There's this great picture of Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon (see below) that has been circling the internet. It shows Colon standing at the plate, bat in hand, while the pitch arrives. The pitch is so far outside that the catcher is stretching to reach it yet, mysteriously, Colon is thrusting his posterior out of the way of an inside pitch. It's funny because it looks like he's reacting to a pitch that is going to hit him while facing a pitch that is in no danger of hitting him. What is he doing? The subtext is ha ha silly pitcher can't hit. And it's true! Colon can't hit.
Some large portion of his inability to hit stems from the fact that he does not hit. I don't mean he doesn't hit well -- though actually I mean that too, and we'll get to that later on -- I mean he never gets to hit. Colon has appeared in 412 games and thrown 2,589 innings in his major league career, yet he has come to bat just 106 times, 43 of which came in 2002 after he was dealt from Cleveland to the Montreal Expos at the trade deadline. Prior to his half season in the NL, Colon had been with Cleveland for five-and-a-half seasons. Afterwards, he was dealt to the Chicago White Sox. He was there for a season before moving on to play with, in order, the Angels, the Red Sox, the White Sox (again), the Yankees and the A's before signing with the Mets this off-season. You'll notice every single one of those teams before "Mets" was in the AL. As such, Bartolo Colon: Hitter* is what you might call "out of practice."
*Worst musical ever
Of course, he's also what you might call "bad at it." Colon is a career .100/.108/.100 hitter. His on-base percentage is different from his batting average because he was hit by a pitch once, on July 28, 2002. Other than that, they're the same thing. He has 10 singles in 98 plate appearances. That is extremely bad, even if we restrict our sample to other pitchers who also (presumably) can't hit. This season, pitchers are hitting .121/.145/.155 (through Monday's games). That's a small sample, but it's not totally out of line with how pitchers have performed over the last four seasons. In 2013, pitchers hit .132 with a .333 OPS. In 2012, they hit .129 with a .327 OPS. In 2011, it was .141 with a .357 OPS. In 2010 it was .1-something with an embarrassing OPS. You get the idea. So, even for a pitcher, Colon is not good. But that's at least partly due to a further disadvantage for Colon.
As detailed above, Colon spent almost his entire career in the American League. American League pitchers don't hit, of course; the DH hits for them. The only time AL pitchers hit during the regular season is when they're playing interleague games in National League parks. For example, last season, 93.6 percent of the time a pitcher came to bat, he was a NL pitcher. NL pitchers aren't good hitters, but AL pitchers aren't good hitters and they're horribly out of practice. That's why AL pitchers hit .085/.127/.094* last season. That's a .221 OPS, a number that would be bad as a batting average. It's also pretty close to Colon's career OPS. Suddenly Colon is less of a punchline and more of an average-hitting American League pitcher.
*By the way, if you ever want to win an argument for the DH, know that line right there.
None of this explains why, AL pitcher or not, Colon and his fellow pitchers are such disasters at the plate. Has it always been this way? I went back through baseball history to find out. My report, titled "500 Pages To Say Yes," will be out in a few years, so you can look for that, but the executive summary is available now: Yes.
|MLB pitchers as hitters|
|*chosen rather than 1943 due
to World War II
It's a qualified "yes," though. At right, here's a list of pitchers' OPS from last season and every 10 years, going back a century. (I danced around 1943 because World War II was in full swing then and many major leaguers were fighting overseas, so that might give off a non-representative number.)
The numbers say two things. First, pitchers have always been bad hitters. Even in the age before the DH, before sliders, before integration, before modern nutrition and strength training, pitchers were lousy hitters. Even at their best, they were bad; the highest OPS listed, .506, is still awful. Since the end of the war, no pitcher season has topped 1951's .462 OPS. Last season, the lowest OPS of any qualified batter was Alcides Escobar's .559, which tells you how bad Alcides Escobar was last year, but still. Pitchers have always been bad.
Secondly, even though they've always been bad, pitchers used to be better hitters, and have been getting worse. Maybe this is a sign that pitchers aren't working hard enough at hitting; being a major league hitter requires intense work and focus, and it requires a level of skill that one can't maintain while working as intently on something else, like being a major league pitcher. Conversely, this may be a sign pitching itself has become more difficult over the years, and therefore requires more of a pitcher's time and effort. This leaves less time available to devote to other more ancillary skills, such as hitting.
But we should go back to the difference between AL and NL pitchers. That difference illustrates in a nutshell why pitchers aren't good hitters. Take any average pitcher, and put him on a NL team. Given enough plate appearances, his OPS will be roughly 100 points higher than if he'd been drafted, developed, and played for an AL team. The difference isn't chance, it's practice. While batters are working on every intricacy of mastering hitting, pitchers rarely touch a bat until they're handed one and pointed towards a major league on-deck circle.
