If only all these position players could hit as well as Atlanta Braves pitcher Huascar Ynoa, we wouldn’t be hyperventilating about the feeble state of batting averages across the major leagues. The 22-year-old right-hander has now homered in consecutive starts, including a grand slam in Tuesday’s 6-1 victory over the Nationals. Two starts ago, he doubled and hit an RBI single. He’s 5-for-13 for the season with a .385 average and six RBIs.
He has more home runs and RBIs than Francisco Lindor, as many RBIs as Mookie Betts, more home runs than DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres combined. He has scored as many runs as Starlin Castro and Miguel Cabrera. Heck, since April, Ynoa is 5-for-8 with three extra-base hits, while his MVP teammate Freddie Freeman is 8-for-41 with three extra-base hits.
Not bad for a guy who had three professional at-bats entering the season, all in the minors in 2019 (he struck out all three times).
Facing hard-throwing Nationals reliever Tanner Rainey on Tuesday with two outs, the bases loaded and Atlanta up 2-0 in the sixth inning, Ynoa crushed an 0-1, 95 mph fastball 427 feet to center field, finishing with a one-handed follow through worthy of Manny Machado. He crossed home plate with a big smile on his face.
“Truth be told, I put a lot of work on my hitting [in] spring training. I put a lot of emphasis on it,” Ynoa said through a translator after the game.
He said he’s not swinging for the fences, though.
“All I’m trying to do is get on base and let the real hitters do their thing. Obviously, even though that one felt good, it’s the same mentality. I’m just going up there trying to get a hit.”
Ynoa’s grand slam was the first by a pitcher since Anthony DeSclafani in June 2018. He’s the first pitcher to homer in back-to-back starts since Steven Matz in September 2018.
Ynoa wasn’t the only pitcher to do damage at the plate Tuesday. White Sox starter Dylan Cease, playing an interleague game in Cincinnati, went 3-for-3 while also striking out 11 batters and allowing only one hit in six scoreless innings. He joins Jarrod Washburn as the only American League pitchers with a three-hit game since the introduction of interleague play and is the first AL pitcher with three hits and at least 10 strikeouts since Sam McDowell in 1969.
And he did it in the first at-bats of his professional career.
Cease didn’t even have his own hitting equipment — he used Jose Abreu’s bat and Adam Engel’s batting gloves. He said he hadn’t seen live pitching since his senior year of high school, which would have been back in 2014, so understandably he was more thrilled with his hitting than his pitching.
Career 1.000 BA and 1.500 SLG%. Is Dylan Cease the best hitter in Major League history? We’re just asking the question. pic.twitter.com/21R2osFDtA
— Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) May 5, 2021
As fun as the hitting results were, these are two young starters who need to perform on the mound to help their teams to the postseason. Ynoa wasn’t necessarily penciled into the rotation in the offseason, but with Mike Soroka injured at the start of the season, he beat out Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson for the fifth spot in the rotation. He’s 3-1 with a 2.36 ERA and an impressive 38-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 34.1 innings.
The key: Throwing strikes. He averaged 4.1 walks per nine innings in his minor league career and walked 13 in 21 innings for the Braves last season. “He’s a big strong kid,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said after the game. “He has no fear and he has weapons. That’s a pretty good combination.”
Cease made 26 starts in 2019 and 2020, and while he had a 4.01 ERA last season, the underlying numbers were not good. He led the AL in walks and served up 12 home runs in 58.1 innings, with a poor 1.29 strikeout-to-walk ratio. After failing to go five innings in his first four starts, he has now had back-to-back scoreless outings after throwing a seven-inning shutout against the Tigers in his previous star. Again, the key is throwing strikes: He has had 20 strikeouts and just three walks in his past two games. Yes, the Tigers are a hapless bunch, but the Reds entered the game leading the majors in runs per game.
Still, it’s the hitting highlights that have us talking about these two — and it’s a reminder that this is likely the last season we’ll get to talk about pitchers hitting, at least other than Shohei Ohtani. It’s expected the designated hitter will return to the National League in 2022, and while we will lose moments like the ones Ynoa and Cease provided on Tuesday, here’s where I remind you that pitchers are batting .108 this season and have struck out in over 46% of their plate appearances. Take out the sacrifice hits, and that percentage trickles over 50%.
But it’s a good night to get nostalgic about memorable moments in pitcher hitting. Here are my 10 favorites, in no particular order:
1. Tony Cloninger: two grand slams in one game
Cloninger went 3-for-5 with nine RBIs for the Braves in a 1966 game — which is tied with Adam Duvall for the franchise record for RBIs in one game. Cloninger was a pretty good hitting pitcher, batting .192 with 11 home runs in his career (five in 1966).
2. Rick Wise: no-hitter AND two home runs
Talk about doing it yourself. Wise no-hit the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati and drove in three of the Phillies’ four runs in a 4-0 victory in a 1971 game. Wise hit .237 with six home runs that season.
3. Earl Wilson: twice hit seven home runs in a season
A solid starter for the Red Sox and Tigers in the 1960s with 121 career wins, Wilson was one of the best hitting pitchers of all time, with a .195 average but 35 home runs in 740 at-bats. He hit .240/.299/.500 in 1966 with seven home runs and 22 RBIs and then hit .227 with seven home runs and 17 RBIs in 1968 (the Year of the Pitcher).
4. Jim Tobin: three home runs in one game
The only pitcher to hit three in one game, Tobin did it on May 13, 1942, for the Boston Braves in a 6-5 victory over the Cubs.
5. Walter Johnson: .433 average in 1925
Arguably the greatest pitcher of all time, Johnson’s .433 average is the highest for a pitcher in a season (I set a cutoff of 50 plate appearances). More remarkably, it came when he was 37 years old.
6. Dave McNally: World Series grand slam
The only pitcher to hit a grand slam in the World Series, McNally homered for the Orioles against the Reds in Game 3 in 1970. Interestingly, the only other pitcher grand slam in postseason history came 10 days earlier from Orioles teammate Mike Cuellar.
7. Terry Forster: .397 career average
David Letterman made him famous when he once called the longtime reliever a “fat tab of goo,” but Forster could hit — not that he got many opportunities. Over 16 seasons, he went 31-for-78, although he never hit a home run. He put the ball in play, striking out just nine times in 86 plate appearances.
8. Wes Ferrell: nine home runs in 1931
A six-time 20-game winner, Ferrell is regarded as the best hitting pitcher of all time, non-Babe Ruth or Ohtani division. He hit .280 in his career with 38 home runs, including a .319/.373/.621 line in 1931 with nine home runs and 30 RBIs.
9. Mike Hampton: seven home runs in 2001
Probably the best hitting pitcher of recent decades, Hampton hit .311 for the Astros in 1999, .291 with seven home runs for the Rockies in 2001 (three of those on road, FYI), .344 for the Rockies in 2002 and even .324 in his last full season with the Astros in 2009. He hit .246 with 16 home runs in his career. Madison Bumgarner has more home runs (19 to 16), but he has hit .177.
And finally, No. 10, the greatest hitting moment ever for a pitcher … you know what’s coming …
You know, given the way the Mets are hitting in 2021, maybe it’s time to bring a certain slugger out of retirement.