So what if Toronto's John Olerud hits .400 this season. Since 1900 as many as eight batters have done it. Ted Williams hit .406 as recently as 1941. No big deal.
On the other hand, Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser is chasing after a far rarer, far older—though somewhat more obscure—batting milestone. Through Sunday, Hershiser was hitting .423 with 22 hits in 52 at bats. While his 59 plate appearances left him far short of qualification for an actual batting title, Hershiser was taking aim at the single-season batting-average record for pitchers, which was set by Walter Johnson in 1925, when the Washington Senator great hit .433 (42 for 97). Johnson and Jack Bentley, who batted .427 for the 1923 New York Giants, are the only pitchers ever to bat .400 or better for a full season. Only two pitchers in the last 12 years—Rick Rhoden in '84 and Fernando Valenzuela in '90—have batted as high as .300.
In 1988, Hershiser went after another Hall of Famer as he pitched 59 consecutive scoreless innings to break Don Drysdale's 20-year-old mark of 58. If he breaks Johnson's record, you can expect a lot of BULLDOG DERAILS BIG TRAIN headlines. Well, maybe not. Asked about the intense media attention given to his .400 hitting, Hershiser said last week, "It's been terrible. Just look at this crowd." One reporter was in front of him at the time.
Hershiser has always been a pretty good hitter—for a pitcher. A .200 average is batting nirvana for hurlers, and since his rookie year of 1984, Hershiser has hit .200 or higher five times. His worst year as a hitter (.129) came in his best year as a pitcher, 1988, when he won the Cy Young Award with a record of 23-8 and an ERA of 2.26. Still, in the second game of the World Series that year, he had three hits, as many as he allowed the Oakland A's.
Hershiser hasn't been the same pitcher since his risky rotator-cuff surgery in April 1990. This year he is 8-12, but his ERA of 3.90 is still lower than his batting average. Oddly enough, the Bulldog has been a much better hitter following the surgery—.189 before and .298 after. "Dr. [Frank] Jobe was just supposed to be fixing the pitching part of my shoulder," says Hershiser.
In all seriousness, Hershiser attributes his newfound prowess at the plate to hitting more ground balls. "I don't want to get too specific," he says, "but I've gotten some tips from our hitting coaches that have taken the fly ball out of my flight plan. You might say I've been grounded."
There may be no plans to use Hershiser as a regular pinch hitter or to move him up from ninth in the order, but there should be, considering the fact that Hershiser has more hits than four Dodger position players who have been on the roster all year. (Darryl Strawberry has eight fewer hits in 48 more at bats than the pitcher.)
Says the league's leading batter, Tony Gwynn (.358) of the San Diego Padres, "Orel's going to put that myth behind him that all pitchers can do is pitch. He'll try and beat you with his arm, his glove or his bat. I've seen him steal a bag. He's a complete player. He deserves credit for that. But if he wants to win the batting title, he can forget it. Hey, I can't win the ERA title."
Five years after his 59 consecutive shutout innings, the L.A. ace is trying to bat his way into the record books.