Pitchers Hitting – Hidden Wild Card Factor?

Most pitchers are bad hitters, as we all know. Most pitchers look so out of place at the plate that it is a great source of both comedy and debate. Why should we continue this charade? Why should this paean to a by-gone era, propped up under a pretense of “strategy,” continue to degrade the quality of the game we all love?

That debate is better left until another day in another setting with well-established ground rules and adult supervision. Today, we can just look at the impact of pitchers hitting, specifically on their impact on the Wild Card chase.

On Tuesday night, Clayton Kershaw made more than his typical contribution to the Dodgers’ cause. Sure, he pitched brilliantly and shut down an otherwise powerful offense. But Kershaw worked his way on base against Doug Fister in the fifth inning and then “helped his own cause” by dashing from first to third on a bounding single to center field.

Setting aside the dubious defense by the Nats — both during this play and the one that followed — Kershaw put pressure on the defense, as they sometimes say. Most pitchers do not put pressure on the defense, not when they’re on the base paths and not when they’re in the batters box. Kershaw and his teammate, 2013’s Silver Slugger winner Zack Greinke, are among the exceptions.

The Dodgers pitching staff actually acquits itself among the best in the National League, one of only three clubs claiming a positive wRC+ (as in greater than zero), joining the Cubs and Cardinals in that rarefied air. That two of these three clubs are playoff hopefuls is not insignificant.

While the Cards and Dodgers sit high atop the pitcher hitting leaderboard, the Brewers are at the bottom, posting the second-worst pitching corps at the plate — with a huge gulf between them. Yovani Gallardo is known as one of the best hitting pitchers in the game, yet he has just five hits this season and the failings of he and his rotation-mates actually puts the Brewers about two full wins behind the Cards and Dodgers, a pair of their main barriers to Wild Card glory.

Should the Brewers fall just a single game short of St. Louis in the NL Central race, might the difference be in the way their pitchers swung the bat? What about the Braves, whose pitchers also struggle mightily with the bat? They’re just as bad as Milwaukee, with only two extra-base hits as a staff this year. They’re clinging to the final Wild Card spot, so every edge matters for Atlanta’s season.

Of course, teams do not acquire pitchers with their offense in mind. Pitchers are for getting outs, and any offense supplied is just gravy. But the other side of the coin mentioned above is something to watch, as well.

The San Francisco Giants pitching staff is pretty good with a bat in their hands, as evidenced by Madison Bumgarner’s 2014 grand slam extravaganza, but where they really take care of business is while the opposing pitcher takes his turn. Giants pitching has held the league’s worst hitters to a mere .221 OPS this season, as they have struck out 126 pitchers against just five walks.

Three Giants starters — Ryan Vogelsong, Bumgarner and Tim Hudson — are among the greatest perpetrators of pitcher-on-pitcher crime, as they have given up just six hits to pitchers this year. As Jeff Sullivan pointed out a while back, often a pitcher’s domination of these easy outs can make a huge difference in their season, and Vogelsong’s 2014 is no different.

Vogelsong is putting up decent numbers this season. League-average numbers, for the most part. Fifth starter-ish numbers, let’s say. After a dismal 2013, his strikeout rate is a shade under league-average (19.4% for the Giants’ right-hander compared to 20.3% for the league) and his walk rate is slightly better (6.7% versus 7.7%.) But against pitchers, he shines. Of his 133 strikeouts this season, 26 have come against hurlers. His non-pitcher K-rate is a gloomy 16.9%, his walk rate climbs over 75%. Opponents stop treating him like a below-average starter to a guy bounced from the rotations of even the worst NL clubs. Vogelsong’s ability to get pitchers out not only follows a team-wide trend, it might just save his job for next season.

