As everyone knows, 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 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, even though most major league pitchers were great hitters in high school and many were fine college hitters.
Nevertheless, there are always a few pitchers in any era who can hit. This 2015 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 above .160 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 their entire lives to hit major league pitching if the players have not been selected for the major leagues based their ability to hit.
All that said, here is my non-scientific list of the best hitting pitchers currently playing as we start of the 2015 season:
1. Zack Greinke. (.217 career batting average, .599 career OPS) I now rank Zack Grienke as the best hitting pitcher in baseball, based mostly on his career .599 OPS, which is the best among pitchers with at least 100 at-bats.
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 having spent his minor league time or his entire career for 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.
2. Mike Leake. (.233 BA, .585 OPS) Leake switches places with Greinke as MLB’s best hitting pitcher this year, but he’s got the career numbers to put him in the conversation. Leake’s best hitting years were years one and three of his major league career. He’s cooled off the last two seasons, but is still a well better than average hitting pitcher.
3. Daniel Hudson (.229 BA, .573 OPS) & CC Sabathia (.225, .565). These two deserve to be ranked together because their career numbers are very similar and they both clear the 100 at-bat threshold. Because of arm injuries, which have turned him into a relief pitcher when he’s healthy enough to pitch, Hudson hasn’t had a plate appearance since 2012. He’s still active, though, so he remains on the list.
Sabathia is 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 (roughly four or five at-bats) during inter-league play, but he’s gotten his hits when he’s had the opportunity. Although he hasn’t had a hit in the last four seasons (in all of 14 plate appearances), he’s still hitting .225 with a .565 OPS in 111 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 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.
5. Travis Wood. (.191 BA, .555 OPS) According to fangraphs.com, Travis Wood was the second best hitting pitcher in MLB has year, just ahead of Zack Greinke and Mike Leake. Wood has hit six home runs over the last two seasons, which is terrific.
6. Yovani Gallardo. (.195 BA, .550 OPS) While Gallardo’s career batting average dropped below the Mendoza Line during a very poor hitting 2014 season, his 12 career home runs and 32 career extra base hits in 416 at-bats still makes him one of the best power threats among active major league pitchers.
7. Dan Haren. Haren has a .209 lifetime batting average and .530 career OPS in 368 major league at-bats despite spending much of his career in the Junior Circuit. Greinke, Haren and CC Sabathia are the best arguments against the designated hitter.
8. Adam Wainwright. (.201 BA, .517 OPS) Wainwright’s hitting has dropped off at bit in recent seasons, but he still has a career .205 batting average and .534 OPS in 438 major league at-bats.
Honorable Mentions. Madison Bumgarner was the best hitting pitcher in MLB for the 2014 season, batting .258 with .755 OPS, four HRs, 10 runs scored and 15 RBIS. However, Bumgarner was merely a better than average hitting pitcher his first three major league seasons and was dreadful as a hitter in 2013. His career numbers (.164 BA, .458) aren’t good enough to get him onto the list. Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether Bumgarner really is one of the best hitting pitchers in baseball or if 2014 was merely one great fluke season.
It’s worth noting that Cole Hamels (.174 BA, .412 OPS) and Clayton Kershaw (.156, .376), like Bumgarner, have improved dramatically as hitters the last few seasons after inauspicious starts to their major league batting careers.
Manny Parra (.188 BA, .507 OPS); Jason Marquis (.197, .494) and Andrew Cashner (.200, .493) all deserve mention. As you can see, however, the best hitting pitchers get bad in absolute terms pretty quickly.
Young Hitting Pitchers to Watch. Tyler Chatwood (.275 BA, .610 OPS in 69 ABs) and Jose Fernandez (.197 BA, .482 OPS in 66 ABs) are trying to get healthy enough to resume their pitching and batting careers. Jacob DeGrom, who hit .217 with a .495 OPS in 46 at-bats last year, is the most promising 2014 rookie I found.