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May 9, 2001
Aim For The Head
(Ed. note: Today marks the debut of Keith Woolner as a featured columnist here at Baseball Prospectus. Each Wednesday, he'll be answering a statistical or sabermetric question from one of our readers. Click here to submit a question to Keith.)
This week's question comes to us from Thomas Berman, who asks:
Mike Hampton hit his first career home run recently. Seeing as how Hampton has been the best hitting pitcher in baseball for a while, I would imagine he has a shot to join the pantheon of pitchers who had a historic year with the bat (Don Newcombe comes to mind) now that he is in Coors Field. How well would Hampton have to hit to have an all-time great season?
Thanks for writing, Thomas. Hampton has indeed been one of the better hitting pitchers of recent times. In fact, his 1999 season (.311/.373/.432) stands as the best pitcher hitting season of the 1990s (minimum 50 PA). In addition, he holds two of the top 40 batting seasons by a pitcher since 1978 with his 1999 and 1998 seasons (676 OPS). The top 40 seasons happen to correspond to a 650 OPS or better, and given that there have been 1,030 pitchers who had 50 or more plate appearances over that span, that puts a 650 OPS in the top 3.8% of such pitching hitting seasons since '78. That's quite an accomplishment.
However, there are some recent pitchers who are ahead of him. Tim Lollar and Rick Rhoden each have three of the top 40 seasons, while Bob Forsch, Randy Lerch, Don Robinson, and Mark Portugal match Hampton's two seasons. Portugal has had the highest OPS in a season over that span of time, with a 860 OPS in 1994.
Looking back before 1978, there have been a few pitchers who've posted a 1000 OPS, with Carl Scheib topping the list with a .396/.418/.623 performance in 55 PA for a 1041 OPS. There are a couple of Hall of Famers in the list who were pretty good with the stick as well as being fair pitchers, but it's probably not who you're thinking of:
Red Ruffing actually went 3-for-11 with the Red Sox in 1930, and for the season missed a 1000 OPS (finishing with "just" a 984 OPS), but we'll give him the credit anyways.
As far as lifetime stats for pitcher hitting, Hampton has a long way to go. Looking just at seasons in which a player was primarily a pitcher, and with a minimum 250 PA, Babe Ruth still leads the pack with a .302/.359/.479 lifetime performance.
Note: I tried to select players who were primarily pitchers, and looked at the years in which they were primarily pitchers. Players who split time within a season between pitching and a regular position were excluded, as were the years after a player moved away from the mound (e.g., Ruth).
Also, I excluded pre-1893 pitchers, other than to call attention to Bob Caruthers's great offensive performance in the late 19th century.
Wes Ferrell was a fine pitcher in his own right, with a 193-128 record and a 4.04 ERA during a high offense era (1927-41). He led the league in wins in 1935 with 25 (one of his six 20-win seasons), and in innings pitched three times. He may fall just short of the Hall of Fame on his pitching merits, but does he get enough extra credit for being arguably the best-hitting full-time pitcher ever to push him over into induction-worthiness? So far, the Hall says no, but there's an interesting case to be made.
Keith Woolner is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.