"Walkie!" yelled a teammate, "you're on deck!" it was 1980 and Bob Walk was a 23-year-old rookie pitcher with the Philadelphia Phillies, playing his second major league game. He was the next batter up and hadn't realized it. Walk bounced off the bench, ran to the on-deck circle and began to get loose. He was nervous and excited. "I got to the plate," says Walk, "I looked around and thought, Oh——, I forgot my bat! I turned around, and our whole team was on the floor of the dugout, laughing. I had to walk all the way back to the dugout and pick out a bat. It was embarrassing. I think that was the day I got the nickname Whirlybird."
This is an article from the April 5, 1993 issue
A major league pitcher went to the plate without a bat. "It's an idea whose time has come," notes Pittsburgh Pirate third base coach Rich Donnelly. Indeed. Last year National League pitchers combined to hit a pitiful .138, and here are just a few of the lowlights: The San Francisco Giants' John Burkett went 1 for 55 (.018); the San Diego Padres' Andy Benes had an 0-for-54 stretch (then snapped it with four hits in his next four at bats); Greg Maddux, regarded by many as the game's best-hitting pitcher, batted only 170 with the Chicago Cubs.
When Larry Andersen did not get a hit in his only at bat with the Padres last year, his career average dropped to .108—a figure he disputes. "I've gone downhill since I started the '88 season 2 for 2, hitting 2.000," says Andersen, who is now with the Phillies. "The best part about my [statistical] system is, if you're 2 for 2 and then make an out, you only drop to 1.500. I've played 10 years in the National League, and I've got four hits, so I'm 4 for 10, a lifetime .400 hitter. Elias [Sports Bureau, baseball's official statistician] does it differently than I do. But they have a tendency to make you look really bad." Bad? Here's bad.
•In 1962 Bob Buhl set the major league record for most at bats in a season without a hit, 70, when he pitched for the Milwaukee Braves and the Cubs.
•In 1969 Bill Stoneman of the Montreal Expos went 4 for 73 with 55 strikeouts.
•In 1971 San Francisco righthander Ron Herbel finished his nine-year career with an .029 average (6 for 206), a major league-record low for any player with at least 100 at bats.
•In 1991 Philadelphia pitcher Jose DeJesus punched out in 14 straight at bats, tying the major league record.
•Lefthander Jim Deshaies had no extra-base hits in 367 at bats during eight seasons with the Houston Astros and the Padres, leaving him four at bats short of Virgil Barnes's major league record. A free agent in the off-season, Deshaies signed with the Minnesota Twins. "My detractors will say I went to the AL to duck the record," Deshaies says.
Why are pitchers such bad hitters? It's especially odd when you consider that many of them were good hitters in high school or college, often the best athletes on their teams. "I hit 10 homers my senior year in high school," says Herbel. "But I didn't have to face Koufax and Drysdale in high school." And here are three other reasons why the typical pitcher looks as if he has never swung a bat in his life.
1) Lack of practice. Hitting a baseball is as difficult a skill to master as any in all of sports, and you don't get any better at it by taking batting practice against a coach who is throwing 65 mph. "BP is a joke," says Donnelly. "All the pitchers try to do is hit home runs." The best way to improve as a hitter is to face a pitcher who is trying to get you out. In the National League nowadays, with five-man rotations and ever-ready bullpens, a starting pitcher might get, at best, 80 official at bats; and in the American League, of course, since the arrival of the designated hitter in 1973, pitchers almost never get to the plate.
What's more, the only minor league that doesn't use a DH is Triple A, and even then only when two National League affiliates play each other. Therefore you have pitchers in the big leagues who have never stepped up to the plate as a pro. And if they suddenly find themselves in the National League, it shows. Pitcher Charlie Hough, 45, who was signed to a minor league contract by the expansion Florida Marlins in December, will hit this year for the first time since 1980, when he was with the Los Angeles Dodgers. "I'd better take some swings to make sure nothing is broken," Hough says.
Pittsburgh pitcher Tim Wakefield is a good example of what can happen to a good hitter who doesn't get to bat. He's a former first baseman who was converted to a pitcher in 1989, not because he was such a poor hitter but because he could throw a nasty knuckleball. He was called up to the major leagues last year and went 2 for 28 (.071).
"He couldn't hit anything," says Walk, who is now Wakefield's teammate. "Here's a guy who hit a lot of homers in college [40 in three years at Florida Tech]; he comes here, he can't even hit a homer in batting practice. I'm thinking, Is this the same guy?"
2) Fear of getting hit by a pitch. "Most pitchers are afraid of the ball," says St. Louis Cardinal manager Joe Torre. "A pitcher knows there are times when he has to knock someone down, and he knows pitchers are capable of doing that to him." There's a technique to avoiding being hit by a pitched ball, but it's a skill that most pitchers haven't learned.
"Most pitchers who hit at Three Rivers Stadium, their back foot is in the batter's box, their front foot is in the Ohio River," says Donnelly. "If every pitcher was allowed to go to the plate with a mask and chest protector, their averages would go up three points. They're so scared, if you waved $1,000 bills at them from the coach's box, they wouldn't even see you.
