Archive for May 2012

The Best Hitting Pitchers in Baseball – 2012 Update

May 24, 2012

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.

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San Francisco Giants Should Claim Cody Ransom

May 23, 2012

In a move that puzzles me, the Arizona Diamondbacks designated Cody Ransom for assignment yesterday.  Since he is a veteran player, he’ll have to pass through waivers.  The Giants should claim him to solve their current problem at third base if another team doesn’t do so first.

Actually, Ransom’s dumping is not entirely puzzling.  Ransom is 36 years old, D’Backs manager Kirk Gibson apparently doesn’t like something about Ransom’s game, and the Diamondbacks called up 25 year old 3Bman Josh Bell, who was hitting .381 with a .1047 OPS in 26 games at AAA Reno.

What is surprising is that D’Backs dumped Ransom even though he was hitting .269 with a .922 OPS in 58 major league plate appearances.  Meanwhile, the D’Backs’ “regular” 3Bman Ryan Roberts came into today’s game hitting .227 with a .609 OPS in more than twice as many plate appearances.  It’s not like the D’backs are trying to develop Roberts — he turns 32 in September.

Roberts presumably plays better defense at the hot corner.  At least, that’s the only way I can understand Kirk Gibson’s refusal to give Ransom more opportunities — if Ransom didn’t get a hit, he didn’t start the next game.

As I’ve written before, Ransom is one of those extremely rare players who significantly improved as a hitter after age 30.  After five seasons at AAA in which he never had an OPS higher than .762 (his next highest was .735), starting in 2006 at age 30, he’s had AAA OPS numbers of .824, .830, .820, .794 (he was hurt), .800 and 1.034 last year at Reno (a terrific place to hit).  That’s the reason he’s still around at age 36, even though he’s never managed to accumulate even 100 plate appearances in any of the nine different major league seasons in which he has participated prior to 2012.

Ransom has played so little in the major leagues that his major league numbers show great swings from great to awful year to year since 2007.  However, the AAA numbers show that he can hit, at least for a 3Bman, and he’s hit extremely well in limited major league playing time so far in 2012.

Meanwhile, with Pablo “Panda” Sandoval out for another month with another broken hamate bone, the Giants have run Joaquin Arias, Connor Gillaspie and Manny Burriss out to third base, and none of them have hit worth a damn.  After his home run tonight, Arias is hitting .237 with a .632 OPS, the best of anyone currently playing 2nd, 3rd or SS for the Gints.

If the Giants sign Ransom and send Charlie Culberson back to AAA Fresno, what’s the worst that could happen?  Ransom doesn’t hit in San Fran, the Giants cut him loose when Panda is ready to come off the DL and all that Ransom cost the team was the pro-rated portion of Ransom’s major league salary, which is probably in the $650,000 to $700,000 per year range.  A small price to pay for a guy who has hit with power at the major league level this year.  Culberson isn’t likely to match Ransom’s four doubles and 4 home runs this year, even if the Giants keep on the major league roster the rest of the season.

I would also advise that you don’t immediately pencil in Josh Bell as the D’Backs’ regular 3Bman for the remainder of the season.  Reno is such a ridiculously good place to hit, there’s no guarantee that he’ll hit in Phoenix, even though Chase Field is also a hitters’ park.  Reno led the hit-happy Pacific Coast League in runs scored last year, and none of the six pitchers who made at least 15 starts for the ill-named Aces had an ERA lower than 5.21.

In fact, Bell started the season at Norfolk in the International League and hit so poorly through nine games (3 for 32), the Tides (Orioles) designated him for assignment, where he was obviously claimed off waivers by the D’Backs and assigned to Reno.

Meanwhile, an infielder that can hit would be a revelation in San Francisco, at least until Pablo comes back off the disabled list.

Update on Mike Trout and Bryce Harper

May 21, 2012

Twenty games into their major league careers and so far I was right and wrong about Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.

No doubt about the fact that Mike Trout, barring injuries, is on the verge of becoming a huge star.  The Angels absolutely made the right move calling him up.  Now it’s just a matter of seeing how he develops.

In the meantime, it looks like Trout will be batting lead-off for the Angels until they decide he has too much power not to bat in the middle of the order.

As for Bryce Harper, he’s playing well enough to stay in the starting line-up for the Nationals, and at this point in his career that’s all he needs to do.  Harper will obviously learn more about playing in the major leagues by playing every day in the Show than he will down in AAA.

Harper has had is struggles with a couple of 0-for-5 games and cutting up his forehead by slamming his bat off the concrete wall of the runway tunnel.  He’s still got quite a bit to learn, but the talent is enormous.

It’s been exciting for me, and I’m sure a lot of other fans, to look every day and see what Harper has done.  I hadn’t seen much video of his minor league performances, but now that he’s in the majors, there is something in the highlights every time he does something of note, which is often.

