck Taveras, and only 4 got Biggio. This season, however, that confusion should be cleared up (assuming it ever happened), with Taveras traded to Colorado and Burke moving to fill the vacancy in center field.

Okay, maybe pitchers and catchers don't really report early to plan out who they're going to plunk in the upcoming season, but if they did, they might be interested in knowing that since 1988, they've managed to hit only about 92 other batters for every time they plunked Biggio - in the span Biggio has been plunked 282 times, the rest of the players in the league have recorded 26,018 plunks. And that figure includes the 1988 season, which was the only plunk-free year for Biggio.
Major League pitchers have only managed to hit 3 other Astros, on average, for every plunk they've thrown at Biggio, but last year that number jumped up to 7.1 Astros other than Biggio plunked for each time he was. League wide, slightly over 200 batters were hit for each time Craig Biggio was in the 2006 season, more than twice the average rate for his career, and the highest since 1991 season when Biggio only got hit twice.

Also this year, as if the excitement of the quest for 288 plunks wasn't enough, fans and media will be watching Biggio's career hit total as it approaches 3000. Some may question whether this will become a distraction from the HBP chase, or whether it will cause pitchers to approach him differently the way (according to rumor) pitchers tried to avoid hitting Cal Ripken while he was chasing Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record. But maybe this is one of those things that can't be achieved unless you're focused on something else - like that missing sock, screwdriver, or key Lego piece that you can only find when you're not specifically looking for it. Maybe looking for 3000 hits is the way to get to 288 plunks. But we won't know until Craig Biggio does it, because no one else ever has. Ever. And it's possible no one else ever will.