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One of the arguments for the case that the quality of baseball is better
now than ever before is that pitchers are hitting worse, relative to the
league, than they ever have. Because pitchers reach the major leagues for
reasons independent of their hitting ability, the assumption is that the
quality of their hitting should not change with time. If their offense
declines relative to the guys who get paid to hit, then that would suggest
that those hitters are improving with time.

That’s the theory, anyway.

Let’s take a look at how pitchers have hit, over time, relative to the
league. The top five ratios of pitchers’ OPS to league OPS since
hit-by-pitch data (necessary to calculate OBP) became available in 1884:

Year  League  OPS (P)  OPS (L)  Ratio

1886 AA .571 .628 .909 1884 AA .502 .603 .832 1895 NL .628 .761 .826 1894 NL .667 .814 .820 1887 NL .572 .707 .809

You get the picture. Back in the 19th century, pitchers frequently played
other positions on their days away from the mound, and career switches from
the mound to another position were quite common. The top 13 ratios are all
from the 1800s; the top 20th century ratio occurred in 1901. The top 32
ratios all occurred by 1920.

The five worst ratios all time, using a 500 at-bat minimum that eliminates
the American League in the DH era:

Year  League  OPS (P)  OPS (L)  Ratio

1987 NL .348 .734 .474 1997 NL .356 .747 .477 1964 NL .334 .687 .487 1990 NL .345 .707 .488 1999 NL .379 .774 .489

Ten of the worst 11 ratios have occurred in the 14 NL seasons since 1986.
In 1971, the overall OPS in the NL was just .685, compared to .774 in the
NL last year; but pitchers in 1971 had the higher OPS, .383 to .379.

Of course, there is a much better explanation for this than that pitchers
are batting against a higher caliber of competition (i.e., themselves). The
AL embraced the DH in 1973, and as the DH has permeated all levels of
baseball, from the minor leagues down to high school, it has meant fewer
opportunities for all pitchers to hone their craft at the plate. Looking at
just the five worst performances from before 1973:

Year  League  OPS (P)  OPS (L)  Ratio

1964 NL .334 .687 .487 1963 NL .338 .671 .503 1965 NL .346 .687 .504 1967 NL .345 .675 .510 1959 NL .372 .727 .512

The 17 worst ratios prior to 1973, and 23 of the 24 worst ever, occurred
between 1959 and 1972, which suggests that even prior to the introduction
of the DH, pitchers were becoming increasingly inept with the bat.

Breaking it down by decade since the 1890s, after removing the AL from 1973
onward:

Decade  OPS (P)   OPS (L)   Ratio    AB/G

1890s .558 .714 .782 4.02 1900s .454 .639 .710 3.50 1910s .454 .659 .688 3.19 1920s .503 .743 .677 3.23 1930s .476 .742 .642 3.22 1940s .438 .700 .627 3.06 1950s .434 .724 .599 2.88 1960-72 .371 .690 .538 2.63 1973-79 .385 .701 .549 2.48 1980s .360 .696 .518 2.34 1990s .363 .733 .496 2.15

As you can see, the ratio of pitchers’ OPS to overall league OPS has
declined steadily throughout history, with the interesting exception of the
NL from 1973 to 1979. Is it possible that in the first few years of the DH,
National League teams made a conscious effort to acquire the best-hitting
pitchers in the Junior Circuit?

Of the ten-best hitting pitchers (by OPS) in the AL from 1970 to 1972, only
Sonny Siebert, Jim Kaat and Joe Niekro spent any
significant time pitching in the NL from 1973 on. Looking at it the other
way, among the ten worst-hitting pitchers in the NL from 1970 to 1972, only
Jack Billingham, Ross Grimsley and Bill Singer made
the switch to the AL after the DH was implemented (although Jerry
Koosman
did so much later, from 1979 to 1983). So that theory seems
pretty flimsy. If anyone has a better theory as to why NL pitchers started
hitting better in the 1970s, I’d love to hear it.

I included a listing of at-bats per game for pitchers to show that while
pitchers have consistently had fewer at-bats per game (and therefore fewer
chances to practice hitting) throughout history, the decline is probably
not enough to explain the drop in their performance. In particular, the
ratio of pitcher OPS to league OPS declined even when pitcher at-bats
remained fairly steady from 1910 to 1940, as the increased use of relievers
was balanced by an increase in offense that gave every batter more at-bats.

Rany Jazayerli, M.D., can be reached at ranyj@baseballprospectus.com.

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