CINCINNATI—These were the days when interleague play was reserved only for spring training and the World Series and nothing in between. These were the days when not every game was on television, and regional sports networks had yet to take root.
But if you grew up a baseball fan in the Bay Area back in the 1980s, it was easy to feel spoiled. It was one of the few places where you could easily watch both the American League and National League, thanks to the proximity of the A's and Giants.
Though I still preferred the AL, partly because I knew that without the designated hitter there was no way the A's could have had Dave Parker, I also didn't mind pitchers hitting for themselves. Of course, most aren't any good at it, but there were exceptions. And during the time I grew up watching baseball in the Bay Area, the Giants had two of the best hitting pitchers in the game in Don Robinson and Rick Reuschel.
"He was so good you had to pitch to him like a regular hitter," said Tony Pena, the longtime catcher and former manager, of his former teammate and foe Reuschel. "You had to bust him inside with fastballs and throw him breaking balls. Or he would hurt you."
It's this select few that I think of now during this latest round of interleague play. Which pitchers did more in their careers to help their teams score runs? And how much did they actually contribute? Over the last few days, I asked about a dozen former and current players, coaches, managers, and scouts for their opinions. I limited the timeframe, starting from the advent of the designated hitter era in 1973 to now, when half the pitchers in the league don't regularly work on hitting.
I wasn’t the only one who remembered Robinson, aka “the Caveman,” who had impressive pop for a pitcher, but the Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano was the most popular response.
"He's the best I've ever seen, and it's not even close," said Zambrano's former Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild. "He loved it. And he could run."
Dontrelle Willis also seemed to leave a lasting impression with his bat. CC Sabathia got several mentions, an impressive feat considering that most of his hitting came during his clutch second-half run with the Brewers back in '08. But ask Sabathia, and he’ll tell you that his former teammate Yovani Gallardo is up there as a hitter, behind only Zambrano.
When ranked by True Average, former Brewers reliever Brooks Kieschnick leads all pitchers with a minimum of 300 plate appearances with a .251 mark. Of course, Kieschnick was drafted as an outfielder and returned to pitch only later in his career, after years of watching his bat stall in the minor leagues. So for our purposes, we'll exclude Kieschnick and his strange path to pitching.
Also remember that several strong hitting pitchers will not be included here because they don't yet have enough plate appearances. That group includes the Diamondbacks' Michah Owings, Danny Haren, Sabathia, and Gallardo.
That leaves this elite group of pitchers with True Averages of at least .200, which we'll refer to here as the Russ Ortiz Line:
1. Mike Hampton, .227
The left-hander hit .246 with 16 lifetime homers while giving his teams an extra bat in the lineup. He won five straight Silver Slugger awards from 1999 to 2003. In 398 plate appearances during that span, Hampton hit .283/.321/.434 with 12 homers and 47 RBIs. He hit seven homers in 2001 alone.
2. Dontrelle Willis, .217
His name came up often among those I talked to over the last few days. Perhaps they remember his most memorable game at the plate, Game 4 of the 2003 NLDS against the Giants, when he went 3-for-3 with a triple in a 7-6 victory. He's one of only five pitchers to have hit a triple in the postseason.
3. Carlos Zambrano, .212
The switch-hitter was the consensus choice among the people I polled as the best hitting pitcher in baseball. His 22 homers since the advent of the designated hitter are the most among pitchers. He's only eight away from being one of only five pitchers all-time with 30 career homers.
4. Adam Wainwright, .212
The Cardinals right-hander has hit .222/.254/.296 in 336 career plate appearances, but he established his credentials as a hitter with his first one. Wainright's first major league at-bat—which came in 2006 against the Giants' Noah Lowry—went for a home run.
5. Steve Renko, .211
Had the Silver Slugger award existed for pitchers before 1980, Renko might have taken home a few. His best seasons at the plate came with the Expos in '73 and '75, when he hit .273 and .278, respectively. In both seasons, he outperformed position players on his own team.
6. Don Robinson, .210
Robinson won three Silver Slugger awards, the last two with the Giants. He flashed power over his career, launching 13 homers.
7. Rick Rhoden, .208
Rhoden developed such a strong reputation as a hitter that Yankees manager Billy Martin used him as the designated hitter for one game in 1988. He went 0-for-1 but knocked in a run with a sacrifice fly. In his career, Rhoden batted .238 with nine home runs and 75 RBI.
8. Randy Lerch, .208
His most memorable day as a hitter came at a perfect time. The Phillies needed a win against the Pirates on Sept. 30, 1978 to clinch the NL East title. Lerch helped by hitting two homers on the way to a 10-8 victory.
9. Bob Forsch, .205
The first-ever Silver Slugger award winner leads all pitchers with eight triples since 1973.
10. Russ Ortiz, .202
The Giants won the pennant in 2002, when Ortiz hit .246/.299/.406 with two homers and nine RBI, putting together perhaps his best season at the plate.
Marc Carig is in his third season as the New York Yankees' beat writer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. He previously covered the Baltimore Orioles for the Washington Post. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Carig once believed Dennis Eckersley to be the greatest closer of all time, though seeing Mariano Rivera every day has forced him to reconsider.
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