These are the 10 best hitting seasons by pitchers

Ohtani attempting to do what few others have done

April 9th, 2018

Comedy writer Eric Stangel nailed the mood Sunday when he tweeted out: "We are so close to seeing the think piece 'if Ohtani the pitcher faced Ohtani the hitter, who would win?'"
has, in just two weeks, moved from hyped prospect to superhero. Could Superman defeat Superman? Could Westley from "The Princess Bride" defeat Westley in a battle of wits? Could Ohtani hit Ohtani?
Ohtani hit .462 with three homers in three games as a hitter last week. He also threw seven shutout innings, allowed one hit, struck out 12 and had a perfect game going through six of those seven innings.
Ohtani has a chance -- a real chance -- to be named both the Player of the Week and the Pitcher of the Week, something that has never happened before. And it was just his second week in the Majors. It is not possible to overstate this story: We are in uncharted territory here. Nothing like Ohtani has ever happened in the Majors as we know them.
That said, there are players from the past (sometimes the distant past) who hit and pitched with equal brilliance. If you go back to 1886, for instance, you will find an American Association player named Guy Hecker who started 48 games as a pitcher (he went 26-23 with a 2.87 ERA) and won a batting title (he played first base and outfield on his non-pitching days). That same year, Parisian Bob Caruthers won 30 games and led the league in on-base percentage and OPS.
Albert Spalding, another 19th century pitcher/hitter, is in the Hall of Fame; he led his league in wins six consecutive years and he was a lifetime .313 hitter. He also manufactured what was for a century the official baseball of Major League Baseball, published the first official rules of the game and organized baseball's first world tour.
The Negro Leagues had several great pitchers who were also great hitters -- Hall of Famers Martin Dihigo and Leon Day come to mind. Bullet Joe Rogan, another Hall of Famer, was a dominant pitcher and such a good hitter that, as Satchel Paige said, he was the the only pitcher he ever knew who also hit cleanup.
But it's hard to compare Ohtani to any of them because they played in such a different time and in such different leagues. As mentioned, there hasn't been a modern Major Leaguer quite like Ohtani, but there have been pitchers who had great seasons on the mound and at the plate.
Here then are the 10 best of those seasons, the ones Ohtani chases:
1. Babe Ruth, 1918, Red Sox
Pitching: 13-7, 2.22 ERA, 166 1/3 innings
Hitting: .300/.411/.555, led league in homers (11) and slugging

If there's a Major League match for what Ohtani is trying to do this year, it would probably be Ruth's 1918 season. Up to that point, Ruth was entirely a pitcher. Yes, he was a superb hitting pitcher -- he hit .299/.355/.474 those three-plus seasons -- but he was still a pitcher. That changed in '18 -- Ruth was hitting so well that the Red Sox decided to put him at first base on May 6.
"As a rule," the wires reported in their "Baseball Gossip" column that day, "a pitcher at bat holds little interest for the fans, but when Babe Ruth steps to the plate the crowd is disappointed if the Red Sox twirler doesn't hit the ball a mile."

Ruth homered that day, so the Red Sox put him at first base again the next day in Washington. This time he hit a home run so far over the right-field wall that the Washington Times reported "the ball tumbling into a war garden and splashing a bunch of onion sets."
With that, Ruth because a more-or-less everyday player and pitcher, the only year that ever happened for him. He pitched well, but significantly less than he had the previous two seasons. And he hit so well that the Yankees traded for him as a full-time slugger.
2. Don Newcombe, 1955, Dodgers
Pitching: 20-5, 3.20 ERA, led league in WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio
Hitting: .359/.395/.632 with seven home runs in 125 plate appearances

Newcombe grew up in the Negro Leagues, where pitchers were generally expected to hit well. "We were baseball players," Buck O'Neil always said, "and that meant we could do everything." Newcombe was a terrific athlete who could always handle the bat. That year his dominance as a pitcher and hitter was striking. He was used as a pinch-hitter 88 times his career.

