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How to be a league-average pitcher, through hitting

Want to be a pitcher worth roughly 2.0 WAR? You’ve got options, ranging from “pitch like James Shields, hit like Babe Ruth” to “pitch like Clayton Kershaw, hit like yourself.”

San Francisco Giants v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

We are now in Year Four of the Madison Bumgarner Tater-Mashing Experience, which kicked off with a bang on Opening Day, when the Giants pitcher went 2-for-2 with a walk and two resounding dingers. Since the beginning of 2014, in 259 PAs, Bumgarner has run a 105 wRC+, comparable to position players such as Rougned Odor, Carlos Gonzalez, and Wil Myers.

Thanks to the low bar for offensive production from starting pitchers, that’s translated to another 3.9 fWAR for Bumgarner, providing a nice boost to his 14.4 fWAR from pitching. He’s probably the closest thing MLB currently has to a legitimate two-way player.

Pitcher hitting is looked at as its own distinct thing in the baseball universe, and with good reason, since most starters don’t have the time or inclination to put any effort into it. But from the perspective of WAR, starting pitchers aren’t really any different from any other player. Their total WAR is a product of their run-prevention — for pitchers, their pitching; for position players, their fielding — and their run-creation, i.e., their hitting. In the same way that Adam Eaton and Robinson Cano took very different paths to their equivalent 6.0 fWARs, Bumgarner took a very different route to his 5.9 fWAR than Max Scherzer did to his 5.8 fWAR.

Almost uniformly, pitchers take the Scherzer route to whatever value they accumulate. But with Bumgarner’s emergence as a two-way threat, and the possibility that Japanese pitcher Shohei Otani might bring his incredible pitching and slugging abilities from the NPB to the MLB, it feels like there are other ways, more so than ever before. Today, we’re exploring some of those other ways.

The premise: a bunch of hypothetical pitchers, each worth roughly 2 WAR, but each achieving that overall value through different combinations of run prevention and run creation. Since FanGraphs’s version of pitcher WAR doesn’t take defense into account, this will focus solely on hitting and pitching. For the sake of round numbers, they’ll all be getting 200 IP and 90 PA, which are about equivalent to a full-season total for an NL pitcher. These won’t be precise calculations — things like park factors prevent that — but rough guesses at the required stat lines.

Pitching line: 4.0 WAR in 200 IP (3.60 FIP/ERA)

Batting line: -2.0 WAR in 90 PA (.000/.000/.000, -100 wRC+)

Do you remember up above, when I mentioned the extremely low baseline for pitcher hitting? That floor makes it really difficult for a pitcher to be very far below replacement. But a pitcher good enough to accumulate 4.0 WAR of run prevention value — an All-Star, basically — could still end up roughly “average” if they did literally nothing for a full 90 PAs.

No one has ever come particularly close to this kind of dubious feat. Wei-Yin Chen has been the closest in the modern era, hitting .000/.000/.000 with five sacrifices in 49 PAs last season and losing 0.6 WAR from his combined total as a result. A pitcher who never took the bat off their shoulder, but also never walked, and still somehow got to 90 PAs would come pretty close to -2.0 offensive WAR. Somewhat notable (and I use the term loosely): any better than 4.0 pitching WAR, and a starter truly cannot be worse than average overall. Even you or I couldn’t do worse than -2.0 WAR in 90 PA, so unless a manager started funneling his horribly hitting pitcher extra PAs, this is a hard cap.

Pitching line: 2.0 WAR in 200 IP (4.20 FIP/ERA)

Batting line: 0.0 WAR in 90 PA (.100/.200/.150, 0 wRC+)

This might be the most reasonable or normal version of a 2.0 WAR-pitcher. The pitching line: unexciting, the product of the kind of innings-eating journeyman that ever team is happy to have as their #4 starter. The batting line: also fairly unexceptional. Terrible, but normal-terrible, the kind of terrible that lots of pitchers do. Last season, Jon Lester hit .102/.186/.153 across 75 PAs, good for a -9 wRC+ and 0.0 WAR. This line is almost precisely what’s expected of a pitcher hitting: some contact, the occasional lucky hit, and almost nothing else. Anything above this is gravy.

