Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Walter Johnson
Many people regard Walter Johnson as the greatest pitcher of all time.
But who was the greatest hitting pitcher? (To address the obvious, I disqualified Babe Ruth immediately because he was strictly a pitcher for just four seasons, accumulating 5.6 oWAR.)
Originally, this post was going to examine Walter Johnson’s career strikeout numbers, and go from there.
But as I examined his record, I happened to stumble upon his career hitting stats. To say that I was amazed at what I found would be a tremendous understatement.
Keeping in mind that the arrival of the Designated Hitter rule was still several decades away when Johnson retired after the 1927 baseball season, he certainly made the most of his plate appearance.
Typically, if a pitcher hits anywhere near .200, he’s considered dangerous with the bat. If he’s capable of poking a homer or two out of the park every few years, so much the better.
Walter Johnson did much better than that. Over the course of his 21-year career, he amassed an astonishingly high (for a pitcher) 2,324 at bats during which he produced 547 safe hits.
But the Big Train was not just a singles hitter. He also slammed 94 doubles, an astonishing 41 triples, and an impressive 24 career home runs. He even drove in 255 runs in his career. His 795 total bases are, by far, the greatest number of total bases I found for any pitcher.
Oh, and his batting average? A not-too-shabby (for his time / place / position) .235. In fact, aside from his pitching WAR, Johnson accumulated 13.1 WAR with his bat. Only one other pitcher that I looked at reached 10.0 WAR as a hitter.
But here’s my favorite surprising stat about Walter Johnson: In four seasons (1910, 1915, 1916 and 1919) he actually hit more home runs than he allowed.
In four other seasons, (1908, 1909, 1912, and 1914), he hit exactly the same number of home runs himself as he allowed other batters to hit off of him.
As for Johnson’ 159 career extra base hits, I could find no other pitcher who reached as many as 110.
As an aside, in the four years Babe Ruth was used strictly as a pitcher (1914-17, inclusive), he hit nine home runs, while surrendering just six.
All of this raises the question, “Was Walter Johnson the Greatest Hitting Pitcher Who Ever Lived?”
Strictly from a cumulative standpoint, the answer has to be yes. As far as I can tell, he is the all-time leader in more than a couple of hitting stats for pitchers.
The 24 career home runs intrigued me. I was well aware that there have been other slugging pitchers in baseball history, but I wasn’t sure if any of them had hit more homers than Johnson. As it turns out, two other pitchers — Bob Gibson and Carlos Zambrano — have also each hit 24 home runs.
The still active 31-year old Zambrano, who hit a home run this year, certainly has a chance to pull ahead of Johnson and Gibson. Zambrano’s career batting average of .238 is about the same as Johnson’s was, also.
I didn’t think any other pitcher could have hit more, but then I came upon Don Drysdale. Although he hit just .186 for his career, Drysdale slammed 29 home runs in his 14 seasons. In fact in two seasons, 1958 and 1965, he hit seven home runs in each year!
Yet, as you’ll see below, even Drysdale doesn’t hold the record for most career homers by a pitcher.
Still, the career non-pitching WAR for Drysdale, Gibson and Zambrano (5.7, 7.8, 6.3, respectively), each fall short of Johnson’s 13.1.
Among other pitchers I looked at: (and please keep in mind, this list is not meant to be comprehensive. It serves only to provide context for Johnson’s own hitting numbers.)
Tom Seaver slugged 12 homers, but only 45 extra base hits overall, and finished with a .154 batting average and a 4.2 WAR.
Phil Niekro had 260 career base hits, but a -1.0 WAR.
Greg Maddux batted .171, hit five homers among his 42 extra base hits, and a 2.2 WAR.
Dwight Gooden batted a respectable .196, slammed eight homers and had a 5.0 WAR.
Lefty Grove slammed 15 home runs, had 47 extra base hits, but hit just .148.
Sandy Koufax was a terrible hitter: .097, 2 homers, -4.1 WAR.
Bill Lee enjoyed his final American League at bat in 1972, though he had a few opportunities later on with the Expos. Lee had just three hits for the ’72 Red Sox, a single, a triple and a homer. He batted .208 in his career with one additional homer.
For the humorous story of Bill Lee’s final A.L. at bat, go to 3:32 of the clip below. I’ll wait for ya.
Robin Roberts hit an impressive 55 doubles among his 255 career hits. His career WAR (non-pitching, remember) was 2.8. Batting average: .167.
