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May 24, 2013

Pebble Hunting

How Pitchers Age at the Plate

by Sam Miller


You’ll notice that Tim Lincecum isn’t very good these days. He’s actually quite bad. It’s hard to watch him sometimes, especially when he’s matched up against a good opponent, knowing he’s become so likely to lose the battle. That’s what happens, I suppose: pitchers get older, they get worse.

Not his pitching, though. I’m talking about his hitting. Lincecum has one measly hit this season, a little groundball single through the hole between shortstop and third base. He has struck out 12 times in 16 official at-bats. Just six players—five pitchers, and Khris Davis, who R.J. brilliantly describes as “Chris Davis with more K”—have a lower contact rate on pitches in the strike zone.

This isn’t really about Tim Lincecum, who has just 16 official at-bats. It’s about the aging curve for pitcher’s hitting. We basically know the aging curves in baseball, and most either go up-up-up-peak-down-down-down (like hitters hitting) or they go down-down-down-down-down-down (like defense) or they’re a bit more complicated but generally resemble one of those (like pitcher’s pitching).

But there’s another possible aging curve that you could imagine but don’t see much, and that one goes up-up-up-up-up-up. For instance, maybe team leadership, if we could ever measure it, would be an up-up-up.

Pitchers hitting used to be an up-up-up. Pitchers used to come into the league terrible at hitting, then get progressively better as they aged, at least as a cohort. In the 10 years from 1954 to 1963, for instance—a period chosen basically at random, except that I hoped to avoid any extreme swings on the league-wide offensive environment —this is how each age tier (tiers also chosen arbitrarily) performed:

Age PA OBP SLG K rate
17-23 10176 0.187 0.187 34%
24-26 18337 0.203 0.203 31%
27-29 18177 0.204 0.205 29%
30-33 15015 0.214 0.215 28%
34+ 7546 0.214 0.218 27%

So you see a trend and your brain fills in reasons for why this would be*, whether the mechanics of it make any sense. In this case, sure, it makes sense. Pitchers aren’t hitters, and they don’t have nearly the exposure to elite pitching that hitters do. They’re overmatched when they arrive, and probably terrified out of their minds, as we all would be and as we all would be. Through years of exposure they get a bit more comfortable. It might help that they also get stronger, just as regular hitters do, though we don’t see the same decline in the 30s, so probably more likely it’s about getting accustomed, about adjusting to the first few hundred major-league fastballs and curveballs.

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Related Content:  Aging Curves,  Pitcher Hitting

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