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August 6, 1999

Thunder in the Nine Spot

Today's best-hitting pitchers

by Rany Jazayerli

Twenty-six years after the American League anointed the Designated Hitter rule as its savior from ten years of low offensive totals and dwindling fan interest, the debate rages: is it a necessarily evil, or just evil? Baseball's braintrust seem intent on resolving the disparity between the two leagues, but they've been promising that for about 25 of those 26 years.

There's really no way around the facts that 1) the players' union is about as likely to give up the DH as they are to go on a sympathy strike for the umpires and 2) the NL is dead-set against adding the DH to their league, both to protect the "purity" of the Senior Circuit and--the real reason--because they don't want to pay seven-figure salaries to full-time DHs when they can pay six-figure salaries to Dave Hansen and John Vander Wal instead.

So let's not debate the issue. Rather, let's celebrate the benefits that both leagues bring us. Let's enjoy the rule that allows Edgar Martinez and Harold Baines to swing a bat more than once a game, all without having to watch Martinez turn a popup into three weeks on the DL. And by the same token, we should glorify those pitchers about whom the words "helps out his own cause" have been used even more than "he's lost his release point", whose bats are potent enough to keep opposing managers from intentionally walking Rey Ordonez or Kirt Manwaring in a sticky situation.

It is unfortunate that the spread of the DH into virtually every level of Organized Baseball (as well to much of disorganized baseball), has left pitchers with even less opportunity to hit. The result is that the great-hitting pitchers of 30 or 20 or even 10 years ago simply no longer exist. No longer do we have Rick Rhoden, who hit .300 three times in his career, finishing with a .238 average and nine homers, and who once started a game at DH for Billy Martin's Yankees, going 0-for-1 with a sacrifice fly. No longer can we watch Don Robinson, who hit .231 in his career with 13 homers in just 631 at-bats--a better career home-run percentage than Mark Grace--and who nearly converted to the outfield when he was battling a series of arm injuries in the early 1980s. The exploits of Ken Brett, who dominated his position with the bat even more than his brother did at third base, have been all-but-forgotten. Brett the Elder hit .262 with a .406 slugging average, and according to the STATS All-Time Handbook, created more runs per game (4.08) over his career than the league around him (4.05). Brett's .699 OPS ranks second behind the legendary Don Newcombe (.706) over the last 50 years.

Nevertheless, not everyone is as useless with a stick in their hands as John Burkett (.089 lifetime average), Jeff Fassero (.079) or Mark Clark (.058). Below is our list of today's best-hitting pitchers. Note that this list doesn't include such Titans of the Texas Leaguer as Chris Hammond (.581 career OPS), Tyler Green (.506) or Kevin Foster (.507). We've limited our list to those who have pitched in the majors this year. And after some consideration, Rick Aguilera, who has a career .526 OPS, was left off this list because he hasn't swung a bat in anger since 1989, save a freak at-bat in the 1991 World Series.

To show you that the term "good-hitting pitcher" isn't some sort of oxymoron or back-handed compliment, we will be evaluating each pitcher by the RBU: the Rafael Belliard Unit. If Mr. I've-been-to-more-postseasons-than-you can stay in the major leagues for 17 years--17 years!--with a career OPS of .529, what does that say for those versatile men who can swing the bat just as well and break off a nasty 12-to-6 deuce? For purposes of the comparison, each pitcher's career OPS is divided by that of the Luckiest Brave of Them All to arrive at his RBU score. All statistics are through the All-Star break.

10) Dwight Gooden

 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
738  145  15  5   8  60   67  13  134   1  1  .196  .212  .263  .475  0.90

Gooden makes the list as a sort of Career Achievement Award; while at-bat for at-bat, he is no longer among the premier hitters in the game, his career totals dwarf those of any other active pitcher. His 67 RBIs are tops among moundsmen, and no other pitcher has even five career homers. He also tops the chart with his five career triples, including two (along with two homers) in 1993 alone. He still has something left with the bat, as he homered in his first interleague at-bat this season.

9) Mark Portugal

 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
450   89  20  1   2  33   36  20   87   0  0  .198  .232  .260  .492  0.93

Portugal, who like too many pitchers on this list is currently confined to the American League, is just one hit short of the Mendoza Line for his career. His best season was 1994, when he hit .354--the sixth-highest total since World War II--with five doubles and a triple. He was still going strong last year, hitting .260 for the Phillies before signing with Boston.

8) Tom Glavine

 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
806  163  16  2   1  60   60  51  204   1  0  .202  .251  .231  .482  0.91

Glavine has less major league tenure than either Gooden or Hershiser, but by virtue of staying in the NL his entire career, he leads all active pitchers in at-bats and hits. He hit .289 in 1996, and won the Silver Slugger award last year despite a pedestrian .239 average and just one extra-base hit. You have to appreciate his plate discipline; the only other active pitcher with even 30 walks is teammate John Smoltz, who despite his .165 average has 64 walks in 665 at-bats. Another little secret to the Braves' success all these years.

