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July 28, 2011
The Best First Hits
A few days ago, Jason Kipnis got his first major-league hit in grand fashion—a game-winning RBI single. I posed this question on Twitter: What is the best first hit ever? I got a few responses, including Will Clark, Jason Heyward, and Adam Wainwright, all players whose first major-league hit was a home run. But just going by memory of the event isn’t good enough for me. What if we look at Win Probability Added (WPA) instead? At Baseball-Reference, WPA is defined as “given average teams, this is the change in probability of the eventual winner winning the game from the start of this play to the end of the play.”
Unfortunately, the database only goes back to 1950, so this list will include only first hits recorded since then. I figured that a greatest first hit would have to be a game-ending hit, of which there have been only 20 since 1950. One of these 20 hits (Dan Ardell in 1961) resulted in a force-out, with Ardell’s Angels losing the game. Among the 19 remaining game-winning hits, the average WPA is 0.39. There are four home runs, three doubles, and 12 singles. I will count down the top four, as there are four players tied for fifth place.
4. Gary Pettis—10/3/1982, Angels 7, Rangers 6, WPA: 0.42
Considering the way this game began, it was very unlikely that the Angels would need a hero in the bottom of the ninth inning, as they jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the first and added an insurance run in the fourth. However, the Rangers came back to tie the game at six. Pettis, who came in to pinch run for Fred Lynn in the first inning, proceeded to blast a home run off of Danny Darwin to win the game with one out in the ninth. Pettis would go on to accumulate only 21 home runs in over 4,000 career plate appearances.
3. Billy Parker—9/9/1971, Angels 3, Brewers 2, WPA: 0.47
Unlike the Pettis game, this one was very close most of the way through. The two teams traded zeros until the Brewers scored runs in the seventh and eighth innings. With one out in the ninth and the Angels down by two, Mickey Rivers hit a two-run triple. The Brewers then intentionally walked two batters to load the bases and got Tony Gonzalez to ground into an inning-ending double play. The game continued until there were two outs in the bottom of the twelfth, when Parker went yard off Floyd Weaver. Parker did not last very long in the major leagues, playing in only three partial seasons. He hit just two more home runs in his career.
2. Keith Lampard—9/19/1969, Astros 3, Reds 2, WPA: 0.81
Lampard’s first hit came while his team was losing the game 2-1. Reds closer Wayne Granger, who would place 15th in the MVP voting that year, came in looking to shut the door. The inning began with a Jesus Alou ground out, followed by a Jimmy Wynn walk. Then, Lampard turned out the lights with a moonshot to win the game. This was the only home run in Lampard’s career, which spanned two seasons and 62 games.
1. Dave Roberts—9/6/1962, Colts 4, Pirates 3, WPA: 0.84
The top hit on this list is also the only non-home run. The Colts entered the bottom of the ninth down 3-1, needing a rally to have a chance to win the game. Johnny Temple led off the inning with a double, and Norm Larker followed with a walk. Then, Jim Pendleton singled, loading the bases with no outs. Bob Aspromonte hit a sacrifice fly, and Hal Smith hit a regular fly, leaving the Colts behind 3-2 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Dave Roberts, a 29-year old rookie in only his second major-league game, proceeded to lace a double, scoring two runs and winning the game. The WPA of this one event was greater than his entire career WPA of -0.09. He played parts of three seasons and hit eight career doubles.
So there you have it: the greatest first hit in major league history (since 1950) goes to Dave Roberts, a player with 221 plate appearances and a career WARP of -0.3. First impressions can be misleading.
Anyone remember any other particularly clutch first hits?
Thanks to Dan Turkenkopf for research assistance.