Commentary

No automatic outs among this group of pitchers

Originally Published: May 7, 2008
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

In the quest to determine what it takes to be a good-hitting pitcher, we figured we'd glean some insight from an extremely bad-hitting pitcher. Luckily for us, Phillies broadcaster Larry Andersen had a few moments to kill before heading into the booth during the team's recent homestand.

Andersen spent 17 years in the major leagues as a relief pitcher, but he was so lame with a bat that he once squared off against the .088-hitting Jim Deshaies in a Jayson Stark-conceived, computer-simulated hitting contest -- and lost.

On the one hand, Andersen admits that he had only five hits in 12 National League seasons. By his calculations, that 5-for-12 equates to a .417 average. (In actuality, he went 5-for-38.)

"The secret is not being scared," Andersen said. "They wouldn't allow me to take a dog to the plate with me. Otherwise I would have gone up there with a big German Shepherd."

In reality, there are a lot more overmatched Aaron Harangs, Ian Snells, Ben Sheetses and Tom (.044) Gorzelannys out there than pitchers with a clue, which is why those hurlers with a discerning eye, some pop and hand-eye coordination tend to stand out in the crowd.

In this week's installment of "Starting 9," we pay tribute to the best-hitting pitchers in baseball -- guys who step to the plate looking to inflict damage while their brethren are experiencing fear. We're calling it our "Babe Who?" edition.

Micah Owings

Owings

Micah Owings, Diamondbacks

1 After watching Mets left-hander Pedro Feliciano throw two fastballs off the outside corner to Owings on Sunday, Diamondbacks broadcaster Mark Grace observed, "I've never seen a pitcher get pitched as carefully as Micah Owings does. He gets pitched like Gary Sheffield in his heyday."

If you have an instinct for self-preservation, why challenge him? Owings recently made a pinch-hit appearance against Padres starter Randy Wolf, no slouch himself with a bat. Wolf threw a 67-mph changeup, a fastball and two curveballs before inducing Owings to swing at a 91-mph fastball for strike three.

HIGHEST CAREER OPS
(min. 75 plate appearances)
PLAYER OPS
Babe Ruth 1.164
Ted Williams 1.116
Lou Gehrig 1.079
Micah Owings *1.058
Barry Bonds 1.051
Albert Pujols 1.042
* -- .391 OBP, .667 SLG

"Sometimes the pitcher gets up there and you'll just throw him three fastballs," Wolf said. "You have to treat this guy like a hitter -- read the swing and throw your best breaking ball."

As a high school sophomore, Owings hit .630 with 21 home runs. As a senior, he batted .448 with 25 homers. He set the Georgia state home run record with 69, a total that ranks fourth all-time nationally behind Iowa's Jeff Clement (75) and James Peterson (73) and Michigan's Drew Henson (70).

Owings' recent offensive onslaught has prompted some observers to wonder whether Arizona manager Bob Melvin might consider finding a spot for him on the field on days he isn't pitching. Somehow, we can't see Melvin risking an injury to Owings or selling Eric Byrnes on the idea of a day off while the pitcher takes his four at-bats in left field.

Carlos Zambrano

Zambrano

Carlos Zambrano, Cubs

2 Zambrano hit his 13th career home run last week to tie Ferguson Jenkins' record for a Cubs pitcher. He won a National League Silver Slugger Award two years ago with six long balls, the most by a pitcher since Mike Hampton belted seven for Colorado in 2001.

Phillies broadcaster Gary Matthews, the Cubs' hitting coach in 2003 and 2004, recalls how Zambrano loved to sit on the breaking ball, find one that suited him, then tee off. Zambrano's personal motto was, "If they hang 'em, somebody's gotta bang 'em."

"He always wanted to come out for extra hitting," Matthews said. "He thinks he's a regular player."

Zambrano isn't just a big lug at 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds. He played soccer growing up in Venezuela, and he's shown some moves while taking part in scrimmages with Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire.

"Obviously he's a good boxer, too," said Matthews, in reference to Zambrano's 2007 dugout slugfest with Michael Barrett.

Livan Hernandez

Hernandez

Livan Hernandez, Twins

3 It's a form of sport to poke fun at Hernandez for his girth. But like David Wells, he's a natural athlete who just happens to be heavy. An American League scout recently glanced down at the infield during pregame warm-ups and saw Hernandez taking ground balls at short, and was bowled over by his agility.

"He looks like he could play middle infield in the big leagues," the scout said. "He's so limber and has those natural actions."

The Baseball-reference.com Web site cites Rick Rhoden, Don Robinson, Bill Swift and Early Wynn among Hernandez's closest hitting comparables. Hernandez won a Silver Slugger Award in 2004, and he's surpassed 20 hits in a season four times. He hasn't forgotten the lessons he learned as a teenage third baseman in his native Cuba.

"Not too many pitchers swing down on the ball," Tony Perez, Hall of Famer and fellow Cuba native, said of Hernandez in 2001. "They're trying to lift the ball all the time. That's why they're not good hitters. But Livan swings down. He's got a short swing, and he likes to hit."

After signing a one-year, $5 million deal with Minnesota, Hernandez will have to settle for being the best-hitting pitcher in the American League. That's sort of like being the most talented surfer in Nebraska.

Dontrelle Willis

Willis

Dontrelle Willis, Tigers

4 Willis was a two-way ballplayer at Alameda (Calif.) Encinal High, the school that produced Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins. While he was taking aim at the outfield fence at Willie Stargell Field, opponents made a habit of walking him or shifting three infielders to the right side.

More than any pitcher on this list, Willis looks like a threat as he stands in the box and loads up on his back foot. In pinch-hit appearances with the Marlins, Willis came off the bench ready to attack the first hittable fastball that came his way.

