If one were trying to pinpoint the least competitive plate appearance of the 2021 MLB season, one could do worse—or, you know, not do worse—than the June 1 matchup between Reds reliever Mike Freeman and Phillies batter Archie Bradley. Let me amend that: The matchup was really between Reds batter Mike Freeman and Phillies reliever Archie Bradley, although in this case Freeman was the one on the mound while Bradley, begrudgingly, stood in the batter’s box. And while I’m amending my description, “matchup” might oversell it somewhat, because it implies that both participants were actually trying to win.
In the top of the ninth inning of a game that the Phillies were leading 13-3, Reds infielder Alex Blandino, who had entered in the eighth as a position-player pitcher, allowed a two-out grand slam to the Phillies’ Matt Joyce. With the Reds now down by 14 runs, Cincinnati skipper David Bell signaled for Freeman, his shortstop, to trade places with Blandino. Freeman, who had to be reminded to remove the batting glove he was wearing on his glove hand, entered the faceoff with three career innings pitched—one while with Seattle in 2017, and two for Cleveland in 2019. Bradley had made a total of five plate appearances since moving to the bullpen in 2017. This was a battle between an easily stoppable force and an eminently movable object.
Freeman, a former teammate of Bradley’s in Arizona, threw four pitches, all of which traveled between 56.3 and 61.8 miles per hour and were graciously classified as “sliders” by Statcast. Save for a fake bunt before the final pitch, Bradley barely budged as Freeman fired—OK, tossed—two strikes and one strike-adjacent, at-bat-ending offering that umpire Gabe Morales mercifully pretended had clipped the top of the zone. On the one hand, nothing that transpired during that plate appearance resembled a sport being played by elite athletes at the pinnacle of their profession. On the other hand, the whole encounter took approximately 20 seconds (roughly the average time between two pitches with the bases empty), which suggests that one possible solution to baseball’s pace-of-play problem is players who are so out of their depth that they just want to get off the field as fast as possible.
In Freeman’s defense, he’d thrown harder in the past, topping out at a face-melting 77.4 mph in 2017. And in Bradley’s defense, he’d been instructed not to swing, so as not to aggravate an oblique injury. But this showdown between a hurler who was throwing batting practice and a hitter who had no need to take batting practice highlighted two of baseball’s strangest institutions: position-player pitching and pitcher hitting. Although the position-player pitcher won that round, the Freeman vs. Bradley bout was a small and perhaps unrepresentative sample. To determine which side sucks more on the whole, we have to dig deeper. Which is worse at performing their assigned duty: hitters who are called upon to pitch, or pitchers who are called upon to hit?
This year might be our last opportunity to consider that question, because both practices are endangered to different degrees. This season is almost certainly the last gasp of pitcher hitting. The universal DH arrived during the pandemic, and it was expected to stay in effect this year until MLB linked it to expanded playoffs in its preseason proposals to the Players Association. That big a bargaining chip wasn’t worth spending for such a small concession, so despite both parties’ receptiveness to the idea of the DH, the NL ended up without one, foiling Miles Mikolas’s bid to be the answer to a trivia question. Pitchers have once again bunted, whiffed, and faked their way through thousands of plate appearances, occasionally contributing in a more meaningful way and producing the odd memorable moment, such as Padres reliever Daniel Camarena’s grand slam. However, pitcher hitting seems set to expire permanently at the end of this year, along with the current collective bargaining agreement.
Position-player pitching is on comparatively solid ground, but even its hold on major league life seems to be slipping. That may sound surprising given that a combination of reduced pitcher workloads, increased rates of low-leverage innings, and changing norms around unwritten rules when games get out of hand have propelled position-player pitchers to unprecedented prominence. But now that they’re so common, much of the novelty and charm have worn off, and MLB is moving to curtail their usage. A rule put in place for 2020 would have limited position-player pitchers to extra innings or to games in which the difference in score was more than six runs, but that provision was suspended because of the pandemic. It may be restored next season, or even strengthened to follow its original formulation, which would have required a score differential of eight runs or more.
Even that more restrictive version would prevent only about one quarter of current position-player-pitcher appearances. But there’s another threat to the position-player pitcher: the mercy rule. In 2018, Sam Miller envisioned one possible future for position-player pitching:
One way this all plays out is that sometime in the next few years, a first baseman comes in and throws 59 mph with a big grin, a second-year outfielder takes a big swing and hits a home run, and everybody gets really mad at him. The next day, the second-year outfielder gets hit in the back with a fastball from a real pitcher. A few innings later, the other team’s cleanup hitter gets one under the chin. There’s a brawl. Somewhere in the process, someone actually does get hurt. And that’s how, a decade from now, baseball comes to have a mercy rule.
