An Encyclopedia of Pitcher-on-Pitcher Crime

Should baseball return in 2020, it will likely do so with a DH in both leagues. That makes sense — given shorter training times and an increased prevalence of interleague play, getting pitchers ready to bat wouldn’t be easy. Losing sacrifice bunts is no great sacrifice, either; no one is tuning into the game to watch Johnny Cueto try to get a bunt down against Zac Gallen.

But there’s one thing I’ll greatly miss about pitchers hitting: the moments where the opposing pitcher decides to play a little unfair. Pitchers are terrible hitters — terrible! The standard way to pitch to them is generally by throwing them fastballs until they take a seat in the dugout. But sometimes, that’s not how it goes. Sometimes the pitcher on the mound is a little cruel. Sometimes, they throw a pitch that moves.

The results of throwing a tough-to-hit pitch to a bad hitter should be pretty obvious — they don’t hit it. That’s not to say there are no downsides; breaking balls and offspeed pitches miss the zone more often than fastballs, and batters are less likely to put them in play, which means longer at-bats. No one wants long at-bats against the opposing pitcher. Leashes are short enough these days without a six-pitch battle against a guy who might as well be up there holding a ham sandwich instead of a bat.

Still, it happens more often than you’d think. Pitchers saw 18,502 pitches last year as batters. Exactly 6,200 were some variety of funky; curves, sliders, cutters, splitters, change-ups, and even eephuses. That’s a low proportion, even taking into account that Statcast couldn’t classify every pitch; only 33.5%, as compared to 47.3% for hitters as a whole. But it’s noticeably higher than zero.

That’s a little strange; but honestly, it’s not that strange. I know I just finished making fun of pitchers’ batting ability, but they’re still professional athletes. They’re big and strong, and they move their body in a coordinated way for a living. Throw them the same pitch a few times in a row, and they might run into solid contact more or less by reflex.

You want the numbers? Let’s have the numbers. When pitchers at the plate ended a plate appearance with a fastball, they compiled a .174 wOBA. That’s bad, of course. Position players check in at .376, and wOBA is on the OBP scale — yikes. When the plate appearance ended on any other type of pitch, however, they were downright awful, to the tune of a .092 wOBA. I don’t have a comparison for what batter that looks like, because no batter has ever been that bad. Jeff Mathis had a wRC+ of 2 last year — 2!! — and that worked out to a .190 wOBA.

That’s the math of the situation — pitchers are bad hitters unless you throw them secondary pitches, in which case they become unfathomably bad hitters. There are a few wrinkles — nearly 30% of secondary offerings get taken for balls, while only 26% of fastballs meet the same fate. But that’s hardly interesting; you don’t really need to see aggregate statistics about pitchers batting, because the upshot is that they’re awful in every split. Instead, let’s find some weird stuff.

For instance, pitchers faced six eephuses last year. That’s Gameday’s catch-all super-slow pitch designation; whether it’s a breaking ball or just a fastball with no oomph, it will often register as an eephus. So, how many of these eephuses were thrown by position players just hucking it over the plate to finish an outing? Well… none. All six were Zack Greinke specials.

Just, c’mon:

And he did it five other times! Mike Minor is a terrible hitter. Greinke is an excellent pitcher. He absolutely doesn’t need to do this, which makes it all the more enjoyable. Minor was completely befuddled:

Should you even throw a pitcher an eephus? They’re slow! They’re hittable! They work because batters are gearing up for much higher velocity. But pitchers are hardly doing that, they’re just trying to survive out there. Like, what the heck is this?

It’s 0-2, and he’s trying to bunt; just throw him anything that isn’t, you know, an extremely slow pitch in the strike zone. But Greinke gonna Greinke, I suppose.

Who’s the king of throwing secondary pitches to opposing pitchers? Yu Darvish, naturally. When you have eight or nine pitches like Darvish does, of course you’ll throw some goofy nonsense in there. He threw a whopping 136 of them in 2019. Unfortunately, that’s misleading, because 99 of them were cutters.

