Over on the Fangraphs Community Research Blog the other day, Joe Veno (StatMagician) asked an interesting question: Should pitcher hitting count for Hall of Fame consideration?
Veno's question is a follow-up to an argument Veno made earlier that Tom Glavine shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame. That's pretty unfortunate, as I think it's a profoundly silly argument, and an example of the kind of unjustified hubris that the old-school crowd so loves to harp on. As measured by park-adjusted ERA+, Glavine and his defenses prevented runs at the same rate or better than Bert Blyleven, Fergie Jenkins, Ted Lyons and Robin Roberts in a comparable number of innings. He did it consistently across 22 seasons, pitching in front of vastly differing defenses; if FIP and WAR say he doesn't belong (which is highly debatable at any rate), I'm a lot more comfortable saying he was probably doing something that our current metrics don't show than I am assuming he simply got lucky for two decades.
The pitcher hitting argument is an attempt to give something back to Glavine; Veno notes that Glavine (with his shimmering career 22 OPS+ and 23 wRC+) gets credit for 7.5 wins above replacement at Baseball-Reference and 5.7 at Fangraphs, which, if you think he's borderline (as I clearly don't), might push him over the top for you. The question is: should that count at all?
Veno just poses the question without answering it, though my sense is he's leaning no. For one thing, he finds it hard to believe that an OPS+ of 22 -- a stat whose park-adjusted average for big-league hitters is 100, as it's easy to forget when we start talking about pitchers or Brendan Ryan -- adds any value at all, but perhaps more importantly, he suggests it's unfair to American League pitchers, who hit not at all from 1973 through 1996, and very rarely ever since.
I don't buy either of those arguments. First, if you're a terrible hitter but are markedly less terrible than the average of the other hitters at your position, you're clearly providing real value. Second, any hope of measuring players on a totally even field was gone years before the very first Hall of Fame class was introduced in 1936; iniquities are everywhere, and we care more now than we used to, but we still don't care much. Players deserve credit for what they do on the field; that others may not have the opportunity to do it shouldn't really bother us any more than it bothers us that others may not be able to do it.
Brendan Ryan (Otto Greule Jr )
However, I don't think pitchers' hitting should be considered at all in the vast, vast majority of cases, for a totally different reason: in most cases, it's little more than a rounding error. The difference between Glavine's pitching-only WAR on Baseball-Reference and on Fangraphs is almost exactly ten wins. Even if you strongly prefer one method over the other, are you so confident that your preferred method has it exactly right that a six- to seven-and-a-half-win swing is going to sway you toward anything? Even at the higher Baseball-Reference number, Glavine's hitting adds one-third of a win per year, 0.01 wins per start (or a run for every ten starts). There are literally dozens of uncertainties in the numbers we rely on that could make up the same difference. What if we're not properly accounting for the value of Glavine's pickoff move, or just slightly miscalculated the effect of Turner Field on right-handed hitters from 1995 to 1999? Even if you're an fWAR guy or gal all the way, how can you ever pretend to be totally confident that Glavine's pitching was worth 63.9 wins, and not 69.6 or 58.1 (his pitching WAR with the total of his batting WAR added and taken away)? I certainly don't think you can.
A majority of pitchers, whether they've played their entire careers in the NL or none at all, simply have not accumulated enough value with their bats to exceed the padding in the numbers that we should build in for uncertainty. And if you're looking to punish pitchers for their hitting, it's even tougher; the average pitcher OPS has been below 400, as far as I can tell, since 1962, and so far in 2013 it's 339. There's only so much room to be even worse than that. It's not that it hasn't happened -- Hall of Famers Pud Galvin and Lefty Grove were terrible, relative to their eras, and in the 1960s swingman Ron Herbel got 227 plate appearances and hit .029/.065/.039, which had to hurt his teams a bit -- just that it's really rare, and probably not worth paying a great deal of attention to.
There's a lot more room to be better than a 400 OPS, though, and now and then, a pitcher is good enough with the stick to really make a difference to his overall value. Walter Johnson would be one of the greatest of all time in any case, but if you're considering him (152 Baseball-Reference WAR as a pitcher) against Greg Maddux (104.6), and you give Maddux all kinds of extra credit for having to face more diverse and talented competition, you might as well also consider that Johnson hit .235/.274/.342 (76 OPS+) vs. Maddux's .171/..191/.205 (5 OPS+), and that Baseball-Reference gives Johnson an extra 11 wins over Maddux for offense (13.2 to 2.2 WAR).
