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Twenty-six years after the American League anointed the Designated Hitter
rule as its savior from ten years of low offensive totals and dwindling fan
interest, the debate rages: is it a necessarily evil, or just evil?
Baseball’s braintrust seem intent on resolving the disparity between the
two leagues, but they’ve been promising that for about 25 of those 26 years.

There’s really no way around the facts that 1) the players’ union is about
as likely to give up the DH as they are to go on a sympathy strike for the
umpires and 2) the NL is dead-set against adding the DH to their league,
both to protect the “purity” of the Senior Circuit and–the real
reason–because they don’t want to pay seven-figure salaries to full-time
DHs when they can pay six-figure salaries to Dave Hansen and John
Vander Wal
instead.

So let’s not debate the issue. Rather, let’s celebrate the benefits that
both leagues bring us. Let’s enjoy the rule that allows Edgar
Martinez
and Harold Baines to swing a bat more than once a game,
all without having to watch Martinez turn a popup into three weeks on the
DL. And by the same token, we should glorify those pitchers about whom the
words “helps out his own cause” have been used even more than
“he’s lost his release point”, whose bats are potent enough to
keep opposing managers from intentionally walking Rey Ordonez or
Kirt Manwaring in a sticky situation.

It is unfortunate that the spread of the DH into virtually every level of
Organized Baseball (as well to much of disorganized baseball), has left
pitchers with even less opportunity to hit. The result is that the
great-hitting pitchers of 30 or 20 or even 10 years ago simply no longer
exist. No longer do we have Rick Rhoden, who hit .300 three times in
his career, finishing with a .238 average and nine homers, and who once
started a game at DH for Billy Martin’s Yankees, going 0-for-1 with a
sacrifice fly. No longer can we watch Don Robinson, who hit .231 in
his career with 13 homers in just 631 at-bats–a better career home-run
percentage than Mark Grace–and who nearly converted to the outfield when
he was battling a series of arm injuries in the early 1980s. The exploits
of Ken Brett, who dominated his position with the bat even more than
his brother did at third base, have been all-but-forgotten. Brett the Elder
hit .262 with a .406 slugging average, and according to the STATS
All-Time Handbook
, created more runs per game (4.08) over his career
than the league around him (4.05). Brett’s .699 OPS ranks second behind the
legendary Don Newcombe (.706) over the last 50 years.

Nevertheless, not everyone is as useless with a stick in their hands as
John Burkett (.089 lifetime average), Jeff Fassero (.079) or
Mark Clark (.058). Below is our list of today’s best-hitting
pitchers. Note that this list doesn’t include such Titans of the Texas
Leaguer as Chris Hammond (.581 career OPS), Tyler Green
(.506) or Kevin Foster (.507). We’ve limited our list to those who
have pitched in the majors this year. And after some consideration, Rick
Aguilera
, who has a career .526 OPS, was left off this list because he
hasn’t swung a bat in anger since 1989, save a freak at-bat in the 1991
World Series.

To show you that the term “good-hitting pitcher” isn’t some sort
of oxymoron or back-handed compliment, we will be evaluating each pitcher
by the RBU: the Rafael Belliard Unit. If Mr.
I’ve-been-to-more-postseasons-than-you can stay in the major leagues for 17
years–17 years!–with a career OPS of .529, what does that say for those
versatile men who can swing the bat just as well and break off a
nasty 12-to-6 deuce? For purposes of the comparison, each pitcher’s career
OPS is divided by that of the Luckiest Brave of Them All to arrive at his
RBU score. All statistics are through the All-Star break.

10) Dwight Gooden


 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
738  145  15  5   8  60   67  13  134   1  1  .196  .212  .263  .475  0.90

Gooden makes the list as a sort of Career Achievement Award; while at-bat
for at-bat, he is no longer among the premier hitters in the game, his
career totals dwarf those of any other active pitcher. His 67 RBIs are tops
among moundsmen, and no other pitcher has even five career homers. He also
tops the chart with his five career triples, including two (along with two
homers) in 1993 alone. He still has something left with the bat, as he
homered in his first interleague at-bat this season.

9) Mark Portugal


 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
450   89  20  1   2  33   36  20   87   0  0  .198  .232  .260  .492  0.93

Portugal, who like too many pitchers on this list is currently confined to
the American League, is just one hit short of the Mendoza Line for his
career. His best season was 1994, when he hit .354–the sixth-highest total
since World War II–with five doubles and a triple. He was still going
strong last year, hitting .260 for the Phillies before signing with Boston.

