Peter Gammons: Pitchers are athletes; let them be baseball players

travis wood cubs

On Sunday, Travis Wood shut out the Pirates. Monday, he pinch hit in the 13th inning in Miami, doubled and the Cubs had won two straight.

Travis Wood should pinch hit, because he can hit. When he pitches, his bat gives the Cubs a theoretical American League lineup, with a .276/.323/.552/2 HR slash line that might drop him into the seven hole for the Rays or Red Sox. “Actually,” says one NL executive, “he should probably bat sixth for the Cubs.” Hey, in managing the Orioles in 1958, Paul Richards batted Jack Harshman third, sixth, seventh and eight; Harshman hit six homers that season with a .757 OPS, 21 as a pitcher for his career.

In this era when matchup mania forces managers into carrying 12 pitchers and having barren benches, pitchers as players are worth a great deal more than a simple one out, breaking ball lefthander paid to keep a Josh Hamilton, Joey Votto or David Ortiz from swinging the bat the last time through the order. Remember Catfish Hunter on the 1971 Athletics. He threw 247 innings. His earned run average was good, 2.96, not great in the non-DH era, but part of the reason he won 21 games was that he hit .350 with a .362 on base and .408 slug with an OPS+ of 120. Oh yes. And didn’t commit an error.

Travis Wood is a good pitcher. He’s not going to light up an analytics life, but he can hit. He is lefthanded and controls the running game. He is an outstanding fielder who can make bunting difficult. “He does a lot of things that go into helping his team win,” says Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer.

It helped converted third baseman and sinkerballer Bob Lemon get to the Hall of Fame; he had 37 home runs as a pitcher, one fewer than Wes Ferrell. Warren Spahn hit 35, Red Ruffing 34 as a pitcher, Earl Wilson 35; back in 1966, when the Orioles were headed to a world championship and the Red Sox were headed to ninth place, my brother Ned drove to Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium and saw Earl Wilson win a 2-1 game in which he hit a walk-off home run in the tenth inning. Don Drysdale hit 29. Carlos Zambrano hit 24. Rick Wise hit 15, including two while throwing a no-hitter.

You’re not going to see career numbers like that today, but it seems that baseball is concerned about Pitch FX and (my favorite site) Brooks Baseball, physical breakdowns that they forget pitchers are athletes who should be treated as baseball players, not supporting actors. “I absolutely believe that,” says Angels GM Jerry DiPoto. “I know, I was a pitcher, but maybe the more they train as players and as athletes, the better they’ll pitch, and I mean pitch.” “Sometimes it takes time for pitchers to figure out how to pitch hitters, but Dallas Keuchel is the classic example of a guy who was a good hitter in college, understood hitting and knew how hitters think,” says one NL scout. “He’s figured things out.”

Zack Greinke? He is this generation’s Greg Maddux, brilliant in dissecting hitters, a tremendous fielder, good hitter. Andrew Cashner is a superbly athletic fielder, hitter. Tim Hudson was an All-American outfielder at Auburn. Joe Kelly was a college outfielder. Mike Hampton could do absolutely everything. Sean Doolittle was a tremendous first baseman at Virginia and a high draft pick as a hitter. Mike Leake and Henderson Alvarez could probably play in the infield. Scouts who watched Brad Lincoln in the Cape League in 2005, when he finished second to Evan Longoria in homers, wonder what would have happened had he hit every day in the minors and kept with the routine that made him the fourth pick in the 2006 draft.

In contrast, one of the hottest pitching prospects in the Boston organization, lefthander Brian Johnson, led the University of Florida in homers his draft year. The question was raised whether the Red Sox would allow him to take BP, even if he only pinch hits on occasion. “It’s something we’ll discuss,” says assistant GM Mike Hazen. “If that’s part of his baseball routine, we’d have to give it a thought. He was a two-way player in college who understands hitting. Maybe that will help him with pitching.”

When Tom Burgmeier and Bill Campbell were with the Red Sox in the late seventies, they had prolonged killer pepper games every day on the road. Both were very good fielders. Both loved to play baseball, not just shag flies and throw sides in the bullpen. Burgmeier always maintained that those games helped their hand-eye coordination, concentrated on their joy of the game, helped their instincts and fielding and use different athletic muscles. “I think there’s a lot to that,” says Padres GM Josh Byrnes. “When I played in college, pepper was one of those things we loved doing. There’s no question it benefits their games as athletes, and we want pitchers to be athletic. It’s also part of making the game fun. Most pitchers were really good players in high school. They love to play. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to play when they’re at the park,”

“I give a lot of credit to Bo Porter for using Tony Sipp as an outfielder,” says one NL GM. “It’s a creative use of the roster. Sipp probably loves it.” Of course. Sipp played the outfield at Clemson more than he pitched.

“Someone will probably say Sipp could get hurt,” says another GM. Puh-leaze. Derek Holland blew out his knee walking his dog down the stairs. Bobby Ojeda once missed half a season when he slipped in his hotel shower.

The best pitchers are athletes who repeat their deliveries. After Game One of the 2009 ALCS, in which CC Sabathia dominated the Angels, the Yankee Stadium ground crew called me to the mound the next day to show me what could only have been Sabathia’s landing hole, lefthanded, long stride. It was one hole. Sabathia is such a remarkable athlete that even though he (then) weighed 300 pounds and had a hitch in his delivery, he had landed in the same spot for more than 100 pitches.

Sometimes it seems that teams draft pitchers, then treat them like an AKC puppy brought home from a breeder, trained in a cage and walks on leashes…

Let them be baseball players, like Greinke or Cashner, Alvarez or Travis Wood. It’s not a bad thing to throw a shutout one day, then hit a game-winning double the next. Wood did not get hurt. He’ll be back on the mound Saturday night.

  • VtBob

    I can’t imagine that batting would hurt a pitcher any more than walking their dog. They are athletes, well most are, but the hand eye coordination is something they will really start to lose if only relegated to pitching. A very good friend pitched, played the field and hit & said it gave him a better idea of how to attack hitters. Let ‘em hit! DH them once in awhile!

  • Blind RedHat

    All respect due to him, Peter Gammons is wrong to take both an outlier event and small sample size performance and make them the cornerstone of his argument against the DH. The second part is especially disingenuous. To assert that Wood “can hit” because he’s sitting on .276/.323/.552 with two homers in 34 PAs is to ignore that before this year, Wood “hit” .180/.194/.322 in 200 PAs. That slash line is not considered good hitting anywhere, even if he did hit six home runs while doing so.

    The simple fact is that Travis Wood is an exception, not the rule. Most pitchers who go up to hit with no opportunity to advance any baserunners via the bunt just wave at pitches and seek to get out of the box as quickly as possible, and in fact some even try to make outs so they do not have to run bases. When pitchers do that because they are being forced to take a turn at bat, that is a fundamentally dishonest plate appearance. I would rather see batters come to the plate and honestly try to get on, rather than try to make outs to protect their pitching form.

  • DrDK

    Maybe I’m nitpicking here, but Earl Wilson never played for the Orioles. How could he hit a win a 2-1 game and hit a walk-off homerun in Memorial Stadium?

    • VotersRights

      You’re right, it wasn’t a walk off. Earl Wilson was with the Red Sox at that point of the season and hit a go ahead hr in the top of the 10th against Jim Palmer, then finished the 10 inning cg for the 2-1 win.