How Much Better Can the Cardinals Pitchers Be (at Hitting)?

Spring is a time for big talk, for positive talk. Spring is when everyone’s sure they’re going to get better. And maybe everyone really does get better all the time. It’s just that some people get less better than others. Mike Matheny is in charge of a really good baseball team that almost won the World Series last fall. But Matheny, like most baseball people, wasn’t completely satisfied. In 2014, he wants his team to be better. And specifically, he’s also looking for his pitchers to be better… at hitting. And he thinks it’s going to happen.

“We’re going to be a better hitting group of pitchers this year,” Matheny said. “They do so much talking about how athletic they are but they were not content with what they were able to do on the offensive side last year.”

Continued:

“There were a lot of swings and misses,” Matheny said. “We were one of the worst teams in baseball with strikeouts from the pitcher’s position. That just shouldn’t be so.”

Looking back, Matheny’s right: the Cardinals pitchers’ numbers as batters were ghastly. At the plate they did themselves absolutely no favors. As a unit, they posted a lower batting average than Danny Espinosa. They posted a lower on-base percentage than Danny Espinosa. They posted a lower wOBA than Danny Espinosa. They posted a higher strikeout rate than Danny Espinosa. They did manage a slightly better walk rate than Danny Espinosa, but somehow that boost just wasn’t enough. At the plate, the Cardinals’ pitchers sucked, and Matheny wants for his team to suck less at the things it sucked at before.

Of course, there’s that part about how all pitching staffs suck at hitting. The fairest thing to do is to compare the Cardinals’ pitching staff to other pitching staffs, and then 2013 looks like less of a catastrophe. Last year the Cardinals’ pitchers tied for seventh in the National League in wRC+. Their strikeout rate was also in the middle of the pack. They were worth an estimated -0.4 WAR. Turns out they were neither bad nor good, relatively speaking, and all statistical speaking needs to be relative.

But let’s grant that there’s room for improvement. And let’s grant that pitcher hitting does truly make a difference. Just because there aren’t many plate appearances doesn’t mean the plate appearances don’t count. After all, good approaches can sustain innings and produce runs. If you like the stat RE24, the difference between the 1996 Braves and the 2000 Astros was about 55 runs, just in terms of pitchers batting. Going another way, the 1988 Mets pitchers were worth 2.6 WAR as position players, while the 2007 Giants pitchers were worth -2.1. Every little bit counts, and pitchers are still involved in every National League lineup.

Here’s a fun fact: There have been 433 NL team-seasons in the past 30 years. Over that span, the correlation (r) between team shortstop wRC+ and team winning percentage is 0.22. The correlation between team pitcher wRC+ and team winning percentage is 0.23. Established ever so simply: Teams with above-average offensive pitching staffs have won 51.2% of their games. Teams with below-average offensive pitching staffs have won 48.5% of their games. This is all to say: Pitcher plate appearances count.

So how much better could the Cardinals’ pitchers get? If this is something Matheny is prioritizing, how much might the staff improve?

From the outset, remember that the Cardinals were right around league-average in 2013. It’ll be more difficult to improve from average than it would be to improve from terrible. And of course, every player everywhere is trying to get better. But it might be different for pitchers hitting; it might generally be a low enough priority that making it a higher priority could make an actual difference.

Why don’t pitchers hit well? For one thing, they aren’t typically selected for those skills. And they also don’t work on it very much, once they’re identified as pitchers. A pitcher doesn’t have an unlimited amount of time to train, and so time spent hitting is time spent not pitching and pitchers all need to stay good at pitching. You can’t develop a better changeup holding a bat in your hands. You can’t work on mechanical consistency watching a coach throw you a curveball.

So it seems pitchers could benefit from more practice hitting. After all, they don’t get very much. And there’s evidence of the benefit of more practice — NL pitchers typically out-hit AL pitchers, which might be explained by more practice and more experience, if you assume the NL doesn’t select pitchers in part on the basis of their hitting. If some practice allows NL pitchers to not hit like AL pitchers, could more practice allow certain NL pitchers to hit better than the other NL pitchers?

The answer essentially has to be yes, but it’s a question of magnitude. American League pitchers get more or less the bare minimum training. They take batting practice only before inter-league series. The training that will yield the greatest improvement is the training above the bare minimum. Let’s call this the training that NL pitchers currently get. The Cardinals might go through training above the training above the bare minimum. It seems like there should be some diminishing returns, as they already would’ve learned the most basic lessons.

