Zack Greinke’s Babe Ruth Season

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:

Greinke2B.gif.opt

Greinke1B.gif.opt

ZitoGB.gif.opt

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:

greinkesmile

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:

Season Team PA BB% K% O-Swing% Contact% wRC+ 1st-Swing%
2011 Brewers 59 5% 15% 36% 81% 5 64%
2012 Brewers 38 0% 21% 40% 84% 51 42%
2013 Dodgers 39 10% 8% 22% 91% 179 36%

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.”

From a few months ago:

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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


49 Responses to “Zack Greinke’s Babe Ruth Season”

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  1. Bip says:

    Kershaw had a home run in the season opener, and Ryu has been hitting so well he earned the nickname “Babe Ryuth”. Watching the Dodger’s pitchers hit and compete with each other in hitting has been one of the funnest part of the season. While the Dodgers offense was struggling, there were many mostly serious suggestions that they should be the primary pinch hitters.

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  2. RC says:

    Holy hell!

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  3. Greinke’s single season wRAA is already 4th among pitchers in the interleague era. I was looking at these numbers this morning, and I still can’t believe Felix Hernandez’s 20008 is 9th best. He had 2 PA. Grand slam and sacrifice bunt. Against Johan, right? Baseball.

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  4. Gus Fring says:

    Forgive my ignorance, but is there a WAR calculation for pitchers that includes hitting statistics? From what I’ve seen, they only seem to involve their pitching exploits.

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  5. jdbolick says:

    Very interesting. The contact rate in particular suggests that this is more than a small sample size fluke. While that swing isn’t pretty, the bat speed looks solid and the plane stays in the zone for a long time. Kudos to Greinke for taking that part of his job seriously.

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  6. Carl says:

    Batting .406?! That’s Ted Williams type of hitting. Could wind up the answer to a nice trivia question, “Who was the last .400 hitter with at least (What ever Greinke winds up with) ABs?

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  7. Cybo says:

    This article makes me want a fantasy keague where they make you take your SPs hitting stats for the days they start. I’m not even sure this is possible in the standard Espn, Yahoo, CBS leagues but it would be fun for some NL onlys.

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  8. Nick O says:

    The real question on everyone’s mind is will his hitting rate well enough in Strat that owners can DH him every day…

    When Greinke walked away from the game in 06 he talked about coming back as a hitter (he also talked about becoming a professional golfer).

    http://joeposnanski.blogspot.com/2010/12/being-there-with-greinke.html

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    • Mr Baseball says:

      Thank god Greinke ended up in a small market that allows him to handle his issues. It was insane, talk of him going to New York. Big city would have killed him. (new york meme)

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  9. MWoeppel says:

    I’m fairly surprised nobody has commented on Greinke’s sinister looking half-smile in that picture of him.

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  10. atoms says:

    …and yet Carson keeps giving him NERD scores of like, 3.

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  11. Baltar says:

    I’d like to see offense and fielding included in pitchers’ WARs, though there would have to be an adjustment for AL pitchers. I’m not sure how that would be done.

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  12. JuanPierreDoesSteroids says:

    Greinke’s wOBA is 159 points higher than Elvis Andrus’ this year. He is walking more, striking out less, and has a higher ISO than Andrus. Which all makes sense because Greinke is a pitcher and Dodger Stadium is a way more pitcher friendly park.

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  13. Tim says:

    39 PAs. Tells us nothing.

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  14. MikeS says:

    If he were on the White Sox, he would be their fourth most productive hitter.

    Even better, Fangraphs has 12 DH’s listed on their DH leaderboard. Graienke has more WAR than 7 of them, including Billy Butler of the Royals. So there is an argument to be made that if he had stayed in KC, they should let him hit and save the DH to pinch hit for relievers after taking him out of the game.

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  15. Thufir says:

    Travis wood has hit really well this year also.Hot greinke good but a 98 wrc is pretty solid…

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  16. fergie348 says:

    From the .Gif evidence, it looks like Puig has been teaching Greinke the ways of the bat flip. I want to see Greinke hit against Ian Kennedy..

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  17. SUPER BAZUNGA TIME says:

    !!!SIN PRECEDENTES!!!

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  18. msg333 says:

    Zack Greinke is a more valuable hitter than Josh Hamilton

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  19. jce says:

    this is why i don’t like war. by this article’s contention, zach greinke, batting around 3 times every 5 days, including with about a month off for an injury, 39 plate appearances total, is more productive than all the marlins and astros position players combined, who have scored over 670 runs.

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    • LordJim says:

      And that’s why I look forward to the day when people acknowledge that WAR is just a terrible stat.

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    • bookbook says:

      Yes, but think of all the outs, as far as the eye can see.

      I’ve watched Mariners teams for years. Yes, they stumble into 500 runs a year, but there’s no way to describe what they’ve been doing with the bats as productive.

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    • bill says:

      Replacement level doesn’t mean “I never ever get a hit”

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    • yf223 says:

      Except that’s not what it says at all. Greinke having a higher WAR than the Astros and Marlins position players means the amount his hitting is more valuable than a replacement-level pitcher’s hitting is greater than the however much better the Astros and Marlins’ position players are compared to a team of replacement-level position players. That is totally believable, seeing as the Astros and Marlins are fielding replacement-level players for the most part, and most pitchers are so anemic at the plate.

      WAR is a relative metric. 670 runs is an absolute one. In a vacuum, the latter doesn’t say anything about the former.

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  20. Klements Sausage says:

    I’m completely in love with Greinke. A pity he got traded for Segura et al… we could use a slugger in Milwaukee!

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  21. Nickatl says:

    Makes sense since he is the drysdale component of the kershaw(Koufax) comparison. Drysdale may have been the dodgers best hitter in some years in the 60′s. Kershaw hits much better than Koufax (who didn’t). Newcombe was also a great dodger hitter.

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  22. Paul says:

    Funny thing about seeing his swing in those gifs is how toned down it is from when he was a rookie. It’s unfortunate that Zack began his career in Kansas City, because so few of us remember what a great athlete he was. He did some Bo Jackson type stuff early on, glimpses of immense talent.

    During his first full season in 2005, he hit his first MLB home run at Arizona in a game in which he gave up 15 hits. Everybody knew he could hit and was a legit two way player in HS as a shortstop. In that game he went to the plate working the bat with high hands, open stance, and when he did connect, hit an absolute bomb to center. This sounds like mythology, especially since I highly doubt there is any video available, but I believe it was estimated at something like 434 feet.

    Say whatever you want about Zack, but he’s hugely talented and genuinely loves to play the game. Some of us really miss him here in KC.

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  23. Axis of Honor 25 says:

    All I have to say is that is article pretty much proves that greinke despite the sample size is better than Quentin at the plate.

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