Going Deep on a Dozen Great Pitchers
In this edition of Weekend Fun Read, I’m looking at a dozen great pitchers of the last 60 or so years … and the hitters who gave them trouble. This is usually the first question — or certainly one of the first — that pitchers get after they retire: Who owned you?
It’s kind of a funny question, if you think about it. I mean, you wouldn’t ask a surgeon, “So, tell me about some of the patients you lost on the table.” Of course, it’s not the same thing at all—baseball is not like real life, except when the owners decide to lock out the players so they can make more money.
Still, I’ve seen pitchers react differently to the question. Some love it. They will start regaling you with wonderful stories about what it was like to face the great Rod Carew or how they just couldn’t figure out a way to retire Johnny Grubb. Some don’t like it very much. The fight is still too real to them, and they will say something like, “Yeah, everybody asks me that, they were all tough hitters.”
And some honestly don’t know. They will say, “I remember, I just could not get Jim Thome out for the life of me,” and then you will go back and look at the record and see that Thome was something like 1 for 17 against the pitcher (but the one hit was probably a massive home run, which is why the pitcher can’t forget it).
In any case, I thought it would be fun to look at 12 of the best pitchers of recent years and offer up three things.
The batter they faced the most.
The batter who hit best against them.
The surprising thorn in the side, the hitter who (in limited at-bats) had rather shocking success.
Obviously, I’d love to do more than 12, and if you like, we’ll do this again — send in your pitcher requests. And if you are a former major league pitcher who would like this profile done for you so that you will have some fun fodder the next time anyone asks you the question, please send in your request—happy to help.
I start with Seaver because he is the pitcher who inspired this idea. My friend Dan McGinn has challenged me — repeatedly — to find a way to talk about the pitcher Dangerous Dan McGinn, who pitched five years in the big leagues and went 15-30 with a 5.11 ERA and 10 career saves. I have tried to sneak Dan McGinn into a couple of posts here and there, but it’s always been a bit of a side note.
Not today. Today Dan McGinn gets his due — we’ll tell you why in a minute. But first, a little Dangerous Dan McGinn info. He played football at Notre Dame — was a backup quarterback, a punter, and a defensive back. He got his nickname Dangerous Dan not for anything he did on the mound but because once as a punter he chased down a bad snap and completed a first-down pass. That man was dangerous!
And his most famous achievement in baseball wasn’t on the mound, either. He was drafted by Montreal in the 1969 expansion draft. Trivia: Do you know who started the first game ever for the Montreal Expos? It’s a trick question: It’s not McGinn. It’s the late, great Mudcat Grant. But Mudcat made it only 1 1/3 innings before getting pulled for McGinn, who lasted only 2 1/3 innings.
But in those 2 1/3 innings, he did something awesome. He because the first Montreal Expos player to hit a home run. And he hit it, yes, off of Tom Seaver.
So we begin with Tom Seaver.
Batter faced most: Lou Brock — 157 PA
You will find that the player these pitchers faced most was always an excellent player — sometimes their excellence has been forgotten. That makes sense, if you think about it; you couldn’t face a great pitcher that many times unless you were good enough to be in the lineup every day for a long time. Seaver was pretty successful against Brock, holding him to a .250/.274/.362 split.
Batter who hit best: Rick Monday
They faced each other more than 100 times, and Monday very much got the best of it, hitting .349/.456/.791 with 11 home runs. You know, Rick Monday was a good player. He was not a high-average guy and he was never a Gold Glover in center field, but he walked a lot, he hit with some power, and he just seemed to pop up an awful lot in 1970s and 1980s baseball.
Seriously. I’m seeing him come up again and again as I write my book WHY WE LOVE BASEBALL. You know, he was the one who stopped those guys from burning the flag. He hit the home run that sent the Dodgers to the World Series in 1981 (Tom Tango insists that remains the most pivotal moment in Expos history). He just keeps making special guest appearances. He’s like baseball’s Charo.
Thorn in the side: Tim Lollar
Yes, Tim Lollar was a pitcher. He also went five for 11 with a double, a triple and a home run against Seaver. It was, admittedly, against an older Seaver, but it still counts. Lollar was quite a good-hitting pitcher, good enough that the Yankees gave him a little time at first base in the minor leagues.
Batter faced most: Barry Bonds — 154 PA
There’s something kind of funny about the Maddux-Bonds duel. In their primes, Bonds owned Maddux. From 1986 to 1993, Bonds hit .343 with six homers off Maddux. But at the end, when Bonds had “transformed” himself into the greatest hitter the game had ever seen, he couldn’t touch the aging Maddux. After 2001, Bonds faced Maddux 28 times. He hit .087 without an extra-base hit.
