Commentary

It's just one ugly swing after another

Pitchers generally aren't good hitters, but this group of hackers is as bad as it gets

Originally Published: May 6, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Mike PelfreyJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMike Pelfrey has one extra-base hit and four RBIs in 96 career at-bats.
April and May have been noteworthy for stolen base mania, two triple plays and three cycles, but the most impressive two-way performance this season belongs to Brewers pitcher Yovani Gallardo. In a recent game against Pittsburgh, Gallardo threw eight two-hit, 11-strikeout innings and drove an Ian Snell changeup into the second deck to give Milwaukee a 1-0 victory.

You won't find any further references to show-off antics like that in this space. Not this week.

In the name of equal time -- and as an antidote to all the Carlos Zambranos and Adam Wainwrights who think that pitchers have a legitimate reason to wield baseball bats -- this week's installment of Starting 9 is dedicated to the worst-hitting pitchers in the game.

Sure, some of these guys can go deep in batting practice or execute a textbook sacrifice bunt to help the team. But when it comes to bat speed, pitch recognition and technique, they're way down the food chain.

After getting a rundown of the names and career batting averages on this list, Phillies outfielder and veteran baseball sage Matt Stairs was left with only one reaction.

"And people say there shouldn't be a DH?" Stairs said.

Daniel Cabrera
Cabrera

Daniel Cabrera, Nationals (0-for-21 career, 19 strikeouts)

It's only natural to give the benefit of the doubt to a guy with 21 career at-bats over a six-year span. But there are no excuses for Cabrera, who whiffed in his first 18 major league plate appearances before breaking the spell with a groundout against Florida's Chris Volstad on April 19.

How awkward is Cabrera's swing? Washington outfielder Adam Dunn, a connoisseur of pitcher-hitting ineptitude, said it looks as if Cabrera "is trying to club baby seals."

Dunn and his fellow Nationals have learned to stay glued to the bench when Cabrera steps to the plate, because they know something entertaining is bound to happen.

"Cabrera and Barry Bonds when he was going good -- those are two guys whose at-bats I would never want to miss," Dunn said.

The unimaginable occurred recently when Florida's Hayden Penn walked Cabrera on four pitches. In a subsequent game, Mitchell Boggs of St. Louis clipped Cabrera's jersey with a fastball. Cabrera stood motionless at home plate for 10-15 seconds, prompting broadcaster Bob Carpenter to observe that Cabrera might not be taking first base because he had never been to first base. It was only a slight exaggeration.

What are Cabrera's odds of recording a hit this season? Dunn thinks it's less likely than the average Joe's getting hit by lightning or winning the lottery.

"How about winning the lottery five times in one year?" Dunn said. "That would be more appropriate."

Ben Sheets
Sheets

Ben Sheets, free agent (33-for-433, .076 BA)

Sheets is currently rehabbing from flexor tendon surgery in Texas, and if all goes well he'll sign with a team this summer. If Sheets knows what's good for him, his next employer will be in the American League, where he'll never have to tote a bat again.

"Benny's an awesome guy," said Stairs, who played with Sheets in Milwaukee in 2002. "Great teammate. Good pitcher. Competitor. And just a bad hitter."

Another expert analyst put it more succinctly.

"He stinks," Dunn said.

Not many athletic experiences can bring a lump to your throat like stepping in the box against a 95 mph fastball. Sheets, by all accounts, is gripped by the layman's fear of getting hit by the ball. He batted below .100 in nine of 10 seasons as a Brewer, and failed to hit a homer in 492 plate appearances.

As Stairs recalls it, Sheets would stand as far from home plate as possible -- in the back corner of the batter's box -- and begin stepping in the bucket the moment the ball left the pitcher's hand.

"That's one scared hack," Dunn said. "That's an emergency, 0-2 hack."

Aaron Harang, Reds (.088 BA, three extra-base hits in 365 AB)

Harang qualifies for this list by default. Dunn and Austin Kearns, who played with Harang in Cincinnati, recall that he took endless rounds of hitting in the cage. Harang has lots of different bats and gloves in his collection, and he genuinely strives to be good.

Aaron Harang
Harang

The only thing holding him back is a lack of talent. When a hitter can't get around on a fastball, scouts like to say he has a "slider-speed bat." In Harang's case, they might have to invent a new frame of reference.

"He swings underwater," Dunn said. "His bat is below [Tim] Wakefield's knuckler speed."