The Giants are a perplexing team, and most nights since about the start of June, don’t exactly look like a playoff contender. But their hot start and ability to take advantage of their pitcher’s specific skills might shove them into the Wild Card game regardless. Which isn’t to suggest any of this is repeatable or even particularly skill-based. As mentioned above, Yovani Gallardo went from producing 2.5 runs above average with his bat to a 5-for-50 season just like that. Gio Gonzalez stopped striking out 72% of all pitchers to just abusing them at a more “normal” rate in both 2013 and 2014.

It’s the kind of little thing that doesn’t matter until it matters. This season, it might matter. That the Dodgers and Cardinals make better use of their 300 or so pitcher plate appearances could mean the difference between a one-game playoff and a division title. That the Giants prevent a few extra bloop hits and rarely walk non-threats could land them in the Wild Card game rather than in a deer blind. Some extra fuel to the fire to those NL designated hitter debates — both for and opposed.

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Drew used to write about baseball and other things at theScore but now he writes here. Follow him on twitter @DrewGROF

43 Responses to “Pitchers Hitting – Hidden Wild Card Factor?”

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  1. LHPSU says:

    I’ll suggest that at this time of the year pitchers NOT hitting may be the bigger factor. With expanded rosters teams might be more ready to pinch hit for a pitcher, which may give teams with deeper benches a tiny edge.

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    • Drew Fairservice says:

      And yet there’s Doug Fister, pinching hitting in extra innings, proving us all wrong.

      +7 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Lanidrac says:

      I’d also like to point out that the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright has a higher batting average than three of their bench players (Ellis, Robinson, and Cruz) who have played in at least 40 games for them this season. Strangely, not even this year does Matheny use him to pinch-hit as much as La Russa did.

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  2. Let's Get This Party Started says:

    The NL needs a DH.

    Pitchers come the plate almost half as much as the average (2.3/g versus 4.2/g) and are happily excluded from plenty of other baseball conventions (e.g., playing every day, fielding a demanding position, not being Rod Beck.) The argument that they should “play like the rest of the boys” is antiquated, superfluous and wrong.

    Also, I challenge anyone to find any pitching prospect whose BA ranking was at all influenced by their hitting ability… I mean, that should tell us SOMETHING, right?!?!

    -26 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Deelron says:

      Need is such a strong word.

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    • Anon says:

      You say the NL needs the DH, but give no direct support for that decision. If you don’t want the pitcher to hit, why not use an 8 man lineup?

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      • Let's Get This Party Started says:

        If I use bullets would that make reading easier for you?

        - Pitchers come the plate almost half as much as the average (2.3/g versus 4.2/g)

        - Pitchers are happily excluded from plenty of other baseball conventions (e.g., playing every day, fielding a demanding position, not being Rod Beck.)

        - No pitching prospects are evaluated by their hitting ability

        I’d love to hear your logical support for continuing to have pitchers hit. Inertia is just a euphemism for lazy, so please don’t use the tired “way it’s always been” argument…

        -17 Vote -1 Vote +1

        • Mets says:

          I could sum it up in one word: strategy.

          It’s cool that a manager actually has to use his brain occasionally and plan for how to handle the pitcher’s spot in the batting order. The AL is boring by comparison bc there is just far less strategy involved in the game.

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        • Anon says:

          That is a nice bulleted list of your opinion on why pitchers shouldn’t hit. None of the items you listed give any reason to use a DH.

          There are more than the two options of DH or pitchers hitting.

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        • Let's Get This Party Started says:

          “Strategy” is such a terrible argument. The inverse of that argument is that the only reason NL managers are using “strategy” is b/c they desperately are trying to avoid having pitchers hit. Seems like we can solve that problem in better ways.

          Also, what would you prefer – an NL manager working his pitchers around the 9-hole in the batting order (or “strategy” as you call it) or something akin to the A’s and Rays where they use the position depth of the batting roster to maximize hitting / platoon splits / fielding depth / etc.?

          I’d argue the A’s are involved in much more strategic thinking both in-game and in roster construction than any NL team….

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        • LHPSU says:

          DH are happily excluded from defense as well. And pitching is really probably the most demanding position to field out there.