Batter who hit best: Tony Gwynn
I could have gone with Luis Gonzalez, who hit .313 with 10 home runs off Maddux. But I’ll stick with the legend, Tony Gwynn, who hit .429 and in 103 plate appearances against Maddux and NEVER STRUCK OUT.*
*Yes, I will repeat this statistic every chance I get.
Thorn in the side: Junior Spivey
Spivey was a pretty good hitter for the Diamondbacks — he made the All-Star team in 2002 when he hit .301/.389/.476. Still, that doesn’t explain him going 10 for 18 with two doubles and two homers off Maddux.
Batter faced most: Rickey Henderson — 85 PA
This one was one-sided, Rickey hit only .119 and slugged .170 against Big Unit. But, Rickey being Rickey, he did manage to walk 26 times. In fact, he walked six straight times against Johnson in 1989 and 1990.
Batter who hit best: Albert Pujols
Remember that scene in “Rookie of the Year” when Butch Heddo absolutely mashes Henry Rowengartner’s pitch and then runs around the bases fake crying and saying, “Are you kidding me, I eat fastballs for breakfast!” That’s how I always imagined Albert Pujols acting when he faced Randy Johnson. He hit .458/.500/1.208 with five home runs in 26 plate appearances against Big Unit.
Chipper Jones also had his way with Johnson, mashing six home runs and slugging .889.
Thorn in the side: Mike Simms
Mike Simms had a crazy career — he played in nine different seasons but he never even came close to playing 100 games in any one of them. He did pretty darned well against Randy Johnson, though, going four for 10 with two doubles and two homers.
Batter faced most: Manny Ramirez — 44 PA
It speaks to Rivera’s unparalleled greatness as a closer that Manny Ramirez, one of the true hitting savants of his time or any other, never quite figured out Mariano. MannyBManny hit just .205 with one home run in those 44 plate appearances. But he did get Rivera a bit in the 2004 postseason, going two for three with a double and a walk.
Batter who hit best: Edgar Martinez.
This is pretty famous — every aficionado of Edger or Mariano knows that Edgar fed on Rivera’s cutter. They faced each other 20 times, with Edgar hitting .625/.700/1.188 with three doubles and two homers. I think his dominance over Rivera was actually a key ingredient in his eventually successful Hall of Fame case.
Thorn in the side: Jason Kubel
Kubel was a good hitter with some power for a few years in Minnesota — he hit 28 homers and drove in 103 runs in 2009 and even got some MVP consideration. Still, you would not expect him, as a free-swinging left-handed hitter (Mariano’s key constituency) to go five for nine with a homer.
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Batter faced most: Derek Jeter — 99 PA.
You’d probably have guessed this. I guess they fought to roughly a draw — Jeter hit .256/.347/.395 off of Pedro, which is obviously below his career numbers but certainly not bad against the most dominant pitcher of perhaps all time.
Batter who hit best: Mike Piazza
It’s crazy how Piazza was simply invulnerable to Martinez’s dominance — he hit .385/.407/1.115 with six home runs off Pedro, two more homers than anyone else. And this is not the last time Piazza’s name will come up.
Thorn in the side: Willie Harris
Harris had a 12-year career for seven different teams, and you might remember him from his 6-for-6 game in 2007. He also had some success against the great Pedro, going four for eight with a double and a homer.
Batter faced most: George Brett — 115 PA
It’s the classic matchup, the best fastball pitcher against the best fastball hitter. Brett more than held his own, hitting .287 with four doubles and two triples. But he never homered off Ryan. Three other players — Freddie Patek, Claudell Washington and Steve Sax — had 100 or more plate appearances without a home run against Ryan. You would have to say Brett is the most surprising of the four.
Batter who hit best: Jim Wynn
Well, it’s either Wynn (who hit .375/.516/.917 with four home runs) or it’s Will Clark, who hit .333 but hit six home runs, most of anybody. Or it could be Harold Baines, who slugged .955 in 25 plate appearances. You want to know who the best fastball hitters were of that generation, just look and see how they performed against Ryan.
Thorn in the side: Andres Thomas
Remember him? He was shortstop for Atlanta in the mid-to-late ’80s — my memory is of his 1987 Topps baseball card, which had a little trophy on it to signify that he was named to the Topps All-Rookie team. Even so, he hit just .234/.255/.334 for his big-league career, which ended when he was 26.
Still, he loved facing Ryan; he went six for 15 with two doubles and two home runs against him.
Batter faced most: Billy Williams — 201 PA
I’ve told the story many times about Billy Williams breaking down Bob Gibson’s slider for me one day in a minor league press box. Well, he did see it more than anybody else. Williams hit .259 against Gibson with 10 home runs, and I’m sure he’s more than happy with the result.