Although some of the details were different, the kerfuffle that followed the 3-0 homer Yermín Mercedes hit off of position-player pitcher Willians Astudillo this May followed almost the same script. And as the controversy over unwritten rules roiled, Yankees manager Aaron Boone, Cubs manager David Ross, and various media members endorsed the idea of a mercy rule. A form of mercy rule had already been put in place for spring training. And if baseball’s powers that be can sanction nontraditional time savers such as seven-inning doubleheaders and extra-inning zombie runners, then surely a mercy rule wouldn’t be a big leap.
For now, though, pitchers sometimes still hit and hitters sometimes still pitch, which—for better or for worse—seems somewhat antithetical to the purpose of professional sports. If the point of high-level athletics is to pit the best of the best against each other to establish one side’s supremacy, then any plate appearance featuring a pitcher hitter or position-player pitcher is a distracting sideshow. If the point is to entertain, pitcher hitting and position-player hitting often fail that test, too.
In fairness to baseball’s founders, who hardly could have anticipated what their creation would look like centuries later, the sport wasn’t designed to work this way. In the beginning, pitcher hitting made much more sense than it does today. Through 1883, the last year in which it was illegal to pitch overhand, the distinctions between batters and pitchers were less stark, and players whose primary position was pitcher tended to produce about 80 percent as much offense as league-average batters. And until recently, starters went deep enough into games, and relievers pitched often enough on consecutive days, that the dubious services of position-player pitchers were rarely required.
As big-business sports vie for eyeballs and dollars in an era of entertainment overload, some of their rough edges get sanded down, and some of their vestigial limbs are amputated. As part of that process, leagues deploy patches to fix the faults exposed by specialized players who min-max their skills or front offices that uncover inefficiencies and exploit loopholes. As a result, MLB—which already excised the “Waxahachie Swap,” making it even rarer for pitchers to play the field—could be about to banish or constrain two of its quaintest surviving quirks. That might be for the best, but it would deprive sports fans of a spectacle that they rarely see outside of streakers: figures on the field who look like they have no business being there. Everyone wearing a major league uniform is in most respects more athletic than I am or (odds are) you are, but pitcher hitters and position-player pitchers are relatable (if imperfect) proxies for civilians like us, offering the illusion that we’re watching Pros vs. Joes.
As it exists today, baseball is virtually unique in its tolerance (or active encouragement) of sporadically hopeless play. No other sport so routinely puts players in central roles for which they’re completely unqualified and untrained. Obviously, emergency situations sometimes call for other athletes to play either out of position or out of their depth: the NHL’s emergency goalies; soccer goalies who take penalty kicks or non-goalies who play goal; quarterback Kendall Hinton. Pentathletes and decathletes may be overmatched in some events, and specialist cyclists may not be cut out for certain stages, but they generally possess some aptitude for their tasks. In football, kickers or punters attempt tackles from time to time, but when that happens, it’s a sign that something has gone wrong. As my colleague Rodger Sherman puts it, “The actual bad play on a punter’s missed tackle is their own bad punt. You fucked up just by getting to the point where you had to make a play.” In baseball, position-player pitching happens on purpose (albeit typically in blowouts), and pitcher hitting is an inevitability baked into National League rules.
By far the closest equivalent comes from a nearby branch on the bat-and-ball-sport family tree: cricket, in which bowlers bat and batters dabble in bowling. Even there, though, the contrast between adepts and dilettantes isn’t quite as extreme. According to cricket analyst Jarrod Kimber, 11th batters in Test cricket batting orders (who are always bowlers) through the past five years have been about 28 percent as productive as an average batter, the rough equivalent of a 28 wRC+ for a batter in baseball. Pitchers at the plate in 2021 have produced a -21 wRC+, so they wish they were as good as bowlers relative to the league. On the other side of the cricket ball, some batters double as soft-tossing spin bowlers, which requires less athleticism than higher-speed pace bowling. One indicator that bowler batters and batter bowlers are at least a little less outclassed than pitcher hitters and position-player pitchers is that it’s not that hard to get you a cricketer who can do both. “It’s a fairly regular part of cricket to have two or three main all-rounders around in the game, [and] then a heap of what we’d call ‘bits and pieces’ all-rounders,” Kimber says. In MLB, there’s only one real all-rounder.
Yet despite the utter incompetence of non–Shohei Ohtani pitchers who hit and hitters who pitch, both are fairly frequently called upon to make fools of themselves. Which brings us back to the question that started it all: Who’s the bigger fool?