If you think about the way players learn the game, this makes sense. In Little League, everyone plays everywhere, but the best players pitch and play shortstop. In Babe Ruth League and high school, some specialization is introduced, with some players turning to pitching or playing the field full time, though probably most still move around as needed. In college, specialization increases again, and once players are drafted, if there is any question which way a player will go, teams typically decide between the two paths at that point. Nick Markakis was both a highly-touted pitcher and hitter when the Orioles picked him in 2003, but Baltimore elected to use him as an outfielder. It was the same with Casey Kelly, who was a shortstop and pitcher when the Red Sox drafted him in 2008. After splitting time his first pro season, the player and organization agreed that he should concentrate on pitching full time, at least in part because he wouldn't be able to attain the required skill level unless he narrowed his focus to one position. All players undergo this paring of positions as they rise up the ladder towards the majors. If they didn't, they simply wouldn't make it.
That's not to say there aren't some pitchers who can hit a bit. There are. Dan Haren is a particularly competent hitter, at least within the scope of this article, as are Mike Leake and Carlos Zambrano. Perhaps the best of all recent pitcher hitting seasons was Zack Greinke's 2013, in which he hit .328 with a .409 on-base percentage. It was bizarre -- what the heck was Greinke doing with a .409 on-base percentage? It seemed likely he'd stolen it from a position player while he wasn't looking, as prior to 2013, Greinke was a .171 hitter with a .191 on-base percentage. But productive pitcher hitting seasons like Greinke's are the extreme outlier.
There are outliers in the other direction as well. Four pitchers last season finished with at least 50 plate appearances and an OPS below .200, which is a level of offensive production that ceases to be both offense and production. The offenders were Jorge De La Rosa, Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano. Of the four, only Liriano finished with an on-base percentage above .100, and nobody slugged higher than .068. But like pitching seasons, pitcher batting seasons can be fickle. None of those pitchers have career batting numbers anywhere near as bad as they did last season. Oh, they're bad, but they're not that bad.
Further illustrating the importance of pitcher hitting, two of those four horrible-hitting-even-for-a-pitcher pitchers signed large free agent contracts this past off-season. So you can see, when it comes to pitchers hitting, nobody cares. Or, more accurately, it isn't part of a team's calculus when spending big money on a free agent.
And so it was with Colon as well, who signed with the Mets over the winter. Which reminds me, let's get back to Colon's silly at-bat:
crying pic.twitter.com/ACr8AshskV- Lana Berry (@Lana) April 3, 2014
The picture is hilarious. He's clearly out of his element, a terrified John Kruk facing Randy Johnson in the All Star Game. The thing is though, he kind of wasn't. I went back and watched the at-bat. With one out, Ruben Tejada singled just ahead of Colon, meaning Colon had to bunt. He tried to bunt up first base line twice, but the ball went foul both times. With two strikes he turned as if to bunt again, but then pulled the bat back to swing away. He gets caught in the confluence of all these things, but watching it in real time, it's clear Colon was not really jumping out of the way of a pitch that, had it been higher off the ground, could have been a pitchout. Then he bunted foul and was out, the end.
So you see, Colon wasn't quite running in fear from the pitch the way the photograph seems to say he was. In fact, he was doing something an actual hitter might do, faking a bunt on an 0-2 pitch. It's not quite the new SciFi series, Bartolo Colon: Hitting Savant, but it's a level of basic competency that we've grown accustomed to not seeing.
Colon had one other at-bat that day, and out of curiosity I watched that as well. It came in the bottom of the third inning. Colon took a pitch and, with the Mets announcers talking about how funny it was that he was batting, how he was afraid of the pitch, and how he wasn't going to hit anything at all, ha ha crack! Colon hit a hard one-hopper to the second baseman. He was thrown out by 50 feet, but it was good, hard contact! The pitcher, Gio Gonzalez, tried to snag it in his glove, but the ball was past him. It was only because the second baseman was positioned perfectly to the right of second base that Colon didn't single up the middle. As Colon ambled back to the dugout the crowd gave him an ovation. In an opinion formed over more than a century, nobody expects the pitcher to hit.
Yet these guys are still the best in the world at what they do. And really, when you think about what they should do and what they actually do, it's actually remarkable. For a player with little practice, years removed from regularly practicing this skill, a .350 OPS isn't impressive -- it's extraordinary.
See? Bartolo Colon is a good hitter after all.