Over the years baseball fans have been programmed to accept pitchers who can’t hit a lick. Baseball executives will trot out the tired old cliché “were paying him to pitch, not to hit”. And while that’s true, you’re also paying someone to catch, and he’s expected to hit. Same for the shortstop, the centerfielder and all the other position players. You never hear a baseball manager say, “were paying him to play catcher, not to hit”.
I understand that hitting major league (and even most minor league) pitching is one of the hardest things to do in sports. If you get a hit three times out of ten over a twenty-year career, you’ll go to Cooperstown. It’s hard. That said, there have been, on occasion, some decent hitting pitchers. Among them were guys like Don Drysdale, who hit 29 home runs in 1,169 at bats and Wes Farrell, who holds the career home run record for pitchers with 38. Walter “Big Train” Johnson was an excellent hitting pitcher. In addition to winning 417 games, he hit .235 with 24 home runs in his illustrious career.
Bob Gibson was also a feared hitter, stroking 24 career home runs. Gibson was also a fabulous athlete, having once played for the Harlem Globetrotters. Gibson was also incredibly strong. His catcher, Tim McCarver, once met Gibson in the outfield before a game. Gibby grabbed McCarver by the thigh and the neck and lifted him over his head. Try it sometime. Gibson also had one of the all-time great quotes when McCarver trotted to the mound to talk strategy. Gibson said, “get your ass back behind the plate. The only thing you know about pitching is you can’t hit it”. They don’t make them like that anymore.
More recently, Madison Bumgarner emerged as one of the best hitting pitchers. Even though his lifetime average is only .172, he does have 19 home runs in just 633 at bats. The Royals have had more than a few middle infielders with worse numbers than that.
The Royals history of hitting pitchers is a short and ugly chapter. If you want to learn more, you’re in the right place.
The inaugural 1969 season was the apex of Royals pitchers’ hitting prowess, thanks in large part to Jim Rooker. Rooker was a lefty who batted from the right side. He hit the first two home runs by a Royal pitcher in a game at Minnesota on July 7, 1969. He also threw seven innings of four hit ball. Unfortunately, he walked five and gave up five earned runs, three of those on a bases loaded triple to Jim Kaat, the Twins pitcher and a pretty good hitter in his own right. Rooker’s third inning shot off Kaat was the first pitcher home run in Royals history. He hit the second, also off Kaat, a couple innings later. For the season, Rooker went 16-for-57 with four home runs and 8 RBI, good for a .281/.305/.544 slash. The 1969 Royals gave 83 at-bats to back up catcher Jim Campanis. He hit .157. With no home runs. They must have been just paying him to catch.
Al Fitzmorris was the top hitting pitcher in the 1970 season, going 9 for 31 (.290) with 4 doubles and 5 RBI. Rooker chipped in with a 14 for 70 effort (.200) with another dong and an impressive 13 RBI.
Fitzmorris (.250), Tom Burgmeier (.250) and Roger Nelson (.333 in just six at bats), led the way in 1971. The staff only hit two home runs that season, one by Jim York and the other by Lance Clemons. The Clemons shot, at Milwaukee on August 31, was the last home run hit by a Royals pitcher for 34 years. More on that later. In another strange twist, York and Clemens were dealt to Houston after the season ended for a player who became the Royals first true home run hitter, John Mayberry. A true power for power swap orchestrated by Cedric Tallis.
By 1972, things were getting grim. Burgmeier hit .333 in just 12 at bats, while Paul Splittorff hit .225 in 71 at-bats. With the advent of the designated hitter for the 1973 season, pitchers could just concentrate on pitching. Aside from World Series appearances in 1980 and 1985, Royal pitchers went into hitting hibernation. Interleague play made its debut in 1997 and with it came the question, how will AL pitchers fare at the plate? The answer? For Royals pitchers, not very well.
The Royals staff was particularly grim at the plate. In 2000 for example, the staff went 1-for-20 with 11 strikeouts, the only hit being a single by Mac Suzuki. They picked up three RBIs in the 2003 season, two off the bat of Jeremy Affeldt and one from Chris George. In 2004, the staff went oh-for-19, the highlight being a walk drawn by George.
The arrival of Zach Greinke changed the narrative a bit. In a June 10, 2005, game at Arizona, Zach blasted the first Royal pitcher home run since that blow by Lance Clemons back in 1971. Greinke worked on his hitting and enjoyed hitting as witnessed by his .235 lifetime average. He’s also got nine dongs to his name.
Things got grim again after Zach left until 2013 when a new group of hitting pitchers arrived. During the 2013-2015 run, James Shields, Chris Young and Bruce Chen were all competent with the bat. Once those guys departed, it got ugly again. In 2021, the staff went oh-for-21 with 14 punch outs.
Now that the designated hitter is universal, the days of hitting pitchers may be over. In the Royals record books, their home run totals look like this:
Jim Rooker 5
Jim York 1
Lance Clemons 1
Zach Greinke 1
That’s it. Greg Maddux, another decent hitting pitcher, famously said “chicks dig the long ball”. Just not in Kansas City.