Monday, May 26, 2014

The Greatest Offensive Pitchers (Pre-DH Era) Part I

Before the designated hitter rule rendered AL hurlers virtually obsolete as an offensive presence, there were a number of moundsmen who held their own at the plate. Since Babe Ruth is an exceptional case, I have decided to leave him off of my list. In the years he was used exclusively as a pitcher (1914-1917), Ruth hit .299 with 38 extra-base hits and 50 RBIs (in 166 games). When his home run power became evident in 1918, he was gradually converted to a full-time outfielder. The rest is a well-weathered tale and comparisons to contemporaries are unfair. Simply put, there has never been another player like Babe Ruth. But there have been some fine hitting pitchers over the years.
Some of them are listed here in no particular rank or order:

Guy Hecker (1882-1890)
Spending most of his time with the Louisville Colonels, the right-handed Hecker worked more than 400 innings in four consecutive seasons. This included an incredible total of 670.2 frames in 1884. That's more than three seasons worth of work nowadays. Through most of Hecker's career, there were no restrictions on deliveries and he utilized a hop, skip and jump before releasing the ball. He is one of only three pitchers to win 50 games in a single major league season. He was so adept as a hitter, he was often used at first base when he wasn't pitching. In 1886, he led the American Association with a .341 batting average. He retired with a lifetime mark of .282, averaging 20 extra-base hits per year during his nine seasons in the majors.

Jesse Tannehill (1894-1911)
Tannehill had his best seasons on the mound between 1898 and 1905, winning no fewer than 15 games in that span (mostly for the Pirates) while reaching the 20-win plateau on six occasions. In 1901, he led the NL with a 2.18 ERA. He was a superb hitter--good enough to draw 87 outfield assignments and more than 50 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter. His lifetime .255 batting average is better than many positional players of his era. He hit .278 or higher in four seasons, peaking at .336 in 1900. He even stole 19 bases during his career.

Jack Bentley (1913-1927)
A solidly built left-hander (5-foot-11, 200 pounds), Bentley served as a swing-man for the Senators in 1914. He led the AL in saves that year while making 11 starts and 19 relief appearances. Lacking the stamina to become a full-time member of the Senators' rotation, he was sent to the minors for more conditioning in 1915. He returned to the big leagues with the Giants eight years later, establishing himself as one of the top double-threats in the game. Between 1923 and 1925, he compiled a 40-22 record in 87 pitching assignments. In that same span, he hit .329 with 25 extra-base hits. His most successful season at the plate came in 1923, when he compiled a .427 batting average in 52 games--21 of them as a pinch-hitter. In Game 5 of the 1924 World Series, he blasted a 2-run homer off of Senators' ace Walter Johnson and was credited with the win. Traded to the Phillies in 1926, he spent a majority of his time at first base, reaching personal best marks in nearly every major offensive category. He finished his career with the Giants the following year. His lifetime batting average was .291.  

Dave Foutz (1884-1896)
Before his major league career, Foutz traveled to Colorado in search of gold. He ended up becoming a star pitcher for the St. Louis Browns instead. In his big league debut, he struck out 13 batters in 13 innings. The right-handed Foutz enjoyed his peak pitching years between 1885 and 1887, when he won no fewer than 25 games. After a line drive broke his thumb in 1887, he had trouble controlling his curve and was eventually switched to first base. Foutz was a major run producer, gathering 98 or more RBIs four times while peaking at 113 in 1889. In his last year as a full-time pitcher, he won 25 games and hit .357. During the five seasons in which he made at least 20 starts, he averaged 101 hits and 59 runs. His RBI totals for those years are incomplete. He retired with a .276 batting average.

Doc Crandall (1908-1918)
Crandall's bread and butter pitch was his curveball. Born James Otis Crandall, he picked up his nickname from writer Damon Runyan, who referred to him as "the physician of the pitching emergency." Crandall was among the first pitchers to be used consistently in relief and, for five straight seasons, he led the NL in closing appearances. While other teams were using a bullpen by committee format, Giants manager John McGraw was grooming Crandall as the league's premier fireman. The right-hander received little credit for it at the time since the save was not even an official statistic then. Crandall knew how to swing a bat. During his ten seasons in the majors, he compiled a .285 average with a .372 on-base percentage. In 1914, he jumped to the Federal League, where he pitched in 27 games and made 63 appearances at second base. He put up career-high numbers in hits (86) and RBIs (41) while hitting .309.

Smoky Joe Wood (1908-1922)
Wood Played with Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker and Harry Hooper in Boston. He might have forged a Hall of Fame career himself had he not suffered an injury that ended his pitching career prematurely. From 1909 through 1913, Wood's ERA never exceeded 2.29. He won 23 games in 1911 then followed with one of the greatest seasons in major league history, compiling a 34-5 record while leading the AL in complete games (35) and shutouts (10). He was the hero of the 1912 World Series, collecting 3 more wins and hitting .286. Though he got off to a slow start offensively at the beginning of his career, Wood gradually became an accomplished batsman. During his prime pitching years (1910-1915), he compiled a .258 average, peaking at .290 in 1912. In 1913, he suffered a thumb injury and tried to come back too quickly, seriously damaging his arm in the process. His last good season as a hurler came in 1915, when he led the league with a .750 winning percentage and 1.49 ERA. Out of the majors in 1916, the Indians purchased his contract the following year. He wasn't of much use to them with a gimpy arm, so he was sent to the minors to learn how to play the outfield. He made the switch successfully and remained in the majors through the '22 campaign. In five seasons as a positional player, he hit .297, including a .366 mark in 66 games during the '21 slate.  

George Mullin (1902-1915)
A right-hander, Mullin pitched for the Tigers over portions of twelve seasons before his contract was sold to the Senators in May of 1913. He was one of several big name players who jumped to the short-lived Federal League in 1914/15 then never appeared in the majors afterward. During his prime years, Mullin won 17 or more games in nine straight seasons. On July 4, 1912, he pitched a no-hitter over the Browns. He was known for his stalling tactics on the mound. Handy with a bat, he was used as a pinch-hitter more than 100 times during his career. He compiled a lifetime .262 batting average with 401 base hits and 163 runs scored. He had virtually no home run power, collecting just three long balls in his career--two of which were inside-the-parkers.

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