This wasn’t the only time Núñez trekked along the warning track, from the on-deck circle near the dugout to an area he preferred behind home plate. He said he inches closer to read pitchers better, even if it puts 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 this age of velocity, are striking out more than ever and seeking any advantage they can find.
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 Philadelphia Phillies. “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 major league players can and can’t stand. The on-deck circles, which are five feet in diameter, are 74 feet from each other, behind and on either side of home plate, according to the rule book. Pitchers can ask the batter to move, but there are no specific rules.
Occasionally, a pitcher or umpire does say something. Núñez said that in late July, with the Orioles playing the Los Angeles Angels, 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 60½ 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 Manager Jeff Banister came out to argue, he 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 has feared a close encounter with a passed ball, 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 flamethrower, I don’t want to get smoked."
“Don’t call it. Don’t call it,” he said. “We don’t want that to happen."