Batter who hit best: Richie Hebner
Hebner was perhaps best known for working for his father as a gravedigger during the offseason … but he was a terrific player, one of the best to never make an All-Star team. And for whatever reason, he just had Bob Gibson’s number. In 74 plate appearances, he hit .387/.466/.661 with five home runs. He also hit five home runs off Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins.
Thorn in the side: Denny Doyle
Doyle might be best known for getting thrown out by George Foster in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. You might know that story (or if not, there’s a book I can recommend), he was on third in the ninth inning, fly ball in fair ground, Boston third base coach Don Zimmer yelled, “No no no!” Doyle heard “Go go go!” he ran, he was thrown out, and it all led to Carlton Fisk’s wave-it-fair home run.
Doyle went 13 for 28 with a triple and a homer off Bob Gibson. In 1971, Gibson had one game against Philadelphia where he allowed six hits. Doyle had four of them, including a homer. “He hit everything I threw,” Gibson griped. “Fastball, slider, curve …”
“I was lucky to hit him like I did,” Doyle said. “But he really doesn’t pay much attention to hitters like me.”
Batter faced most: Harold Baines — 122 PA
Baines apparently liked hitting against Clemens; he hit .305 with a .402 on-base percentage. He didn’t hit for a lot of power, but for some reason he just felt comfortable at the plate against the Rocket. As mentioned earlier, Baines also hit Nolan Ryan well. You could not intimidate Harold Baines.
Batter who hit best: Mike Piazza
Told you Piazza would be back. He tore up Pedro. And he crushed Clemens — hitting .421/.500/1.105 with four home runs in 22 plate appearances. This might be why Clemens threw a baseball at his head and threw a broken shard of bat at his body.
By the way, might be a coincidence, but after he threw that bat at Piazza in the World Series, Clemens held Piazza to 1 hit the last 13 times they faced each other.
Thorn in the side: Damian Rolls
Always one of my favorite baseball names — I just thought that if you were going to write a baseball movie, you should definitely have a player named Damian Rolls in it. Rolls went 5 for 14 with a double and two homers against Clemens; the home runs are particularly impressive since Rolls hit nine home runs in his whole career.
Batter faced most: Keith Hernandez — 154 PA
This tells you how good a player Keith Hernandez was — even as a lefty batter, he faced Steve Carlton more than anybody else. And he hit well — .321/.396/.445 with 11 doubles and a couple of home runs in those 154 plate appearances. Keith Hernandez really was one helluva player, and I do think his Hall of Fame case should be reconsidered.
Batters who hit best: Johnny Bench and Gary Carter
Carlton apparently had trouble pitching to catchers — Bench hit 12 home runs off of Lefty and Carter hit 11. They are the only two to get double-digit home runs off Carlton.
Thorn in the side: Rob Deer
Something about Rob Deer befuddled Carlton. It’s true that Deer only batted against Carlton long after Lefty’s prime, but still they faced off 12 times and Carlton walked him six of those 12 times. The other six? Deer went four for six with a double and a homer.
Batter faced most: Buster Posey — 120 PA
Nobody is even close — Kershaw vs. Posey was vividly the National League duel of the 2010s. And Kershaw was the clear winner, holding Posey to .221/.267/.327.
Batter who hit best: Adam Dunn
It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Dunn really didn’t hit lefties. He famously was a swing-and-miss guy. You would have expected him to be Clayton Kershaw’s favorite batter. But, no, they faced each other 14 times, and Dunn hit .615/.643/.1.692 with four home runs.
Baseball! You just never know.
Thorn in the side: Gaby Sánchez
Remember Gaby? He had a brief period of glory in the early 2010s when he finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year balloting and made an All-Star team. He hit .365/.500/.818 with two doubles and a homer off Kershaw.
Batter faced most: Carl Yastrzemski — 197 PAs
Yaz hit .243/.345/.391 against Palmer.
But here’s a different point: That’s a lot of plate appearances. You might have noticed earlier that Billy Williams batted against Bob Gibson 201 times. So I started wondering — are those records for most times a hitter batted against a pitcher?
Answer: No. It’s not even close to the record.
I don’t know what the record is — but Baseball-Reference goes back (for the most part) to 1916 with its pitcher-batter data. So I looked at the pitchers who have faced a particular batter the most times since 1916. And here, based on some quick research, are some of the top pitcher-batter matchups:
Warren Spahn vs. Stan Musial, 353 PAs
Musial hit .318/.415/.566 with 32 doubles, six triples and 14 home runs off Spahn.*
*Spahn also faced Willie Mays 255 times, Red Schoendienst 244 times and Richie Ashburn 226 times. The key here is that he stayed in the same league his entire career and there were many fewer teams.
