Baseball has become slightly more efficient and significantly less weird. Both the American and National leagues now use the designated hitter, meaning that teams are no longer required to let their pitchers hit. They can still let pitchers hit, if they have a pitcher good enough to outperform a DH, but this essentially applies to only Shohei Ohtani. With the rule changes implemented in the new CBA, the days of pitchers ending rallies with subpar swings are officially over.
Having pitchers hit was a holdover from baseball’s predecessor, cricket, in which bowlers still have to bat to this day. But pitchers were not good at hitting, nor have they ever been: As The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh detailed in 2018, complaints about pitchers hitting date back to the 1890s, and the American League adopted the designated hitter in 1973. It’s ludicrous in retrospect: For almost 50 years, half of MLB’s teams played by one set of rules and the other half played by another.
The advent of the universal DH has seemed likely for a while, but became imminent in 2020, when both leagues used the DH as part of that season’s COVID-altered schedule that included a sizable uptick in interleague play. Baseball still felt like baseball even though National League pitchers were hitting, and while many aspects of the 2022 lockout were contentious, both MLB and the MLBPA seemed happy to agree on cementing the universal DH as part of the league’s playing rules for good.
The logic behind the move is unassailable. As baseball has gotten more specialized, pitchers have gotten even worse at hitting. In 2021, MLB pitchers combined to hit .110, an all-time-low mark. Every other offensive position had a collective OPS somewhere between .792 (first basemen) and .697 (catchers); pitchers were all the way down at .293. Even the best-hitting pitchers are far worse at hitting than the worst-hitting hitters. And the knock-on effects of eliminating pitcher at-bats benefit everybody: Pitchers will no longer get hurt attempting tasks they don’t train for; the World Series will no longer feature teams from both leagues tweaking their lineups to fit the other league’s rules in the most important games of the season. The league has even engineered an Ohtani rule so that pitchers who do hit can stay in the game after their pitching is done, which actually makes the prospect of genuine two-way players more feasible than in the decades when pitchers were mandated to hit. You’d think that the few decent-hitting NL pitchers who aren’t quite good enough to outperform a DH would be upset by this change, but, well, even they’re on board with it.
The game will be better and make more sense without pitchers hitting—but it still feels as if something has been lost. There was something magical about the rare breakthroughs when a pitcher managed to succeed at the plate, even though it wasn’t his main job. Baseball treasures oddities and quirks, and over the years pitchers hitting provided one-off moments that were strange and unforgettable. As we bid farewell to MLB’s era of pitcher hitting, I’m handing out awards for the greatest pitcher hitting feats in recent memory. I’m focusing specifically on the seasons since 1973, when the DH was introduced in the AL.
Hardest Crushed Pitcher Dinger(s): Madison Bumgarner
No pitcher hit the ball harder than MadBum. He has the second most career home runs of any full-time MLB pitcher of the past 50 years, behind only Carlos Zambrano. And thanks to StatCast we can truly appreciate the power of his blasts. If we take out Ohtani, Bumgarner has four of the nine hardest-hit home runs by a pitcher, and three of the top four. He’s also responsible for the two hardest-hit home runs by a pitcher, which both came on Opening Day of the 2017 season against the Diamondbacks:
These two homers left Bumgarner’s bat at 112.5 and 112.1 miles per hour, respectively. No other pitcher besides Ohtani has ever had an exit velocity above 110 miles per hour. However, the longest home run hit by a pitcher in the StatCast era came not from Bumgarner, but from Rockies pitcher Jon Gray. He smacked a 467-footer in 2017, a rare win for pitchers in the mile-high air of Coors Field.
Clutchest Pitcher Hit: Kerry Wood
There isn’t a lot to choose from in this category, since managers typically sub out pitchers for pinch-hitters in high-leverage situations. There hasn’t been a walk-off home run by a starting pitcher since before the American League DH rule went into effect (although Padres reliever Craig Lefferts hit one in 1986). Only two pitchers have hit World Series homers since 1973, Ken Holtzman in 1974 and Joe Blanton in 2008. Even great-hitting pitchers are easy outs when their opponents are dialed in—Bumgarner might have crushed homers on Opening Day, but he’s 0-for-27 lifetime in the playoffs.
