June 22, 2011
Helping Their Own Cause
CINCINNATI—These were the days when interleague play was reserved only for spring training and the World Series and nothing in between. These were the days when not every game was on television, and regional sports networks had yet to take root.
But if you grew up a baseball fan in the Bay Area back in the 1980s, it was easy to feel spoiled. It was one of the few places where you could easily watch both the American League and National League, thanks to the proximity of the A's and Giants.
Though I still preferred the AL, partly because I knew that without the designated hitter there was no way the A's could have had Dave Parker, I also didn't mind pitchers hitting for themselves. Of course, most aren't any good at it, but there were exceptions. And during the time I grew up watching baseball in the Bay Area, the Giants had two of the best hitting pitchers in the game in Don Robinson and Rick Reuschel.
"He was so good you had to pitch to him like a regular hitter," said Tony Pena, the longtime catcher and former manager, of his former teammate and foe Reuschel. "You had to bust him inside with fastballs and throw him breaking balls. Or he would hurt you."
It's this select few that I think of now during this latest round of interleague play. Which pitchers did more in their careers to help their teams score runs? And how much did they actually contribute? Over the last few days, I asked about a dozen former and current players, coaches, managers, and scouts for their opinions. I limited the timeframe, starting from the advent of the designated hitter era in 1973 to now, when half the pitchers in the league don't regularly work on hitting.
I wasn’t the only one who remembered Robinson, aka “the Caveman,” who had impressive pop for a pitcher, but the Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano was the most popular response.
"He's the best I've ever seen, and it's not even close," said Zambrano's former Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild. "He loved it. And he could run."
Dontrelle Willis also seemed to leave a lasting impression with his bat. CC Sabathia got several mentions, an impressive feat considering that most of his hitting came during his clutch second-half run with the Brewers back in '08. But ask Sabathia, and he’ll tell you that his former teammate Yovani Gallardo is up there as a hitter, behind only Zambrano.
When ranked by True Average, former Brewers reliever Brooks Kieschnick leads all pitchers with a minimum of 300 plate appearances with a .251 mark. Of course, Kieschnick was drafted as an outfielder and returned to pitch only later in his career, after years of watching his bat stall in the minor leagues. So for our purposes, we'll exclude Kieschnick and his strange path to pitching.
Also remember that several strong hitting pitchers will not be included here because they don't yet have enough plate appearances. That group includes the Diamondbacks' Michah Owings, Danny Haren, Sabathia, and Gallardo.
That leaves this elite group of pitchers with True Averages of at least .200, which we'll refer to here as the Russ Ortiz Line:
1. Mike Hampton, .227
2. Dontrelle Willis, .217
3. Carlos Zambrano, .212
4. Adam Wainwright, .212
5. Steve Renko, .211
6. Don Robinson, .210
7. Rick Rhoden, .208
8. Randy Lerch, .208
9. Bob Forsch, .205
10. Russ Ortiz, .202
Marc Carig is in his third season as the New York Yankees' beat writer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. He previously covered the Baltimore Orioles for the Washington Post. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Carig once believed Dennis Eckersley to be the greatest closer of all time, though seeing Mariano Rivera every day has forced him to reconsider.