Eric is a writer and former college athlete with interests in a wide range of sports and activities.
Major League Baseball pitchers are imposing athletes with the power to hurl a small, spherical object at mind-bending speeds. Good pitchers can intimidate hitters and take control of a game. From the pitcher's mound, they stand like Greek gods upon mountain tops, firing lightning bolts and striking fear into the hearts of their mere-mortal opponents.
Until these pitchers themselves come up to the plate, and they begin to look more geek than Greek. As we watch these world-class athletes haplessly flail away at a little ball they seem to have no hope of hitting, we can't help but ask ourselves: Why are pitchers such bad hitters?
If you are a fan of a National League team, this can be infuriating, although it is also one of the things that make National League play so interesting. You have eight guys doing their best at the plate and one guy who acts like he’s never seen a baseball bat before.
Pitchers played in high school where they had to bat, and maybe they were even good hitters in college. If they are starting pitchers in the National League, they know they are going to have a couple of at-bats in every start. Even American League pitchers need to make plate appearances during interleague games. Surely, they should look a little more comfortable up there at the plate.
As we’ll see, there are some good reasons many pitchers can’t hit, and it isn’t because they are bad athletes who aren’t willing to spend time in the batting cage.
1. Hitting In the Major Leagues Is Really Hard
One of the most obvious reasons pitchers appear to be such horrible hitters comes down to simple statistical probability. To make it into the Major Leagues you have to be one of the best in the world and possess rare talent. Only a very tiny fraction of the human population is good enough to hit a baseball at a professional level.
Likewise, pitching in the Major Leagues is an extremely difficult task that requires very rare talent. Just like position players, the players who make it into the Big Leagues as pitchers are the ones who are tremendously gifted.
So, what are the odds that the same person would possess the talent to become both an elite pitcher and an elite hitter?
It would be like an NFL football player who is both an elite quarterback and an elite linebacker. Could it happen? Sure, and there are some pitchers throughout baseball history who could hit very well, but it is rare.
2. Pitchers Work at Pitching
Even if a player does show signs that they can both pitch and hit well, eventually they have to pick a path.
Pitchers and position players spend their time working on two very different skill sets. Baseball pitchers spend endless hours honing their craft, working with coaches, and participating in very specific training with only one goal in mind: becoming better pitchers. They study the hitters they face and take care of their arms and bodies in the training room. Pitchers make their living by being great at pitching a baseball.
That is the number one thing their team is concerned about and that is where they are expected to spend most of their time. Even if they play in the National League, pitchers get very few at-bats compared to position players. A Cy Young-winning pitcher who can’t hit is still extremely valuable, while a poor pitcher who hits well will find himself without a job (or playing another position).
Position players do the same. While their fielding ability is important, most of them make the lineup for their ability to hit a baseball. That’s where they spend a great deal of their training time, and that is their focus.
3. Pitchers Are Valuable and Fragile
Nobody else gets to wear a cool jacket when running the bases. That should tell you something right there!
If you are a manager, do you really want your starting pitcher legging out a double and sliding into second head-first? Do you want him stealing bases or running over catchers at home plate?
No. You want your pitcher to be able to bunt well and get a base hit now and then if they can. Mostly, what you want is for your pitcher to get out there, not get hurt, and get back to the dugout where he can sit quietly until it is time to pitch again.
Pitchers aren’t fragile because they are wimps. It is because they are asking their arms and bodies to do things that aren’t normal and they are constantly operating at the dangerous limits of human performance. Banging up an elbow while sliding into third doesn’t help.
It just isn’t a good use of time or resources to invest in making your pitchers better hitters or base runners. Sure, they’ll spend a little time in the batting cage, but they get paid to strike people out, not hit home runs. Every pitcher on the roster is valuable and they have a hard enough time staying healthy just pitching in rotation.
4. Pitchers Who Hit Well Often Change Position
As noted above, some pitchers do hit well. In fact, while they are coming up, some pitchers hit very well.
So, if you are the manager of a Minor League baseball team and you have a decent pitcher on your roster who is capable of hitting for a .300 average, what do you do with that guy?
Do you put him in the pitching rotation and rest easy knowing he will be an offensive asset every fifth game? Do you sit him in the bullpen, where he may only rarely make a plate appearance?
Or, do you put him in the outfield or at first base where you can take advantage of his bat every game? Unless he is a truly outstanding pitcher, you’re probably going to ask this player to change positions.
In the olden days, a player may play another position on days when he wasn't pitching (see Babe Ruth). That's just not going to happen today. These days, coaches and scouts identify a player’s best chances of success when they are in college or the Minor Leagues. If you are a player, you’d be smart to make the change, especially if it meant the difference between having a shot at the Majors or languishing in AA ball.
5. Pitchers Aren't Always Expected to Hit
Managing the pitcher's appearance at the plate is one of the things that makes baseball fascinating. You don't always want your pitcher to try to get a base hit. Often, they sacrifice themselves in order to advance runners or so they don't ruin a scoring opportunity.
Consider this: The bases are loaded in the bottom of the second inning and there is one out. Your starting pitcher comes up to the plate and he is batting .121 for the season. The best outcome is that he gets a base hit, though statistically, it seems improbable. It is even less likely he will get an extra-base hit.
Maybe he walks, but the opposing pitcher is almost certainly going to throw strikes and challenge him to hit the ball. Possibly he flies out and drives in a run, but again it seems unlikely.
So, since he probably isn't going to get a base hit, what’s the next best thing that could happen?
The next best thing is for your pitcher to strike out and go sit his butt down. Because if he makes contact he has a high probability of hitting into a double play and ending the inning. Pitchers aren’t exactly known for their base-running speed either.
Most managers would rather trust their lead-off hitter at the plate with two outs than their pitcher with one.
Why Can't Pitchers Hit?
As we've seen, there are a number of reasons an MLB pitcher struggles at the plate. The number one reason is that they have spent a lifetime working to become great pitchers, not great hitters. When you think about it, they are actually decent hitters, considering those circumstances.
There are, of course, always a handful of pitchers who hit over .200 every season. In the end, these guys get paid to sit batters down. Anything a pitcher can contribute to the offense is a bonus.