It makes sense that great players tend to provide the biggest challenge to other greats.
Tony Gwynn broke Greg Maddux’s spell. Chipper Jones pummeled Randy Johnson. Roy Halladay shut down Derek Jeter. Mike Mussina stifled Ken Griffey Jr.
But baseball is a funny game, and so sometimes, a superstar finds an unlikely nemesis. As The Athletic’s Andrew Baggarly pointed out, the pitcher whom Ichiro Suzuki faced the most without getting a hit was none other than Ryan Vogelsong (0-for-15). You just never know.
Baseball history supplies numerous examples, but we’ve picked out 10 notable ones in which a Hall of Famer struggled against an unexpected foe. The selections here feature a minimum of 40 head-to-head plate appearances, including the postseason.
Hitters vs. HOF pitchers
“I had to hit somebody in the league, or I would have been out of there quick,” Redmond said, looking back on his career. “For whatever reason, I had a lot of success against [Glavine].” It certainly seemed mysterious. Redmond had a 13-year career as a backup catcher, never getting 300 plate appearances in a season and finishing with a .700 OPS and 13 homers.
In fact, Redmond’s apparent mastery of Glavine between 1998-2004 was so pronounced that it inspired an essay -- “What does Mike Redmond know about Tom Glavine?” -- in the 2006 Baseball Prospectus collection, “Baseball Between the Numbers.” The essay’s author, current Astros general manager James Click, explored the viability of batter-vs.-pitcher splits through the lens of this particular example, and he concluded that while certain player characteristics such as handedness can impact results, Redmond’s success could be attributed to the small sample size, similar to how flipping a coin enough times can sometimes yield long runs of it landing on heads.
“Almost certainly, Mike Redmond doesn’t own Tom Glavine,” Click wrote. “He was just lucky,” and going forward, would not be expected to continue his dominance. In fact, that dominance had already ended. After starting his career 21-for-37 against Glavine, Redmond finished it 0 for his last 11.
Famous for getting inside opponents’ heads, Maddux once said that if a pitcher can change speeds, hitters are helpless -- “Except for that [expletive] Tony Gwynn.” Gwynn hit .415 against Maddux. Morandini was not quite that prolific, but then again, he wasn’t exactly Gwynn. The second baseman put together an 11-year career and was an All-Star in 1995, though he hit .268 with a .697 OPS overall. It might have been bad luck for Morandini that he faced Maddux 43 more times than any other pitcher, but he turned it into a positive, with nine extra-base hits. And Maddux wasn’t his only superstar victim. Morandini also hit .344 against John Smoltz (64 at-bats) and .370 against Pedro Martínez (27 at-bats).
While limited against lefties, Catalanotto was quite an effective hitter against righties (.816 OPS) over 14 seasons. Even so, his Moose mastery is eye-popping. Catalanotto faced Mussina more than any other pitcher and produced at least a 1.000 OPS in seven of the eight seasons in which they sparred, smacking 10 extra-base hits and driving in 10 runs. As a Tigers rookie in 1998, Catalanotto broke up a Mussina perfect game bid with two outs in the eighth inning, setting the tone for the rest of their careers. “I assume he’s going to get a hit,” Mussina said in 2008. “If it’s a lousy single up the middle or a ground ball to right field, I’ll take it every time, because I know he’s going to get a hit.”
Compared with some other entries on this list, that slash line is rather modest. Then again, Reboulet was a utility infielder with a career 72 OPS+ going up against one of the most overpowering pitchers in MLB history. In 1997, when the Big Unit finished second in the AL Cy Young Award race for Seattle, Reboulet (then with Baltimore) went 3-for-6 with a homer and three walks against him. To cap it off, he smacked a first-inning homer off Johnson in Game 4 of the AL Division Series, helping the Orioles earn a clinching victory over the big left-hander. “It was just one of those days when I got lucky,” Reboulet said afterward. “I don’t hit a lot of home runs. I just put the bat on the ball and let Randy’s speed do the rest.”
