Over the past fifteen years, the Brewers’ pitchers have been roughly average at the plate, at least depending on how one chooses to interpret the numbers. Their cumulative .345 OPS ranks tenth out of all thirty teams, but it is of course remembering that they — along with the rest of their National League brethren — have a significant advantage over their American League counterparts in that their pitchers get far more repetitions and practice and, thus, are at least given the opportunity to become mediocre. That .345 mark is actually below the .349 OPS put up by all major-league pitchers in that time, and it is even farther below (relatively, of course — none of these numbers are particularly good) the .353 OPS posted by just the National League.
As we head towards the end of January and little of major import is happening anywhere near the field, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the Brewers’ pitchers success (or lack thereof) at the plate over the past fifteen years. That is an arbitrary cutoff, selected because 2001 kind of marks the turn of the century, and fifteen is a nice, round number. When I begin discussing individual performances, I will be referring only to pitchers who have accumulated at least 90 plate appearances so as to get a decent enough sample size to eliminate such offensive luminaries as Francisco Rodriguez (career 1.000 OPS in two plate appearances) but also a small enough one to include Zack Greinke (97 plate appearances with Milwaukee) who is now famous for his hitting with the Dodgers.
This is not something that purports to explain the club’s lack of success in that time, nor will I attempt to figure out why they have not had quality hitting pitchers. The range of hitting outcomes for pitchers is so narrow that being good or bad is mostly irrelevant; the best team OPS in this fifteen-year sample belongs to the Cubs, and their .398 mark is just 53 points better than Milwaukee’s — or roughly the same as the difference between Josh Donaldson and Mike Trout in 2015. Instead, this should serve to both entertain as well as explain that pitcher hitting does not appear to be a skill that is predictive or all that meaningful.
We should perhaps begin with the massive outlier here: Brooks Kieschnick, whose 115 OPS+ is the only one on this list that even approaches average. However, he was also a position player who only pitched in the big leagues with Milwaukee, so his being labeled as pitcher — while technically correct — perhaps understates his skillset. Regardless, his 144 plate appearances is a relatively large number that does bump up the overall production of this group.
There are no other outstanding performances; Glendon Rusch was the second-best Brewers’ hitting pitcher of the millennium, and his 54 OPS+ is both nothing to write home about and only marginally better than Yovani Gallardo (46) and Chris Narveson (44). Differentials that small and at that low a level are not particularly significant. In fact, one might take Gallardo’s sample size (about four times larger) than either Rusch’s or Narveson’s and conclude that he was a better hitter than Rusch, simply because we have more confidence in the validity of Gallardo’s numbers. Ultimately, though, such a distinction is unnecessary.
Of the four starting pitchers who are likely to be in the Opening Day rotation for the 2016 Brewers, only Wily Peralta and Matt Garza have accumulated enough plate appearances to be on this list, and both are absolutely brutal hitters (-39 and -53 OPS+, respectively). Of course, if the two of them return to the form they’d shown through 2014 on the mound, their hitting performances will be irrelevant.
Aside from Kieschnick, who holds a unique spot in modern baseball history, the most interesting member of this list is Zack Greinke. Since 2013, when he began his stint with the Dodgers, Greinke has earned a reputation for being an excellent hitting pitcher, and, indeed, his 85 OPS+ in those three years did in fact lead all of baseball. One might assume that he simply needed the consistent at bats to truly show off what he could do after spending much of his career prior to joining Los Angeles with the Angels and Royals. However, he did spend 2011 and 2012 in Milwaukee, and he was not a good hitter. He put up a 27 OPS+ and a .171/.198/.280 line in a hitter-friendly ballpark, which is decidedly not impressive. However, essentially as soon as he joined the Dodgers, he became one of the best hitting pitchers in the game.
We should not draw any conclusions from that statement; it is not as if the Brewers hitting coaches, who have developed some of the game’s best hitters in the last decade, have a blind spot when it comes to pitchers and Greinke just needed to escape their tutelage. Instead, we should probably just remember that pitchers are not particularly good at hitting; after all, even with his 125 OPS+ in 2013, Greinke’s career 65 OPS+ is far closer to that 27 mark he posted with Milwaukee than one would have expected given his last three years.
Whenever I watch pitchers hit, I am reminded of a 2009 article by ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick in which he discusses Aaron Harang’s lack of hitting talent.
Harang has lots of different bats and gloves in his collection, and he genuinely strives to be good.
The only thing holding him back is a lack of talent.
As professional competitors, pitchers undoubtedly want to help their own cause at the plate. However, whether it be because of a lack of talent or a lack of an opportunity to practice, they simply are not able to do so. The Brewers, despite having rostered one of this generation’s best hitting pitchers, have had very little success when their pitchers step into the box. That is not a cause for worry, though, because no other team has had much success, either.