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August 31, 2010

Another Look

Hitting Pitchers and Some Who Couldn't

by Bob Hertzel

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On July 3, 1966, in San Francisco, history was made as a member of the Atlanta Braves hit not one, but two grand slam home runs in the same game.

That, of course, by itself would have made it something of a memorable afternoon, considering only 13 players in the history of the game have hit two grand slams in the same game. But this was not Henry Aaron, Joe Torre, or Rico Carty --sluggers all-- who hit them. It wasn’t even Felipe Alou, who actually went hitless in this 17-3 game, perhaps thinking about the birth of son, Moises, that memorable day.

No, this man was a barrel-chested North Carolinian named Tony Cloninger. He was a pitcher.

Indeed, he is the only pitcher to hit two grand slam home runs in the same game; his nine RBI still stand as a pitcher’s record. And it could have been better.

As Cloninger once remembered it, he hit another long fly ball that drove Len Gabrielson to the left-field wall before he could bring it in and then was sitting on deck in the fifth inning, two grand slams already on his resume, when third baseman Denis Menke came to the plate with two men on base. The home crowd began to chant, “Put him on” in hopes of seeing Cloninger get that shot at a third grand slam and actually booed when Ray Sadecki got Menke to ground out to end the inning.

You might gather from this that Cloninger, whose career ended in 1972, was a pretty fair hitter and you would be right. In fact, his first major-league at-bat, facing San Francisco, went, well, let’s let him tell it.

Ed Bailey was catching and he said, ‘Kid, here comes a fastball. Are you a good hitter?’ I said 'no.' ‘Well,’ he said, ‘here comes the fastball.’ So I cut down on the fastball and Willie Mays robbed me of a home run by going up over the fence to catch it," Cloninger said.

For his career Cloninger hit .192, which is respectable, and clubbed 11 home runs. As good as he was, he was not baseball's best hitting pitcher. Indeed, there are always arguments about who might qualify, the most recent candidate being Micah Owings, who possesses a .293 lifetime average with nine home runs in 198 plate appearances.

Over the years there have been countless challenges to the title. Most recently such pitchers as Mike Hampton, who had a career average of .246 with 16 homers, comes to mind while in the 1970s and 1980s the Pittsburgh Pirates had a run of good hitting pitchers including Rick Rhoden, who finished his career at .238 with nine homers; Don Robinson, known as “The Caveman," who batted .231 while hitting 12 homers; and Ken Brett, a .262 hitter with 10 homers. Before that there were some other notables like Carl Scheib, who had a .250 career average.

The discussion, however, normally comes down to Don Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who really put some big numbers up with a .271 career average with 15 homers and 78 RBI, and Red Ruffing, who averaged .269 with 36 homers and 273 RBI.

Wes Ferrell was the all-time leading home-run hitter among pitchers, clubbing 38 in his career and in 1931 had a Rick Wise-like game, throwing a no-hitter against the St. Louis Browns—I know, I know, but it still counts—while driving in four runs with a double and home run. Wise, of course, threw a no-hitter at Cincinnati in 1971 and hit two home runs in that game.

Yet here’s the one that gets you most of all, for it comes out of left field, so to speak. In 1925 there was a pitcher who batted .433 with 42 hits in 97 at-bats, hitting 12 doubles, six triples, two home runs, and driving in 20 runs. There is a reason this was a lot easier for him than anyone else, considering that his name was Walter Johnson and he didn’t have to face himself. Johnson was nearing the end of his career, being 37 at the time, and would have his final 20-win season that year but there is no pitcher that has pitched full-time in a season who has come close to matching that batting average. Johnson’s career average was .235 with 24 homers and 255 RBI.

By now, of course, you are wondering who might be the worst-hitting pitcher of all-time. The normal knee-jerk reaction is to name Bob Buhl of the Braves, who certainly made a case for himself when he did the Walter Johnson thing in reverse in 1962, going 0-for-70, which is a record we hope is never broken. Coincidentally, that same season Hank Aguirre went 2-for-75 and Roger Craig 4-for-76.

Buhl certainly was dismal, batting .089 in his career, but there were worse.

Hoyt Wilhelm, who somehow hit a home run in his first major-league at-bat, never hit another in a career that lasted 21 years, batting .088. In the 1970s, Cincinnati had a pitcher named Wayne Simpson who was nothing more than a shooting star across the sky when his career was cut short by arm trouble, but he hit .078 with 90 strikeouts in 153 at-bats. Kent Tekulve, the Pirates’ reliever, had a .083 career average.

However, second place would have to go to Dean Chance, who batted .066 with 44 hits in 662 at-bats.

But when it comes to crowning a king, you must settle upon San Francisco’s Ron Herbal, who batted .026 over his career with just six hits while striking out 125 times in 206 at-bats.

Bob Hertzel is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bob's other articles. You can contact Bob by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who

15 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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drmagoo

I know this hasn't been his best year, but I was surprised to not see Carlos Zambrano's name (especially since he hit his first homer of the year last night). Career stats: 21 HR, 63 RBI, .235 BA, .632 OPS. Since his odd first full year+ of 1-32, his average goes up to .247 and OPS to .662.

