One of the most popular posts I’ve written for this blog identifies the best hitting pitchers currently active in major league baseball. More than a year and half have passed since the original post, so it seems like a good time to update the piece.
As I’m sure you know, modern pitchers as a group can’t hit a lick. The rise of the designated hitter, not only in the American League, but also it’s wide-spread use in the minors and in the college game is perhaps the biggest factor for the demise of pitchers who can hit, but it’s hardly the only one.
Pitchers simply don’t get as many opportunities to hit today because of the steady trend of using more and more relievers throwing more and more innings, which means starting pitchers get fewer opportunities to hit, and there are more opportunities for professional hitters to be used as pinch hitters.
Also, the level of major league play has gradually and steadily improved since the professional game started in the 1870′s, which means that pitchers who make the major leagues solely based on their ability to pitch (which has been the norm since at least the early 1880′s) have undergone a slow but steady decline as hitters by virtue of the relative improvement of pitchers, fielders and professional hitters.
Nevertheless, there are always a few pitchers in any era who can hit. I looked at current pitchers with at least 100 career major league at-bats (with one except which I note below) in order to weed out the pitchers who just haven’t had enough at-bats for their career hitting stats to mean anything one way or another. I may have missed a couple of qualifiers, but not more than a couple.
By today’s standards, a good hitting pitcher is any pitcher with a career batting average over .167 or a career OPS over .400. That’s really pretty terrible, and it shows you just how hard it is even for professional athletes who have played baseball all their lives to hit major league pitching if the players have not been selected for the major leagues based their ability to hit.
A few pitchers can swing the stick a little bit, though. Here is my non-scientific list of the best hitting pitchers currently playing:
1. Micah Owings. Micah Owings remains far and away the best hitting pitcher in baseball (at least if you exclude Rick Ankiel, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2004). Micah’s career numbers have slipped a bit in the last year and half, likely due both to the law of averages and the fact that he isn’t a starter any more. His career batting average is currently .283 with an .812 OPS in 205 career ABs.
As I wrote last time, it plainly appears the Arizona Diamondbacks made a terrible mistake when, after drafting Owings in the 3rd Round of the 2005 Draft, they decided to develop him solely as a pitcher.
Owings turns 30 in late September, and it’s doubtful he’ll ever develop into a good major league pitcher. Now that he’s a relief pitcher, his career ERA has dropped below 5.00, but his ratios aren’t impressive. At his age, he’s probably too old to return to the minors and convert into a position player. Nonetheless, I still have a hope he’ll become the next Brooks Kieschnick.
2. Dontrelle Willis. One of the things I always loved about Dontrelle was his ability to hit. While he’s pitched his way out of the majors again, he’s never lost that sweet stroke. In 2011, he .387 (12 for 31) with a 1.032 OPS to bring his career numbers up to .244 with a .665 OPS.
Dontrelle is 30 now, so if he makes it back to the majors, it will be as a pitcher. Too bad — there’s really no doubt (in my mind at least) about his ability as a hitter.
3. Carlos Zambrano. Carlos is off to a terrible start with the ash this year (1 for 14 so far), even as his pitching has improved. Even so, he still has a career .238 batting average with a .635 OPS.
Carlos is an all-or-nothing hitter. He has only ten walks to go with 235 strikeouts in 673 major league at-bats, but he has hit an impressive 23 HRs and 52 extra base hits. He’s scored 72 runs and driven in another 69 in his career. That’s better than a lot of middle infielders given the same number of at-bats.
4. Mike Leake. He’s the top young hitting pitcher in baseball. He’s currently hitting .271 with a .634 OPS in a little over 100 at-bats. He doesn’t have as much power as most of the guys on this list, but he has a fine (for a pitcher) .312 on-base percentage.
I wonder what is more discouraging to a pitcher: walking the opposing pitcher or giving up an extra base hit. Even though the latter would seem to have more value, the pitcher on the hill can better rationalize it: the batter got lucky, he’s a good-hitting pitcher, etc. Everyone on defense slumps their shoulders when the pitcher walks his doppelganger.
5. C. C. Sabathia. He’s one of the most interesting players on this list. Unlike all the other pitchers on this list, he’s only played one-half of one season in the National League. As an American League hurler, he only gets to hit about two games a year, yet hit he does. He now has exactly 100 career ABs, and he’s hitting .250 with a .627 OPS.
Sabathia is tall and heavy set, which doesn’t sound like a recipe for a good hitting pitcher, but obviously he’s just a ball player pure and simple. One wonders what kind of numbers he would put up playing three or four full seasons in a row in the NL.
6. Yovani Gallardo. The still young Brewers ace is another pitcher with pop. He’s off to a terrible 1 for 17 start this season, but still has career numbers of .2o8 with a .614 OPS and nine HRs and 23 extra base hits in 255 career ABs.
7. Daniel Hudson. The Diamondbacks’ young right hander has only 99 career at bats, but I gave him a place on this list because he’s hitting .242 with a .602 OPS.
8. Dan Haren. .225 lifetime batting average, .576 OPS. In 2010, his last season in the NL, he hit .364 (20 for 55) with a .902 OPS. Haren and Sabathia are the best arguments against the designated hitter.
9. Adam Wainwright. Wainwright’s hitting has dropped off recently, but he still knows how to help his own cause. He currently has a career .215 batting average and .564 OPS.
Honorable Mention. Livan Hernandez (.222 batting average, .528 OPS); Darren Oliver (.221, .545); Chris Narveson (.227, .522); Jason Marquis (.197, .499); Manny Parra (.183, .500) and Javier Vasquez (.204, .478 — he could still make a comeback). As you can see, the best hitting pitchers get bad pretty fast.
Young Hitting Pitcher to Watch. Stephen Strasburg. He’s off to a 6 for 16 start this season with three doubles and home run giving him a 1.162 OPS for the young season. His career numbers are only .167 and .496, so it has yet to be determined whether he’s closer to the guy hitting like a fool in 2012 or the guy who started his career a pathetic-even-for-a-pitcher 1 for 26.