Phil Niekro vs. Pete Rose, 266 PAs
Robin Roberts vs. Duke Snider, 260 PAs
Roberts also faced Gil Hodges 262 times; he pitched a lot against those Boys of Summer Dodgers.
Lefty Grove vs. Charlie Gehringer, 265 PAs
Grove also faced Lou Gehrig 245 times, and Gehrig hit .306 with 12 doubles, seven triples and nine home runs.
Red Ruffing vs. Charlie Gehringer, 261 PAs
Early Wynn vs. Yogi Berra, 257 PAs
Burleigh Grimes vs. Charlie Grimm, 247 PAs
Ted Lyons vs. Lou Gehrig, 231 PAs
I’m sure there are others in that range — Bob Feller faced Joe DiMaggio 217 times for instance — but in truth I’m sure the record will be from Deadball, something like Walter Johnson vs. Ty Cobb or Cy Young vs. Nap Lajoie.
Batters who hit best: Larry Hisle and Gorman Thomas
Palmer must have hated facing those late 1970s Brewers teams. Hisle slugged .677 off of him and Thomas slugged .723.
Thorn in the side: Fran Healy.
Fran Healy hit six triples in his career. He hit two of them off Palmer … and a home run to boot. In all, Healy went five for eight and slugged 2.250 against Palmer.
Batter faced most: Don Money — 129 PA
I have not thought about Don Money in ages — he was a four-time All-Star with the Brewers in the 1970s. Good player. Could play every position. Double-digit home run power when that meant something. He held his own against Fergie, hitting .254 with six home runs. Fergie did strike him out 32 times compared to only three walks; but then Fergie didn’t walk batters. He challenged them.
Batter who hit best: Jim Ray Hart
The young Jim Ray Hart looked like he would become a superstar — he was called up to the Giants at 22 and hit 31 homers as a rookie. That would normally have been good enough to win Rookie of the Year, but that was 1964, when Dick Allen had one of the greatest rookie seasons ever. Hart was part of the Giants incredible talent rush of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In 1958, Orlando Cepeda won Rookie of the Year and went on to the Hall of Fame.
In 1959, Willie McCovey won Rookie of the Year with an amazing 52 games, and he went on to the Hall of Fame.
In 1960, they called up a 22-year-old Juan Marichal, who went on to the Hall of Fame.
In 1961, for the first time, they gave at-bats to Matt Alou, who would win a batting title. The team already had Felipe Alou, who would become a three-time All-Star.
In 1962, they called up Gaylord Perry, who went on to the Hall of Fame.
And in 1963, they first called up Jim Ray Hart, who would have a terrific career, and Jose Cardenal, who would finish with almost 2,000 hits, and Jesus Alou, who would play 15 years in the big leagues. I mean, it was a factory.
Anyway, Jim Ray Hart hit .395/.489/.974 against Fergie Jenkins with five homers in 47 plate appearances. Tony Perez also had his share of success, hitting eight home runs off Jenkins.
Thorn in the side: Dan Graham
Dan Graham played only parts of three seasons in the big leagues, but he got 13 at-bats against Jenkins and he got six hits, three of them doubles, two of them home runs. That’s not a bad thing to be able to tell your kids.
Thanks for reading the Weekend Fun Read. We’re going to keep trying to make these things exciting, entertaining and surprising each week. If you have ideas, please put them in the comments. Thanks for reading!
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In a lifetime of writing about football, I have found one truth and it is this: It is humanly impossible to fairly officiate a professional football game.
I’m not sure you could better describe the quirks and vagaries of baseball to a stranger than to say that on Thursday, commissioner Rob Manfred announced to the world that there will be a designated hitter in MLB starting in 2022!
For 26 years now, I’ve come across this sort of alert pretty much every year on Feb. 15 … and so even though I was planning on taking today off, I think it’s probably important to come back and correct the record.
The Cleveland Browns did not fire Bill Belichick.
Jonathan Ogden was the fourth pick in the 1996 draft. He was taken behind Keyshawn Johnson, Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice, all three of whom had substantial and excellent careers. But, looking back, it’s hard to see how Ogden wasn’t the first pick in that draft because there had never been an offensive line talent quite like him.
At some point, surely, the owners will get the players to cave properly — this is, after all, how they got to be billionaires in the first place — and the game will return, and all of baseball’s myriad problems will be exactly as they were, and we fans will come back because this game has a grip on us.
In the meantime, pitchers and catchers and the rest of us are locked out. The owners will tell us when they’ve gotten rich enough to let us all back in.