So I’m giving the nod to Kerry Wood for his home run to tie Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS at Wrigley Field:
The 2003 postseason was an all-timer for pitcher hitting. The Marlins had Dontrelle Willis, who went 3-for-3 at the plate in the NLDS. That team went on to win the World Series thanks to one of the biggest pitcher hits of all time—a two-run single by Brad Penny to break open Game 5 against the Yankees. That was the second-biggest Marlins hit of the series, according to Baseball-Reference’s championship win probability added. And the Cubs won Game 1 of the NLDS after Wood hit a two-run go-ahead double against the Braves.
And then Wood hit a game-tying home run in Game 7 of the NLCS, one of the most memorable playoff series of all time—though it wasn’t memorable for good reasons for the Cubs. They ended up losing after Wood’s pitching gave back the lead he earned with his bat.
Career Achievement Award: Carlos Zambrano
This award comes down to two pitchers: Zambrano and Mike Hampton, who were both known for their impressive abilities at the plate. Hampton, at 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, looked like a second baseman and hit like one too. He didn’t hit any homers in his first eight MLB seasons, but his power surged when he joined the Rockies. He smacked seven homers in 2001, the most by a full-time pitcher in one season in the modern era. At one point, Hampton hit dingers in three straight at-bats:
But I’m not giving Hampton this award. He’ll have to console himself with the actual awards he won for hitting, including five Silver Slugger awards, the most of any pitcher. (RIP to the Silver Slugger for pitchers, long MLB’s funniest award.) I’m giving the nod to Zambrano, a rare switch-hitting pitcher who was regularly used as a pinch-hitter. At 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, Big Z was a legit slugger, and he has a hitting highlight reel:
Since the AL introduced the DH in 1973, Zambrano has the most homers by a pitcher (24), and he holds the all-time league records for the longest hitting streak by a pitcher (13 games) and the most consecutive games with an RBI (eight). Only 18 pitchers have hit at least nine home runs since 1973; Zambrano hit 15 as a lefty and nine as a righty. He was also really great at pitching, and really great at getting suspended by the Cubs for getting angry at people—a true triple threat. But his ability to crush baseballs stands out the most.
Worst Hitting Pitcher: James Paxton
There are a lot of ways we could go with this one. Since 1973, 69 pitchers have amassed at least 10 plate appearances without reaching base once, finishing their careers with an on-base percentage of .000. The leader of the pack is Eduardo Rodríguez, who has been to the plate 29 times and come up empty in every one. And that list doesn’t even include Randy Tate, who went 0-for-41 on the 1975 Mets but did manage to reach base exactly one time, finishing his career with a sterling .024 OBP.
But I’m going to give the honor to the Big Maple, James Paxton. Here he is trying (and failing) to hit a breaking ball from Hyun-Jin Ryu in 2019. That’s one of Paxton’s 12 career strikeouts, which is notable because Paxton has 12 career at-bats. Outside of four sacrifice bunts, he’s never put a ball into play. His BABIP does not exist; his K rate is 100 percent. Nobody has ever done worse—nobody could do worse, not even me or you. The worst we could do is exactly as badly as James Paxton.
Greatest Pitcher Hitting Moment, AL Edition: Félix Hernández
American League pitchers have long been worse at hitting than National League pitchers. This makes sense: For the past half-century, NL starters prepared to take swings every week, while AL pitchers didn’t have to hit at all from 1973 to 1997, when interleague play began. In 2019, NL pitchers hit a combined .131 with 25 home runs in 4,201 at-bats—that’s one homer every 168 at-bats, pretty bad! But AL pitchers were considerably worse, batting .087 with just one extra-base hit in 289 at-bats. Over the 48 World Series in which the AL used a DH and the NL didn’t, AL pitchers got exactly 27 hits, and eight of those (almost 30 percent!) came before 1976, when hitting presumably still felt like a regular task to AL pitchers.