8) Tom Glavine


 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
806  163  16  2   1  60   60  51  204   1  0  .202  .251  .231  .482  0.91

Glavine has less major league tenure than either Gooden or Hershiser, but
by virtue of staying in the NL his entire career, he leads all active
pitchers in at-bats and hits. He hit .289 in 1996, and won the Silver
Slugger award last year despite a pedestrian .239 average and just one
extra-base hit. You have to appreciate his plate discipline; the only other
active pitcher with even 30 walks is teammate John Smoltz, who despite his
.165 average has 64 walks in 665 at-bats. Another little secret to the
Braves’ success all these years.

7) Orel Hershiser


 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
775  158  29  2   0  64   49  27  170   7  3  .204  .234  .246  .480  0.91

Orel would probably have ranked a lot higher a few years ago; he has gone
just 14 for 103 (.136) since he changed leagues in 1995. Of course, he is
40, and you have to figure the same forces of nature that beat down great
hitters as they age also work on less-than-great ones. I don’t know if he
worked on his hitting while rehabbing from his rotator cuff tear, but from
the time he returned until he left the Dodgers in 1994, he hit .269 (58 for
216), including .356 in 1993, the highest average since Newcombe hit .361
in 1958. A great athlete, he comfortably leads active pitchers with 7
steals, as well as pacing pitchers in runs scored.


———-
Mario Mendoza Line (507 OPS)


———-
Ray Oyler Line (509 OPS)


———-
Rafael Belliard Line (529 OPS)

6) Livan Hernandez


 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
157   35   7  0   2  11   15   1   31   0  0  .223  .231  .306  .537  1.02

They still make pitchers in Cuba the old-fashioned way, apparently. Not
only does Hernandez work like a galley slave on the mound, but at the plate
he swings (to quote Eric Cartman) with authoritaw! He already has two
homers and seven RBIs this year to go with a .467 slugging average. Which
is good, because he’ll need that bat when his arm gives out.

5) Mike Hampton


 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
258   51   8  3   0  29   18  23   70   2  1  .198  .272  .252  .524  0.99

Hampton, who’s finally getting some much-deserved publicity for his
pitching (why hasn’t anyone flogged Woody Woodward for giving him up,
anyway?), is also a terrific athlete–he was recruited to play defensive
back at several major colleges–and hitter. He’s one of the most patient
hitters at his position, and the power seems to be coming on–he already
has two doubles and two triples this season.


———-
David Howard Line (596 OPS)

4) Dennis Cook


 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
109   29   2  1   2  15    9   3   13   0  0  .266  .286  .358  .644  1.22

Cook’s career as a starter never really took off, which is a shame, because
swing-for-swing he’s as good a hitter as any pitcher in the game. In 1990,
as a swingman for the Phillies and Dodgers, he hit .306 (15-for-49) with a
home run. Then, after not batting for six years, he returned to the NL in
1997 as a reliever for the Marlins and started the year 4-for-4 with a
game-winning homer (he finished 5-for-9). He isn’t getting many at-bats
working out of the Mets’ pen, so you have to hope that at some point Bobby
Valentine runs out of pinch-hitters in some 16-inning affair.

3) Todd Stottlemyre


 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
194   44   5  1   0  17    7  23   71   1  1  .227  .309  .263  .572  1.08

The Toad reached the majors in 1988, and had only one at-bat in his first
eight years. Since 1996, though, his batting averages have been .227, .236,
.226 and .211. His patience at the plate has pushed his OBP up to .309,
highest among active pitchers. By comparison, Rey Ordonez’s career high is
.289.

2) Omar Olivares


 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
214   51   8  1   4  22   23   6   61   0  0  .238  .258  .341  .599  1.13

Another great-hitting pitcher whose talents are being wasted in the
American League, and a model of consistency. While he has never hit above
.269 in any season, he did not hit under .210 in any year from 1991 through
1997. He’s been able to keep his batting stroke even if he rarely uses it:
he’s 5-for-13 with a double and a triple since joining the AL in 1996.

1) Allen Watson


 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
175   45  13  1   0  13   19   9   22   0  0  .257  .293  .343  .636  1.20

He may be a bust as a pitcher, but Watson’s bat is everything it was
advertised to as. In addition to his pitching exploits at New York Tech, he
finished fifth in Division I in batting average in his final year. He hit
.417 (15-for-36) with four doubles in 1995, the highest batting average by
a pitcher (min: 35 PA) since Jim Tobin in 1937, and fifth-highest this
century.

But he’s never had a full season in which to prove himself, in part because
he hasn’t pitched well enough to stay in anyone’s rotation for long. He may
not be in the Rhoden/Robinson class of hitter, but he’s the first pitcher
with an OPS over .600 in at least 150 PA since Dan Schatzeder retired in
1991. And with competition like this, that’s good enough for us: Allen
Watson gets our vote as the Best Hitting Pitcher in the game.

After all, wouldn’t you rather watch him hit than Mike Benjamin?