Ryan is the all-time leader in opponent batting average and hits allowed per nine innings. Ramírez, his 1988 Astros teammate, was a shortstop who hit .261 with a 77 OPS+ over 13 seasons. But of the 60 hitters to log at least 50 at-bats against the Ryan Express, only two-time Silver Slugger winner George Hendrick and Carl Yastrzemski did so with a higher average than Ramírez, who smacked three doubles and two homers. True, all of that production came after Ryan turned 33, but then again, he remained awfully tough to hit well past his 40th birthday.
Of the 56 hitters who faced Koufax at least 50 times, the best OPS belonged to Hank Aaron. The third-best OPS belonged to Willie Mays. The man in between them was Oliver, a part-time catcher, first baseman and outfielder who spent most of his career with the Cardinals and Braves. Oliver was an above-average hitter for his career, producing a 115 OPS+ in his prime from 1961-65. But that coincided with one of the great pitching primes the game has ever seen. During the time span in which they matched up (1959-66), opponents hit a collective .201/.263/.306 against Koufax. Oliver had no such trouble. During arguably Koufax’s finest season (1963), when the lefty won both the NL MVP and Cy Young Awards and allowed a .501 OPS, Oliver was 6-for-14 with a double, two homers and six RBIs.
Pitchers vs. HOF hitters
Lieber is perhaps not Bagwell’s most well-known nemesis. That would be sidearming former Reds reliever Scott Sullivan, who held him hitless in 24 at-bats, a fact about which Bagwell was very well aware. On the other hand, Sullivan was tough on righties, and even so, Bagwell drew six walks against him (versus seven strikeouts) in 31 plate appearances.
What stands out about Bagwell’s battles with Lieber is the righty’s 20-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Lieber was a steady, productive starter for many years, but hardly a strikeout artist (career 6.4 K/9). Meanwhile, over the span in which the two went head-to-head (1994-2002), Bagwell walked (978) nearly as much as he struck out (1,001). Yet not only could Bagwell manage only one extra-base hit off Lieber, he struck out as many times against him as he did in 136 combined plate appearances against Smoltz and Martínez.
Gross threw nearly 2,500 innings across 15 MLB seasons, but rarely in overpowering fashion, aside from a no-hitter in 1992. Against Biggio, though, he might as well have been peak Pedro. Over Biggio’s first seven MLB seasons, when he had a 116 OPS+ overall, he was 3-for-42 with no extra-base hits, two walks and eight strikeouts against Gross. It’s no wonder that when Biggio was asked about his toughest foe in 2015, he didn’t hesitate to name Gross, adding that he did get another hit off the righty during Spring Training. "I was running to first and he turned around and said, 'That one doesn't count,'" Biggio said.
Jay is a member of the Reds’ Hall of Fame, having won 21 games apiece in 1961-62, helping lead Cincinnati to the NL pennant in the first of those years, when he threw a complete game against the Yankees for his club’s only victory in that World Series. Still, the righty was roughly a league-average performer over the course of his 13-year career (99 ERA+), while Mays and Musial are two of the greatest hitters the game has ever seen. Of the 46 players who faced Jay at least 40 times, those two Hall of Famers have two of the four lowest OPS figures, and neither contributed to their combined total of 1,135 homers. Mays in particular struggled against Jay, walking once and striking out 13 times.
How much of an outlier was Wells? Of the 62 pitchers unfortunate enough to face Ruth at least 45 times, the left-hander was one of two not to allow a home run, and his .585 OPS allowed was more than 200 points lower than the closest competitor. Wells, with a career 4.65 ERA and .766 opponent OPS, tasted most of his success in the matchup from 1923-26, when he was with the Tigers and the Babe was slashing .364/.502/.709. According to Wells’ SABR biography, the slugger told Wells he would get him to New York. When the pitcher in fact did join the team in ‘29, Ruth joked with him, “See, I told you I’d get you to the Yankees!”