The Month That the Pitchers Just Stopped Trying to Hit

This seems to be this season’s week to weigh in on the designated-hitter debate. It’s a debate people will have over and over again, making the same points, until baseball changes the way things operate, and even then for a little longer still. What sparked the latest discussion, of course, was Adam Wainwright’s season-ending injury, which wouldn’t have happened as a hitter if he didn’t have to hit. To many, it was just unnecessary, especially given how dangerous it is to just pitch, and so on we go, into a most familiar back-and-forth.

I don’t think I have a position. That won’t surprise some of you. I’m obviously a fan of a version of baseball that has different rules for different leagues. If the rules were made to be the same, I imagine I’d remain a fan of the result. I think my true position is that, while I’d understand if the National League were given a DH, I’d miss the pitcher-hitting statistics. It’s just one of the things that I’m into, because pitcher hitting is like a rulebook-mandated experiment. The numbers are silly, and I spend more of my time thinking about baseball than I do watching baseball. It’s more fun to think about a version of baseball where sometimes, pitchers have to hit for themselves, even though they all suck.

And speaking of all of them sucking — boy, do they ever. You’ve long known this to be true, with rare exception. But you might not have noticed what’s gone on for this season’s first month. Things are getting worse.

What made me want to dig a little deeper was a post by Ben Lindbergh. It went up less than a week ago, and from that post, you might’ve seen the following image floating around the Internet:

The trend is readily evident — pitchers have been getting worse at the plate, for a while. Which is what you’d expect, given how much work has to go into, you know, pitching. And from younger ages, players are increasingly specialized, so they end up with less experience trying to bat. Pitchers do less hitting before the majors, and pitchers do less hitting in the majors. There’s also not much of a reward system to incentivize improvement. You can understand what’s going on. What really grabbed my attention was the end of the graph. It’s early in 2015, yes, but pitchers have been a disaster, even relative to themselves.

Building off that, I wanted to break the data down. Above, you see individual full seasons, and then less than one month representing 2015. Below, monthly wRC+ for pitchers, stretching back to 2000. This is league-wide data, taken from the FanGraphs leaderboards.

pitchers-batting-wrc+

This season’s first month is almost finished, so it can be compared against other months. There’s noise in the graph, obviously, since this statistic doesn’t stay flat and even. One standard deviation is about 8.9 points of wRC+. But still, the right side of the graph should stand out. Pitchers, collectively, have managed a -37 wRC+, which is not only the lowest point in the sample, but it’s the lowest by 11. This month’s data is separated from the mean by 3.2 standard deviations. Over the 91 months, we observe one -37, one -26, one -25, and one -23. Pitchers have been awful for a long time. Pitchers might never have been this awful, or even all that close.

Take a look here at K% – BB%, for hitters. Usually this is a pitching statistic, but it can work for hitters too, and in the following graph, we’ve got pitchers hitting compared against non-pitchers hitting.

batter-k-bb

Over time, strikeouts have gone up for everyone. That’s mostly overlapped with the PITCHf/x era. But this year, for non-pitchers, there’s been a slight reversal — in the early going, strikeout rate is down a little bit, and walk rate is up a little bit. Not so for pitchers at the plate. Walk rate is down almost one percentage point — from practically nothing, before — and strikeout rate is up almost three percentage points. So, the K% – BB% has leaped from below 34% to over 37%. There was a similar increase between 2011 – 2012. It didn’t undo itself.

Of note, additionally: zone rate, for pitchers and non-pitchers. This covers the PITCHf/x era:

batter-zone-rate

For non-pitchers, zone rate has been slowly dropping, perhaps in part because of pitch-framing allowing for more borderline strikes. For pitchers, zone rate remained almost exactly the same, until now. It hung right around 56%, and now it’s north of 58%, which is a small bump but seemingly a meaningful one. Now, while one of my graphs showed monthly data, these last two showed annual data, so that’s something to keep in mind. Zone rate can bounce around, and this’ll be something to look back on later. But if this is legitimate, one interpretation could be this: pitchers are pitching to other pitchers more aggressively. They’re less afraid of them, and because pitchers are bad at hitting, seeing more strikes means more strikeouts and fewer walks. You’d think it might mean more contact, but, the sucking, remember. Pitchers seem to suck more than they ever have, at the non-pitching part, and the zone rate might reflect other pitchers noticing.

It’s a trend to keep an eye on. It doesn’t mean pitchers should or shouldn’t continue to hit. I don’t have a strong-enough opinion on that, so I’ll leave it be. But pitchers do keep getting worse as hitters, and based on the early 2015 indications, this year they’ve collectively dropped one or two steps. They haven’t simply hit at a lower level than ever — they’ve hit at a much lower level than ever, it appears, and abrupt changes are interesting changes. That’s my own opinion, but I think it’s true.

Supporters of the designated hitter believe the NL should add a DH, so that pitchers no longer have to hit for themselves. Based on what we’ve seen, the NL’s essentially halfway there.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Philip Christy
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Philip Christy

Take THAT, NLers!!!

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest

As much of an NLer as I am, and as deep is my appreciation for the intricacies and madnesses of NL strategy and substitution… I’m starting to waver in my support. If pitchers keep getting hurt, and keep giving up on swinging the bat, you might just convince me to support the DH.

Ugh. It feels unclean saying that. But this might be my turning point.

TheDHisLame
Guest
TheDHisLame

I’m a Buc’s fan so this sucked but, Gollardo shutting the Pirates out and beating them 1-0 when he hit a bottom of the 8th solo jack….defenitly up there amongst the coolest things I’ve seen happen on the ball field.

Gai1997
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Gai1997

Sure they’ll hit a home run every once in awhile or do something good with the bat, but then they’ll be awful 99% of the time otherwise. I think the argument that they could do something a couple times a year is quite horrible. Yay, it happens 5 times a year, but what about the other 400 AB’s for pitchers the entire year? Not fun at all. I’d rather see a DH get those big hits than a pitcher.

Buctober 2015
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Buctober 2015

WBE: Also a Bucs fan and those are my thoughts as well. I love the strategy that the pitcher hitting brings to games but this two rules for two leagues needs to end, and the union will never ban the DH in the AL so the NL adding the DH is the only other option. Add in these injuries and it’s only a matter of time

TheDHisLame
Guest
TheDHisLame

Jason Kendall’s awesomeness was ruined running the bases….we must have designated runners for all awesome players so that they never get hurt.

burts_beads
Member
Member
burts_beads

Are there other recent significant injuries to pitchers while hitting or is this all stemming just from Waino’s injury?

GBSimons
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GBSimons

I recall Strasburg getting injured on the basepaths 2-3 years ago.