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        • Mets says:

          So the opposite argument would be to have more DHs so we wouldn’t have to suffer through the ABs of weak hitting defensive specialists.

          The argument is that how to best manage/juggle an active roster of 25 players all of whom have different strengths and weaknesses. Some pitchers can actually carry their weight a bat and so you manage those differently than the Bartolo Colons out there.

          It must suck for you to have to suffer so much watching an average pitcher have to take a turn at bat. Poor guy.

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        • Let's Get This Party Started says:

          Yea I’m happy to exclude DHs and Ps from fielding – that’s my point. Pitchers are already a unique cohort which are excluded (explicitly or implicitly) from normal baseball activities and therefore having pitchers not hit is just another extension of this…

          and… “pitching is really probably the most demanding position to field out there” – you don’t really believe that, do you?

          2 questions:

          1. based on UZR/150 here are some close-to-zero 2Bs in 2014(note: 2B has a smaller positional adj than SS and equal to 3B): Robbie Cano, Kolten Wong, Howie Kendrick – do you REALLY think that they would be below-average fielding pitchers?!?!?!

          2. similar to my hitting argument, if fielding was a difficult and differentiating part of the position why does no one ever evaluate a pitcher based on his fielding ability? Find me one pitcher’s BA ranking influenced by fielding…

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        • Let's Get This Party Started says:


          “So the opposite argument would be to have more DHs so we wouldn’t have to suffer through the ABs of weak hitting defensive specialists.”

          This is factually ignorant… as a position, the “worst” are up the middle and hang around ~90 wRC+ versus the DH cohort at 106 wRC+. This compares to pitchers as a group at -21 wRC+…


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        • FIP'n good says:

          Let’s Get This Party Started: Both greg maddux and
          Mark Buehrle have been set aside for their defense. Both made/make a huge difference for themselves with the glove.

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        • FIP'n good says:

          Frankly if it wasn’t for the NL I would probably stop watching baseball.

          +6 Vote -1 Vote +1

        • Let's Get This Party Started says:

          Greg Maddux: yes, he was a good fielder. But at no point did his fielding influence whether or not he was an active starter…. As managers / GMs evaluate pitchers fielding just isn’t a real concern.

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        • DH is for suckas says:

          Why don’t we just put a pitching machine at home plate to launch balls over the fence?!? YAY DINGERS! Who cares about strategy, bunts, pinch hitters, etc. This is, afterall, America’s pastime, so we should let go of the past and move into the present where obesity is prevalent. If we don’t have the DH, David Ortiz wouldn’t be playing and people would have to struggle to relate to more skinny, athletic players. More Mo Vaughns! More Prince Fielders! DINGER MASHING FATTIES!!!

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        • Ben says:

          RE: Strategy.

          FWIW, I believe Tony LaRussa’s on record as saying it’s more difficult to manage in the AL, because NL pitching changes are often dictated by the fact that the pitcher’s spot in the order is coming up.

          Having said that, I hope the NL never adopts the DH.

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    • Pirates Hurdles says:

      Yeah, well you know, that’s just like your opinion man.

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    • FIP'n good says:

      Let’s Get This Party Started: Maybe I am weird, but I personally find the AL style of play to be extremely boring! NL baseball is far more fun. Manager strategy is far more complex and involved in the NL. At least it seems so to me.

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      • Tom H says:

        What exactly is the “Style” difference in the AL? Is a pitcher trying to bunt “style”? AL non-pitchers bunt as much as NL non-pitchers. AL players steal as much as NL, hit and run as much, over the last generation. NL “style” more often determines SP’s removal by when he in pinch hit for, not when the manager determines he is tired, which is lesser strategy. AL managers decide when to give their position players a day “off” of fielding by having them DH, which NL managers don’t do much. I guess the NL double-switch has some style.

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    • Reuben says:


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  3. Anon21 says:

    Braves also have abysmal-hitting pitchers and an awful bench. Underrated factor in their offensive shortcomings.

