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)
Underrated / Overrated: Baseball and Other Stuff – Part 2
I began my first “Underrated / Overrated” blog-post with the sentence, “There is more to life than baseball.”
Apparently, some people took offense to this heretical statement.
Nevertheless, let’s face it. Other people, things and events have had at least a modicum of importance even though they have had almost nothing at all to do with baseball.
Things like the Hindenburg Disaster, for example, which took place not all that far from the Elysian Fields of New Jersey, where some of the very first baseball games were ever played.
Some of these people, events and things have been historically overrated, just as certain baseball players have long been overrated.
And, of course, the opposite is true as well, as I will argue throughout this blog-post.
For those of you who read the first edition of Overrated / Underrated, the format hasn’t changed.
I alternate a contemporary baseball-related Overrated / Underrated, comparing either teams or players, with another Overrated / Underrated that might be a pair of movies, authors, foods, historical people or events, or just about anything else that I find momentarily amusing or interesting.
For those of you who are either new to this blog, or who may have missed the first installment, don’t worry, you’ll catch on rather quickly.
Keeping in mind that this author’s opinions are highly biased, and not to be taken entirely seriously.
So, let’s begin.
Overrated: Mariners Outfielder Ichiro Suzuki – 200 hits per year, every year, is a pretty cool, and not insignificant accomplishment. Ichiro is also an excellent defensive outfielder (nine gold gloves.)
He has stolen 344 bases in his career, for an 80% success rate.
Ichiro also reliably scores over 100 runs per season, and he has only grounded into 43 double-plays in his entire career.
Six times, he has led the A.L. in hits, and he holds the single-season record for hits with 262 in 2004.
He has a .333 career batting average (good for 29th all-time) and he has won two batting titles.
Finally, he has played in nine All-Star games in nine years, while winning three Silver Slugger awards.
So why overrated?
Despite all the hits, Ichiro has topped a .400 on-base percentage in only one season. His career on-base percentage of .378 is good, but not great. He comes in at 188th all-time, sandwiched between Taffy Wright and Merv Rettunmund.
Moreover, Ichiro’s career OPS of .811 is not at all impressive. It ranks a pedestrian 331st all-time, right up there with Phil Nevin and Andre Thornton.
Also, despite Ichiro’s obvious speed and his ability to generate hits, he has hit an astonishingly low number of doubles and triples, not to mention home runs. Fine, homers aren’t a part of his game. But doubles?
Only twice has Ichiro topped 30 doubles in a season, never coming anywhere close to forty. And only once has he hit more than nine triples.
Getting to first base is nice, as any teen-age boy can tell you.
But a great hitter is someone who normally accumulates a large number of total bases, and whose presence in the lineup leads to much more significant run production than Ichiro’s has in his nine years in Seattle.
Underrated: Indians Outfielder Shin-Soo Choo – Choo was a 20-20 man last season in his first full year, and he hit .300 with a nearly .400 on-base percentage. He was caught stealing just twice in 23 attempts.
Through 40 at bats this season, Choo is hitting .350 with four homers (including a Grand Slam), and he has drawn 11 walks to 10 strikeouts. He has also driven in 12 runs, and he has scored ten.
Choo, who turns 28 years old in July, has a legitimate shot at a 30-30 season, with 100 runs scored and batted in, plus a .300 average.
As I stated in my last blog-post, Grady Sizemore gets all the hype in Cleveland, but Choo is the real deal.
Overrated: “Silence of the Lambs” – Quick question. Who is, as far as the plot is concerned, the primary antagonist in this film?
Wrong. It is not Anthony Hopkins’ character, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. It is, in fact, an ill-defined serial killer who goes by the moniker “Buffalo Bill” whom F.B.I. agent Clarice Starling (Jody Foster) is pursuing.
But because a big box-office film needs to put its stars front-and-center, Hopkins character receives far more show-time than his character warrants.
Now let me ask you something else. In this movie, Foster’s character has recently graduated from the F.B.I. Academy. So, do you really believe that this freshly minted graduate, who apparently has zero experience dealing with serial killers, would be placed on such an enormously important case as virtually the lead investigator?
