Akil Baddoo joins Keith McDonald (who?), Jason Heyward and Will Clark on list of unforgettable first-AB homersavril 5, 2021
Tigers rookie Akil Baddoo popped an opposite field home run in the third inning against Cleveland on Sunday, joining pretty select company. He’s the 126th player in MLB history to hit a home run in his first at-bat. It’s a very cool accomplishment.
Two innings later, Baddoo tried and failed — just like 16,860 other players in MLB history with at least two career plate appearances — to join Keith McDonald in one of the most exclusive home run clubs in MLB history. You’re probably thinking, “Wait, who?”
McDonald, the former Cardinals catcher, is one of only two player to hit home runs in his first two career PAs; St. Louis Browns outfielder Bob Nieman was the first, popping two on Sept. 14, 1951, at Fenway Park.
And that isn’t even the most exclusive home-run club McDonald is a part of. He’s the sole member of the “at least three career hits, with every hit being a home run” club. McDonald had three hits in his career, and all three were homers.
By contrast, the 700-home run club — consisting of Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth — feels like a crowded NYC subway platform in pre-pandemic days.
It’s really quite incredible.
“That’s kind of the joke,” McDonald said with a laugh in a phone conversation with Sporting News last fall. “I’m the greatest slugger of all time.”
McDonald was, by his own labeling, an “organizational guy.” Far from a top prospect — he was a 24th-round pick in the 1994 MLB Draft — McDonald was, in a manner of speaking, kind of like Crash Davis. He spent a total of nine years in Triple-A, often handling an organization’s top pitching prospects. With the Cardinals, he was essentially Rick Ankiel’s personal catcher in 1999, both at Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Memphis. He caught highly touted pitching prospects Chad Hutchinson and Matt DeWitt, too.
So he was a big part of the organization’s future, even if the club wasn’t exactly counting on his bat. McDonald had only hit 28 home runs in 463 career minor league games heading into the 2000 season, and he’d just hit one in 2000 before finally getting the call to the bigs at 27 years old when backup catcher Eli Marrero landed on the DL. He made his debut in a game the Cardinals were leading 13-3 against the Reds. Andy Larkin was on the mound.
“It’s Fourth of July in St. Louis. It’s packed, a day game,” McDonald said. “I get in the box and you have that rush of emotions and stuff. You’re thinking, ‘I’m here! I did it!” First pitch was right down the middle for a strike, and I’m like, ‘Oh, dear God, I’ve got to hit.’ The second pitch was about in the same place, and I just dropped the bat on the ball and hit a line drive foul to the right. And then, ‘Oh, God, no. Now I need to pay attention. This isn’t just for fun anymore.’ I worked it to 2-2 and he gave me a fastball.
“After pitch three or four, I thought he might be tipping his pitches, so I guessed fastball, off how I thought I saw him grip the baseball. You try and get every advantage possible, right? I mean, without setting up TV monitors and banging trash cans. If you can figure out how somebody’s tipping pitches, or they get into a rut where in a certain count after it’s been set up a certain way, you’ve got to take advantage of that stuff best you can.”
McDonald deposited that fastball over the fence in left-center, a couple of rows deep.
“I hit the ball off the end of the bat, actually,” McDonald said. “That was the juiced ball year, like it was this past year. So I hit it off the end of the bat and I was like, ‘Awesome! Double! Get to second, you slow piece of s—.’ I tripped over first base and almost fell. It was pretty funny. I didn’t know it was gone until I saw the second-base umpire give the signal for the home run. I was just trying to get to second base.”
Two days later, McDonald got what would be the only start of his MLB career, batting eighth in the Cardinals lineup. Mark McGwire was batting fourth, Eric Davis was fifth, Fernando Tatis was sixth and J.D. Drew was hitting seventh. Batting ninth? Ankiel. Osvaldo Hernandez was on the mound for the Reds
“Tony La Russa said, ‘This guy’s got a really good two-seamer, so he’ll probably start you off with that. Just be ready for it,’” McDonald said. “He threw me a first-pitch two-seamer that was pretty nasty, down and in. Then he threw a get-even fastball and I hit it out. I kinda felt like that one was out, so I was able to enjoy that one a little more.”
McDonald’s home-run streak ended with a four-pitch walk in the third inning. He had an RBI groundout in the fifth and struck out in the seventh. McDonald grounded out in his next at-bat, against the White Sox on July 13, then came to the plate on the 15th with two outs in the ninth inning of a game the Cardinals were losing 15-5.
