The Best Pitcher-Hitting Season of the DH Era

They give out Silver Slugger awards to pitchers, which is funny. Pitchers are terrible. Last year, pitchers had a wRC+ of -15. The year before, they had a wRC+ of -16. wRC+ is a statistic with a plus in the name. Jake Arrieta won the award this past season, recognition for having hit as well as Howie Kendrick and Scooter Gennett. I guess, in the world today, you don’t want to hurt feelings and leave anyone out. So pitchers are sluggers too. Okay.

To Arrieta’s credit, he was bad only relative to major-league hitters. He was tremendous relative to major-league hitting pitchers. He led the way with a 91 wRC+, and he knocked a couple of home runs. He even ran an OBP a little north of .300. The Cubs didn’t need the help, but when Arrieta was on the mound, they effectively had an AL lineup. Just another thing that went well for Chicago.

There’s just one problem. I get it — Arrieta appears to be a fine pick. I, personally, would’ve looked at wRC+, myself. But by picking Arrieta, the award selectors whiffed. I’m not sufficiently interested in the award to look up who does the voting in the first place, but we just saw the best pitcher-hitting season of the DH era, and Arrieta didn’t have it.

Adam Wainwright had it. Wainwright has long been a fairly capable pitcher-hitter. He suffered a major injury while batting back in 2015, but even after that, he said he didn’t want to see the DH in both leagues. He likes the challenge, the opportunity for a team to get an advantage, and Cardinals pitchers combined just led the NL in wRC+. Over the past five years, they’re third. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve been awful. But, relatively speaking, they’ve been less awful than the norm, and Wainwright has slugged a half-decent .306. Of the 212 pitchers who have batted at least 100 times since Wainwright was a rookie, he’s been the 12th-best bat, right below Yovani Gallardo. Not so bad, all things considered. Wainwright has kind of led by example.

Before last year, Wainwright had his best offensive season in 2007. Now he’s coming off an 89 wRC+ that ranked below Arrieta, and only Arrieta. A difference of two points is pretty much negligible, so you go hunting for potential tie-breakers. I can give you one. Arrieta, as a hitter, drove in seven runners. Wainwright drove in 18. No one else had more than 12. I’m fully aware that I just supported an argument on FanGraphs with RBI, but it doesn’t tell you nothing. And Wainwright’s 18 is the highest mark for any pitcher since the DH was born in 1973. Rick Sutcliffe had 17 in 1979, and then there are a few names with 16, but Wainwright stands alone.

This past June, Wainwright was plucked off the bench to pinch-hit in extras. It was his first pinch-hitting appearance since 2013, and he was up against righty Juan Nicasio, who’s always been tough on same-handed bats. Wainwright more or less won the game.

So Wainwright drove runners in. Though he batted just .147 with the bases empty, that shot up to .321 with the bases not empty, and that’s some pretty good timing, even if it doesn’t reflect an actual skill. Wainwright contributed his hits when they mattered, and I’ve prepared a useful plot, showing two stats: OPS and BRS%. You know what OPS is. You probably don’t know what BRS% is, but it’s a stat available on Baseball-Reference, simply showing the percentage of baserunners that a batter was able to score (not counting himself). For this past season, I plotted everyone who came up with at least 50 baserunners.

Oh, right, let me adjust that axis real quick.

Though Wainwright put up a run-of-the-mill batting line, he blew the field away in terms of run-scoring productivity. Wainwright drove in 29% of his runners. Similar batters to Wainwright drove in a combined 14% of their runners. Daniel Murphy is the guy in second place, at 22%. David Ortiz also finished at 22%. That gap between first and second is the gap between second and 197th. All it is is a complete and utter fluke, but that’s an enormously helpful fluke, as the Cardinals were concerned. Wainwright, in his small sample, was an elite-level run producer. More than that, even. He was a level north of elite.

