Edmundo Sosa, Future Hit by Pitch King?

Edmundo Sosa
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Chances are you haven’t thought much about Edmundo Sosa recently. He lost the Cardinals’ starting shortstop gig to Paul DeJong before the season began, leading to inconsistent playing time. When given opportunities, he’s been hitting a paltry .160/.250/.160; striking out 42.9% of the time and walking zero percent of the time will do that. Making matters worse, his placement on the COVID-19 injured list last week further removed him from the action. He’s seen better days.

But wait — if you’re an astute reader, you might have noticed a curious detail. If Sosa has yet to draw a walk, how is his on-base percentage that high? I’m so glad you asked (and not me, who definitely didn’t need a segue). While Sosa has just 28 plate appearances to his name, he’s already been hit by a pitch three times. That seems like quite a high rate of plunkings! Indeed, here are the much-too-early-but-relevant leaders in hit by pitches per plate appearances so far this season. Guess who’s at the very top:

2022 HBP per PA Leaders
Edmundo Sosa 0.11
Michael Hermosillo 0.09
Teoscar Hernández 0.08
James McCann 0.07
Cavan Biggio 0.07
Luis Urías 0.05
Min. 20 PA

Take that, Michael Hermosillo. It’s Sosa who claims the throne by a small margin, but considering his offensive woes, the man needs any victory he can take. To Cardinals fans, though, his capabilities as a pitch magnet are nothing new. In 326 more successful plate appearances last season, Sosa dutifully bore the brunt of 17 pitches, which formed the backbone of a respectable .346 on-base percentage; he’s not the type to wait out four balls for it. That, in tandem with flashes of gap-to-gap power, made Sosa a sneaky component of the Cardinals’ yearly devil magic, as they made the postseason in stunning fashion.

It’s unfortunate that Sosa’s bat is dormant to begin 2022, but at least one offensive skill remains. Skill? Absolutely: certain hitters are better than others at getting plunked, and while there’s evidence that pitchers are driving the recent spike in hit-by-pitches, there’s also research suggesting that the latest generation of hitters are eager to endure pain for a free base. In Sosa’s case, any pitcher influence seems minimal; he’s seen about a league-average rate of pitches up-and-in thus far. That he led the league in HBP per PA last season (among hitters with 300 or more PA) and is continuing his reign is no accident. Sosa gets beaned a lot, and he’s good at it.

But how? Interestingly, Sosa didn’t always have this level of talent. Before 2019, his season-high in hit by pitches was six, which took 223 plate appearances in Rookie ball to accumulate. It’s still a moderately high rate, mind you, but nowhere near what Sosa later became capable of. See, the reason why I chose 2019 as the delineation is because I have a theory, which revolves around a change he made that year in Triple-A Memphis. To understand it better, we need to examine how Sosa used to stand in the batter’s box. Here are images taken from a 2018 at-bat, in his first Triple-A stint:

Grainy footage notwithstanding, that’s a pretty standard setup, right? It’s not as if Sosa is standing uncomfortably close to home plate, like some hit-by-pitch aficionados prefer. He has a leg kick, but it’s small enough to where it probably doesn’t disrupt an incoming ball.

That’s the old Sosa, anyway. Here are images taken from a 2019 at-bat, in his second Triple-A stint:

Other than a raised bat, there’s not much different about Sosa’s initial stance — same body positions, same distance from home plate. But consider what happens afterward. One year later, Sosa’s leg kick is now much more exaggerated. Maybe it’s due to a shift in camera angle, but as a result, it seems like Sosa is lurching forward and exposing a greater portion of his upper body. That all occurs around the moment of a pitcher’s release, not before, presumably giving Sosa less time to recognize a pitch and move out of harm’s way. In 2018, Sosa was hit four times in 209 plate appearances, for a per-PA rate of 0.02. The following year, he was hit 16 times in 496 plate appearances, for a per-PA rate of 0.03. In a nutshell, that’s my proposed Sosa origin story, of how he went from mere magnet to superconductor. He’s slightly toned down the leg kick as a major leaguer, but otherwise, not much has changed.