Here are the five pitchers whose case was helped -- or should have been helped -- most significantly by their own offense:
Bob Caruthers: Caruthers played from 1884 to 1892. He's certainly a fascinating player, though I don't know that parts of 10 great years ending before the turn of the century is enough, no matter what he did, given the unquestionably lower quality of competition and the glut of pitchers from that era who are already in. Caruthers spent about half his time as a pitcher and half as an outfielder. In 1886, he started 43 games and completed 42 on the mound and went 30-13 with a 2.32 ERA and 147 ERA+; it was his second-greatest pitching season, but he contributed further with a .334/.448/.527 line, leading the league in OBP, OPS and OPS+; Baseball-Reference gave him 5.8 WAR as a pitcher and another 4.3 as a hitter. For his career, Caruthers was a .282/.391/.400 hitter (134 OPS+), and according to Baseball-Reference's numbers, he added 16.8 WAR with his bat, and his overall total of 60.6 (in just the ten seasons) puts him a great deal closer to the Hall conversation than his 43.8 WAR as a pitcher alone.
Don Newcombe: One just has to love Newk, who (as a pitcher) was good for three years, lost two years of his career to the Korean War, then had about four more good years (out of seven) after his return. His 29.5 Baseball-Reference WAR as a pitcher certainly isn't bad, putting him in the neighborhood of Mike Cuellar, Harvey Haddix, Joe Neikro, and (as of this moment) Clayton Kershaw. But Newcombe could hit, to the tune of a career .271/.338/.367 line (85 OPS+). In the Dodgers' magic year of 1955, Newcombe went 20-5 with a 3.20 ERA (128 ERA+) in 234 innings, and had 127 PA over which he hit seven home runs and hit .359/.395/.632 (163 OPS+); Baseball-Reference credits him with 2.4 wins as a hitter, only half a win shy of his total that season as a pitcher. In 1958 and ‘59 combined, Newcombe hit .328 with a .415 OBP in 206 plate appearances. Baseball-Reference credits Newcombe with 9.0 career offensive WAR in 988 plate appearances.
Bob Lemon: Lemon actually came up as a third baseman, and upon noticing that he was never going to hit well enough to play regularly but had one hell of a strong arm, the Indians made him a pitcher, where he'd eventually make the Hall of Fame. His resume is pretty questionable as a pitcher alone, though; he won 20 or more games seven times and led the league in wins three times, but even if you care about wins, his career total was just 207, and if you don't care about wins, the rest of his resume doesn't have a ton to recommend it. His 39.7 pitching WAR is sixth-lowest among Hall of Fame pitchers. As a hitter, though? He wasn't good enough to play, but he was more than good enough to help out as a pitcher. He had a career 82 OPS+, and from 1947 to 1950, he hit .282/.341/.520 (128 OPS+) with 20 homers in 467 PA. He added over 11 wins with his bat, per Baseball-Reference, which puts him in slightly better Hall company; still not great, but defensible.
Wes Ferrell: Wes Ferrell is a guy who should be in the Hall of Fame, plain and simple. He was roughly 49 wins above replacement as a pitcher, and added another 13 with his bat. He was an average big-league hitter for his career at a time when hitters were putting up big numbers (thus his deceptively ugly 4.04 ERA); he hit .280/.351/.446, and his 100 OPS+ is the best ever among pitchers from 1901 on with at least 1000 plate appearances, and seventh-best in the same span among pitchers with at least 100 plate appearances. In 1935, Ferrell went 25-14 with a 3.52 ERA (134 ERA+) in a league-leading 322 innings and, in 179 plate appearances, hit .347/.427/.533 (141 OPS+) with seven homers. With 8.3 pitching WAR and 2.6 batting WAR, it may have been the greatest two-way season for any full-time pitcher (and occasional pinch-hitter) in history.
Red Ruffing: I'm still not convinced Lemon belongs, so Ruffing may be the only guy who actually, legitimately slid himself from "out" to "in" with his bat. Ruffing won 20 games or more four years in a row and pitched in seven World Series (six of which the Yankees won), which probably swayed the voters more than his hitting did, but his hitting could have made the difference; a career .269/.306/.389 hitter (81 OPS+) who had some good offensive years, but very rarely paired them up with good pitching years. Nonetheless, he added 15 wins with his bat, taking his total from a relatively pedestrian 55 WAR to a much more impressive 70.
I'm afraid that as baseball has become more global and more specialized (and as the DH rule made hitting moot for half of all pitchers anyway), one of the things we've lost is the great pitcher who can also hit. There have been big-league pitchers that could hit, like Dontrelle Willis, Rick Ankiel, and Mike Hampton and Carlos Zambrano, but none of them have been good enough at their primary jobs for long enough for their hitting really to come into the conversation at all, and it's not clear that their hitting is good enough, either. Someone will come along eventually (assuming we retain a no-DH league for long enough) who pitches well enough and hits well enough that we'll really have to take note of the value he adds to the team; I just don't think there's anyone like that out there right now.