July 19, 2010
Pitching in at the Plate
Pitcher hitting is one of the most often overlooked aspects of player performance. Not unfairly overlooked, mind you—with so many other more important factors to examine, perhaps we can be excused for failing to focus on most pitchers’ futile flailing at the plate. Many moundsmen simply don’t have much to offer in the way of offense; the average NL pitcher has batted .152/.187/.190 this season, and AL pitchers hit significantly worse during interleague play, posting a collective .105/.134/.120 line. Very rarely do pitchers earn anything close to a win in either direction solely with their work at the plate, so we might be tempted to dismiss their offensive contributions as a group altogether.
Still, at each end of the offensive spectrum, a pitcher can do some real damage with the lumber, either to the opposing team or to his own. As Nate Silver noted a couple years back, “If you aren’t accounting for pitcher hitting, you’re unambiguously cheating some guys out of their value.” No one likes a cheater, so let’s take a look at the top five hitting pitchers this season, ordered by descending TAv:
Traditional, superficial statistics suggest that Haren has had a down year on the mound, but his underlying rates tell a much happier tale. Unfortunately for him, that hasn’t prevented any of the runners who’ve crossed the plate during his outings from scoring, but Haren has recouped significant value with the blows he's struck in the batter’s box. In fact, he’s accrued the 4th-highest VORP on the Diamondbacks, ranking behind only Kelly Johnson, Chris Young, and Stephen Drew in that department. If Haren had hit like an average pitcher this season, he’d have had to lower his ERA from its current 4.60 to 4.22 in order to match the overall production he’s provided.
Without an iota of minor-league seasoning, Leake has taken well to all aspects of major-league life. The righty hit .299/.402/.485 in 97 at-bats over three seasons at Arizona State, but he’s found MLB pitchers’ offerings even more to his liking thus far. Nate projected Gallardo as the 4th-best hitting hurler back in 2008, so he has a track record of making opposing pitchers pay. This season, he’s hit half as many home runs as he’s allowed. Dickey’s never hit well before, but as a career American Leaguer prior to this season, he hasn’t had a chance to. He’s never pitched particularly well before 2010, either, so we’ll just call this a season of firsts for the knuckleballer from Nashville. We’ve looked at this season’s offensive leaders, which means that the trailers (so to speak) can’t be far behind:
Despite those ugly slash stats, none of this year’s pitchers has been record-breakingly abysmal at the plate. Even the lowly Luis Atilano, who’s hitting .040 in every way conceivable, doesn’t qualify as one of the worst ever (we’ll highlight those who do in just a minute). Ted Lilly’s managed to draw two walks despite going 0-for-the-season, perhaps a sign of lingering respect from NL pitchers who remember his 5-for-57 outburst last season. Don’t look now, but it looks like we’ve found something Roy Halladay can’t do—the longtime American Leaguer hasn’t drawn a free pass in 92 career plate appearances, which might make even Adam Jones stop and think about whether he’s truly been the worst walker he can be.
The following are the best offensive performances in our database by pitchers with a minimum of 50 plate appearances:
Newcombe finished in the NL’s top 20 in VORP in 1955. Owings’ offensive fireworks are still fresh in our minds, but his pitching hasn’t been able to keep pace; Kieschnick was another notable two-way player whose act didn’t last long. The aforementioned Haren would make a little history if he called it a season today. As promised, here’s the all-time good-pitch, no-hit quintet:
Given 71 MLB plate appearances, could you top 1-for-64 with a walk? If so, congratulations: you’re better than 2004-era Doug Davis. Except for the bit about the 129 ERA+ in over 200 innings.