In March of 1920, just months after the New York Yankees acquired him from the Boston Red Sox, Babe Ruth joined his new team at spring training in Miami. He had just finished a year in which he threw 133 innings with a 2.97 ERA over 15 starts, but perhaps more importantly, the Red Sox had decided to give him a full shot at playing in the outfield. He threw just four innings with the Yankees in 1920, but hit 54 home runs, a mark that surpassed 13 of the 15 teams in the MLB. You might have heard of him.
A lot has changed in the MLB since that trade. 1920 marked the beginning of the live-ball era, referring to the changes that happened after Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was killed by a pitch to the head that he might not have been able to see thanks to the dirt and tobacco juice on the ball. But no change may be as significant or as controversial as the American League adding the designated hitter on an experimental basis in 1973. Since its permanent adoption, the fate of the hitting pitcher has been in doubt. Rumors of the hitting pitcher’s impending death have only strengthened since the MLBPA formally requested it last year, and rumors elsewhere have swirled that 2021 might be the year, though nothing substantial has been confirmed.
While Shohei Ohtani and his dual-eligible contemporaries may force their way into lineups in 2020 and beyond, most of them are staking out dual roles as designated hitters on their days off. If universal DH is truly upon us, we owe this year’s crop of #PitchersWhoRake a closer look.
What Does it Take to Rake?
Before we set out to identify the best hitting pitchers in baseball, we have to ask: what does it mean for a pitcher to rake? We don’t want to just hand out that status to anyone who can put a bat on the ball. And to be clear, I do not believe for a second that I could put a bat anywhere near a major-league pitch — anyone who can deserves some credit. But if we’re out to set a higher bar than “can hit a ball thrown 95 mph,” we need some standards. It has to mean something to rake. But in setting those terms, we have some serious issues.
First, and most glaringly, pitchers don’t hit that often. Even at 30 starts a year, a National League pitcher would have to be pitching well into the 7th or 8th inning of a game to get three at-bats. The top pitchers in at-bats were all aces on good teams who both pitched late into games and got some help from the rest of the lineup in getting them a third at-bat earlier in the game; Stephen Strasburg led NL pitchers in at-bats with just 80. That means we can’t really require sustained success.
Second, not every pitcher at-bat is going to be an opportunity to rake. Coaches routinely ask their pitchers to lay down a bunt in situations with a runner on, or might just instruct them not the swing at all to keep them from making contact awkwardly and being forced out of the game early. The bigger picture does matter. And we have to be okay with that.
Finally, we also have to acknowledge that pitchers who can rake might get robbed of a few opportunities to do so. As teams have learned more about penalties for facing batters three times, there’s been even less incentive to keep a pitcher in the game if a team has the bases loaded with one out in the bottom of the 5th. And that means that we’re far less likely to see the pitcher grand slams we deserve.
And truthfully, that’s what this is all about. Watching a pitcher embarrass his opposite by crushing a fastball over the middle is the raison d’être for #PitchersWhoRake. There were dozens of absolute gems thrown last year, including four no-hitters. But could any of them top Noah Syndergaard single-handedly willing his Mets to victory by hitting a solo home run in a complete-game shutout en route to a 1–0 victory?
But by just including home runs, we make it much harder to reward pitchers for their hitting excellence. Just 17 pitchers hit home runs in 2019, and only four pitchers hit more than one. So to be fair to the pitchers such as Sandy Alcantara, who crushed a Jacob DeGrom fastball to the tune of 110 mph of his bat but was only rewarded with a double, I’m including any pitchers that barreled a ball.
National League West
Home to two of the top four hitting pitchers in baseball in 2019, Zack Greinke and Madison Bumgarner, the NL West the place to see pitchers who raked. Greinke led all pitchers in both home runs (three) and barrels (five) despite being traded late in the season to the American League, and Bumgarner was able to turn his two barrels into two home runs, though his WRC+ was depressed by his poor batting average. Here’s hoping that Bumgarner is able to more consistently make content at Chase Field, a destination that he sought out for its large batters’ eye.
Aside from the big names, several other contributors were able to pitch in power last year. Bumgarner will be joining Luke Weaver in a power-packed Diamondbacks rotation, with prospect Taylor Clarke also demonstrating some potential in his short stint in the majors last year. While Clarke isn’t expected to break camp with the team — the crowded rotation in Arizona has Merrill Kelly in the bullpen to start the year — injuries and talent have a way of getting skills into the rotation.
It is disappointing to see that two teams will be entering the year without a pitcher in their rotation who hit a home run or barreled a ball last year. The Giants will have Shaun Anderson in their bullpen, though all he generated was a barreled fly ball out. But with the Padres moving Eric Lauer in their trade for Trent Grisham, they enter the year with no starters who made our list. And even the Rockies can only claim German Marquez, though his overall record was far more encouraging. And while his sole barrel was a triple last year, that did put him ahead of one Tony Wolters in that category.
