A Brief History of Pitchers Hitting

Mike Leake is one of the better hitting pitchers in recent history. - Joe Robbins

The idea of pitchers as hitters is suddenly under attack and it raises many concerns about how much we should invest in pitcher's offensive WAR totals. Let's take a walk through the history of the game from the view of a pitcher inside the batter's box.

There's been quite a bit of discussion around Beyond the Box Score lately with regard to pitcher's hitting, and it's made me realize that I am not as familiar with the area as I would like to be. So I decided to do a little research on the topic this morning as a sort of self-tutorial.

I've heard it alleged before that pitcher's hitting can viewed as a sort of "baseline" by which we can judge the growth of all other major league hitters' talent. This is assuming, of course, that pitchers as hitters haven't changed much, considering how little impact it has on the game, and how infrequently they hone their skills at the plate. Whether pitchers focus on their batting more or less these days may actually be a debate for historians, because all we can do is compare it to the league average.

According to Fangraphs, pitchers' wRC+ has been on a dramatic decline since the turn of the century.

Screen_shot_2013-01-16_at_5

In other words, the gap between pitchers' hitting and the rest of the league has been growing exponentially. Mercifully, as starting pitchers have surrendered a significant portion of their innings over to relievers over time, the effects of this widening gap are tempered by the loss of pitcher's plate appearances.

Here's retrosheet's account of just how forgiving the introduction of the DH rule has been to major league baseball:

Screen_shot_2013-01-16_at_10

How good can it get?

But it's not all bad, is it? In fact, a great-hitting pitcher can be terribly exciting if only for the sheer rarity of the event. We've all seen games where a player like Carlos Zambrano doubles off the wall during a shutout, or Stephen Strasburg drives in the go-ahead to earn himself to a "W". But how much can even a decent-hitting pitcher contribute to his team in terms of runs and wins?

I turned to Baseball-Reference for that answer, looking for the best seasons for pitchers as determined by Batting Runs.

Best Hitting Seasons for Pitchers, since 1920

# Name Year Age G Runs_Bat Runs baserunning WAR PA BA OBP SLG
1 Don Newcombe 1955 29 34 11.1 1.1 2.4 125 0.359 0.395 0.632
2 Wes Ferrell 1935 27 41 10.1 0.2 2.5 179 0.347 0.427 0.533
3 Walter Johnson 1925 37 30 9.5 -0.2 1.8 107 0.433 0.455 0.577
4 Jack Bentley 1923 28 31 8.4 0.2 1.7 94 0.427 0.446 0.573
5 Red Ruffing 1930 25 38 8.2 0.2 1.9 117 0.364 0.402 0.582
6 Wes Ferrell 1931 23 40 7.5 0.2 1.9 128 0.319 0.373 0.621
7 Schoolboy Rowe 1943 33 27 6.9 0.1 1.8 137 0.300 0.382 0.458
8 Johnny Lindell 1953 36 32 6.5 0.2 1.7 133 0.303 0.429 0.495
9 Don Drysdale 1965 28 44 6.2 -0.5 2.2 138 0.300 0.331 0.508
10 Elam Vangilder 1922 26 43 5.8 0.2 1.7 110 0.344 0.396 0.559

So we have some very impressive stories here. First off, at #1, Don Newcombe can lay claim to the best offensive season from a pitcher in the live ball era, one in which he amassed a gargantuan 2.4 WAR with his batting alone. This nearly doubles the total value he contributed to his team that season, as Newcombe was worth an additional 2.6 WAR from the mound in 1955. Traditionally, when we cite WAR totals we never bother to include their hitting. In Newcombe's case, we are gravely underestimating his contributions.

There are a few other notable names-- Walter Johnson, Wes Ferrell (twice) and Don Drysdale. But it's painfully obvious that the most recent season was over half a century ago in 1965. This has quite a bit to do with the lighter IP workloads (and therefore lower PA totals) that are expected of starting pitchers these days, but it's certainly not the whole story.

