Most long-time followers of Federal Baseball know that I don't much care for the designated hitter. I'm not here to argue the point, since that ends up being like saying the other person is wrong for having green as their favorite color instead of purple. However, it introduces an interesting (and sometimes delightful) dynamic to NL baseball (or "real baseball," as I like to think of it), and that is: pitchers hitting. The stereotype is that pitchers are an automatic out, useful only for advancing a runner with a sac bunt. I've often caught myself applauding a pitcher for striking out on 4 pitches instead of 3. A pitcher's primary value is what he does to prevent the other team's runs, not to create runs for his own team, right? Well, this season has seen enough output from the pitcher's spot in the lineup to have people joking about keeping Strasburg to pinch-hit after he's shut down for the season. Have the Nationals' starters really been doing that well?
After the jump, we take a look at the offense out of the pitcher's spot and see how much it might be adding. We also examine the surprising pinch-hitting performance that the Nats have had to date. Are they important parts of the Nats' current success, and could they be the secret weapons that help win a pennant? (Stats through the games of June 13, courtesy FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference)
First, let's look at the raw hitting stats. Adding together all the pitchers as a composite player, the pitchers are hitting .200/.227/.305 with 2 HRs and 5 2Bs in 122 PA. That's good for a 33 wRC+, which is pretty terrible--for a position player. In other words, they're only providing 1/3 as much offense as an average hitter. But among pitchers, they lead the league. They're first in AVG, OPB, SLG, HRs, 2Bs, hits, and wRC+. The next-highest wRC+ is 3, and every other pitching staff has a negative wRC+! The pitchers are hackers, though: their walk rate of 2.5% is 9th, but their strikeout rate of 31.1% is actually third-best.
Well, fine, the Nats pitchers have put together some fun highlight clips of Stras and Zim going yard and Gio hitting a booming double to the gap. Has it really been worth anything? Surprisingly, it has! The pitchers have generated a total of 1.0 wins above replacement (WAR) so far with their hitting. The other teams in the NL haven't been total losses in the pitcher spot (in spite of their pathetic wRCs), and the NL average pitching staff has 0.45 WAR offensively. That means that the Nats have added about half a win relative to the league with pitcher hitting. If they keep up that pace over the entire season, that's easily a full win to 1.5 wins--potentially the difference between a wild card spot or not, or (dare I say it?) between a pennant and a WC spot. Specifically, the Braves are currently getting 0.6 WAR from their pitchers' hitting; over the rest of the season, the Nats would gain a full win on them at that rate.
Interestingly enough, the Nats have managed to generate all this offensive value in the 2nd-fewest pitcher PA in the leauge. They have only 122 compared to the NL average of 135. If you look at the offensive runs above replacement (RAR) per 100 PA, the pitching staff generates 7.62, more than twice as much as the league average of 3.19. Of course, that's still not as much as having a proper position player hitting, which brings us to a related issue: why do the pitchers have so few PA?
Part of this is due to the lackluster Nats offense in the early season, since the team's total of 2,318 PA to date trails the NL average of 2,359. Another part is that the starters have thrown slightly fewer innings than league average (370 vs 374), giving them fewer chances to hit. Taken together, those only account for about 1/3 of the gap relative to league average. As for the rest? Well, we know Davey loves him some double switches. He's managed to find about 9 extra pinch-hit PA so far this season relative to how many PA the starters "should" have had based on playing time and times through the order (it's possible the early-season tendancy toward late-game offense skews this a bit, but I can't figure out a quick way to account for that).
So, what has DJ managed to do with the PH chances? Ready-done team batting splits for PH appearances aren't easy to find, but the Nats have 89 PH PA to date (league average is 95) and a cumulative PH batting line of .304/.443/.522 with 2 HR, 7 2B and 1 3B. That's a .393 wOBA, which is hair more than what Adam Dunn is putting up this year! I can't get a park-adjusted figure, but I would guess that's about a 145-150 wRC+. League-average PH wOBA is .321, so the average NL team has put up 0.66 runs above an average hitter from its PH chances. The Nats, however, have put up 6.19 more runs out of the PH spot than a league-average hitter, or 5.5 more runs than average NL PHing. Davey has picked up more that half a win over league average from pinch hitters! He is teh jeenyus! Looking at the Braves, their PH has a .203 wOBA in 93 PA so far, which is 6.7 runs below league average. That would give the Nats an advantage of more than 3 games over a whole season!
Of course, typical disclaimers have to apply, here. We're looking at about 100 PA for both the pitchers and the PHers, and while injuries have taken away Mark DeRosa, they've also sidelined Chad Tracy. Strasburg will get shut down at some point, and Chien-Ming Wang and Ross Detwiler have been notable laggards on pitcher offense.
The Nats have won an extra half of a game relative to the NL so far this season because of pitcher hitting, and another half of a game from good pinch hitting. If those trends continue (and I can't claim they will), the Nats could pick up an extra 2-3 wins over the course of the season compared to league average. And in what promises to be a tight division, that could be as many as a 5-game edge over likely late-season rival Atlanta.