Looking forward, David Price is the only one of the five pitchers to join the division who is coming directly from an AL roster. The other four failed to rake in 2019, but with multiple hitters’ parks in the division, there’s reason to hope that change could be on the horizon for them.
So how did the teams as a whole shape up?
Even though the Dodgers’ pitchers did not necessarily stand out individually, their WRC+ was a full 23 points ahead of the Giants to be top of the division. While they might have hit for slightly less power than the two teams directly below them, their lower walk rate gave them more of an opportunity to rake. And their reward? A positive wRC+!
On the other end of the spectrum, the Giants could seriously struggle without Bumgarner to bolster their power output next year. Their 55.1% strikeout rate needs work, though their 4.5% walk rate did top the division. And the Padres’ 0.139 OBP, weighed down by their 1.8% walk rate, needs some serious work. But both staffs will look considerably different next year, so projecting their success or failure this early does mean holding the likes of Dinelson Lamet and Kevin Gausman responsible for the lack of success Cal Quantrill and Logan Webb had at the plate.
Even with its losses, the NL West profiles as highly likely to be a hotbed of hitting pitchers again in 2020. With just a bit of luck, the Diamondbacks’ staff should be able to join the Dodgers’ and produce a combined positive WRC+, with the potential to surpass them if Bumgarner can improve his ability to hit for average.
National League Central
Notable Losses: Tanner Roark, Jhoulys Chacin
Despite lacking the big-name talent of the other two divisions, the NL Central still managed to produce thanks to pitch-in power from around the division. Headlining was Steven Brault, whose barreled home run at Coors Field was the crown jewel of a season in which his 16.0% strikeout rate as a batter was lower than his 19.8% mark as a pitcher. That low strikeout rate meant that he only needed a little BABIP luck to notch a 0.333 batting average. Is it any surprise that having twice as many hits as strikeouts would lead to a 105 wRC+?
The Reds’ Michael Lorenzen is the other standout name on this list. Officially listed as both the Reds’ setup man and fourth-string outfielder, Lorenzen made a name for himself for being the first player to homer, record a win and make an appearance in the outfield since Babe Ruth did so on June 13, 1921. While that home run was his only shot of the year, he led NL pitchers with four in 2018, including two as a pinch hitter. Of his 53 plate appearances in 2019, the bulk came in games he started in the outfield, though he did have instances where he pinch-hit for another pitcher and then took the mound the following inning. A cold streak in September that coincided with him receiving several starts in centerfield brought down his average and WRC+ — his rate stats were far more impressive when he was used more situationally, and with the Reds’ outfield being cramped, it’s likely that Lorenzen will return to the role that best positions him to be a potent offensive threat.
The Cardinals were the lone team without a representative on this list, and with Kwang-hyun Kim not previously hitting in the universal-DH KBO, they will have to see better performances from their staff to keep pace with the rest of the division. Josh Lindblom also returns from the KBO, and saw just one career at-bat with the Dodgers before his move. And those two are not along in their recent lack of plate appearances: Wade Miley moves to Cincinnati from Houston and has spent only one season since 2015 in the National League, and Brett Anderson last hit double-digit place appearances in 2015 with the Dodgers. Lauer did make our list of NL West rakers, though, and moves to an environment in Milwaukee that should be far more friendly than Petco Park.
So how did these power outputs translate to team performance?
Brault’s Pirates led the way in wRC+, tallying a positive mark in large part thanks to their division-best strikeout rate. This meant more balls in play, a higher batting average and more runs scored from pitchers than any other team. And with Jameson Taillon on the shelf for the year, it looks like Brault should be given a chance to anchor the hitting side of the Pirates’ rotation. He might have to up his strikeout rate on the mound to fend off a now-healthy Chad Kuhl, but the Pirates would sorely miss his presence at the plate if they did move him to the bullpen.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Reds’ rotation may more be victims of the friendly confines of the Great American Launchpad than anything else. Their strikeout rate and batting average fell near the middle of the pack in the division, and two dingers don’t scream “worst in the NL Central.” More notable is Lorenzen’s impact on their plate appearances, which were higher than for any other team. And their five stolen bases from pitchers also led the National League, with Lorenzen again the one to thank. Their remade rotation should be among the best in baseball on the mound, and considering they won’t be hitting against Luis Castillo, they might have a chance to do much better at the plate in 2020.