Dizzy Dean had a pretty decent .225 batting average, eight home runs, and a 2.1 WAR.
Don Sutton as a hitter was, as my nine-year old son would say, extremely lame. In 1,559 plate appearances, Sutton hit 0 home runs. C’mon, Don, really? Not one homer? In fact, in his entire career, he had just 16 extra base hits. Basically, he was the poster boy for the D.H.
Christy Mathewson held his own in the batter’s box: .215 batting average, 69 extra base hits, 7 homers, 457 total bases, 6.3 WAR.
Fergie Jenkins hit 13 homers, including 6 in one year as a Cub, but hit just .165 in his career.
Mike Hampton posted a solid .246 batting average and hit 16 career homers to go with his 8.2 WAR, but a closer look reveals that he hit ten of those homers while pitching in Colorado where he also batted over .300. Therefore, we have to take his final hitting stats with a grain of salt.
Wes Ferrell: Was he a pitcher who got to hit, or a hitter who got to pitch? Ferrell holds the record for most career home runs by a pitcher (38), and most in a season (9). His overall batting average was .280. Ferrell produced a career oWAR of 12.1, though it’s not clear how much of that came as a pinch-hitter vs. as a pitcher receiving his regular at bats during a game. Still, if he could hit well enough to regularly be used as a pinch-hitter, he has to be considered one of the best hitting pitchers of all time.
Ken Brett. Ken Brett didn’t receive a lot of plate appearances during the course of his career, but George Brett’s big brother knew how to wield the lumber. Ken Brett posted an extremely impressive .262 batting average in his career, including ten home runs. His career slugging percentage of .406 was also significantly higher than Johnson’s .342. Though Ken Brett’s offensive WAR was just 4.1, he was a very solid slugger.
Don Newcombe. The former Dodger ace was also an excellent hitter. Though Newcombe had a relatively short career, as a hitter this pitcher could just about have batted in the top half of the Dodger’s lineup. Newcombe’s .271 career batting average, his .705 OPS and his 85 OPS+ are among the best numbers I could find among pitchers. He also hit 15 home runs in his career, accumulated 322 total bases, and produced an 8.8 WAR as a hitter.
Therefore, though we are comparing pitchers across eras, the best hitting pitchers that we have seen here today (and I fully expect you’ll add more yourself), I would rate in the following order: Wes Ferrell, Ken Brett, Don Newcombe, Carlos Zambrano and Walter Johnson.
So Walter Johnson was not only the greatest pitcher who ever lived, he was also among the greatest hitting pitchers who ever lived as well.
All in all, the boy from Humboldt, Kansas did pretty well for himself, don’t you think?
- D.C. Baseball History: The Big Train’s District Debut (districtsportspage.com)
- Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Johnny Mize (ondeckcircle.wordpress.com)
Pingback: Which Man Has Had the Best Overall Career in MLB History? | Misc. Baseball
Good choice, though he does seem to have gone downhill a bit as a hitter over the past four years.
Ah, the Spaceman, whom I only remember (and barely) as an Expo.
I was surprised that Mike Hampton hit only 16 home runs. Just a couple years ago it seemed like every other day he was hitting a dinger (admittedly, at Coors Field).
The Spaceman was always one of my favorites. I believe he used to have a short column in Sport magazine back in the late ’70. It might have been called, “Ask Bill Lee.”
Hampton was a decent hitter even away from Coors, but Coors turned him into a dangerous slugger.
Apropos to nothing, I just read that pitcher Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals is currently hitting .277 for the year with one homer. I guess there still are at least a few pitchers that can swing a bat.
Thanks for reading,
I remember an interview with Don Sutton who said the key to his hitting style was to stick the bat out and hope the ball ran into it.
Also didn’t Smoky Joe Wood move to the outfield when he hurt his arm? Also George Sisler and Lefty O’Doul started out as pitchers (as did Stan Musial while in the minors). There have been some good hitting pitchers out there.
Nice job as usual, Bill.
Wow, You’re the first one to catch the omission of Smokey Joe Wood. Yes, he was a pretty fair hitter during his pitching days with Boston, batting .244 with an OPS+ of 92, and five home runs. Not bad at all. Then with Cleveland, as an outfielder from 1917-22, he was a fine hitter until he retired at age 32. It’s astonishing to me how much offense he produced in his final MLB season. Here’s the link:
Makes me wonder why he retired that young. Any idea?
