Marcell Ozuna has had a solid start to his 2019 season. Through 89 plate appearances, Ozuna has hit .256/.348/.615 (150 wRC+) with eight home runs, producing 0.6 WAR. Ozuna’s WAR total puts him in the 67th percentile among qualified hitters to begin the year; that’s not elite, though it’s certainly not bad, either.
But what if I told you that there is a pitcher who has produced as much position player value as Marcell Ozuna, as Nelson Cruz, as Jean Segura, Whit Merrifield, Byron Buxton, Jay Bruce, Mike Moustakas, and a host of other solid hitters? Would you believe me? Could you guess who it is?
One of the (few) fun things about small sample baseball season is the ridiculous numbers that come from it. Jay Jaffe already covered some of these blips from both the pitcher and hitter perspective, but there’s one overlapping case that, at least to me, was worth discussing in its own separate piece, the answer to the above questions, perhaps obvious given this piece’s title: Zack Greinke.
This whole idea came about when I was glancing over the Statcast leaderboards at Baseball Savant a few days ago. At the time, the default setting on the hitter numbers was just 10 batted ball events, allowing for some smaller samples to sneak their way into prominent positions on the board. But there’s no position more prominent than No. 1, and seeing Greinke leading all major league hitters in barrels per plate appearance made me chuckle. It also made me take a second look at his season stats this year.
In 13 plate appearances, Greinke has slashed .500/.545/1.300 (361 wRC+). He has hit two home runs, two doubles, and a single, all while drawing a walk without registering a single strikeout. That’s better than Barry Bonds‘ slash line after 13 plate appearances (.400/.538/.900) in 2004, when he went on to post a ridiculous 1.422 full-season OPS. Let’s marvel at that for a second while we watch Greinke’s two home runs.
This one was a 102.8 mph rocket. Eric Lauer’s fastball was right down the middle, and Greinke clearly made him pay.
His second came later in that same game. This time, it was an Adam Warren slider, again right in Greinke’s wheelhouse. Here, he sends it into orbit at 101.4 mph off the bat. That’s legitimate power.
Greinke has produced 0.6 WAR as a position player, which, mind you, is 500% more than what he has produced as a pitcher (0.1 WAR). Sure, some of that comes from a favorable positional adjustment on defense, but he’s already produced 4.4 offensive runs above-average this season. The last pitcher to do that over a full season was Don Drysdale in 1965, when he put up 6.9 offensive runs above-average. That year, he posted a 144 wRC+ over 138 plate appearances.
Of course, Greinke is aided by the sample size. Greinke shouldn’t expect to be an above-average hitter for the long haul, so his offensive runs above-average is sure to decrease. But, even among April pitcher-hitting performances since 2002, which is as far back as our Splits Leaderboards go, Greinke’s 2019 stands out:
Best Pitcher-Hitting Aprils, 2002-Present
SOURCE: FanGraphs Splits Leaderboard
The thing I love most about this is that, as far as flukes go, this seems to be a little less fluky. Why? Because, among the 79 active pitchers with at least 100 career plate appearances, Greinke is the best hitter. Granted, he’s posted just a .225/.265/.332 (60 wRC+) line in 555 plate appearances. But, what I am trying to say is this: if you were to ask me to pick one pitcher in baseball who I think would post a 1.845 OPS over his first 13 plate appearances this season, Greinke would have been an apt choice. Of course, what we have seen so far is completely and utterly random, but one could argue that it’s made less random by it being the best active hitting starting pitcher who is putting up these numbers.
What does the ceiling look like for Greinke this season? Going forward, what can we expect from him at the plate?
For a hint, we can look to those career numbers. A 555 plate appearance sample is fairly large, and it would tell us that Greinke’s “true” hitter talent is somewhere in the ballpark of a 60 wRC+. It’s reasonable to think that if that’s Greinke’s true talent level, that’s probably what he will regress to. As to his ceiling, though, what I can say is that Greinke already has one of the best pitcher offensive seasons of the 2000s, when he slashed .328/.409/.379 across 72 plate appearances in 2013. His 132 wRC+ that year ranks fourth among all pitchers since the millennium began and second since this the start of this decade.
We’ll have to wait and see if Zack Greinke can put up solid offensive numbers for the rest of this season. Most likely, he will return to his well-below-average hitting self. For now, though, he’s looking like Barry Bonds, and that’s something that we can all laugh about in the season’s early going.