Friday, May 31, 2013

Pitcher Hitting 1871-2012: An Analysis

As I mentioned in my wrap-up of the May 30th, 2013 games, after Cubs pitcher Travis Wood hit a grand  slam, I received this tweet:
30 May
has there ever been a pitching staff that has had this much success as the pitchers have had this season?
It's an excellent question, and I was well on my way to researching it when I lost power in the house for six hours. I went back at it today, and here's what I found. This first graph shows pitcher batting averages from 1871-2012:

I typically only go back to 1901 whenever I research topics, but in this case went back to the beginning of organized baseball in 1871 because the notion of the pitcher as a useless hitter was not then prevalent. Bill James discussed this idea in his Historical Baseball Abstract (2001) when he introduced the concept of "Peripheral Quality Indicia" (PQI), in which he argued that unrelated items can be used as proxy measures of the quality of play, and #1 on his list of 16 items was pitcher hitting (the full list is at the end of this post if you're curious). The higher the quality of play, the less hitting success pitchers would have because there's  no connection between pitcher hitting and team success. After a slow but steady decline that began in the 1930s, the current standard was reached around 1960 or so and remained steady through today.

Through Thursday's game, Cubs pitchers had 4 home runs and 19 RBI:
Travis Wood 14 26 24 5 7 1 0 2 7 1 8 .292 .320 .583 .903 141
Scott Feldman* 10 25 24 2 4 2 0 1 6 0 8 .167 .167 .375 .542 43
Jeff Samardzija 11 23 17 3 2 1 0 1 2 1 10 .118 .167 .353 .520 37
Carlos Villanueva 11 19 17 1 3 0 0 0 0 0 9 .176 .176 .176 .353 -3
Edwin Jackson 10 17 15 1 1 1 0 0 2 0 6 .067 .067 .133 .200 -47
Matt Garza 2 3 3 0 1 1 0 0 2 0 1 .333 .333 .667 1.000 165
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 5/31/2013.

Being roughly 1/3 of the way through the season, that would put them on pace to hit around 12 home runs and drive in around 57 RBI. That is NOT going to happen, period. This chart shows every team whose pitchers combined hit 9 or more home runs in a season:

If Cubs pitchers were to maintain this torrid pace, they would be the BEST EVER in pitcher hitting, which makes the tweeter referenced above pretty darn smart. Other than that 2001 Rockies team (where half the games were played at Coors Field, which had a park factor of 122 that year), the age of the pitcher "helping his cause" is long gone, and for one reason:
                                   Pitchers simply don't bat as often as they used to.
As pitchers pitch far fewer innings than in the past, they have fewer plate appearances. Unless pitching patterns dramatically change, the the teams listed in the chart above will be the best forever. This graph shows the number of pitcher plate appearances for the National League:

I'm frankly surprised pitchers bat even 2.5 times a game--over the course of a season, that's 80-90 fewer plate appearances than even 30-40 years ago, and that many fewer opportunities for hits, home runs and RBI.

This rather large chart lists every pitcher with at least 15 career home runs:

Other than Carlos Zambrano and Mike Hampton, these are definitely old-school players. Look at Zambrano's career plate appearances--744 in a 12-year career, almost 100 fewer than Earl Wilson in a similar length of career and over 200 fewer than Don Newcombe. And that's the final answer to the question--due to many factors (specialization, fewer hitting opportunities, the DH and more), pitching staffs will be hard-pressed to even hit five home runs in a year--the last team to do that was the 2009 Cubs featuring...Carlos Zambrano. And so, to the tweeter: No, on a pro-rated basis, no team HAS ever had pitcher hitting success like the Cubs so far in 2013, but it won't last, and no team will ever approach the hitting feats of the pitchers of old--that day has simply passed.

BILL JAMES PERIPHERAL QUALITY INDICIA (from the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, 2001, p876):
1. Pitcher hitting
2. The average distance of player age from 27
3. Percent of players less than six feet tall or taller than 6'3"
4. Fielding percent and passed balls
5. Double plays
6. Usage of pitchers at other positions
7. Percent of fielding plays made by pitchers
8. Percent of blowout games 
9. Average attendance and seating capacity
10. Field condition
11. Specialization of player roles
12. Average distance of teams from .500
13. Percent of games that go 9 innings
14. Standard deviation of offensive effectiveness (I have no idea what this means)
15. Record keeping
16. Percent of managers with 20 or more years in the game

The way he describes it makes sense when you consider his baseball progression:
1. Major league baseball
2. Minor league baseball
3. College baseball
4. High school baseball
5. Little League baseball
6. Teeball

In Little League, the pitcher is often the best hitter, player age is around 15-17 years off from 27, almost all players are under six feet tall, and you can go on--one can draw the reasonable conclusion that Little League baseball is not as good as major league baseball. Where these indicia take on greater meaning is when they are applied to the majors themselves and tested over time. Find the book and read this particular essay (it's about Bob Lemon, right up there with the best-hitting pitchers of all-time), it's very interesting.

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