Pitchers getting into the swing of things

Batting ninth in the NL used to be a near automatic out. Now, many pitching are coming to the plate as feared hitters.

Originally Published: May 8, 2003
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Not even six weeks into the baseball season, major-league pitchers had hit almost as many home runs (10) as they hit in the 1991 or 1992 season (12 each). This is partly a function of this dynamic offensive era: With smaller parks and strike zones, and harder balls and bats, it's easier for anyone to hit a homer. Still, it's clear that pitchers are getting better as hitters.

"Especially the young pitchers,'' Reds manager Bob Boone said. "Look, everyone is hitting homers today. Everyone is bigger and stronger. Why wouldn't it be the same with pitchers?''

Jason Jennings
Starting pitcher
Colorado Rockies
Profile
2003 SEASON STATISTICS
G AB H BA HR RBI
7 12 4 .333 0 1

There are still plenty of terrible hitting pitchers, led by Mike Thurman (now in the minor leagues), who is 4-for-131 (.031) with no RBI and 93 strikeouts in his career. But then there is, to name a few, Jason Jennings, Mark Prior, Livan Hernandez, Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, Jason Schmidt, Woody Williams, Guillermo Mota, Darren Dreifort, Adam Eaton, Kerry Wood, John Smoltz and Brooks Kieschnick, a former outfielder who has made it back to the major leagues as a pitcher for the Brewers. In spring training, he pitched in relief one day, and the next day he was the starting left fielder and cleanup hitter.

"I've changed the way I've pitched to pitchers; I throw them first-pitch breaking balls,'' Cardinals pitcher Matt Morris said. "Jason Schmidt hit a leadoff double off me in '97 and ended up beating me. After that, I thought, 'Why do I throw them only first-pitch fastballs?' ''

Good question. In April, NL pitchers batted .157, which is nothing special, but they hit nine homers (one fewer than the Tigers) and had 53 RBI. Ten years ago, before the start of this offensive explosion, NL pitchers had no homers and 32 RBI in April. Twenty years ago, they had no homers, 29 RBI in April. In April 1973, they had two homers, 32 RBI.

Pitching in with the bat
The top 10 hitting pitchers this season (minimum: 12 at-bats):
Pitcher Team AB H Avg.
Cook Col. 13 5 .385
Williams St.L. 14 5 .357
Jennings Col. 12 4 .333
Dessens Ari. 13 4 .308
Oswalt Hou. 17 5 .294
Tomko St.L. 14 4 .286
Lawrence S.D. 15 4 .267
Prior ChC 19 5 .263
Morris St.L. 16 4 .250
Wells Pitt. 16 4 .250

"We have some really good hitting pitchers,'' Morris said. "Rick Ankiel, I mean, some of our everyday players watch him hit in BP and say, 'I wish I had his swing.' Other people look at him and say he's the pitcher? Woody Williams swings like a middle infielder.''

The Cardinals' starting pitchers hit every day, sometimes just in the cage, but they swing every day. So do pitchers on a lot of NL teams. Twenty years ago, if not 10, that never happened.

"I've heard stories about how the everyday players used to kick the pitchers out of the cage,'' Williams said. "Now, we have our own schedule.''

They watch video to find ways to make them better. They also get daily, individual help from the hitting coach, who, 10 to 20 years ago, never would have been bothered with teaching a pitcher how to hit.

"Pitchers have pride; we don't want to make a fool of ourselves,'' Williams said. "Plus, if you can hit, you can help your team win. Dreifort hit two homers in a game a couple of years ago. A bomb to left center, a bomb to right center. If he played every day, he'd hit 35 homers.''

Dreifort hit 22 home runs in his final year at Wichita State, earning second-team all-conference honors as a DH. One scout still isn't certain that Dreifort wouldn't have been a better major-league hitter than pitcher.

Jennings hit 17 homers in his junior year at Baylor. In Prior's major-league career, he is 11-for-54 (.203) with six doubles, one homer and 12 RBI -- that's good production for an everyday player. Hernandez once had nine hits in nine straight at-bats in the big leagues. Williams played shortstop when he wasn't pitching at the University of Houston. He said he was too slow to play shortstop in the big leagues, but said if he had concentrated on being an everyday player, he could have made it as a catcher.

Kip Wells
Starting pitcher
Pittsburgh Pirates
Profile
2003 SEASON STATISTICS
G AB H BA HR RBI
8 16 4 .250 1 1

Pitcher's hit because today's baseball culture is all about hitting. It has been that way for 10 years. All over the country, kids are going to batting cages and relentlessly pumping tokens into pitching machines. Or, they have one installed at their homes. Hit. Hit. Hit. Chicks love the long ball; the 450-foot home run is what gets you on SportsCenter. Last week, Pirates pitcher Kip Wells hit a 457-foot home run, the longest in the history of PNC Park.

Young pitchers today (Prior, Jennings, etc.) are a part of a generation of kids who spent their teenage years bulking up and trying to hit homers. Most were the star hitters on their high school teams, and aren't far enough removed from those days to have lost their swing. Morris claims to be a lousy major-league hitter, and says he wasn't a good hitter in high school. What did he hit? "I don't know, .400,'' he said. That is not a lousy hitter.

Most pitchers are better athletes than they're given credit for. Most played shortstop, or some other position, in high school when they weren't pitching. There's nothing more fun than creasing a baseball. It happens to pitchers all the time. Why can't they have a part of the action?

The good hitting pitchers will continue to hit, and it's fun to watch. Still, we will never forget Bob Buhl, who went 0-for-70 in 1962. And Bill Stoneman, who struck out 55 times in 73 at-bats in 1969. And Ron Herbel, who finished his career 6-for-206 (.029). And our favorite, Larry Andersen, a terrible hitting pitcher, who once contended that he "was hitting 2.000'' after a 2-for-2 start.

"Two ABs, two hits, 2.000, that's fair,'' he said. "My way, if I make an out, I'd only drop to 1.500.''

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail tim.kurkjian@espnmag.com.

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