Over in San Diego, Carlos Quentin is still getting plunked at his usual rate. He's tied for second in all of baseball, even though he has only played in 49 games.
If leaderboards were arranged so that hit-by-pitches and plate appearances were side-by-side, Quentin would get his due:
Because Quentin is getting drilled in sunny Southern California, the Sox have taken a hit in that category this year. With Quentin in the lineup, they averaged 82 HBPs over the last two years. Their totals led the AL both times, and they led all of baseball last year (the Brewers out HBP'd the Sox 81-79 in 2010).
However, even after losing Quentin and Juan Pierre, the Sox are still tied for sixth with 38 HBPs. It's nowhere near the rate that prompted regular and delightful visits from plunkeveryone, but the Sox are still taking one for the team more often than most teams. They've even drawn one more than those Q-fueled Padres.
And they can thank their one of their most frequent assailants, the Minnesota Twins.
The Twins outplunked the Sox 4-0 in their three-game series earlier this week, and that doesn't include the several other times the Sox were spun around or brushed back on pitches up and in.
Here are the three HBPs from Monday night. I've put a red glow around the pitches to both highlight their location, and, of course, subliminally enhance perceptions of malicious intent:
The pitchers are new to the rivalry -- Cole De Vries and Casey Fien -- but the strategy is the same. The Twins always bust the Sox inside, and it results in an unusually high number of HBPs from a pitching staff known for its control. They're well within their right to try to control that area of the plate, and more so this year since the White Sox have drilled the Twins eight times (more on that later).
The particular problem from the Sox's perspective is that these kinds of pitches are hand-breakers. They know it from experience. The Sox lost a hitter in each of the last two stretch runs after a wayward right-handed fastball scored a direct hit on a hand. In 2011, Josh Judy ended Brent Lillibridge's breakout season by crunching his finger. The year before, a Frank Herrmann fastball effectively broke Gordon Beckham's hand. The x-ray showed no fractures (although the technician initially said otherwise), but he couldn't grip a bat for the rest of the season.
Beckham entered that game hitting .342/.401/.574 over a seven-week stretch, and his career has stalled since. For that matter, Lillibridge has an OPS+ of 8 this year.
These five instances show that hand health is a big concern, especially for righties. When it's the pitcher of the opposite hand, the hitter has a little more time to see it coming. Which means a guy like A.J. Pierzynski can get everything but his armored wing out of the way on a high and tight fastball ...
... reach base after falling behind 0-2, score the game-winning run two batters later, call the pitcher a POS, and then hit the homer off a different pitcher of little renown in the ninth to win it.
(Fun fact: When Nick Blackburn drilled Pierzynski, it was the first batter he hit this season. It was also the third time in his career that he plunked Pierzynski, which is kind of odd, because Quentin is the only other batter he's drilled multiple times.)
It isn't always a Minnesota- or Cleveland-like game plan that puts White Sox hitters in harm's way. Here's a case where game situation played a bigger part.
You may remember Adam Dunn stealing second by surprise, and taking third when the throw got past Ian Kinsler. That put a runner on third with one out in a one-run game. Konerko switched to opposite-field mode, putting his body in a position to lift a fly to right, and minimize the chance of rolling over a grounder to the left side. Alexi Ogando threw him an outside-corner fastball, and Konerko was just a bit late, fouling it off down the right-field line.
Ogando and Yorvit Torrealba adjusted to Konerko's plan. On the next pitch, Ogando came inside in an attempt to jam Konerko, should he be leaning over the plate more than usual. But he missed too far inside, and stung Konerko on his bottom hand.
The Sox can ill afford to lose a hitter to a hand injury, because the bench still has Rey Olmedo on it. But unlike last year, the solution isn't as easy.
In previous seasons, the Sox could -- and should have -- sent messages to get the umpires' attention. The pitching staff consistently finished near the bottom in plunked batters, so they could operate with a smaller margin for error inside compared to their counterparts. Ozzie Guillen never chose to use that advantage, and the pitchers seldom showed the initiative to defend their hitters themselves.
This year, White Sox pitchers have drilled more batters than every other team except Boston. That might seem surprisingly high, and there are a few things that explain it. Two of the biggest offenders -- Hector Santiago and Will Ohman(!) -- are no longer on the roster, and while Gavin Floyd leads the league in HBPs with 10, he only drills batters when Tyler Flowers catches him. To update the numbers from that previous post, Floyd has hit just one batter in 13 starts caught by Pierzynski, compared to nine over six Flowers starts.
It's not Sox pitchers can't defend their hitters. In fact, they're 2-for-2 in avenging HBPs under Robin Ventura. Phil Humber threw behind Bryan LaHair after Jeff Samardzija hit Konerko in the face, and it worked out fine. Jose Quintana took an ejection for the team after Alex Cobb drilled Pierzynski with a purpose pitch, but the Sox still won (just like the Blackburn HBP, Pierzynski came around to score in a one-run White Sox winner).
But they can't go to that well too often during a playoff push. They might take a part of the plate away from themselves, or they might put stress on the bullpen with an unpredictable ejection, or it might lead to another up-and-in pitch from an opponent. Ventura and his staff probably should be on high-alert against Minnesota or Cleveland, because a half-dozen brushbacks/plunkings in a game is excessive. But that doesn't cover the Ogando-like pitches, where a good individual pitch call goes wrong.
If the pitchers are limited in their defense strategies, then it's up to the hitters. But there's only so much they can do, because they have to maintain their approach and hold their ground, lest they turn into 2011 Alex Rios. Staying out of harm's way is going to take a little more awareness, but mostly luck. Every team risks bruised or broken hands or fingers, after all, but the Sox aren't particularly equipped to handle a handburger.