Zack Greinke’s Turned Into an Actual Hitter

There was a time last season that Zack Greinke was batting over .400. At that time, no other pitcher in baseball was batting over .300. So people had some fun with that, because it’s fun when a pitcher is helping himself. It pretty much never lasts. Greinke didn’t keep batting over .400. This year he’s down near .200. He’s a pitcher, and pitchers are bad hitters, and single-season pitcher hitting statistics are limited by miniature sample sizes. No longer do we think of Greinke as a guy who’s going to break records. But all the while, as Greinke’s numbers have bounced around, he’s genuinely improved. And he’s improved to the point where, now, Greinke might be a half-decent hitter, and I don’t mean relative to pitchers this time.

Since the start of the 2012 season, Greinke’s come up 173 times. There are 107 pitchers who have come up at least 50 times during that window. Greinke leads the sample in wRC+, by 27 points. He’s the only pitcher in there with an OBP over .300. He’s one of four pitchers with an ISO over .100, and the next-best OBP in that group is .243. Some people thought of Carlos Zambrano as a good-hitting pitcher, and he had a 57 wRC+, with 24 times as many strikeouts as walks. Yovani Gallardo gets similar treatment, and he has a 41 wRC+, with 12 times as many strikeouts as walks. Travis Wood? 47 wRC+, 22 times as many strikeouts as walks. Mike Leake? 57 wRC+, 12 times as many strikeouts as walks. Those considered “good-hitting pitchers” tend to be pitchers capable of hitting home runs. Greinke adds unlikely elements of discipline and bat control.

Of course, we’re still playing with small samples, but better three years of a pitcher hitting than one. Here now is a table of hitting statistics, 2012 – 2014, comparing Greinke to a selection of position-player pseudo-peers:

Player BB% K% ISO wRC+ Swing% Contact%
Zack Greinke 7% 16% 0.117 94 47% 82%
Jose Tabata 7% 14% 0.110 99 46% 83%
Conor Gillaspie 7% 16% 0.140 97 47% 84%
Gerardo Parra 7% 17% 0.123 93 49% 82%
Chris Denorfia 8% 16% 0.119 104 41% 80%
Eric Hosmer 8% 16% 0.133 100 48% 82%
Starlin Castro 5% 17% 0.130 94 48% 82%

It’s not a table full of superstars, but Greinke’s never going to hit like a superstar. The point is that he’s hit like a league-average hitter, more or less, while being an above-average starting pitcher. Sure, he probably got lucky to hit as well as he did in 2013. But this year, there was a hot-shot grounder up the middle turned into a highlight by Troy Tulowitzki. There was the scorching liner snared by Roger Bernadina. There was the sinking fly caught at full extension by Angel Pagan. It’s possible Greinke’s been better than his numbers in 2014, and between his overall results and approach, it’s like he allows the Dodgers to field a somewhat AL-caliber lineup. Just as a hitter since 2012, Greinke’s been more than two wins better than replacement.

And Greinke continues to refine his approach. This table should speak for itself:

Year O-Swing% Z-Swing%
2011 36% 66%
2012 40% 61%
2013 27% 66%
2014 19% 64%

Greinke has similar discipline statistics to Matt Joyce‘s and Chris Iannetta’s. He’s still swinging at strikes, hard, but he’s reduced his chases. It’s also worth noting that, in his first year in the NL in 2011, Greinke swung at about 60% of first pitches. Now he’s down below 40%. With practice, Greinke’s become more selective, and a player with selectivity and bat speed is a player who doesn’t hit like a pitcher. (It’s a player who hits like a player.)

Let’s consider the history a little bit. When he was much much younger, Greinke could hit well. He was drafted, of course, as a pitcher. In his difficult early days with the Royals, Greinke thought about quitting pitching and coming back as a bat. Trey Hillman knew that Greinke could handle the bat in interleague play. From that linked article:

It’s one of [Greinke’s] favorite hobbies, and he’s 3-for-12 in his career — a not-bad .250. Oh, he’ll tell you that hitting is not important to him anymore, but he looked pretty serious in BP on Sunday, bunting nicely and plugging the gaps and even clearing the fence.

When Greinke was a free agent after playing with the Angels, Mike Scioscia remarked that Greinke loved to hit, and that therefore it wouldn’t surprise him to see Greinke return to the National League. Greinke, even after signing with the Dodgers, downplayed his love of stepping in:

“I went to Milwaukee and loved to hit there, but when you focus on hitting it takes away from your ability to pitch, so as time went on, I had to give that up.

“When the time comes for me to go up to the plate I feel good but I don’t really think about it like I used to. It would be nice if I could (hit) but it takes away from my pitching so I’m not going to do that.”

You could choose to believe Greinke, or you could choose to believe his catcher. From just the other day:

It’s clear that Greinke’s pitching isn’t suffering. It’s clear he’s become a hitter worth worrying about. You can pay attention to Greinke’s words, or you can pay attention to Greinke’s actions, and his actions suggest that he very much continues to take his hitting work seriously.

In San Francisco the other night, Greinke stepped up and clobbered a dinger in what was already a blowout:

GreinkeHR

That showed off his power. Earlier, he showed off his eye:

GreinkeTake1

And right after that, he showed off his power, knocking a ball off the wall in left-center field:

Greinke2B

For the hell of it, we can go back and watch Greinke with a close take to draw a walk against Mike Fiers, who doesn’t walk many:

GreinkeTake2

Greinke has a decent approach. He has decent contact skills, and sometimes he’s shown a shorter two-strike swing to get a ball in play. But his regular swing is a pretty powerful swing, and he puts the bat on the ball more than other pitchers who can hit the ball hard. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, Greinke hit his homer the other day 110 miles per hour. The league average is 103. Chris Carter’s fastest home run this year was 110 miles per hour. Yoenis Cespedes‘ fastest home run this year was 110 miles per hour. That’s what Greinke’s capable of, and he can flash that power without selling out his discipline.

Greinke isn’t the first pitcher to take his offensive game seriously, but his results are extremely uncommon, which works to his own benefit in two ways. Greinke swings at fewer balls than hitters against him. Greinke makes more frequent contact than hitters against him. Greinke, since 2012, has hit .255/.314/.372. Batters against Greinke, since 2012, have hit .243/.292/.366. We’ve known for years they don’t make many like Zack Greinke. You can add this to the pile of reasons. Zack Greinke’s a pitcher who hits like a hitter. He’s also a perfect 3-for-3 stealing.





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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MattR
Guest
MattR

On AJ Ellis’ comments about Greinke, he was talking about Greinke on days where he’s starting, not just in general.

He said while the Dodgers are batting he’s constantly trying to make fantasy football trades.

mcbrown
Member
mcbrown

Amazing. On the same staff you have Kershaw, who turns into an obsessive-compulsive psychopath when he pitches, and Greinke, who sounds like he could be a regular Joe watching the game at a sports bar chatting with his neighbor.

I love baseball.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

There’s a similar comparison Josh Beckett. During his no hitter, his teammates were avoiding him so he of course had to chat with the dugout security guard. He reportedly was saying in the dugout that he was just waiting for the Phillies to get a hit off him. Somehow, the guy throwing the no-hitter was the most relaxed guy on the team that day.

Contrast that with Kershaw, who was so tense during his that the first emotion you see across his face when he completes it is relief. Seriously, watch the final out again, it’s like watching a great weight lift from his body. A person would have to have been suicidal to try to talk to him in the dugout that day.

D. Gooden
Guest
D. Gooden

He’s like Halladay.