But Hopkins hammed it up so effectively, he won the 1991 Best Actor Award for his performance. And “Silence of the Lambs,” a nominal horror movie, won the Best Film award. Too bad that much of its dialogue was lifted verbatim from an earlier film called…
Underrated: “Manhunter” – The original Dr. Hannibal Lecter character was played, not by Hopkins, but by Brian Cox in this Michael Mann film. Watch Cox’s spell-binding portrayal of Lecter in this film, and you will have to admit that Cox’s Dr. Lecter would eat Hopkin’s Dr. Lecter for lunch, perhaps with a nice Chianti.
Moreover, the lead investigator, Will Graham (played by William Peterson of C.S.I. fame) is far more credible as a foil for both Lecter and the “Tooth Fairy” serial killer (whose character is given far more depth than Silence of the Lamb’s “Buffalo Bill”) because it is established early on in Manhunter that he and Lecter have a history which almost resulted in Graham’s death.
And again, much of the dialogue in the first part of “Silence” is exactly the same as in “Manhunter.”
Shouldn’t an Academy Award winning film be at least somewhat original?
Overrated: Cubs Pitcher Carlos Zambrano – Being paid like an ace, despite the fact that he hasn’t truly pitched like an ace in about three or four years. Still only 29 years old, he has avoided the quick Mark Prior burnout in favor of a longer-slower approach. Perhaps he can thank manager Lou Piniella simply for not being Dusty Baker. Nevertheless, Zambrano’s decline is evident, although not apparent, to many fans and “analysts” who still refer to him as an “ace.”
(Note: Just before I published this blog-post, it was reported that Zambrano had been banished to the Cubs bull-pen.)
Underrated: Red Sox Pitcher Josh Beckett – Although there are some people out there who believe that Beckett is actually overrated (Boston sports-writer Dan Shaughnessy for one), the fact is that Beckett is one of the most unappreciated aces in the Majors.
He has posted WHIP’s below 1.20 in each of the past three seasons while pitching most of his games in the toughest division on the planet, and half his games in a great hitter’s park. He keeps his walks reasonably low, and he strikes out nearly a batter an inning.
So what’s not to like?
Overrated: Horror Writer Stephen King – Full disclosure here. I own 16 of his books, and I used to be a big fan of his. I also lived in Maine for over twenty winters.
But the truth is, King’s books haven’t been truly creepy, let alone scary, since “Gerald’s Game,” published way back in 1992. Since then, the scariest thing about King’s books have been their massive heft, and the dismaying frequency with which he produces them.
Underrated: Horror Writer Franz Kafka – This man was so far ahead of his time, we’re still trying to catch up to him. “The Trial” and “The Castle,” as well as his other works, propose primary characters so de-humanized by the modern world that they barely have names. The normal narrative of a life characterized by triumph and tragedy is replaced by one of a constant state of anxiety, confusion, and paranoia from which there is no escape.
And the real horror here is that it’s not even clear that the primary characters in his stories ever truly even want to escape, so accustomed to the moral chaos they have become.
Overrated: Yankees First Baseman Don Mattingly – “Donnie Baseball” had three truly great seasons, and several good ones. In the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (a great book, overall), James has only this to say about Mattingly: “100% ballplayer, 0% bullshit.”
Fine, but according to Baseball-Reference.com, Mattingly’s career most closely resembles those of Cecil Cooper, Wally Joyner, Hal McRae and Will Clark.
Mattingly was a good fielder, winning nine Gold Gloves, but the last couple were won primarily on reputation, and, anyway, defensively he was not the game-changer that cross-town rival Keith Hernandez was.
Do I wish Mattingly had a long and highly successful career? Of course I do. But the fact of the matter is that once his back problems sapped his power by the time he was 28-years old, he was basically not much better than your average first baseman.
Underrated: Mets First Baseman Keith Hernandez – During the decade of the 1980’s Major League Baseball kept an official statistic called Game Winning RBI’s. I’m not sure why they discontinued that stat, but guess which player produced the most GWRBI’s in that decade? Yup, Keith Hernandez.
Like Mattingly, Keith Hernandez won one MVP Award (co-winner with Willie Stargell in 1979.) Unlike Mattingly, however, Hernandez’s presence led to his New York team winning a World Series title in 1986.
Keith Hernandez was an excellent line-drive hitter, a superior on-field leader, a clutch performer, and easily one of the top five defensive first basemen of all-time. Keith played first base with the quickness, agility and brashness that usually characterizes the very best middle infielders.
