As someone raised on ‘90s American League baseball, I was always going to be predisposed to preferring the designated hitter over pitchers hitting. That being said, while I disagreed with the reasoning, I understand why an NL person might prefer the opposite. One point that absolutely should not be in doubt though is the entertainment factor of a DH versus a pitcher.
Pitchers have typically never been great hitters, but by 2021, the final year before the universal DH, things got ugly. Of pitchers with at least 50 plate appearances, only Max Fried and Germán Márquez put up an OPS+ over 30. The third “best” was Jon Lester at 29, which is literally 71 percent below the league average hitter.
It wasn’t always that bad, but it also wasn’t always great. Yankee and Hall of Famer Red Ruffing is regarded as a great hitting pitcher, and he finished his career with just an 81 OPS+, which is in the glove-first middle infielder range.
However, that 81 figure is Ruffing’s career mark. One data point that led to it was his 1930 season with the Yankees, when he was not only a good hitter for a pitcher, but arguably one of the better hitters of the team.
Ruffing did not start the 1930 season in New York, as he began it where he had played the first six seasons of his career — with the Red Sox. Having debuted in 1924, Ruffing was usually one of the better pitchers on the Boston staff, but that was nothing to write home about. The Red Sox in that era were not great, as they dealt with myriad financial difficulties. With those still going on in 1930, Boston traded Ruffing to the Yankees for Cedric Durst and $50,000 in early May. While that deal wasn’t quite on the level of the infamous Babe Ruth one from a decade earlier, it did end up as a pretty rough deal for the Red Sox. After the trade, Ruffing began to work with manager and former Yankee pitcher Bob Shawkey, who revamped his delivery and helped turn him into an eventual Hall of Famer.
Those results didn’t come immediately, though, as Ruffing ended up as only a slightly above average pitcher for the Yankees in 1930. However, as that was happening in a pre-DH era, he also got plenty of chances to hit, and put up a remarkable season at the plate.
Ruffing’s Yankee debut came on May 11, 1930, allowing six runs in a complete game victory over the Tigers. He managed to get the win in part thanks to his own hitting, as he drove home two runs on a third inning single. He recorded a hit in each of his first three appearances as a Yankee, to the point where he even pinch-hit in his fourth game.
Over the course of his next 12 games, Ruffing then hit .482/.517/.667 with four extra-base hits and five RBI. While he cooled off somewhat after that, he remained a solid hitter over the rest of the season. He would put up nine different multi-hit games, including three three-hit games. Not only did he obviously hit in all the games he started on the mound, but he was used as a pinch hitter 18 times in total. On September 18th, he had a two-home run day, driving home three runs in a 7-6 win.
For the season, Ruffing finished with a slash line of .364/.402/582, and that includes his pre-trade run with Boston, which drags down those numbers a bit. With the Yankees, he put up a 157 OPS+ in 106 plate appearances. Of the 1930 Yankees, the only players who had a better OPS+ with 100 PAs on the season were two guys named Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Ruffing hit better than Hall of Famers Bill Dickey, Tony Lazzeri, and Earle Combs that season. According to FanGraphs, Ruffing’s hitting alone was worth 1.7 WAR in 1930.
Ruffing finished a couple others seasons as an above average hitter, but he never got super close to a 157 OPS+ again.
At the end of the day, 106 plate appearances isn’t a massive sample size. Ruffing probably would’ve regressed a fair amount had he gotten the same number of at-bats as a everyday starting position player. Still, it’s not nothing, and Ruffing was seriously a dangerous hitter at the plate in 1930.