The Orioles wrapped up their brief two-game interleague stint against the New York Mets at Citi Field yesterday. The series brought not only the Orioles’ first sweep of the season, but also the return of a tradition unlike any other: pitchers trying to hit.
For the first time in 2018, the Orioles were playing in an NL park, so they lost the designated hitter and had to insert their starting pitchers (Alex Cobb on Tuesday, Dylan Bundy on Wednesday) into the lineup.
I’m a DH diehard. I think baseball is better when the lineup consists of nine professional hitters, not eight hitters and a potted plant. Watching NL baseball can be a deflating experience when a team has a rally going, only for the pitcher to come up and put a quick end to the scoring threat. It’s not fun watching someone be so consistently overmatched in the batter’s box when they’re being shoehorned into a role they’re not meant to serve. Pitchers have one job, and hitting isn’t it.
Oh, sure, occasionally something magical will happen when a pitcher steps into the batter’s box, like Bartolo Colon hitting a home run. But those instances are so rare that it’s not worth suffering through the hundreds of wasted at-bats a year that pitchers consistently put up.
The introduction of interleague play in 1997 brought the return of AL pitchers being forced to bat (though only a few times a season, thankfully) for the first time since the DH rule was established in 1973. With interleague play now in its 22nd season, let’s take a look at how Orioles’ pitchers have fared when they’ve been forced to swing the lumber.
Since 1997, Orioles’ pitchers have had 53 hits in 411 at-bats, compiling a .129 average and .326 OPS. Those numbers, while terrible, aren’t far out of line with what most AL teams’ pitchers have mustered at the plate. The Orioles actually have the fifth-best OPS from their pitchers of all AL teams in that span. Orioles pitchers have hit two home runs (tied for third) and driven in 21 runs (third).
The best season for Orioles pitchers at the plate was 2011, when the club’s hurlers combined to hit .409 (9-for-22) with three extra-base hits and three RBIs. That was largely due to one sweet-swinging pitcher, whom I’ll discuss further in the next section.
On the other end of the spectrum was 2004, when Orioles pitchers didn’t manage a single hit in their 21 plate appearances. It was the only season in the last 21 years in which Orioles pitchers were held hitless.
The best-hitting Orioles’ pitcher
During the interleague era, one Orioles pitcher has far outshined his colleagues at the plate: current Orioles’ closer Zach Britton.
Since 1997, Britton leads all O’s pitchers with five hits — including a home run and a double — and he’s amassed them in only eight plate appearances. That’s good for a whopping 1.750 OPS.
Britton got all eight of those PAs in 2011, his rookie season, when he was a starting pitcher. He collected at least one hit in each of his three starts at NL parks that year. On June 17 in Washington, he roped an RBI double. His next outing, June 22 in Pittsburgh, he laced a pair of singles.
Britton saved the best for last. In Atlanta on July 3, he stunned Braves’ starter Brandon Beachy for a solo homer in the top of the third, providing a crucial tally in what ended up as a one-run Orioles’ victory.
Britton’s homer was just the second by an Orioles pitcher since interleague play began. The other was hit by Kris Benson in 2006, off of Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, no less. (Baseball is a funny game.)
The Orioles’ RBI leader among pitchers is Mike Mussina with four. He got them all in 1999, including three in one game June 13 in Atlanta. Mussina’s RBI double and two-run single were part of an Orioles’ offensive explosion in a 22-1 trouncing of the Braves. (That game was started by Hall of Famer John Smoltz. Like I said, baseball is a funny game.)
The worst-hitting Orioles’ pitcher
Fans who have followed the club since at least the 2000s shouldn’t be surprised about who I’m about to name as the worst-hitting Orioles pitcher. It was Daniel Cabrera, the king of the laughable at-bat.
I’ve never seen anyone look more resigned to his fate than Cabrera did whenever he was forced to step into a batter’s box. He looked like he would’ve rather been pulling teeth — or perhaps having all his own teeth pulled, one by one. Cabrera might as well have been holding a soggy, rolled-up newspaper for as much as he used his bat.
Cabrera had 15 plate appearances with the Orioles. He struck out in 14 of them, and nine of them were looking. Even Chris Davis thinks that’s a lot of called strikeouts.
Only one time out of 15 did Cabrera successfully make contact with a ball in fair territory, laying down a sacrifice bunt in Atlanta on June 30, 2006. I can neither confirm nor deny that the event was greeted with fireworks and confetti.
After Cabrera left the Orioles, he spent one more year in the majors, splitting 2009 between the Washington Nationals and Arizona Diamondbacks. He garnered 17 more plate appearances that year and went 0-for-12 with 10 strikeouts, although somehow he walked twice and was hit by a pitch once. (One of the pitchers who walked Cabrera was a 21-year-old lefty named Clayton Kershaw. Say it with me now: baseball is a funny game.)
There’s actually one Orioles’ pitcher who had more hitless plate appearances than Cabrera, and he’s still an Oriole to this day: Chris Tillman, who has never reached base in 18 career PAs. Tillman, though, was at least a little more competitive in his at-bats than Cabrera was. He struck out in only seven of them. He grounded out four times and flied out twice.
Tillman even got an at-bat in a non-interleague game. On April 27, 2013 in Oakland, starting catcher Taylor Teagarden left the game with an injury, which shifted Matt Wieters from DH to catcher and forced Tillman into the lineup. He struck out, but he won the game.
The Orioles have eight more games in NL ballparks this year. Next up is a six-game interleague road trip through Washington and Atlanta from June 19-24, then a brief two-gamer in Philadelphia on July 3 and 4. After that, they’re done with NL parks for the season…barring, of course, a trip to the World Series. (Just making sure you were still paying attention.)
Will any Orioles pitchers prove their mettle during that span? Don’t bet on it. The only current Orioles’ hurler who has more than one career hit is Andrew Cashner, and he’s a woeful .162 hitter with a .388 OPS in 223 career plate appearances, although he does have a home run to his name.
The Orioles are likely in the same boat as me and other DH loyalists — looking ahead to when they’re finished with NL-style baseball and can put nine actual hitters in the lineup again.