I could be entirely wrong. Maybe it matters more that Sosa is choosing to get plunked. Back in middle school, I was usually one of the first people out when we played dodgeball. Not because I wanted to leave early; my lack of athleticism meant I didn’t have a choice! Professional athletes like Sosa do, though, owing to their lightning-quick reflexes. Last season, he just might have exercised his free will against Lance Lynn:

I’m not 100% sure about Sosa’s intent, mainly because I’ve never faced a 95-mph sinker in my life. Believe me, I’m not the expert here. But to my untrained eye, that looks like an avoidable pitch. Besides, you can see Sosa, rather than instinctively jerk backwards, react by bringing forth his guarded elbow as if intending to swing. It’s more proof that ballplayers are built different, both physically and mentally. Other details include Yasmani Grandal being visibly grumpy from the collateral damage he took (“Dude, seriously?”) to Sosa himself not quite believing that it worked out in his favor, but slyly content nonetheless:

“He’s got a 242 HBP+, which means he gets hit 2.4 times as much compared to expected,” said analyst Cameron Grove when I asked him about Sosa. Using the location of each pitch, Grove’s model estimates the probability that it will end up hitting the batter. A lofty 242 mark backs up what we’ve discussed up to now; not only is Sosa getting plunked by the obvious pitches, but he’s also going out of his way to make (bodily) contact against the more unlikely ones. Such an effort “places him in the 95th percentile among batters with at least 1,000 pitches seen since 2015,” added Grove. The numbers agree: Sosa is talented.

It’s temping to view Sosa’s auspicious start through the lens of history. The all-time hit-by-pitch record is held by Hughie Jennings, who from 1891 to 1903 was beaned 287 times. But really, it’s Craig Biggio’s total of 285 that stands the test of time, achieved in a far more competitive modern era. Through his age-26 season, Sosa has been hit 20 times and counting. Does he realistically have a shot at surpassing Biggio’s golden standard?

There are a few factors to consider. For example, Anthony Rizzo, the active leader in hit-by-pitches, already had 1,211 plate appearances under his belt by the age of 23. Sosa is seemingly off to a slow start. But Rizzo didn’t start racking up the hit-by-pitches until later in his career, and the same can be said of Biggio, who had hit first “breakout” hit-by-pitch season in 1995 at the age of 28, when he was plunked 20 times. So in that sense, perhaps Sosa is right on track. It could be that he’s entering the prime of his hit-by-pitch career, with nowhere to go but up.

Volume matters, though, and it’s a little worrisome that Sosa hasn’t secured a starting role. Defensive metrics are approving of his glove, but in an era when the shortstop is often the best all-around player on his team, it alone can’t guarantee Sosa longevity. In pursuing hit-by-pitches, he also runs an elevated risk of injury. There is a method to the madness, and Sosa does seem adept at getting hit in relatively safe areas, but no strategy is foolproof. While he avoided fracturing his wrist last September on a HBP, that doesn’t mean he’ll emerge unscathed the next time around. A rogue baseball could very well jeopardize a player’s career. And above all, 285 is simply a staggering amount. Assuming Sosa becomes a full-time player and averages, say, 20 hit-by-pitches per season, he’d need at least 14 years to surpass Biggio. The Astros second baseman continued to play despite posting mediocre numbers in the twilight of his career. With how the game is run today, Sosa won’t have that luxury.

So to answer our question, no, he does not. But maybe, just maybe, Sosa can reach the 200 mark, which would place him in rarefied air. Just eight players in major league history have reached that milestone, with the most recent being Chase Utley in 2018. Sosa and Utley do share a few traits; both are defensively outstanding infielders who got relatively late starts to their career. Utley went onto have a Hall of Fame trajectory, though, and Sosa’s ceiling is nowhere near as high. Even so, the solid contact rates and surprising amount of pop he demonstrated last year provide hope that Sosa is here to stick around. Maybe he shies away from danger later on in his career, understandably so, but right now, Sosa is nothing short of a hit-by-pitch auteur. I know I’ll be keeping track of his progress, and I hope you’ve been convinced to join me.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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2 years ago

This is really interesting. Rizzoli has averaged 22 HBP per year since 2015, and could become the new record holder if he plays 5 more seasons.