Pitchers Had Another Bad Year Hitting. But No. 9 Hitters…

October 4, 1972: Yankees righty Larry Gowell hits a double off of Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Jim Lonborg. The American League Brewers played that game in an American League park in the Bronx, with no designated hitter on either side.

October 3, 2021: Dodgers righty Andre Jackson hits for himself, in relief, grounding out against Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Daniel Norris. The National League Brewers played that game in a National League park in Los Angeles, with no designated hitter on either side.

Gowell started his game and went five innings. In the third he led off, got his double, and advanced on a 6-3 groundout before being stranded at third base. In the bottom of the inning, he gave up a sac fly to John Briggs. That proved to be the only run, tagging Gowell with the loss.

Jackson was in relief of Phil Bickford, himself in relief of Walker Buehler. When a reliever hits for himself, rarely is the game competitive: here, Jackson had already pitched two innings with a nice lead. Immediately before Jackson’s spot in the batting order came up, outfielder Matt Beaty drove in catcher Will Smith, utility man Chris Taylor, and himself. Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts surely saw the score in LA, the score in San Francisco, and Jackson’s roster status for the playoffs, and let him hit and finish out the ninth. (Jackson collected a save for his three-inning effort, the first of his career.)

Gowell probably wasn’t the last AL pitcher to bat before the DH. The Angels and Royals had night games on the same day with pitcher at-bats in the Pacific and Central time zones. If baseball should adopt the designated hitter rule for the National League effective next year, Jackson will probably be the last NL pitcher to bat under these rules. The Reds’ Reiver Sanmartin collected three at-bats before being lifted for a pinch-hitter on the same day, but two of those came to start and end the fifth inning in his game against the Pirates. The Giants’ Logan Webb collected three at-bats too, but his day as a batter ended after a home run in the fifth. All those games began around the same time, so Jackson’s appearance in the eighth inning was a bit later on.

That’s all past and potential future trivia. I want to look at how pitchers hit in 2021. And how about designated hitters?

2021 Batting Performance
AL pitchers 179 .110 .161 .165 .326 -6
NL pitchers 4,447 .110 .149 .140 .290 -21
AL designated hitters 9,605 .240 .317 .437 .754 105

Well, isn’t that something? American League pitchers matched National League pitchers’ batting average, but they got on base a little more and slugged more. And if you combine their OPS’s together, they’re still trailing American League DHs by 138 points, .616 to .754.

But notice something else: NL pitchers collected less than half as many plate appearances as AL designated hitters. That makes sense, as relievers rarely bat, Jackson’s PA aside. Starting pitchers face batters a third or subsequent time less than ever. We probably have less double-switching than we used to, and plenty of rosters only have three or four bench players, and managers are still mostly allergic to pinch-hitting a backup catcher. And yet, most of the time, we max out at three pitcher PAs, because they’re getting pinch-hit for.

Let’s look at designated hitters versus pitchers another way. How did the ninth spot in the lineup perform across the leagues?

2021 No. 9 Hitter Performance
AL No. 9 hitters 9,021 .226 .293 .353 .646 79
NL No. 9 hitters 9,014 .166 .229 .256 .485 31

Advantage, American League. Designated hitters aren’t usually batting ninth, but somebody is. The DH rule doesn’t remove the ninth spot from the batting order, it just puts somebody like Willi Castro (.624 OPS in 2021) or Martín Maldonado (.573) or Jorge Mateo (.670) there instead of somebody like Adam Wainwright (.336) or Antonio Senzatela (.111) or Julio Urías (.454).

Evaluated by wRC+, which factors in actual performance against league and park effects, NL batters in the 9-hole put up a 31 wRC+ this year, and AL batters batting ninth had a 79 wRC+. That’s a big difference. But NL pitchers had a -21 wRC+. If you strip out pitchers batting ninth from all players batting ninth, the AL had an 82 wRC+ and the NL had a 79 wRC+. Unified DH rules across the leagues will make a difference, but we shouldn’t expect an offensive explosion.

The last table, excluding pitchers:

2021 No. 9 Hitter Performance, Excluding Pitchers
AL No. 9 hitters (no P) 8,739 .231 .299 .361 .659 82
NL No. 9 hitters (no P) 4,696 .217 .297 .361 .658 79

The difference in BABIP, for the record, was .013, nearly matching the difference in batting average. Keen observers will note that in more than half as many PA overall, AL and NL No. 9 hitters — not pitchers hitting, but hitters — put up a rounding errors’ worth of difference in OPS and wRC+.

Pitchers aren’t automatic outs. In 2021 they collected 462 hits, with 100 going for extra bases. They scored 204 runs and batted in 173. They walked 185 times. These are integers, not rates. The rates are low and given above. But that’s cold comfort when a pitcher reaches against your interest. In the Dodgers-Giants NLDS Game 2, Gabe Kapler walked AJ Pollock after a 2-0 count to face Urías; Urías took ball one, then strike one, then singled to right field for an RBI single. Next time, maybe that’s Sheldon Neuse or Billy McKinney batting ninth and Kapler doesn’t wiggle four fingers. It probably won’t be a designated hitter, because only very poor designated hitters ever bat ninth.

Should it happen, many will decry the loss of pitchers batting. Others will celebrate it. Still others will say they care more about mock NFL drafts in March than they do baseball. But let’s be clear about what we’re losing. This year, 4,447 plate appearances in the National League went to pitchers out of 90,966 total, or about 4.9%. That’s not 1/9th of the PAs, that’s less than 1/18th. Whatever your allegiance, whatever happens, 2022 will have a mediocre hitter batting ninth, and that guarantees nothing, because a pitcher will try to get that hitter out and the hitter will try to get on base or advance a runner.

Idahoan, Dodger fan, creator of @botstove

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1 year ago

Interesting take but to some extent the switch isn’t a proper comparison.

In nearly half of ABs in the NL 9 spot the pitchers bat – and very badly. But comparing them to an AL 9 spot hitter isn’t the comp – the upside here is the comp to the DH who is very likely batting in a higher spot in the order.

Your comp of the 9 spot AL hitters to non-pitcher 9 spot NL hitters may also be skewed though. Many if not most of those ABs (absent the double switch situations) go to a guy who’s on the bench that day because they lack the platoon advantage vs the starter or are defensively limited so there to hit in just these situations. That their performance isn’t better than AL 9 spot hitters is a testament to how hard pinch hitting is perhaps.

The true change is that a back end of the order hitter will likely be pushed down to the 9 spot. The gain is a DH (105 wRC+) in a higher spot compared to the pitcher (-21 wRC+) 1/2 the time, and a 1 AB pinch hitter (79 wRC +) the other 1/2. There is a clear advantage over both, and large taken together.

The gain, and it is estimable in projected impact just by comparing the difference in offense in the AL to the NL, isn’t really batting order related.

Baller McCheesemember
1 year ago

I actually really like comparing the NL pitchers to the AL 9-spot.

If the AL DH wasn’t available – like, if the AL magically became like the NL and had no DH – the AL DHs wouldn’t just go sit on the bench. A good bat is still going to find it’s way in the lineup, so they would most likely find themselves in LF or at 1B which would have ramifications on the rest of the lineup. While it may not be that the 9-spot hitter gets bumped because of the position they play, it’s still going to be someone at the bottom third of the order that does (most likely every team’s worst OF).

What I wish this analysis had was a comparison of the AL 9-spot to the NL 8-spot + 9-spot (non pitchers only), because if the DH is added to the NL, the 8-spot hitter will be pushed down to being the 9-spot hitter.