You don’t need much imagination to know that being drilled by a 95mph fastball is awful. Terrifying, that’s what. Take any leaguer’s word for it, but you insist on hearing from an expert, talk to Anthony Rizzo, who has the unfortunate distinction of being the No. 1 target among active players. No one has been stung more often.
Rizzo says a baseball in the ribs “stinks” except he uses a much harsher description. The average fan, he says, has never felt the angry buzz of a fastball approaching the plate. The seams rotate so violently that they look like hornets. Even worse, getting hit by one.
“Explain it in a way that someone watching on TV would understand,” I told Rizzo.
“Okay, go to a local batting cage,” he said. “Dial one of the machines as fast as you can, at least 90 (mph). Now stand there and let the ball hit you.
“Sounds brutal,” I said.
“Even that’s not as bad as a match,” Rizzo said. “You can prepare in a batting cage. In a game, this happens unexpectedly. You don’t have time to react.
The Yankees first baseman’s explanation is emotionless, delivered without mercy even though he was hit 189 times during his regular-season career, 11th on the all-time list. One of the reasons Rizzo isn’t particularly traumatized is his role in the fall.
Standing atop the plate against the southpaws, Rizzo practically challenges them to run inside. Yes, it’s a form of masochism, but Rizzo has his reasons.
“I want left-handers to feel uncomfortable in front of me, and I know standing so close to the plate does,” he said. “I want the ball inside against them, so a lot of them keep me away. But I’m on the plate so I remove the outside corner. This becomes the middle of the (strike) zone.
It’s genius, it’s daring and it’s a huge success. Rizzo started rounding up left-handers — and only left-handers, he said, not right-handers — in 2014 and managed to become an equal threat for both. Rizzo has virtually the same batting average, slugging percentage and OPS against left-handed starters as right-handed starters.
The strategy is paying an even bigger dividend lately. Rizzo beat more than 100 points more against lefties last year (0.325 to 0.215). But the overall price was high. In his 12 years in the majors, Rizzo was drilled by left-handers once very 22 times at bat, or 50% more frequently than against right-handers.
I asked where it had been bitten.
“Here, here and here. Pretty much everywhere,” Rizzo said, pointing to his shoulder, forearm, and butt.
“And your head? »
“Luckily not, but don’t jinx me,” Rizzo said with a laugh.
He was smiling but not quite joking. Every hitter on The Show lives with the same unspoken fear of being harassed. The most gruesome episode happened in 1920, when Ray Chapman died after being hit on the head by Carl Mays.
In 1967, Tony Conigliaro, a young Red Sox star who had hit 100 home runs before he turned 23, was never the same again after taking a fastball from Jack Hamilton just under the eye. Rico Petrocelli, who was in the circle on the bridge, described the sound of a falling face as a “squish…like a melon hitting the ground”.
Tony C, as he was affectionately known at Fenway, survived his crushed cheekbone and jawline, but the damage to his career was catastrophic. He returned a year and a half later, battling fear and blind sight to become the comeback player of the year. The damage to his retina was gradual, however, and he was kicked out of the game at the age of 30.
Seven years later, Conigliaro suffered a severe stroke and remained in a vegetative state until his merciful passing at age 45.
An eerily similar incident nearly brought down Giancarlo Stanton, who was punched in the face in 2014. Then with the Marlins, the slugger was hit by Mike Fiers and remembered the impact, falling to the ground and hearing a ” intense hissing” inside his skull.
“The whole side of my face was gone,” Stanton said. “I felt sharp bits in my mouth. I was trying to be gentle with them because I didn’t want to choke, but the pain was excruciating.
Rizzo is aware of these stories, if not in great detail, at least their warning of the deadly threat of a baseball.
Still, the first baseman said, “I’m not up there trying to be brave or prove a point. I’m just trying to see the ball better. Getting pierced hurts, but honestly, in my experience, it hurts more when I get a foul shot in the shin.
There is, however, an exception. Rizzo was punched squarely in the forearm “by this guy” – pointing at Aroldis Chapman across the clubhouse. Taking a 98.9mph fastball in 2017 “was a bad thing”.
“They had to X-ray him in the middle of the game,” Rizzo said. “It wasn’t broken, but it swelled up for days. Aroldis was the only southpaw who made me uncomfortable because sometimes a throw could slip away from him.
Chapman recalled the incident and said a) he and Rizzo remained on good terms, even as rivals in the NL Central Division and b) he never hit a hitter on purpose.
“I don’t like it when I see a batter get hit, but that’s part of baseball,” Chapman said. “Rizzo is a good guy, I felt bad hitting him. But it happens, unfortunately.
Rizzo tries not to count, he closes in on Minnie Minoso (197) who is next on the all-time list. Hughie Jennings holds the record with a likely unreachable 287, but the Yankees veteran has a shot at a top-10 finish soon.
“I’m climbing,” Rizzo said regretfully, much to the chagrin of his flesh and bones. They deserve a toast.
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Bob Klapisch can be reached at [email protected].