Baseball's on-deck circle is migrating
By MATTHEW GUTIERREZ | The Washington Post | Published: August 29, 2019
BALTIMORE — On July 16 at Camden Yards, Baltimore Orioles designated hitter Renato Núñez climbed the dugout steps and walked toward the on-deck circle. He didn't stop there. With catcher Chance Sisco at the plate, Núñez crept along the warning track, closer to the plate. Then closer. And closer.
Soon there he was, standing almost directly behind home plate, well removed from the designated circle. Washington Nationals right-hander Austin Voth didn't seem to notice him. Neither the Nationals nor the umpires said anything to Núñez. After the game, he received a few direct messages on Instagram from fans, who sent him images of his positioning and a similar message: You shouldn't be standing so close to the plate. (Núñez didn't reply.)
This wasn't the only time Núñez trekked along the warning track, from the on-deck circle near the dugout to an area he liked behind home plate. He said he inches closer to read pitchers better, even if it edges him more in harm's way. Besides, baseball's on-deck rules are lax, and several pitchers and catchers said the on-deck hitter is the least of their concerns, especially with runners on base and a big league hitter at the plate. That's enough to worry about, they said.
Núñez may be part of a growing club of professional hitters who eschew the limits of the on-deck circle, but their migration reveals something about the state of the modern game: Hitters, facing faster pitches in the age of velocity, are striking out more than ever and seeking any advantage they can find.
Leaguewide, strikeouts are about to set a record for the 12th straight season, and batters are putting the ball in play at an all-time low. By standing closer to the plate, they're in a potentially vulnerable spot, but the positioning gives them a better view of what they're about to face when they enter the box.
"What I really want is to time the pitcher," Núñez said. "Try to get a close look with whatever he's going to throw."
Núñez has considered the risks, and he isn't worried about getting hit by a baseball. He recalls being asked to move, politely by an umpire, only once or twice. He doesn't remember a pitcher or umpire telling him to move. Pitchers don't care; some said they don't notice batters on deck at all.
"When guys are on base, you definitely look to who's on deck," Orioles right-hander Dylan Bundy said. "But it doesn't bother us. They can stand up there right behind the umpire for all I care."
"Used to be frowned upon, now it's all good," said Jared Hughes, a right-hander with the Cincinnati Reds. "I don't even notice it. My hat is really low. Sometimes I can't even see the whole hitter at the plate, only the catcher."
There are no written guidelines on where MLB players can and can't stand. The on-deck circles, which are five feet in diameter, are to be 74 feet from each other, behind and on either side of home plate, according to baseball's rule book. Pitchers can ask the batter to move, but there are no specific rules, which may explain why it's rarely enforced.
Occasionally, a pitcher or umpire does say something. In late July, with the Orioles playing against the Los Angeles Angels, Núñez said he walked along the warning track, behind home plate. He wasn't familiar with the pitchers, but he and a few teammates also noted that Angel Stadium presents an on-deck hitter's challenge: The backstop is an oval shape, putting the back screen 60.5 feet from the plate. At Camden Yards, the on-deck circle is much closer to the batter's box. So Núñez and a few other Orioles got closer.
Then, midgame, the home-plate umpire asked Núñez and the Orioles to stand back near the circle.
"If I haven't faced the guy, I'll get closer," said Núñez, who stood near home plate in the minors as well. "If a pitcher doesn't like it, I'll move. I don't mind. I'll move. I have no problem with that."
Players operate under the assumption that the umpires won't say anything unless managers or pitchers do first. But at least once a player's disobedience prompted his ejection. In 2017, Texas Rangers slugger Adrián Beltré, who retired last season, started hanging out a bit closer to the plate than the spot where the on-deck circle is situated. When crew chief Gerry Davis wanted him to return to the designated location, Beltré picked up the on-deck circle and moved it to where he had been.
Davis ejected Beltré and, when Texas Manager Jeff Banister came out to argue, tossed him as well. Beltré said afterward that he had been standing there most games for years and didn't understand why it was an issue.
Several major league hitters said they haven't considered the risks of standing near home plate. But when asked whether he's feared a close encounter with a passed ball, a wild pitch or foul tip, Núñez admitted "it's kind of dangerous." For hard-throwing pitchers, he usually stays near the actual on-deck circle.
"I feel sometimes I kind of get scared," Núñez said. "I can't have a reaction to a foul tip because it's so close. If it's a flame thrower, I don't want to get smoked."
Then Núñez smirked.
"Don't call it. Don't call it," he said. "We don't want that to happen."