No pitching staff in the majors has a more diverse collection of hitters than Cincinnati's. Micah Owings has a .546 career slugging percentage, and Bronson Arroyo has four career homers. At the other end of the offensive spectrum you'll find Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez, who are a combined 10-for-125 (.080) in the majors.

While Dunn never tires of needling pitchers for their offensive shortcomings, he roots for Harang because of his former teammate's sincere efforts to improve. Dunn still recalls Harang's proudly chugging into second base after smoking a double off the Padres' David Wells several years ago.

"He was really digging himself," Dunn said. "In my opinion, he would rather go 3-for-3 than throw a complete-game shutout. He works so hard at it. I'm telling you, he's going to hit .350 one of these years. Watch out."

Brian Moehler
Moehler

Brian Moehler, Astros (7-for-152, .046 BA)

Some pitchers look like nonathletes when they step to the plate. Not Moehler. He's an imposing, solidly built guy at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, and he gives the impression that he could drive the ball a long way if he ever connected. But the illusion ends once he takes the bat off his shoulder.

Last year Moehler's production consisted of a measly double in 44 at-bats. For some inexplicable reason, opposing pitchers walked him four times.

"He's actually a pretty good athlete," said Phillies closer Brad Lidge, a former teammate. "I don't remember watching him swing and thinking, 'Oh my God.' But something isn't translating. Maybe he needs retinal surgery. Some guys have no idea why they're so bad and all of a sudden they find out 'Your eyes are terrible.'"

If Moehler needs a helping hand, salvation is on the way. Astros TV color man Jim Deshaies, who holds the record for most career at-bats (373) without an extra-base hit, has volunteered to come down from the Houston broadcast booth and pass along a few hitting tips.

"Surprisingly, the Astros haven't asked me," Deshaies said. "But it's about time that I do. I think he needs to learn my Rod Carew approach. Forget that you're 6-foot-3 and this big strong guy, and just try to crouch down and punch the ball over the first baseman's head."

Doug Davis
Davis

Doug Davis, Diamondbacks (26-for-336, .077 BA)

For four memorable seasons in Milwaukee, Sheets and Davis were the Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton Jr. of bad-hitting pitchers, routinely drafting off each other's ineptitude. Instead of "shake and bake," their motto was "bail and flail."

They put it all together as a duo in 2006 when Davis hit .046 and Sheets batted a lusty .030. Their combined average didn't equal the price of a concession stand soft drink.

While Sheets gets the glory, Davis has had to settle for sporadic crumbs of recognition. In 2004, he hit .016 with 43 strikeouts in 64 at-bats. The following May, the Brewers beat Cincinnati 13-3, and the Associated Press began its game story with the sentence "Even Doug Davis got a hit." We are not kidding.

In 381 plate appearances, Davis has a total of four extra-base hits. But here's the oddest part: All four came in 2005, when he doubled three times and legged out a triple on a ball that glanced off Cincinnati center fielder Ken Griffey Jr.'s glove.

"Clearly, he was corking his bat in 2005," Deshaies said. "It was probably to win a bet with Ben Sheets. Guys are willing to face a 10-game suspension for corking their bat just so they can beat their teammates."

Ian Snell
Snell

Ian Snell, Pirates (16-for-180, .089 BA)

Snell, a former 26th-round draft choice, has a live arm and a big heart. But an offensive weapon he's not. That .101 career slugging percentage is testament to his deficiencies at the plate.

"He's a guy who'll strike out 20 times in a row, but whenever he gets a hit, you're going to hear about it for the next week," teammate Paul Maholm said. "He might think he's good. But all you have to do is show him the footage of him striking out extremely badly and say, 'Uh, no you're not.'"

Might this year be different? Third base coach Tony Beasley has been working overtime in the batting cage with the Pittsburgh pitchers, and Snell responded with two hits and an RBI against San Diego on April 24. But he has yet to surpass six hits in a season, so don't hold your breath in anticipation of his next offensive banner day.

For what it's worth, Maholm and pitcher Zach Duke both wholeheartedly endorsed Snell's inclusion on this list.

"If you write it, I'll print it out and put it on his locker and post it on the board, too," Maholm said. "Go right ahead."

Jason Bergmann
Bergmann

Jason Bergmann, Nationals (6-for-89, .067 BA)

Bergmann, who was optioned from Washington to Triple-A Syracuse last week, is an engaging guy in conversation. He went to school at Rutgers, loves to talk baseball and aspires to be a general manager or broadcaster one day.