McDonald homered again, a two-run shot that scored Eduardo Perez.
That would be the last hit of his career. McDonald was sent down a few days later, and he didn’t return to the bigs that year. “The Cardinals gave me a nice Rolex for the second homer,” McDonald said. “I still wear it. They gave it to me when I got sent down to Triple-A. The director of player personnel, Mike Jorgenson, came down and gave it to me before a game.”
He had two at-bats for the Cardinals in 2001, in late September, and that was the end of his MLB career. McDonald played Triple-A ball until 2006, moving from the Cubs to the Pirates to the Rangers and finally to the Yankees. He retired with a career .333/.455/1.333 slash line in the majors, with a 329 OPS+ in 11 PAs covering eight games. His career minor league slash line: .264/.337/.400, with 78 homers and a .737 OPS in 984 games.
The record he shares with Nieman is a strange piece of history to hold. On one hand, he did something only one other person in MLB history had ever accomplished. On the other hand, that club could get crowded quickly. “Any day. Any single day,” McDonald said. “And with everybody trying to hit home runs now?”
Last August, Keibert Ruiz, the rookie catcher for the Dodgers, hit a home run in his first AB.
“My first thought,” McDonald said with a laugh, “was, ‘God, I hope he doesn’t hit a second one.’ I’m the Dolphins. Hell, yeah, I am. Just like when New England lost in the Super Bowl. They couldn’t have been happier.
“It’s been fun to be bar-room trivia, basically.”
Of the 126 players to hit a home run in their first at-bat, only two — center fielder Earl Averill and pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm — wound up in the Hall of Fame, though several players are still active. For 26 players, that debut home run is their only career home run, though six of those players, including Baddoo, are still active. Gary Gaetti has the most career home runs, at 360, of anyone in the first-AB club, two ahead of Carlos Lee. Jermaine Dye (325) is the only other one with at least 300 homers, and only five others finished with at least 200: Will Clark (284), Mike Napoli (264), Tim Wallach (260), Averill (238) and Bill White (202).
Today, we’re taking a look at some of the more notable first-AB dingers. The entire list is here, if you’re curious.
Off Hall of Fame pitchers
Making your major-league debut is difficult enough without having to face a dominating future Hall of Famer in your first AB. For everybody other than these two guys, apparently.
Will Clark stepped to the plate for his debut, on Opening Day 1986, with butterflies in his stomach as he waited to face the legendary Nolan Ryan fastball for the first time. Instead, the first pitch from Ryan was a curveball, which landed for a strike. Clark giggled and said to the catcher, “Why is he throwing me a curveball?” The next pitch was a fastball out of the zone, and The Express’ third pitch was a fastball on the outer half of the plate. Clark smacked it over the center field fence in the cavernous Astrodome — a place where very few baseballs landed — for a jaw-dropping home run. “I floated around the bases,” Clark said in an interview years later, “touched home plate and pointed to my family in the stands.” Ryan might have already struck out 4,083 batters in his career leading into that at-bat, but the confident kid batting second for the Giants couldn’t have cared less.
Randy Johnson had “only” 3,529 career strikeouts — but four Cy Young awards, including three in a row and on his way to a fourth consecutive win — when Marcus Thames stepped to the plate on June 10, 2002, batting in the No. 9 spot in the Yankees lineup. Johnson threw a high fastball and Thames jumped all over it, send it over the wall in left field for a home run that send the Yankees’ dugout into hysterics. The best part of the video is watching veteran coach Don Zimmer laughing uncontrollably as he tried to comprehend what just happened.
Welcome to the big leagues, kid. No pressure, but the bases are loaded. What are you going to do? Only four times in MLB history, the answer has been “hit a grand slam.”
Kevin Kouzmanoff (Sept. 2, 2006) hit the very first pitch he saw — a fastball up in the zone from Rangers starter Edinson Volquez — into the grassy area beyond the center-field wall at Ameriquest Field. The rookie, who hit .379 combined at Double-A and Triple-A before he was called up to the big leagues, became the first player in MLB history to hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw in the majors. Boston’s Daniel Nava (June 12, 2010) was a 27-year-old rookie wearing No. 60 on his back when he duplicated Kouzmanoff’s feat, smacking the first offering he saw from Joe Blanton into the bullpen beyond Fenway Park’s wall in right-center. He wouldn’t hit another MLB homer until May 14, 2012.
