Relievers getting base hits was the first thing I loved about baseball. As a small child I had always liked baseball because it was part of my family’s daily routine, but it wasn’t until Roberto Hernández of the 1997 Giants laced a grounder through the right side that I realized that this game rules. Before he stepped into the batter’s box, my father explained that Hernández had been in the majors for seven years without ever getting a plate appearance and was thus extremely unlikely to get a hit. So when he got the hit, it felt like I was seeing a comet no one had ever seen before.
That baseball allows for some of the best players in the world to look completely out of their depth and therefore human is part of what makes the game great. That these players sometimes succeed despite the odds is what makes it incredible.
For a while, Hernández was batting 1.000. One plate appearance, one hit. Hernández got one more plate appearance in 1997, but struck out looking, bringing his career batting average down to .500. Hernández went on to play for 10 more years but never got back into the box.
For a month, Hernández had defined a new genre of one-hit wonder. There are two sorts of players that only get one plate appearance. First, there are relievers with brief careers. This includes players like Jose Torres and Dave Davidson. Players who stick around a long time are generally going to get up to the plate more than once. Mariano Rivera, who played his entire career in the American League, got four plate appearances in a 19-year career.
Then there are the position players with even briefer careers. Most of these played in the 1920’sand decided they could make more money working in a coal mine. This includes players like Heinie Odom, Curly Onis, and Doc Bass. Earlier this year, Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com wrote about the five living players with one plate appearance and one hit. That list includes former Texas Rangers manager Jeff Banister.
Most of these players have undignified playing careers. Until that September strikeout, Hernández was the only member of the one plate appearance, one hit club that had ever made an All-Star team. Now, that’s a distinction owned by Will Smith.
In Sunday night’s nationally televised game, Smith stepped up to the plate for the first time in his seven-year career. He then delivered one of the best moments of the season.
The best part of reliever hits are all the things that are wrong about it. Smith’s stance looks like a batting stance, but it’s just a little off. He doesn’t get out of the box well because he’s surprised he hit the ball at all. His bat flip is more accidental than triumphant. Heck, Bryce Harper almost threw him out at first. And yet, I’d rather watch this on repeat than Scooter Gennett’s “splash landing hit.”
Until Smith gets another plate appearance, he and John Kull lead all one-hit wonders in RBI with two. Smith also leads in games played by a wide margin. According to the Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, Smith’s 295 games diminishes Brian Schlitter’s 80 games played. Schlitter is still active, but at 33 it’s unlikely he’ll ever catch Smith even with a career turnaround.
Smith is 106 games behind Brandon Lyon to be the player with the most appearances and maintain a 1.000 batting average. Lyon got two plate appearances and was 1-for-1 with a walk.
I’m torn between wanting Smith to never bat again and to bat in every game he ever plays in. If he never bats again, he’ll end his career with a perfect 1.000 batting average and OPS+ of 440. He’ll maintain his distinction as the greatest one-hit wonder to ever play the game. But if he never bats again, we’ll never get to see him just bust a gut at first base after he knocks in two. It’s a tough call, but there’s no wrong answer.