Pitcher Hitting Through the Lens of Competition

Two arguments favoring the designated hitter popped up around the internet Wednesday, first from Anna Hiatt of The Week (published at Yahoo!) and then from Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk. Naturally, the posts galvanized debate in all the typical corners — comments sections and particularly Twitter — as to which style of baseball is morally superior.

Personally, my general position is ambivalence — baseball is baseball no matter who takes the ninth spot on the lineup card. A more interesting question, from the perspective of how teams compete and win win, is what National League teams do with their pitchers at the plate (and on the bases). Are certain teams consistently good at getting their pitchers to hit? Are some consistently bad?

To put it bluntly, is there any indication pitcher hitting is a team-level skill at all?

As Sam Miller presented at Baseball Prospectus, individual players are certainly able to differentiate themselves from their peers. Miller found a spread of nearly two wins from the best to the worst. And pitchers are also somewhat able to repeat their secondary skill performances — Miller found a .35 year-to-year correlation for non-pitching WARP among pitchers. This is naturally lower than the correlation for pitching skill — pitchers get few attempts at the plate, on the bases and in the field relative to position players — but not insignificant.

Looking at the last five years, a few teams stand out from the pack.

pitcherhitting

The Brewers have gotten 3.8 WAR* out of their pitchers, largely from the contributions of Yovani Gallardo (2.3 WAR, .200/.234/.343). The Diamondbacks featured both Dan Haren (2.1 WAR, .261/.281/.374) and Micah Owings (1.8 WAR, .262/.294/.428 split between Arizona and Cincinnati) and come in second at just under two WAR. The Cardinals and Padres round out the top quarter, with Pittsburgh bringing up the rear thanks to the likes of Paul Maholm (-1.4 WAR, .090/.138/.115) and Charlie Morton (-1.2 in, impressively, just 160 PA of .073/.079/.102 work).

*FanGraphs pitcher WAR includes park-adjusted hitting, a position adjustment, and UBR for baserunning

By and large, though, there isn’t much differentiation between pitchers. Only six of 220 pitchers to bat at least 20 times from 2008 through 2012 accrued more than plus-1.0 WAR and just nine were worse than minus-1.0 WAR. As we’d expect with seasons stretching across just 60 plate appearances (and loads of sacrifice bunts), many pitchers will run into a few hits one year and go through nearly season-long hitless streaks the next. Unsurprisingly, there is just a tiny year-to-year correlation for both WAR and wOBA among team pitching staffs:

wobawarcorrelations

Not a single team exhibited a statistically significant relationship (p < 0.05) between season and WAR nor wOBA for the five-year sample either. Not even the runaway Brewers, who owe much of their standout total to a composite .207/.249/.280 (2.2 WAR) season out of their rotation in 2010 (a season in which Gallardo clubbed four home runs).

I don't think this should be a shocking result. National League teams don't have the luxury of denying a Ben Sheets (513 PA of .076/.113/.082, -3.0 WAR), an Aaron Harang (607 PA of .091/.099/.109, -3.6 WAR) or a Brandon Webb (457 PA of .113/.134/.136, -1.9 WAR) rotation spots because they can’t hit. It’s not a factor in their development as they rise through the majors. The DH is used in all rookie-level and Low-A games. Even in the high minors, the designated hitter only comes into place when both teams are National League affiliates, and in the Pacific Coast League, both clubs must agree to have the pitcher bat before the game as well. Additionally, National League teams can’t select or even truly know the bat skills of most American League free agent pitchers.

The argument against the DH and for the pitcher batting isn’t one about competition. It may disguise itself as one, perhaps centering around the nebulous aspects of strategy and perhaps the skill of a team’s pinch-hitters (subject to its own small sample vagaries), but at its core the argument for the pitcher batting is an aesthetic one. As a fan in a National League media market who was largely watched National League baseball for the last decade and a half, I can appreciate this argument.

But approaching the problem from a competitive standpoint, pitchers batting essentially comes down to throwing 250 to 350 at-bats per season to a component of the game teams barely develop outside of spring training and some BP sessions. It’s an aspect teams don’t — can’t, really — select for when building a team. Bunts and double switches and those wacky pitchers running the bases in jackets in cold weather are all fun, and I will gladly watch them in the National League this season and beyond. But if we really want to see which NL teams can best assemble major league talent, it’s best to trade the “1″ on the lineup card for the “DH.”




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28 Responses to “Pitcher Hitting Through the Lens of Competition”

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  1. Bill says:

    If there is one, I would love a GIF of David Wells batting.

    Steve Carlton and larry Christenson were two of the best hitting pitchers I ever saw in person, besides Owings.

    You would think that NL teams would focus more effort on SP and their ability to hit. I mean, after throwing and light workouts a little work on mechanics hitting off a tee would go a long way. Maybe they don’t want to get HBP, but those chances are real remote. If Billy Beane were an NL GM I know he would make the pitchers work on hitting.