Jeremy Hermedia (Aug. 31, 2005) swung and missed at the first pitch he saw in the majors, also with the bases loaded, as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning of a game his Marlins trailed, 10-0. He watched a pitch from the Cardinals’ Alberto Reyes sail out of the strike zone, then swung at the third offering. Hermida didn’t miss this one. Hermida’s grand slam ended a long, long drought; before his blast the only other debut at-bat grand slam was socked by Bill Duggleby, a pitcher with the Philadelphia Phillies on April 21, 1898. Duggleby had given up three runs in the first inning, but his second-inning grand slam apparently helped him on the mound, too, and the Phillies won that game, 13-4.
Those of us who love baseball love to say that the beauty of the sport is that any day you’re at the ballpark or watching a game on TV, you have a chance to see something that’s never happened before, in a sport that’s been played for more than a century.
Case in point: A random mid-August night at Yankee Stadium in 2016, in a game between the struggling Rays and the .500-ish Yankees. New York manager Joe Girardi wrote the names of two rookies into his lineup; Tyler Austin was batting seventh and Aaron Judge was batting eighth. Both were making their MLB debuts. Matt Andriese, having a solid season (2.90 ERA) to that point, was on the mound for the Rays. With two outs in the second inning of a 0-0 game, Austin fell behind in the count, 0-2. He took a couple outside the zone and then fouled off a potential Strike Three. Andriese went outside with the sixth pitch of the at-bat, and Austin smacked a line drive down the right-field line, just barely clearing the short fence a few feet above the 314 FT sign — a short-porch Yankee Stadium opposite-field special.
Judge, who had made a nice running catch in right field in the first inning, came up next. Like Austin, he fell behind in the count, 0-2. After a ball, Andriese left a 87-mph breaking pitch over the heart of the plate and Judge crushed it to dead center. Unlike Austin’s home run, this one — a 446-foot stitch-popping blast — would have been out of every MLB stadium. “A monster home run,” Yankees play-by-play announcer Michael Kay screamed. “Back-to-back home runs by the Baby Bombers in their first big-league at-bats! Can you believe it?” It was the first — and still only — time teammates hit back-to-back home runs in their MLB debuts.
It’s no secret to say that some MLB debuts are more highly anticipated than others. That’s not a knock on the Keith McDonalds of the world, it’s just to say that some prospects have more eyes on them for that first AB. These guys delivered in the biggest way possible.
This section has to start with Jason Heyward, of course. He was the No. 14 overall pick in the 2007 MLB Draft, and he excelled in his first couple years in the minors. By the time he earned the Opening Day start in 2010 — batting seventh in the lineup — Baseball America had ranked Heyward as the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball. His Braves were at home, and the Cubs had ace Carlos Zambrano on the mound. Atlanta jumped Zambrano early; five of the first six batters reached base safely, and Heyward stepped to the plate with two runners on base. Zambrano’s first two offerings were off the plate, and his third was a fastball on the inner half of the plate. The sound of the bat meeting the ball left zero doubt what would happen. The ball exited the playing field in a blink, going into the Braves bullpen — over the raised arms of the relief corps — and giving Atlanta a 5-0 lead. It was a magical moment.
Kaz Matsui was a bona fide superstar in Japan before he chose to play for the Mets in 2004, his Age 28 season. Matsui made his debut on Opening Day, batting leadoff and playing shortstop, and smoked the first pitch he saw from Russ Ortiz over the wall in center field. It was the start of a great day that included two doubles, two walks and three RBIs. Fun fact: Matsui homered in his first AB of 2005 and his first AB of 2006, too. Aside from the Heyward celebration at Turner Field, there might have been no bigger first-AB homer celebration than the one at Wrigley Field for Willson Contreras’ debut on June 19, 2016. He’d batted .333 at Double-A the previous year and was batting .353 for Triple-A Iowa when he got the call to the bigs. Cubs fans were excited. Contreras made his debut as a catcher in the ninth inning on June 17, then made his debut at the plate in the sixth inning two days later, pinch-hitting for starter Kyle Hendricks. The crowd at Wrigley gave him a standing ovation as he walked to the plate, and he drove the first pitch he saw over the ivy in center field.
Just two years earlier, another highly touted Cubs prospect started his career with a home run, but this one wasn’t at Wrigley. Jorge Soler made his debut batting fifth in the Cubs lineup on Aug. 27, 2014, and he drove a 2-1 pitch from Cincinnati’s Mat Latos over the fence. Still a rookie after only 97 PAs in 2014, Soler was Baseball America’s No. 12 prospect heading into the 2015 season. Jurickson Profar has never quite lived up to the hype — he was BA’s No. 7 prospect heading into 2012 and the No. 1 prospect heading into 2013 — but he’s carved out a nice big-league career. Profar was the youngest player in the majors when he hit his no-doubt homer in his first AB for the Rangers on September 2, 2012.