As for the best recent pitchers, you've probably already guessed them:

Best Hitting Seasons for Pitchers, since 2000

# Name Year Age G Runs_Bat Runs baserunning WAR PA BA OBP SLG
1 Micah Owings 2007 24 29 4.7 -0.1 1.4 64 0.333 0.349 0.683
2 Brooks Kieschnick 2003 31 42 4.5 -0.4 1.4 76 0.300 0.355 0.614
3 Mike Leake 2010 22 24 3.3 -0.3 1.2 60 0.333 0.407 0.354
4 Dan Haren 2010 29 35 3.3 -0.2 1.1 57 0.364 0.375 0.527
5 Yovani Gallardo 2010 24 31 2.5 -0.3 1.2 72 0.254 0.329 0.508
6 Carlos Zambrano 2008 27 30 2.2 -0.2 1.3 85 0.337 0.337 0.554

I'll admit I nearly forgot about Mike Leake's potency with the bat. His slashline of .333/.407/.354 from 2010 is really quite impressive and his 1.2 WAR ranks 33rd in the Live Ball era. His 2012 season wasn't half bad either (precisely at league-average at 100 wRC+) and he's already accumulated 2.5 offensive rWAR in just three seasons.

Micah Owings hasn't had a ton of success as a pitcher over the course of the last five years, but his batting numbers are rather impressive. Despite a 111 ERA- since 2007, his wRC+ is a solid 104. During the course of the 2012 season, Owings even attempted to transition to a "position player/pitcher" in the San Diego Padre's system at AAA. An injury sidelined that plan, but Owings' is likely to give it another go this season, provided he's awarded the opportunity. His 152 wRC+ from a pitcher during that 2007 season, ranks 3rd best since 1920 (min 50 PA).

For the younger members of the readership, Brooks Kieschnick's major league career is quite a rare story. After his prospects as an OF/1B began to fade, Kieschnick converted to an unprecedented PH/RP role with the Milwaukee Brewers for the 2003-2004 seasons. He amassed 144 Plate Appearances in that time and 95 relief innings.

How bad can it get?

These are wonderful stories, but I imagine it's more often severely bad than it is modestly good. Let's look at some of the less encouraging pitcher hitting seasons.

Worst Hitting Seasons for Pitchers, since 1920

# Name Year Age G Runs bat Runs Baserunning WAR PA BA OBP SLG
1 Jimmy Ring 1923 28 39 -25.0 0.5 -1.3 124 0.106 0.122 0.159
2 Jimmy Ring 1925 30 38 -22.2 0.2 -1.0 110 0.109 0.143 0.168
3 Bill Hallahan 1930 27 35 -21.8 0.2 -1.0 97 0.123 0.174 0.136
4 Lefty Grove 1933 33 45 -21.6 0.2 -1.0 113 0.086 0.119 0.152
5 Gaylord Perry 1970 31 41 -21.2 -0.2 -0.5 132 0.117 0.123 0.167
6 Mike Cuellar 1970 33 40 -21.1 -0.1 -0.7 123 0.089 0.105 0.152
7 Johnny Broaca 1936 26 37 -21.1 -0.4 -1.0 86 0.110 0.120 0.110
8 Bob Feller 1948 29 44 -21.0 0.2 -1.0 106 0.095 0.113 0.116
9 Randy Jones 1976 26 40 -20.9 -0.5 -0.9 123 0.058 0.102 0.058
10 Ray Kremer 1930 37 39 -20.8 0.2 -0.8 112 0.157 0.173 0.235

All of these seasons occurred before 1980's, and owe an equal part of their damage to bad hitting as well as PA totals. Fangraphs, incidentally, has the top 5 worst wRC+ seasons from a pitcher occurring after 2000 (min 50 PA), so pitcher's offensive rates are in fact getting much worse, at least at the extremes, when compared to the rest of the league.