3. Wes Ferrell, 1935, Red Sox
Pitching: 25-14, led league in wins, starts, complete games and innings
Hitting: .347/.427/.533 with seven home runs in 179 plate appearances

Ferrell is probably the best hitting pitcher in baseball history not named Babe Ruth … or the best hitting pitcher who remained a pitcher. He hit .280/.351/.446 for his career, and in 1935, he is probably his best as a hitter and as a pitcher, but in '31, he won 22 games and also hit .319 with nine home runs. Ferrell was used as a pinch-hitter 127 times over his career.
4. Bucky Walters, 1939, Reds
Pitching: 27-11, 2.29 ERA, led National League in innings pitched, strikeouts and ERA
Hitting: .325/.357/.433 in 131 plate appearances

Walters began his professional career as a third baseman. He was reluctant to become a pitcher because he liked playing every day. But in 1935, when it seemed clear that Walters was going to lose the third-base battle in Philadelphia, he somewhat unhappily agreed to pitch. He showed some promise, but when the Phillies traded him to Cincinnati, he came into his own. In '39, Walters won the NL MVP Award as a dominant pitcher, who had his best year at the plate.
5. Walter Johnson, 1925, Senators
Pitching: 20-7, 3.07 ERA, led the league in FIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio
Hitting: .433/.455/.677 with 20 RBIs

The Big Train was not necessarily a great hitter for most of his brilliant career, but he was generally productive. It all came together in 1925 when Johnson set the then record for highest pitcher batting average. It was not one of his 10 best pitching years, but it was still excellent.

6. Red Ruffing, 1939, Yankees
Pitching: 21-7, 2.93 ERA, All-Star, finished fifth in American League MVP Award voting
Hitting: .307/.347/.342 with 20 RBIs in 124 plate appearances

Ruffing was a really good hitter … and he's a Hall of Famer pitcher. Yet it's hard to find one season where he excelled at both. Ruffing's best offensive year was probably 1930 when he hit .364 and slugged .582 in 117 plate appearances. But he was pretty blah on the mound that year. In '28, he hit .314 with some power but led the Majors in losses as a pitcher. I'd say '39 was the closest thing to a match, though it wasn't that good an offensive year.
7. Don Drysdale, 1965, Dodgers
Pitching: 23-12, 2.77 ERA, led MLB in starts
Hitting: .300/.331/.508 with seven home runs in 138 plate appearances

Drysdale was a reasonably good hitter -- good enough that in Game 2 of the 1965 World Series, he was brought in to pinch-hit for Sandy Koufax (this was the day after Koufax skipped Game 1 to commemorate Yom Kippur). But '65 was definitely an outlier; he hit .163 the rest of his career.

8. Warren Spahn, 1958, Braves
Pitching: 22-11, 3.07 ERA, led league in innings and WHIP
Hitting: .333/.381/.463 in 122 plate appearances

The great Spahn was a swing-for-the-fences kind of hitter. He hit just .194 for his career, but he slugged 35 home runs, the most for any National League pitcher. In 1958, he hit .300 for the only time in his career -- he never hit better than .231 any other season -- while also putting up his typically great pitching season (between '57-61, Spahn won 21 or 22 games every year).
9. Jack Bentley, 1923, Senators
Pitching: 13-8, 4.48 ERA
Hitting: .427/.446/.573 in 94 plate appearances

Bentley doesn't exactly fit on this list, because he was not exceptional as a pitcher that year or really any other year. But the story would not be complete without Bentley. He grew up in a Quaker community and taught himself a crazy windup (which had him gyrating until his back was to the hitter) and an equally crazy self-taught batting style with an enormous leg kick. Bentley probably would have been an exceptional everyday hitter (he hit .291 for his career) and regretted never getting the chance. He ended up a pretty good pitcher.
10. Micah Owings, 2007, Diamondbacks
Pitching: 8-8, 4.30 ERA, one shutout, 106 K's
Hitting: .333/.349/.683 with 12 extra-base hits in 64 plate appearances

This isn't a great comp because Owings wasn't a great pitcher. But it's on here for one game. Owings pitched seven strong innings against the Padres, allowing just one run while striking out six. Then, at the plate, he went 4-for-5 with a double, two homers and six RBIs. It is one of the greatest hitting/pitching games in baseball history. Owings could really hit; he holds the Georgia high school record for home runs and has since tried to make it back to the big leagues either as an everyday hitter or as a dual pitching/hitting threat.
Honorable mentions
Johnny Lindell was a good-hitting outfielder and then, for a season in 1953 at age 36, became a full-time pitcher. He struggled on the mound, going 6-17 with a 4.66 ERA, and he led the league in walks and wild pitches. But Lindell hit .303 with four home runs, so it wasn't a total loss.
The other: Zach Britton. He only had one season where he batted -- he did so eight times in 2011 when he was still a struggling starting pitcher. But Britton went 5-for-8 with a homer and a double. His .625 batting average is the best for any batter with eight or fewer plate appearances since 1903. His 1.125 slugging percentage is second best only to . So we add our voices to the chorus: Free Britton's bat!