In the nearly five-decade span when the AL had a DH and the NL did not, AL pitchers hit exactly one grand slam: this opposite-field blast by Félix Hernández that provided almost all the run support in a 5-2 Mariners win over the Mets. It was his only at-bat of the 2008 season:
The odds of this happening were outrageously low. For one, the home run came against Johan Santana, a two-time Cy Young award winner who led the majors in ERA in 2008. In his career, Santana allowed only two homers to pitchers: this one and one to Hampton, who we’ve just established as a Pitcher Hitting God. King Felix, on the other hand, had just four hits in 50 career at-bats. Hernández spent his entire career with the Mariners, so this was his only career home run.
This was one of the best pitchers in the game facing one of the worst hitters in the majors. And Hernández went oppo for a grand slam.
Most Effective Pitcher Hitting Strategy: Santiago Casilla
Santiago Casilla entered the majors in 2004, but didn’t make a plate appearance until August 2011, as the Giants tried to close out a win over the Marlins. After all, Casilla was a reliever, and had spent most of his career to that point in the AL. When he stepped to the plate in this game, he wanted to complete his at-bat as quickly as possible. He had pitched in the eighth inning and was batting so that he could stay in the game for the ninth. There were two outs, the Giants were leading comfortably, and this game was being played in South Florida in August. It was probably 94 degrees with 94 percent humidity. Everybody wanted this to be over ASAP.
When Casilla dug in against Marlins reliever José Ceda, he stood as far from the plate as he possibly could. If he’d taken a swing, his outstretched bat might have reached the inner half of the plate. But clearly, he was not going to swing. It should have been the easiest strikeout in MLB history.
Instead, Ceda threw four straight balls. It was the only walk of Casilla’s 15-year MLB career.
This at-bat has become a beloved part of weird baseball lore, and the subject of a Jon Bois video. I truly believe that Casilla’s unusual choice of positioning led to the walk, throwing off the pitcher’s perception of the plate.
Unfortunately, Casilla did not stick to this strategy for the rest of his career. In 2014, Casilla once again came to the plate in the ninth inning of a game that the Giants were leading. This time, he swung and made contact. He grounded the ball to the shortstop, requiring him to run out the play—and he sprained his hamstring tripping over first base, forcing him to miss a month of action. Trying is overrated.
Greatest Pitcher Base-Running Performance: Koo Dae-Sung
Tragically, we have probably seen the last instance of a pitcher reaching base and being presented with a jacket to wear on the basepaths. I loved the jacket. It was clearly not aerodynamic, which is why no other players wear it when they reach base. But while other runners were primarily trying to score, pitchers were mainly concerned with keeping their arm muscles warm until they were relieved of their running duties. The jacket was a bright, zippered reminder that something unusual was happening.
It was surprising that Koo Dae-Sung ever got to wear a jacket on the bases. The 35-year-old pitcher came to the Mets in 2005 after playing 12 seasons in Korea and Japan. During those stints, he never made a plate appearance. (Pitchers still have to hit in Japan’s Central League; Koo played with the Orix Buffaloes in the Pacific League.) In his first at-bat with the Mets, Koo stood a Casilla-esque length away from home plate and refused to swing, a performance that The New York Times described as “anti-batting.” In his second at-bat, he faced five-time Cy Young award winner Randy Johnson. In the dugout, Mets catcher Mike Piazza joked that he’d donate a million dollars to charity if Koo got a hit; on the broadcast, announcer Tim McCarver predicted Koo would take “the biggest give-up at-bat of the season.” Instead, he laced a double into center field.
But the biggest surprise came directly after that. The next hitter, José Reyes, laid down a sacrifice bunt. Koo took third, and the Yankees, not expecting much from him, assumed that the play was over. They forgot to cover the plate. Koo sprinted home and dove head-first, beating catcher Jorge Posada. It was the only run of Koo’s 23-year professional career. (It is also the subject of a Jon Bois video.)