With the NL West losing some of its hitting talent and Lorenzen due for some regression back to his 2018 hitting ways, the NL Central could jump up in the order. But they’ll have to hope that the new arrivals and rookies can replace the talent than Roark and Chacin are taking with them to the American League.
National League East
Notable Losses: None
Continuity is the name of the game in the National League East. Every single pitcher on the list above returns to the division in 2020, with Zach Wheeler the only pitcher on the move. Wheeler will certainly be a considerable loss for the Mets’ rotation, but considering how stacked their returning starters are, they may be able to weather losing him. Rick Porcello will be leaving the American League for the first time in his career to take Wheeler’s place, and Cole Hamels will taking departing non-raker Dallas Keuchel’s spot.
More so than Porcello, the man tasked with continuing the Mets’ success will be Noah Syndergaard, who will enter 2020 with a chance to finally sit atop the throne as the NL’s best hitter from the ninth spot in the order. His three barrels in 2019 were second in the NL only to Grienke’s five, and while he struck out in 47 of his 69 at-bats, it wasn’t because he was fearfully taking strikes and waiting for his chance to walk back to the dugout. Thor’s 55% swing rate was the embodiment of what #PitchersWhoRake is all about: being okay with a 30% swinging strike rate if it gets us two sweet, sweet pitcher dingers. And that’s exactly what he gave us.
But Thor wasn’t alone in mashing the ball — the NL East was the place to go for pitcher-on-pitcher violence. Jacob DeGrom went deep against both Trevor Richards and Mike Foltynewicz last year, but his stuff hit hard as well: Sandy Alcantara turned a 97 mph fastball of his into the hardest-hit ball by an NL pitcher last year at 110.4 mph.
The one team conspicuously missing from this list is the Atlanta Braves. In a since-deleted 2015 tweet, Atlanta beat writer David O’Brien remarked that Ervin Santana #Loveshitting following a 3-for-12 start the year at the plate, (accidentally?) appropriating the hashtag from bowel movement oversharers. It’s more than stuck, and Braves fans now use it any time their pitchers, well, hit.
As for which staff loved hitting the most in the NL East? It should be no surprise.
The 2019 Mets staff tied the 2018 Cardinals and 2013 Cubs for the second-most home runs from an NL pitching staff in the past decade and was dominant beyond the dingers as well. Their 15 wRC+ was seventh-best by an NL staff in the 2010s and easily topped all staffs in 2019. They were nothing short of dominant. And with most of that staff returning, they will probably only face competition from the Diamondbacks for that top spot.
At the other end were the division champs. The Braves’ staff as a whole didn’t just fail to rake — they failed to hit, period. Since O’Brien started #loveshitting in 2015, their pitchers hit just two home runs, besting only the Marlins, and are dead last in wRC+ in those five years combined. 2019 wasn’t the nadir of that dire run — their -39 WRC+ was actually an improvement over the past two years — but it was still one of the worst 10 years of the past decade by any NL staff. If the Braves hope to push for an NL East crown this year, Cole Hamels (or one of the young arms likely to replace him early in the year while he’s out injured) will almost definitely have to help their staff’s offensive output. At the very least, they’ll get to hit in front of Ronald Acuña.
Another development to watch will be whether the Marlins see one of their young arms send a ball over their newly moved-in fences. Just like NFBC drafters are betting on Jonathan Villar knocking more than a few out given his current ADP, we’ll have to hope that Alcantara’s power turns into home runs next year and that some of his teammates can join him in taking advantage of friendlier confines.
Should We Fear the DH?
Persistent and increasing rumors are suggesting that the designated hitter will come to the National League, to be followed shortly thereafter by the other three horsemen of the apocalypse. While we cannot trust Rob Manfred and the league’s higher-ups to do the right thing, it’s worth our while to shed light on the bad-faith arguments that the pro-DH crowd might use and dismantle them.
- No major league pitching staff has collectively batted above the Mendoza Line since 2010.
- The last year pitchers as a whole managed a positive wRC+ was 1982.
- Making pitchers bat just increases their chances of getting injured.
- The DH increases the number of starting jobs available to players.
- Letting players rest by batting in the DH spot allows the league to combat “load management” concerns.
- Not having to pinch-hit for pitchers will allow teams to more strategically swap in defensive replacements or.platoons.
- Switching to the DH will increase runs scored in the National League, which is in line with the league’s push to make the sport more exciting.
- The DH may help soften aging curves and keep aging stars in the league longer.
- Pitchers with the skills to bat can still find roles as pinch hitters or in the DH spot.
- Professional sports leagues should have all of their teams play by the same rules.
I actually take no issue with the 10th item on the list. As for one through nine? There’s one simple response to all of those.
I rest my case.
Photo by Wil Perez Jr./Icon Sportswire | Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)