One of major league baseball's great unanswerables is how hard it is. We know it's extremely hard. The best in the world often struggle at it. But we don't know how hard -- how hard it would be for, say, you.
That's because managers don't play a random sample of us against the stars. They play only the very best, and even those very best players are quickly removed if they don't look credible against the other very bests. The only exceptions to this design are when batters pitch, and when pitchers bat, because in neither event was the player selected for his skill at the task. Instead he is, as close as we get to see, a randomly assigned adult attempting to do a major league act against a major league player.
But even position players pitching are a flawed experiment, because they all have great arms and they mostly pitch only when the competitive environment has unraveled. If we got to see designated hitters pitch in two high-leverage moments every game, then maybe we'd start to learn about how hard pitching actually is, but we don't.
Thankfully, we do get to see that on the other side. One or two times in every National League game the pitcher has to bat. The skill set for which the pitcher was selected from a very young age has virtually nothing to do with hitting, besides general athleticism, awareness of baseball strategy and a desire to go outside. While we can assume that the average pitcher will be a much, much better hitter than the average adult -- just as he's probably a better football player and badminton player than the average adult -- the very bottom of the group should theoretically be pretty close to Like Us. If Aaron Nola were only as good at hitting as you are -- if he simply couldn't identify a 95-mph fastball quickly enough to convincingly swing at it -- he'd still have ended up a major league pitcher. His inability to hit wouldn't have been any obstacle to his progression to the majors.
Again, most pitchers won't be that guy. But almost 400 pitchers were forced -- forced, not selected -- to bat in the majors this year. At least one of them has to be that guy, and by that guy, I mean: You. The person who meets this standard will be baseball's true hero. It's easy to go on TV and do something you can do. It's courageous to go on TV and do something you outrageously can't.
We have five candidates for the year's worst-hitting pitcher, the one guy in baseball you might actually be able to match.
Candidate 1: Luis Severino
What it looks like:
Broadcaster assessment: Guy: "As mechanically sound as Severino is on the pitcher's mound -- not so much in the batter's box." Second Guy: "No, I think he missed those classes."
Why him: First do no harm, says the pitcher's Hippocratic oath, which means the first thing a pitcher must do is try not to swing at pitches 9 feet outside. If you never swung, you would still sometimes get on base. It is not certain that if you always swung you could say the same.
Severino always swings. Or he did, in 2018: His chase rate (swings at pitches outside the zone) was an incredible 73 percent, higher than the MLB average swing rate on pitches inside the zone. In just five plate appearances, he swung at pitches with called-strike probabilities of 0.6 percent, 0.0 percent, 2.0 percent, 2.1 percent, 0.0 percent and 0.0 percent, along with a bunch of pitches between 5 and 95 percent. Indeed, he saw 17 pitches all year, and there were probably two of them where, given the pitch location and the count and the batter, you'd say, yeah, I want him to swing there:
After the 2016 season, we wrote about Robert Gsellman, who couldn't swing because of a shoulder injury that would require offseason surgery. Gsellman took or bunted every pitch, and it was all very weird. The next year, after surgery, he could swing, but he stuck with hardly ever swinging. His swing rate was, at 30 percent, the lowest in baseball; his chase rate was, at 14 percent, sixth lowest (minimum 25 PA). He hit .147/.268/.147, which is a pitcher's batting average, a pitcher's slugging percentage, but a backup catcher's on-base percentage. Not swinging worked! It's not a guarantee of success, as, for instance, Aaron Nola hardly ever swings, and with a .061/.116/.074 career line he nearly qualified as a candidate on this list. But even Nola does get on base, sometimes. Severino always swings. He went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts.
Why not him: Five plate appearances and 17 pitches are not enough to draw conclusions from, and his previous hitting experience -- including a hit in 2017 -- doesn't suggest he always chases 73 percent of pitches outside the zone. He is not the hero of this game.
Candidate 2: Jose Urena
What it looks like:
Broadcaster assessment: "He's a lot like Vladimir Guerrero. He just swings. Although Vladdy ... [substantial pause] ... got some hits."
Why him: The best data are often not the numbers we see players produce but the decisions we see players make. Urena makes a decision almost every game that tells us a lot: He tries to bunt for a hit. He tried to bunt for a hit no fewer than nine times this year. He tried to bunt for a hit with two strikes four times this year. He hasn't successfully bunted for a hit since his first try, way back in 2015, but he keeps trying, because he knows intuitively what the data show: He's bad at swinging.
And the data sure do show it. Urena had the lowest in-play rate -- that is, contact rate, but without the illusory boost of foul balls -- among pitchers with a significant number of at-bats this year. He struck out in almost 70 percent of his plate appearances, which is the highest rate of any pitcher with a significant number of at-bats. His average exit velocity (excluding successful sacrifice bunts) was, at 64 mph, the lowest of any pitcher with a significant number of at-bats. That seems to be the whole case, open and shut: He strikes out more than any other pitcher, and when he doesn't strike out he hits the ball more weakly than any other pitcher. He hit .042/.061/.063, and according to DRC+, Baseball Prospectus' new advanced offensive metric, he was the worst hitter in baseball with at least 25 plate appearances. His bat looks slow, even to a dumb non-scout like me. Also, despite bunting all the time, he's not good at bunting: In nine sacrifice situations, he got three down successfully, struck out five times and bunted into a fielder's choice once. Here's one more: He batted 52 times this year, and only three of those plate appearances ended with Urena ahead in the count.
