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)