Remember His Game, Remember His Name: Wes Ferrell
As the hitting pitcher takes his final breath, let us all stop to remember the greatest hitting pitcher there ever was: Wes Ferrell.
As part of this weekly (hopefully) segment, I'd like to put a spotlight on an athlete who led an interesting life or career, yet is largely unknown by the average sports fan today.
When you think of pitchers succeeding at the plate, there are probably two names that come to mind. One is Babe Ruth, the greatest player who ever lived, who was a successful pitcher before he changed the sport as a hitter. The other is Shohei Ohtani, who has had a brief-but-successful MLB stint as a two-way player, with a 135 OPS+ in the batter's box and a 127 ERA+ on the mound in his two seasons.
By my definition, neither one of them is the best hitting pitcher of all time.
Babe Ruth was a pitcher first, then he was a hitter. Shohei Ohtani does them simultaneously. The true distinction of best hitting pitcher, though, is someone who only hits on days that he pitches, like National League pitchers have done since the inception of the designated hitter in 1973, or like Ruth did early in his career. When you go by that definition of a hitting pitcher, the undisputed greatest to ever do it was Wes Ferrell.
Wes Ferrell was a pretty damn good pitcher. He won 193 games over 15 big league seasons from 1927-1941, twice being named an All-Star. He led the league in complete games four times, innings pitched three times, and FIP and wins one team each. Some of his best seasons came after the Cleveland Indians traded him to the Boston Red Sox, whose catcher was Wes's brother, Hall of Famer Rick Ferrell.
On the mound, Ferrell compiled 38.6 fWAR and 48.9 bWAR in his career, to go along with a 116 ERA+ and 4.23 FIP. Good, not quite great. He suffered a shoulder injury early on in the 1931 season, which impacted him physically and psychologically for the rest of his career. This shoulder ailment began a few days after he tossed a no-hitter against the St. Louis Browns, a game in which he struck out eight, hit a homer and a double, and had four RBI. Nice game.
That balky shoulder of his knocked a tick or two off of his fastball for the rest of his career, forcing him to get by on guile. Ferrell was an escape artist; his walk total was usually high, he didn't strike many guys out, and he gave up a ton of hits, yet he had the ability to minimize damage by missing the barrel with his curveball and change-up. And he was as tough as they come, establishing himself as one of the most durable pitchers in the league even with the bad shoulder, which eventually affected his elbow as well.
Wes Ferrell's career slash line comes in at .280/.351/.446, over 1,344 plate appearances. He hit nine home runs in 1931, the single-season record for a pitcher, and had a .994 OPS. He also holds the career home run record for a pitcher, with 38, 37 of which came when he was pitching (one as a pinch-hitter). Ferrell had a pension for hitting dingers in bunches, putting up five multi-homer games in his career. The dude raked, plain and simple.
Ferrell is also behind one of my favorite fun facts ever. Wes Ferrell, a pitcher, hit more career home runs than his brother, Rick Ferrell, a Hall of Fame catcher.
You essentially get a season's worth of numbers if you cut his career totals in half. You then arrive at a player with a .797 OPS, 19 home runs, and 104 RBI. That's good no matter what position you play, but this man was a pitcher. If you factor in his offensive contributions, his career WAR is bumped up to 60/50.8 (bWAR/fWAR), which is right on the edge of Cooperstown (maybe one day).
One can only imagine the kind of numbers he would have put up had he dedicated himself to hitting instead of pitching. Ferrell did not do that until after his MLB career was over.
Minor League Hitting Legend
Ferrell had reached the end of the line in 1941, with a bum shoulder, elbow, and 2,621 career innings in his rearview mirror. He was just 33, however, meaning he hadn't quite reached his expiration date as a ballplayer in general.
Wes Ferrell finally got the chance to be a full-time hitter, and he did quite well at the plate in the Minor Leagues. He hit .332 in 1941, with 20 bombs in only 74 games. He continued putting up video game numbers the following season, with a .361 average and 31 dingers across 123 games. This kind of performance probably should have warranted a Major League promotion, but Ferrell had burned quite a few bridges due to his fiery temper and brash personality.
He kept mashing in the Minors, though. In 1948, at the age of 40, the man hit .425 with 24 home runs in 104 Western Carolina League games. Well above-average, I'd say.
Born in the wrong era
Wes Ferrell would have absolutely been a two-way player if he was playing in today's game. Teams are gradually getting over the dogmatic approach to specialized roles on the baseball field, leading to players like the aforementioned Ohtani, Michael Lorenzen, and Brendan McKay, who all see action on the mound and in the batter's box. Ferrell could be a bit of a jackass, to put it lightly, but modern organizations tend to value tools over character, as the latter can be molded over time.
Imagine Ferrell working every 5th day and DH'ing between starts. 150-200 innings of starter innings and 350-450 at bats as a DH provides incredible value, even if the player is only league-average at both spots, which Ferrell wasn't anyway. This might soon be Shohei Ohtani's reality, but Wes Ferrell probably could have done it as well.
The universal DH has arrived, people. Gone are the days of Bartolo Colon's helmet-losing swings-and-misses, or Madison Bumgarner's 420-foot rockets. As this indelible piece of our nation's pastime bids us farewell, stop to reminisce on those rare, glorious moments of pitchers succeeding at the plate, for they are now remnants of a different era of baseball.
And finally, always remember who the very best hitting pitcher was: Wes Ferrell.
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