This part follows that last part. It stands to reason that when you’re driving in runs, you’re helping your team. Wainwright just led all pitchers in batting WPA. More than that, he has the highest pitcher-hitting-season WPA since 1974, which is as far back as our data goes. That’s one year shy of covering the whole DH era, but thankfully Baseball-Reference has similar data of its own, and that takes care of 1973. Depending on your source, Wainwright as a hitter just put up a WPA of 0.74 or 0.75. No other pitcher-hitter has gotten above 0.66. Wainwright drove in runs, and those runs had use.

It’s not really fair to do this, given sample sizes and everything, but Wainwright’s offensive WPA last season was sixth-best on the Cardinals. He beat out both Brandon Moss and Jedd Gyorko, thanks to the excellence of his timing. Wainwright might’ve had a down year on the mound, but he did his damnedest to make up for that how he could. It was, in a very specific case, an offensive season for the ages.

Of course it won’t repeat. It almost can’t repeat. Wainwright was way too far-removed from the rest of his peers, and all that was was a bunch of run-scoring nonsense. But with the 2017 season right around the corner, I don’t want things that impressed me in 2016 to disappear, forgotten. Adam Wainwright didn’t end up winning a Silver Slugger award. That despite having arguably the best pitcher-hitting season since the game decided pitchers probably shouldn’t hit so much. That’s not not a shame.

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.

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7 years ago

What about Micah Owings 2007 season?

7 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

Owings was really a position player with a good arm. He clearly was not a capable MLB pitcher from day 1 while it was equally clear that he might be a good hitter. He should have been switched to the field early in his career. He probably never would have been a high BB% guy which probably limited his upside, but he could have been a 280/325/520 kind of hitter, no question. He had that kind of power.

Alas, well never know

Owings got a minor league invite this offseason from the Mariners. . . . .as a pitcher.

7 years ago
Reply to  Anon

Micah Owings actually owned the Georgia HS home run record for a career with 69. Cristin Stewart and Clint Frazier proceeded to break the record though. Both of them hit one off of me, so I’d like to at least hold myself partially responsible.

7 years ago
Reply to  Francoeurstein

Meadows only hit a triple off of me btw. He helped suppress my HR/FB

Ruben Amaro Jr.
7 years ago
Reply to  Francoeurstein

This won’t be part of your Cooperstown plaque Frenchy.

John Autin
7 years ago
Reply to  Anon

You’re selling Owings short as a pitcher. In the minors, he had a 3.23 ERA in 287 IP, with solid K/BB data. As a rookie, he had a 111 ERA+ and 2.9 BB/9 in 27 starts, including a shutout. Anyone with that kind of control OR who throws a shutout is a capable MLB pitcher.

And it’s worth noting that his hitting went down after that rookie year, just like his pitching. His OPS was just .722 in the rest of his career, with a 56-6 K/BB ratio and 36% K rate.

7 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

Owings was a RH pitcher trying live up in the zone with a 90 MPH fastball and without a strong 2nd or 3rd pitch. Because he didn’t have the stuff, he tried to live up and in with that fastball, that’s why he hit a lot of batters. I watched a lot of his starts and he succeeded because he was willing to compete and wouldn’t give in. Basically he was a bulldog. But intangibles will only take a 90mph fastball so far. Yes his career ERA in the minros was 3.23 but his minors numbers are suspect – his ERA outperforms his FIP at almost every stop, oftentimes significantly. His last stop in the minors before the making the majors was in 2006 at Tucson in the PCL: 6.26 K/9, 3.49 BB/9 and 0.41 HR/9. xFIp isn’t given but there is no way his true talent level was 0.41 HR/9 in the PCL in 2006. His xFIP had to have been much higher than that.

As to his hitting, maintaining a 722 OPS over a period of years as a pitcher while getting no daily reps and little practice is pretty good. In 2013, he finally decided to give the field a try in the minors with the Nats’ AAA team and despite not having been a regular position player since college in 2004, put together a solid 265/305/480 line over 57 games and 213 PA. There is no question in my mind that he could have been a Mark Trumbo type hitter (low BB% but big power) in the majors if he had switched over early in his career.

Like I said, we’ll never know