TWO PHOTOSPHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDMadison Bumgarner Giants Bumgarner's five home runs last season were the most by a pitcher since 2006. He has hit nine since the start of '14 and has an OPS of .749 in the last two years. That would be 63rd among hitters if he had enough at bats to qualify, just behind Daniel Murphy and ahead of Evan Longoria. "I've always wondered how far I would've made it as a hitter. Pinch-hitting is a tough spot; the guys that get paid to hit don't want to see that, and I don't want to see that happen to 'em, but at the same time I'm gonna give it everything I've got. I take bunting and hitting seriously, but you spend so much time getting yourself ready to pitch that it's hard. I've been better the last few years. I started a leg kick, and I opened up my stance a little bit and figured out where I wanted to put my hands. But if there's a secret to my success, I don't know it. If I figure it out, I'll tell you." The Unnaturals In general, pitcher plate appearances are good times to run and make yourself a snack. (But make it quick, the at bats are usually over fast.) There are two ways to look at the fact that National League pitchers still hit. On one hand, pitchers have batted .143 in the DH era, and it borders on pitiful that kids who were quite likely the best athletes on their youth teams have become adults who flail at fastballs down the pipe. On the other, it's amazing that with almost no practice—and in many cases, without having picked up a bat since high school—some big league hurlers are productive at the plate. During the off-season there was much talk around the game that the NL will soon adopt the DH, rendering the hitting pitcher extinct. So this spring SI talked to a half-dozen hurlers about their approach at the plate and found a wide range of attitudes—and talents. PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDJames Shields Padres Shields spent the first nine years of his career in the AL, until he signed with the Padres in 2015 (and hit .132), but he's already perfected the art of the bat flip. This spring, after homering in BP, he let fly one of the most towering works of art south of Toronto. "I'm not really huge into the bat flips—but no one knows what happened before that moment. A lot of the pitchers and hitters were bantering back and forth, so my whole team was all over me before I even got in the box. They were crushing me nonstop—no phrases I can mention here—so the next at bat I said, Screw it, I'm gonna try to go deep. I showed bunt and reared back. I hit it pretty good over the fence, so that's the reason for the bat flip. I feel like I have a little grandpa strength now." PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDShelby Miller Diamondbacks As a Cardinal in 2013, Shelby Miller (a career .113 hitter) hit his only—so far—big league homer. "My home run was the best moment. I hit it and I didn't really feel it, I hit it so good. My approach is I try to hit home runs, basically. I've had some ups and downs with that. I probably need to chill out a little. The coaches don't like it when we do that stuff. I don't think you lose your ability right away, but I started to go downhill when I stopped practicing every day. You don't hit until you get to Double A, so I didn't swing for about two years. I think I would've made it to high A or low A as a hitter. I would've been released. I wouldn't be here." PHOTOJEFFERY A. SALTER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDNoah Syndergaard Mets Syndergaard (who hit .209 last season with one home run) has made a name for himself on the mound, but that almost wasn't his path at all. "I try to keep things simple, not a lot of excess movement. Last year the coaches started working with me on shortening my stance, and I ended up narrowing my swing-and-miss rate by about half. I can get around on a fastball, but I'll chase a breaking ball in the dirt. The Blue Jays were debating drafting me as a hitter or a pitcher. Dallas Baptist, where I went to college, saw me hit first and asked a friend of mine about me, and he was like, Wait, have you seen him pitch? And they were like, He can pitch too?"
PHOTOSPHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDClayton Kershaw Dodgers Kershaw has one career home run: He broke a scoreless tie in the eighth inning against the Giants on Opening Day 2013. But he refused to take a curtain call, preferring instead to focus on getting three more outs. "My best offensive memory was hitting my home run. I didn't know it was out until it left the park. I'd never hit one before, so I didn't know what it was like! I was sprinting as fast as I could. I didn't know how to do a home run trot. Hitting's the hardest thing to do in sports by far. For me it's kind of a break from thinking about pitching, which is nice. And I will not run the bases in a jacket. You just feel a little bit more like a baseball player if you're in the uniform." Brandon McCarthy Dodgers McCarthy got off to a historic start to his major league hitting career, going 0 for 39 over his first 22 games, the seventh-worst debut ever. He's hit .063 since. "It's eight of the best people on earth hitting in front of you, and then guys who were O.K. at hitting in high school come up. I don't have a glowing track record of success. I have a pretty good eye, I don't swing a lot out of the zone, but in the zone I don't know when to swing. I'll probably put it in play and just ground out to somebody. As a player I love being able to hit, but if I were a fan, I'd rather have the DH. If I'm paying good money, I'd rather see nine of the best hitters instead of eight and one guy who doesn't want to fall down."