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August 18, 2004

Doctoring The Numbers

Chasing Wes Ferrell

by Rany Jazayerli

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Following up on Monday's article on the worst-hitting pitchers in the game, today we show a little love to those pitchers who, with every swing of the bat, make a compelling case against the continued existence of the designated hitter.

While a pitcher's career numbers are weighed most heavily on this list, recent performance counts as well. So you rabid Chris Hammond fans out there, chill.

10. Jason Isringhausen

 AB   H  D  T HR  R  RBI  BB   K  SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG
101  21  4  1  2 11   16   5  34   0  0  .208 .248 .327
Izzy is the best-hitting closer in baseball, which is the most useless superlative you'll read all day. At least a good-hitting starting pitcher can be used in a pinch-hit role four games out of five; a closer can only be used to pinch-hit if he's going to come in to pitch, and if the game is close enough to require a closer, it's probably too close to pinch-hit with a pitcher. The top ten list in saves in the NL has a grand total of seven at-bats this season.

Isringhausen did most of his damage as a member of Generation K; he hit .255/.291/.412 for the 1996 Mets, with two homers and nine RBIs in just 51 at-bats. After moving into the closer's role with the A's in 1999, Isringhausen went four years without a plate appearance. The layoff didn't hurt him in the slightest; on July 26, 2003, in his first at-bat of the 21st century, Isringhausen hit a three-run triple to ice a win over the Pirates. On June 19 of this year, he broke open a 4-2 game in the eighth with a two-out, two-run single.

9. Adam Eaton


 AB   H  D  T HR   R  RBI  BB   K  SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG
186  35  9  0  2  19   14  19  61   5  0  .188 .271 .269
In any mythical lineup of active pitchers, Eaton would almost certainly bat leadoff. While his .269 slugging average is the lowest on this list, his .271 OBP is fifth among active pitchers (min: 100 PA), thanks to 19 walks in just 186 at-bats (Eaton and Hammond are the only two active pitchers with 100 PA and at least one walk per 10 at-bats). Eaton's five career steals rank behind only Greg Maddux's six among active pitchers.

8. Russ Ortiz


 AB   H  D  T HR   R  RBI  BB   K  SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG
405  85 19  0  6  41   40  29 108   0  0  .210 .264 .301
Ortiz nearly fell off the list entirely on the heels of his 4-for-42 performance this season, but ultimately we had to chalk it up to a bad year. Prior to this season, Ortiz had hit .194 or better in every season of his career, and his six career homers rank fourth among active pitchers.

7. Woody Williams


 AB   H  D  T HR   R  RBI  BB   K  SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG
366  81 24  1  3  43   33  15 119   0  1  .221 .254 .317
Even at age 37, Williams is showing no signs of slowing down. He's hitting .239 this year and has already whacked four doubles. Williams gets bonus points for accomplishing all the above despite batting just eight times before his 32nd birthday, courtesy of a career that began with the Blue Jays. Only an abbreviated 2002 campaign kept him from hitting four doubles in six straight seasons; his 24 career doubles already rank Williams third on the active-pitcher list.

6. Mark Prior


 AB   H  D  T HR   R  RBI  BB   K  SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG
125  27  8  0  1  10   10   5  52   0  0  .216 .246 .304
It's been a tough year all around for Prior, who in addition to struggling through injuries and problems on the mound has gone just 3-for-18 at the plate. Even so, Prior's 550 career OPS headlines a Cubs' rotation that includes Carlos Zambrano (.188/.191/.269,) Kerry Wood (.174/.197/.249 and seven career homers, plus one in the playoffs) and Maddux (.176/.197/.212, and leads all active pitchers in career hits (230), doubles (31) and steals.) Only Matt Clement's .087 lifetime average prevents the Cubs from putting a legitimate bat in the nine slot every day.

5. Livan Hernandez


 AB   H  D  T HR   R  RBI  BB   K  SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG
541 126 25  1  4  34   51   4  83   0  0  .233 .242 .305
One of only two pitchers on this list who also made our 1999 rankings, Hernandez is among the most consistent hitters in the game; he has never hit below .189 since becoming a full-time starter in 1998, and amazingly, has driven in at least six runs in each of the last seven years. The key to his consistency may be his ability to make contact; Hernandez leads all active pitchers (min: 50 PA) by striking out in just 15.3% of his lifetime at-bats.

It could be argued that Hernandez is too much of a contact hitter; his plate discipline is shockingly bad even for a pitcher: every other active pitcher with 500 PA has at least 11 walks. (And that pitcher with 11 has the largest strike zone in major-league history.) All that contact also makes Hernandez the easy leader among active pitchers with 19 GIDPs. (Jon Lieber ranks second with 16.)

Hernandez already has six doubles this season; one more and he'll become the first pitcher with seven doubles in a single year since the legendary Rick Rhoden hit nine in 1986.

