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.”
“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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