Use it or lose it: Why most big-league pitchers can’t hit a lick

The Royals are playing a three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals, and with those games being played in St. Louis, the Royals' pitchers will have to go to the plate.

Back in high school or college, some of these guys were pretty good hitters. So what happened? Why can’t most big-league pitchers hit?

When a player signs a pro contract he’s sent down one of two paths; he’s either working on being a major-league pitcher, or honing his skills as a position player. For the most part, a position player who was a pretty good amateur pitcher quits pitching and pitchers who were pretty good amateur hitters quit batting.

Last season, Jason Hammel had nine plate appearances, Ian Kennedy four, Jake Junis three and Danny Duffy two. Fellow Royals starting pitcher Eric Skoglund hasn’t hit on a regular basis since high school.

It’s a case of use it or lose it.

Hitting advice for pitchers

When the Royals' starting pitchers were asked what advice their coaches were giving them this week, the answers fell into three main categories:

1. Don’t get hurt

2. Get your bunts down

3. Don’t get hurt

In 2017, the Royals' pitchers had a combined .120 batting average and did not score or drive in a run. So those pitchers shouldn’t lose their minds and think they’re going to hit a home run. Instead, they’re being told to try to have some kind of positive impact on the game during their trip to the plate.

Get a bunt down, move a runner, see five or more pitches.

If there’s a runner in scoring position, it’s OK for a pitcher to swing at the first pitch he sees. But with nobody out and nobody on, the pitchers should take a pitch.

If a pitcher makes the first out of an inning on the first pitch of an inning, then the next guy — a guy who actually gets paid to swing a bat — will have to take at least one pitch. That way, the opposing pitcher doesn’t get two-thirds of the way through an inning on two pitches.

As Hammel put it, don’t do what we hope hitters will do when we’re pitching: swing at the first pitch and make an easy out.

I got on base: now what?

If a pitcher’s hitting skills are rusty, his base-running skills are probably even more so.

Former Royals base-running coach Rusty Kuntz told a story about a former Royals pitcher getting to first base and assuring the coach he knew what he was doing; after all, the pitcher had played shortstop in high school.

Kuntz's reply: How long ago was that … 20 years ago?

That pitcher almost snapped an ankle going into third base.

These days, Kuntz tells the Royals' pitchers that no diving into base is allowed. And when it doubt, they should peel off out of the baseline. Don’t take a chance on getting hurt running the bases; we need you to stay healthy and continue pitching.

Anyone seen my helmet?

On Friday, Kuntz told the Royals' pitchers they were going to practice bunting. And he wanted them to wear their helmets.

When he was asked why the pitchers were wearing helmets even though they’d be facing a pitching machine, Kuntz said it was so they could get used to wearing them ... and to make sure the pitchers actually knew where the helmets were kept.

He didn’t want the team to get to St. Louis and have a pitcher looking around for his helmet or, worse yet, realizing he hadn’t even packed it.

Insight (or experience) into all the things that can go wrong when playing a baseball game is one of the reasons Kuntz is considered a valuable coach.

A timely reminder

Trying to hit big-league pitching is good reminder of just how hard hitting a baseball can be.

Skoglund, a guy with a fastball that averages over 92 mph, said even the BP fastballs seemed to get on you pretty quick.

Pitchers can give hitters too much credit, nibble at the zone, fall behind and then simplify the hitter’s job by throwing a fastball when the hitter is expecting one. That, or the pitcher hangs a slider or curve when another fastball would have done the job.

If a pitcher gets on base, pay attention to the next half inning.

In the American League, pitchers get to rest between innings; that’s what they’re used to. But in the National League, if a pitcher gets on base and then has to run hard a few times, pay attention to what he does when he goes back to the mound in the next half-inning.

Don’t be surprised if he’s gassed and leaves some pitches up in the zone.

Kennedy said he was once teammates with a pitcher who seemed to give up runs in the next half-inning every time he got on base.

When the Royals' pitchers go to the plate this week, lower your expectations; if the pitcher has any kind of positive impact, it will have been a terrific at-bat. If a pitcher doesn’t get hurt, it was at least a good one.

And if the pitcher is actually wearing a batting helmet when he walks to the plate, Kuntz has earned his paycheck.