Thanks for the fine addition to this list,
The baseball biography.com blurb on him says he retired to take the job as coach of the Yale U. baseball team, where he remained to 1942. No reason to disbelieved them, so I guess that’s true.
That’s interesting. I wonder if they were offering him a lot more money than he would have earned for another season of MLB?
Thanks for that,
Hudlin and Harder mentioned Red Ruffing, too. I remember that.
Another good hitting pitcher was Tim Lollar. For a short time when he first came up with San Diego, he looked like the second coming of Babe Ruth, but he didn’t hang around the majors for too long.
Also, I was at a game at Shea Stadium in 1977 (or was it 1976?) where Phillies pitcher Larry Christenson hit TWO home runs into the visiting (left field) bullpen!!! I’ll never forget THAT!
Glen Russell Slater
The game you’re referring to took place on September 5, 1976. Christenson belted two homers and beat the Mets 3-1. Mickey Lolich was the losing pitcher. They were the only two homers he hit all season. Christenson finished his career with 11 homers and a .150 batting average.
Lollars big problem was that he had virtually zero control. He averaged nearly 5 walks per nine innings. Not a bad hitter; 8 homers in four years with the Padres. OPS+ of 87. Certainly decent for a pitcher.
Thanks for all the comments,
Certainly not worthy of the top five, but Rick Rhoden was a good hitting pitcher of recent memory. In fact, the Yankees used him as a DH once. Of course, that was in 1988…not exactly the team’s heyday.
Thanks again for a highly discussion-worthy post, Bill.
Let’s not forget Rhoden’s teammate, Don “Caveman” Robinson. At one point the Pirates seriously considered making Robinson a position player.
Don Robinson, 13 homers, 69 RBI, .231 batting average. Not too shabby.
Who ever said pitchers can’t hit? You guys have come up with lots of good hitting pitchers.
One of the best hitting pitchers in my memory is Earl Wilson, who hit an inordinate amount of home runs for the Tigers. Fun post, Bill.
Went back and looked at his numbers. Wow, those homers are impressive. I may have to go back and account for him. Thanks for the hot tip!
Excellent research, fine writing, Bill!
Two pitchers whose pitching I wish you had analyzed: Mel Harder and Willis Hudlin. They were both good hitters.
Harder and Hudlin both pitched for Cleveland. I had the honor of speaking to both of them in around 1995. Harder was about 85 years old at the time and Hudlin was about 88. They both died in 2002, about two months apart from each other. Harder lived to 93 and Hudlin lived to 96.
I still have the tapes from our conversations. I was researching an article that I wrote for (but it was rejected) by Baseball Digest. I thought of writing an article on good-hitting pitchers.
Hudlin pitched to Babe Ruth!!!!!!!
Anyway, I thought you’d find this interesting, and I wish so much that I had followed up on my conversation with Hudlin.
Hudlin told me, in so many words, that the term “Deadball Era” is a misnomer. He claimed that it was more that the BATS had changed, that batters followed Babe Ruth’s way of doing things and switched to heavier bats!
Oh, how I wish I had picked up on that more with him. I was intrigued, but I just kind of let it slide because I was VERY nervous and had VERY poor interviewing skills.
I really would have wanted to know more about THAT.
Wow, man, those tapes you have must be amazing to listen to. They probably belong in the HOF, or something. Interesting their take on the Dead Ball era. As far as I know, though, they also started replacing the baseballs much more frequently per game starting in 1920, which made things a lot better for hitters. Also, the spitball was officially outlawed in 1920, though of course some pitchers still used it. That ban also helped end the so-called Dead Ball era.
Thanks very much for the comment and the anecdote.
If I remember correctly, Wes Ferrell spent several seasons in the minors as an outfielder after his pitching career, and put up some pretty fair numbers as well. As far as Johnson having seasons where he hit more homers than he gave up, that’s just flat-out mind blowing.
Yeah, W.J. was a good one. Of course, in some of those years, he hit one and gave up none. Gotta love the Dead Ball era.
Thanks for the read,
Great post, Bill. Interestingly, Hampton’s OPS+ in Colorado was 109, but for his career it was only 67…still excellent for a pitcher, but nowhere near Wes Ferrell’s 100. Ferrell is definitely, in my opinion, the greatest hitting pitcher of all-time, if you’re only considering guys who you would clearly define as pitchers.
