MARYVALE, Ariz. – It's the first day of spring workouts for the Milwaukee Brewers and synapses are crackling. New manager Ron Roenicke is toying with batting the pitcher No. 8 because putting somebody paid to hit in the nine-hole could give power-hitting leadoff man Rickie Weeks(notes) more RBI opportunities.
"There's a lot of merit to it," he says. "I like the idea."
Then Roenicke stops, mid-thought. It occurs to him that several of his starting pitchers are accomplished hitters. And that the choice to bat ninth likely would be center fielder Carlos Gomez(notes), whose on-base percentage was a feeble .298 last season. Some of the pitchers reach base more often.
"We have pitchers who can hit," Roenicke says. "So maybe it's not as important to move them up to eighth. Maybe they'll get on base for Rickie."
Meanwhile in the clubhouse, newcomer Shaun Marcum(notes) is anxious. Informed that rotation-mate Chris Narveson(notes) batted .327 last season, and that staff ace Yovani Gallardo(notes) had a .508 slugging percentage, Marcum shakes his head and mutters, "Wow, great. … How did Wolfy do?" He's told that Randy Wolf(notes) hit .247, and that in college he batted cleanup as the DH when he wasn't pitching.
Marcum chuckles nervously. He's spent his career in the American League and has one hit in 10 at-bats. Fellow rotation newcomer and AL refugee Zack Greinke(notes) is 4 for 24. The average NL pitcher hits a meager .140. They know where this is going.
Marcum and Greinke have excellent pitching resumes; that's why the Brewers surrendered their best prospects for them. Their presence gives Milwaukee a legitimate shot at contending against the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. Not many fans will care how well they hit. But Marcum and Greinke know better. Batting practice will become a daily competition, a test of wills.
Not to mention, the better a pitcher hits, the longer he stays in the game. Roenicke won't need to pinch-hit in the middle innings for Narveson, whose average was in the Carlos Gonzalez(notes)-Joey Votto stratosphere, or for Gallardo, whose slugging percentage was higher than Prince Fielder's,(notes) higher than Ryan Braun's,(notes) higher than everybody else on the Brewers besides Corey Hart(notes).
"In this league, if you want to pitch deep into games you've got to be able to get a bunt down or move a runner over," Marcum says. "Otherwise, you're going to be out of the game in the fifth or sixth inning."
Despite their limited time in a big league batters box, Greinke and Marcum might be decent hitters. Greinke once was the best high school hitter in Florida. During his seven years with the Kansas City Royals, he often lamented that he missed hitting. His only big league home run, against the Diamondbacks' Russ Ortiz(notes) in 2005, is one of his most treasured moments, nearly on par with his Cy Young Award, even though the game was one of his worst pitching performances – he gave up 11 runs in 4 1/3 innings.
Marcum was the everyday shortstop at Missouri State, pitching only as the closer. He batted .354 in 2002 and .280 in 2003, seldom striking out. Like Greinke, he was forced to all but give up hitting as a professional, and like Greinke, his career highlight with the bat came in an interleague game against the Diamondbacks – an RBI double off Billy Buckner(notes) last season.
"My first at-bat I struck out with the bases loaded," Marcum said. "I came up again with a runner on second, swung at the first pitch and hit a ground ball down the third-base line. It was nice to get that first hit out of the way."
Marcum and Greinke soon will get all the at-bats they can handle. Wolf had 89 plate appearances last season, Gallardo had 72 and Narveson had 59. The trio combined to go 51-for-189, a .270 average. Their on-base percentage was .308, below par by everyday player standards, sensational by pitcher standards.
"All three of us take our hitting seriously," Gallardo said. "You never know when you might need it. You can get yourself another couple of wins by helping out with the bat."
Gallardo, the Silver Slugger Award winner, hit four home runs and has eight in 170 career at-bats. If he played every day, he could hit 30 homers a year. "Sometimes I look for a certain pitch in a certain count, something I can really drive," he said.
Narveson, who would have played first base as well as pitcher had he gone to Wake Forest instead of signing out of high school, takes a disciplined approach. He also pays close attention to scouting reports on opposing pitchers that normally are read only by position players.
"Sometimes I think pitchers feel like they are overmatched and swing harder than they need to," he said. "I try to stay within myself and use the middle of the field. I'll go to the plate with a little bit of knowledge of the pitcher in my head, and I have an idea of how he's going to attack me and what I can expect to happen."
Brewers pitchers were well ahead of every other NL team in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage last season. And that was with the now-departed Dave Bush(notes), Chris Capuano(notes) and Doug Davis(notes) combining for an anemic 8-for-84. Greinke and Marcum are better pitchers than the starters they are replacing, and they ought to be better hitters, too.
And on certain days, a Brewers pitcher might look at the lineup card and see his name penciled into the No. 8 spot in the lineup.
"Yeah, hopefully," Gallardo said. "We'll see. Wherever we are, we're gonna hit."
- Ron Roenicke