"[Former Pirate] Doug Drabek is a good-hitting pitcher, but before he steps into the box, he says to himself, 'Don't be scared, don't be scared.' Once, when there was no one on base, Douggie came down to me and said, 'Did you give me the bunt sign?' I said, 'No. The count is 0 and 2. There are two outs. No, I didn't give you the bunt.' "
Afraid? "How can you not be?" asks Andersen. "For me, the pitcher can have the outside part of the plate, but if he throws one right down the middle, I'm considering charging the mound. No one is afraid to the extent that I am. I think the fear goes back to peewee days, when I was eight or nine years old. I got hit in the...shall we say, the jockstrap. There wasn't much need for a cup back then. But that day kind of put a seed in my head about how much damage that ball can really do. Now guys throw a lot harder—and there's a lot more at stake."
3) Some pitchers swing from the wrong side of the plate. A rundown of the 40-man major league rosters at the start of spring training turned up 30 pitchers—but only three nonpitchers—who throw lefthanded but bat exclusively righthanded. Why is that? One of the 30 pitchers is the Phillies' Terry Mulholland, a career .082 hitter. "My father taught my brothers to hit righthanded," he says. "He wasn't about to teach me to hit lefthanded."
One of the worst-hitting pitchers in history, Hank Aguirre, threw lefthanded but batted righthanded (as did two other horrible-hitting pitchers, Sandy Koufax and Wilbur Wood, not to mention first baseman George Bush and pinch hitter Eddie Gaedel). But after hitting .053 as a right-handed hitter the first eight years of his career, Aguirre decided he was swinging from the wrong side, and in 1963 he switched to the left side. He batted .106 over the next eight seasons—which meant Aguirre was twice the hitter he had been.
The switch raised Aguirre's career average to .085. Don't laugh. That exceeds the .066 mark of Los Angeles Angel pitcher Dean Chance, the lowest batting average of any player with at least 300 career at bats. "Dean used to use this 42-inch bat, the biggest legal bat allowed," says Chicago White Sox radio broadcaster Ed Farmer, who in 11 years as a big league pitcher batted only .085 himself. "It looked like one of those things used by the gladiators—I think Kirk Douglas used one that big in Spartacus. And he [Chance, not Spartacus] couldn't even bunt with it."
But no one was worse than Herbel, 55, who now sells real estate in Tacoma, Wash. This is a man who went 0 for 47 in 1964, his first full year in the majors, and 1 for 49 in his second year. That's 1 for 96, an .010 average.
"Imagine your worst nightmare; that's how bad I was," Herbel says. "The only thing I can say for myself is that I stayed around long enough to get the record. I don't want anyone to break it, either. For all the abuse I put up with, I should have something to show for it."
Herbel says his first hit was a double in the Astrodome in 1965. "I tried to stretch it into a triple," he says. "About halfway to third, I saw that Bob Aspromonte, the Astros' third baseman, was on the bag holding the ball. But I slid—I knew how to slide—and I got dirt and spit all over him. He said to me, 'What in the hell are you doing?' I said, "Sorry, Aspro. I've never been this far before.' "
There have been some great-hitting pitchers in history, including, of course, Babe Ruth, who hit .315 in 1915 and .325 in 1917, with the Boston Red Sox. Walter Johnson, who hit .433 in 1925, had a higher batting average than ERA in 13 seasons during his 21-year career, finishing with a .235 average and a 2.17 ERA. Wes Ferrell hit 38 homers between 1927 and '41, the most ever by a pitcher, and 10 more than his brother Rick, a Hall of Fame catcher.
Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain of the Boston Braves would compete with each other every season to see who was the better hitter; in 1946 Sain was the better of the two, hitting .298 and not striking out once in 104 plate appearances. In 1953 White Sox pitcher Tommy Byrne batted for infielder Vern Stephens (who finished with 247 career homers) against Ewell Blackwell. Byrne hit a grand slam.
The first National League player to hit two grand slams in one game was a pitcher, the Atlanta Braves' Tony Cloninger, in 1966. Red Sox pitcher Gary Peters hit home runs in two successive pinch-hitting appearances in 1971. The Phils' Ken Brett hit homers in four consecutive starts in 1973. Thirty-one times a pitcher has batted .300 and won 20 games in the same year, the last being Bob Gibson, in 1970.
"Gibby could hit if it was on the inside part of the plate and didn't wrinkle," says Torre, a former teammate of Gibson's. "He took pride in his hitting. He felt, being a good hitter, he could really help himself win some games."
Few pitchers today take pride in their hitting or truly understand that being a better hitter could mean a couple more wins in a season. The best hitters today are Maddux, now with the Braves; Tom Glavine, who hit .247 with Atlanta in 1992; and the New York Mets' Dwight Gooden, who hit .264 last year—and yet all three have lifetime averages under .200. Don Robinson, who retired last year, was the best-hitting pitcher in recent years; he finished with a .231 average and 13 homers. Robinson's former Pirate teammate Rick Rhoden retired in '89 with a .238 average. But now there aren't any Robinsons or Rhodens around, just a lot of Larry Andersens—bad hitters who are afraid of the ball.
"I'll never forget my second at bat in the major leagues, with the Phillies in '83, at Wrigley Field," says Andersen. "I was so scared, so nervous. Joe West was the home plate umpire. He started laughing when I got to the plate. He took off his mask and laughed harder. I said, 'Joe, what in the hell is so funny?' He said, 'Sorry, it's just that I've never seen anyone hit with his warmup jacket on.' "
When that story was told to Walk, a look of chagrin came over his face. "I did that too," he said. "My first year with Atlanta . I had this big old jacket on...but at least I didn't forget my bat that night."