Everybody underestimated Koo here: his teammates, who joked about his upcoming plate appearance; the announcers, who assumed he wouldn’t swing; Johnson, who grooved a pitch where Koo could put his barrel on it; and the Yankees, who assumed that he wouldn’t try to make a play at the plate. Even the very concept of the pitcher jacket was an underestimation of what Koo would do: It signaled he was concerned with keeping his arm warm, when in fact he was willing to risk everything to score a run.
Greatest Single-Game Pitching-Hitting Combo: Noah Syndergaard
There are many examples of spectacular all-around performances, in which pitchers dominated on the mound and also contributed at the plate. The all-time greatest is probably the 1971 outing in which Phillies pitcher Rick Wise threw a no-hitter and hit two home runs—but that falls outside of our cutoff date for these awards. In Matt Cain’s 2012 perfect game, the most recent by an NL pitcher, Cain hit a single and came around to score, outdoing the entire opposing team.
But I’m giving the nod to Syndergaard. Thanks to the Mets’ long, storied tradition of not providing run support for their pitchers, Thor single-handedly won two games through his pitching and his hitting. In 2019, Syndergaard threw a complete-game shutout against the Reds and scored the Mets’ only run by hitting a solo homer. It’s the last of 31 games since 1973 in which a pitcher threw a complete-game shutout and went deep. In all but one of those games, another player besides the pitcher had an RBI.
But that’s not all! In 2016, Syndergaard pitched eight innings against the Dodgers while also hitting two home runs and driving in all four runs in the Mets’ 4-3 win. It’s one of just 14 games since 1973 in which a pitcher has hit two homers. In all but one of those games, at least one other player besides the pitcher had an RBI.
It was always magnificent when a pitcher not only dominated on the mound, but also outhit his eight teammates who are paid to provide offense. This didn’t happen very often, and felt impossible when it did. Thank the Mets hitters for making it possible, again and again.
The Single Greatest Moment in Pitcher Hitting History
Folks, it’s what you came for. You know what it is. Roll the clip:
After signing with the Mets in 2014, Bartolo Colón quickly established himself as one of the worst hitters in baseball. Colón was 41 years old at the time, nearly a decade removed from his Cy Young–winning season with the Angels in 2005. He had spent almost his entire 18-year MLB career in the AL, save a few months with the Expos in 2002. By this point, however, the Expos hadn’t existed for more than a decade.
And it’s worth noting that Colón’s body changed noticeably over his two decades in the sport. Here is young Bartolo with Cleveland in the 1990s; here is old Bartolo, jiggling his belly with the Mets. He did not look like an athlete—he looked like a pitcher. And he certainly did not look like a hitter.
Colón didn’t swing the bat so much as he flailed. He began his Mets career 0-for-26 with 17 strikeouts. His ill-fitting batting helmet repeatedly fell off his smooth, round head after hopeless hacks. (In Colón’s memoir, Big Sexy, he says he asked the Mets equipment manager for an especially large helmet “so I could make the fans laugh some more.”)
But on one beautiful day in 2016, after two years of swinging and missing, he connected on a pitch from Padres pitcher James Shields. As it turned out, Colón’s swing had always been all power and no grace. All he needed was to connect one time. “THE IMPOSSIBLE HAS HAPPENED,” Mets announcer Gary Cohen shouted as Colón took his lengthy and triumphant loop around the bases. “THIS IS ONE OF THE GREAT MOMENTS IN THE HISTORY OF BASEBALL!”
Colón attempting to hit was somewhat of a mockery of professional sports: He wasn’t built for hitting baseballs. He wasn’t skilled at hitting baseballs. He did not train to become better at hitting baseballs. And for years, he did not succeed at hitting baseballs. But with one perfect swing, he did the best possible thing any hitter can do. It was the pinnacle of pitchers hitting—a concept beloved not because it led to regular success, but because of those once-in-a-Bartolo moments that stand out in our memories.
The average MLB game will be more exciting and interesting without pitchers hitting, but the sport has lost the potential for these exceedingly rare and delightful breakthroughs. It probably doesn’t make much sense to mandate the presence of subpar play because the rare good outcomes are so fun. But what is baseball if not a sport in which we sit around for hours, weeks, months, or years hoping to witness one amazing thing?