Every pitcher has at least one hitter who they dread facing. For pitchers who are in the Hall of Fame, it is easy to assume that their most difficult match-ups were fellow inductees, but quite often it was actually just the opposite. For as great as they were, Hall of Fame pitchers always seem to have some light hitters that they had a hard time getting out. It is impossible to say why they struggled against these little known batsmen, but for whatever reason, they were harder to get out than most hitters they faced.
Bert Blyleven: 287 wins; 3,701 strikeouts; 3.31 ERA; HOF 2011- It took until his final year on the ballot, but Blyleven was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame this year after a worthy career. He often pitched for losing teams, but was one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball for the better part of 20 years. Blyleven had an interesting stat line against Oddibe McDowell. McDowell was a .253 career hitter, with 74 home runs over seven Major League seasons. It seemed that the matchup he had with Blyleven was always feast for one and famine for the other, but seesawed back and forth in terms of who had the upper hand. McDowell went 12 for 32 with 5 walks and five home runs against Blyleven. But on the other hand, Blyleven struck him out 12 times.
Steve Carlton: 329 wins; 4,136 strikeouts; 3.22 ERA; HOF 1994- Back-up catcher Bill Plummer was the type of player who was never going to hit much, but his team knew he would be able to catch every 6th or 7th day to spell the starter, and call a good game. He was dependable enough to play in the Majors for ten years despite having just a .188 career average and striking out in almost a quarter of his at bats. However, he was a completely different player against Carlton, going 6 for 14, with 2 home runs and 2 doubles. He also never struck out against the pitcher with the 4th most strike outs of all time
Bob Gibson: 251 wins; 3,117 strikeouts; 2.91 ERA; HOF 1981- Gibson was as intimidating a pitcher as the game has ever seen. He is well known for buzzing hitters whenever he felt they were too close to the plate, and for being so tough that he once pitched a World Series game on a broken leg. None of that seemed to matter to Tim Foli, a sixteen year Major League veteran infielder. Foli hit a punchless .250 in his career, with just 20 home runs in 6,047 career at bats. Foli did not seem to be intimidated by Gibson, because he had 14 hits in 29 at bats, with 2 home runs. He also produced a double and a triple, and only struck out 3 times against the great St. Louis right hander.
Sandy Koufax: 165 wins; 2,396 strikeouts; 2.76 ERA; HOF 1972- For as great as he was, it is downright scary to think of what Koufax’s final numbers would have been if an arthritic arm hadn’t forced him to retire at age 31. With his blazing fastball and devastating curve, Koufax mowed through National League hitters during his prime, with one exception being catcher Hal Smith. Smith played in the Majors for seven seasons, hitting .258 with 23 home runs in 1,997 career at bats. He saved his best efforts for when he faced Koufax. In 33 official at bats against him, Smith got 12 hits, including 4 doubles, a triple, and a home run. He even drew 3 walks for good measure, and only struck out 4 times.
Phil Niekro: 318 wins; 3,342 strikeouts; 3.35 ERA; HOF 1998- Randy Bass got into 130 Major League games over six seasons with five different teams. He hit .212 with 9 home runs and 42 RBI during that time, but never got his bat going. If he had gotten to face Niekro a little more, he may have had more opportunity in the Big Leagues. Although he had just 11 at bats against Niekro, Bass delivered 7 hits, including a home run. Without facing Niekro, his career batting average would have only been .197, so fortunately he was able to get his licks in against the future Hall of Famer in order to put his career average over the “Mendoza Line.”
Nolan Ryan: 324 wins; 5,714 strikeouts; 3.19 ERA; HOF 1999- The “Ryan Express” got a lot of hitters out during his career, particularly by way of the strikeout, but Andres Thomas was not usually one of them. Thomas, a career .234 career hitter for the hapless Atlanta Braves of the 1980’s. He had a paltry .255 OPB for his career, but went 6 for 15 against Ryan, with 2 home runs and just 1 strikeout.
Tom Seaver: 311 wins; 3,640 strikeouts; 2.86 ERA; HOF 1992- No matter how great Seaver pitched, one of the lightest hitters in the National League during the 1960’s seemed to have his number. Infielder Woody Woodward played nine seasons in the Majors, hitting .236, with 1 home run in 2,187 career at bats. His career .294 OPB and .287 slugging percentage are indicative that his value came from his glove and not his bat. That is, except when he faced Seaver. In 31 career at bats against Seaver, Woodward banged out 12 hits, including 2 doubles, while only striking out once.
Don Sutton: 324 wins; 3,574 strikeouts; 3.26 ERA; HOF 1998- The highest batting average that Gary Sutherland mustered in a full season was .258, and was typically well below that. During his 13 year career he hit .243 with 24 home runs, and had a slugging percentage of just .308. Sutherland likely wished he could have hit against Sutton every game, given his 11 for 27 with 5 doubles.
The lack of success that these Hall of Fame pitchers had against some less productive hitters proves that everyone in the Major Leagues is talented on some level. It also shows that at times players can just read some pitchers better than others for whatever reason. Fortunately for these all time great pitchers, they got to face other hitters too, because otherwise, they may not have gone on to become legends that are enshrined in Cooperstown.