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Can Zack Greinke still win the NL Silver Slugger?

He’s not a National Leaguer anymore, but he’s still the best hitting pitcher of 2019.

Arizona Diamondbacks v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

By now, we’ve mostly processed the trade deadline. The biggest blockbuster snuck in just before the bell, with Zack Greinke transferring to Houston. The former Cy Young winner and likely Hall of Famer headlined the deal, of course, but most people don’t realize the Diamondbacks also traded their second-best hitter to the Astros.

2019 Diamondbacks wRC+ leaders (min. 50 PA)

Player wRC+
Player wRC+
Ketel Marte 143
Zack Greinke 120
Alex Avila 120
Eduardo Escobar 117
Carson Kelly 117

Very soon, we will be overcome with perhaps the most pointless baseball endeavor: awards. It’s not enough to just appreciate players for their daily excellence— or better yet, their contribution to winning— we have to determine who was THE BEST at some defined fragment of baseball. Further, we’ll spend extraordinary amounts of time arguing over this nonsense. Why? Because it’s fun, apparently.

The most quintessential baseball award is the Silver Slugger for pitchers. It represents the frivolity of the entire endeavor better than any other trophy. Few if any pitchers have ever been signed or given raises based on their batting skills (or fielding for that matter; pitchers’ Gold Gloves are just as comical). Largely, we don’t care how well they hit at all. Yet, we have this award because... well, why not?

This year, the award should have been no contest. Greinke stands above all others with a .271/.300/.583 slash line, including three home runs. That’s just about as good as his .328/.409/.379 line from 2013 when he last won the Silver Slugger. The only snag is that he now plays in the American League, which doesn’t give a hitting award to pitchers (obviously). If the voters can bypass that one minor hitch, can he still win?

Historical Precedent

First, we should look into precedent, of which there is very little. Rick Sutcliffe was traded from Cleveland to the Cubs on June 13, 1984. He went 16-1 over 20 starts for his new team, and took advantage of a relatively weak field to win the NL Cy Young, despite only 20 starts and 150 13 innings in the NL.

In 1990, Willie McGee won the NL batting title, hitting .335 in 542 plate appearances for the Cardinals. He finished the season in Oakland though, after an August 29 trade. He slumped to .271 for his new team, ending the year at .324 overall. As a result, the MLB leader in batting average that season was the Dodgers’ Eddie Murray (.330), but the NL batting crown went to an AL player!

Sutcliffe’s and McGee’s circumstances differ from Greinke’s in important ways. For Sutcliffe, he won an award in the league where he ended the season, not where he began. In McGee’s case, no one votes for batting champions. It’s simply a matter of math and the MLB rule book.

Greinke has a steeper hill to climb. He needs voters— in this case MLB managers and coaches— to decide to he should win an award in a league where he no longer plays.

The Numbers

It doesn’t take much (relatively) to win the pitchers’ Silver Slugger, which has been handed out every year since 1980. Micah Owings set the gold standard for pitchers, batting .333/.349/.683 in 2007, but most winners aren’t even league-average hitters.

The average OPS+ for a Silver Slugger winning pitcher is 82.3. While that’s fantastic for someone who’s not getting paid to do that particular job, Greinke’s is 120 this season. His three home runs are also above the Silver Slugger average of 1.7. In 13 seasons, the winner didn’t hit any dingers at all.

If anything, Greinke’s downfall will be playing time. He has 54 plate appearances this season. At present, that is second among NL pitchers, just two behind Stephen Strasburg. However, Strasburg and every other NL starting pitcher will keep accumulating plate appearances and Greinke will not.

The Astros will play two games in Milwaukee in September, but even if Greinke comes to bat, his stats won’t count towards his NL numbers. Then again, maybe they will! If he hits another home run, maybe the voters will consider it. We’re in uncharted territory here.

The average Silver Slugger winning pitcher has 79.4 plate appearances. Greinke will fall short by 25. However, with pitchers throwing fewer innings over time, the amount of plate appearances needed to win the award has declined.

Since 2012, the average winner has just 67 plate appearances. Greinke isn’t too far off! Two winners actually finished the season with fewer plate appearances than him: Adam Wainwright in 2017 (50 PA) and Strasburg in 2012 (53 PA). Even though he won’t pick up a bat again this year— at least as a National Leaguer— winning the Silver Slugger with 54 plate appearances wouldn’t be unprecedented.

The Competition

All of this presumes that Greinke remains the best hitting pitcher. Here are his primary challengers:

Potential Silver Sluggers

Player PA HR wRC+ fWAR
Player PA HR wRC+ fWAR
Zack Greinke 54 3 120 1.0
Zack Wheeler 43 1 96 0.6
Brandon Woodruff 49 0 63 0.5
Jacob deGrom 51 1 44 0.5
Kenta Maeda 45 0 57 0.4

It’s hard to compile a table of relevant stats for this award, given that there is no real criteria. No one is sure which stats each voter goes by. If they want to look at batting average, Wheeler leads with .282, but Maeda’s .270 isn’t far behind. Then again, they could both easily go hitless for the rest of the season, and finish south of Geinke’s .271.

Wheeler appears to be the closest to catching Greinke. His 96 wRC+ is second in the league (minimum 30 plate appearances). It probably helps that he has a home run as well. With a strong finish and maybe another dinger, he can make this whole article irrelevant. However, with only 43 plate appearances, he probably won’t accumulate too many more than Greinke. If he doesn’t catch him statistically, it will be hard to use playing time as a rationale.

Of course, the fundamental fact that Wheeler is still in the NL and Greinke isn’t throws everything into doubt. We have no idea if the voters will even consider him eligible. He wouldn’t be the first Astros pitcher to take home the award. Mike Hampton won his first Silver Slugger with Houston in 1999. Since the franchise switched leagues in 2013, they probably never thought they’d have another winner. Maybe they were wrong.

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983.