The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Bill Lee”

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.

Walter Perry Johnson (1887 – 1946), American b...

Walter Perry Johnson (1887 – 1946), American baseball player (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Walter Johnson on a 1909-1911 American Tobacco...

Walter Johnson on a 1909-1911 American Tobacco Company baseball card (White Borders (T206)) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

English: US President Calvin Coolidge and Wash...

English: US President Calvin Coolidge and Washington Senators pitcher Walter Johnson shake hands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?

Related articles

Becoming Joe DiMaggio, and a Shout-Out or Two

Recently, three different examples of art and history inspired by a love for baseball have come to my attention.

The first of these is a little book (only 51 pages) called “Becoming Joe DiMaggio.”  Written by Maria Testa, this book was first published in 2002 by Candlewick Press.  It is a “verse novel,” meaning it is actually a novella in the form of poetry.

It is written from the point of view of young Joseph Paul, a son of Italian immigrants, whose boyhood largely revolves around learning life’s lessons from his grandfather, while the daily exploits of his hero, Joe DiMaggio, inspires him to hope for a better life here in America.

The story, or more accurately, the series of poems, is set in the urban north-east of the 1940’s-’50’s.  They span Joseph Paul’s life, from birth to the day he becomes the first member of his family to go to college.  Each poem is descriptive, understated, and poignant.  Here is one of my favorite examples, which I will share in its entirety:

Saying It Out Loud

It was obvious, of course,

even though

I had never said it

out loud

before.

I thought about it

all the time:

in the shed

on the sandlot

in school

at church

in the visiting room / on the other side / of the bars / waiting to see/ my father

even then,

I thought about it.

But I saved it for

a day

when the cheering

on the radio

was particularly loud

and I knew it was

the right time

to say it out loud:  /  I want to be / Joe DiMaggio / when I grow up.

That’s wonderful /  Papa-Angelo said,

but someone else

already is.

Although I found this book in the Juvenile section of the local public library (where I am an employee), this book is written just as much for baseball lovers who happen to be adults as it is for older children.

“Becoming Joe DiMaggio” is well-worth the time and effort it may take you to find it.  But it is a book that I believe every baseball fan will enjoy.

I also wanted to do a Shout-Out for another book, “Fifty-Nine in ’84,” written by Edward Achorn.  It is about the 1884 baseball season during which Old Hoss Radbourn won an astounding (even for that time period) 59 games.

I was first made aware of this book by a friend of The On Deck Circle, Kevin Graham.  For more information about this book, including Kevin’s excellent book review, go to my Blog Roll and click on Kevin’s blog, DMB Historic World Series Replay.  Kevin’s blog is always entertaining and informative.

Finally, another friend of mine, Cameron Watson, recently turned me on to an independent film-making company that specializes in making “little” films about baseball.  It is called Reel Hardball, and can be found at http://reelhardball.com.  Reel Hardball can also be found on YouTube.  You can also become a “friend” of Reel Hardball on Facebook.

I believe that three films produced by Reel Hardball have already appeared on the Major League Baseball Network, although I haven’t actually seen any of them.  I am aware that one of them includes former Red Sox pitcher, Bill Lee, a.k.a., The Spaceman. Another tells the story of an entrepreneur’s dream of bringing baseball to the Middle East.

I’ll be taking a closer look at this website myself in the near future.

So, if you thought you might be bored this weekend, now you have some baseball art and history to occupy your time.  I hope these items prove to be interesting and entertaining to you.

P.S.  To all of you who responded to my last blog-post, “Baseball, and All That We Leave Behind,” with kind words and interesting stories of your own (which can be found under my Comments section),  I thank you.

Post Navigation