The State of Pitchers Hitting

Zach Eflin isn’t the best hitting pitcher in the game, but he might have the most confidence. (via Ian D’Andrea)

A broad smile spread across Phillies pitcher Zach Eflin’s face as he considered the question: if he got 600 at-bats a season, the same as the position players, what kind of production could he provide the Philadelphia lineup?

“I’ll give you a dream answer,” Eflin said, standing in front of his locker after a recent home game. “And that’s be .280 with 30 [home runs]. And 120 [RBIs]. How about that?”

Eflin, to be clear, wasn’t merely talking about a fantasy in which the Phillies began to deploy him in the field every day. The scenario involved a sea change in how pitchers across baseball, from the amateur ranks clear through the minor leagues and into both the American and National Leagues, are developed as hitters.

See, the conversation about the designated hitter, part of the American League since 1973 and the National League since never, is entirely too often a binary one. Should there be a DH or not? There’s far more to it than that, as a survey of the players and managers living the current, bifurcated major league reality are happy to share. Finding consensus on these questions is as difficult as you’d imagine, too.

Take the basics: pitchers hitting has always been a relatively low-reward experience. Sure, there’s always been the Don Newcombe here (.359/.395/.632 with seven home runs in 1955), or the Rick Rhoden there (four seasons north of 100 OPS+). Overall, though, pitchers had been fairly stable in their production through the eras, even since the DH was introduced in 1973.

In 1968, The Year of the Pitcher (but, you know, on the mound), pitchers in major league baseball posted a slash line of .132/.167/.171, good for a wRC+ of 1, in 9,024 plate appearances. A decade later? Just 5,185 plate appearances, but the slash line improved a bit, to .148/.183/.188, though the wRC+ dipped to -1. By 1988, as more and more pitchers spent less and less time hitting, it dropped to .133/.163/.168 and a -9 wRC+. It rallied to .146/.187/.183 and a wRC+ of -6 in 1998. And even as overall offense remained pretty static in 2008, major league pitchers slashed just .139/.177/.176 that season. And by 2018? Pitchers overall hit .115/.144/.148 in the major leagues in 2018 in 5,135 plate appearances. That’s a -25 wRC+

So what is going on lately? Jake Arrieta, Silver Slugger winner, has some ideas.

“I think there’s been more emphasis on really bearing down on the pitcher and not just throwing the ball down the middle in hopes that they’re going to swing and miss or put the ball in play with weak contact,” Arrieta said. “I think attacking the pitcher as if he was another position player is kind of the mindset that I think that most guys have started to have, and also, guys’ stuff is so much more electric in the game now, over the past few years. An average fastball’s gone up from 90 to 93 something in the past couple of years, and just guys are throwing so hard with elite stuff, and hitting’s a lot harder now.”

Arrieta has experienced this first-hand. Back in his hitting glory days of 2016, he posted a .262/.304/.415 slash line, popped a couple homers, and outproduced, on a rate basis, teammates Miguel Montero and Jason Heyward. Arrieta says that’s when pitchers started approaching him differently.

“I was getting a lot of good pitches to hit, and, now, the last couple years, I’ve been getting a ton of off-speed and hitter’s counts,” Arrieta said. “And even when I’m behind the count, I’m just seeing a ton of off-speed, which is a testament to my ability to do some damage as a pitcher, and the league has noticed that.”

The numbers back Arrieta up. When he first arrived in Chicago after three-plus seasons with the Orioles, opposing pitchers threw him 77.8 percent fastballs. By 2017, the year after he went Babe Ruth(ish) on the league, that number dropped to 60.5 percent (while the velocity of those fastball increased from 90.4 miles per hour in 2013 to 93.1 in 2017). Arrieta saw 17.9 percent curveballs in 2017 — significantly more than Robinson Cano has faced in any full season.

Still, it is hard to argue with the results. Since the start of the 2017 season, Arrieta is hitting .124/.154/.195 over 121 plate appearances.That would seem to support the overarching thesis that pitchers at the plate just can’t adjust to major league pitching on the mound. (His answer to the Eflin question, incidentally, is .220.)

But what if we’ve been setting pitchers up for failure?

Imagine this: whatever your job is, you showed some aptitude for it in high school. And then, as a condition of employment, you weren’t allowed to do it — at all — through college, and most of your early professional lives, before asked to do it again at the highest level. How do you think you’d fare?

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Well, that’s the current state of play for major league pitchers every time they are asked to hit. They don’t tend to hit in college. They never hit in the minor leagues. And then, against the best pitchers on earth? It’s hitting time, even as their teams carefully limit how much they are allowed to even practice the craft.

“I had committed to the University of Mexico under the impression I was going to be a two-way player, at least the intent to be,” Tigers pitcher Matt Moore recalled. “I liked hitting way more than pitching coming out of high school. I did want to stay in the batter’s box. But after kind of setting it down for six or seven years and then getting back in there, there were just too many reps lost. It’s a completely different thing than I remembered. At times, it’s almost not even fun. At first, I thought it was going to be fun, but it’s hard to pull the trigger sometimes.”

Moore was selected in the eighth round of the 2007 draft. He did not register a plate appearance in the minor leagues, and then got just nine of them from 2012-2015 with the Rays before finally resuming semi-regularly; he had 35 in 2016, and 53 in 2017 with the Rays, then the Giants. For his career, the stats are ugly: .106/.126/.106, a .232 OPS.

That is not, however, far off the American League pace as a whole. AL pitchers, in 2018, posted a .109/.129/.147 slash line; in 2017, .118/.154/.143. Both lines ranked well below their National League counterparts, who were good for a .116/.145/.149 line in 2018, and a .125/.157/.163 line in 2017.

So there’s a gap still, reflecting a difference in repetitions (4,769 plate appearances for NL pitchers, 332 for AL pitchers in 2018).