7) Orel Hershiser

 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
775  158  29  2   0  64   49  27  170   7  3  .204  .234  .246  .480  0.91

Orel would probably have ranked a lot higher a few years ago; he has gone just 14 for 103 (.136) since he changed leagues in 1995. Of course, he is 40, and you have to figure the same forces of nature that beat down great hitters as they age also work on less-than-great ones. I don't know if he worked on his hitting while rehabbing from his rotator cuff tear, but from the time he returned until he left the Dodgers in 1994, he hit .269 (58 for 216), including .356 in 1993, the highest average since Newcombe hit .361 in 1958. A great athlete, he comfortably leads active pitchers with 7 steals, as well as pacing pitchers in runs scored.

Mario Mendoza Line (507 OPS)

Ray Oyler Line (509 OPS)

Rafael Belliard Line (529 OPS)

6) Livan Hernandez

 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
157   35   7  0   2  11   15   1   31   0  0  .223  .231  .306  .537  1.02

They still make pitchers in Cuba the old-fashioned way, apparently. Not only does Hernandez work like a galley slave on the mound, but at the plate he swings (to quote Eric Cartman) with authoritaw! He already has two homers and seven RBIs this year to go with a .467 slugging average. Which is good, because he'll need that bat when his arm gives out.

5) Mike Hampton

 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
258   51   8  3   0  29   18  23   70   2  1  .198  .272  .252  .524  0.99

Hampton, who's finally getting some much-deserved publicity for his pitching (why hasn't anyone flogged Woody Woodward for giving him up, anyway?), is also a terrific athlete--he was recruited to play defensive back at several major colleges--and hitter. He's one of the most patient hitters at his position, and the power seems to be coming on--he already has two doubles and two triples this season.

David Howard Line (596 OPS)

4) Dennis Cook

 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
109   29   2  1   2  15    9   3   13   0  0  .266  .286  .358  .644  1.22

Cook's career as a starter never really took off, which is a shame, because swing-for-swing he's as good a hitter as any pitcher in the game. In 1990, as a swingman for the Phillies and Dodgers, he hit .306 (15-for-49) with a home run. Then, after not batting for six years, he returned to the NL in 1997 as a reliever for the Marlins and started the year 4-for-4 with a game-winning homer (he finished 5-for-9). He isn't getting many at-bats working out of the Mets' pen, so you have to hope that at some point Bobby Valentine runs out of pinch-hitters in some 16-inning affair.

3) Todd Stottlemyre

 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
194   44   5  1   0  17    7  23   71   1  1  .227  .309  .263  .572  1.08

The Toad reached the majors in 1988, and had only one at-bat in his first eight years. Since 1996, though, his batting averages have been .227, .236, .226 and .211. His patience at the plate has pushed his OBP up to .309, highest among active pitchers. By comparison, Rey Ordonez's career high is .289.

2) Omar Olivares

 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
214   51   8  1   4  22   23   6   61   0  0  .238  .258  .341  .599  1.13

Another great-hitting pitcher whose talents are being wasted in the American League, and a model of consistency. While he has never hit above .269 in any season, he did not hit under .210 in any year from 1991 through 1997. He's been able to keep his batting stroke even if he rarely uses it: he's 5-for-13 with a double and a triple since joining the AL in 1996.

1) Allen Watson

 AB    H   D  T  HR   R  RBI  BB    K  SB CS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   RBU
175   45  13  1   0  13   19   9   22   0  0  .257  .293  .343  .636  1.20

He may be a bust as a pitcher, but Watson's bat is everything it was advertised to as. In addition to his pitching exploits at New York Tech, he finished fifth in Division I in batting average in his final year. He hit .417 (15-for-36) with four doubles in 1995, the highest batting average by a pitcher (min: 35 PA) since Jim Tobin in 1937, and fifth-highest this century.

But he's never had a full season in which to prove himself, in part because he hasn't pitched well enough to stay in anyone's rotation for long. He may not be in the Rhoden/Robinson class of hitter, but he's the first pitcher with an OPS over .600 in at least 150 PA since Dan Schatzeder retired in 1991. And with competition like this, that's good enough for us: Allen Watson gets our vote as the Best Hitting Pitcher in the game.

After all, wouldn't you rather watch him hit than Mike Benjamin?

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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2000-01-17 - Top 40 Prospects of 1999
2000-01-09 - An Early End to Spring
1999-08-20 - PAP - A Historical Perspective
1999-08-06 - Thunder in the Nine Spot
1999-07-27 - Pitcher Abuse Points: Midseason Update
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