Helping their cause: Pitchers take hitting seriously
SAN DIEGO -- Who can blame National League pitchers for struggling at the plate? Certainly few would.
They're paid for their pitching prowess, and many haven't routinely been a part of a batting order since high school.
Some big league arms -- those who have pitched in the American League for most of their careers -- have gone more than a decade without honing their plate approach.
And yet, in a game of inches, sometimes all it takes is a well-placed bunt or a productive out off the bat of a pitcher to swing a ballgame.
But each pitcher's approach is different. Andrew Cashner keeps his focus on bunting, and it paid off Monday night when his pinch-hit squeeze bunt in San Francisco gave the Padres the lead in the 13th inning. Fellow San Diego pitcher Jason Marquis can be seen on occasion leaving the batting cages, lumber in hand, dripping with sweat. Right-hander Edinson Volquez, another Padres pitcher, takes his necessary hacks in BP but shifts his focus solely toward pitching during pregame workout time.
"I just do what I need to do," Volquez said. "I'll take batting practice, work on my bunting, but I don't get crazy; I don't go too crazy. Some guys do, they'll get in the cage and swing a lot. I don't like to. My job is pitching."
Volquez was all smiles after he launched his first career homer against the Blue Jays earlier this month. In his mind, each hit he gets is a fun respite from his job as a pitcher.
Of course, what pitcher wouldn't keep his focus on his role on the mound? The league's ERA and strikeout leaders are well documented, but who can name baseball's top three hitting pitchers? (For what it's worth, Travis Wood, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Yovani Gallardo lead the league in batting average among pitchers with more than 20 at-bats.)
But Cashner was quick to note that even if the numbers aren't impressive, and the direct offensive impact on a game isn't much, pitchers who handle the bat are more likely to remain in the game longer. If extra time spent on bunting and handling the lumber is what he has to do to earn a couple more innings, Cashner's willing to put in the work.
"It gives [the team] a huge advantage," Cashner said. "If you can bunt, a lot of times you're not going to need to be lifted for a pinch-hitter, if they know that you can get the bunt down. My goal this year is to get all the bunts down, and that's critical."
In the case of Wood, who is hitting .296 with two homers and a .556 slugging percentage (numbers that many a hitter would be content with), the offensive prowess is a blessing for manager Dale Sveum. Sveum kept Wood in the game to hit in a late May ballgame, even though he planned to take him out the following inning on the mound.
"To save all your bullets to be able to mix and match [is beneficial]," Sveum said. "You don't want to call it 'wasting a player' leading off an inning when you have a five-run lead, but when you have a pitcher that's capable of just hitting a fly ball when the wind's blowing out, I don't see any reason to waste a player right there in that situation."
So just how much does a pitcher's hitting impact a game? Directly, it isn't much. It's a rare feat when a pitcher will pull what Clayton Kershaw did for the Dodgers on Opening Day -- shut 'em out and hit one out.
Volquez, by now, has learned not to expect much and to soak it in when one of his fellow staff-mates succeeds.
"Everyone enjoys it if one of our starters hits a homer or does something good," Volquez said. "We're going to have a lot of fun in the dugout and enjoy it, and it helps the team. But I think for everybody, the main focus is just pitching better -- getting some innings and getting some wins."
But in terms of victories, it's the more subtle factors that come into play when a pitcher is at-bat. If he can get a bunt down, there may be no need to pinch hit for him with a man on base in the sixth, effectively saving the 'pen and saving a bench slot. If a pitcher can put a ball in play and get a runner over, that could mean the difference between pitching from behind and pitching from ahead.
In a game as fickle as baseball, that can make all the difference.