Pitching line: 1.0 WAR in 200 IP (5.00 FIP/ERA)

Batting line: 1.0 WAR in 90 PA (.200/.250/.350, 70 wRC+)

This batting line is pretty close to what Bumgarner produced in 2016, when he hit .186/.268/.360, for a 71 wRC+ and 1.0 WAR in 97 PA. The pitching line… the pitching line is quite poor. Pitchers with a 5.00 FIP or ERA tend not to get 200 innings, as they usually don’t go deep into games or get consistent starts.

Still, it’s illuminating to note that this relatively achievable level of hitting can lead to a league-average NL pitcher. Christian Bethancourt is trying to make the jump from catcher to reliever for the Padres, and his career wRC+ is 53. He’s a long way from throwing 200 innings with a 5.00 FIP, and he’s probably a long way from this kind of wRC+, too. But it’s not impossible to imagine someone who, like Bethancourt, isn’t quite good enough at offense to cut it as a position player. If they can maintain that offense while also starting, they don’t need to be a very good pitcher to be valuable.

Pitching line: 0.0 WAR in 200 IP (5.50 FIP/ERA)

Batting line: 2.0 WAR in 90 PA (.375/.400/.550, 145 wRC+)

The best pitcher-batting season by WAR in the last decade doesn’t belong to Bumgarner, but to Zack Greinke, who racked up 1.3 offensive WAR in 2013. But the best pitcher-batting season by wRC+ (min. 40 PA) belongs to 2010 Dan Haren, whose 139 wRC+ was the product of a .364/.375/.527 triple slash and resulted in 1.0 WAR in 57 PA. He’s the model for this offensive line, but even his excellent offensive season (by pitcher standards (and by position player standards, actually)) needed to be bumped up a bit to come within range of 2.0 WAR in just 90 PA.

But if a pitcher could hit like that, they wouldn’t need to be any good at pitching to be a league-average player. Most players, even non-pitchers, can probably throw about as hard as Jered Weaver, owner of a 84mph “fastball”; last season, in 178 innings, he ran a 5.62 FIP and a -0.2 fWAR. He could’ve still been a league-average player, if only he was on a National League team and had hit even better than 2010 Dan Haren, or like Paul Goldschmidt has for his career. That’s not so much to ask, is it? Of course, if a pitcher could consistently hit like that but pitched like Jered Weaver, they’d be far better off as a position player. But that’s not this article’s hypothetical, so we won’t speak of it again.

Pitching line: -1.0 WAR in 200 IP (6.00 FIP/ERA)

Batting line: 3.0 WAR in 90 PA (.387/.400/.700, 190 wRC+)

Babe Ruth, for his career, ran a 197 wRC+, the best mark of all time. Just behind him is Ted Williams, at a 188 wRC+, followed by a gaggle of greats (Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, and Barry Bonds) at a 173 wRC+. For one season, Dontrelle Willis hit like he was one of them. In 2011, his last year in the majors, the D-Train hit .387/.387/.645, yielding a 183 wRC+ and 0.8 WAR in only 34 PAs. He had no walks, but one home run, one triple, and three doubles gave him impressive power numbers to go with his high average. A season that would look disappointing if limited to pitching — a 4.10 FIP and 0.8 WAR in 75 innings — is transformed into a solid performance when hitting is added in.

A pitcher who ran those kinds of numbers across 90 PAs would come pretty close to 3.0 WAR, letting them climb out of some of the deepest holes we’ve seen in recent baseball history. Last season, James Shields ran an abysmal 6.01 FIP across 181 23 innings; if he had hit like Willis, his -0.9 WAR on the pitching side would’ve been entirely washed out by his offensive contributions. (He didn’t; in 23 PAs, Shields ran a -3 wRC+ and left his WAR entirely unchanged.)

Remember this, the next time someone tells you that baseball is “incredibly hard” or whatever. Even someone who can barely pitch can be a league-average pitcher; all they need to do is hit like the best player of all time.