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Why can’t pitchers hit?

Dear Cecil:

Two questions that bug me: (1) Why can't pitchers hit? (2) Why do catchers tell the pitchers how to throw?

Earl Adkins, San Rafael, California

Cecil replies:

Dear Earl:

Finally, a question that makes you think. Easy stuff first: Catchers tell the pitchers what to throw because the two have to agree on the pitch, lest the pitcher heave it where the catcher ain’t. If the pitcher did the signaling, everybody in the ballpark would see it; ergo, it’s up to the guy with the big mitt. The pitcher can shake off the catcher’s signals if he wants to, although occasionally he does so at some peril to his ERA, as demonstrated in the movie Bull Durham.

As for pitchers, they can’t hit for basically two reasons: (1) they don’t bat often enough to get good at it, and (2) natural selection. The latter being more cosmic, we’ll start with that.

Pitchers are essentially defensive players, and are selected for their defensive skills. No pitcher ever got called up to the majors because he was a great hitter. Ditto for shortstops and catchers, also not noted for their prowess at the plate.

Outfielders aren’t in on every play, so they can survive in the big leagues with mediocre defensive skills as long as they can crank out the hits or homers. Pitchers don’t have that luxury. So you get guys who can pitch it through a brick wall but can’t hit in triple digits.

Making things worse is reason #1: pitchers don’t get much practice. A National League starting pitcher would be lucky to get a hundred at bats a year, whereas a regular position player might chalk up five hundred or more. The fact that starters are being yanked earlier in the game today makes things worse. With only so much coaching time to spread around, most NL clubs don’t even have their pitchers take batting practice except on the days they’re pitching. (AL pitchers, of course, don’t routinely bat at all because of the designated hitter rule.)

But there’s nothing about pitchers that makes them physically unable to hit. The classic case is Babe Ruth, who began his major league career as a pitcher and had a lifetime record of 94-46 (a ratio so lopsided some say Ruth would have gone into the Hall of Fame if he’d never hit a home run). During his pitching years Ruth averaged around .300, frequently playing outfield or first base on his off days. More recently there was Don Newcombe, who in 1955 hit .359 in 117 at bats with the Dodgers.

Why don’t we see guys like that anymore? Mainly because pitchers have become victims of their own success. What with split-fingered fastballs and all, pitching has become a sophisticated art. Batting averages have dropped even for the best hitters. For a part-time slugger like a pitcher, the situation is hopeless. These days you can hope to become good at hitting or pitching, but not both.

Cecil Adams

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