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August 10, 2000
Doctoring the Numbers
Rick Ankiel is living up to the hype. With his performance Monday night, he lowered his ERA to an impressive 4.01 and, more impressively, has now struck out 130 batters in just 119 innings pitched.
To put that in perspective, 78 pitchers in history have struck out at least a man an inning while qualifying for the ERA title. Of those 78, only one was younger than Ankiel is--Dwight Gooden, who set the major-league record for strikeouts per nine innings as a 19-year-old rookie in 1984. Ankiel turned 21 on July 19, which qualifies him as a 20-year-old this season; Kerry Wood was one month older than Ankiel when he turned the trick in 1998.
But I'm not here to talk about Ankiel's arm. I'm here to talk about his bat.
This is Ankiel's batting line so far this year:
AB H D T HR R RBI BB K AVG OBP SLG OPS 46 13 1 1 2 6 7 3 15 .283 .327 .478 805
Forget, for a moment, that Ankiel is a pitcher. If he were a 20-year-old outfielder starting his major-league career, you would have to be impressed. Even in such a small sample size, that kind of power is rare in a player so young.
And then when you remember that he is a pitcher, you have to wonder just how good a hitter he can become.
Rather than wonder about that, I decided to look at every pitcher in history who batted more than 40 times in a season before the age of 22. The ten pitchers with the highest OPS, in chronological order, are listed below:
Name Year Age AB H D T HR R RBI BB K AVG OBP SLG OPS
George Mullin was the American League's first great-hitting pitcher. While he would hit over .300 only once after his rookie season, he remained a productive hitter throughout his 14-year career, finishing with career totals of .262/.319/.344, in more than 1,500 at-bats during the height of the dead-ball era. According to Clay Davenport, Mullin finished with a .264 career Equivalent Average. Remember, a .260 EqA is considered average for a position player. In other words, Mullin was a better-than-league-average hitter.
Smokey Joe Wood was already in his fourth major-league season when he made this list as a 21-year-old. He developed into the AL's best pitcher for one glorious year, in 1912, when he went 34-5 with a 1.91 ERA, led the Red Sox to the AL pennant, then won Games 1, 4 and the deciding Game 8 of the World Series. He would never be so effective again, and after going 15-5 with a league-leading 1.49 ERA in 1915, he blew out his arm.
The story isn't over. Wood was so good with the stick that he resurfaced two years later as an outfielder for the Indians. He hit .366 as a part-timer in 1921, but after a productive season as a full-time hitter in 1922, he walked away from the game to pursue other endeavors; he would go on to coach at Yale for many years and remained a New England legend well into his nineties.
Babe Ruth, you've heard of.
George Cunningham was a much better hitting pitcher than he was a pitching pitcher; he only lasted in the major leagues for three more seasons after the one above, during which he never hit higher than .223. For his career, he created 3.65 runs per 27 outs, compared to a league average of 3.70.
George Uhle, who along with Ruth was the only player to post a 700+ OPS at age 20, hit over .300 nine times in his career, finishing with .289/.339/.384 career numbers. Because he played in a hitters' era, his career EqA was "only" .248, compared to Mullin's .264, despite better numbers superficially. He could also pitch a little, finishing his career with 200 wins.
Lefty Weinert was in the major leagues at age 17, but never really developed into a major league pitcher, and after the season above, he only made five more starts in the majors. He would go 1-for-17 at the plate after 1923.
Carl Schieb was even younger than Weinert when he made his major-league debut, pitching for the Philadelphia A's when he was 16 during the height of World War II. He continued to hit fairly well after his breakout season, and in 1951 hit .396/.418/.623 in 53 at-bats. The hapless A's didn't hit nearly as well; despite Schieb's production and a solid 4.47 ERA, he went 1-12 that season. He washed out of the majors in 1954, with career numbers of .250/.284/.338.
Don Drysdale was not nearly as good a hitter as his reputation would suggest. While he had tremendous power for a pitcher--he would hit seven home runs again in 1965--he rarely did anything but hit homers. Aside from 1958 and 1965, he never hit above .200, and walked about as often as the average pitcher.
Drysdale finished with career numbers of .186/.228/.295; I feel compelled to point out, since the same point is used to belittle his pitching record, that he played in a pitchers' park in a pitchers' era. His career EqA was .196, about 50 points higher than the average pitcher.
It is not hyperbole to say that Ken Brett dominated his position offensively as much as his brother George did at third base. Playing in a time still very much dominated by pitchers, Ken hit .250 with a .463 slugging average in 1973, and hit .310/.337/.448 in 1974. He was so highly regarded as a hitter that in 1976, the DH-laden White Sox let him bat 12 times. He went just 1-for-12, but it was still a better idea than Disco Demolition Night or those awful uniform shorts.
Brett finished his career with a mark of .262/.291/.406, and his career EqA was .252. Only a handful of pitchers in history have finished with a career EqA above .250, and Brett remains the last of them, ignoring Terry Forster and his 78-at-bat fluke.
Add it all up, and out of nine pitchers, you have the greatest hitter of all time (Ruth); one pitcher (Wood) who hit well enough to convert to another position when his arm came up lame; three other pitchers (Mullin, Uhle and Brett) who were arguably the best-hitting pitchers of their time; another Hall of Fame pitcher (Drysdale) who was a well-above-average hitter throughout his career; and three pitchers (Cunningham, Weinert and Scheib) who all enjoyed relatively little success at the plate after their big years, but none of whom lasted as a regular rotation starter in the major leagues for very long.
Now, looking at historic patterns is interesting but not necessarily predictive. Ankiel doesn't have to follow the career paths of the pitchers who came before him.
And Snow didn't have to follow Vanilla Ice's career path, either.
But if history does matter, then Ankiel has better than a 50-50 chance of becoming one of the truly great hitting pitchers of the next 10 to 15 years. Frankly, he has as good a chance of becoming the best-hitting pitcher in baseball as he does of becoming the best-pitching pitcher in baseball. And he's not exactly chopped liver on the mound.
So the next time you're watching Ankiel pitch, whisper a quiet "thank you" that he ended up on a National League team. Then utter a prayer that at least one league continues to turn its nose up at the DH and let guys like Ankiel and Mike Hampton give sportscasters the opportunity to say the phrase, "helped his own cause".
Rany Jazayerli, M.D., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.