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Pitchers just don't hit like they used to

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With the exception of Babe Ruth pitchers have never been known for hitting well, but things are getting worse and worse in recent years.

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

As someone who has grown up watching American League baseball, I absolutely love seeing pitchers hit.

Perhaps that's a product of novelty alone, but I think it's more than that. Watching hurlers hopelessly hack away at the plate humanizes the game in some way -- it gives me a sense of what trying to hit a baseball might be like if one didn't possess the superhuman hand-eye coordination that even the worst position players in the Major Leagues take for granted.

I could also rationalize my belief by saying it opens up strategic possibilities, but the reality is I like the way watching pitchers look like normal guys at the plate trying to do the impossible puts the difficulty of the game into perspective. It also leads to humorous moments, as well as the kind of ludicrously improbable events that make baseball special.

There is an irrationality to my point of view, and there are very good arguments to be made for having the DH in both leagues. The fact that the two leagues play under different rules at all is kind of ridiculous, but if you're going to go there, the fact that teams play in ballparks with different dimensions that they can alter willy-nilly is also patently absurd.

At the end of the day, baseball is just a very weird beast. Some prefer to romanticize that aspect of it, others seek to improve it at every turn. I respect both points of view, but I'm a gooey romantic myself.

That long walk for a short drink of water brings us back to pitchers hitting. It is a part of the game that is analyzed relatively infrequently in detail, as it is not that important and sample sizes tend to be on the small side (especially for individual pitchers).

While I do believe there are interesting things to be learned even from those individual pitchers, more concrete learning comes from looking at league-wide stats that form a solid sample. There are trends in total pitcher hitting around baseball and right now, specifically downward trends. The table below shows what pitchers have produced at the plate in the last five years, in brackets is where those seasons rank in the last 50 season of pitcher hitting.

Year HR BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2010 16 (40th) 3.2% (T36th) 33.7% (41st) .140 (31st) .174 (T38th) .173 (42nd) -10 (T37th)
2011 28 (14th) 3.3% (T31st) 32.9% (35th) .141 (30th) .175 (T36th) .183 (T25th) -6 (T26th)
2012 24 (21st) 3.2% (T36th) 37.1% (50th) .129 (49th) .162 (49th) .165 (49th) -16 (48th)
2013 21 (24th) 3.1% (T41st) 36.7% (49th) .132 (48th) .164 (47th) .169 (46th) -13 (47th)
2014 15 (41st) 2.9% (T48th) 36.6% (48th) .122 (50th) .153 (50th) .153 (50th) -19 (50th)

The last three years have been especially brutal. While the bar isn't set especially high here -- the best wRC+ pitchers have collectively assembled in the last half-century is 15 -- in recent years, pitchers have been historically bad with the stick. Strikeouts have been a major culprit, as these helpless hitters have fallen victim to league-wide trends, but that's probably not the beginning and end of it.

The question is whether these flagging numbers will mobilize the baseball world to be more pro-DH. It seems unlikely. Pitchers have always been terrible at the plate and the continue to be; in the eyes of most, the difference is insignificant. If I had to venture a guess, I would say it's going to take a pitcher getting an ugly injury getting hit by a pitch to get the rules changed in a hurry.

For now, we are stuck with pitchers not only hitting, but being even worse than usual. There's some comedy in that, but there's frustration too. At the very least, we can hold onto the idea that the pitcher who contributes offensively is not an entirely extinct species, whether it's Zack Greinke with his advanced approach or Madison Bumgarner's surprising pop.

We've always known these guys were a special breed, but they might be rarer than we realize.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs

Nick Ashbourne is an Editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.