The universal DH has arrived—at least for 2020—and this is definitely a good thing. It’s been inevitable for years that the NL would add this rule, ending the bizarre difference between leagues. But progress often means that something is lost; not something that’s enough to devalue the progress, but something that people will remember nostalgically. For me, with the end of pitchers hitting, the thing I’ll look back on years from now is Zack Greinke swinging the bat.
In 2019, Greinke slashed .280/.308/.580 for a 123 wRC+, complete with 3 HR and 1 SB. While this was partially driven by a .314 BABIP (his career mark is .269) this wasn’t a total fluke, as he had a very respectable .323 xwOBA. Additionally, in 2013 he was even better, with a .409 OBP and 132 wRC+, the 1st and 7th best marks, respectively for a pitcher since 2000, minimum 30 PA. Buoyed by those two years, and by his stellar defense, Greinke has the second most position player fWAR by pitchers in that span, with his 5.7 trailing only Carlos Zambrano.
To go in a separate direction for a bit here, the Astros, Greinke’s team, likely have baseball’s best DH in the monstrous bat of Yordan Alvarez. His absurd rookie numbers are likely not replicable, but a decline to his 143 wRC+ forecast by ZiPS is still strong, and the projected .381 wOBA that goes with it is 8th among all players. Clearly, the Astros benefit tremendously from getting Alvarez’s bat in the lineup, and the only spot for him is DH given that he can’t field any position very well.
Not every team has a DH this strong, though. The Tigers, for instance, are expected to use Miguel Cabrera as their primary DH in 2020. In 2019 Cabrera put up a .318 wOBA and 96 wRC+, not numbers that a team should be rushing to get into their lineup. In fact, Greinke was a significantly better hitter than Cabrera in 2019. He would have provided more value to their offense than Cabrera. If this can be true about one team, one that has a future Hall of Famer at DH, it might just be true for others at well.
To clarify, I’m not endorsing teams using their pitchers to hit rather than DHs. Hitting increases the already high risk of injury for pitchers, and in 2020 especially that could be a knockout blow to a team. Even if it wasn’t, needlessly increasing someone’s injury risk is not a thing that should ever be done. But hypothetically, it might be the strategically correct move to use a pitcher instead of a DH for some teams. In order to determine this, I’m going to use a true talent estimation (twOBA) using a player’s wOBA from the previous season, their total from the past three seasons, and their 2019 xwOBA. Greinke, by this system, has a twOBA of .320 going in to 2020. Comparing that to the expected primary DH for each team (per RosterResource), I will determine if any team would benefit from Greinke’s bat over that of someone whose only job is to hit.
|J.D. Martinez||Red Sox||.400|
|Edwin Encarnación||White Sox||.361|
|Derek Fisher||Blue Jays||.286|
That’s not as good as I was expecting, but Greinke is better than some of the DH options. The methodology is flawed of course, as it has no park effects, among other issues. But Greinke wouldn’t be entirely out of place hitting for himself instead of being DHed for, and may actually be the best option on one-sixth of the teams.
Are there any other pitchers for whom this is the case though, and even ones who would be best fit to hit on their own teams? Unfortunately, Greinke doesn’t fit this bill, due to the presence of Alvarez, but others might. Aside from Greinke, the active pitcher who first comes to mind as a hitter is Madison Bumgarner, who once hit 5 HR in a season and was worth 0.5 fWAR as a position player in 2019. His twOBA entering 2020 is a pathetic .213, though, far below both Greinke and the DHs.
Greinke’s .362 wOBA in 2019 was the best among pitchers; conveniently the second ranked was from one of the teams with a very weak DH. Steven Brault of the Pirates slashed .333/.349/.429 in 2019, good for a .332 wOBA and 105 wRC+. The listed DH for the Pirates is Gregory Polanco, who has a twOBA of .308. Brault’s twOBA is .296. Yes, this is better than Fisher, DH of the Blue Jays, but that’s it, and it lags far behind the other 29.
Among all active pitchers, the best single season of offense comes from Michael Lorenzen. His 172 wRC+ in 2018 so impressed the Reds, in fact, that they used him in the outfield for 89 innings in 2019, including 6 starts. But 2019 was also a major step back, leading to a twOBA of .282, way behind Senzel, his team’s potential DH.
The only other pitcher who deserves examination is Peter Lambert. Not known for being a good hitting pitcher, Lambert has a .000 ISO in the major leagues. Yet he had a .500 BABIP. Alas, Lambert has a twOBA of only .298, still placing beneath all but one predicted DH.
My writing here only serves to strengthen the argument for univeral DH, as even the strongest hitting pitchers are weaker than the worst hitting DHs. All pitchers should be celebrating the fact that they’ll now have an extra offensive resource in their lineup to provide further support. All pitchers that is, except for Zack Greinke, our protagonist.
If I may digress for a minute, I’d like to close out this piece by talking about Greinke, and why he made this writing necessary for me. I love Greinke. Save for Clayton Kershaw (I’ve covered why I feel so strongly about him before), Greinke is my favorite pitcher I’ve ever watched. Intellectually, he’s fascinating. A Hall of Fame caliber pitcher without strong velocity or visceral stuff, he’s long operated by intelligence and command, as well as a very good changeup. Aside from pitching, Greinke is just a good baseball player, hitting as I described before, but also someone who could steal bases, and the best in the game at fielding his position. It’s these many talents that make Greinke appeal to my baseball curiosity. But he’s become among my favorites for his personality. The stories about Greinke are almost an aura of myth at this point, with him portraying a tragic hero. His past is common knowledge, something he doesn’t try to hide, and something that sometimes still hampers him in visible ways. It’s the emotion evident around him that is the draw of Greinke. And taking away his bat, sadly takes away some of his joy.