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The Yankees pitcher who should have been a hitter

Al Lyons spent his major league career on the mound, but that might not have been his best use.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Al Lyons did not have a particularly long major league career. He played for four seasons in 1944 and then from 1946-48. Lyons spent most of that time with the Yankees before he had stints with the Pirates and Braves to end his career.

His career wasn’t long for understandable reasons: he was a pitcher, but never pitched particularly well. He finished with a career ERA of 6.30, which translates to an ERA+ of 61. His best season was as a rookie, and even then, he put up a 78 ERA+. According to Baseball Reference, he finished with a career WAR of -1.1. That would be have been even worse if not for his hitting, which he probably should have been doing all along.

The Missouri-born Lyon made his professional debut in 1940 with the Joplin Miners, who were a Yankees minor league affiliate. He was only a position player that year, and performed pretty well, hitting 13 home runs.

Starting the following season, Lyons also began to pitch. We don’t have full stats for a lot of those season, but it seemed to go mostly well. In 1941, he had an ERA under two for Joplin. Two years later, he had a solid year at Double-A Kansas City, despite being more than four years younger than the average played in the American Association. The main negative during this time was his control. He walked a lot of batters and that would follow him around.

Between his success and several Yankees pitchers serving in the military during World War II, Lyons was called up to the majors in the 1944. He made his debut in the fifth game of the season against the Athletics on April 25. It did not go great, as he allowed three runs in an 8-4 loss.

His best game that year came on June 18. Against that same A’s team, Lyons came in during the first inning with the score 6-0 after starter Joe Page recorded just two outs. Lyons allowed just two runs as he finished the final 8.1 innings. His effort nearly got the Yankees back into the game, but a late rally came up two runs short.

As mentioned, Lyons’ rookie season was his best on the mound, but wasn’t particularly impressive. Meanwhile at the plate, he showed the hitting ability that he possessed in the minors. Lyons went 9-for-26 that season. His ERA+ that year may have been 78, but his OPS+ was 116.

Lyons spent the most of the next season serving in the military himself. At one point, he was even part of a military team, where he played along side Stan Musial. He made it back for Opening Day in 1946, but was sent down to the minor leagues shortly after his season debut. In total, he made just two appearances for the Yankees that season.

The next year, Lyons recorded his first major-league win in a relief outing on June 1. That was about the highlight of his time in New York in 1947. After putting up a 9.00 ERA while walking over seven batter per nine, the Yankees sold him to the Pirates. He was slightly better there, but not by much.

After the season, the Pirates traded him to the Braves. He played 1948 in Boston, but again pitched poorly. They traded him to a Pacific Coast League team, and that would be the end of Lyons’ major league career. He finished his career walking more hitters than he struck out.

He did not get that many career at-bats, but they only showed that he maybe should have been doing that instead. For his career at the plate, Lyons put up a .735 OPS, which was good for a 102 OPS+. As a pitcher, Lyon was worth -1.6 WAR. That climbed to 0.5 as a hitter. There cannot be many more pitchers whose offense WAR is more than a win greater than their pitching total.

Lyons went on to play almost a decade longer in the PCL and various other minor leagues. He continued pitching during that period, but smartly was used way more as a position player by then. Once again, he put up vastly better numbers at the plate. He hit 20 or more home runs in four of five seasons from 1949-53.

Maybe I’m just an idiot, but I think he should have just been doing that the whole time.