From what I’ve seen so far, the hype is not exaggerated.  He has a lightning-fast bat (that first double over Matt Kemp’s head on a high, 95 mph fastball convinced me), he’s got a great arm, he hustles every ball he puts in play and he’s aggressive.

As long as he can keep his numbers where they are now (.244 batting average and .782), he’ll be able to stay in the line-up every day and develop without hurting the Nationals’ playoff chances significantly.

Eri Yoshida Update

May 15, 2012

Eri Yoshida recently became the first woman to win professional baseball games in two countries — the U.S. and Japan.  After winning a game for the Maui Na Koa Ikaika of the North American Baseball League last August 9th, she returned to her roots, so to speak, and won a game in Japan’s Kansei Independent Baseball League, where her professional career started in 2009.

On May 3, 2012, pitching for the Hyogo Blue Thunders, she held the Kishu Rangers to one run in 5 innings pitched, allowing six hits and a walk and striking out two.  Here is video of her work.

Watching the video, her pitches look up in the zone, but you can see that some of the pitches have movement.  If nothing else, she looks like pitcher, even if a pint-sized one.

I have no idea what the quality of independent league baseball is in Japan, but I’d guess it’s fairly good.  Japanese major league teams have only a single minor league team, which should mean that a lot of good players can’t find a roster spot in Japanese O.B. (organized baseball, by which I mean the major league organizations and their farm teams).

I kind of doubt she faced anyone as good as Todd Linden and J.D. Closser, two former major leaguers Yoshida retired in her 2011 win state-side.  You never know though.  (BTW, Todd Linden is back in the San Francisco Giants organization this year, where he’s the starting left fielder for the AAA Fresno Grizzlies — he’s currently hitting .264 with a .793 OPS.)

Yoshida is still only 20 years old this year, which means she has a lot of time to hone her knuckleball.  I guess the question is whether she will ever be able to throw her knuckler hard enough to get the kind of sharp break she’d need to get major league hitters out, either in MLB or NPB.  One thing is for certain, though — she sure had some of those Kansei Independent League hitters chasing and flailing away on May 3rd.

Reality Check

May 2, 2012

Sure a lot about drug abuse in today’s baseball news.  2008 No. 1 overall draft pick Tim Beckham was suspended for 50 games for testing positive a second time for marijuana use.

Oil Can Boyd said in a interview that he smoked crack in the clubhouse bathroom before a start in Oakland in 1986.  He put the crack under the bill in his cap and spilled it all over the field when his hat flew off during a pitch.

Meanwhile, the Twins designated Sean Burroughs for assignment.  I hadn’t heard his name for a while, but remembered he had been a hot prospect some years ago.  Turns out he was out of baseball entirely from 2008 through 2010 battling big-time substance abuse in Las Vegas.

Testing positive for marijuana doesn’t sound like a crime that deserves a 50-game suspension, but Beckham is still in the minors, so Organized Baseball could come down harder on him than it can on players at the major league level (under the joint drug agreement between the players’ association and MLB, major league players cannot be tested for “drugs of abuse,” including marijuana, unless there is “reasonable cause” to believe a player is using drugs – so long as they don’t come to the ballpark stoned or leave a pipe in their locker, there probably isn’t “reasonable cause” be believe they’re smoking pot).

Beckham has been something of a disappointment so far in his professional career, but he’s still only 22 this year and hit fairly well for a shortstop in 2011, playing 107 games at the AA level and 24 games at AAA (.271 batting average, .736 OPS).  At any rate, a 50 games suspension won’t do anything to aid his development into a major league player.

The lesson for you younger players is stay off drugs, at least until you’re a major leaguer like Tim Lincecum (a cheap shot at Tim, but it was just too easy).

Can’t say I’m surprised by Oil Can Boyd’s revelations, except to the extent that he says the Red Sox knew what he was up to but turned a blind eye because he was still pitching well (he went 16-10 in 1986 and the Red Sox went to the World Series).  It doesn’t entirely surprise me, except that I remember the Pittsburgh drug trials which happened in the Fall of 1985.

The drug trials, at which numerous players spilled their guts in exchange for immunity, gave MLB a huge black-eye.  Seven players were suspended by Commissioner Peter Ueberroth for a full season and four more players were suspended for 60 games.

Only not really — the seven suspended for a year were allowed to play if they donated 10% of their base salaries and 100 hours of their time to drug related community service and submit to random drug testing.  The guys suspended for 60 games were allowed to play if they donated 5% of their base salaries and 50 hours to drug related community service.  In that light, maybe it wasn’t so surprising that the Red Sox just looked the other way while Oil Can lit up in the clubhouse and lost 40 pounds over the course of the season.

Finally, the Sean Burroughs story is either a great story of redemption, as he got off drugs and worked his way back to the majors.  Or, a story of a young man wasting an enormous opportunity for wealth, fame and success.  Probably both.