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    • Tim says:

      Even for the worst, hitting one time in eleven against major league pitching is still pretty impressive. I doubt I could come anywhere close.

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    • chuckb says:

      My favorite was always Joaquin Andujar. He was hysterical to watch and, every now and then, would really get a hold of one.

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  2. Synovia says:

    Its seems to me that if you have almost all the pitchers as below replacement level, your baseline number for pitchers is way too high.

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    • Travis L says:

      I don’t think the replacement level described here is positionally adjusted, is it?

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      • chuckb says:

        But shouldn’t it be?

        I mean, a replacement level player at any other position is a position player but it’s not like a poor hitting pitcher can be replaced in the lineup by a second baseman or outfielder. He’s going to be replaced by another pitcher. Therefore, when pitchers are evaluated on their hitting prowess they should only be compared to other pitchers. A different baseline should be used for replacement level.

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  3. Anon says:

    If you don’t want pitchers to hit, have an 8 man lineup.

    Pitchers can’t hit is not an argument for the DH. Why not support a DH for shortstop or catcher if you already want one for pitcher?

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    • LK says:

      Do you really not see a difference between having a DH for pitchers vs. having one for SS or C?

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    • chuckb says:

      Ok. Let teams use the DH as college teams do — for any position player they choose.

      How many managers will have the DH hit for any other position player?

      I know you were trying to be clever here but your facile argument doesn’t change the end result. The DH will still hit for the pitcher.

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  4. Clay says:

    I believe there should be no DH because it isn’t fair for a pitcher to be able to throw a 90 mph fastball at a batters head and not stand in the same box and get the same fastball thrown at him. That makes him a coward.

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    • Travis L says:

      I believe that MLB pitchers shouldn’t be allowed to throw a 90 mph fastball at a hitters head. This is a tired argument; dangerous, borderline criminal behavior (assault) should be dealt with by the league, not on the field.

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      • chuckb says:

        This. Times a million. Besides, no team retaliates against another by throwing at the pitcher. They always throw at a position player. Moreover, are there any stats to support the notion that AL teams are more likely to throw inside than NL teams are?

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  5. Daniel says:

    I hadn’t fully processed that pitchers don’t hit in the minors. My question, though, is if part of the reason they hit so badly is because they lack experience, then why don’t more NL teams have their pitchers as their DHs in the minors. It probably won’t make a sizable difference, but as you note, the Brewers might have picked up an extra two wins from having just terrible hitting, rather than horrific.

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    • Touche Mr. Toupe says:

      Pitchers in the minors at AA and AAA.

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    • brendan says:

      I think minor league teams like to use the DH spot to give additional development opportunities to position players. I think they prioritize that over developing pitcher hitting skills.

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  6. asdfg says:

    The related question I wonder about is, what’s the marginal value of hitting ability vs. pitching ability for NL pitchers. Someone mentioned that it seems like teams are just throwing away plate appearances by not developing their pitchers hitting abilities in the minors, I wonder exactly how much can be gained by developing pitchers as hitters in the minors and to what extent it might be rational for a National League team to sign/trade for/call up the worse pitcher in exchange for better offense. How much worse at pitching would a team’s pitchers have to be to no longer justify using the better hitting pitchers?

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    • Bill says:

      It’s negligible on a micro scale. Considering that on average a hit = 1/2 run, very roughly speaking, the difference between a 30 start pitcher going say 6 for 60 (.100) vs. 15 for 60 (.250) would be 4-5 runs…over 30 starts. Still, it’s in a team’s best interest to improve their best pitchers batting as much as possible, I mean some pitchers look worse than little leaguers in the box.

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      • Synovia says:

        After some quick googling, and looking at their starting pitchers (nowhere near comprehensive), I found an average of 2.2 PA/GS for SP.

        Thats 356 PA, or 53 Extra Hits/season, for 26.5 Runs/year, or roughly $13M/year.

        I’m not sure most teams even spend $13M/year on their entire minor league system. Seems like an easy/cheap place to improve performance/find value.

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  7. John C. says:

    Having a pitcher who can decently swing the bat is really an advantage for a team playing in a NL park. This is a stealth aspect of the Nationals’ rotation: three of the five projected members of the rotation can swing the bat. Strasburg won a Silver Slugger, finishing with a positive OPS+ (105) while posting a .277/.333/.426 split with four doubles and a HR in 47 at bats. Jordan Zimmermann managed a pitcher-respectable .193/.246/.281, and Dan Haren has a career .223/.246/.326 split.

    Of course the main thing is that they are all good pitchers, but the fact that they don’t embarrass themselves with a bat in their hands is a nice bonus.

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    • Baltar says:

      I fully agree with your conclusion. I was a Milwaukee Braves fan in their glory years (late 50′s). I don’t have stats to support it, but my memory is that they gained some more than negligible advantage over their foes by having decent-hitting starting pitchers.

