“Yeah, but can he hit?” – Billy Beane, Moneyball
It was May 31, 2003, and the Florida Marlins were struggling. They had fired manager Jeff Torborg after a faltering 16-22 start, but 18 games later, they were still six games under .500, and their season was quickly slipping away.
After losing a heartbreaker in 11 innings the night before, the Marlins were trying to right themselves against the Cincinnati Reds in the middle of a pivotal 13-game home stand. After four-and-a-half innings, the score was tied at one, with Dontrelle Willis up first in the bottom of the fifth. The first pitch from Danny Graves was right in his zone, and Willis drove it right-center field.
The Marlins would never relinquish the lead, winning 3-1, and they would go on to win 65 more games after that one, grabbing the National League Wild Card. A month later, they were World Series champions for the second time in less than a decade.
It would frankly be disingenuous to pretend that this marked a turning point in the Marlins season (it took them a month-and-a-half to really clear out from the around .500 area and three months before they took control of the Wild Card race). But since it makes for a good story, why not?
What it really does is highlight how a pitcher can change the outcome of a game with a timely and unexpectedly solid swing of the bat. Pitchers have long been regarded as a black hole in the lineup; any hitting contributions from the pitcher are a welcome surprise. But some pitchers, like Willis, have the uncommon and extremely valuable ability to get consistently get hits, giving their team an advantage in offense as well as on the mound.
Willis is one of the best hitting pitchers in baseball today, with six career home runs, including two in one game last year, and a career .222 batting average, which is much more impressive when you realize that the average pitcher these days hits around .130. Willis’ hitting has added around three wins to his career record, above-and-beyond his spectacular pitching.
And while fans around the country recognize the value of Willis’ pitching talents, few understand the additional contribution that Willis delivers with his bat, which is nonetheless important. Of course, that lack of awareness extends beyond Willis. Even complex projection systems ignore pitcher hitting, when it’s clear that it can have some effect, though what isn’t clear is just how great that effect is.
We will search for an answer to that question, among many others, in the rest of this article.
Which Pitchers Hit in 2006?
The first question we can ask is who are the best-hitting pitchers in baseball at the moment? Last year, 635 players appeared in at least one game as a pitcher. Combined, they batted just .132 on the season, with a staggeringly low .324 OPS. But our statistic of choice will be a bit more complicated than that.
For the rest of this article, we will use weighted on-base average (wOBA) to evaluate hitting contributions. wOBA is a statistic invented by the writers of The Book that measures a hitter’s total offensive contribution in an easy-to-interpret format, in a number that resembles the scale for on-base percentage (.335 is around average, .300 is around replacement level, .400 is spectacular). wOBA is also easy to convert into runs above average, which we will do often in this article.
So let’s look at 2006: Who were the best and worst hitting pitchers in the major leagues last year?
Rank Last First wOBA RAA Effect 1 Willis Dontrelle 0.237 5.96 -0.24 2 Mulder Mark 0.323 5.51 -0.53 3 Zambrano Carlos 0.223 5.29 -0.22 4 Marquis Jason 0.209 4.55 -0.21 5 Suppan Jeff 0.221 4.52 -0.21 631 Hudson Tim 0.091 -3.85 0.16 632 Snell Ian D 0.069 -4.41 0.21 633 Cook Aaron 0.074 -4.73 0.20 634 Davis Doug 0.077 -4.74 0.21 635 Myers Brett 0.063 -5.39 0.24
Willis once again had a great season at the plate, contributing six runs above average (actually a little more because I’m not adjusting for park effects here, and he plays in the pitcher friendly Dolphin Stadium), while Brett Myers was the worst hitter at a position known for its futility at the plate, costing the Phillies more than five runs due to his atrocious bat.
As you can see in the last column of the table, if we add a pitcher’s hitting contributions to his ERA, we find that the best hitters can effectively lower their ERA by a quarter of a run, while the worst hitting pitchers are equivalent to an average hitting pitcher with an ERA a quarter run higher. So there you have it; the effect of pitcher hitting is about half-a-run at the extremes. Not a lot to get excited about, but then again, that was the difference between Barry Zito (3.83 ERA, $126 million contract) and Ted Lilly (4.31 ERA, $40 million deal).
It bears mentioning that three Cardinals find themselves in the top five among pitchers, suggesting that perhaps St. Louis does pay some attention to pitchers’ hitting abilities. Marquis, of course, has received a lot of playing time as a pinch hitter. And Mulder’s great performance might come as a surprise, given his struggles from injury on the mound, but he put the ball in play (only eight strikeouts in 36 plate appearances), exhibited a lot of patience (five walks), and when he did come around to swinging, he made good contact (.280 batting average and a home run).
We’ve looked at 2006, but why not expand our study all the way back to the start of baseball history? I can’t think of a compelling reason not to, so let’s do it.
