The various projection systems are the closest we can come to predicting future. I was thinking of what they currently lack, and the first thing that came to mind was pitchers as batters. I then checked how each team did with their pitchers last season. It turns out that the spread from the best team, the Dodgers, to the worst team, the Pirates, is less than three wins. The true talent level is much narrower than that, and there does not seem to be much advantage gained by including pitcher batting in projections. Instead, I decided to look at the history of pitchers as position players.
Since the first professional league in 1871, pitchers have never hit above the league average. Their wRC+ has steadily declined over the years, all the way to negative since the 1980s. Since the adoption of the designated hitter in AL in 1973, pitchers have never had a wRC+ over 10, except for 1974.
Given their terrible performance at the plate, it is good for fans that pitchers have come to the plate less and less over the years. The sharp decreases in 1981 and 1994 are results of shortened seasons. The reason behind this is the increased usage of relief pitchers. The slight downward trend in recent years might also be a result of managers realizing the importance of each plate appearance and the diminished performance by the starter as he goes through the lineup.
Fangraphs has an opaque way of calculating WAR for pitchers as position players. While Baseball-Reference forces 0 WAR onto the pitchers as a whole no matter how well they hit, pitchers can have positive to negative WAR on Fangraphs, as long as all the position players, including pitchers, add up to 570 WAR a year. After hovering around 0 WAR from 1973 to 2001, pitchers suddenly experienced a sudden drop in value in 2002 and have not recovered since. This is where Fangraphs’ non-transparent method confuses me. From 2001 to 2002, pitchers actually improved in terms of batting (from wRC+ of -11 to -7). The majority of the difference stems from positional adjustment. While pitchers received a boost 660 runs in positional adjustment in 2001, they only gained 546 runs in 2002 in about the same number of plate appearances. It seems that pitcher positional adjustment is not constant, though there is nothing on the site that explains how it is calculated.
This is not an article that is meant to explain anything. I am simply looking at the history of pitchers as batters in a graphical and pointing out the lack of clarity behind Fangraphs calculation of WAR for pitchers.
All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.