4. Dontrelle Willis


 AB   H  D  T HR   R  RBI  BB   K  SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG
112  26  4  1  2   7    7   7  21   0  0  .232 .277 .339
Here's a hint: when a pitcher is called upon to pinch-hit seven times in a single season, that's a sign he might be particularly facile with the bat. When coming off the bench this year, Willis is 2-for-6 with a triple and a walk. Just 22, Willis is easily the youngest pitcher on this list, making him a favorite to top the charts when we re-run this article in 2009.

Willis' precocity with the bat is almost as impressive as his precocity on the mound. Since 1965, only one pitcher has managed to hit at least .200 (with at least 12 hits) in two separate seasons before turning 23: Dwight Gooden, who did it for three straight years from 1984-86.

Keep in mind that those numbers above don't count Willis' performance against the Giants in the playoffs last October, when he went 3-for-3. Factor that in, and his career numbers are .252/.295/.374.

3. Mike Hampton


 AB   H  D  T HR   R  RBI  BB   K  SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG
622 148 17  5 13  80   63  43 164   3  4  .238 .290 .344
Long-regarded as the premier hitter among the game's moundsmen, it's possible that Hampton is finally slowing down; he's hitting just .128 (6-for-47) this season. Then again, he's only 31, and it was just two years ago that, aided by Coors Field, he hit .344/.354/.516.

Hampton has always been an excellent line-drive hitter; from 1998 through 2002 he hit over .250 every season. The last pitcher to hit .250 and throw 150 innings in five consecutive years? Wes Ferrell, the greatest-hitting pitcher this side of Babe Ruth, who turned the trick between from 1933 through 1937.

The interesting thing about Hampton is that after not hitting a single homer in his first six seasons, he has hit 13 in the last four years (only five of the bombs at Coors). Along the way, he became the first pitcher to hit three triples in a season since Bob Forsch in 1975 (in 1999); the first to score 20 runs since Earl Wilson in 1966 (in 2001); and the first to drive in 16 runs since Don Robinson in 1982 (also in 2001).

2. Jason Jennings


 AB   H  D  T HR   R  RBI  BB   K  SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG
181  47 12  0  2  13   20  10  43   0  0  .260 .301 .359
Yes, he plays in Colorado, and there's no reason to think that a pitcher's offense is helped by the thin air any less than a position player's. But Jennings was an accomplished two-way star in college at Baylor--he hit .386 with 17 homers during his junior season--and would be one of the best-hitting pitchers in the game at any altitude.

Besides, Jennings has actually been a better hitter on the road (.260/.292/.390) over his career than he has at home (.259/.310/.321). On the road, at least, there's no measurable difference between Jennings and Vinny Castilla (.202/.265/.448 this year).

On August 23, 2001, Jennings became the first pitcher since the 19th century to throw a shutout and hit a homer in his major-league debut. He didn't hit another home run until this May, but he hit .306 with 11 RBIs in 2002, becoming just the third pitcher since 1980 to hit .300 with at least 10 RBIs in a season. His career ratio of 6.6 doubles per 100 at-bats is the best of any pitcher (min: 200 PA) since the immortal Ossie Orwoll hung up his cleats in 1929.

The bottom line is that only one active pitcher has an OPS better than Jennings' 660, and ranking him lower than second because of his home ballpark would be simply punitive.

That pitcher is, of course…

1. Brooks Kieschnick


 AB   H  D  T HR   R  RBI  BB   K  SB CS   AVG  OBP  SLG
293  74 10  1 16  34   46  30  74   1  0  .253 .322 .457
120  36  4  0  8  14   19  11  27   0  0  .300 .359 .533
What, you were expecting Don Carman? The only possible justification for keeping Kieschnick out of the top spot would be the argument that he is less a "pitcher" than a gimmick. And if a reliever with a lifetime ERA of 4.73 is a gimmick, I can think of a few dozen teams that wouldn't mind a gimmick or two at the back end of their bullpen. Especially when the gimmick has outslugged Bobby Abreu over the last two seasons.

The second stat line above represents Kieschnick's performance over the last two years, since he returned to the mound. Kieschnick was a terrific two-way player at the University of Texas, and many teams would have drafted him as a pitcher. The Cubs elected to use him in the outfield; given how quickly he re-adapted to pitching after a decade away, it's safe to say they made a mistake. The lack of mound experience before his 30th birthday may be all that keeps Kieschnick off the list of the game's best-hitting pitchers of all time.

That doesn't mean Kieschnick doesn't have a few records. Last year, he became just the second pitcher in the divisional era to hit seven homers (Hampton was the other, in 2001). What makes Kieschnick's performance notable is that he was a reliever; no other pitcher who made at least 20 relief appearances has hit even five homers in a season. His .614 slugging average in 2003 ranks third all-time among relievers with at least 25 plate appearances; his 970 OPS ranks sixth.

To put it another way: even if we completely discount his offensive numbers prior to last season, Kieschnick still ranks second among active pitchers with eight career homers. In two seasons. And he's a .300 hitter.

I don't know about you, but that sounds like more than just your typical good-hitting pitcher. Two years after the Brewers decided to boldly go where no team had gone in almost 40 years, it's time to state the obvious: the Brooks Kieschnick Experiment has been a wild success.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

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