Intriguingly Shallow Thoughts about a Crucial Non-Issue

I was reading something the other day, and a question recurred. The question isn’t original to me (few things are original to me, actually), and this isn’t the first time I’ve pondered it. It’s also one aspect of an issue that’s been a lively debate for decades. Does it make much difference whether a pitcher faces a DH or another pitcher? Of course, the DH has made baseball purists apoplectic since its introduction in 1973, but I’m not going to examine that particular issue. I’m just going to assume that MLB will keep it in place. What interests me is the difference between facing a pitcher over a designated hitter.

The following table puts the difference on bold display. Rows 2 through 4 represent pitchers rows 5 through 7 are the designated hitters. Further explanations are offered below the table: read them at your leisure.

G PA H 2B 3B HR R SB BB% K% ISO babip OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
2915 5913 654 98 7 24 274 3 3.2 37.1 .036 .220 .162 .165 .149 -15
28 57 6 1 0 0 3 0 2 21
162 329 36 5 0 1 15 0 11 122
3084 11803 2774 508 25 449 1339 64 9.4 19.8 .182 .298 .339 .447 .339 114
28 107 25 5 0 4 12 1 10 21
162 620 146 27 1 24 70 3 58 123

As you may have already noticed, there are several assumptions made in this table. If you haven’t, here they are:

  • 32-35 starts per pitcher;
  • 28 G is an approximation of the number of games that a pitcher would face another pitcher in the NL, and takes into account inter-league play and a missed start or two; it also represents the obverse for an AL pitcher, with the same stipulations (inter-league play; missed starts);
  • none of the figures are dead-on accurate, but represent generalizations (all numbers are rounded, then the rounded numbers are used in other calculations);
  • the 162-game row is for perspective and illustration: those numbers are calculated independent of the 28-game row;
  • pinch hitters (the ones who come in after the two PA by the starting pitcher) have been disregarded;
  • there is no differentiation between the quality of pitchers in their relative league, i.e. there’s an assumption that NL pitchers and AL pitchers are equally talented;

Who Creates the Most Stress for the Guy on the Mound?

We’ve accumulated and crunched a lot of numbers to confirm something we already know. You’re welcome. It’s pretty shocking, I know, but here’s the longer, non-table version. Based on the 2012 season (which isn’t very different from 2011 except in the obvious manner: it was one year later), pitchers are four times less likely to get a hit and three times less likely to get a walk than a DH. If a pitcher gets a hit, it’ll be an extra-base hit fewer than four times in 1000 plate appearances. When it gets right down to it, a pitcher is about twice as likely to strike out and half as likely to get on base as a DH.

If by some stretch of the imagination the pitcher does get on base, not much happens. First, pitchers (-34.3) tend to be better base runners than DHs (-53.8), but neither group is much good on the basepaths. Because they’re paid handsomely to throw baseballs, pitchers wear jackets on the basepaths and THEY DON’T STEAL BASES. I can’t say it any louder than that. DHs are usually older ballplayers (e.g. David Ortiz) who are paid to hit. Being, um, heavier and older, they don’t steal many bases either. However, even though pitchers will score two times in seven when they get on base and DHs about one time in three, a DH is five times more likely to score a run than a pitcher.

There’s a practical application to all of this number crunching. New Blue Jay pitcher Josh Johnson is a career National Leaguer and will need to change his strategy somewhat. Fans witnessed the transition made by Ryan Dempster last season and he wasn’t very successful, even after the Rangers acquired his ‘personal’ catcher. As Jays’ fans, we can only hope that Dempster’s struggles continue as he plies his trade with the Red Sox (Dang that John Farrell! Dang him straight to heck!). We shouldn’t read too much into Dempster’s struggles, though: others have made the transition from NL to AL with very little difficulty. As good and loyal Jays’ fans we want Josh Johnson to be like them, not like Ryan Dempster.

Ho-Hum

Highly-paid professionals should be good at their job. Sometimes a bad day, the flu, an injury, too little coffee, or some other obstacle can get in the way of optimal performance, but all-in-all, performance norms should be expected. However, when highly-paid professionals are asked to do something for which they’re ill-suited, performance expectations need to be adjusted accordingly. In other words, if I hire a plumber to shingle my roof, I need to ratchet my expectations downward: that plumber ain’t gonna do as good a job up there as a roofer will. Pitchers are paid to pitch, not hit, so expectations are lower when they come to the plate. Designated hitters, on the other hand, still have something to offer offensively. Expectations are correspondingly higher. Personally, I expect as much from Brandon Morrow at the plate as I expect from Mike McCoy on the mound.

My Dad used to talk about baseball back in the good ol’ days, when lots of pitchers were good hitters. Sadly, my Dad’s memory on the matter was pretty selective. Pitchers have always been terrible hitters; very, very few have been decent with the stick. This is why it’s rare that a pitcher’s stress level will rise when the other pitcher comes to the plate.

However, if you’re looking to pick up a good-hitting pitcher for your fantasy team then grab Mike Leake. He socked two of the 24 HR that NL pitchers hit last season and scored eight runs. His .410 babip wasn’t too shabby either. Overall, Leake was a 1.0 WAR hitter for the Reds. Hmm, maybe the Royals should grab him and stick him in right field.

Smile. Opening Day is a few short weeks away…

Wes Kepstro

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