Specifically, here is what I did. I calculated the wOBA for each player in each season from 1871 to 2005, using whatever statistics were available (though I did not incorporate reached on error into the numbers at any point, as I did for the 2006 statistics). I then classified each player in each season as either a pitcher (if he made at least one appearance as a pitcher that year) or a hitter (if he did not), and calculated the league average wOBA for both pitchers and hitters.
Pitchers were compared to the pitcher average in calculating their runs above average, which were corrected for park factor and then into wins above average to adjust for varying run environments.
But let’s take a step back for a second, and ask, how has pitcher hitting changed over time? We can answer this question by comparing the league average pitcher wOBA to that put up by hitters. The smaller the ratio, the greater the difference is between pitchers and hitters.
What the above graph shows is that while pitchers were actually about as good at the plate as regular hitters in the early days of baseball, they have steadily declined in quality ever since. These days, of course, teams pay little attention to the hitting abilities of their pitchers, and pitchers as a whole end up posting an OPS lower than Albert Pujols’ batting average.
But in looking at historical pitcher hitting, we’re going to adjust for that fact by comparing each pitcher to his league average, so that Dontrelle Willis’ .220 batting average might be worth as much as Cal McVey’s .347 average in 1876.
One other note: While the average pitcher wOBA for each season was computed using the statistics of any player that pitched that season, it became clear in putting together these numbers that the top of the list was saturated with great hitters who made a few timely appearances on the mound in a few different seasons.
As such, I eliminated any player with at least 2,000 plate appearances in seasons in which he did not pitch at all from the dataset. That removes nasty players like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and George Sisler, who were all primarily hitters (though certainly, Ruth was a very good pitcher as well) but appeared as pitchers in multiple seasons.
So, who are the greatest (and worst) hitting pitchers of all-time? Enjoy:
Rank Last First debut WAA 1 Caruthers Bob 1884 16.67 2 Lucas Red 1923 14.20 3 Ruffing Red 1924 14.13 4 Mullin George 1902 12.17 5 Crandall Doc 1908 11.32 6 Hecker Guy 1882 10.97 7 Foutz Dave 1884 10.84 8 Ferrell Wes 1927 10.79 9 Lemon Bob 1941 10.50 10 Newcombe Don 1949 10.24 7573 Willis Vic 1898 -7.25 7574 Grove Lefty 1925 -7.43 7575 Pittinger Togie 1900 -7.80 7576 Coveleski Stan 1912 -8.17 7577 Young Cy 1890 -8.44 7578 Wiedman Stump 1880 -9.29 7579 Donahue Red 1893 -9.39 7580 Mathews Bobby 1871 -9.91 7581 Galvin Pud 1875 -12.35 7582 Weyhing Gus 1887 -12.85
What are the chances of three Reds appearing on these lists? Well, only one-in-180 major leaguers have been named Red, so it must be something in the water. (Actually, the simple explanation is that most of the Reds played in baseball’s early days—it’s a name that has waned in popularity—and as these two lists are dominated by old-time players, the odds are dramatically higher than one-in-180.)
Why are these lists dominated by 19th and early 20th century pitchers? Well, pitchers threw a lot more innings back then, and so they hit a lot more too. What if we restrict ourselves to pitchers who debuted after World War II?
Rank Last First debut WAA 1 Newcombe Don 1949 10.24 2 Cangelosi John 1985 10.16 3 Smith Willie 1963 9.59 4 Gibson Bob 1959 8.47 5 Wilson Earl 1959 7.86 4275 Astacio Pedro 1992 -4.06 4276 Kline Ron 1952 -4.18 4277 Buhl Bob 1953 -5.95 4278 Chance Dean 1961 -6.06 4279 Friend Bob 1951 -6.32
I was surprised, frankly, to find out just how good a hitter Bob Gibson was. Did you know that in 1968, Gibson hit for almost as high an average (.170) as opposing batters hit off him (.184)? That fact is so impressive, it doesn’t even require commentary.
So how great is the overall effect? The gap between the best and worst pitchers in history is about 30 wins, which certainly is nothing to scoff at. Heck, if Bert Blyleven had pitched his whole career in the National League, and hit like Newcombe (Blyleven was actually -2.30 wins with his bat in just 514 plate appearances), he may well have reached those elusive 300 victories that have kept him out of the Hall of Fame for so long.
Or, we can look at Walter Johnson, who ranks as the 17th greatest hitting pitcher of all-time. In the Hardball Times Annual 2007, I rate Johnson as the second most-valuable pitcher of all-time behind Roger Clemens, by 13 wins. But hitting-wise, Johnson is about nine wins ahead of Clemens. That closes the gap by so much that it is impossible to make a clear call on who the most valuable pitcher of all-time truly is.
One final note, in case you were wondering. The most career home runs by a pitcher? Ned Williamson hit 51 bombs in his career.
