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Westfield High School’s Brandon Snyder was hit in the head with the first pitch he faced in the first inning of a game with Herndon last weekend.
“I don’t think [the Herndon pitcher] meant to hit him in the head,” says Westfield’s head coach, Chuck Welch. “But he wasn’t going to give him anything to hit.”
The concept of pitching around a big hitter has been around as long as the game of baseball. But it seems to have really picked up during the steroids era. In 2002, Barry Bonds broke Willie McCovey’s Major League Baseball mark of 45 intentional walks in a season, a record that had stood for 33 years. Bonds has broken it again each year since; he had 140 in 2005. For all his offensive numbers, no Bonds team has yet won a World Series.
The strategy has trickled down a long way from Pac Bell Park. All the way to Chantilly, anyway. Snyder, a senior catcher and four-year starter for Westfield, is the top prospect in the D.C. area and among the highest-ranked in the country. He’s already accepted a baseball scholarship from NCAA powerhouse Louisiana State University, but he’ll be selected in the first round of Major League Baseball’s amateur draft next month.
The ball that hit him in the head was closer to the plate than a lot of those tossed Snyder’s way this season. He walked 26 times in 21 games, crushing the previous Westfield record of 15 walks in a single year. (Over a major-league slate of 162 games, Snyder’s total this season would translate to more than 200 walks.) Most of Snyder’s passes either were intentional walks—which in high school require only that the opposing head coach signal the umpire to give the batter the base, without a single pitch being thrown—or came after he was thrown four purposefully unhittable pitches in a row. Snyder stayed in the Herndon game after getting beaned, but, to add insult to the knot on his head, he was walked the next two times he came to the plate.
Mike Bianucci, another pro prospect who plays for Fairfax’s W.T. Woodson, knows the feeling. He walked 21 times this year, an average of once a game. Official numbers aren’t kept on intentional walks at Woodson, but team statistician Saul Kaplan says that “most of the walks were intentional.” Bianucci was also hit by pitches four times—and not necessarily by accident.
“Mike was put on base exactly one-third of his total plate appearances,” says Woodson head coach Chris Warren.
In Woodson’s game with George C. Marshall, from Falls Church, on Saturday, Bianucci got to see at least one pitch: He hit a third-inning fastball 430 feet for a home run. The Marshall pitcher plunked Bianucci with a fastball his next time up.
A lot of pro and college scouts found their way to Bethesda’s Landon School this year to see Marcus Jones, who has been named to various All-American teams in his prep career. But opponents found Jones an easy target to pitch around.
“Teams would scout us and pick him out as the guy they wouldn’t pitch to,” says Drew Johnson, Landon’s head coach.
In a season where his team went 10-13, Jones was walked 15 times, and not because he enjoys resting the bat on his shoulder. The number of walks would have been a lot higher, says his head coach, had Jones not had “stretches where he would get frustrated at [being pitched around] and take a swing just to get something going.”
Matt Wondolowski, the New York Mets area supervisor whose scouting region includes D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, says all the walking can take the fun out of a scout’s day every bit as much as a prospect’s. He’s still peeved about a trip his staff took this year to Richmond, Va., to appraise the tools of Justin Bristow, a highly touted shortstop for Mills Godwin High School.
“He got walked four times in a row intentionally,” says Wondolowski. “The first time was when he was leading off the inning; the last time was late in the game, with nobody on and the other team down 9-0. It made no sense as baseball strategy. But we just expect this now.”
So forget alleged steroid abuse. Could the most tarnishing portion of Barry Bonds’ impact on baseball be the fact that, even at the amateur level, where kids are theoretically still playing for fun and learning the game, pitching around hitters has become as common as the crotch grab?
“I think there’s something to that,” says Johnson, when asked if Bonds has influenced his or his peers’ decisionmaking. “The professional methods of teaching kids how to play baseball, and professional strategy, has matriculated to our level. Now you see a lot of guys in the [high-school] coaching ranks around here who have spent time playing professionally, either in the minors or studying under a major-league mentality. Baseball’s such a game of percentages, you try to play the percentages that are going to put your team in the best position at any moment. You go against a team with one guy, you’ll still have some old-school throwbacks who’ll say, ‘Ah, let’s pitch to the kid!’ whereas the cutting-edge philosophy is you pick a guy and say, ‘We’re not going to let this kid beat us!’ I guess to some extent this reflects the overall professionalism or pressure that coaches feel, that we need to win, whether that’s imposed by the schools or just on our own needs.”
Johnson says opponents’ stay-away strategy crippled Jones’ chance to get postseason accolades commensurate with his talent.
“I nominated Marcus for [the Washington Post’s] All-Met,” says Johnson. “When you make a case for your kid, you have to provide some statistical evidence. Well, Marcus hit .409, which is OK, but that’s not quite a first-team All-Met number. But the point I tried to make was, he doesn’t play for a team that’s stacked with a bunch of guys that are going to hurt you. So that number means more. That was my argument, anyway. It didn’t work.”
Snyder and Bianucci will be back in the batter’s box this weekend for the Virginia High School League’s Northern Region tournament. Scott Rowland, head coach of Oakton, in Vienna, the top-ranked team in Northern Virginia right now, says he’s enjoyed watching Snyder develop into a blue-chipper in the last four years. Rowland, whose teams have won three region titles since 1997 and the 2000 state championship, says his pitchers have never intentionally walked or thrown at Snyder.
“And he’s beat us a few times,” says Rowland.
Rowland adds that he doesn’t plan to give first base to Snyder or Bianucci or anybody else in the postseason, whether doing so is in vogue or not.
“Barry Bonds isn’t playing in Northern Virginia,” says Rowland. “Throw one in there.”—Dave McKenna