For some hurlers, handling bat is serious business
By Lyle Spencer
Native son Dan Haren has come home, to Southern California, to pitch for the Dodgers in the league he favors in part because it puts an advantage in his hands: the baseball bat.
In Los Angeles, Haren will join a staff that had the game's premier hitting pitcher in 2013 in his former Angels teammate Zack Greinke. The Dodgers led the National League in batting average (.176) and on-base percentage (.233) by a pitching staff, finishing behind only the Travis Wood-powered Cubs in slugging, .229 to .227.
This might not seem like much, but Haren -- the Majors' leader in average (.236) and OBP (.254), and runner-up in slugging (.339), among pitchers since 2005 -- is keenly aware of the edge it can give a guy.
The all-time leading home run hitters among players who spent their careers as pitchers.
Smoky Joe Wood
"I think any good-hitting pitcher sees it as an advantage coming into a game," said Haren, who signed as a free agent with the Dodgers after a strong finish to 2013, his only season with the Nationals. "If you're facing a pitcher who doesn't see himself as a good hitter and doesn't take his at-bats as seriously as you do, it's definitely an edge.
"I always try to battle, put the ball in play. I know Zack takes a lot of pride in his hitting, in studying the other pitcher and trying to make something happen. I think it's a huge advantage if you can get a bunt down, move a runner up, put a ball in play. It might keep you in the game longer if your manager has confidence in your ability to handle the bat."
Newly elected Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, excellent athletes with durable arms, can speak to the value of pitchers helping themselves with the bat. Maddux hit .171 with 84 RBIs en route to his 355 wins, while Glavine was even better offensively: .186 with 90 RBIs on his way to 305 victories.
Haren will join a lively competition among Dodgers pitchers during batting-practice rounds. Greinke, the NL Silver Slugger Award winner, wasn't the only offensive presence on manager Don Mattingly's staff.
Clayton Kershaw set the tone on Opening Day last season when he shut out the Giants, with his solo blast to dead center in the eighth inning at Dodger Stadium breaking a scoreless deadlock.
Kershaw, who went on to claim his second NL Cy Young Award in three years, has hit .204 over those three seasons, ranking third among pitchers behind Greinke (.237) and the Reds' Mike Leake (.233). Kershaw led all pitchers with his 10 RBIs in 2013, batting .182 and slugging .260.
Equally effective with the bat was rookie Korean pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu. The big lefty hurler, swinging from the right side, batted .207, his .293 slugging mark built on three doubles and a triple.
Greinke was far and away the premier hitting pitcher. Among all pitchers with more than 10 at-bats, Greinke was tops in average (.328) and OBP (.400), and his .379 slugging mark was eclipsed only by Wood's .381 for the Cubs.
Wood, also a lefty pitcher who swings from the right side, homered three times and is challenging the Brewers' Yovani Gallardo as the most dangerous long-ball threat among active pitchers.
Gallardo, with 12 career blasts and a .359 slugging mark, succeeded the inimitable Carlos Zambrano, who has unloaded 24 lifetime homers and slugged .388 in his swing-from-the-heels style. Wes Ferrell is the all-time leader for homers by a pitcher, bashing 37, and also is the single-season king, with nine, set in 1931. Hall of Famers Bob Lemon (37), Red Ruffing (36) and Warren Spahn (35) round out the all-time top four in career homers.
Setting off sparks among young pitchers, the Rockies' Tyler Chatwood hit .300 with seven RBIs in only 40 at-bats in 2013, while Henderson Alvarez of the Marlins batted .300 and slugged .500 in 30 at-bats.
Alvarez's teammate, NL Rookie of the Year Award winner Jose Fernandez, showed power potential, slugging .340 with a homer, double and triple while hitting .220 in 50 at-bats. The Padres' imposing Andrew Cashner batted .245 with a homer and a double and also stole two bases. The Braves' Julio Teheran hit .224.
Haren's .170/.204/.234 slash line in 2013 wasn't up to his standards, but he did crack three doubles for the Nationals. Like his buddy Greinke, Haren was a tough out as an amateur, serving as a designated hitter when he wasn't on the mound as the ace at Pepperdine University.
"When I was 25, I was taking batting practice every day," Haren said. "I obviously take a little pride in hitting. I had some good years in Arizona. When I was traded [to the Angels in midseason 2010], I was in a tree [batting .364 and slugging .527 with a homer, six doubles and seven RBIs]. As I've gotten older, I've backed off a lot of hitting. I maintain my swing during the season."
Greinke, a prospect as a shortstop as well as a pitcher coming out of Apopka (Fla.) High School, was the No. 6 overall pick in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft by the Royals. He didn't become a starting pitcher until his senior year, batting over .400 with 31 homers, primarily playing in the infield.
In his seven years with Kansas City, the 2009 American League Cy Young Award winner was able to use his offensive skills only in Interleague Play. Getting a feel back for hitting with the Brewers for a season and a half before getting shipped to the Angels, Greinke seems intent on making up for lost time with the Dodgers.
"I always wanted to be a hitter," Greinke said. "Even when I was drafted, I always wanted to hit. It's a lot more fun than pitching. You only play once every five days [as a starter], so that gets kind of boring in between starts. I always wanted to hit and play a position every day."
Greinke's batting average in 2013 was the highest by a Dodgers pitcher since Silver Slugger Award winner Orel Hershiser batted .356 in 1993. Fernando Valenzuela, Hershiser's teammate, was among the premier hitting pitchers, with 10 homers and 84 RBIs, batting .200, in his career.
Following the Dodgers in the NL in 2013 were the Padres (.154), Reds (.150), Braves (.148), Cubs (.146) and Brewers. Giants pitchers had the lowest collective batting average at .096, but that figures to rise with the arrival of athletic Tim Hudson, a career .170 hitter (three homers, 40 RBIs).
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.