The most popular posts I’ve written for this blog identify the best hitting pitchers currently active in major league baseball. Given the level of interest, I have decided to update this piece annually, starting with this 2013 update.
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, no matter what the old-timers tend to say, 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 and probably much earlier) have undergone a slow but steady decline as hitters by virtue of the relative improvement of pitchers (as pitchers), fielders and professional hitters, even though most major league pitchers were great hitters in high school.
Nevertheless, there are always a few pitchers in any era who can hit. This post ranks current pitchers with at least 100 career major league at-bats 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 above .167 or a career OPS over .400. That’s really pretty terrible as hitters go, and it shows 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 as we approach the start of the 2013 season:
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 the last two season, likely due both to the law of averages and the facts that he isn’t a starter any more and didn’t pitch much last year due to an elbow injury. His career batting average is currently .283 with an .813 OPS in 205 career ABs.
As I’ve written previously, it’s clear 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 is now 30 years old, and it’s doubtful he’ll ever develop into a good major league pitcher. In fact, Owings just signed a minor league contract with the Washington Nationals with an invitation to 2013 Spring Training — the Nats signed Owings as a 1Bman, which strongly suggests they will try to develop him as a hitter.
Owings is getting old to switch positions, and it isn’t clear if he could still pitch if he and the Nats wanted him to. He had arthroscopic elbow surgery last July and hasn’t pitched since last April. Nonetheless, I still have a hope he’ll become the next Brooks Kieschnick, pitching, pinch-hitting and occasionally playing the field, depending on his team’s needs at the moment.
2. Dontrelle Willis. One of the things I always loved about Dontrelle was his ability to hit. While he hasn’t played in the majors since 2011, he recently signed a minor league deal with the Cubs with an invitation to 2013 Spring Training. In 2011 his last year of play, Willis batted .387 (12 for 31) with a 1.032 OPS to bring his career numbers up to .244 with a .665 OPS, respectively.
Dontrelle is now 31 years old, so it’s probably too late for him to make the switch to a position. Too bad — as a 6’4″ lefty, he probably could have been major league 1Bman or corner outfielder if he’d been developed as a hitter.
3. Mike Leake. Leake remains the top young hitting pitcher in MLB. He hit .295 with a .749 OPS last year, and despite his 2011 sophomore slump year, he still has a career batting average of .274 with a .656 OPS in 164 major league at-bats. Leake walked only once last season, dropping his career on-base percentage to .308, but he hit for power for the first time in his career with two taters and five extra base hits.
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.
4. Carlos Zambrano. In 2012 Big Z had his worst season swinging the ash since his 2002 rookie season, hitting only .176 with a .441 OPS. Even so, he still has a career .238 batting average with a .636 OPS.
Carlos is an all-or-nothing hitter. He has only ten walks to go with 240 strikeouts in 693 major league at-bats, but he has hit an impressive 24 HRs and 53 extra base hits. He’s scored 75 runs and driven in another 71 in his career. That’s better than a lot of middle infielders given the same number of at-bats.
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. Despite going 0 for 5 at the plate in 2012, he’s still hitting .238 with a .598 OPS in 105 career at-bats.
Sabathia is tall and heavy set, which doesn’t sound like a recipe for a good-hitting pitcher, but obviously he’s just a baseball 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 at the plate. Despite his worst season with the bat as a regular starting pitcher, Yovani still has a career batting average of .2o7 with a .599 OPS, thanks to ten HRs and 27 extra base hits in 305 career at-bats.
7. Daniel Hudson. After a break-out season in 2011 at age 24, Hudson blew out his elbow tendon after ten starts (nine for Arizona, one for AAA Reno) before having Tommy John surgery in early July. Presumably, he won’t be back in action until after the 2013 All-Star Break. At any rate, Hudson has a .229 batting average and a .573 OPS in 105 major league at-bats to date.
8. Dan Haren. Haren has a .223 lifetime batting average and .572 OPS. In 2010, his last season in the NL, he hit .364 (20 for 55) with a .902 OPS. He signed with the Washington Nationals this off-season, so he’ll get the opportunity to hit regularly again in 2013.
Haren and Sabathia are the best arguments against the designated hitter.
9. Adam Wainwright. Wainwright’s hitting has dropped off his last two seasons (2010 and 2012), but he still has a career .204 batting average and .545 OPS in 367 major league at-bats.
Honorable Mention. Livan Hernandez (career .221 batting average, .526 OPS, but his career might be over — he’d still like to pitch, but hasn’t been offered even a minor league contract as of early February 2013); Darren Oliver (.221, .545 — the latest word is he’ll be back with the Blue Jays in 2013, but he hasn’t had a plate appearance since 2006); Chris Narveson (.227, .522 — he missed most of 2012 to rotator cuff surgery, but the Brewers have signed him to a major league contract for 2013); Jason Marquis (.202, .508 — he hit well last year and he’s returning to the Padres for 2013); Manny Parra (.183, .500 — he signed with the Reds for 2013); Javier Vasquez (.204, .478 — rumor has it he’s interested in resuming his major league pitching career after a strong season in the Puerto Rican Winter League); Jordan Zimmerman (.190, .463); and Edwin Jackson (.200, .462). As you can see, the best hitting pitchers get bad pretty fast.
Young Hitting Pitcher to Watch. Stephen Strasburg. He hit .277 (13 for 47) in 2012 with a .759 OPS, highest of any pitcher with at least 50 plate appearances, just beating out Mike Leake. Strasburg’s career numbers are only .192 and .521, so it has yet to be determined whether he’s closer to 2012′s best hitting pitcher or the guy who started his career a pathetic-even-for-a-pitcher 1 for 26.
Carlos Zambrano started his career 1 for 32, before developing into a good-hitting pitcher, so I tend to think Strasburg will continue to hit well for a pitcher in future years. One thing is for certain, however: with Strasburg, Haren, Zimmerman and possibly Micah Owings, the Nationals should have the best hitting pitching in MLB in 2013.