Short answer (he says, 1,800 words into this article): It’s the pitchers who hit. Probably.
To assess how today’s pitcher hitters and position-player pitchers stack up, we have to focus on recent seasons, because pitchers have stunk much more at hitting, and position players have pitched much more often, over time. In the first year of the pitch-tracking era, only 40 pitches were thrown by position-player pitchers, according to Baseball Savant. Through Wednesday’s games, Triple-Ps were on pace for 1,368 pitches, which would be a bit below the 2019 record of 1,547. The usage of position-player pitchers spiked in 2018, so we can call 2018 to 2021 the modern pitcher hitting/position-player pitching era. Notably, as more and more hitters have moonlighted as pitchers, their average velocity has fallen; despite Brett Phillips pumping 94 mph heat, the average pitch thrown by a position-player pitcher this year has flown 70 mph, down from well over 80 a decade ago. Even the offerings classified as “fastballs” are down a few ticks from their highs, though the difference between the average fastball speeds of position-player pitchers and the league as a whole (5.1 mph) is approximately the same as the difference between the average exit speeds of pitcher hitters and the league on non-bunt batted balls (4.8 mph).
Entering Thursday, pitcher hitters excluding Ohtani had produced a 2018–21 slash line of .118/.150/.150 (.300 OPS), with a 43.4 percent strikeout rate, a 3.2 percent walk rate, and 58 homers in 13,587 plate appearances. Abysmal! In the same span, position-player pitchers (again excluding Ohtani) had allowed a slash line of .340/.410/.674 (1.084 OPS), with a 6.0 percent strikeout rate, a 9.3 percent walk rate, and 90 homers in 1,221 plate appearances (oh, and a 9.21 ERA). Also abysmal! But which is worse?
We’re trying to establish which group performed more poorly compared to “regular” batters and pitchers, so one might be tempted to cite index stats such as OPS+ and ERA+. Dating back to 2018, pitcher hitters have a -19 OPS+. Position-player pitchers have a 60 ERA+. Clear win for the pretend pitchers, right? Sadly, neither is admissible evidence. MLB senior data architect and influential sabermetrician Tom Tango calls ERA+ and OPS+ “an abomination to math” and explains that “at the extremes they break down.” Pitcher hitting and position-player pitching are nothing if not extremes.
Fortunately, we don’t need the “plus” stats to come up with an illuminating number. At Baseball Savant, we can search for the “sum run value” produced by players—the number of runs better or worse than league average they are. If we tally the total run values generated by pitcher hitters and position-player pitchers since 2018, then divide those numbers by their total plate appearances, we can compare the two groups on a rate basis. Here’s what we get: Pitcher hitters have produced -.146 runs per plate appearance. (Negative numbers are bad for hitters, because they’re trying to score runs.) Position-player pitchers have yielded .123 runs per plate appearances. (Positive numbers are bad for pitchers, because they’re trying to prevent runs.) So while both have been horrendous, pitcher hitters have been horrendouser.
(To put those stats into perspective: The full-time hitter with the worst total run value this season, the Pirates’ Kevin Newman, has been worth -.072 runs per PA. The pitcher with the worst total run value, the Rangers’ Mike Foltynewicz, has cost his team .055 runs per PA. So the absolute dregs of the “real” hitters and pitchers are still more than twice as good as the average position-player pitcher and pitcher hitter, respectively.)
The further back we go, the less impotent pitcher hitters and position-player pitchers look relative to the league, though they’ve both been atrocious for ages. But the gap in runs per PA between the two groups persists through the entirety of the 2015 to 2021 Statcast era (-.137 vs. .112) and the 2008 to 2021 pitch-tracking era (-.131 vs. .102). These are much smaller samples than those amassed by legitimate major league hitters and pitchers in the same spans, but they’re still plenty large enough to conclusively declare position-player pitchers the better of two terrible choices. (Well, almost conclusively—more on that in a moment.)
Run values seem somewhat abstract, but we can convey the same information in a more familiar way. Since 2018, pitcher hitters have allowed a .447 wOBA, 130 points worse than the .317 league average. Pitcher hitters have produced a .137 wOBA, 180 points worse than league average. That also supports the finding that pitcher hitters are the pits. So do the results in the few head-to-head confrontations (if we can call them that) between Triple-Ps and pitcher hitters (including Freeman and Bradley). In the same four seasons, position-player pitchers have faced pitcher hitters 36 times. If the two groups were evenly matched, we would expect the showdowns between them to yield a wOBA right around league average. Instead, it’s significantly lower: .241 (or .245 in 41 PA dating back to 2015). In other words, position-player pitchers had the upper hand, performing even better than one would expect from the respective groups’ overall stats.