Otherwise, you might want to take a look at Bob Caruthers and Monte Ward.
One key guy you did leave out, however. Red Ruffing: 753 total bases, 81 OPS+, 36 HR, 147 XB hits, .269/.306/.389 slash line, 14.7 batting WAR.
Hey Dan, You’re the second person who picked up on me leaving out Red Ruffing. His numbers definitely merit attention. I’m a little afraid, though, that if I keep going back and adding guys, this post will end up being 4,000 words. More of a doctoral thesis than a blog-post. Interesting thing about Ruffing is that I think he’s a borderline HOF’er, even considering his hitting stats, while I think Wes Ferrell, another great hitting pitcher, should be in The Hall, but isn’t.
Thanks for stopping by, man. I love the company!
Here’s a couple more good ones that jumped to mind…
Bob Lemon: 11.2 WAR as a hitter, 82 OPS+
Hit .232/.288/.386 for his career, including 37 homers.
Hard not to love seasons like his 1949, where he hit .269/.331/.556 for a 134 OPS+. He clubbed 7 homers (and 2 triples) in 123 PA. He also happened to win twenty while leading the league in innings, WHIP, CG, and shutouts.
George Uhle: 11.5 WAR, 86 OPS+
He hit .289/.339/.384. He homered just nine times, but tripled 21 times.
He also happened two win 200 games, collecting 39.7 WAR as a pitcher. Considering he led the league in wins twice, had a nice winning percentage, and had less than 40 WAR, you might consider him Jack Morris with a big stick. Of course, Uhle’s best Hall of Fame showing was 1.5%.
Don’t worry about editing the post! That’s what the comments are for!
So you mean that Jack Morris had a little stick? Maybe that’s why he looked so grouchy all the time. I’ll bet he was the last one to go to the showers as well.
Yeah, the comments section regarding this post is becoming longer (and thanks to you and others) more informative by the minute.
Read on, brothers and sisters!
My “Defend Wes Ferrell” radar went crazy this morning. So here I am.
In my best Pedro Cerrano voice… Walter Johnson, he hit ball very well. But Wes Ferrell… Wes Ferrell was the best hitting pitcher ever.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Wes Ferrell hit one of his home runs as a pinch hitter, leaving 37 as a pitcher.
Johnson played in the deadball era. Ferrell played in the biggest offensive era of all time. So, what I’m going to show you will surprise you.
Let’s play with some context-adjusted statistics, shall we?
Walter Johnson: 76 OPS+
Wes Ferrell: 100 OPS+
Yes, Wes Ferrell was a league average HITTER. While winning twenty games six times (winning over 60% of his career decisions). In the most dominant offensive era of all time. He was a #6 or #7 hitter who also dominated on the hill. Amazing.
Walter Johnson: –83 WAR Batting Runs
Wes Ferrell: –6 WAR Batting Runs
Ferrell comes in at a tick below average here because his value was more in power than on base skills (OPS+ tends to overvalue power).
Who’s the best hitting pitcher of all time? There’s really no question. Wesley Cheek Ferrell.
Hi Adam, I knew I could depend on you to rise to the occasion. All the info you provide is why I put Wes Ferrell on my list of top 50 players not in the HOF. So how is it that his inferior brother made it in?
Having a pitcher who is also a league-average hitter is quite a bonus for any squad.
Thanks for stopping by, and for the useful info.
I think Rick made it because at the time of his retirement, he owned many of the playing time and fielding records among catchers.
For Wes, it was impossible to get past his 4.00+ ERA until context-based stats came out.
I kind of like the idea of hanging around long enough to reap a reward. Wish it could happen to me 🙂
Once Again, Mr. Bill, You’ve Outdone Yourself. I Always Love The Amount Of Research You Put Into These Posts. Very Cool, Sir. Very Cool, Indeed. 🙂
Hey Brad, Thank you very much. Have a great Labor Day weekend.
And Walter Johnson’s homers came during the dead ball era.
Excellent point. The man was something else.
Thanks for reading,
Nice job on this post, Bill. Walter Johnson was something else, that’s for sure.
I enjoyed the video of Bill Lee. He played a game out here last week for the San Rafael Pacifics. The San Jose Mercury News has a great story about him.
Thanks, Allan. And yes, Bill Lee always makes me smile, too. The man clearly loves baseball.