Cutters are an interesting corner case; you can argue they’re fastballs — they’re called cut fastballs, after all — but they behave more like sliders at the end of the day. This strikeout of Jake Arrieta does a good job making the case:

So I don’t know; should those count? I think that both sides of the argument have merit. If you exclude cutters, however, we have a new champion: Aaron Nola, with 100 mean-spirited pitches. Ninety of the 100 were curveballs, and pitchers could do almost nothing with them. He threw 42 curveballs on two strike counts and got 18 strikeouts. Putting the ball in play didn’t help much either; on non-sacrifice bunts, pitchers ran up a 1-for-8 line against Nola’s curveball, with this Zack Wheeler effort the lone hit:

First pitch curveball — you have to love it. Nola liked it so much, in fact, that he went to a curve or changeup on 47.2% of his pitches to opposing pitchers. That’s almost as high as his overall rate in 2019 (53.7%). And of course, it worked, what with the 18 strikeouts on the curveball alone and all, so why not keep doing it?

But not everyone was as good as Nola was at burying pitchers in junk. Believe it or not, pitchers hit seven home runs — as batters — against offspeed pitches. It wasn’t exclusively bad pitchers allowing the home runs, either: Miles Mikolas and Hyun-Jin Ryu 류현진 were both victimized. Mikolas went to his slider for a knockout punch on 2-2 against Jhoulys Chacín, and while it wasn’t a terrible pitch, that doesn’t change the fact that he threw his slider to a pitcher and had to watch a home run trot:

That was only the second home run of Chacín’s career, and his -3 wRC+ hardly inspires terror in opponents. But sometimes those are the breaks. A pitcher doesn’t have to be a good hitter — even for a pitcher — to run into a home run. Pitchers hit 17 homers off of fastballs last year, so even after adjusting for frequency, throwing a fastball was more likely to surrender a dinger than not doing so.

Unsurprisingly, though, I buried the lede here. This whole article was just a setup to talk about Zack Greinke. You see, two of those eephuses he threw came in a single at-bat against Eric Lauer on April 2 last year. Lauer was up in a big spot — two on, nobody out — and Greinke made him look foolish. First, he hung one in for a generous called strike:

Then, after another eephus (this one taken for a ball) and a fastball, he put Lauer away with a slider:

A few innings later, Greinke came to the plate in a similarly high-leverage spot; first and second with one out. Lauer got the message from his own treatment a few innings earlier; don’t take the pitcher lightly, and be willing to throw him some secondaries. So he went to his cutter, and:

Well, yeah, you can’t miss location like that, but still: that wasn’t the easiest pitch in the world to hit out. The camera angle makes it hard to tell, but it had more than two inches of horizontal break; it was more slider than cutter. Sometimes you just get Greinke’d.

The Padres’ run of bad luck wasn’t done, either. With the game starting to spiral out of control, Adam Warren checked in. Greinke was still pitching — he’d only thrown 83 pitches to this point — and with a three run lead, he got to hit for himself. Warren was understandably wary, having seen the earlier homer, and pitched to him carefully; a slider for a called strike, a fastball taken for a ball, and another slider, this one a swinging strike, to get to 1-2. He went back to the slider again on 1-2, and:

To recap, in this game, Greinke threw three secondary pitches to Lauer, out of the four pitches he threw him total. Lauer responded with a secondary of his own — and Greinke smacked a cutter for a home run. When Warren came in, he treated Greinke like a real hitter — three sliders and a high fastball — and Greinke also hit a homer off of him. In one game, Greinke showed everything — the craft to go goofy when facing Lauer, and the hitting skill to beat opponents who tried to do the same to him.

It was glorious — the kind of game you don’t see every year, much less every day. Greinke made Lauer look foolish — the way most pitchers look when they’re batting and see a pitch that wiggles. Then he showed Lauer what a batter should do with a breaking ball — twice, in case he missed the first one. Here I thought this article was about pitchers in general, and it was really just about Zack Greinke’s unique gifts all along.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 years ago

I’m going to miss pitcher dingers.