Now, here’s the caveat: Even though it’s no fun to be cannon fodder, there is one way in which position-player pitchers kind of catch a break. Because they typically pitch in blowouts, they’re often facing below-average batters who may not be trying as hard as usual, whether in deference to unwritten rules or because they can’t psych themselves up in situations where they’re winning or losing by a bunch of runs and facing a pitcher so bad it’s almost embarrassing to beat him. When hitters are trying their hardest, they don’t typically walk away laughing after striking out, as Freddie Freeman did when he went down hacking against Anthony Rizzo this April. Nor do right-handed hitters ordinarily bat lefty, as Javier Báez has done three times against position-player pitchers. (He’s doubled and flied out twice.)
Then again, pitcher hitters have it easy too, because pitcher pitchers tend to phone it in when facing their counterparts. They throw more fastballs, take off some speed, and catch their breath before running the gauntlet of the top of the order. So neither the (unspeakable) stats of position-player pitchers nor the (even uglier) lines of pitcher hitters reflect how horrible both would be if they faced the same circumstances as “normal” pitchers and hitters.
So, as one last check, we can limit our samples to higher-leverage situations—those where the go-ahead run is at the plate or on base, or the tying run is at the plate, on base, or on deck. These samples are much smaller, because managers are liable to pinch hit for pitchers in important spots, and position players pitch in moments that matter only if all other options are exhausted. However, we can assume that when these cursed scenarios occurred, the pitcher hitters’ and position-player pitchers’ opponents were actually giving their all.
The verdict: In these higher-leverage circumstances dating back to 2008, position-player pitchers have allowed .029 runs above average per PA (again, positive is bad), and pitcher hitters have coughed up -.037 runs per PA (negative is bad). Even though one would assume that the Triple-Ps and pitcher hitters who encountered these crucibles were slightly less inept, on the whole, than their peers, both groups’ results were way worse than the collective stats from all situations. However, pitcher hitters declined in crunch time to an even greater degree. That cinches it: Pitcher hitters lose this contest between incapable players, though it’s tough to say anyone wins.
From an analytical standpoint, one of the few perks of pitcher hitters’ ineptitude is that their anachronistic pursuit provides a control group that allows us to gauge how much the quality of the league has improved. To paraphrase Wooderson: Other hitters get better, while pitcher hitters stay the same (and suffer for it).
It’s semi-intuitive that pitchers would find themselves on such a steady downslope, and that position-player pitchers would be a tad less bad. While both are performing a function they aren’t specifically paid or trained for, pitching partly depends on traits that position players are selected for—arm strength and arm accuracy—whereas skill at hitting is largely unrelated to proficiency at pitching. In the DH era, some pitchers can make it all the way from middle school to the majors without having to hit in between, but almost all hitters have to be able to throw. There’s a big difference between throwing and pitching (let alone pitching well), but it’s not nearly as large as the gulf between hitting and pitching.
Plus, position-player pitchers have no choice but to throw the ball, in contrast to pitcher hitters, who can and often do decide not to swing. Bradley’s Bartleby-esque, injury-related refusal to swing in June resembled Robert Gsellman’s in 2016, Jacob deGrom’s in 2018, or Taijuan Walker’s this May. Every so often, standing still at the plate pays off for a pitcher—see the great 2011 clash of José Ceda and Santiago Casilla—but in most cases, the result is what one would expect. More and more pitchers seem to be concluding that if there’s a good chance they’re going to go down on strikes regardless, they might as well do it without hurting themselves swinging. This season, 20.6 percent of pitcher plate appearances haven’t featured a single swing—a rate almost four times as high as position players’ 5.6 percent—and 6.1 percent haven’t featured a swing or a bunt attempt, roughly double the average rate 15 years ago.
For some, the memories of Bartolo Colon carrying his bat to first base and hitting a homer make all the forgettable pitcher plate appearances worthwhile. For them, baseball’s commitment to the bit of bad at-bats is one of the sport’s sweet eccentricities, along with its irregular playing surfaces, its uniformed managers, its aversion to clocks, and its insistence on the defense controlling the ball. But if pitcher hitters and, eventually, position-player pitchers go the way of bare-handed fielders, underhand pitchers, and helmetless hitters, at least we won’t be left without a resolution to baseball’s great debate. Yes, Virginia, hitters who pitch are probably worse at their second jobs than any other pro players are at any aspect of their sport. Except for pitchers who hit.