Why not him: He hit a baseball 109 mph. It didn't look like anything special -- it was grounder back to the pitcher, who fielded it and threw Urena out -- but there is no way that you could hit a ball 109 mph. It was the hardest-hit baseball by anybody that game; it was tied for the second-hardest-hit ball by any pitcher in baseball last year. More relevantly, when we put HITf/x cameras in an independent league ballpark in 2015, the hardest-hit ball was only a tick over 102, and those are low-grade professionals swinging it. A baseball hit 109 mph is absolutely smoked, by a strong person, without a slow bat. So our hero can't be Urena.
Candidate 3: Elieser Hernandez
What it looks like:
Broadcaster assessment: No one, as nobody in history, has ever spoken about Elieser Hernandez's hitting.
Why it's him: Partly because we're setting up a callback moment later in this article. More importantly, it's because Hernandez batted 11 times this year without doing any positive act: No hit, no walk, no sacrifice bunt, not even a runner advancing on an out. No pitcher had more plate appearances without at least one positive event this year, as the three other pitchers with .000 OBPs in at least 11 PA all had at least one sacrifice bunt. (Hernandez has also never reached base in the minors, though he did have a successful sacrifice bunt.) He struck out in seven of his 11 tries, which is 50 percent higher than the league-average strikeout rate for pitchers. He hit four baseballs fair, but none was pulled and none got out of the infield.
Why it's not him: There are not nearly enough plate appearances here to say that this is his real level, and considering that all four balls he hit were struck pretty well -- albeit on the ground, and the other way -- the odds are he can handle himself. Beyond that, his mere 11 at-bats included tries against Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and a pair against Walker Buehler. Out of 750 batters who had at least 10 PA this year, Hernandez's average opponent was 16th most difficult to hit, according to Baseball Prospectus. This all wasn't really fair to Elieser Hernandez.
Candidate 4: Ivan Nova
What it looks like:
Broadcaster assessment: "That last swing -- pretty good indication, don't hit his bat."
Why it's him: Nova is the closest thing to somebody we can say, without any doubt, with no ambiguity about sample size or anything else, is a truly terrible hitter. He batted 56 times this year and (with just one hit) slashed .019/.019/.019, the lowest OPS of any pitcher with at least 20 at-bats -- and, amazingly, he batted just .020/.020/.020 in 2017, which was also the lowest OPS of any pitcher with at least 20 at-bats. He's hit 161 times in his career and his slash line is .042/.042/.042, which (a) means he's never drawn a walk and (b) means he's never had an extra-base hit and (c) is the worst OPS of any active pitcher with at least 50 career PA, and the third-worst career OPS of all time. He's bad!
Why it's not him: Nova's strikeout rate isn't ridiculous, and he put the ball in play with full swings against major league pitchers 22 times this year. Those include four balls classified as line drives, three that were at least 99 mph off the bat, one of which traveled 362 feet. His average exit velocity on non-sacrifices was, at 80 mph, harder than that of non-pitchers Billy Hamilton, Carlos Tocci and Magneuris Sierra, along with dozens of pitchers. And in 2017, he was fourth among all pitchers with nine sacrifice bunts, in just 13 sacrifice situations. We're begging the question here, but I don't think he can be the stand-in for you, because I don't believe you could come anywhere close to any of those accomplishments. Nova can't be you because I don't believe for a second that you could be Nova.
Candidate 5: Cody Reed
What it looks like:
Broadcaster assessment: "Boy, that is just awful, awful. There's no nice way to say it."
Why it's him: It all comes together here. Reed had the highest strikeout rate among pitchers, with 10 in 11 official at-bats. The only ball he put in play was a puny ground ball, just 70 mph. He's hitless in his career -- 0-for-24 -- and the hardest ball he has ever been recorded hitting was just 83 mph, slower than (for instance) all four grounders Elieser Hernandez hit. And he faced almost all bad pitchers, a slew of names you wouldn't recognize and (according to Baseball Prospectus) the fourth-easiest average opponent in baseball this year. He didn't get a sacrifice bunt down this year. His foul balls were all foul tips. He steps in the bucket even on many pitches he takes. He has no batting glove consistency, swiveling from no gloves to white gloves to red gloves all in the same game. He doesn't even seem to have an idea of how high he likes to hold the bat, or at what angle, when he's awaiting a pitch.
His swing is that of a wary batter. His front foot goes toward first base,
his front hip toward the dugout,
his back foot lifts off the ground,
he's often visibly late,
and his top hand comes off the bat almost immediately:
His hitting limitations are all so obvious the league even responded: Left fielders played more shallowly against him than against any other left-handed hitter this year; center fielders played him more shallowly than all but two other hitters, right fielders more shallowly than all but three.
Why it's not him: It's him. But we can still say two nice things about him. One is that he had four hits at Triple-A, three of them against pitchers with major league experience. Given the question underlying our search, that means that either you (with just a little training and practice) could get four hits against Triple-A pitchers, or else there is no major league pitcher who can credibly stand in for your hitting ability. Now, I could be wrong, but I simply don't think you could get four hits against Triple-A pitchers, so my conclusion is that, against the odds, all 400 pitchers who batted this year are (relative to the rest of the population) extraordinary hitting machines.
The second nice thing is that Reed knows what he is and he takes what the league will give him. He hardly ever swings at pitches out of the strike zone. He hardly ever swings! He saw 19 pitches in no-strike counts this year, and the only one he offered at was a sacrifice bunt attempt. It was this patience that led to his one positive contribution as a hitter: a five-pitch walk in September. For that reason, he finished with a better offensive season than Elieser Hernandez.
The pitcher who walked him: Elieser Hernandez.
As he turned out of the batter's box following that ball four, Reed tossed his bat away and then took one step ... toward the dugout.
Then he corrected himself. It was very awkward. Looked a little like you out there.