When Mike Fiers struck Giancarlo Stanton in the face with an 88 MPH fastball last week, everyone's first thoughts naturally went to concern for the Marlins' superstar, and rightly so. After all, it was Stanton who was lying in a pool of his own blood and had a hole in his face.
Thankfully, it appears that Stanton will, eventually, be none the worse for the wear and already looks much better despite a couple of fractures. Stanton will probably miss the rest of the season.
Fiers, however, will be pitching tonight in an all-important game against the Cardinals. And though he won't have any physical scars, it can be assumed that he might be pitching with a voice in the back of his head and a little less willingness to pitch inside to batters. Former MLB pitcher CJ Nitkowski wrote a great article about the mental effect hitting a batter in the face can have on a pitcher using firsthand experience from accidentally breaking Craig Counsell's jaw in 1998. In the article, Nitkowski talks about his hesitance to command the inside half of the plate after that game and how he overcame those trepidations.
Unfortunately, Fiers/Stanton and Nitkowski/Counsell aren't incredibly isolated events. Batters get hit in the face too often. A cursory google search finds three individual incidents just last year where batters were accidentally hit in the face by a pitch.
The earliest of the three came on June 11, when Ian Kennedy let a pitch get away and hit Cuban superstar Yasiel Puig in the head. Puig, thankfully, was OK and stayed in the game but that pitch was the trigger to two benches-clearing brawls in the same game. Kennedy, pitching for the Diamondbacks at the time and in the middle of a disappointing season, came back in his next outing against the Padres and threw 6.1 innings of four-hit ball, allowing two runs. Of 94 pitches, 60 were strikes.
Here are Kennedy's pitch locations to righties in his next game, against the Padres:
And to lefties:
On August 21, Mets pitcher Jon Niese broke Braves outfielder Jason Heyward's jaw with a pitch in the top of the sixth inning in a situation eerily similar to that of Fiers and Stanton. Niese would stay in to finish that inning and toss one more. His next outing came against Phillies, against whom Niese threw a complete game shutout, allowing just three hits. Of 113 pitches, 78 were strikes.
Here are Niese's pitch locations to righties in his next game, against the Phillies:
And to lefties:
The same night, Astros rookie Max Stassi was struck in the face when a pitch got away from Rangers reliever Tanner Scheppers. Stassi required a hospital visit due to the injury. Scheppers was taken out of the game immediately following the hit-by-pitch, which brought in a run. Scheppers came out again three days later against the White Sox, recording two outs and allowing a run on three hits. He went unscored upon in his next six appearances.
Here are Schepper's pitch locations to righties in his next six games:
And to lefties:
The good news for the Brewers is that these three incidents show that a pitcher isn't doomed to fail immediately after hitting a batter in the face which, of course they aren't. All three performed very well in their first outings (in Scheppers case, his next few outings for a slightly bigger sample size).
The pitch locations tell a bit of a different story. Scheppers and Niese seemed to scatter pitches well, pounding the strike zone and showing little fear of pitching inside when necessary. Kennedy, though. Look at Kennedy's pitch locations and you'll see a pretty stark avoidance of the inside half of the plate to batters. Kennedy is a pitcher who tends to prefer pitching low and outside to righties and higher and outside to lefties. More simply, he tends to favor throwing outside. But not quite to the extent that he did against the Padres.
Then again, that was one outing, and it's an outing that Kennedy excelled in. I can't draw the conclusion that Kennedy was afraid of pitching inside from one start. Maybe this is just how he scouted San Diego -- that their hitters were poor against outside pitches and, well, it just so happens that's what he favors.
In the end, looking back at previous incidents where a pitcher hit a batter in the face is encouraging when wondering how Fiers will come back while pitching against the Cardinals tonight. We do have to remember, though, that when wondering how a pitcher will cope with mental stress, past history isn't the most telling indicator of how he might perform. Baseball players are people and will react to different things in different ways. So while we can be encouraged by past history, we can't take this as gospel of how he will perform.
Fiers will be pitching tonight, less than one week after putting a superstar in the hospital and hitting another player with his very next pitch. Hopefully he can put that out of his mind and put in the best performance possible in one of the biggest starts of his life.