Pitchers have never excelled at hitting. Most baseball fans know this and accept it — after all, a pitcher should prioritize the eponymous part of his job over the secondary facet. That's why it makes headlines when a team doesn't slot its starter ninth in the lineup, as the Cubs and Rockies did a couple weeks back. Pitchers pitch, hitters hit, managers manage, and spectators spectate. It all works.
Recently, though, the performance of pitchers at the plate has taken a nosedive. Starting in 1983, the average MLB hurler posted a negative wRC+, and it's stayed below 0 ever since:
You'll note the nosedive at the end of the graph. That's where the wRC+ went from -19 in 2014 to...wait for it...negative thirty-four in 2015. Not only would the latter mark rank as the worst ever (obviously), the gap between it and the former would come in at third all-time:
|Rank||Season||wRC+||Season +1||wRC+ +1||Gap|
So why has this drop happened? Don't pin the blame on strikeouts, as pitchers have fanned themselves less often in the past few seasons:
Instead, the decline comes from the other three areas of offense — walks...
...hits on balls in play...
All-around, pitchers cannot hit anymore. And looking at some of the peripheral statistics behind it, we can see that this drought might not let up.
When batting form 2008 to 2014, a hurler could expect around 56% of the pitches he saw to pass through the strike zone. In that span, the Zone% for pitcher plate appearances oscillated from 55.7% to 56.4% — in other words, it remained pretty stable. Thus far in 2015, an even 60% of all pitches thrown to pitchers have been hittable. That figure comes across a 417-PA sample, so it seems pretty stable.
On the occasions when they've made contact, pitchers have an infield fly ball rate of 23.7%, which doesn't lend itself to a high BABIP or ISO. That diverges significantly from the levels of the campaigns occuring heretofore, in which they generally popped the ball up at a slightly above-average clip. Uncoincidentally, pitchers haven't yet hit a home run; even if they knock a ball out of the park in 2.7% (their HR% in 2014) of their remaining trips to the dish, they'll likely still fall short of 2015's total.
Perhaps we should have seen this drop coming. Carlos Zambrano has hung up his cleats, as has Dontrelle Willis, and Yovani Gallardo has taken his talents to the American League. At the same time, we should probably expect Mike Leake, Madison Bumgarner, and Adam Wainwright — the owners of 57, 30, and 37 wRC+s, respectively, prior to 2015 — to rebound from their collective 0-for-22 start. And with only two weeks of baseball behind us, we can't necessarily make grand statements about what will come.
But this could simply be the new normal. Maybe the greater putridity from pitchers hitting will prompt Major League Baseball to do what it should have done a long time ago: make the designated hitter the rule for both leagues. Until then, we'll probably just expect an automatic out from the ninth spot in the order.
. . .
All data courtesy of FanGraphs.
Ryan Romano is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.