The Value Of Good Hitting Pitchers

The Milwaukee Brewers made two big acquisitions this winter, adding starting pitchers Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to their rotation in a bid to contend for the National League Central crown. Most analysis is focused on how well they’re going to pitch, but another key question is this: Can they hit? These two should provide a significant upgrade on the mound, and having two quality arms behind Yovani Gallardo in the rotation may give the Brewers the lift they need to get over the hump. However, the chances of the Brewers’ success hinges not just on how the new guys pitch, but how well they can adjust to life in the National League, where pitchers also have to bat.

Last season, the Brewers held a huge advantage over the rest of the league in offense produced by their pitchers. Led by Gallardo and his four home runs, the Brewers’ pitching staff hit .207/.249/.280, or just a little bit worse than the worst-hitting regular position player in baseball last year, Cesar Izturis. Being less productive offensively than Izturis is rarely a compliment, but when compared to the futility of other pitchers, Milwaukee’s performance looks positively Ruthian.

If you exclude the Brewers, the average line put up by an NL pitcher was just .137/.170/.167. Milwaukee trounced that, and its Weighted On Base Average of .239 was 83 points higher than the .156 wOBA of its competitors. With each team’s pitchers accounting for about 350 trips to the plate, the differences can really begin to add up. Greinke and Marcum are coming over from the American League, so we don’t know how they handle the stick. If they hit like typical pitchers, as opposed other Brewers pitchers, then Milwaukee stands to lose a decent amount of production on offense.

Below are the best and worst offensive performances from pitchers among NL teams in 2010. wRAA is Weighted Runs Above Average (or in this case, below average, since each team is in the negative compared to a league average hitting position player). Believe it or not, having a staff of good hitting pitchers can make an enormous difference.

The Good
1. Milwaukee Brewers: .239 wOBA, -23.9 wRAA
Gallardo was the second-best hitting pitcher in baseball last year (behind only Dan Haren), and his .363 wOBA was the same as Jay Bruce‘s. Chris Narveson also brought some offense to the table, hitting .327 and posting a .365 on base percentage. He didn’t hit for any power, but he got on base enough to be a valuable offensive performer. Randy Wolf and Manny Parra didn’t embarrass themselves either, giving the Brewers some legitimate offense from the No. 9 spot in the lineup nearly each day they came to the park.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks: .207 wOBA, -33.7 wRAA
As mentioned, Haren was the star here, putting up a .364/.375/.527 line that was on par with what Luke Scott did for the Orioles as a DH. The D-backs lost some punch when they dealt Haren to Anaheim, and although Ian Kennedy and Barry Enright were respectable at the plate, Arizona got some awful performances from Rodrigo Lopez and Joe Saunders.

3. New York Mets: .191 wOBA, -36.6 wRAA
While the Mets didn’t get much offense from big bat acquisition Jason Bay, a couple of newcomers to the rotation managed to provide some offense from the bottom of the order. R.A. Dickey‘s breakout wasn’t limited to his knuckleball, as he hit .255 and struck out only eight times. Perhaps more impressively, Jon Niese drew eight walks in 66 trips to the plate, getting halfway to A.J. Pierzynski‘s season total despite the catcher having 400 at-bats.

The Bad
1. Los Angeles Dodgers: .113 wOBA, -60.6 wRAA
Talk about a total team “effort” … Vicente Padilla and Chad Billingsley were the best of the worst, but the entire staff failed to hit. Clayton Kershaw and Hiroki Kuroda combined for just five hits — all singles — between them, while Jon Ely and Ted Lilly weren’t much better. Overall, the pitching staff managed just 24 hits, with only two of those going for doubles, and no home runs all season. It’s no wonder the Dodgers led the league in sacrifice bunts from their pitchers.

2. San Francisco Giants: .127 wOBA, -58.2 wRAA
While the Giants’ pitchers helped lead the team to a World Series title, they didn’t help their own cause very often in the regular season. Madison Bumgarner was the only member of the rotation to beat the league average line for a pitcher, and as a group, Giants pitchers drew fewer walks than Niese did by himself.

3. Philadelphia – .136 wOBA, -56.5 wRAA
The Marlins and Pirates posted worse overall lines from their pitchers, but wRAA accounts for the fact that the Phillies’ stadium is a pretty good place to hit — unless, of course, you pitch for the Phillies. We shouldn’t be surprised that AL escapees Roy Halladay and Joe Blanton aren’t much with the bat, but Roy Oswalt is a lifelong NL pitcher and he was just as useless at the plate.

Given that a team can add one win to its expected total for every 10 runs, the gap between the Brewers and Dodgers was worth nearly four wins in the standings last year. With two AL pitchers joining the group in Milwaukee, don’t expect a repeat performance. If Marcum and Greinke struggle as many pitchers do when switching leagues, they could give back a significant amount of their value at the plate. The Giants showed that you can win despite bad hitting pitchers, so this doesn’t necessarily spell impending doom for Milwaukee, but it is something they will have to account for this year. For all the gains the Brewers will make in terms of run prevention, they’re going to give some of that up on the other side of the ball.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

2 Responses to “The Value Of Good Hitting Pitchers”

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  1. Since I read Fangraphs mostly through RSS and the bonus blog doesn’t show up in the standard feed, I’m just now seeing this article. This is awesome stuff! I hope the lack of comments doesn’t mean nobody’s reading it.

    4 wins is huge. And the Brewers are my longtime adopted NL team, so I love seeing them at the top of that list.

    Anyway, this led me to think of a few more questions:

    First, the discussion of the Phillies mentioned park effects, but I wonder if park effects are really meaningful when we’re talking about hitters this bad. A short porch in right (say) means nothing if I can’t get the ball out of the infield. I know parks affect more than just home runs, but they probably don’t affect hitters with a .150 wOBA anywhere near the same way they affect hitters with a .350 wOBA.

    Second, we obviously know that individual pitchers hit better than others, but do some teams simply emphasize pitcher hitting more and therefore get more hitting out of their pitchers? In other words, is this a sustainable advantage for some teams regardless of personnel, or is it just a matter of where the decent hitting pitchers end up? I guess I’m thinking more of an emphasis on the practice/training side of things here, rather than the player acquisition side, though they probably go hand-in-hand.

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  2. EdwardM says:

    I just checked Marcum’s batting line for the year and with 15 PA’s he has a .154/.154/.154 line. I know he played some SS in college so he’s not completely inexperienced with the bat but a 0.0% BB rate and a 38..5% K rate suggests some remedial hitting lessons are called for. That said, I’m sure the Brewers are happy enough with his pitching and to live with his dismal offensive contribution.

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