In 2013, for no readily apparent reason, I decided to track how players performed on their birthdays.
Bill James had studied this a little bit back in the old days. He initially looked at the 1980 and 1982 seasons and found that hitters did quite a bit better on their birthdays, hitting .290 in 1980 and 1982. He kept the study going and found no similar superior performances in the 1983 and 1984 seasons.
I’m less interested in seeing if players exceeded their performances on their birthdays. I more want to know some of the more interesting moments people had on their big day—who had the best birthdays, the worst birthday, and the weirdest birthdays on the year.
Well, looking at the overall performance isn’t my main focus, but as long as I have the data, it seems rather foolish to ignore it.
On the year, 131 position players got to play on their birthdays. In 439 plate appearances, they combined for just 11 homers and 45 RBIs. Okay, so they didn’t have much power, but how did they hit? They did even worse there: a .232 batting average, .295 on-base percentage, and .362 slugging average for an overall OPS of 657. The overall OPS this year was 714, so that’s definitely an underachieving record by the birthday boys. (It’s even worse when you realize the 714 OPS includes pitchers.)
No one had a better baseball birthday than Minnesota’s third baseman, Trevor Plouffe. He had three hits in three at-bats, the only guy with multiple at-bats not to make any outs on his birthday. One of those hits was a homer, and another a double. Plouffe’s three RBIs are tied for the most by any 2013 birthday batter. He also drew a walk. He was the difference in the Twins’ 6-3 win over the Tigers on June 15.
Plouffe’s main competition for best birthday probably would be Danny Espinosa, who also had a double, home run, and three RBIs. But he had only those two hits, and he made two outs. Plouffe is the easy winner in terms of WPA: 0.398. No other batter tops 0.260.
Unlikely but true: only two batters hit triple on their birthdays, and they both also homered. Oswaldo Arcia did it on his 22nd birthday on May 9, and Josh Hamilton did it for his 32nd birthday 12 days later. Neither had any other hits. On the season, there were just 65 times a batter homered and tripled, but it happened to a pair of birthday guys.
No one had any historically wretched performances. No one grounded into multiple double plays on his birthday. No one fanned more than twice in a game. 22-year-old Avisail Garcia was the only person to fan twice and hit into a GIDP in the same game. But then again, he also hit a double in that game to balance things out somewhat.
According to WPA, Kipnis had the worst birthday by any batter in 2013. He kept coming up with runners on base and doing nothing. Early in the game on April 3, he fanned with a runner on third and no outs. Later on, he came out with two on and two out and grounded out meekly to end the frame. It was early in the year—just April 2—but no birthday-er out-sucked it all year long.
Andrus may have been one of the few guys to get three hits in a game on his birthday, but he was also the only one caught stealing. There weren’t many stolen base attempts at all—just four—but the other three were successful. As it happens, the White Sox had two of the steals—Alejandro De Aza did it on April 11, and teammate Jordan Danks did likewise on Aug. 7. The day after De Aza’s swipe, Justin Ruggiano had the other.
Some guys took one for the team on their birthdays. Tampa Bay had one of the lowest sacrifice hit totals by any team in the majors, with just 24, but one came on April 26, when Joe Maddon asked newly 28-year-old outfielder Sean Rodriguez to lay one down. That was the only birthday sacrifice bunt by any baseball player all year.
Only four batters were hit by a pitch on their birthdays. Actually, two of those four found themselves in an unusual combination. Though there were just four birthday players hit by pitches and three birthday intentional walks, two guys did both in one game: Andre Ethier and Cameron Maybin. On the entire year, the IBB-HBP combo happened just 35 times, but twice it came on a birthday.
A few players were even unlucky enough to suffer some injuries on their birthdays. There was nothing major, but things did happen.
Take Toronto right fielder Moises Sierra, for instance. His 25th birthday on Sept. 24 was off to a typical start, but after running back to flag down a deep fly ball on the warning track in the sixth inning, he had to leave the game with a foot problem. It was nothing serious, but he had to come out of the game and rest the next day. Two days later, though, he was back in action.
Adrian Gonzalez had to leave the game even earlier. If the fifth frame on his 31st birthday on May 8, he left with a neck injury. In his case, however, it was less a matter of becoming injured as it was aggravating an injury that was already bothering him. At least he went out with a sense of accomplishment, right after hitting an RBI double.
