Best batter-pitcher matchups of all time
May, 24, 2012
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
AP Photo/Eric RisbergBarry Bonds hit three home runs in 49 at-bats against left-handed power thrower Randy Johnson.The other night I tweeted something like, "Would love to see Aroldis Chapman face 2001 Barry Bonds." On the Baseball Today podcast, we had a reader ask us about best pitcher-hitter matchups to watch for over the next few years.
With that prompt, I'd thought it would be fun to list 10 of my all-time favorite matchups I would have wanted to see ... although a few of them are recent enough that some of us did see them. With help from Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org, we can even find results of the matchups.
Ty Cobb versus Walter Johnson (.366, 1 HR)
According to researcher Terry Cullen, Cobb hit .366 in his career off Johnson (120-for-328) -- pretty amazing considering Cobb's average against all pitchers was ... .366. While Cobb reportedly said Johnson's fastball "looked about the size of a watermelon seed and it hissed at you as it passed," he certainly didn't have issues hitting it. Cobb knew Johnson was too nice to pitch inside, so he'd crowd the plate. "I saw him wince when he fired one close to somebody's head, and he used to tell me that he was afraid someday that he would kill a man with that fireball," Cobb once said. "So I used to cheat. I'd crowd that plate so far that I was actually sticking my toes on it when I was facing Johnson. I knew he was timid about hitting a batter, and when he saw me crowding the plate he'd steer his pitches a little bit wide. Then with two balls and no strikes, he'd ease up a bit to get it over. That's the Johnson pitch I hit. I was depending on him to be scared of hitting me." Now, that's what Cobb said; seems a little too simple though, doesn't it? Why didn't every hitter do that? There's no doubt the approach helped Cobb, but unlike most hitters, he could hit Johnson's fastball. (By the way, his only home run off Johnson was an inside-the-parker.)
Babe Ruth versus Lefty Grove (incomplete)
Some say Grove was the best pitcher of all time -- 300 wins with a .680 winning percentage, nine ERA titles, seven consecutive strikeout titles. Wouldn't you love to see Ruth taking a big cut against Grove's legendary fastball? I couldn't find Ruth career's numbers against Grove, but he did hit nine home runs off him, tied with Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg for the most against Grove. In the data Retrosheet has available, Ruth hit .300/.349/.438 with three home runs in 80 at-bats, six walks and 27 K's.
Ted Williams versus Bob Feller (.347/.467/.677, 9 HR in 124 ABs)
Those numbers are from Retrosheet, but are incomplete. From 1948 to 1956, Williams crushed Feller -- .389/.511/.833, with eight home runs in 72 at-bats. So, at least initially, Feller fared better before Williams started dominating. Williams did call Feller the best pitcher he ever faced.
Willie Mays versus Bob Gibson (.196/.315/.304, 3 HR in 92 ABs)
With his fastball/slider combo, you might expect that Gibson was tough on right-handed batters and you'd be correct: right-handers hit .204 against him, left-handers .257. Basically, he owned Mays, who struck out 30 times in 108 plate appearances and had just four extra-base hits. In James Hirsch's biography of Mays he tells the story of Gibson once visiting Mays' home wearing glasses. Gibson didn't wear them when he pitched. "You wear glasses? Man, you're going to kill somebody one of those days," Mays said. Hirsch writes that later in his career Mays started conveniently scheduling off days against hard-throwers like Gibson and Tom Seaver, and that he always preferred off-speed pitches to fastballs.
Hank Aaron versus Bob Gibson (.215/.278/.423, 8 HR in 163 ABs)
Aaron had a little more success than Mays. So who did hit well against Gibson? Billy Williams hit .259 but with 10 home runs in 174 at-bats and 24 walks against 14 strikeouts. Richie Hebner had a 1.127 OPS against Gibson in 74 PAs, batting .387. Darrell Evans, facing mostly the late-career Gibson, never struck out against him in 35 PAs, drawing 11 walks and and hitting three home runs.
Willie Mays versus Sandy Koufax (.278/.426/.536, 5 HR in 97 ABs)
Of course, Mays faced the young Koufax, and then the unhittable Koufax. During Koufax's 1962-1966 run, when he led the National League each season in ERA, Mays still hit a respectable .242/.373/.484, with more walks than strikeouts.
Hank Aaron versus Sandy Koufax (.362/.431/.647, 7 HR in 116 ABs)
Of 73 players with at least 40 career plate appearances against Koufax, only five hit .300. Most of that damage was against pre-'62 Koufax, as Aaron hit .259 from '62 to '66.
Mike Schmidt versus Nolan Ryan (.179/.405/.482, 5 HR in 56 ABs)
Ryan came over to the Astros in 1980, the year Schmidt won the first of his three MVP trophies. In the ultimate battle of power hitter versus power pitcher, the results were perhaps what you would expect: Schmidt hit for a low average, but got on base and popped home runs at a pretty good ratio.
Barry Bonds versus Greg Maddux (.265/.376/.508, 9 HR in 132 ABs)
The two came up in 1986, so it's not surprising that Maddux faced Bonds more than any hitter in his career. How good was Bonds? Even the pitcher with pinpoint control walked him 24 times in 157 PAs with just 16 strikeouts. Bonds' nine home runs off Maddux are the most he hit off one pitcher, tied with John Smoltz. Bonds had an .883 OPS against Maddux, but 1.138 against Smoltz and .992 against Tom Glavine. Who did own Bonds? He went 3-for-33 off Chuck McElroy, with just one walk (although two home runs).
Barry Bonds versus Randy Johnson (.306/.452/.551, 3 HR in 49 ABs)
Johnson had 37 intentional walks in his career; 34 were to right-handed batters. Two were to Barry Bonds. The other? Jeremy Hermida. Go figure. The first walk to Bonds came in 2003, runner on second, no outs, sixth inning, Diamondbacks down 2-0. The second one came in 2004 and is more interesting: 2004, game tied in the fifth, runners on first and second. Edgardo Alfonzo hit a fly ball to deep left-center that Luis Gonzalez dropped; Steve Finley was then credited with an error on the throw in as all three runners scored. The walk to Hermida came in 2008, in a game Hermida was batting eighth. Maybe that's when Johnson knew he was nearing the end.
What are some of your favorite matchups?
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.