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Madison Bumgarner hasn’t just been the best hitting pitcher in the league over the past two seasons: he’s been the best by a lot. Among pitchers with more than 20 at-bats, only Bumgarner has been a league average hitter. He’s more than doubled every other pitcher’s home run total in that time, and in just 159 plate appearances, has posted nearly as many wins above replacement as any two pitchers combined.

Player

WAR

wRC+

Madison Bumgarner

2.5

112

Zack Greinke

1.1

64

Tyson Ross

1.0

52

Travis Wood

0.8

54

Jacob deGrom

0.7

30

Bumgarner’s success is as strange as it is valuable. Aside from a pair of dingers in 2012, he hadn’t distinguished himself in the batter’s box before last year, posting a .138/.185/.192 line through 2013. Better than the average bear, but nothing to write home about. If nothing else, his development demonstrates the value a team can capture by turning an automatic out into a major league hitter.

The gap between Bumgarner’s numbers and everyone else’s also highlights a recent trend in the game: pitchers are worse hitters now than ever before. NL hurlers hit .132/.159/.169 last season, posting one of the lowest OPS figures of all time. Unadjusted, pitchers are hitting worse now than they did even in the deadball era. They collectively slugged 50 points higher 100 years ago than they did in 2015, and that was back when players had to hit bowling balls with mop handles. Any way you slice it, the bar for a successful hitting pitcher has never been lower.

There are several reasons why pitchers aren’t hitting anymore. They can’t catch up to the velocity. They’re told to leave the bat on their shoulder. They don’t take as much batting practice as they used to. This is a trend with multiple causes, and aggregately, there’s no obvious reason to expect improvement moving forward.

Still, the circumstances present an inefficiency for an enterprising club to exploit. It’s not that teams should be in a rush to sign or trade for good hitting pitchers. As shown above, there aren’t many out there. In fact, only six pitchers with at least 20 PA’s had a higher wRC+ than the worst position player to qualify for the batting title, and one of them (Michael Lorenzen) was an outfielder in college. Improvement would have to come internally, and it’s on the development side where teams have a chance to find pitchers with enough oomph at the plate to take advantage of an increasingly ignored aspect of the sport.

Not surprisingly, some teams emphasize teaching their minor league pitchers to hit more than others. The Nationals are among the sport’s most proactive organizations. They introduce their pitchers to the offensive side of the game in the instructional league, once they’ve finished their first summer in professional ball. Full time in-season work begins at Low-A, where Hagerstown’s staff bunts and works on situational hitting before games. Farmhands begin taking semi-regular batting practice in High-A and start hitting in games against other National League affiliates in Double-A.

Still, the Nationals have to limit hitting opportunities for their pitchers. Washington’s Assistant General Manager Doug Harris lists time and space as two major constraints: “we don’t have the luxury of doing a lot of this work on the road,” he says, noting the limited access to facilities his teams have away from home. Harris is also wary of disrupting the routines of his pitchers and understandably, the organization is much more concerned with how they’re pitching than their progress at the plate: “These guys are paid to get people out. That’s the number one focus.”

Another factor is how unprepared most draftees are to face professional pitching. “A lot of these guys haven’t hit since high school, and that didn’t exist 20 years ago,” Harris says. “We have to really individualize our hitting program now, and move guys at different speeds.” Whether putting their pitchers in game situations or working on other aspects of their hitting, the Nationals try to avoid throwing too much at their pitchers too quickly. “You have to be really careful about putting guys in situations they aren’t prepared for,” Harris says.

Facing the same constraints with their pitchers as the Nationals, the Braves try to simplify their pitchers’ approach at the plate. “The game has become very specific,” says Director of Player Development Dave Trembley. “Pitchers in high school usually don’t hit, thus they aren’t exposed to game opportunities.” For Trembley, the Braves can’t compensate for these missed repetitions once players turn professional. Instead, the club emphasizes the little things from the time pitchers arrive in the organization.

“We introduce what we call bat control opportunities. Short swing, hit and run technique and things like that,” Trembley says. Minor leaguers work on their bunting and baserunning in spring training but they don’t get many swings until they reach Double-A. Even at High-A, pitchers only hit and bunt once per homestand.

Theoretically, there are a few things teams could do to help their pitchers hit better. Chronically underexposed to live pitching, organizations could arrange to have former players or semi-pro pitchers throw live batting practice to their minor leaguers, helping them develop their mechanics and confidence gradually before thrusting them into game situations. Teams could also potentially re-dedicate the time pitchers spend shagging in batting practice towards additional work in the cage, or instruction with a separate hitting coach.

For most clubs though, the developmental risks outweigh the benefits of allocating additional resources towards helping pitchers hit. Teams want their pitchers to focus on their primary responsibility and are hesitant to disrupt their schedules to work on a peripheral aspect of their game. Additionally, high profile baserunning injuries to Chien-Ming Wang and Adam Wainwright have made teams extra protective of their pitchers: nobody wants to see their prized lefty tweak a muscle in an effort to hit .160 instead of .140.

A look at the state of pitcher hitting as a developmental objective suggests that the universal DH could be just around the corner. More and more, pitchers coming into the league haven’t swung a bat in anger since puberty, and teams generally place little more than a cursory emphasis on helping their personnel improve. There’s little evidence to suggest that the next batch of pitchers will hit much better than what we’ve seen over the past decade.

Furthermore, faced with a choice of helping their pitchers learn to hit better or not, teams opt to avoid risking an injury by limiting repetitions and minimizing pitcher responsibilities at the plate. “You don’t want to compromise their ability to get outs by having them do something they’re uncomfortable with,” Harris says. If that’s the case, it may be best to leave pitchers on the mound full time.

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brokeslowly
10/29
In response to your last sentence - EXACTLY. What sport at any level makes some of its participants do something that they haven't practiced since grade school? Also, what fans want to watch someone consistently fail at something that they put no effort into learning at considerable risk of injury? Is it better to see Wainright make some laughable hacks, or have him available as your #1 starter from April to October?
LlarryA
10/29
On the other hand, it's extremely exciting when a pitcher can contribute signifcantly on offense. Isn't it great when a guy can throw 7 shutout innings and then drive in his team's only two runs to cement his victory?

As for other sports having players do things outside of their specialties, how about football? D-linemen dropping into coverage; linemen reporting eligible on offense to catch passes; RB/WR throwing passes. Happens fairly often.
bgawlowski14
10/29
Philosophically, I'd prefer to have a game where pitchers hit, even if they are substantially worse at the plate than other positions. But they're so much worse now, and trending downwards, that I'd rather hold my nose and introduce the DH than watch a bastardized form of baseball where pitchers are told to just stand in the box rather than risk getting hurt.
jsdspud
10/29
I am a long time fan of the Pirates and the "National League" game. Recently, I have changed my mind and think that the National League should adopt the DH. It doesn't make any sense to watch pitchers try to hit when they have only very little training.
50cubs
10/29
Isn't this just another argument for the designated hitter?
oldbopper
10/29
The Mets have three pitchers who are actually good hitters, (No, Bartolo Colon is not one of them). Matz and Syndergaard take very solid cuts and deGrom is also pretty good. This might play a role in Games 3 and 4. All that being said I would still rather see Big Papi standing at the dish.
yibberat
10/30
We used to dream of trying to hit bowling balls with mop handles. When I was a lad we had to hit bullets with our head