Today we’re starting with a bunch of numbers. Ready? Duck! Last season, third basemen hit .260/.318/.420. They were good for a wOBA of .319 and a wRC+ of 101. Outfielders were slightly better. They hit .260/.325/.418, for a wOBA of .322 and a wRC+ of 103. First basemen were even better! They collectively hit .259/.336/.444, a .014 improvement in wOBA and 10-point jump in wRC+ over outfielders. Know who was even better? Pitchers! Just kidding, they were horrible!
Last season, pitchers hit .131/.158/.168. That’s a wOBA of Are You Kidding Me? and a wRC+ of Nope. It’s quite striking to look at the effectiveness of pitchers hitting compared to other positions. It’s a bit like taping your first grader’s artwork up next to a painting in the Louvre. One is the work of a world-renowned artist and the other is a nice try by someone who has no real business facing that kind of competition and quite possibly made an accident in their pants during production.
Pitchers have never been good hitters. This makes the tweet sent out by Derrick Goold of the St.Louis Post-Dispatch a few days ago good news. Goold quoted Cardinals GM John Mozeliak as saying there is “more momentum” to add the DH to the National League.
This almost makes too much sense. There are a few exceptions, of course, but pitching is too different a skill from batting, and thus too difficult to do well without devoting one’s entire energies to it. As a result, most pitchers are awful hitters and most plate appearances from pitchers result in easy outs. Pitchers strike out 38% of the time and walk less than 3%. That’s a ratio of Gah!:Ugh! Last season, pitchers hit 25 homers, which probably doesn’t sound that bad until I tell you that it took them 5,406 plate appearances to do it. How many homers do you think a goat would hit in 5,406 plate appearances? I imagine it would be within 25 of how many the pitchers hit, and pitchers, I remind you, have opposable thumbs.
Pitchers’ hitting stats are gallows-humor funny in the same sort of way that as watching Bartolo Colon hit makes you think, “Hey there’s a guy on TV who has the same hitting skills as I do buuurp.” It’s almost like putting a 43-year-old librarian at running back for the Patriots, or asking some moderately-in-shape weekend warrior bro to play point guard for the Cavs. It might work once or twice, but mostly it’s going to fail and be awful.
Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that baseball persists in allowing this to continue. It’s almost like a sport where eight of the nine spots in the batting order are occupied by professional hitters and the last one is used by any player at random plucked from a Class-A roster. We fans pay for the full nine, but we only get eight. Also, from the player’s perspective, it can’t be a fun time. You always hear the phrase “putting players in position to succeed” and forcing pitchers to would seem to qualify as the opposite of that. This is putting players in a position to fail and look silly doing so. I’m not in a position to do so, but I would love to see a poll of what National League pitchers really think about having to bat. I’m sure some enjoy it, but I’m equally sure some are as enthusiastic about doing it as I am about watching them do it.
If baseball decided to allow the DH in the National League, most of the 5,406 plate appearances that went to pitchers in 2015 would instead go to DHs. Given that many plate appearances, the average DH would hit 216 home runs — or, 191 more home runs than the pitchers do currently. That a lot of home runs to give away, especially for a sport in need of additional offense.
The funny thing is, this isn’t a new problem. It’s not like pitchers have ever been any good at hitting. Back in 2013, I compiled the OPSs that pitchers produced while hitting for every decade going back to 1913. The highest OPS that pitchers put up in those semi-randomly selected 11 seasons was .506, back in 1923. The .396 mark recorded by pitchers in 2003 represented their highest collective OPS since 1953. The sport can only put up with numbers like that for so long. And by “so long” I mean over a century.
But just as improvements to in-game umpiring and instant replay have come, so too will the DH to the National League. Perhaps the most clear way to see this is to look at it this way: imagine which is more likely to occur, the National League getting the DH or the American League giving it up entirely. And in case I’m not being entirely clear, the AL will get a second DH before it gives up the first one. The players wouldn’t allow it, and honestly, the league wouldn’t like it either. Homers bring the fans, and with the way strikeouts have gone up and up, and the game has tilted back towards the pitcher again, making a move to lessen offense is as unlikely as a move to increase offense is likely.
The DH has been around for over 40 years, but to some people it’s still an abomination. That’s fine to think that way. Football used to have 11 guys who played both offense and defense. It doesn’t now. Specialization leads to better play and better competition. That’s really the bottom line, and though we may fight it, whatever allows for improvement on the field will be the way the sport ultimately turns, whether it’s the forward pass in football, helmets in hockey, or the DH.
The current collective bargaining agreement between baseball and the players’ union expires after this 2016 season, so don’t expect anything to happen until then, but given all the above, maybe after over 100 years baseball has finally noticed pitchers can’t hit.
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