The Rockies' Jason Jennings is the only pitcher in history to throw a shutout, and hit a home run, in his first major league start. The shutout is rare, but it's the home run that separated him. And it was no fluke. Jennings is our choice for the best hitting pitcher in the big leagues.
"He's phenomenal,'' said Brewers third base coach Rich Donnelly, who was a coach for the Rockies in Jennings' first two years in the majors (2001 and '02). "I threw BP to him the day after we signed him. I threw about 10 minutes, and he hit four balls into the upper deck at Coors Field. I said to myself 'what are we doing signing this kid as a pitcher? Why are we giving him all this money to pitch? Let's put him at first base and let him hit.' Todd Helton said 'no, make him a
Jennings has plenty of competition. Mike Hampton, Mark Prior, Livan Hernandez, Russ Ortiz, Jason Schmidt, Woody Williams, Guillermo Mota (former infielder), Wes Obermuller (former outfielder), Darren Dreifort (22 home runs his final year at Wichita State), Dontrelle Willis, Rick Ankiel, Darren Oliver, Adam Eaton, Kerry Wood and John Smoltz are among the many really good hitting pitchers (we are not including Brooks Kieshnick, a former outfielder who has made it back to the major leagues as a pitcher for the Brewers). In 2004, big league pitchers hit 26 homers. In 1991-92, pitchers hit 12 each year.
"Everyone is hitting homers today,'' said Bob Boone, special assistant to the GM for the Nationals. "Everyone is bigger and stronger. Why wouldn't it be the same with pitchers?''
Jennings has two career home runs, but he is much more than a home run hitter. His .257 batting average is the highest among active pitchers with at least 100 at-bats. His .347 slugging percentage is the second highest, trailing only Hampton (.349; Hampton, thanks to one big year at Coors, has the most career homers among active pitchers with 14. Wood is next with seven). "I know he could hit seventh in a lot of lineups,'' Donnelly said.
Jennings always has been a good hitter. "Until my junior year in high school,'' he said, "I was a better catcher than I was a pitcher.'' At Baylor University, he hit 17 home runs as a sophomore and 16 as a junior. Included in those 33 was a game-winning homer off Ben Sheets of Northeast Louisiana. "We have the same agent, we still laugh about it,'' said Jennings.
Jennings' homer in his first major league start came off Donnie Wall. His other came off Greg Maddux, who also hit a home run in that game. Jennings is very modest about his achievements as a hitter, but says, "the way I look at it, I'm just as good as Todd Helton -- well, not really -- but I'm one of the nine guys in the lineup, I'm a good hitter, I have a chance to knock in a run and get us a win. Many years ago, pitchers were looked at as an out in the lineup. But nowadays, pitchers want to knock in a run and help us get a few wins.''
An hour before doing this interview by phone, Jennings was taking batting practice in a cage in Colorado, where he lives in the offseason. During the season, Rockies' pitchers take batting practice at home before every night game. On the road, they only hit on days that they pitch, but each day, they take five minutes of hitting in the cage. "I'd much rather hit on the field,'' Jennings said. "But it's better than nothing.''
Jennings, a left-handed hitter, says the toughest pitcher he has ever faced is, naturally, Randy Johnson. "I've faced him way too many times,'' Jennings said with a laugh. "I'm so glad he's in the other league (now).'' Lifetime against the Big Unit, Jennings is 2-for-8, including two doubles in one game -- the only pitcher ever to get two extra-base hits off Johnson in one game. "The first one, he blew up my bat and I dumped one over the first baseman's head,'' Jennings said. "The second one, I guessed slider, and got a slider. Third time up, he dialed it up to about 110. He was really upset. I was scared to death.''
Still, Jennings didn't strike out. He pulled a ground ball to the second baseman.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.