Pitchers who rake: Syndergaard in club of MLB's top-hitting hurlers
It's been quite a week for Mets pitchers—at the plate, that is. In the wake of unlikely cult hero Bartolo Colon's first major league home run at age 42 on Saturday, Noah Syndergaard one-upped him on Wednesday night. In addition to throwing eight innings of two-run ball against the Dodgers, the 23-year-old righty bashed not one but two homers, driving in all four runs in the Mets' 4–3 victory. Already as imposing a mound presence as there is in the game due to his triple-digit heat and 92-mph slider, "Thor" has quickly become one of the most dangerous and productive hitters among pitchers.
Syndergaard's two homers came at the expense of Kenta Maeda. He put the Mets on the board first with a 402-foot solo shot to right-centerfield in the third inning. After falling behind 2–1 by surrendering solo homers to Corey Seager and Yasmani Grandal, Syndergaard got the Mets back in front in the fifth by bashing a 396-foot–three-run homer to left-centerfield, that after failing to get a bunt down:
Syndergaard became the first major league pitcher to homer twice in a game since the Diamondbacks' Micah Owings against the Braves on Aug. 18, 2007. Via the Baseball-Reference Play Index, pitchers have hit multiple homers in a game 66 times dating back to 1913, just 12 of which have come since 1973, when the AL introduced the designated hitter. The only other Mets pitcher to do it was Walt Terrell, on Aug. 6, 1983 against the Cubs (an NBC Game of the Week that I witnessed). The most famous instances of it happening probably belong to the Braves' Tony Cloninger, who on July 3, 1966 hit two grand slams against the Giants, and the Phillies' Rick Wise, who on June 23, 1971 not only hit two homers but also pitched a no-hitter against the Reds. Oddly enough, both those pitchers added another two-homer game later in that same season, with Wise's second effort coming as one of three in the same week in August and September 1971, all of which were complete games. Had Syndergaard pitched the ninth, he’d have been the first with a complete game and two homers since the Red Sox' Sonny Siebert (Sept. 2, 1971 against the Orioles).
Syndergaard had two shots of joining the Boston Braves' Jim Tobin as the only post-1900 pitcher to homer three times in a game, but he struck out against Chris Hatcher with the bases loaded in the sixth and against Joe Blanton with the bases empty in the eighth. Tobin hit three homers in a game against the Cubs on May 13, 1942; no slouch with the bat, he totaled 17 homers in his nine-year major league career.
Thor is no slouch either, swinging the hammer at a .200/.241/.382 clip through 66 plate appearances, including a double and a homer last year. That slugging percentage is the highest among active pitchers with at least 50 plate appearances, as is his 70 OPS+, which gives him a claim as the game's best-hitting pitcher, at least among those currently active. That's far from the only way to measure it, however, so what follows here is a look at the best along a few different dimensions and—I promise—a vacation from any discussion of the pros and cons of the designated hitter. Unless otherwise noted, all of these are based upon that aforementioned 50 PA minimum, a level that 146 active pitchers have reached, though the definition of active includes some players who are currently in the minors or even another country.
The Home Run Kings
As Colon and Syndergaard have both reminded us amply in the past week, by far the most exciting element of pitchers at the plate is when one runs into a hittable pitch and sends it a long, long way. In this regard, two pitchers tower over the field: the Giants' Madison Bumgarner and the Orioles' Yovani Gallardo, who both own 12 career homers. Bumgarner, who throws lefty but swings righty, hit five last year—the highest total in the majors since Carlos Zambrano hit six in 2006—and four in '14. He's even victimized Clayton Kershaw twice, including on April 9 of this season. Nine of his 12 homers have come at AT&T Park, one of the majors' toughest parks to homer in for a righty; via The Bill James Handbook 2016, its multiyear righty park factor for home runs of 76—in other words, it reduces homers by 24%—is tied with Petco Park for the majors' second-lowest, with PNC Park in Pittsburgh the only one lower at 73. Since the start of 2014, Bumgarner’s eight homers at AT&T are the third-most by a righty behind only Hunter Pence (11) and Buster Posey (19). For all of that, he hasn't had great success beyond the homers, owning a career .178/.218/.297 line with a 44 OPS+.
As for Gallardo, who's currently on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis, his 12 homers came from 2007 to '13 as a member of the Brewers. With last year's move to the Rangers and this one to the Orioles (and the DL), he has just four plate appearances since the start of 2015, though he did go 2 for 4 with a double last season. Gallardo is a career .198/.223/.333 hitter in 470 PA, with 21 doubles to go with his 12 homers. Five other active pitchers have at least six homers: Travis Wood has nine, Adam Wainwright has seven, and Zack Greinke, Mike Leake and Matt Cain have six apiece.
