If there’s one thing I love, it’s baseball history, particularly obscure and esoteric history. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s hyperbole (I’ll resist the urge to make a tired, self-referential “I hate hyperbole so much that…” joke here). And yesterday, as the Brewers kicked off the 2016 season with an uninspiring 12-3 loss to the Giants, an instance of the latter caused me to dive into the former.
Let me explain. In that game, Madison Bumgarner took the hill for San Francisco. While he eventually earned the win, the outing had its share of bumps, chiefly in the second inning. Scooter Gennett led off the frame thusly:
Any hitter would take pride in a home run off an ace like Bumgarner. But as CBS Sports’ Matt Snyder wrote, this one was even more impressive (emphasis mine):
Heading into the game, here was Gennett’s career line against lefties in 119 plate appearances: .124/.147/.150 with zero home runs. Yes, his first career homer against a lefty came against Bumgarner, who entered Monday having held opposing lefties to a line of .211/.249/.311 in his career. It was the 17th homer a lefty had ever hit off Bumgarner, but it was also the most unlikely.
Because I’ve really taken a liking to Gennett, and because Brewers fandom overall has put a chip on my shoulder, this exaggerated statement really rubbed me the wrong way. Instead of getting mad online, though — and instead of realizing that Snyder had a point — I decided to redirect my anger in a more productive manner. I set out to look for other instances of truly unlikely home runs.
The journey began, as so many do, with the Play Index. I looked for two corresponding sets of players:
- left-handed Brewers hitters with a career OPS of less than .500 against lefties (minimum 100 PAs)
- right-handed Brewers hitters with a career OPS of less than .500 against righties (minimum 100 PAs)
Same-handed matchups tend to favor pitchers, as the aforementioned splits for Gennett and Bumgarner illustrate. These searches isolated the batters who really struggled in these regards. From there, I looked at the hitters with at least one career homer off a same-handed pitcher, then used the HR Log tool to trace the pitchers whom they’d touched up. Of these hurlers, I kept the ones who had a sub-.650 lifetime OPS to opponents who batted from the same side.
The result? This listicle. During their tenures in Milwaukee, all of these batters struggled to hit same-handed pitching (like Gennett). During their major-league careers, all of these pitchers cut down same-handed hitting (like Bumgarner. At some point, however, their destinies crossed; the result was, to say the least, unlikely.
Ray Oyler vs. Luis Tiant
Oyler career* vs. RHP: .154/.256/.236
Tiant career vs. RHB: .228/.283/.360
*These numbers, and the ones for the subsequent hitters, are for their careers with the Brewers.
Technically, Oyler didn’t play for the Brewers, but for the Pilots. He accumulated 291 awful plate appearances in 1969, which was the only year the team resided in Seattle and the second-to-last year of his career. During that season, he hit awfully overall — with a .165/.260/.267 triple-slash — and against right-handed pitching. Tiant, on the other hand, generally held down righties (and lefties) over the course of a solid, underrated career.
None of that mattered on June 3, 1969. Tiant, pitching for the Indians, cruised through the first four innings, allowing two walks and no hits. In the fifth frame, he retired the first two men to come to the plate, but Oyler had other plans. He deposited a pitch into the Sick’s Stadium seats, which provided the lone score in a 3-1 Brewers loss. Not bad, for the 68th-worst baseball player of all time (ooh, so close).
Bill Parsons vs. Jim Palmer
Parsons career vs. RHP: .173/.217/.224
Palmer career vs. RHB: .225/.285/.353
Although Parsons was a pitcher, he played for the Brewers in 1971 and 1972, before the American League instituted the designated hitter. That meant he had to fight his way through a few plate appearances a start, and like most pitchers with a bat, he had no hope. Palmer’s batting doesn’t concern us; we just need to know that he excelled at the pitching part of his job, and he has the spot in Cooperstown to prove it.
With that said, Palmer didn’t exactly show off his talent on June 15, 1971. When the Brewers took on the Orioles, Palmer gave up five runs in 5.2 innings. The second of those came in the fourth frame, when Parsons led off with a solo shot — the only long ball he ever hit. In a 6-5 Milwaukee victory, that one run made all the difference. Although Parsons would be out of baseball by 1976, he’d always have that proud, unbelievable moment to look back on.
John Vukovich vs. Nolan Ryan
Vukovich career vs. RHP: .130/.174/.191
Ryan career vs. RHB: .204/.301/.304
I’ve ordered these chronologically, but if I sequenced them by degree of likeliness, this would go first. Vukovich was god awful — he had a lifetime batting line, overall, of .161/.203/.222 — and Ryan was one of the best pitchers ever. As they say, though, you can’t predict baseball. Every so often, even the best screw up, and even the worst luck out.
That’s pretty much the only way to account for what happened on June 5, 1974. The Brewers faced off against the Angels, and in the bottom of the fifth inning, Ryan caught a little too much of the plate. Vukovich cracked a two-run shot, one of just six in his career, to give the Brew Crew a 4-2 lead. Eduardo Rodriguez would eventually give it back, and the team ended up losing 6-5, but that doesn’t negate Vukovich’s incredible accomplishment.
Logan Schafer vs. Tony Cingrani
Schafer career vs. LHP: .172/.231/.263
Cingrani career vs. LHB: .209/.299/.340
For the last example, we actually have physical evidence:
This remains the only home run Schafer’s ever hit off a southpaw — and one of a mere five as a whole. Cingrani’s moved to the bullpen as something of a LOOGY, which seems to suit him, given his success against left-handers. Still, in 2013 he seemed to have a bright future as a starter in Cincinnati’s up-and-coming rotation.
Perhaps the events of July 9, 2013 portended his future. Cingrani dueled Wily Peralta, and through the first four innings, neither team had scored. That changed in the fifth, when Schafer followed up a walk to Martin Maldonaldo with that monster tater to center. While Milwaukee didn’t add any more runs after those two, it didn’t need to — it still walked away with the 2-0 win. Sure, Schafer doesn’t have a job right now, but he can at least reminisce on happier times, when he knocked an unlikely homer.
Oyler, Parsons, Vukovich, and Schafer had (or have had) unexceptional runs, at best. Gennett probably has more skill than any of them, which explains why the Brewers continue to start him. If he can prove that his homer off Bumgarner was no fluke — and he seems to think he’ll perform better against lefties — he won’t have to look back on one play, no matter how unlikely, as the highlight of his career.