Among pitchers, there is Jake Westbrook. Prior to his Sept. 29 birthday, he’d thrown just once in the last five weeks (and been pummeled for five runs in an inning and a third). But St. Louis let him start the season finale against the Cubs. Westbrook didn’t allowed any runs, but he was gone by the second inning, anyway. It looks like that was just a finale game for the club for the aging and injured veteran.
Overall results: pitchers
Okay, but all this is just half of the equation, the hitters. How did birthday pitchers do on their big days? Well, 48 guys threw on their birthdays, and unlike batters, these guys did really well.
In 104.1 innings pitched, they allowed just 80 hits and 26 walks while fanning 79 for a 2.59 ERA. Twelve were starting pitchers, and the rest relievers. Despite that, birthday pitchers had a record of just 6-6, though with four saves.
Best birthday pitchers
Among starting pitchers, the best birthday performance belongs to Detroit’s Max Scherzer. Yeah, that makes sense. When he turned 29 on July 27, he threw six inning of one-hit, shutout ball against the Phillies. Jim Leyland took him out after just 75 pitches because, with a 10-0 lead, Scherzer may as well take the rest.
Only one reliever can claim to have fanned every batter he faced on his birthday. However, that pitcher faced just one batter: Boston’s Andrew Miller, who struck out Chicago’s Adam Dunn on May 21. Man, that’s really cheap. Not only was it just one batter, but the batter was the most strikeout-prone man ever.
Minnesota’s Pedro Hernandez wins the old-school award with easily the longest relief appearance on the year by a birthday boy: 4.1 innings. Just one other guy came within half of that.
By WPA, the best birthday reliever was Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel. He entered in the bottom of the 10th with Atlanta up, 7-6, no outs and the tying run on first base. He proceeded to strike out the first batter on just three pitches and then induce first-pitch fly outs from the next two batters. Three outs in five pitches are pretty impressive, especially for someone with a strikeout in the mix.
Worst birthday pitching
Only one starting pitcher had a Game Score lower than 40, but it was well under 40: 26, to be exact. That belonged to Colorado’s Juan Nicasio. He couldn’t blame his poor performance on the altitude, as the Reds smacked him around in Cincinnati. He surrendered six runs off seven hits and three walks in just four and a third innings.
St. Louis reliever Kevin Siegristt didn’t allow any runs, but that’s only because manager Mike Matheny didn’t leave him in long enough to do so. He faced two batters on July 20 and walked both. Eight of the ten pitches he threw were balls, the worst command by any birthday pitcher. In fact, he is the only reliever to walk multiple batters on his birthday.
Birthday versus birthday
So what happens when a pitcher having his birthday faces off against a hitter having his birthday? Well, rather annoyingly, it never happened all season long. Rats.
The closest we came was July 12 when two birthday pitchers appeared in the same game. But even though it was a National League game, one birthday pitcher never settled into the batter’s box to face the other. Brewers arm Tom Gorzelanny lasted just six innings and was the tough-luck loser, as he allowed two runs—both unearned—in his loss. After Gorzelanny left the game, Arizona reliever Tony Sipp celebrated his birthday by walking the only batter he faced.
That wasn’t the only time that two birthday players appeared in the same game. On May 15, the Twins played two players having their birthday. Former MVP Justin Morneau celebrated his 32nd birthday by going 2-for-5 with a pair of singles. In the ninth inning, his teammate and birthdaymate Brian Dozier entered as a defensive replacement. He caught a pop-up on his 26th birthday.
Odds and ends
Plouffe and Scherzer may have had the best birthdays, but I doubt anyone will have a better memory of his birthday than Yankees third baseman David Adams. He celebrated his birthday by making his major league debut. My, that does sound like a nice birthday, doesn’t it?
At age 26, Adams was far from the youngest birthday boy, however. That honor falls to Baltimore’s Manny Machado. He celebrated turning 21 by belting a double on July 6. That was his 39th double of the year, and at the time it looked like he might challenge Earl Webb’s ancient record of 67 in a season.
Going by teams, the Braves celebrated the most on-field birthdays, with 11 players appearing during their birthday. In fact, they were tied for the lead for most position players (seven), and also tied for the most pitchers (four). The least by any team was the Yankees, with three.
References & Resources
The Bill James info comes from This Time Let’s Not East the Bones, where he summarizes his older studies.