On Saturday in DC, there was a showdown between the Dodgers and the Nationals, as two teams with high expectations looked to kick-start strong second halves. The Dodgers won 3-1, but that’s not important, for this. The matchup on the mound was Zack Greinke vs. Gio Gonzalez. In the top of the third, Greinke batted and led off with a first-pitch double to deep center. Mark Ellis, Yasiel Puig, and Adrian Gonzalez would leave him stranded. In the top of the fifth, Greinke batted again and drilled a second-pitch single up the middle. Around him, Tim Federowicz, Ellis, and Puig struck out swinging. That night, Hanley Ramirez led the Dodgers with three hits, and Greinke was alone in second with two.
By now you might’ve heard something about this. After reading that first paragraph, you’ve certainly heard something about this. Zack Greinke has been having a hell of a year at the plate. Obviously with pitchers batting the samples are always tiny, but that generally doesn’t stop pitchers from posting miserable offensive statistics. Greinke, at this writing, is batting .406. No other pitcher in baseball is batting at least .400. No other pitcher in baseball is batting at least .300. No other pitcher in baseball has a wRC+ in the triple digits.
The highest wOBA of all time was posted by Babe Ruth in 1920. That year, his wOBA was 250 points higher than the league average. So far this year, Zack Greinke’s wOBA is 267 points higher than the league average, for National League pitchers. That’s how Greinke’s offense has already been worth 0.9 wins above replacement, while his pitching comes in at 1.1. Astros position players have been worth -0.6 WAR. Marlins position players have been worth 0.7. Zack Greinke, as a position player, has been more valuable than the Astros, and the Marlins, and the Astros and Marlins combined. Greinke stands some chance of being a contributing pitcher to end a year with a higher offensive WAR than pitching WAR. It’s not unprecedented, and for Greinke it probably won’t happen, but these are extraordinary circumstances.
If you’re wondering, the highest offensive WAR for a pitcher in the designated hitter era is 1.4, posted by 2008 Carlos Zambrano. At the other end, three pitchers have been worth -1.0 WAR in the same era, including 2005 Aaron Harang, who had two hits in 78 plate appearances. Most of the time, no one really cares about a pitcher’s offensive performance, but at the extremes it can really add or subtract value, and this year while Greinke has somewhat underachieved on the mound, he’s legitimately made up for it with the bat. Maybe the latter won’t continue, but maybe the former won’t continue.
It’s interesting to examine Greinke’s statistics. A third of his balls in play have been line drives. He’s taken 55 swings, and missed just five times. That’s good enough to rank Greinke second in contact rate among regular pitchers, behind only Barry Zito. And let’s compare and contrast some Greinke swings with a Zito swing:
Greinke isn’t afraid to take a real swing, to try to do real damage. Zito’s whole approach is that he just wants to be able to touch the baseball with the bat, and he swings gently so as to simply make the defense make a play. For Zito, the goal is making contact. For Greinke, the goal is reaching base, and he happens to make contact along the way.
And as much as Greinke seldom reveals much in the way of emotion, he appears to delight in his offensive success:
Equally as interesting as Greinke’s success is tracking Greinke’s improvement. He started getting regular at-bats when he joined the Brewers in 2011. Below, a data table of certain significance:
Greinke has been swinging at way fewer first pitches, and he’s been making more frequent contact. He’s chased less often out of the zone while not changing his rate of swings within the zone. From 2012-2013, only three players have had a bigger drop in strikeout rate. Only three players have had a bigger drop in out-of-zone swing rate. Only 16 players have had a bigger increase in contact rate. This is, of course, all based on setting embarrassingly low plate-appearance minimums, but if we’re going to talk about pitchers hitting we have to make some analytical sacrifices. Or we’d just write “he’s done well and it won’t keep up because he’s a pitcher and they all suck.” That would presumably apply to Greinke, but that’s also no fun. We’ll work with what we can work with.
You might notice that Greinke has four walks and three strikeouts. That’s more walks than strikeouts, and that doesn’t even include the hit-by-pitch. During the DH era, counting all pitcher seasons with at least 20 plate appearances, only three times has a pitcher ended with more walks than strikeouts. In 2007, Tom Glavine had one more. In 1986, Ricky Horton had two more. In 1977, John Urrea had three more. I guess here is where I’ll point out that Greinke also has a stolen base.
A quote from an article from February 2011:
“Zack was definitely excited about hitting,” Wolf said. “I gave him a hard time right away. I said, ‘Hey man, this pitching staff can hit. We have a lot of hits and a high batting average, and I don’t want you bringing us down.’ He said he likes to hit homers.”
This is also not to say that Greinke hasn’t been doing tee work or taking soft-toss BP in the newly remodeled indoor batting cage, which I absolutely believe that he has – and probably for quite some time now; after all, as Greinke’s former manager Mike Scioscia once said “Zack likes to hit.”
Greinke was a free agent last winter, and there was talk that his fondness for hitting could steer him to the National League. Sure enough, he wound up in the NL, and though his reasons for doing so were numerous, that he gets to hit is most certainly enjoyable. A lot of fans might not care for watching pitchers bat, but a lot of pitchers have the times of their lives, and Greinke doesn’t treat it like it’s something he just has to do. He treats it like something he wants to do and wants to do well, and to date he’s blown away his positional competition. He’s blown away a lot of position-player competition.
Interestingly, this year on the mound, only Jonathon Niese has struck out a lower rate of opposing pitchers. Niese has struck out six of 29. Greinke has struck out six of 28. If Zack Greinke is involved in a pitcher plate appearance, it’s probably going to be unusual.
On July 8 against the Diamondbacks, Greinke went 3-for-3 with a successful sacrifice bunt. Two days later, he was used as a pinch-hitter in a high-leverage situation. Facing Josh Collmenter, he worked an eight-pitch walk. Greinke, again, was left stranded.
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