Pitchers who rake(d at least once)
Most pitchers, back in their prep days, were pretty good hitters, too. But by the time they reach the major leagues, those skills have often diminished. Not for these guys, tho.
Few pitchers are more vocal about their love of hitting than Adam Wainwright, and rightfully so. He’s popped 10 home runs in his career, and batted .262 or better in a season three times in his career. Though he made his mark in the bigs as a starter, Wainwright was a reliever as a rookie in 2006, and he didn’t get an AB until his 19th game in the majors. On May 24, 2006, Wainwright entered in the fourth inning and gave up two runs in his first inning. Manager Tony La Russa left him in to lead off the fifth anyway, needing multiple innings from his rookie. He took a mighty swing at the first pitch he saw and drilled it into the stands down the left-field line for a home run.
Hoyt Wilhelm got his first at-bat in his third career game, pitching in relief on April 23, 1952. His fourth-inning home run was the third homer the New York Giants hit that inning, and Wilhelm added an RBI ground-out in the fifth. Wilhelm was 29 years old, and wound up leading the NL with a 2.43 ERA, despite making all 71 of his appearances as a reliever. The knuckleballer’s Hall of Fame career lasted until 1972, but Wilhelm never hit another homer and wound up with a career .088 batting average in 432 ABs.
Daniel Norris made his pitching debut with the Blue Jays in 2014, then was traded to Detroit at the 2015 trade deadline. His fourth start for the Tigers was an interleague game at Wrigley Field, and the left-handed swinging Norris faced lefty Jon Lester. Undaunted, he drove a 1-1 fastball to dead center. Esteban Yan made his mound debut in 1996, but (primarily) as a reliever in the AL, didn’t step to the plate for the first time until June 4, 2000, his 133rd career game. He started for the Rays against the Mets at Shea Stadium and, sure enough, popped the first pitch he saw from Bobby Jones over the fence in left field. Tommy Milone didn’t have to wait nearly that long; he started the Nationals’ game against the Mets on Sept. 3, 2011 and sent the first pitch he saw from Dillon Gee over the fence for a three-run homer that gave his club a 5-0 lead.
We’ve talked about a couple first-pitch hackers already, but here are a few other notables who had no intention of working the count in their first trip to the MLB dish. All total, 28 players homered on the first pitch they saw in the bigs.
Akil Baddoo, as mentioned up top, is the newest member of the first-AB home run club. The Tigers picked him in the Rule 5 draft this past offseason, and he did enough this spring — a .325 average and five homers — to earn a spot on the 2021 Opening Day roster. And on the first pitch he saw on Sunday, he tried to prove that was the right choice. Baddo went opposite field off Cleveland’s Aaron Civale to lead off the bottom of the third inning. Bert Campaneris led the AL in stolen bases in his first four full seasons in the majors, but he was all about the power display in his first big-league game, July 23, 1964. Not only did Campaneris homer on the first pitch he saw, off Jim Kaat in the first inning, but he went deep in the seventh inning off Kaat, too. The second one was a two-run shot that tied the game, 3-3.
We opened with Keith McDonald’s home run heroics, but he wasn’t the only Cardinals rookie to display first-AB power in 2000. Just 13 days after McDonald’s debut home run, Chris Richard went deep on his first pitch in Minnesota, just over the outstretched glove of Jacque Jones in center field. I’ll let McDonald tell that story.
“We get to the park early the next day, like rookies are supposed to, to get our work in before everybody else gets there,” McDonald said. “And Kirby Puckett’s talking to Tony La Russa in our clubhouse. La Russa says, ‘Do you want to meet Kirby?’ And, heck yeah of course we did. He looks at Chris and says, ‘Are you the kid who hit that home run in his first at-bat yesterday?’ And Richie goes, ‘Yeah, that was me!’ Puckett says, ‘Son, you would have been 0-for-1 if I was playing center field.’ ”
Fun fact: Since the start of the 2000 season, eight Cardinals have hit home runs in their first MLB at-bats — including three relief pitchers! The eight: McDonald (2000), Richard (2000), Gene Stechschulte (2001), Hector Luna (2004), Adam Wainwright (2006), Mark Worrell (2008), Paul De Jong (2017) and Lane Thomas (2019).