THT review: Great Hitting Pitchers

Great Hitting Pitchers is one of the earliest works put out by the Society for American Baseball Research, also know as SABR. SABR first published the piece in 1979, with the editing handled by the Society’s founder, Bob Davids. Mike Cook, currently helping with digital publications, has updated this look at hitting pitchers with statistics and information pertaining to hurlers since 1979.

This is not a narrative of the history of pitchers and their exploits at the plate. Instead, this work is a barrage of historic facts that come at you like one Bob Feller fastball after another. The style would please William Zinsser. It is direct. Long and winding sentences have no place in it.

It’s obviously well-researched. Some of the most interesting bits were dug up from the earliest years of baseball, when pitchers were players who might start 50 games in a season on the mound and play the balance in the outfield or at first base. As you know, information and statistics are not easily accessed from games from so long ago. The gang at SABR is built for just this kind of research.

Incredible baseball work is done every day using tools like the Internet and projects like baseball-reference. SABR uses those tools, but their staple is digging up records over 100 years old. That’s where some of the most amazing parts of this work come from—from that era when pitchers like Guy Hecker would do it all, and sometimes even manage the club.

Many of the most impressive single game hitting records come from that era. Since they pitched more often, and since they pitched complete games much, much more often—pitchers came to the plate so much that sometimes pitchers produced spectacular numbers at the plate. One such stretch by Hecker in 1886 saw the American Association pitcher for Louisville rack up 23 hits in a seven game stretch in games where he pitched. Hecker once had six hits in a game, but others were able to rack up five, which is incredible in its own right.

As noted, this a compilation of factual tidbits, so the reader is in a way forced to think a little about the backstories or circumstances surrounding them. It may even prompt the hardcore baseball fan—for whom this seems to be written—to pause and wander off on their own little expedition to find out more about a player or game.

For instance, you will find that Doc Crandall led all pitchers in 1919 with a .309 batting average. And, mentioned almost as matter-of-factly, you also find that in a game in August of that same year, Crandall was struck by lightening while on the mound with two outs in the ninth inning. The authors note that Crandall recovered quickly and recorded the third out to finish the game and the reader’s interest is almost certainly peaked.

When we reach the revised portion of the book, covering years since 1980, you can see the use of contemporary statistics like fWar and OPS+. This section reads a lot more like what readers of this website are accustomed to, as well as what’s seen elsewhere, like Baseball Prospectus or Fangraphs. While it didn’t throw me at all, it seemed like there would have been a place for a note on these more advanced metrics.

It’s become a common complaint that we sometimes get a little too hung up on the numbers at the expense of context or without fully laying out how the particular statistic is formulated. I don’t need the fWar formulation anymore, but other readers might not be able to stay in stride when hitting the review since 1979. But, since this is more of an encyclopedic look at pitchers at the plate, the bare facts and numbers don’t mess with the product. Even though the newly added chapter works in the advanced metrics, it’s not a radical departure from the setup of the previous chapters.

The authors also uncovered a multitude of facts surrounding pitchers once they reached base. In the chapter on baserunning, some equally impressive single game totals are sure to entertain, including the story of “Faber’s frolic”—a silly gambit that resulted in three steals in one inning for Red Faber.

From the silly to the spectacular, Great Hitting Pitchers is packed with facts. It’s a smaller piece, but so is the price attached to it. If you are interested in minutia, or particularly fond of stats from baseball’s beginning years, give this a shot. It’s available here, in digital format, for a reasonable price of $5.95.

References & Resources
Full disclosure- I am a SABR member.

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10 years ago

This is a topic that I’ve found interesting since playing around with the lineup regression data that someone at Beyond the Boxscore had done.

The scenario is .500 pitchers:  one who is average batter for a pitcher, or pretty bad, one who is more replacement level for a position player, somewhere in the .600 OPS range (it was a few years back and I substituted in Omar Vizquel’s OPS in for the pitcher).

For .500, I chose 4.5 RA and RS, then raised the RA by the change of having a replacement level hitting pitcher.  To make things simple, I assumed the average pitcher was 15-15 each season, and thus over a 10 year career, he’s 150-150.

Having a replacement level hitting pitcher added roughly one win for the season, so now the average pitcher is 16-14 each season, 160-140 for a 10 year career, or .533 winning percentage.

Applying that at a team wide situation, you go from a 81-81 team to a 86-76 team, or almost a playoff contender, just from having average pitchers who are replacement level hitters instead of the poor hitters that most pitchers are.

Cliff Blau
10 years ago

Ray Caldwell was the pitcher who was hit by lightning in 1919.  Crandall was in the PCL then.

David Wade
10 years ago

Cliff- you’re right, that’s my mistake.  It is correct in the book.