Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
April 28, 2008
BASEBALL: Up There Hacking

One of the interesting revelations about watching Johan Santana this season has been watching him hit. Pitchers, even ones who can swing the bat, usually have swings that are not that pretty to watch - they try to meet the ball, or take a butcher-boy approach to whacking it into the ground - but Santana's swing is relatively compact but with a sharp uppercut, a Mo Vaughn/David Oritz kind of swing, not at all what you expect from a pitcher who spent his whole career in the AL and isn't built like a burly first baseman.

And Santana's had decent results - he's batting .231/.286/.462 with 3 doubles in 13 at bats entering tonight's action, .250/.283/.386 in 46 career plate appearances, for a career OPS+ of 75, almost the level of a weak-hitting everyday catcher or shortstop.

The other reason this surprised me is that lefthanded power pitchers, in particular, have a fairly grisly track record at the plate. Some examples - bear in mind that you really need to work hard to get an OPS+ below zero; with 100 being the league average hitter, an OPS+ in the 20s is plenty bad (although by 2007, with pitchers falling further and further behind the average hitter, the NL OPS+ for pitchers was -3; in 1956 the Major League average for pitchers was 23) - I'm aware that not all these guys are known as power pitchers, but all of them were when they entered the league:

Barry Zito-
Al Leiter-
Sandy Koufax-
Bob Veale-
Randy Johnson-
David Wells-
Jerry Koosman-
Danny Jackson-
Lefty Gomez-
Al Downing-
Vida Blue-
Mickey Lolich-
Sam McDowell-
Mark Langston-
Lefty Grove6.148.209.207
John Matlack6.129.230.136
Johnny Vander Meer6.152.200.180
Dave McNally14.133.196.201
Rube Marquard17.179.207.202
Carl Hubbell18.191.212.227
Steve Avery18.174.194.252
Billy Pierce19.184.232.203
Rube Waddell25.161.197.219
Ed Morris26.161.193.208

I included Waddell and Morris since they hale from an era when pitchers were expected to contribute more with the bat; Morris' presence shows that you can find this trend all the way back to the very first lefthanded pitcher to have a significant successful career (although his 1880s contemporaries Matt Kilroy and Toad Ramsey were much better hitters, with OPS+ of 72 and 42, respectively).

It's not all lefthanded power pitchers, of course; there's Babe Ruth, and there's also the following list of guys who ranged from dangerous hitters to fairly average hitting pitchers (Sabathia, like Santana, has limited hitting experience, just 39 plate appearances):

CC Sabathia90.297.316.405
Tommy Byrne77.238.286.378
Dontrelle Willis68.234.280.359
Warren Spahn43.194.234.287
Hal Newhouser36.201.267.234
Steve Carlton33.201.223.259
Hippo Vaughn33.173.232.223
Fernando Valenzuela30.200.205.262
Whitey Ford28.173.256.200
Sid Fernandez21.182.206.223

(I remember Sid being a better hitter than that but he batted .080 after turning 30).

Even recognizing that this is more an anecdotal than a systematic study, I don't have a good single explanation here. Clearly some of these guys were not great athletes, but Koufax, for example, was an excellent basketball player; some of these guys are latter-day AL pitchers, but the pattern precedes them back to the early days and has continued in the NL. I suppose the ability to throw hard as a lefthander probably means most of these guys got identified as pitchers earlier in their baseball-playing youth than your typical stud athlete who plays a lot of SS and CF before settling into a single position; that seems to me the most likely reason.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 6:16 PM | Baseball 2008 • | Baseball Studies | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

Crank, I know Koufax was a good basketball player, but so was Michael Jordan, and neither could hit. And Spahn was so good he batted 8th.

Posted by: Daryl Rosenblatt at April 28, 2008 7:32 PM

Talk about a typicla New York fan grasping at straws!

Your big signing is currently 3-2 with a 3.12 ERA. Not bad... but merely mortal. And yes, granted his K/9 and WHIP are fantastic.

Still, there's this 3-2 record. And that 3.12 ERA. Mismanaged? Probably. Bad breaks? They even out.

Yet you didn't choose to post about wither of those. Instead you chose to talk about his batting appearances! OUCH.

Posted by: Dave at April 28, 2008 8:12 PM

Dave, I assume your comment is intended as a parody of the typical "why'd you write about X instead of Y, you hypocrite!" comment that appears so often on blogs.

A 3.12 ERA on April 28. Forgive me if I don't panic.

Posted by: The Crank at April 28, 2008 8:27 PM

With Hafner batting .220 why is the Tribe using the DH on days Sabathia pitches?

Posted by: largebill at April 28, 2008 9:25 PM

I don't think Ruth was a power pitcher, even for his era. Carlton, though, certainly was, and he was an excellent hitter.

A lot of the power pitchers are oversized guys like Randy Johnson, who you wouldn't expect to be any good with the bat. Santana is fairly normal sized, and a terrific athelete. Of course, that didn't help Koufax.

Posted by: Jerry at April 28, 2008 10:06 PM

Ruth was a hard thrower; he wasn't a huge K guy but he did finish 8th in the league in K/9 in 1915 & 1916, and he finished in the top 5 in fewest hits/9 four years in a row while walking a lot of batters. That looks like a power pitcher's profile to me. Ironically, one of Ruth's chief skills was that he allowed an unusually low number of home runs even for his era, just 10 HR in over 1200 career IP and none in 323.2 IP in 1916. Only 5 pitchers since 1878 threw 1000 or more innings and allowed fewer homers per 9 than the Babe.

Posted by: The Crank at April 29, 2008 9:00 AM

Are you suggesting, between the lines, that Santana should play first instead of Delgado when not pitching?

Posted by: Tim Buyer at April 29, 2008 9:41 AM

Surprised you didn't post on Mike Hampton. I realize he would be marginally considered a power pitcher (although his career K rate is similar to Blue) but he used to throw hard-ish. Overall he's .242/.292/.354 but from 1999-2002 he was a burly .303/.329/.452 with 10 HRs and 29 RBIs in 290 ABs.

There's always Rick Ankiel as well.

Posted by: jim at April 29, 2008 2:16 PM

Don't forget Ken Brett. Great hitter, lefty. Maybe not a true power pitcher, but as much of one as Whitey Ford, Jon Matlack or some of the other guys you have listed.

Posted by: aih at April 29, 2008 5:59 PM
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