But shouldn’t that gap be even bigger? Arrieta doesn’t think so.

“The problem is the lack of at-bats,” Arrieta said. “We’re only getting three at-bats a week, three or four at-bats a week, so it’s hard to put up really good numbers when you’re not getting many at-bats. It’s like a guy pinch-hitting who’s not getting consistent at-bats on a daily basis and going up there and facing a guy once every three, four, five days.”

Arrieta said this with some evident frustration, even though he understands why the circumstances of his profession make more regular hitting work virtually impossible. Phillies pitchers hit BP before every home game, and at least once a series while on the road. Arrieta does believe, though, that getting to hit in the minor leagues would go a long way toward raising the floor for pitchers at the plate.

But what then, his manager, Gabe Kapler, wonders.

“For an athlete who is, arguably, one of the best athletes in that clubhouse with incredible hand eye coordination like Vince Velasquez, more reps at the minor league level might make him a good offensive weapon,” Kapler said. “But how would get him those reps at the major league level if he’s starting once every fifth day? And then those skills potentially could deteriorate … Because, really, hitting is a lot of timing and rhythm. And so consistency in your at-bats really leads to the ability to compete in the batter’s box, and without those consistent reps, I don’t see pitchers being on the same level as position players.”

Further undermining the pitcher as hitter is the routine of an entire league, where the DH reigns supreme. Even pitchers who love hitting understand that the question of another full-time job for fellow union members hangs in the balance of such a question, even though more AL teams use the DH as a utility catch-all instead of an additional hitter (with salary to match) at that lineup spot.

For AL managers, keeping pitchers from getting hurt is the whole idea.

“We go play the intrasquad, we don’t even let them swing, really,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said earlier this month, prior to a game against the Yankees. “We just tell them to bunt… pitching is so valuable now that in the American League, when you go to the National League, we are scared to death of their pitchers, they’ve got to run the bases, they can get jammed, the whole package. We don’t do that over in this league. It’s different for sure.”

But what about letting pitchers hit in the minor leagues, getting them prepared for the full spectrum of the game, so when it comes time to hit and run in the majors, they aren’t rusty?

“No, you would get more people hurt in the minor leagues, because those guys don’t control the ball when they are pitching as much right now,” Gardenhire said. “And you’d probably get a lot more guys whacked and then they wouldn’t be pitching. So I don’t like that idea at all.”

Even so, there’s a range of opinions from pitchers, and even managers, on whether to abolish the DH, utilize it in both the AL and NL, or keep the status quo. Moore likes the variety, the disparate traditions. Eflin would like to see pitchers hit universally, provided there’s an economic offset for the players giving up, at least in theory, a full-time job.

Then there’s Tigers reliever Shane Greene. He gave up hitting a long time ago, and it wasn’t by choice.

“I was told as a sophomore in high school that I was no longer allowed to hit because I wasn’t good enough,” Greene said. “So I didn’t get in the box against live pitching again until I was in the big leagues. I have seven ABs, and I’ve struck out five times.”

Greene received the same question as Eflin. What would his ceiling be for hitting, 600 at-bats, major league pitching?

“Not very high,” Greene said immediately, without the dreaming Eflin engaged in. “No, not very high. I was never a great hitter. But I think that my hitting days are over now that I’m in the bullpen.”

He headed toward the clubhouse exit, but circled back to add one more thing.

“But if I ever get another chance, I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”

Co-Founder, @TheIXNewsletter. Editor-in-Chief, @HighPostHoops. Senior Writer/Editor/Author of four books on baseball, including The Baseball Talmud and The Cardinals Way.
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Chuck Hildebrandtmember
4 years ago

Nicely written article, but please don’t further the mistaken notion that the reason anyone in baseball would want the DH is to protect high-paid union jobs. It’s hogwash that smacks of anti-labor sentiment. Connie Mack, no friend of paying players high wages, suggested the DH in 1908, and there was not only no union, but hardly any high paying jobs in baseball at all. Protecting high-paying union gigs is NOT the reason the DH should be universal. Replacing an incompetent player at the bat with a competent player at the bat is.

4 years ago

At times the article seems to suggest that one way to replace an incompetent player at the bat with a (more) competent player would be to discontinue the DH at every level of baseball.

4 years ago
Reply to  mgwalker

I disagree. As shown in 1968 pitchers collectively had a wRC+ of 1 in over 9,000 PAs, and that was pre-DH when pitchers presumably hit in the minor leagues. In 1958 they had a 12 wRC+, in 1948 a 19 wRC+, in 1938 it was 17, in 1928 it was 23, in 1918 it was 40, in 1908 it was 39.

It’s been trending down basically forever, well before the adoption of the DH, and was never at a level that would be acceptable for a position player. Pitchers haven’t had a wRC+ of 30 or higher since 1930.

Barney Coolio
4 years ago

Matt Moore committed to the University of New Mexico, not the University of Mexico. It would be awesome if a US born high school player did that, although I wonder if college sports exists in Mexico.

87 Cards
4 years ago

1. Buzzard’s Luck: Announced today, Matt Moore is down for the 2019 season to recover from knee-surgery.
2. Matt Moore of Moriarity (NM) HS once committed to the University of New Mexico–not U. of Mexico as printed here. I was born and raised in New Mexico ; we gotta shout-out for the few MLBers we can claim.

4 years ago

Interview any Brewers for this article?
Through April 16 the pitching staff as a whole was batting .387/.441/.548 in 35 plate appearances.
Including the Cards game on the 17th they’ve collectively got 2 HR and 13 hits. That’s more of either than Travis Shaw or Jesus Aguilar have in 31/26 additional PAs. More hits than Ryan Braun or Arcia have in 60 PA.