He was hitting behind Koyie Hill last night with 5 career HR's, and a .567 career OPS in a similar number of AB.

Aug 31, 2010 06:25 AM
rating: 1
 
aronf77

Babe Ruth?

Aug 31, 2010 07:11 AM
rating: 2
 
blw777

I can't believe that anyone is leaving Babe Ruth out of this discussion. Even if we take only his 1914-1917 seasons - those for which appeared ONLY as a pitcher - an eyeball of his record suggests that he hit about .290 with 7 triples and 9 HR, figures that must be taken in the context of pre-Babe Ruth hitting.

As far as I know, he continued to pitch at least occasionally later after, well, he changed the power hitting game. Since he never hit below .288 again until the last 28 ABs in his long career, I think it's reasonably safe to assume that his true "batting as pitcher" record would be no lower than .290 and could be considerably better.

Of course, he finished his career with a .342 BA, so a less restrictive definition makes this a complete runaway.

Aug 31, 2010 10:53 AM
rating: 0
 
dianagram

Hiroki Kuroda laughs at this article.

Aug 31, 2010 07:34 AM
rating: 0
 
samhain

On the weak-hitting Dodger teams of the middle 60s, Don Drysdale--who was a good hitting pitcher--was used as a pitch-hitter. I beleve he tied Newcombe for the record for home runs in a single season at that time...

Aug 31, 2010 07:48 AM
rating: 0
 
Richie

Those middle 60s-era Dodger teams weren't that weak-hitting. Dodger Stadium killed their hitting stats while puffing up their pitching ones. On the road they scored a good number of runs.

Only one year in there that their offense didn't score runs, if I recall.

Aug 31, 2010 08:48 AM
rating: 0
 
W. Clark

Don Carmen haunts my youth as a fan who grew up watching the vomit that was the late 80s Phillies. Not only were the results abysmal - career line .057/.066/.057 - but he did it from a stance that would make a tee-ball coach cry.

Aug 31, 2010 08:54 AM
rating: 1
 
sroney

How can this article not even mention Terry Forster. Usually a reliever, and often in the American League, his exploits were limited.

However, he was 31/78 (.397). While he only had four extra base hits and two walks, that is still the highest batting average with that many at bats (although September callups have taken that title away briefly once or twice). He was 10/19 in 1972, the year before the DH, entering the 1973 season with a 12/24 career mark. Returning to the National League in 1977, he went 9/26 and 4/8 his first two seasons before Lasorda stopped letting him hit, going 0/4 during the period 1979-82. Then, in 1983-4, in Atlanta, he was 6/11 before an 0/4 his last season there (the only season he had three at bats without hitting over .300)

Aug 31, 2010 10:17 AM
rating: 0
 
blw777

As a slight twist on this topic, I wonder how many pitchers finished an entire season (or career) with a higher batting average than (ERA / 10). For example, at the moment, Tim Hudson has fallen out of this select group as his batting average has slumped to .217 while his ERA is 2.28.

Aug 31, 2010 11:41 AM
rating: 0
 
doncoffin
(422)

This ain't a bad career line: .397/.413/.443 BA/OBA/SA. Of course, that's in only 86 career plate appearances...

Terry Forster, of course.

Aug 31, 2010 13:05 PM
rating: 0
 
doncoffin
(422)

I see that sroney beat me to it. 2 votes for Terry Forster.

Aug 31, 2010 18:10 PM
rating: 0
 
Llarry

Any discussion of bad-hitting pitchers really does need to include Mark Redman - .052/.088/.052 in 154 AB (8 singles, 6 walks). Once saw him pitch a game in which he came to the plate twice with runners on, and both times fail to get a bunt down, the second time fouling it off his glove hand, breaking a bone, the first of two times in his career he would suffer that type of injury in that way. The man was definitely dangerous with a bat in his hand, primarily to himself.

Aug 31, 2010 14:00 PM
rating: 0
 
NYYanks826

Warren Spahn? I know he bat under .200, but he does have 35 career homers, which is pretty impressive for a pitcher.

Plus, you have to include Hong Chih Kuo of the Dodgers for the sole reason that when he hit a home run off the Mets (I think) in 2007, it was accompanied an almost Bret Boone-like bat flip.

Sep 01, 2010 00:12 AM
rating: 0
 
gra

About Bob Buhl
1. Except for his first ab he was a CUB the year he went 0-70 -- in the midst of an 0-87 streak
2. Nevertheless, he walked six times (.090 oba!) -- one more that Neifi Perez had in 246 plate appearances for the Cubs in 2006,
3. He stole a base -- one more than Neifi's 2006 Cub total
4. He scored two runs

Sep 01, 2010 16:49 PM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

Al Leiter takes offense at being omitted:

career:
290 K's in 610 PA
.085/.142/.102, with a OPS+ of -34!

Sep 01, 2010 16:53 PM
rating: 0
 
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