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Look At Those Pitchers Hit!


The Internets are abuzz with news of Max Scherzer‘s exploits in New York Saturday night. He notched another win, quality start and 10+ strikeout game. Big deal, Scherzer does that all the time. The “news” is that Scherzer got a double and an RBI. Since this was his only start this season in an NL park, that gives Scherzer an OPS of 1.000 on the year. Congrats.

August 24, 2013; Flushing,NY,USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Max Scherzer (37) walks to the dugout between innings at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

It would appear that – as any sensible observer would predict – spending all season not swinging a bat does make it difficult for AL pitchers to get hits when it counts. Scherzer was hitless in 8 at-bats prior to last night’s game since being acquired from the Tigers, 12 for 66 as a Diamondback before that. It certainly sounded like Scherzer got some extra motivation from the matchup against Matt Harvey, but the fact that his opponent was such a talented pitcher is further to his credit.

What’s more, with that double it looks entirely possible that the Tigers will have leaped into the lead in pitcher wOBA – as they were in second place prior to the game on the back of Doug Fister. That’s a tiny, tiny sample but still notable – when it comes to World Series games it has felt in Detroit’s past two attempts that the inability of their pitchers to do anything meaningful at the plate has put the team at a real disadvantage on the road. Over the past decade, the Tigers are tied for 28th in the league in pitcher wOBA with a miserable .105 (and a corresponding .228 OPS) – the Cardinals are on top with a wOBA of .185 and an OPS of .407 and the Giants, though they are 14th in the NL still trounce the Tigers with a .154 wOBA.

That isn’t to say that NL teams don’t have a rough time of it in AL parks, without a full-time DH. If you look at DH stats for NL teams, they aren’t good. But… a DH is something that an NL team makes a deliberate decision not to allocate financial resources towards, not having a quality DH isn’t something caused by the way that league games are played. In theory they should have extra funds to allocate towards other parts of the roster, since being an NL team doesn’t hurt a team’s revenues. Victor Martinez is costing the Tigers $12 million this year, they’d undoubtedly be a better team in interleague play if they had spent that money ont he bullpen instead. NL teams can also shuffle guys around to improve team defense when the need for a DH arises.

It’s a little early to start talking about strategy for the World Series, but I’m not worried about Jinxing these Tigers. Yesterday’s game brings home the idea that how the Tigers organize their World Series rotation should be a function of the pitchers’ abilities at the plate. The 2-3-2 series format, given that the AL won this year’s All-Star game, means that (if we assume the traditional 4-man playoff rotation) the Tigers game 2 starter would pitch (potentially) twice at home. Even if we leave Justin Verlander‘s recent struggles on the mound aside, that makes a powerful argument for why JV should not start game one of the World Series. JV, over his whole career, has a .000 OPS as a hitter. It’s obviously a small sample, only 33 plate appearances, but if you actually watch the game you’ve seen just how awkward he looks at the plate. In his own tiny sample, Doug Fister has ..267/.267/.333 batting line with a Win-Probability Added of 0.00 (which is tremendous for a pitcher) as compared to -0.82 for JV. In larger samples (due to their time in the NL) Anibal Sanchez has a .089/.144/.098 batting line and Max Scherzer .169/.210/.208. Rick Porcello isn’t likely to make any playoff starts, unless someone gets hurt, so how well he hits probably isn’t that important but Porcello has a .428 OPS and like Fister has impressively failed to hurt his team’s probability of winning at the plate.

There will probably be some debate over whether Scherzer or Verlander should start game one of this series or that, based on JVs past accomplishments and Scherzer’s dominance in 2013. I recall the talking heads on ESPN mentioning yesterday that they’d still start JV over Max, but I don’t think that’s logical if we’re talking about the World Series. You could say that the ability to keep Verlander from hitting is the biggest positive about home field advantage in the series this year, Max should start game 1 just so we can watch him hit. Starting Verlander would be akin to starting Don Kelly over Miguel Cabrera at third – roughly a 400 point difference in expected OPS at the position.

While I’m on the topic of “World Series”, you might look at Victor Martinez’ time behind the plate this series – which he’s probably only getting because of Alex Avila‘s head trauma – as an audition to do some catching in Series road games when Leyland does not want to take his bat out of the lineup. VMart’s .865 OPS in the 2nd half has definitely helped, but Avila seemed to be breaking out of his funk after the break too. If Avila is healthy and hitting, it gets a lot harder to make the argument that Martinez should be catching just to keep his bat in the lineup – as pinch-hitter #1 he’d be guaranteed at least one at-bat and unlike most guys he hasn’t shown any difficulty in producing off the bench.