But the worst-case-scenario for pitchers hitting in a single-season still looks to be around -1 WAR. Check out some of these slashlines, if you got the guts:

Worst Hitting Seasons for Pitchers, since 2000

Num Name Year age G Runs_Bat Runs Baserunning WAR PA BA OBP SLG
1 Doug Davis 2004 28 34 -19.2 0.0 -0.9 71 0.016 0.031 0.016
2 Aaron Harang 2005 27 32 -19.0 0.0 -0.8 78 0.027 0.027 0.027
3 Randy Johnson 2001 37 35 -18.3 -0.5 -0.6 91 0.100 0.143 0.100
4 Aaron Harang 2007 29 34 -18.3 -0.3 -0.5 88 0.095 0.117 0.108
5 Brett Myers 2006 25 31 -18.1 -0.2 -0.7 74 0.032 0.090 0.032
6 Ryan Dempster 2001 24 34 -17.5 -1.2 -0.7 78 0.049 0.065 0.066

Let's just all sit back and admire Doug Davis's slashline from 2004. Over the course of 71 PA's Doug hit an astonishingly beautiful .016/ .031/ .016 for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Careers

Beyond the Boxscore's Adam Darowski once looked at the greatest gains in career WAR pitchers had made through their offense (although Baseball-reference has since modified their WAR calculation), but I've composed a more modern list, with more names you may recognize, for better reference. (If you're like me, you sometimes need to juxtapose the memory/impression with the statistic, in order for it to properly register.)

Among all pitcher with at least 250 pitching appearances, having debuted after 1945:

Highest Career Offensive WAR for Pitchers, since 1945

# Name pos Debut G WAR
1 Don Newcombe P 1949 344 8.8
2 Mike Hampton P 1993 419 8.2
3 Earl Wilson P 1959 338 7.9
4 Bob Gibson P 1959 528 7.8
5 Tom Glavine P 1987 682 7.5
6 Gary Peters P 1959 359 6.9
7 Vern Law P 1950 483 6.4
8 Carlos Zambrano P 2001 354 6.3
9 Bob Forsch P 1974 498 6.3
10 Don Larsen P 1953 412 6.1

Don Newcombe again, and surely everyone remembers the very un-pitcher-like skills of Mike Hampton at the plate from not so long ago. Gibson apparently wasn't afraid to dig in despite all the anxiety he caused from the other side of the batter-pitcher match-up, and Carlos Zambrano's offensive WAR totals justify the hype.

But where the issue of pitcher's hitting becomes of particular interest is a case like Tom Glavine at #5. When December of 2013 comes around, the Hall of Fame debate will be assuredly en fuego. With over 15 players with legitimate odds of being inducted, a player like Glavine will need every edge he can muster to get that 75% of the vote. Adding an additional 7.5 WAR to a player's career is effectively adding another MVP season to his legacy. It is not a trivial amount and could be all the difference between the Hall and Lofton-ville.

Of course some players, when they finally decide to hang 'em up, have to look back on their careers and deduct that figurative "MVP season" from their legacies based on impossibly, unforgivingly bad bat-handling:

LOWEST Career Offensive WAR for Pitchers, since 1945

# Name pos Debut G WAR
1 Bob Buhl P 1953 457 -6.2
2 Bob Friend P 1951 602 -5.8
3 Dean Chance P 1961 406 -4.9
4 Sandy Koufax P 1955 397 -4.1
5 Ron Kline P 1952 736 -3.9
6 Aaron Harang P 2002 299 -3.6
7 Ryan Dempster P 1998 547 -3.5
8 Roger Craig P 1955 368 -3.5
9 Jerry Koosman P 1967 612 -3.5
10 Russ Meyer P 1946 319 -3.4

Other Notes

  • Since 2000, the St. Louis Cardinals have produced the best wRC+ out of their pitchers among all NL teams at 7 (yes, that's right, a 7 wRC+, where 100 is league-average).
  • The Pittsburgh Pirates, meanwhile, have fared the worst, averaging a -22 wRC+ in that time

Poll

I'm curious to hear back from everyone about this final point, though. With the positional adjustments for pitcher's offense weighted so heavily, just a handful of squeakers past the infielders can have dramatic cnsequences with regard to that player's WAR totals. But, at the same time, some pitchers clearly have demonstrated a legitimate ability to out-hit their peers and deserve credit for this contribution. The question is then, should we include pitcher's hitting when we cite their WAR totals, both for single-seasons and their careers? Vote your conscience.

Thanks to Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, Retrosheet, and the Lahman database for the data.

Follow @JDGentile on twitter.

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