The past 10 years, AL pitchers have posted a .131 wOBA, while NL pitchers have posted a .162 wOBA. It works out to a difference of 0.025 runs per plate appearance, or about nine runs per (NL) year. For simplicity’s sake, let’s think of this as the training effect. If the Cardinals thought they could double that, they could add another nine runs. If the effect were halved, it would be more like four or five runs. It’s about two runs if you add a fifth of the effect. Easy math. It gets really small really quick, and the reality that sets in is that pitchers can get only so good because they aren’t selected as hitters and hitting major-league pitchers is really freaking difficult even when that’s something you’re supposed to be able to do.

Maybe the most interesting thing is just a thought exercise. How optimized is your standard NL baseball practice routine? The pitchers will get X amount of time working on pitching things, and they’ll get 1-X amount of time working on hitting things. More time working on hitting would presumably yield improvements while hitting. Would that be offset by the reduction in the amount of time working on pitching? If the pitchers are already primarily working on pitching — and if they’re selected for their ability to pitch really well — what would be the cost of spending less time working on it? Might there be more to gain by having them take extra batting practice? Might they already take too much batting practice? I have no clue, but it’s something I’ve never thought about before.

Anyway, Mike Matheny wants the Cardinals’ pitchers to hit better. The Cardinals’ pitchers feel the same way, and they intend to do something about it. If they do improve, it’ll probably be by so few runs that no one’s going to notice unless they look for it specifically. In that sense, whatever. But then, in most senses, whatever. You can have that attitude about practically anything. I’m pretty sure we’re here to be interested, so I don’t want to overthink the things I find interesting.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


23 Responses to “How Much Better Can the Cardinals Pitchers Be (at Hitting)?”

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  1. David says:

    I’m a Pirates fan but nonetheless I think the Pirates pitchers are a interesting case of the effects of pitcher hitting. Over the last two years the Pirates pitchers have hit a whopping one extra base hit (1 in 2012, 0 in 2013). Never before in NL history had an NL pitching staff went an entire season without at least 2 XBH and the Pirates accomplished such a feat in back to back seasons.

    That is fascinating to me and makes me believe. If there is a team that needs to have their pitchers strive for better results at the plate it is clearly the Pirates.

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  2. Matty Brown says:

    I feel like strictly training your pitchers to hit fastballs, and ignore other pitches, would be beneficial as those should be easier to hit, while also being, by far, the most common pitch thrown to pitchers. Also, if other teams were to adjust and throw more off-speed and breaking stuff, just have your pitchers watch the pitch and hope for a ball.

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  3. Evan says:

    The easiest thing to do would be to give Lance Lynn fewer plate appearances by moving him to the bullpen. This might improve the rotation too.

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  4. Anon says:

    More time working on hitting would presumably yield improvements while hitting. Would that be offset by the reduction in the amount of time working on pitching?

    I don’t know that more hitting practice will reduce the amount of pitching practice. Lots of teams have pitch count and innings limits on pitchers already. Maybe a pitcher gets fewer rounds of golf in a year to practice swinging a bat. I don’t know, however I don’t like the assumption that hitting practice must reduce pitching practice.

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    • nd says:

      True, pitchers send a lot of time running or sitting on their ass.

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    • Doug Lampert says:

      Basically what I came to the comments to say. A pitcher doesn’t spend 8 hours a day (or even 4 hours a day) throwing MLB quality pitches.

      If this cuts into anything I suspect that what you’re cutting into is actually fielding practice and general conditioning work.

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  5. LHPSU says:

    The other way to think about this is that pitchers can’t spend all day throwing, after all, so maybe some time could be spared to practice hitting.

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  6. Eric R says:

    Would you think there is a general increased risk of injury if pitchers did hitting training vs, lets say, general conditioning?

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  7. Vision says:

    One of the bigger impediments to pitchers hitting isn’t time on their part, it’s time available in the cage and access to pitchers to throw to them quality enough pitches to be actual training. The hitters themselves need that time and it’s allocated for them.

    Pitchers may be able to spend a certain amount of extra time hitting, but there’s going to be a limit available to them due to hitters needing the resources.

    If we’re just talking standing in a cage at a facility and swinging a bat, they probably could do that as much as their training regimen allows and may see some small improvements as long as the habits they’re forming are good ones, rather than learning bad habits because they are not under the tutelage of a professional hitting instructor.

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    • Bad Bill says:

      There’s more to it than that, though. Back when Michael Jordan (yes, that Michael Jordan) was trying to re-invent himself as a baseball player, there was a program that ran on one of the networks showing the drills they were putting him through to help teach him pitch recognition. If memory serves, they were giving him incredibly brief (0.02 seconds, IIRC) film clips of the grips used by pitchers to throw different kinds of pitches, as seen from the batter’s box 60 feet away. The closest real-world thing I can think of to it was the aircraft-recognition drills that the military had fighter pilots do during World War II. If you’ve ever done either of those drills under “combat” conditions, you will find that they are very, very tough — but that you can improve your performance with practice. That kind of thing might well help the pitch recognition of a pitcher who’s never paid attention to it before, all before the batting cage is entered. St. Louis being St. Louis, they’ve probably got some other little tricks in mind that also don’t require getting into a cage.

