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 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 2016 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 (.182 career batting average and .521 career OPS as I write this). The big-swinging Bumgarner has forced me to change the way I do my rankings. In previous iterations of this post, I ranked pitchers-as-hitters strictly based on best career numbers for pitchers with at least 100 career plate appearances. However, despite some poor hitting seasons early in his major league career, MadBum has clearly and pretty much indisputably been the best hitting pitcher in each of the last two seasons, so it’s safe to say that entering the 2016 season, Bumgarner is the best hitting pitcher in MLB at this point in time. Of course, I reserve the right to drop Bumgarner down more than a few notches next year if he isn’t one of MLB’s 10 or 15 best hitting pitchers in 2016.
Bumgarner has hit nine HRs in 159 plate appearances the last two seasons with 24 RBIs, and that probably goes a long way in explaining why his record was 36-19 over those two seasons, compared to going 13-9 in 2013, when he didn’t hit a lick, but had a lower ERA. All things considered, Bumgarner probably pitched as well or better last year than he did in 2013, but not enough to explain the much better won-loss record in 2015.
2. Zack Greinke (.223 BA, .603 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.
3. Mike Leake (.212, .545). Leake’s hitting has dropped off substantially the last two seasons, but I still rank him as third above Yovani Gallardo because of his higher OBP (.235 to .223).
4. Yovani Gallardo (.198, .556). His 12 career home runs make him one of the best power threats among today’s pitchers.
5. Daniel Hudson (.226, .567) & CC Sabathia (.219, .551). 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) since Hudson blew out his elbow tendon in 2012, he worked his way back to the majors as a reliever and has had only one plate appearance the last three seasons; and (2) Sabathia hasn’t gotten on base since 2010.
Sabathia has only played one-half of one season in the National League in his long MLB career. As an American League hurler who has been hurt a lot in recent seasons, 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 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.
7. Adam Wainwright (.197 BA, .508 OPS). Wainwright’s hitting has dropped off at bit in recent seasons, but I rank him above Travis Wood because of the Wainwright’s better career on-base percentage (.225 to .206)
8. Travis Wood. (.182 BA, .525 OPS). Wood hit poorly in 2015, and he’s been moved to the bullpen, so he won’t have many more opportunities to improve his career batting numbers, particularly on a Cubs team loaded with talented potential pinch-hitters.
9. Tyson Ross (.201, .482). Ross hit extremely well for a pitcher last year (.250 batting average and .640 OPS) as a full-time starter for the Padres.
10. Jacob DeGrom (.200, .458). Even with no power and few walks, hitting at exactly the Mendoza Line after 105 career MLB at-bats makes DeGrom MLB’s tenth best hitting pitcher entering the 2016 season.
Young Hitting Pitchers to Watch. Taylor Jungmann (.270, .614), Michael Lorenzen (.250, .576), Noah Syndergaard (.209, .530), and Jose Fernandez (.190, .498) are the sweet-swinging young hurlers to keep an eye on.
Of the four, Michael Lorenzen, if he can prove himself to be an MLB starter [remember pitcher first, pitcher first, pitcher first], is the best bet to move quickly up my list in future years. Someone posted a comment last year tipping me off to him. Lorenzen was a fine college hitter (.872 career college OPS in three seasons at Cal State Fullerton, one of the many excellent Cal State University system baseball programs in Southern California). He started his college career as a position player, but became the team’s closer as a sophomore. In his case, as opposed to the aforementioned Mica Owings, his college numbers much more strongly suggested his development as a pitcher in the professional ranks, mainly due to his lack of power as a hitter. If he ends up back in the bullpen, so much for his being a great hitting pitcher.
What is interesting about Taylor Jungman is that he pitched three seasons as the ace of the University of Texas Longhorns (Hook ’em, Horns!) without receiving even a single plate appearance (see my comments at the top of this post). He had only 65 plate appearances in the minor leagues before hitting strongly in 38 plate appearances for the Brewers last year. In short, there is really no way to tell at this moment what the future holds for him as a major league hitter.
As a final note, the best hitting major league pitchers get pretty bad as major league hitters almost immediately. 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 in as little as ten or fifteen years from now.