In 2005, then-Marlins manager Jack McKeon batted Willis No. 7 in the order. He became the first pitcher to hit seventh since Montreal's Steve Renko in 1973.

"He's a guy who drives the ball," said a scout. "He can get you a double or a triple as opposed to just chinking one in. He's very aggressive."

Willis is also aggressive on the bases, and the switch from the National League to the American figured to be a boon to his health. Naturally, he slipped on the mound in his second start, injured his knee and has yet to return.

Brandon Backe

Backe

Brandon Backe, Astros

5 Micah Owings isn't the only pitcher who's been making noise in the batter's box. In his most recent start, Backe drove a Manny Parra curveball into the Crawford Boxes to jump-start the Houston offense in a 6-2 victory over Milwaukee.

Backe amassed a .770 slugging percentage and all sorts of slow-pitch softball numbers as a third string All-America at Galveston College in Texas in 1998. Tampa Bay selected him as a second baseman in the 18th round of the draft, and Backe had his moments in the low minor leagues before his inability to distinguish fastballs from changeups prompted the Rays to convert him to a pitcher.

After hitting his first career homer with Houston in 2004, Backe told reporters, "It was my big dream to be a hitter in the big leagues. I never thought I'd be a pitcher."

Backe's career as a pitcher has been stalled by injuries, and he has yet to surpass 150 innings in a season. But he's a .245 career hitter in 98 at-bats and a threat each time he steps in the box.

Adam Wainwright

Wainwright

Adam Wainwright, Cardinals

6 St. Louis has a long-standing tradition of good-hitting pitchers, from Dizzy Dean and Bob Gibson to Bob Forsch, Omar Olivares and Woody Williams. Wainwright's 87 career at-bats make for a small sample size, but he definitely knows what he's doing.

Bernie Miklasz and Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently combed through the records and found that Wainwright's career slugging percentage (now .471) was easily the highest by a Cardinals pitcher with 50 at-bats or more.

How good is Wainwright? St. Louis manager Tony La Russa called on him five times as a pinch hitter last season, and Wainwright delivered three singles for a .600 average.

Wainwright grew up in Georgia watching Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz pitch for the Braves, then spent his first four professional seasons in the Atlanta organization, so he was schooled in the organizational philosophy of doing the little things necessary to win games. He led the Cardinals with nine sacrifice bunts in 2007.

Tim Hudson

Hudson

Tim Hudson, Braves

7 After going to Atlanta from Oakland by trade in 2004, Hudson hit a feeble .117 (15-for-128) in his first two seasons with the Braves.

All Hudson needed, it turns out, was some time to shed the rust he accumulated in six years of sitting in favor of a DH.

Hudson tied Zambrano for most hits by a pitcher with 20 last season, and showed flashes of the all-around player who wowed them at Auburn University in the mid-1990s. In his senior year with the Tigers, Hudson posted a 15-2 record as a pitcher and hit .396 with 18 homers and 95 RBIs as a center fielder to win the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year award.

Hudson is only 1-for-10 this season, but he dazzled onlookers in Washington by hitting several balls over the fence during a recent round of batting practice at the new Nationals Park.

"It goes straight to being athletic," said a scout. "He can field his position, get a timely hit or lay down a bunt against a real tough pitcher. He's a baseball player."

Jason Marquis

Marquis

Jason Marquis, Cubs

8 Marquis channels his hypercompetitive approach into both his pitching and his hitting. He peaked with 27 hits and a Silver Slugger Award with St. Louis in 2005, at which point his batting average proceeded to drop and his yearly ERA began to rise.

Marquis can run the bases as well as hit, and both Tony La Russa and Lou Piniella have employed him as a pinch runner. He counts 24 doubles, two triples and three homers among his 81 career hits.

"He uses the whole field, and he understands what hitting is about," said a National League scout. "He takes a pretty good hack."

Jake Peavy

Peavy

Jake Peavy, Padres

9 Peavy sneaks onto our list because of his pronounced improvement at the plate. In his first full season as a starter, he managed four hits in 55 at-bats and looked as if he didn't know which end of the Louisville Slugger to hold. Last year, he ranked fourth among pitchers with 17 hits.

"He's notorious for having terrible eyesight, yet he barrels everything up," said Padres pitcher Chris Young. "I don't know how he does it."

At heart, Peavy is just an Alabama country kid who just loves to compete. He can run a lick, is tireless in the weight room and, according to Young, hits the ball long and straight off the tee and has a delicate touch around the greens on the golf course.

Peavy's two career homers came in 2006, off Philadelphia's Scott Mathieson and his good buddy, the Dodgers' Brad Penny.

Does he remind Penny of the home run when they see each other?

"Absolutely," Peavy said.

Honorable mention

Mike Hampton, Braves: Those five Silver Slugger awards are impressive, but it's hard to rank him among the elite when he hasn't had a major league at-bat since 2005.

Jason Jennings, Rangers: He might have topped this list in 2004. Then he hit .127 (16-for-126) over a three-year span and moved to the American League with Texas.

Kip Wells, Rockies: Just ask Odalis Perez if Wells can hit. On April 25, 2003, Wells hit a Perez fastball an estimated 457 feet off the center field batter's eye at PNC Park.

Johan Santana, Mets: He's got a fluid swing, hand-eye coordination, and three doubles in his first month in the National League. So much for the transition to no DH.

Greg Maddux, Padres: Not much of a stick at age 42, but he's willed and squinted his way to 267 career hits.

Others of note: Brad Penny, Dodgers; Randy Wolf and Mark Prior, Padres; Javier Vazquez, White Sox; Cole Hamels and Adam Eaton, Phillies; Brad Hennessey, Giants; Jorge Sosa, Mets; Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, Braves.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

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