As everyone knows, contemporary 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 widespread 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 might 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 (this has been the overwhelming norm since at least the early 1880’s, and probably a lot earlier) have undergone a slow but steady decline as hitters by virtue of the relative improvement of pitchers (as pitchers), fielders and professional hitters, in spite of the fact that most major league pitchers were great hitters in high school and many were fine college hitters.
A final point to make is that MLB teams now almost always decide at the moment an amateur player is drafted whether he will be developed as a pitcher or a hitter. As a result, if a player is designated as a pitcher, he won’t get many opportunities to hit in the minors even if he was an outstanding college hitter, like for example, Mica Owings. Coming up in today’s game, Babe Ruth much more likely than not would remain a pitcher throughout his major league career.
Nevertheless, there are always a few pitchers in any era who can hit. This 2017 update 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.
By today’s standards, a good-hitting pitcher is any pitcher with a career batting average at or above .160 or a career OPS at or 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 their entire lives to hit major league pitching if the players have not been selected for the major leagues based their ability to hit.
1. Madison Bumgarner (.183 career batting average and .542 career OPS). For the third year in a row, fangraphs rates big-swinging MadBum as the most productive pitcher as a hitter in MLB.
On paper, Jake Arrieta‘s 2016 slash line of .262/.304/.415 is much more impressive than Bumgarner’s .186/.268/.360. I expect that park factors play in big role in fangraphs’ ratings.
In the last three seasons, MadBum has slugged 12 HRs in 229 at-bats and driven in 33 RBIs. There isn’t a team in the National League who couldn’t use that batting performance from a starter. He’s also the only major league hitter since the start of the 2015 season to homer twice off MLB’s best starter Clayton Kershaw. ‘Nuff said.
2. Zack Greinke (.219 BA, .580 OPS). One thing I’ve noticed about good hitting pitchers, writing about them as I have for some years now, is that there doesn’t seem to be a particularly strong correlation between a pitcher’s ability to hit and his having spent his minor league time or the vast majority of his MLB career with a National League team, even though this would presumably mean that the pitcher got a lot more opportunities to hit. After spending his minor league career and his first seven major league seasons with the Royals, Greinke established himself as a fine hitter by his second National League season.
If I had to guess, I would say that the ability to hit the fastball (and lay off breaking pitches) is probably the most important factor in a pitcher’s ability to hit. Pitchers hate to walk the opposing pitcher, so any time the pitcher-as-hitter is ahead in the count, fastballs for strikes are likely to follow.
Greinke’s 2016 was his weakest offensive performance in four seasons. Still, he hit .212 with a .476 OPS, which is great for a contemporary pitcher.
3. Mike Leake (.203, .522). Mike Leake has disappointed me as a hitting pitcher. He hit a ton his first three major league seasons (2010-2012), but since then he’s just been a better than average major league average hitting pitcher.
I bet this has something to do with making adjustments. By the 2013, major league pitchers realized that Leake could really hit and they’d have to pitch to him like a real hitter, and they’d figured out his weaknesses. Leake doesn’t seem to have made the necessary counter-adjustments, and now he’s just a better than average hitting pitcher.
4. Yovani Gallardo (.200, .562). Gallardo hasn’t played in the NL in two years, but he’s 4 for 8 the last two seasons in the AL. His 33 extra base hits in 424 at-bats is what makes him a threat at the dish.
5. Adam Wainwright (.199 BA, .529 OPS). With well over 500 career at-bats, Wainwright has well proven his abilities as a hitting pitcher.
6. Noah Syndergaard (.198 BA, .613 OPS). Syndergaard passed the 100 career at-bat threshold in 2016, and his combination of power (three HRs in 2016) and willingness to take a walk (seven in 67 plate appearances) made him a real threat at the plate this past season.
I’ve been writing versions of this post long enough now that I’ve noticed that pitchers who hit well through their first 100 major league at-bats tend to regress in subsequent years to towards the pitchers-as-hitters mean. That’s why I’m ranking him low until he proves he can keep doing it.
7. Daniel Hudson (.226, .567) & CC Sabathia (.217, .546). These two deserve to be ranked together because their career numbers are very similar and they both just barely clear the 100 at-bat threshold. They would rank higher based on the raw numbers except: (1) Hudson is now a relief pitcher, and despite 70 relief appearances, the 2016 Diamondbacks didn’t give him even one plate appearance in spite of the fact that he had his one big season at the plate in 2011 as a D’Back (no wonder the 2016 D’Backs lost 93 games); and (2) Sabathia hasn’t gotten on base since 2010 (CC’s 0-for-18 over that span).
Sabathia has only played one-half of one season in the National League in his long MLB career. As an American League hurler, he only gets to hit about one or two games a year (roughly two to five plate appearances a year) during inter-league play, but he’s still gotten enough hits over his career to make this list.
Sabathia is tall and heavy set, which doesn’t sound like a recipe for a good-hitting pitcher (although that certainly describes an older Babe Ruth and Buzz Arlett), but obviously he’s just a great all-around baseball player. I’ve long wondered what kind of batting numbers he would put up playing three or four full seasons in a row in the NL. His career is now winding down, so we’ll never know.
9. Travis Wood. (.182 BA, .522 OPS). Wood hit poorly in 2015, was moved to the bullpen in 2016, and signed this off-season with the AL’s Kansas City Royals for the next two seasons, so he won’t have many more opportunities to improve his career batting numbers anytime soon.
10. Tyson Ross (.201, .482). Ross is coming back from a major injury and pitching for an AL team, the Rangers, this year, but he sure hit in 2015 for the Padres.
Young Hitting Pitchers to Watch. Michael Lorenzen (.244, .628). Lorenzen can hit, but he has to establish himself as a starting pitcher if he ever hopes to reach the 100 at-bat cut-off. He pitched exclusively in relief last year, but was used as a pitcher or allowed to hit five times in which he hit slugged a homer for his only hit.
Shohei Otani will be one of MLB’s best hitting pitchers as soon as he signs with an MLB team some years from now. I’m hoping an NL team signs him for this reason.
The top two prospects in this year’s amateur draft, Hunter Greene and Brendan McKay, are two-way players, who will most likely be developed as pitchers. Thus, the odds are good that one day at least one of these two will make a future year’s version of this post.
As final notes, the best hitting major league pitchers get pretty bad as major league hitters almost immediately. Also, since I started writing these posts about five years ago, I’ve noticed a steady deterioration in the best-hitting major league pitchers just in that short time. If this trend continues, I would expect the National League to adopt the designated hitter by 2030.