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  8. This is an stance that I have had for a number of years now and which I’ve posted on before.

    Using the lineup calculator, I calculated the run generation from the average pitcher on the Giants a few years back, then calculated what it would be had he been as poor a hitter as Omar Vizquel was that season, which I considered a low replacement level hitting, but I later realized probably above, but it was somewhere in the low .600 OPS. I then assumed an average pitcher (I think I used 4.50 RA/G, it was before offense went down) with an average offense team (therefore 4.50 RS/G too), which means a pitcher who should be a .500 pitcher, and assuming he gets the decision in every game, which over a 30 start season the team is 15-15.

    Bumping up the offense to account for a better hitting pitcher, it moved the record up one win to 16 wins, but since that means a loss is now a win, moves the pitcher to 16-14. Over 10 seasons, such a better hitting pitcher would then have a 160-140 record vs. the average 150-150 pitcher. For a whole rotation, that moves a team from 81-81 to 86-76, just from improving their hitting to that of a borderline hitter, somewhere in the low .600 OPS range.

    Thus a team that concentrates on getting their pitching to be better hitters could gain anywhere from 2-10 wins over .500 (or 1-5 extra wins) by trying to get their pitchers to be better hitters. Given that many pitchers once were the best hitters on their teams, seems like this would be an easy area of gaining wins without much additional investment, other than further development.

    I still prefer baseball with the pitchers hitting. That is real baseball to me. But I’m beginning to feel like I’m like that famous baseball writer at the turn of the 20th Century who felt that real baseball was clawing for every run, not blasting homeruns like Babe Ruth was popularizing. I see the inevitable conversion of the MLB to DH, but it does not mean that I have to like it. Still, I will love to watch it, with or without.

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  9. LHomonacionale says:

    Understand, DHs are not the “best Major League talent” just because they have a skill a certain rule makes artificially valuable. The DH means there is incredible value in being able to hit and nothing else. It’s actually better if hitting is the only skill the player has so as to only pay for what the rule allows you to take: Hitting. Those aren’t more talented players, they’re more talented hitters, and are only so valuable because of the labor specialization the DH allows.

    What if there were designated runners, instead? A player the rules allowed you to sub in at will for hitters you want to keep in the lineup, but don’t want to see them run the bases. Wouldn’t you see an increase in the number of players who could run very well and do little else, simply because the rules of the game allowed for that specialization? What about a Designated Fielder, instead? You wouldn’t see an increase in the number of players who could field miraculously and little else? By letting a player rack up value with their best skill while shielding them from exposing their less talented aspects they’re going to seem more valuable than an NL player who can hit, run, field and throw with competency even if no one skill is quite as developed as the DH’s hitting tool.

    I feel that the NL style of play encourages more well-rounded athletes since everybody has to be expected to play all facets of the game. David Ortiz may be a great hitter, but he’s not exactly a remarkable athlete to watch. Aside from the scouting types, people don’t like Home Runs because of the awe of seeing roundish guys swing a club with tremendous force and accuracy- They like them because the ball goes over the fence and the fans scrum to find it and all the runners comes home and the fireworks go off and so on. That’s why there’s a DH. Not because DHs are the most incredible athletes to watch in sports, that people were clamoring to see more chubby guys, but because home runs are exciting.

    I feel it’s more impressive, as an athletic display, when a guy who’s been throwing a remarkable game puts wood on the ball and helps his own cause. It demonstrates a broader range of talents than a guy who simply has to walk up to the plate every nine ABs and try to smack it over the fence.

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    • Synovia says:

      “I feel that the NL style of play encourages more well-rounded athletes since everybody has to be expected to play all facets of the game”

      Except pitchers, who aren’t expected to actually be able to hit.

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    • Synovia says:

      “. David Ortiz may be a great hitter, but he’s not exactly a remarkable athlete to watch.”

      There are plenty of guys in the NL playing 1B and RF/LF who are worse defenders than Ortiz. (Ryan Howard, Dunn in his time with the nationals, etc).

      Hitting is more important than defense, and as long as thats true, any great hitter is going to get to play.

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  10. Cuban X Senators says:

    So, after saying it’s not about competition, your concluding point is about competition. What you mean is that it’s not about on-field competition, it’s about competition in acquisitions.

    I see that true values of pitchers to NL clubs are obscured by the lack of demonstration of a skill they’ll have to employ in the league, but does that uncertainty outweigh advantages a team could exploit in training minor league pitchers to hit & deployment of those pitchers?

    Exploiting competitive advantage is not solely done in acquisition, but also in teaching & deployment of resources.

    That there is an advantage to be exploited is implied in your argument (otherwise why lament that its evidence is obscured). I don’t see how acquisition is the only place to find that advantage.

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