Putting Bumgarner's bat in perspective
Pitcher's three home runs are impressive, but history is filled with hurlers who can hit
NEW YORK -- Just a second. What is the big fuss about Madison Bumgarner? So he's hit three home runs this season, and two of them have been grand slams. Nice, but before we re-involve ourselves in the pennant races, please allow for a repeat of the question and some explanation of why hitting three home runs, two of them slams, in a season doesn't seem like all that much to folks who monitored the game before last week.
So the question remains: "What's the big deal?" If Bumgarner hits another slam, then it's worth a doubletake or two. But for now and for the last 48 years, another grand slam achievement by a pitcher takes precedence. And, really, it's about more than merely a grand slam or two.
It hardly is a secret that Tony Cloninger, then a pitcher with the Braves, hit two slams in one game in 1966. He did it, we're aware of it, we marvel at it, but please understand that the slams he hit against the Giants at Candlestick Park on July 3, 1966, were only half the story; half if we're counting runs batted in.
Cloninger drove in nine runs that day -- eight with his slams against Bob Priddy, the Giants' second pitcher, with two out in the first inning and against Ray Sadecki in the fourth. He also contributed a run-scoring single against Sadecki in the eighth. So he was responsible for more than half the Braves' runs in the 17-3 victory.
Now, this is where Cloninger's production becomes even more remarkable. Seventeen days earlier, he had hit two home runs in another victory in which the Braves scored 17 runs. They came against the Mets in Atlanta. Cloninger hit a three-run home run against former Braves teammate Dave Eilers in the third inning and a two-run homer against Larry Bearnarth in the sixth.
Do the math: His five RBIs on June 16, the nine on July 3 and the two, two-RBI games he produced against the Phillies on June 20 and against the Dodgers five days later put Cloninger's RBI total for 18 days (five starts and 22 at-bats, including one as a pinch-hitter) at 18.
Do the comparison: Teammates Henry Aaron and Joe Torre drove in 127 and 101 runs respectively that season. Aaron led the National League in RBIs. But in a 57 at-bat sequence that covered the same period as Cloninger's 22 at-bats, Aaron drove in seven runs. Torre had 58 at-bats in that period and drove in 12.
Now that we're here, please allow the following to serve as a more of a primer/reminder of the offensive prowess of other select pitchers. A pitcher producing at the level Cloninger reached -- even for 18 days -- is unheard of these days. A single here and there, maybe an occasional double. Then there is Bumgarner who has hit three home runs in merely 40 at-bats this season and five in a career that has yielded 264 at-bats. Nice work.
But of course his production hardly compares with that of pitchers of years past, namely Wes Ferrell, Bob Lemon, Warren Spahn, Red Ruffing and Earl Wilson. Each hit at least 30 home runs in his career. Ferrell has the most among pitchers, 37, including a record nine in 1931. Lemon and Spahn hit 35 each.
Spahn was such a proficient batter, he once pinch-hit for Torre.
Other pitchers have produced distinctive offensive achievements. Hall of Famer Bob Gibson hit 24 career homers. Gary Peters, the American League Rookie of the Year with the White Sox in 1963, hit four home runs as a pinch-hitter and 15 others as a pitcher.
Carlos Zambrano, who retired after 2012, is the most recent Babe Ruth among pitchers, having hit 24, all but one with the Cubs. And he hit six in one year, 2006. Jim Kaat hit 16, one for each of the Gold Gloves he won and two after 1973, the season the designated hitter rule was introduced. He played mostly in the National League after 1975.
And Babe Ruth, who hit 700 home runs as a position player, hit 14 as a pitcher, 12 with the Red Sox, two with the Yankees. One of the two came in a game in 1921 -- he hit a second as a center fielder -- and one in the final game of the 1931 season. It was the Babe's final appearance as a pitcher. He threw a complete game in the Yankees' 6-5 victory against the Red Sox. The game lasted one hour, 38 minutes.
Think those teams wanted to start the offeseason?
* * *
Another home run accomplished of note by a pitcher happened in 1955, the year Don Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers put his name on the list of pitchers -- now there are eight, including Mike Hampton -- to hit seven home runs in a season.
The cool element in his best home run season is that Newcombe hit two home runs in a game twice in six weeks. Take that, Madison.
Newcombe pinch-hit 106 times in his career. He batted .300 or higher, all at-bats included, in seven seasons, peaking at .417 in 1958, the Dodgers' first season in Los Angeles. His career batting totals include a .270 average, 15 home runs, three triples, 33 doubles, 94 runs and 108 RBIs in 901 plate appearances. He pinch-hit in 23 games in 1955, batting .381.
Not that today's pitchers don't hit, but ...
* * *
And one more: Sandy Koufax was a notoriously poor hitter. His .097 career batting average is the first hint. His highest single-season average came in 1965 when he had -- drum roll, please -- 20 hits. Yes, 20. But he started 41 games, completed 27, amassed 113 at-bats and batted .177. He even drove in seven runs.
But here's the kicker. Koufax walked 10 times. Indeed, he twice drew two walks in a game. One game came against the Astros, and Koufax also doubled for his first extra-base hit in more than two years. Later that summer, he walked with one out and the bases empty in the 10th inning of a game in Los Angeles against the Pirates.
Manager Walter Alston probably thought Koufax had another five or six scoreless innings in that wondrous left arm; he used no pinch-runner. And Koufax scored from second base on an error in right field by Roberto Clemente, of all people.
What a game that must have been.
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.