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  8. Eric Lutz says:

    Unless you are Zack Greinke, most pitchers suck at hitting. The real travesty is letting pitchers hit at all. In 2013, here are the pitchers only stats in terms of batting: .132 BA, .164 OBP, .169 SLG, .333 OPS, and 10.75 to 1 K/BB rate. Yuck, and double Yuck. Here are all other hitters except pitchers batting, .257 BA, .322 OBP, .403 SLG, .725 OPS, and a 2.03 to 1 K/BB rate. Pitchers included in the hitting stats lowers the overall BA to .253. Honestly, the NL should get with the program and just go to the DH, then a pitchers actual pitching stats could be comparable across leagues, as league ERA’s are always lower in the NL compared to AL and the strikeouts are inflated in the NL due to pitchers batting.

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    • Bad Bill says:

      Unless you are Mike Trout, most power hitters suck at fielding. The real travesty is letting power hitters field at all. There. Does that make you feel better?

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      • Eric Lutz says:

        Its not applicable to my point, which is the NL should be just like the AL and have a DH, point being pitchers should not bat at all. It is a detraction from the game itself to have pitchers bat. No batting average, no on base percentage, no power hitting, pitchers don’t do anything well at the plate, that a regular hitter can do. That way the leagues can be on equal ground when evaluating actual pitching statistics. And while we are at it, I am sick of the regionalization of baseball. Each team should play all the other 29 teams equally throughout the season. Since I like every team I would love to see at least some games from every team that right now I just never get to watch.

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    • Anon says:

      “Honestly, the NL should get with the program and just go to the DH”

      An eight man lineup would be the obvious solution to your dislike of pitchers hitting. Why do you want DH?

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      • Eric Lutz says:

        Because their are guys that are clearly professional hitters that would be out of baseball without it. (Harold Baines was awesome), and it would make the pitching statistics comparable to the AL. Go look at pitching stats, its so biased. For Example, look at team pitching stats and notice in 2013, 6 of the top 8 teams in ERA are from the NL and 6 of the 8 bottom teams in ERA are from the AL. Pitchers bat in the NL, it inflates the strikeouts for the NL pitchers, lowers their average walk rates, and artificially lowers their ERA, because pitchers suck at batting, .134 average? .169 SLG?

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  9. Vince Lombardi says:

    Actually, I am sick of seeing guys like Pete Kozma lose major league jobs just because they can’t hit, and K. Morales not be able to find a job because all the DH slots are taken and he’s an incompetent fielder. Why can’t baseball be like football and have 40 man rosters, nine offensive and nine defensive players. Yeah, we can let Trout play both ways as long as he doesn’t get too tired from all that work. And we can rotate in pitchers with every batter so poor Lance Lynn won’t have to face lefties who hit him so hard.

    Seriously, part of the point of baseball is that players don’t totally specialize. The DH has messed that up and is a slippery slope.

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    • Matt says:

      If we can stand in one spot for 40 years without moving, I’d say we’re not on a very slippery slope.

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    • Eric Lutz says:

      The problem with baseball everywhere including MLB is that it has always been a league of “IF you can hit, if you can flat out rake, we will find a defensive position for you.” Ask Joe Mauer or Mike Napoli all about it.

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  10. Eric Lutz says:

    Here’s two other changes all MLB teams can make while we are at it:

    1) Each team can play every other of the 29 teams equally or as close to equally as possible so that there are no unbalanced schedules or crappy time zone flights, AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, I can have a chance to see every team in the major leagues play my team from the comfort of my living room chair. Right now its so regionalized I don’t get to see a lot of teams I would like to.

    2)Every stadium has to have the same dimensions to their respective parks, say 330 down the lines, 375 or 385 in the gaps, and 400 or 420 in center. That way we will finally know who the real HR power guys are, none of the cheap shots at 291 or 309 feet down the Pesky Pole.

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  11. Oh, Beepy says:

    Slight problem with some of the assumptions made (largely in the comments)

    If spending more time practicing hitting was what was separating pitchers from being big-league quality hitters, there would be no guys who spend 10+ years in the minors as position players. Even if the pitchers improved their hitting an entire standard deviation, wouldn’t they still hit worse than basically all of AAA hitters? It really isn’t just ‘more time in the cage’ or training some muscle memory, the position player pool is basically the 500 best hitters of baseballs that reside on the continent, to assume that someone could be both amongst the world’s best at two separate skills if they just work real hard seems silly.

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