Like Al Leiter, another Jersey guy turned big leaguer, Bergmann also wields a Nerf bat at the plate.

Although Bergmann has hits in the majors against Carlos Zambrano and Tom Glavine, they're overshadowed by his 0-for-40 performance with Washington last season. In hindsight, Bergmann attributes his problems to difficulty seeing the ball. That's understandable, since Bergmann hadn't hit regularly since his high school days in 1999.

"I don't think my eyes are so good that I can just pick things up," Bergmann said. "I don't have Ted Williams eyes. I have borderline glasses eyes."

Bergmann made major strides after spending 10 minutes in the cage with coach Rick Eckstein late last season. Then the Nationals threw him a curve by moving him to the bullpen, where he no longer has much opportunity to hit.

Bergmann thinks any fan or reporter who pokes fun at weak-hitting pitchers would back off after one at-bat in the majors. Washington's pitchers do fine in batting practice against pitching coach Randy St. Claire, even though he throws with some zip. But it's a different story in games.

"I was facing John Smoltz in 2007," Bergmann said. "They made me take the first pitch for strike one. Then I swung at two sliders -- or splitters. I can't tell you what they were.

"All I know is, I saw the ball for one second, I didn't see it the next second and I swung over it twice. I walked back to the bench and said to [St. Claire], 'There's no amount of batting practice I could take to prepare me for that.'"

John Maine
Maine

John Maine, Mets (12-for-138, .087)

In contrast to the other offenders on this list, Maine has a home run in his portfolio. On July 24, 2007, he went deep against fellow Starting 9 member Ian Snell.

Maine jumped on a fastball up in the zone and drove it over the left-field fence. Two years later, he's happy to access the homer in the video room and replay it for his teammates' enjoyment.

"The other day in New York, guys were bringing up their hits on the computer, so he slowed it down and we watched it," outfielder Ryan Church said. "He asked me, 'If I have a home run, does that make me a home run hitter?' I said, 'Yeah, exactly.'"

Maine was a self-described "decent" hitter in high school in Virginia, but his bat atrophied through lack of use in college and the minors. He works diligently at his bunting, and ranked second in the majors with 14 sacrifices in 2007.

"He has a good swing for a pitcher," teammate Mike Pelfrey said. "But on anything that moves, he has no chance. And if it's a fastball, it has to be up in the zone. Basically, the pitcher has to hit his bat."

Mike Pelfrey
Pelfrey

Mike Pelfrey, Mets (8-for-96, .083)

In truth, there are probably pitchers who belong in this group ahead of Pelfrey. But he practically lobbied for a spot -- under one condition.

"I don't care if I'm on the list," Pelfrey said, "as long as you make it clear that I'm better than Maine."

The hitting competition between Pelfrey and Maine is spirited, to put it mildly. They're constantly talking trash, and last year they placed a bet on which one would post a higher batting average in 50 at-bats.

When it became evident that Maine would fall short of that threshold, Pelfrey vowed to pay off if he failed to hit safely in a game against Washington. Pelfrey took an oh-fer against the Nationals and gave Maine a 42-inch flat-screen television. Maine later reciprocated with a TV for Pelfrey.

"He kept complaining about how we shouldn't have made the bet, so I finally gave him one," Maine said.

In a recent start in Philadelphia, Pelfrey singled and drove Raul Ibanez to the wall with a long fly ball to left-center field. He planned to make a beeline to Maine in the dugout if the ball had cleared the fence.

"He would have never heard the end of it," Pelfrey said.

Honorable mention

Matt Cain, Giants: He's a .106 hitter with 103 whiffs in 199 at-bats. But he also has four career home runs. "He has sneak-up-on-you, bam-bam pop," former teammate Jack Taschner said. "If you throw it middle-in, you're in trouble. Everywhere else, you're OK."

Ryan Dempster, Cubs: Dempster's .111 career slugging percentage isn't too ominous, but he led the majors with 19 sacrifice bunts last season.

Brett Myers, Phillies: He's not great, but nothing changes perception like a 4-for-5 performance in the postseason. And Myers already has three knocks this year.

Others of note: Ubaldo Jimenez, Rockies; Aaron Heilman, Cubs; John Lannan, Nationals; Chris Carpenter and Joel Pineiro, Cardinals; Barry Zito, Giants; Claudio Vargas, Dodgers; Anibal Sanchez, Marlins; Tom Gorzelanny, Pirates; Octavio Dotel, White Sox.

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