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  4. Tim says:

    I like NL baseball. The pitcher being required to hit is an intuitive part of the game to me. We all know they are not there for the hitting ability, but they are part of the team.

    I liken it to kickers in football. We know they can’t tackle, but that doesn’t mean kicking teams should be allowed to send an extra player out during kickoff or punts to avoid the embarrassment of the kicker trying to tackler the return man. It’s a trade-off that football teams make. They use up roster spots on guys that are only good at one thing.

    Personally, I do like the strategy that is involved when the pitcher hits and I am unaware of any evidence that suggest people watch less NL baseball because of the pitchers hitting.

    Long live hitting pitchers!

    +12 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Let's Get This Party Started says:

      Your analogy isn’t good… pitchers hitting in baseball would be akin to making kickers play on defense. Or better yet, deciding that the QB needed to play on defense. It’s the concept of taking a specialized player and making them regularly do something for which they are clearly not intended.

      Everyone falsely focuses on the DH as an “extra” – in reality the correct framework doesn’t involve the DH, but deciding what to do about a position that is so integral on one side of the inning that it has given up on the other side.

      Fwiw, I’d also appreciate if you could expound on all of the following points:

      - “The pitcher being required to hit is an intuitive part of the game” (why?)
      - “We all know they are not there for the hitting ability, but they are part of the team” (should closers be forced to hit? pinch runners hit? no platoons? should starters field a position in their off days?)
      - “They use up roster spots on guys that are only good at one thing” (I think you are now making my point for me?)
      - “I do like the strategy that is involved when the pitcher hits” (how is this ever better strategy than having a real hitter?)
      - “I am unaware of any evidence that suggest people watch less NL baseball because of the pitchers hitting.” (are you suggesting that all baseball decisions be made based on viewership?)

      -8 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Tim says:

        1. First, kickers are playing defense. As soon as the ball is kicked they become defenders. Baseball is built around the structure of hitters also playing defense. Football rosters are built to accommodate one-way players. Would you support expanding MLB rosters so that there were 9 hitters and 9 fielders starting every game? I think you start changing the fundamentals of the game at that point.

        2. Should closers and pinch runners hit? Sure, if they are left in the game to do that. Again, roster sizes allow for some specialization but playing two ways is part of what makes baseball interesting. Finding the “perfect” balance between players that play both sides of the ball well.

        3. I guess I don’t see how my statement made your point.

        4. I didn’t say it was better strategy, but I would contend that it requires more strategy to know when to pinch hit, double switch, etc.

        5. No viewership should not be the sole driver of a decision, but it’s a big one. What would you base the decision to add the DH on?

        +6 Vote -1 Vote +1

        • Let's Get This Party Started says:

          1. you understand my point, that was a cute answer

          2. “playing two ways is part of what makes baseball interesting” – wrong, no position players pitch in meaningful situations

          3. pitchers are good at pitching, using a roster spot for only pitching makes sense – don’t make them hit (note: the AL doesn’t have larger rosters, fyi)

          4. disagree with this “strategy” straw man – see my post above

          5. see my post above

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      • FIP'n good says:

        Dude you are really clueless! If you love to watch managerial strategy AL baseball is a waste of time. Rarely does an AL manger do anything important after setting the lineup. The NL manager has to decide many more things and is involved in the entire game. AL baseball is just boring. Whereas NL baseball is exciting.

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        • Tom H says:

          Thanks you for your opinion of exciting vs boring. Please support it with something. I can count FEWER things the NL manager is involved in.

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        • Lanidrac says:

          Really? Do tell. An AL manager basically just sets the lineup, makes simple pitching changes, and occasionally brings in a pinch-runner or pinch-hits for a weak-hitting defensive specialist or a bench player getting a rare start.

          An NL manager has to do all of that and decide when and where to pinch-hit or double-switch while keeping in mind the balance between lifting a pitcher a little early versus letting him bat in a potentially important situation and making sure not to run out of bench players too early. It’s so much more strategic and exciting in the NL!

          Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. Nick says:

    I for one don’t understand why people say Pitchers only have to do 1 thing… There are 3 parts to baseball… hitting, pitching and fielding… most positions do the hitting and the fielding. In the AL the pitchers do the pitching and the fielding. In the NL pitchers have to do all 3. In the AL the DH only does the hitting.

    That is why the DH is not the best solution.

    The best solution is to use 8 man batting lineups. The pitcher would do the pitching and fielding and everyone else hits and fields. 2 jobs for everyone and we don’t have to watch the crappy pitchers do a bat job hitting (which is NOT exciting) and we also don’t have to give in to baseball players that are old and out of shape and can only hit home runs and not do anything else right.

    +1 for the 8-man lineup. And if the MLBPA is upset about the DH’s going away (which they shouldn’t be because there are still the same number of roster spots) then raise the roster size to 30. This would allow managers more position players to still have strategy (like the NL supposedly has) and then guess what? In september we LEAVE it at 30. No more 40 man active rosters determining playoff spots.

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    • Phillies113 says:

      As a big NL guy, I gotta say…I actually like this idea. Reducing the lineups but increasing the roster size is actually a very fair tradeoff. This also would give managers more opportunities to take advantage of platoon shifts, as they’d now have more options to choose from the expanded bench.

      I love this plan! I’m excited to be a part of it!

      …assuming I AM a part of it (._. )

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    • Lanidrac says:

      First, it would still take away the NL strategy of pinch-hitting and double-switching with the pitcher’s spot.

      Second, some pitchers actually like to hit.

      Third, the MLBPA would indeed complain, because players could no longer extend their careers past the point where they’re extreme liabilities on the field through either badly erroded defensive play or potential injury concerns.

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    • Adam says:

      I would say that I prefer this as an alternative to the DH. But I still prefer allowing the pitchers to continue to hit. Allowing DHs to hit and do nothing else is not right and does not fit within the game. The challenge of baseball is having to work hard at all crafts of the game.

      Also, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbIVbqv4A8Y

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  6. Hurtlocker says:

    The DH is little league, the DH is for players who can only hit (big, slow, can’t throw, can’t field), the DH still forces your worst hitter into the 9th spot, the DH put one more guy on the field that adjusts his batting gloves after every pitch. The DH removes the need for a bunt (one of the more exciting plays), the DH reduces the need to run and steal bases, the DH protects pitchers that like to throw at the opposing batters, the DH just sucks and should never ever be in the NL.

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  7. Let's Get This Party Started says:

    So in conclusion… I really don’t care that much about the NL having or not having a DH… as the moniker suggests and as alluded to in Drew’s 2nd paragraph I was simply hoping to illicit some impassioned responses.

    That being said…

    I am kinda shocked at the utter lack of thoughtful responses and frameworks here. Other than the 8-man line-up (agree with that one), I would expect FanGraphs readers to come up with something thoughtful other than this “strategy” and “boring” garbage. I mean, 80% of these responses and somewhere between “void of logic” and just plain wrong.

    Well, that was fun… now off to Cody Buckel (who will not hit regularly if he stays with the Rangers!)

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  8. Anon says:

    I’m pretty sure it was here on fangraphs but there was an article a couple years ago about the difference between the best and worst hitting pitchers. The difference amounts to something like the equivalent of 0.25 or 0.50 runs of ERA. That’s pretty significant. Consider 2 pitchers like Wainwright and Cueto. In terms of pitching they’ve been pretty even – Cueto has a few more innings, Waiwright better peripherals, but overall they’re pretty even. But hitting Cueto is worthless, pretty much the embodiment of “pitchers can’t hit”. Wainwright meanwhile, has much better offensive numbers. granted still a sub .500 OPS but he’s got a few more hits, walks, XBH, all of which means he has scored 1 more run and driven in 4 more runs.

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  9. Cole Hamels says:

    Don’t you mean his strikeout rate (against pitchers) is 75%

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