Pitchers Hitting – Hidden Wild Card Factor?

Most pitchers are bad hitters, as we all know. Most pitchers look so out of place at the plate that it is a great source of both comedy and debate. Why should we continue this charade? Why should this paean to a by-gone era, propped up under a pretense of “strategy,” continue to degrade the quality of the game we all love?

That debate is better left until another day in another setting with well-established ground rules and adult supervision. Today, we can just look at the impact of pitchers hitting, specifically on their impact on the Wild Card chase.

On Tuesday night, Clayton Kershaw made more than his typical contribution to the Dodgers’ cause. Sure, he pitched brilliantly and shut down an otherwise powerful offense. But Kershaw worked his way on base against Doug Fister in the fifth inning and then “helped his own cause” by dashing from first to third on a bounding single to center field.

Setting aside the dubious defense by the Nats — both during this play and the one that followed — Kershaw put pressure on the defense, as they sometimes say. Most pitchers do not put pressure on the defense, not when they’re on the base paths and not when they’re in the batters box. Kershaw and his teammate, 2013’s Silver Slugger winner Zack Greinke, are among the exceptions.

The Dodgers pitching staff actually acquits itself among the best in the National League, one of only three clubs claiming a positive wRC+ (as in greater than zero), joining the Cubs and Cardinals in that rarefied air. That two of these three clubs are playoff hopefuls is not insignificant.

While the Cards and Dodgers sit high atop the pitcher hitting leaderboard, the Brewers are at the bottom, posting the second-worst pitching corps at the plate — with a huge gulf between them. Yovani Gallardo is known as one of the best hitting pitchers in the game, yet he has just five hits this season and the failings of he and his rotation-mates actually puts the Brewers about two full wins behind the Cards and Dodgers, a pair of their main barriers to Wild Card glory.

Should the Brewers fall just a single game short of St. Louis in the NL Central race, might the difference be in the way their pitchers swung the bat? What about the Braves, whose pitchers also struggle mightily with the bat? They’re just as bad as Milwaukee, with only two extra-base hits as a staff this year. They’re clinging to the final Wild Card spot, so every edge matters for Atlanta’s season.

Of course, teams do not acquire pitchers with their offense in mind. Pitchers are for getting outs, and any offense supplied is just gravy. But the other side of the coin mentioned above is something to watch, as well.

The San Francisco Giants pitching staff is pretty good with a bat in their hands, as evidenced by Madison Bumgarner’s 2014 grand slam extravaganza, but where they really take care of business is while the opposing pitcher takes his turn. Giants pitching has held the league’s worst hitters to a mere .221 OPS this season, as they have struck out 126 pitchers against just five walks.

Three Giants starters — Ryan Vogelsong, Bumgarner and Tim Hudson — are among the greatest perpetrators of pitcher-on-pitcher crime, as they have given up just six hits to pitchers this year. As Jeff Sullivan pointed out a while back, often a pitcher’s domination of these easy outs can make a huge difference in their season, and Vogelsong’s 2014 is no different.

Vogelsong is putting up decent numbers this season. League-average numbers, for the most part. Fifth starter-ish numbers, let’s say. After a dismal 2013, his strikeout rate is a shade under league-average (19.4% for the Giants’ right-hander compared to 20.3% for the league) and his walk rate is slightly better (6.7% versus 7.7%.) But against pitchers, he shines. Of his 133 strikeouts this season, 26 have come against hurlers. His non-pitcher K-rate is a gloomy 16.9%, his walk rate climbs over 75%. Opponents stop treating him like a below-average starter to a guy bounced from the rotations of even the worst NL clubs. Vogelsong’s ability to get pitchers out not only follows a team-wide trend, it might just save his job for next season.

The Giants are a perplexing team, and most nights since about the start of June, don’t exactly look like a playoff contender. But their hot start and ability to take advantage of their pitcher’s specific skills might shove them into the Wild Card game regardless. Which isn’t to suggest any of this is repeatable or even particularly skill-based. As mentioned above, Yovani Gallardo went from producing 2.5 runs above average with his bat to a 5-for-50 season just like that. Gio Gonzalez stopped striking out 72% of all pitchers to just abusing them at a more “normal” rate in both 2013 and 2014.

It’s the kind of little thing that doesn’t matter until it matters. This season, it might matter. That the Dodgers and Cardinals make better use of their 300 or so pitcher plate appearances could mean the difference between a one-game playoff and a division title. That the Giants prevent a few extra bloop hits and rarely walk non-threats could land them in the Wild Card game rather than in a deer blind. Some extra fuel to the fire to those NL designated hitter debates — both for and opposed.

Drew used to write about baseball and other things at theScore but now he writes here. Follow him on twitter @DrewGROF

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9 years ago

I’ll suggest that at this time of the year pitchers NOT hitting may be the bigger factor. With expanded rosters teams might be more ready to pinch hit for a pitcher, which may give teams with deeper benches a tiny edge.

9 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

I’d also like to point out that the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright has a higher batting average than three of their bench players (Ellis, Robinson, and Cruz) who have played in at least 40 games for them this season. Strangely, not even this year does Matheny use him to pinch-hit as much as La Russa did.