As I’m sure you know, today’s major league pitchers can barely hit a lick.
The rise of the designated hitter, not only in the American League but also it’s wide-spread use in the minors and in the college game, is perhaps the biggest factor for the demise of pitchers who cannot hit. But it’s hardly the only one.
Pitchers simply don’t get as many opportunities to hit today because of the steady trend of using more and more relievers throwing more and more innings, which means starting pitchers get fewer opportunities to hit. Plus, there are more opportunities for professional hitters to be used as pinch hitters.
Also, the level of Major League play has gradually improved since the professional game started in the 1870′s, which means that pitchers who make the majors solely based on their ability to pitch have undergone a slow but steady decline as hitters by virtue of the relative improvement of pitchers and professional hitters.
Nevertheless, there are always a few pitchers in any era who can hit, and it can also be fun to see just who the worst of the worst are.
I looked at current pitchers with at least 100 career major league at-bats in order to weed out the pitchers who just hadn’t had enough at-bats for their hitting stats to mean anything one way or another.
I found 85 pitchers currently playing with at least that many ABs. I may have missed a couple, but I think I got most of them.
The mean batting average and OPS of these 85 qualifying pitchers are approximately .135 and .340. That’s really pretty terrible, and it shows you just how hard it is even for professional athletes who have played baseball all their lives to hit major league pitching if the players have not been selected for the major leagues based their ability to hit.
A few pitchers can swing the stick a little bit, though. Here is my non-scientific list of the five best hitting pitchers currently playing:
1. Micah Owings
Micah Owings is far and away the best hitting pitcher in baseball (at least if you exclude Rick Ankiel, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2004).
After 184 major league ABs, Owings has a .293 batting average and an .861 OPS. That’s better than a lot of corner outfielders playing regularly at this level.
In fact, it plainly appears the Arizona Diamondbacks made a terrible mistake when, after drafting Owings in the third Round of the 2005, they decided to develop him solely as a pitcher.
Owings turns 28 in late September, and it is pretty much obvious he will never develop into a good major league pitcher. He has a career 5.11 ERA and was recently demoted by the Reds to their AAA team. With all the young pitchers the Reds have in the pipeline, Owings’ career as a pitcher is in some jeopardy.
At this point in his career, Owings should give serious consideration to either becoming a position player or at least playing enough in the field at AAA to become another Brooks Kieschnick, who had a couple of solid seasons for the Brewers in 2003 and 2004 as a relief pitcher and regular pinch hitter.
2. Carlos Zambrano
He may have fallen off as a pitcher this year, and he may be hard to put up with in the clubhouse. But at least Zambrano can swing the ash.
Zambrano has a career .236 batting average with a .632 OPS.
He is an all-or-nothing hitter. He has only six walks to go with 209 strikeouts in 585 major league at-bats, but he has hit an impressive 20 HRs and 47 extra base hits.
He’s scored 61 runs and driven in another 61 in his career. That’s better than a lot of middle infielders given 585 at-bats.
3. Dontrelle Willis
One of the things I loved about Willis was his ability to hit. Even though he’s also now pitched his way out of the majors, he still owns a career .232 batting average and a .634 OPS.
Willis doesn’t quite have Zambrano’s raw power, but he’s much more willing to take a walk (22 in 358 career ABs). I ranked Zambrano higher only because he has put up his numbers in considerably more ABs.
I wonder what is more discouraging to a pitcher: Walking the opposing pitcher or giving up an extra base hit. Even though the latter would seem to have more value, the pitcher on the hill can better rationalize it—the batter got lucky, he’s a good-hitting pitcher, etc.
Everyone on defense slumps their shoulders when the pitcher walks his doppelganger.
4. Yovani Gallardo
The Brewers young ace is another pitcher with pop at the plate.
His career .207 batting average isn’t particularly impressive, but his .661 OPS is (at least for a pitcher). With eight HRs and eight doubles in 150 career AB’s, he’s someone opposing pitchers have to be careful with, particularly with men on base.
Gallardo already has four HRs this year in only 43 ABs. Since the Brewers will probably hold on to him at least until he gets close to free agency, he’ll have plenty more opportunities to show if his hitting so far is for real.
5. Adam Wainwright
The Cardinals’ ace knows how to help his own cause. He’s got a .230 career batting average and a solid .608 OPS.
With his relatively high batting average, Wainwright is exactly the kind of pitcher you don’t want to walk the No. 8 hitter to get to with men on base.
Sabathia doesn’t quite make the list, because after playing almost his entire career in the American League he has only 97 ABs in ten major league seasons.
Nonetheless, he has hit .258 with a .647 OPS in those 97 ABs. Some guys are just ballplayers pure and simple.
Other pitchers who can hit a little include: Dan Haren (.226 batting average, .580 OPS), Livan Hernandez (.223, .532), Darren Oliver (.221, .545), Russ Ortiz (.202, .549), Jason Marquis (.202, .519), Jeff Weaver (.208, .480), Javier Vasquez (.206, .486), Manny Parra (.195, .532), and Randy Wolf (.188, .500).
As you can see, there aren’t a lot of pitchers who can hit in today’s game.