A while back, I happened to be at FanGraphs, examining the Braves' 2009 hitting stats. I was mainly interested in how bad our opening day OFs were (the answer: unequivocally terrible). But one thing struck my eye: Tommy Hanson's brutal hitting stats. Check it out: In 46 PAs, he struck out 20 times and walked once. He put up a .054/.079/.054 (AVG/OBP/SLG) line, good for a .133 OPS. That's right, Hanson's OPS was worse than Greg Norton's batting average. Needless to say, that's hard to do, even for a pitcher. I don't think it was just bad luck, either. My recollection of his at-bats is that he always seemed like he'd rather be somewhere else, ending many at-bats with half-hearted swings or botched bunt attempts (though he did apparently get down 8 sacrifices).
I wanted to know just how bad Hanson's numbers were when compared to an average-hitting pitcher. So I decided to do some research. Below, I've included some information on the 5 worst hitters of 2009 who had at least 40 plate appearances. I also did the same for the 5 best-hitting pitchers of 2009 (no surprises there, really). Finally, I compared these numbers to the average pitcher to see just how valuable a good-hitting pitcher is (and just how damaging a hitter a guy like Tommy Hanson is).
One disclaimer: Obviously, these are some tiny sample sizes. They almost certainly do not reflect these players' true hitting abilities. This kind of stuff is fun to look at, though. (Also: Tommy, don't kill me. You're going to be one of the best pitchers in the league someday soon. You could go 0-for-your career and I wouldn't care.)
I used 2 metrics: OPS and wRC per 70 PAs. For those unfamiliar with it, wRC (or weighted runs created) is a measure of how many runs a player produces based on all the components of offense. Higher numbers are better. I scaled each pitcher's totals to 70 plate appearances so they'd be easier to compare; I chose 70 because that's about how many PAs an average pitcher will get if he makes 30 or so starts.
As a reference point, the average starting pitcher in 2009 had an OPS of .381 (.187 OBP, .194 SLG) and a wRC of -0.6 for every 70 PAs. (Relievers hit even worse, as you might expect.)
First off, the worst hitters. Before I get to the graphs, I'd just like to give a dishonorable mention to the Marlins' Anibal Sanchez, who missed the cut by 9 PAs but did manage to go 0 for 23 in his official at-bats. Bravo, Anibal. Now for the 5 Worst Hitters of 2009:
That's right, somebody managed to hit worse than Tommy. And it really wasn't all that close. Here they are, graphed by OPS:
Check out Moehler's .024 SLG! At least Tommy managed 2 singles--Moehler only had 1. Here are the 5 worst as graphed by wRC per 70 PAs:
In other words, if the 2010 version of Hanson hits like he did last year, he could easily cost the Braves 6 runs compared to the average SP. That's not a lot--about half a win--but it does hurt. The difference is even greater when compared to pitchers that can actually hit a little.
Here are the top 5 hitting pitchers of 2009:
(Reverse the order and that's a pretty sweet rotation, too, don't you think?) Here's how these 5 fared according to OPS:
Owings slugged .537, which is just good any way you cut it. Hampton's OBP was above league average as well. Here is how they stack up according to wRC per 70 PAs:
So, over 70 PAs, Owings would be worth about 18 runs more than Moehler. If you had to choose between them for your 5th starter, that would be a nice tiebreaker.
None of the top 5 guys really had a fluky year. Johnson and Haren were probably a bit over their heads, but the other 3 all hit worse than their career highs. They also hit 12 homers combined (4 from Zambrano), which is 2 more than David Wright hit in not quite twice as many PAs.
Now, just for fun, let's imagine that a team manages to assemble these 5 top hitters, and gave them each 70 PAs. Another team gathers up the 5 worst hitters, and a third team finds 5 perfectly average-hitting pitchers. If they all hit according to their 2009 rates, here's how the resulting pitching staffs would compare:
The slugging-pitcher dream staff would be worth around 37 runs--almost 4 wins--more than an average staff. The weak-hitting staff would cost its team around 30 runs, or 3 wins, when compared to the average staff.
All in all, pitcher hitting is largely insignificant. What's more, because of the small sample sizes, it is next to impossible to predict how well a pitcher will hit in a given year. But on the extremes, the very best hitting pitchers do add a predictable and not-insignifcant amount of value with their bats, and the very worst hitting pitchers will usually cost their team a few runs. When comparing two pitchers of similar pitching ability, hitting numbers can be used as a kind of tiebreaker. For instance, let's say the Astros are wondering whether to sign Hampton to a contract to compete with Moehler to be their 5th starter. They both pitched terribly in 2009, but Hampton's hitting was so much better that he is clearly the better choice.
As for Tommy Hanson, it's likely that he'll improve his numbers a bit as he gets more Major League at-bats. I won't mind too much if he sucks, though. At least his at-bats will add a good amount of humor potential.