Rox pitchers take hitting seriously
Teaching hurlers how to wield bat starts in Minor Leagues
DENVER -- Rockies right-hander Aaron Cook isn't above the occasional self-depreciating crack about pitchers trying to hit.
"What most people are trying to do is not look like idiots by striking out," Cook said.
But Cook and his fellow Rockies pitchers are no joke when it comes to swinging.
Cook, who will start Friday night's game against the Giants at AT&T Park, has hit .444 (4-for-9, two doubles) in his four starts this season. Through Wednesday, Colorado pitchers were hitting .255 -- second in the National League to the Astros' .281, and the Rockies led the league with a .362 slugging percentage.
As important as the numbers are when they swing the bat, Rockies pitchers were leading the NL with 10 sacrifice bunts. The closest teams to Colorado in that category had significantly lower batting averages, so that means the Rox are at the top club when it comes to trying to get hits and trying not to get them.
"Pitchers can win the team four or five games a year simply by handling the bat," Rockies hitting coach Don Baylor said. "Get the guy over on a bunt, a sacrifice, and somebody gets a base hit. You know, it might be more than that."
Cook isn't the only Rockies pitcher who is a threat with the bat in his hand.
Jorge De La Rosa (placed on the 15-day disabled list this week with a left middle finger injury) and Greg Smith, each of whom came to the club from American League teams, carry .286 batting averages. Jason Hammel (also on the DL, with a hamstring strain) has a .200 average, which would mean bench time if he were a position player but is considered above-average for a pitcher.
Going into Wednesday, just six NL staffs had averages higher than .200.
Right-handed ace Ubaldo Jimenez has been dominant on the mound, going 5-0 with a 0.79 ERA in five starts, which include a 4-0 no-hitter against the Braves on Apri 17. He's hitting .154, about what many expect of a pitcher, but he has helped himself. He had an RBI single that helped with the no-hitter.
Jimenez's .154 means he has some hitting to do to improve to the .200 he carried last year. But it represents a dramatic improvement over the .086 he posted in 2008, his first full season in the Majors.
Having worked his way up through the Rockies' system, Jimenez knew hitting was not something he could take for granted, even with a 100-mph fastball.
NL pitchers at the bat
"It's something that comes from the organization -- kind of the rule," Jimenez said. "You have to execute as a hitter in order to be out there and get deep into games. If you don't do it, you probably won't have a chance to make it to the seventh or eighth inning. They need somebody that can execute with the bunt or anything they ask you to do."
Cook and Jimenez had the benefit of growing up in the Rockies' organization and realizing how much hitting is emphasized. It even enters the team's philosophy when it comes to drafting or signing amateur pitchers.
"Athleticism is very important," said Marc Gustafson, the Rockies' player development director. "A lot of times the guys who are the best pitchers, what were they earlier in their careers? They were probably the shortstops, or they were probably playing a position."
De La Rosa and Hammel had significant time in AL organizations before joining the Rockies and had to work at being competent. The AL uses the designated hitters, so pitchers don't bat until Interleague Play.
Smith came from the Athletics in a trade after the 2008 season, but don't call him an American Leaguer. He went to the A's from the D-backs after the '07 season.
"That's the trick -- I grew up in the National League," Smith said. "I tried to keep up my hitting with Oakland, and they kind of pushed me out of the cage a couple of times. I've always had a passion for it. It's something fun to do.
"Sometimes you get the everyday tedious pitching and you need a break. You need to get your mind off it, and I think hitting does that for me. It's not my No. 1 priority, but it's kind of a release for me."
The culture of expecting to produce with the bat showed itself during Wednesday's 12-11 loss to the D-backs at Coors Field.
Smith gave up six runs in the first inning and didn't go back for the second. Right-handed reliever Matt Belisle replaced Smith, and not only pitched well enough to stop the D-backs' momentum, but he knocked a two-run double off Leo Rosales to give the Rockies a 7-6 lead.
In some cases, a reliever putting on a helmet and grabbing a bat leads to laughter. Belisle, who had been a starter earlier in his career, had one RBI before Wednesday. But when he went to the plate, manager Jim Tracy offered serious strategy.
"I said, 'Hey, you know what? You can swing the bat,'" Tracy said. "'Just allow yourself an opportunity to take a swing at a good pitch. Don't expand your strike zone. Make [Rosales] get the ball over the plate. He's struggling. He's laboring.'
"He threw him a fastball down, right on the good part of the plate, and he smoked it down into the left-field corner."
It comes from practice.
All of the Rockies' pitchers, starters and relievers, take well-supervised batting practice to work on putting balls in play on bunts, slug bunts to take advantage of teams trying to cut off the sacrifice bunt, and hit-and-run situations. Relievers like Belisle and Manuel Corpas, who are pitching early in games, have been putting in extra work.
"That's something we take a lot of pride in doing," Jimenez said. "In Spring Training, we work a lot on that, even the relievers."
Baylor has seen AL teams hurt themselves in Interleague Play by not having pitchers prepared to handle the bat and seen some NL pitchers not give it the proper attention. It's different in Colorado, he said.
"I've been places where very few of the pitchers will even ask, 'What does this guy [the opposing pitcher] have?'" Baylor said. "But not here. De La Rosa has gotten it. Last year, he was so frustrated with his batting.
"So I always tell him, 'I want you to hit three times today,' or, 'I want you to hit four times today.' That's telling him, 'You're going deep into the game.'"
Having pitchers who can handle the bat or handle other offensive tasks potentially can help Tracy extend the bench. Tracy already has used Smith as a pinch-runner and once had him on deck to pinch-hit.
Cook is 2-for-5 as a pinch-hitter in his career, all under former manager Clint Hurdle. In many of those cases, the starter left the game early and the Rockies wanted to preserve the bench. Cook was sent up to hit, not to simply bunt.
Cook said he is available if Tracy needs him for any offensive task when he's not pitching.
Whenever he has a bat, he puts the joking aside.
"Tracy always tells the hitters, 'You've got a weapon in your hands. Don't be afraid to use it,'" Cook said. "You leave it on your shoulder, nothing's going to happen. I figure, swing the bat, try to put it in play and see what happens."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.