Are the Dodgers targeting pitchers who rake?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

In 2013, the Dodgers pitching staff led the majors in wRC+. It may not be an accident.

Among qualified hitters, the Royals' Alcides Escobar was the majors' worst hitter with a 49 wRC+. One would think, then, that sporting a 33 wRC+ would be nothing to brag about. But what if it was a pitching staff with that 33 wRC+?

Last season, Dodgers pitchers did have a reason to brag. They led the majors in fWAR as position players, at 1.7, and also led the National League in hitting with that wRC+ mark. Only three NL teams' pitching staffs had positive wRC+ and WAR marks:

Team PA wRC+ WAR
Dodgers 356 33 1.7
Braves 362 6 0.6
Padres 336 4 0.4
Phillies 333 -1 -0.1
Cubs 336 -5 0.4
Marlins 316 -13 -0.1
Reds 374 -15 -0.1
Cardinals 372 -15 -0.2
Brewers 324 -17 -0.2
Mets 338 -20 -0.3
Nationals 344 -20 -0.5
Rockies 330 -22 -0.8
D-backs 350 -25 -0.6
Giants 339 -31 -1.0
Pirates 347 -39 -1.2

It wasn't a matter of getting lucky by connecting on home runs -- the Dodgers staff had just one bomb last season, courtesy of Clayton Kershaw (the Cubs staff led in HR with 6, while the Braves and Padres tied with 3). The Dodgers staff's offensive prowess was unusual, nonetheless. Only the 2010 Brewers staff posted a higher wRC+ in the last ten seasons (43 wRC+), and in most of those seasons, no staff had a mark above 20.

Coincidence? Perhaps. But there is some evidence to suggest that the Dodgers organization has targeted pitchers who rake, as five of their six starting pitchers this season were acquired via trade or free agent signing.

Sweet-swinging Zach Greinke

You could forgive Zach Greinke if he didn't excel as a hitter, especially after spending his first seven major league seasons with an American League team. He didn't do much damage at the plate upon joining the Brewers, either, but Greinke has shown a pretty steep learning curve.

Year Team PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
2011 Brewers 59 .143 .192 .204 5 0.1
2012 Brewers/Angels 38 .212 .206 .394 50 0.4
2013 Dodgers 72 .328 .409 .379 132 1.2

There's no question that we're talking about small samples here. Greinke's three NL seasons combined are similar in size to a quarter season for a position player, and wild, steep upswings in BABIP (.154, .240, .396) probably explain much or most of his production. But what Greinke has accomplished in such a short time is still quite remarkable -- and he's not alone.

Raking as a team

The Dodgers' five pitchers with the most plate appearances in 2013 were Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Ricky Nolasco, and Chris Capuano. Here's how they stacked up, with where they ranked in wRC+ for pitchers with at least 50 PA (out of 47 total -- for Nolasco and Capuano, rank shown is where they would have ranked had they had enough PA):

Player PA wRC+ wRC+ rank
Zack Greinke 72 132 1st
Hyun-Jin Ryu 66 45 5th
Clayton Kershaw 92 42 8th
Ricky Nolasco 30 38 9th
Chris Capuano 29 -73 46th
Total 289 53 N/A

Out of 47 pitchers with at least 50 PA, the Dodgers had three of the top ten. And consider this: Capuano was just a fill-in, and projected starter Chad Billingsley was no slouch with the stick either, putting up wRC+ totals of 32, 0, 35, and 4 in the years 2009-2012. It's been a while since Josh Beckett has had more than 50 PA in a season (33 wRC+ in 2005), but he has a career mark that is nothing to be ashamed about, either: -5 wRC+. Clayton "Odysseus" Kershaw has also been a master of all ways of contending for several seasons, putting up wRC+ marks of 41 (2011) and 24 (2012) before ranking 8th in that stat last season.

Have the Dodgers targeted pitchers who rake?

Let's widen our parameters a bit. Chad Billingsley is still out of the picture at the moment, but it's hard to imagine that he or Clayton Kershaw were targeted in the draft because of hitting talent. I also hesitate to draw any conclusions from the Josh Beckett acquisition, as he came aboard as ballast in the Adrian Gonzalez trade.

Nolasco came via trade, but Greinke and Ryu were free agent signings, and the Dodgers outbid the field for them. After their pitchers dominated at the plate last season, the team added two more starters in free agency: Dan Haren and Paul Maholm, with Haren expected to make the rotation in the spring.

Player PA wRC+ wRC+ rank
Dan Haren 55 17 12th
Paul Maholm 57 -19 29th

Looks like Haren will fit right in as part of the #PitchersWhoRake staff. For a pitcher, he's been an offensive monster: 35 career wRC+. Ranking 12th in wRC+ among pitchers with 50+ PA represented a down year for him, perhaps as a result of languishing in the American League for two and a half seasons with the Angels. In his other three seasons with 50+ PA (all with the D-backs), Haren had marks of 31, 54 and 139.

The fact that both acquisitions had 50+ PA last season is somewhat remarkable. By my count, only five of the 47 pitchers with 50+ PA last season signed free agent deals over the winter. Dan Haren was far and away the best hitter of the bunch, with Ricky Nolasco and Edinson Volquez the other two who had better wRC+ marks in 2013 than Maholm. Both Nolasco and Volquez were Dodgers for at least part of 2013.

So what is going on? It seems like the Dodgers are training their pitchers to hit, while at the same time targeting pitchers who already know how. The result may be a mere win or win and a half, but there does seem to be a clear preference.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Ryan P. Morrison is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score, and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, a site on the Arizona Diamondbacks with a sabermetrics slant. You can follow him on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.

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