Rob Oller: Head-hunting has no place in baseball, but sometimes pitchers miss by mistake

Rob Oller
The Columbus Dispatch
The Mets' Kevin Pillar lies on the ground after being hit in the face with a pitch from Braves reliever Jacob Webb on Monday. Pillar said he had no hard feelings toward Webb. “I know this guy didn’t want to hit me in the face," he said. "I’m almost more worried about him than myself.”

Some sounds stay with you. A laughing baby. The squeal of tires followed by crunching metal. A train whistle in the distance.

The thunk of a fastball against flesh and bone.

On Monday night in Atlanta, New York Mets outfielder Kevin Pillar dug in against Braves reliever Jacob Webb with the bases loaded in the seventh inning. Webb unleashed a 95 mph fastball that got away from him. At that speed, a baseball reaches home plate in about 0.425 seconds. Pillar never had a chance. Thunk. Hit squarely on the nose, the 32-year-old went down like a sack of cement. Blood poured, followed by a trip to the hospital, where a CT scan showed no serious head trauma.

“I can’t really breathe out of my nose,” Pillar said Tuesday. “But besides that, I feel really good.”

“Besides that …”  

Webb also found it hard to breathe, choked up by unintentionally putting a fellow major leaguer on the 10-day injured list. But sympathy is measured in tablespoons when you’re the bad guy who threw the pitch. 

Most kids know what it’s like to get HBP. Taking a 45 mph "heater" in the ribs has turned more than a few 9-year-olds into soccer players. Not as many know what it feels like to throw the pitch that packs a punch. 

Kent Mercker knows both sides, though the former major league pitcher from Dublin is more of an expert on delivering bruises than receiving them.

The Mets' Kevin Pillar suffered multiple nasal fractures after being hit in the face by a pitch from Atlanta's Jacob Webb.

“No one ever tries to hit someone to hurt them,” said Mercker, who spent 18 seasons with eight different teams and won a World Series with Atlanta in 1995. “You hope it hurts, but you don’t want them to miss time and go on the disabled list. At the end of the day, we’re all part of the same fraternity.”

History may disagree that ill will plays no part in pitchers hitting batters — most infamously, New York Yankees pitcher Carl Mays, a notorious head-hunter, struck and killed Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman with a beanball in 1920 — but Merck is correct that pitchers looking to injure batters is a rarity, which explains why Webb’s knees buckled after he hit Pillar.

“I wasn't trying to hit him," Webb said, still affected a day after the incident. “It definitely came out of my hand weird.”

Atlanta Braves pitcher Jacob Webb reacts after hitting New York Mets' Kevin Pillar with a pitch on Monday. "You never want to hurt a fellow competitor," Webb said. "It’s definitely tough moving forward."

Translated, Webb did not mean to hit Pillar, which is not always the case in a game where following a strict code of conduct includes pitchers hitting batters on purpose. 

Mercker was part of two no-hitters with Atlanta, combining with two other pitchers on a no-no against San Diego in 1991 and tossing a solo effort against the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1994. But the left-hander also took part in more than a few intentional hitters, throwing at batters in retaliation for an opposing pitcher purposely hitting one or more of his teammates.   

“I would have been a bad guy if I didn’t do that,” Mercker said. “Then I’d be a horrible teammate. But you don’t ever try to hit anybody in the head. And especially if you’re told to hit someone and you hit him there? Then your own teammates will have an issue with you.”

Then how to explain it? Blame imperfection. We have become so used to major league pitchers showing incredible control that we forget that mistakes happen. And mistakes magnify depending on whether the pitcher likes to pitch in or away.

Mets outfielder Kevin Pillar talks to teammates after he was hit in the face with a ball on Monday.

“If you’re going in, you want to miss in,” Mercker said. “You don’t want to miss back over the middle of the plate. So not to make a mistake, you pitch further in.” 


Mercker, 53, has been HBP more than a few times since taking up baseball at age 5. He said body location matters — “If it’s shoulder or below, put ice on it and be done.” — and you just hope you don’t take one in the head.   

Dublin native Kent Mercker spent 18 seasons with eight different teams and won a World Series with Atlanta in 1995.

“What happened to Pillar, everyone cringes, but no one, other than the hitter, feels worse than the pitcher,” Mercker said. “And emotionally the pitcher feels the worst. I’ve hit guys by accident and sent beers over to the other clubhouse after the game. It’s ‘Hey dude, here’s a bucket of beers.’”

Pillar holds no hard feelings toward Webb. To the contrary.

“I know this guy didn’t want to hit me in the face," he said. "Accidents do happen. I’m almost more worried about him than myself.”

A stand-up guy, even when knocked down.