We can also look at single-season numbers using the same method, though I have made one further adaptation to filter hitters out of the list. Not only did I remove players with at least 2,000 plate appearances in seasons in which they did not appear as a pitcher, I also removed pitcher-seasons with less than 10 appearances. That way, hitters who also pitched a bit were sure to be removed from the database.
Here are the results:
Rank Year Last First WAA 1 1964 Smith Willie 6.96 2 1892 Caruthers Bob 4.93 3 1914 Crandall Doc 4.40 4 1903 Callahan Nixey 4.36 5 1920 Eayrs Eddie 4.07 33770 1879 White Will -2.16 33771 1888 Morris Ed -2.19 33772 1884 Wiedman Stump -2.19 33773 1891 Weyhing Gus -2.31 33774 1884 Galvin Pud -2.34
Willie Smith pitched in 15 games with a 2.84 ERA in 1964, but he would only return to the mound three more times, all in 1968. Caruthers, as you saw in the career rankings, was simply a monster hitter. And though Galvin posted the greatest pitching season of all-time in 1884 (see the 2007 Annual for more), he also posted the worst hitting season for a pitcher as well. Even if we count hitting, though, he was still better than Charley Radbourn that year.
Let’s limit ourselves to post-World War II seasons just to give the modern guys a chance:
Rank Year Last First WAA 1 1964 Smith Willie 6.96 2 1965 Drysdale Don 3.03 3 1968 Smith Willie 2.73 4 1948 Dusak Erv 2.63 5 1955 Newcombe Don 2.42 23387 1950 Wight Bill -1.09 23388 1968 Tiant Luis -1.11 23389 1989 Bielecki Mike -1.12 23390 1948 Feller Bob -1.13 23391 1968 Chance Dean -1.23
Here, it becomes clear just how far above everyone else Willie Smith stood as a hitter. Given that he was a pretty decent pitcher, it’s surprising that the Angels decided to make him into a full-time position player. As this table shows, there’s a lot of value in a pitcher who can hit well. A pitcher could allow two-and-a-half to three runs a game more than average, and still be average overall if he could produce seven wins above average with his bat. Smith’s career ERA was 10% better than the league average (albeit in a small sample size), which would have made him one of the most valuable pitchers of our time.
Smith’s career leads me to one final question: Could we install a non-pitcher on the mound and hope that his bat makes up for his lack of stuff?
Let’s flip this article around for a moment. Instead of asking how pitchers do when they step up to the plate, let’s ask how batters do when they step onto the mound. You’re probably familiar with the situation: A team’s bullpen is stretched out and tired or they’re being blown out, and the manager decides to preserve what arms he has left in the pen and put a position player out on the mound.
These managers are providing us with a fertile dataset to research, so here’s what I did: I took all players with at least 1,000 plate appearances in seasons in which they did not pitch at all, and looked at seasons in which they made no more than five appearances as pitchers. In total, there were 478 such instances of hitters pitching. Because baseball was a very different game in before World War II, and it’s sometimes difficult to draw the line between who was a pitcher and who was a hitter, I focused only on the 124 pitcher seasons that occurred after the war.
Just to give you an idea of the type of players we are capturing here, the following are the last five hitters to have gone on the mound as identified in my database: Sean Burroughs, Todd Zeile, Robin Ventura, Abraham Nunez, and Frank Menechino. Sound good? I think so.
In total, these guys combined for 223.1 innings pitched, which isn’t much, but provides at least a decent sample size. I remember reading in Voros McCracken’s DIPS 2.0 article that non-pitchers pitching posted a league average batting average on balls in play, which piqued my interest and made me believe that perhaps non-pitchers can relatively successful on the mound. Well, Voros was right. These guys combined for a .280 BABIP, which is just about average, maybe a little below.
I, on the other hand, was spectacularly wrong. While non-pitchers may have been fine when the ball was put into play, they were not in such good shape when it came down to balls and strikes. Specifically, non-pitchers struck out just 3.43 batters per game, and walked 5.68. That’s no recipe for success.
On the other hand, non-pitchers allowed just 0.83 home runs per game. Overall, their expected ERA was around 5.50, which is about replacement level. However, they actually allowed three earned runs a game more than the league average for whatever reason. If that discrepancy holds true, well, then I was indeed totally off-base. But given the small sample size, likely it makes more sense to believe the component ERA.
Either way, the effect is likely too great to make it worthwhile to try a pitching staff full of strong-armed hitters. While it would provide the manager with a great amount of roster flexibility, as well as a lot of fireworks, it is doubtful that a team would gain more from such an experiment than they would lose.
It’s a fun idea nonetheless.
Let’s promise to no longer ignore a pitcher’s accomplishments at the plate. Sure, they might seem inconsequential compared to what he does on the mound, but every little bit of performance is important. Good hitting pitchers can provide themselves with a small advantage worth maybe half-a-win a season. Nevertheless, in today’s world, half-a-win is worth well over $2 million, so it’s nothing to scoff at either. Maybe that might start to explain Jason Marquis’ contract.