The Chicago Cubs won the NL Central last year because of their dominant pitching staff. The team’s top four starters—Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano, and Matt Clement—combined for 59 wins and a 3.19 ERA, far better numbers than those put up by the best four from the second-place Houston Astros. But the dominance didn’t end on the mound. The 2003 Cubs had the best-hitting pitching staff in baseball: Prior, Wood, et al., accounted for about 24 more runs at the plate than the weak-swinging Houston pitchers. Analysts, using a statistic called Marginal Lineup Value, figure that those 24 extra runs are worth roughly two wins—just enough for the Cubs to sneak past the Astros and win the Central by one game.
Don’t be misled, though. In modern-day baseball, being the “best-hitting pitcher” is like being the world’s fastest snail. Last year’s stat line for the Cubs staff: a combined .201 batting average, .220 on-base percentage, and .302 slugging percentage. These are the numbers that give the Cubs such an advantage over the competition?
Pitcher hitting wasn’t always so putrid. In the 1870s, the average pitcher had an OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) equal to 84 percent of the OPS of an average position player. By the 1920s, it had slipped to 66 percent; in the 1950s, 58 percent. By the 1970s, things had gotten so ugly—52 percent—that a restraining order (the designated-hitter rule) mandated that American League hurlers must stay 60 feet from home plate at all times. In the 31 years since the advent of the DH, things have gotten only worse: In the aughts, pitchers are managing an OPS of .365, just 47 percent of that of everyday players.
Starting pitchers didn’t always have the ninth spot in the batting order on permanent lockdown. In pro baseball’s early days, the pitcher was often the best hitter on his team. Hall of Famer John Montgomery Ward both pitched and played shortstop in his 17-year career, compiling a .275 career batting average. Then there was the portly Boston hurler named George Ruth who won the American League’s home-run crown in 1918—a year in which he also compiled 13 wins and a 2.22 ERA. Wes Ferrell hit 38 home runs primarily as a starting pitcher in the 1930s; Don Drysdale socked 29 in the ‘50s and ‘60s; today’s active homer leader among pitchers, Atlanta’s Mike Hampton, has just 12 in his 12-year career.
But the decline in pitchers’ hitting skills during the past 100 years isn’t yet more evidence of the insidious abandonment of baseball fundamentals. Rather, the inability of pitchers to succeed against their kin is the most powerful evidence that today’s players are more skilled than their ancestors. Pitching and hitting are both so difficult now that specialization is a must—it’s almost impossible for any one person to perform both tasks competently.
As the game gets tougher, the pool of two-way players dwindles. In Little League, the best player usually pitches and plays shortstop. The same is true, to a lesser extent, in high school, where raw athletic skill is more likely to prevail over specific, learned abilities: The cleanup hitter might not only be the pitcher, but also the point guard and the starting quarterback. A few collegiate stars—Dave Winfield, Mark Kotsay, John Olerud, and Mark McGwire, for instance—star on the mound and at the plate each year. But when pro teams get their hands on a rare pitcher-hitter combo, they usually make him focus on the batter’s box. Instead of John Montgomery Wards and Babe Ruths, all we have now is a novelty item like reliever/pinch-hitter Brooks Kieschnick, who maintains his spot on the Brewers’ roster because he can both pitch and hit at an only-slightly-below-average level.
It may be a given that most major-league pitchers are hopeless at the plate, but that doesn’t mean their pathetic flailing doesn’t matter—just ask the Cubs and the Astros. Last season, the gap between the Cubs and the Reds, the worst-hitting staff in the majors, was 34 runs, or about three-and–a-half wins. The gap between 2003’s best- and worst-hitting pitchers, Atlanta’s Russ Ortiz and Florida’s Mark Redman, was 18 runs, or just less than two wins. Over a career, the difference can be much bigger: The hopeless Sandy Koufax was worth 115 runs (or 12 wins) less than his Dodger teammate Don Drysdale.
So, how should NL teams go about building a staff of top-notch hitters—or at minimum, limit the awfulness of their pitchers’ at-bats? One idea is to require pitching prospects to come to the plate in the minor leagues, even in leagues that allow a designated hitter. Teams could also force pitchers to take batting practice more regularly. But there are costs to both of these remedies. Having a pitching prospect hit in the minors would deny playing time to a hitting prospect whose development at the plate is far more important to the big club’s future; teams go to great lengths to keep their prized arms healthy, and the first time that a multimillion-dollar arm is hurt during a freak batting-practice incident would surely be the last.
Coaxing marginal improvements out of the meekest of the meek will get you only so far. The only guaranteed way to solve your pitchers’ hitting woes is to latch on to the small subset of pitchers with a proven ability to knock the cover off the ball. Dontrelle Willis, the exuberant Marlins star who already has three wins and six base hits this season, hit better than .600 his senior year of high school. The Cubs’ Prior mashed four home runs in his sophomore year at USC.
If you can’t find a pitcher who can hit, you can always look for a hitter who can pitch. Three seasons ago, the Pirates made Kent State senior John VanBenschoten the eighth pick in the amateur draft. Though Van Benschoten had just been named a first-team All-American as a hitter—he hit .440 with a .984 slugging average his senior season—the kid also threw a 93 mph fastball and a hard-breaking slider. VanBenschoten is now a starting pitcher—a pretty good one, in fact—with the Nashville Sounds, the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate. But unlike erstwhile two-way players like Winfield and McGwire whose pitching skills erode from disuse, VanBenschoten will still work on his swing occasionally. If the right-hander starts piling up home runs along with wins, the Pirates might be tempted to stick him in the outfield every day. After all, Babe Ruth would never have hit 714 home runs if the Red Sox hadn’t put him in the outfield.