As near as I can tell via StatCast, Jake Arrieta’s 440-foot homer off Shelby Miller on April 10 is the longest by a pitcher, besting Syndergaard’s 428-footer off Sean O’Sullivan last year:
The Hit Kings
With four hits this season including a bases-loaded triple and a three-run homer, Wainwright has surpassed Cole Hamels as the active leader in hits among pitchers, with 107; Hamels has 106 but just one in three plate appearances since being traded to the Rangers last July. Jake Peavy (85), Gallardo (83), Leake (78) and Kershaw (76) are the other pitchers with at least 70. Wainwright also holds the active lead in extra-base hits among pitchers with 36, ahead of Gallardo. That's mostly a function of longevity; slashwise, he's about as bad as Bumgarner (.201/.227/.298, 41 OPS+).
The Batting Race
In terms of simple bat-meets-ball-for-base-hit prowess, the Rockies' Tyler Chatwood owns the highest batting average, at .265 in 98 PA. Oddly enough, the three other pitchers at or above .250 are all out of the majors at the moment. Jason Vargas (.262 in 66 PA) is on the Royals' disabled list recovering from Tommy John surgery; his 65 OPS+ is tied with Greinke for second place behind Syndergaard. Wade LeBlanc (.252 in 130 PA), who spent last year in Japan, has since shuffled off to Buffalo, the Blue Jays' Triple A affiliate. Milwaukee's Taylor Jungmann (.250 in 51 PA) pitched his way back to Triple A thanks to a 9.15 ERA through five starts; it gets worse, as the Brewers' top minor league team is located in Colorado Springs, where he's been raked for a 14.62 ERA and has yet to reap the benefit of hitting at altitude there, going 0 for 1.
The Keen Eye
One thing that stands out even among the decent-hitting pitchers is that most of them own terrible strikeout-to-walk ratios, which makes some sense, as they're up there to take their hacks; if they whiff, so be it. Hamels has 257 strikeouts and just 17 walks for a 15.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Gallardo has 148 strikeouts and 12 walks for a 12.3 ratio. Colon, a career .092/.099/.114 hitter (I’m not even sure how to express a -42 OPS+ in English), has famously never walked in 249 PA—nine short of tying the record, held by 1960s hurler Tracy Stallard (more famous for allowing Roger Maris's 61st homer in '61)—so his ratio is as infinite as his majesty.
Then there's Greinke. With 60 strikeouts and 17 walks in his career, he has a 3.5 ratio, making him by far the active leader and better than many hacktastic position players; Ian Kennedy (4.8) and Chatwood (5.3) are a distant second and third. Kennedy owns the second-highest highest walk rate (8.2%), behind Jon Niese (8.7%), with Brett Anderson (6.3%) and Tim Lincecum (5.9%) following; Greinke (4.7%) is far behind that quartet, with several pitchers clustered ahead of him.
Those pitchers should all make Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop hang his head in shame. The biggest hacker currently in the majors, Schoop owns a 2.9% career walk rate and an 8.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Greinke owns another distinction: His four stolen bases (in four attempts) make him the active leader among pitchers, with Oliver Perez (three) and Andrew Cashner (two) the only other pitchers with more than one. Hamels is the only such hurler to be caught more than once; he’s been nabbed three times and stolen just one base successfully.
In terms of Baseball-Reference.com's version of batting WAR (which is measured relative to the low, low bar set by pitchers as a whole), Wainwright is the champion as the owner of 3.6 WAR, with Greinke and Leake tied for second at 3.4 and Gallardo and Bumgarner in fourth at 3.1. Peavy (2.3) and Wood (2.1) the only other active pitchers who have added more than two wins with the stick relative to their peers.
That said, if you compare the offensive output of these pitchers to the average major league hitter via B-Ref's batting runs, you quickly get a picture of futility. Syndergaard is the leader at -2.6 runs, with Barry Enright (currently toiling in Tijuana) next at -3.1, Jungman at -3.3, Vargas at -3.7 and Tony Cingrani at -4.4. It only gets worse from there, with Cain (-93 runs), Hamels and Johnny Cueto (-80) bringing up the rear.
Before closing this inquiry, there's a small-sample-size king among men to recognize: Orioles closer Zach Britton. In all of eight major league plate appearances way back in 2011, he went 5 for 8 with a double and a homer, good for 2.7 batting runs, the high among all pitchers, and a 365 OPS+, the highest among pitchers with more than three PA. Buck Showalter is leaving money on the table by failing to find a way to use him in a pinch-hitting role.