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Why You Should Care About Pitcher’s Batting

wes ferrell batting

Wes Ferrell, 1946 HoME candidate, and perhaps the best hitting pitcher ever

The headline saves you the mystery of my opinion. Pitcher’s batting matters. Even though most pitchers look hit they’re hitting against Bugs Bunny. As a result of this ineptitude, lots of folks make no bones that they ignore the “offense” a pitcher generates when evaluating them for the Hall of Fame. Others just never mention it because it doesn’t cross their brain. Look, I get it, but it’s wrong.

It’s really this simple: In baseball, everything matters. The most precious commodity in a baseball game is not a run. It’s an out. As long as you have an out left, you can still score a run. Since most pitchers use up outs like crazy, the ones who can actually hit, even a little, give teams a real, quantifiable advantage. By ignoring their offensive contributions, or lack thereof, we are saying that outs and runs don’t really matter as much for some hitters as for others. I don’t think it’s a falsehood to say that this line of thinking is a falsehood.

There’s a direct analogy here to big, slow home run hitters. The Killebrews, McGwires, McCoveys, Ortizes of the world who are annually among the game’s lamest base runners (non-catching division). We can tell ourselves all we want that their base running doesn’t matter because it doesn’t count for much and because they aren’t paid to be speed merchants. But the extra outs they make on the bases are a price paid for power. The worst base runners cost their teams five to eight runs in a season (about a half a win or more of value). It’s not a big deal, but it’s not nothing, and it’s something that the advanced value stats explicitly count; after all, we want to know as much as we can about how valuable a player is.

So why should pitcher batting be any different?

What gets confused, I think, is the idea of trading off a characteristic versus ignoring it. In our power-hitter example, we trade off a few runs on the bases for lots of runs from homers. But if we could have both we would! With pitchers, it’s a more drastic tradeoff because over time, baseball as an industry has traded off nearly all of a pitcher’s batting value in exchange for his pitching value. Which, we can all emphatically agree, is the smart thing to do. But it still comes at a cost measured in outs and runs.

So let’s take two extreme examples, the first of whom is immediately pertinent to our 1946 election. Wes Ferrell is perhaps the greatest hitting pitcher in MLB history. By various stats he was a league-average batter across his 1345 plate appearances. He hit better than most shortstops and catchers. By contrast, the average pitcher-batter was about seventy-four percent worse than the league.

Among very famous pitchers, Sandy Koufax might be his opposite. Koufax is one of the worst hitting pitchers whose name you know well. His career OPS+ was -26. Note the negative sign. In 858 plate appearances, he was 124 percent worse than a league average hitter, while the typical pitcher was merely ninety-five percent worse than the league.

Give Ferrell Koufax’s playing time for comparison’s sake. Koufax was worth -4.2 Wins Above Replacement. In that same playing time, Ferrell would be worth 8.2 Wins. That’s a twelve-win spread, which is the difference between Juan Marichal and Jimmy Key’s career pitching WAR. Actually, it’s also the difference between Ferrell and Marichal’s pitching WAR, but I digress…. Twelve wins. That’s huge, and all those wins matter.

So you can ignore pitcher batting, but why? Just because pitchers aren’t chosen for their bats doesn’t mean that what they do with the lumber should be ignored. Especially when the difference between best and worst isn’t trivial. Outs are outs. Runs are runs. Wins are wins. Pennants are pennants. And flags fly forever.

—Eric

PS: And, yes, I’ll be voting for Ferrell.

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