Maybe you’ve never noticed Jason Hammel swinging the bat. I must admit that I haven’t noticed such a thing in real time. I’m only appreciating him after the fact of his tenure in the National League. He signed with the Royals this winter, making this article necessary to flag his actions for the historians — who will surely come looking for such things. Right?
Jason Hammel swung at 305 pitches over the past two seasons, or 61.5 percent of the ones that were thrown in his direction. That, were the minimum PA threshold set to such low levels as to draw accusations of tomfoolery, would place him atop of the list of the league’s most aggressive hackers — just ahead of Jonathan Schoop and Adam Jones. There are many differences between Hammel and those Orioles hitters — the largest being that they are hitters, the smallest perhaps being the gap in their swinging-strike rates — but one hard-to-miss difference is the way they are pitched.
If Jones and Schoop were offered the steady diet of straight strikes that Hammel receives regularly, their sky-high swing rates would look far more wise.
In an ideal world, Hammel would only break out his swing for special occasions. The National League, though, is not an ideal world for players who focus all their time on throwing baseballs rather than hitting them. Starting pitchers just have to face the facts and trot out to the plate in a helmet a couple times per outing.
Within this context, of extremely reluctant pitcher-hitters, Hammel’s decision to be the league’s freest swinger might just be brilliant.
OK, so this seems like a bit of a novelty, right? Sure. It is.
But, but! It’s also less about Hammel’s specific approach and more about the ideal strategy for an entirely over-matched hitter (read: a pitcher) who comes to the plate in a major league game.
The logical progression that could lead you to a notion that Hammel hit on the right approach goes something like this: Over-matched hitters see a lot of pitches in the zone, and thus are likely to fall behind in the count. As hitters fall further behind in the count, their chances of success deteriorate. So for particularly bad hitters, who aren’t particularly prone to reaping benefits from working the count, it is probably a good idea to put the ball in play sooner rather than later, and try to take advantage of those early pitches in the zone.
To wit, pitchers have comically bad numbers in any count — as evidenced by NL pitchers’ 38.6 percent strikeout rate, and .135/.166/.174 slash line in 2016 — but in two-strike counts, the numbers cross the invisible line from darkly comic to despairingly tragic. NL pitchers struck out 65.2 percent of the time and walked just 3.3 percent of the time in 2016. The slash line went .074/.106/.094. You don’t want to know their wRC+. (It’s -51.)
On balls in play, though, they become a slow-footed version of 2016 Adeiny Hechavarria. It’s not what you want, but it’s a massive improvement over the unrelenting drain on their team’s offensive hopes and dreams that is the alternative.
Adding to this is a special logical cherry on top for the pitcher-who-has-to-hit: In order to get the ball into play, pitchers will almost certainly require more swings than a position player. They’re going to whiff themselves into those dreaded two-strike counts sometimes, even if they’re swinging like a more aggressive Adam Jones. So, assuming they aren’t secretly harboring a non-functional shoulder, they might as well hack away and see if they can run into something, as opposed to waiting to take one swing per plate appearance, hoping it’s their weekly or monthly moment of luck.
So what pitchers do this already? Hammel, of course, but also Junior Guerra, Gio Gonzalez, Carlos Martinez and Jeff Samardzija. You may remember that Guerra began his pro baseball career, which is now more than a decade old, as a catcher. That is long in the rear-view mirror, but you do wonder whether his free-swinging ways are a remnant of the deficiencies that ended that pursuit, or an effect of knowing that he’s being offered better pitches to hit now that he’s a pitcher.
I don’t know how much rhyme or reason there is to a pitcher’s proclivity for swinging, but there is vast variation among them. Gonzalez and Zach Davies, for instance, saw about the same proportion of pitches in the zone (north of 58 percent!). Gonzalez offered at nearly 62 percent of them, while Davies swung at only 46 percent of his. All of this is subject to the disclaimer of small-sample size, and to the additional disclaimer that this is a complete lark, but it doesn’t seem like Davies’ patience helps anything! He only managed to work one walk out of that, and batted .094. Gonzalez didn’t walk even the one time, but hit .135 with a couple doubles.
Perhaps the best way to think of it is in probability of helping the team in any way. Putting a ball in play is a better outcome for a pitcher’s at bat in most circumstances than standing there hoping for, what, that the opposing pitcher is momentarily struck with the yips and you manage to work a walk?
There are some notable exceptions. When a pitcher is nursing some sort of injury that swinging or running might exacerbate, or when potential game-tying or go-ahead runs are on first (or first and second) with one out. Yeah, maybe don’t have the pitcher swing there. But any other time? Go for it!
The only remaining question is whether opposing pitchers would notice this and turn it against their free-swinging brethren like some sort of judo move. I would posit that it wouldn’t happen often or quickly enough to undermine the strategy unless the hitting-pitcher in question was homering at a noticeable clip (like Madison Bumgarner) or maintaining a reputation as a good hitter (like Zack Greinke).
Barring those exceptions? They probably won’t be good. So they might as well give themselves as many chances as possible to be lucky.
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Zach Crizer is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @zcrizer.