The Best Hitting Pitchers in MLB Baseball 2014
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 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 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 (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 2014 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 .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, however. Here is my non-scientific list of the best hitting pitchers currently playing as we start of the 2014 season:
1. Mike Leake. I now rank Leake as the best hitting pitcher in MLB. While Leake batted only .190 with a .469 OPS last year, his career batting average of .251 and .604 career OPS in 227 major league at-bats makes him the most accomplished hitter of those pitchers who were major league active in 2013. Leake doesn’t hit with much power and he hasn’t walked much since his 2010 rookie season, but he’s dangerous if a base hit means a run. Mike also had his best year as a major league starter in 2013, so he’s on course to get many more batting opportunities in the future.
2. Zack Greinke. Despite spending the first seven seasons of his major league career in the American League, Greinke has established himself as a terrific hitting pitcher in the last few seasons. He batted .328/.409/.379 last season, making Greinke the first pitcher with an on-base percentage over .400 in at least 50 plate appearances since the afore-mentioned Mike Leake in 2010. Greinke now has a career .226 batting average and .602 OPS in 164 career at-bats.
3. Yovani Gallardo. While Gallardo doesn’t hit for much of an average (career .207) or get on base a whole lot (career .234 OBP) his 12 career home runs and 31 career extra base hits in 364 at-bats make him the best power threat (.359 SLG) among active major league pitchers.
4. Dan Haren. Haren has a .215 lifetime batting average and .552 career OPS in 311 major league at-bats despite spending much of his career in the Junior Circuit. Greinke, Haren and CC Sabathia below are the best arguments against the designated hitter.
5. CC 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 (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 three seasons (in all of 12 at-bats), he’s still hitting .229 with a .576 OPS in 109 career at-bats. I rank Sabathia behind Haren because Haren has had so many more opportunities to prove his hitting ability.
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.
6. Adam Wainwright. 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. The majors have lost a number of great hitting pitchers in the last couple of seasons, namely Micah Owings (.283 batting average, .813 OPS in 205 career at-bats), Dontrelle Willis (.244 BA, .665 OPS in 389 ABs) and Carlos Zambrano (.238 BA, .638 OPS in 693 ABs).
Owings tried to become an outfielder last year for the Nationals’ AAA club in Syracuse, but he didn’t walk much and struck out too often. He was later picked up by the Brewers’ organization, likely with the hope that he could become the next Brooks Kieschnick, pinch hitting and pitching in relief at the major league level. In fact, Owings pitched very effectively in a small number of appearances at the AA level late in the season.
Willis spent most of the 2013 season pitching in the Independent-A Atlantic League. Late in the season, he got four starts and a relief appearance with the Angels’ AAA team in Salt Lake City, but he posted a 6.43 ERA with poor ratios. Willis will likely either retire again or return to the Atlantic League in 2014.
Carlos Zambrano pitched effectively at several stops in the Phillies minor league system last year, but made a total of only seven starts and pitched only 35.1 innings before shoulder pain effectively ended his season. He still hopes to pitch in the majors again, but he obviously needs to get healthy first. He pitched in the Venezuelan Winter League this year, but wasn’t impressive (4.93 ERA with bad ratios).
Chris Narveson (.227 BA, .522 OPS in 110 ABs) is heading off to Japan to pitch after recovering from 2012 rotator cuff surgery. Daniel Hudson (.229 BA, .573 OPS in 105 ABs) missed almost all of 2013 after Tommy John surgery.
Darren Oliver (.221 BA, .545 OPS in 217 ABs) was still an effective left-handed short-man in 2013 but hasn’t had a plate appearance since 2006. Manny Parra (.188 BA, .507 OPS in 144 ABs), Travis Wood (.180 BA, .516 OPS in 183 ABs); Jason Marquis (.196 BA, .492 OPS in 647 ABs) also deserve mention, but as you can see, the best hitting pitchers get bad pretty fast.
Young Hitting Pitchers to Watch. At least there are few young pitchers showing promise as hitters to replace the recent losses of Owings, Willis and Zambrano. Tyler Chatwood (.305 BA, .678 OPS in 59 ABs), Andrew Cashner (.222 BA, .532 OPS in 63 ABs); Jose Fernandez (.220 BA, .556 OPS in 50 ABs) and Hyun-Jin Ryu (.207 BA, .526 OPS in 58 ABs) all look very promising as they begin their careers as major league starters.