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There’s a good reason why pitchers’ batting is worse than ever

It boils down to pitch speeds.

Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Pitchers batting. You know how I feel about that in the year 2021.

I’m writing on this topic again because there’s a new article by Neil Greenberg in the Washington Post that goes a long way toward explaining why pitchers are lousy hitters in modern baseball. To wit:

In 2020, an average American League DH batted .229 with a .724 OPS. The average National League DH batted .235 with a .731 OPS. The average National League pitcher, meanwhile, batted .131 with a .329 OPS in 2019. The difference between the two is equivalent to adding as many as 80 runs per 600 plate appearances to their team, compared with the average player.

If this uptick in lineup production wasn’t enough to sway you to the rule change, the increasing velocity of fastballs should. Simply put, it has made it unfair to expect pitchers to bat in modern baseball.

That’s a major, significant difference. Just how significant is that increase in velocity?

Aside from hitting not being their primary focus, most of the mediocre results from pitchers at the plate can be tied back to the increasing efficiency of fastballs around major league baseball. For example, in 2008, when fastballs averaged 90.5 mph, pitchers managed a .139 average with a .352 OPS against the pitch as a group. This year, with fastball velocity the highest it’s ever been (92.1 mph, on average), pitchers are batting .109 with a .271 OPS, recording an out more than 77 percent of the time.

As you would expect, the higher the velocity, the more futile a pitcher’s turn at the plate becomes. The velocity at the top end (90th percentile) of pitchers in 2021 has risen to nearly 97 mph, on average, with spin rates approaching 2,300 revolutions per minute, giving the pitch more speed and movement than we have ever seen. Pitchers don’t stand a chance when facing that kind of heat.

Don’t say they can practice and get better. In modern baseball starting pitchers simply don’t have the time to do this, as they are spending the four days in between starts working out, tweaking their repertoire via bullpen sessions and watching video of their next opponent. And as Ryan Dempster told me two years ago:

So you go through all your pitching routines, and working out, plus, you have to be careful. You don’t want to be asked, ‘Why’s his back getting sore?’ and have to say, ‘Well, I was taking 150 swings a day in the cage.’”

The lack of hitting by pitchers is hurting the Cubs in 2021. Cubs pitchers are hitting .031/.088/.031 (1-for-32, the only hit a single by Trevor Williams) with 23 strikeouts.

That performance is enough to make a significant dent in the Cubs’ overall batting numbers this year.

Cubs batting overall: .213/.308/.395 (141-for-663), 215 strikeouts, .703 OPS
Cubs batting excluding pitchers: .222/.317/.411 (140-for-632), 192 strikeouts, .728 OPS

That BA is still pretty low, but it would jump the Cubs from 26th overall to 22nd. The OBP would jump from 16th-ranked to 11th, the SLG from 11th to seventh, and the OPS from 11th to eighth overall, through Sunday’s games. The Cubs offense is struggling enough even among some of the position players. The almost complete failure of Cubs pitchers to hit is making this issue worse.

Excluding American League teams, since no AL team has more than six PA this year from pitchers, the Cubs are dead last with that .119 OPS from pitchers this season. But even the “best” team, the Braves, has just a .581 OPS from its hurlers (7-for-31, 14 strikeouts).

Neil Greenberg is right. It’s hard enough for modern hitters who spend time on their craft to catch up with the constant stream of modern pitchers throwing 95-plus. It’s completely unfair to ask a pitcher who plays every fifth day and maybe bats twice in a game to do so.

Unfortunately, we are stuck with this system for this season. I remain fervently hopeful that 2021 will be the last year we see pitchers batting in MLB.