Keith Hernandez: 100% ballplayer, 0% bullshit.
Overrated: Las Vegas Elvis – Virtually everyone under the age of 45 has only the bloated, self-parodying Vegas Elvis as their reference point here. The favored Elvis of the vast majority of Elvis impersonators, one has to wonder if even Elvis himself grew tired of playing this version of himself.
Underrated: Memphis Elvis – This talented young crooner sang country, gospel, and rockabilly long before he was exploited for his sexy good looks and distinctive voice by the quickly emerging Rock n’ Roll establishment, not to mention Hollywood.
Overrated: Mets Outfielder Jason Bay – He’s being paid like a Super-Star, but he is best suited as a complementary piece in a deep line-up, which the Mets clearly do not have. Thus, he will feel the New York pressure in the not-too-distant future. Athletically, his body-type and skill set are reminiscent of Tim Salmon, Kevin McReynolds, Ryan Klesko, and an over-the-hill George Foster. Fenway Park inflated his numbers; Citi Field will expose them. Sorry Mets fans. Poor signing.
Underrated: Mariners Outfielder Franklin Gutierrez – Hands down, the best defensive outfielder playing today. According to Baseball Prospectus, Gutierrez’s defensive prowess saved between 25-30 runs last season, an estimated value of about three wins for his team. Offensively, he has the power and speed to go 20-20 on you, and last season, his first full year in the Majors, he scored 85 runs, just three fewer than Ichiro. Now entering his age 27 season, he could enjoy a very nice, All-Star caliber year in Seattle.
In fact, as I write this, Gutierrez, through 57 at bats, is hitting .421 with a .460 on-base percentage. Not too bad.
Overrated: The Winchester Rifle – These beautiful, classic weapons are now collectors items worth thousands of dollars. They sound cool when they shoot, and on T.V. many years ago, the Winchester Rifle was the preferred weapon of Chuck Connors’ “The Rifleman.”
Yet the Winchester did not significantly alter the balance of power between cowboys and Indians in the old west, or even the balance of power between cowboys and other cowboys. Smith and Wesson, and Colt, with their handy revolvers, were arguably more important to the culture and history of the American West.
Still, no question about it, Winchesters are pretty cool.
Underrated: The Martini-Henry Rifle – This breech-loaded, single-shot rifle, in the hands of disciplined, well-trained British soldiers, was an extremely deadly weapon. Firing in ranks, and independently, barely 100 British soldiers held off approximately 4,000 determined Zulu warriors at Rorke’s Drift in 1879. This rifle, with a fixed bayonet, made all the difference.
Check out the final attack of the Zulus in the 1964 film, “Zulu.”
It is only five minutes long, and there are a couple of decent shots of the Brits using this weapon in battle.
Overrated: Inter-League Play – Mets and Yankees fans need several fixes of this match-up per year to satisfy their unquenchable desire to turn baseball into an all-New York event. Meanwhile, a few other rivalries, Cubs-White Sox, Angels-Dodgers, are kind of cool I guess. But there are far too many pointless match-ups (Tigers-Reds, anyone?), to justify so many games per year of this stunt, especially when teams in different divisions, but in the same league, barely ever get to play one another.
Moreover, how fair is it that some teams always draw the toughest teams the other league has to offer, while other teams usually end up playing the rival league’s patsies?
Underrated: Pre-game Warm-ups and Batting Practice – Yes, some teams actually still do these things. It’s a great time to enjoy the quiet that has been bled out of baseball. Sit back, watch the players toss the ball around, put your feet up, and have a beer. If you have a child in tow, bring them down to the seats closest to the field, and try for an autograph or two. And you still have an entire game to look forward to. What could be better than that?
Overrated: Pittsburgh Steelers Defense – They sacked their opponents quarterbacks 47 times last year. Nice total, but nothing special. Their opponents sacked Steelers quarterbacks 50 times.
Underrated: F.D.N.Y. (Fire Department of New York City) –
Saved thousands of lives on 9/11 at the cost of 343 of their own. One Firehouse, Engine 40 / Ladder 35, sent 13 men to the World Trade Center that day. Only one returned alive. ‘Nuff said.
So ends another installment of Underrated / Overrated. Hope you enjoyed it. Whether you agree or disagree with my opinions expressed here in this blog-post, I’d love to hear from you.
And, as always, thanks for reading.