Not all home runs are created equal.
Some are solo shots while others drive in more runs. Some are towering shots, while others barely make it over the fence. Some are key blasts that make the difference, others make no real difference. There are many different ways to compare home runs. Let’s try something different here. How about looking at homers that are just intrinsically cooler?
What determines what makes a cool home run? Obviously this is the sort of question that has no scientific answer. We’re looking for a homer that—if you went to the game and saw it live—would automatically be a highlight of the trip, regardless of whatever else happened that day.
It’s impossible to get a complete list of the myriad ways a homer could become a highlight, but a few types include exist:
- Walk-off home runs. If these aren’t cool, then home runs aren’t cool.
- Inside-the-park homers. This would have to be the highlight of a game you saw, right?
- Grand slams. This isn’t as rare as the above homers, but four runs in one swing is automatically memorable.
- Extra-inning home runs. This is partially redundant after the walk-off home run, but well, OK. A home run this late is almost automatically thrilling.
- Pinch-hit home runs. Nothing quite like a player making his debut in the middle of a game in the most dramatic of possible ways.
- Leadoff home runs. It sure is fun to start the game with a jolt.
- Multi-home run games. Included with some misgivings, but it’s reasonable. Seeing a guy go deep multiple times in a game sure is a highlight.
Some of these are more borderline than others, but no clear line separates a cool home run from the pack. There are other cool home run categories—most notably really long bombs—but the above categories have a key advantage: they’re very easy to identify thanks to the Home Run Logs at Baseball Reference (with an assist from the site’s Play Index for multi-home run games).
I collected data on all those homer types for the top 402 homer hitters in baseball history. (It was going to be top 400, but there’s a tie at the end.) These men hit a combined 112,014 homers—over 40 percent of all MLB homers. There are interesting things about each category; let’s go one by one and then combine the info.
Ladies and gentlemen, the following are the only people to tally double-digit walk-off homers in their baseball careers:
Name Walk-Off Jimmie Foxx 12 Mickey Mantle 12 Stan Musial 12 Frank Robinson 12 Babe Ruth 12 Jim Thome 12 Tony Perez 11 Dick Allen 10 Harold Baines 10 Barry Bonds 10 Reggie Jackson 10 David Ortiz 10 Mike Schmidt 10 Sammy Sosa 10
Hurrah for Jim Thome, the only active player tied for the lead. Beyond Thome and Ortiz, the best active players include Vlad Guerrero and Alex Rodriquez with nine, followed by Adam Dunn and Albert Pujols with eight.
Mickey Mantle hit a walk-off postseason home run, giving him 13 in all. If you’re curious Norm Cash holds the distinction for most homers hit in a career without ever launching a walk-off shot: 377. He leads by a mile, too, as next up is Hank Sauer way down at 288 (followed by the still-active Mark Teixeira at 275).
Jim Thome: tied for most regular season walk-off homers
Random fact time: Tim Raines‘ first career homer was a walk-off blast. He only hit one more such shot in his career. His second homer was an inside the park one, and he never got another of those. Added bonus: that inside-the-park homer was also the first of 16 leadoff shots. Raines hit both in the same week. Speaking of inside-the-park shots…
Inside the park homers
In all, 199 of the top 402 hit at least one of these. Alex Rodriquez has the most career homers with none inside the park.
There isn’t too much to say about this one as I’ve already written an entire article about them in the past. Short version: there’s a big era bias at work here. The top inside-the-park homer hitter among the 402 best home hitters is Rogers Hornsby with 33. After him is Cy Williams at 13. Not-so-coincidentally, they both began in the Deadball Era. Among just lively ball batters, it’s a tie at 10 between a bunch of 1920s/30s hitters, such as Lou Gehrig and Babe Herman.
Actually, this is as good a place as any to commemorate the coolest home run ever hit. On July 25, 1956, a 21-year-old Roberto Clemente blasted an inside the park, walk-off grand slam to give the Pirates a 9-8 win over the Cubs. That might be the only such shot in MLB history. Coooool.
Extra inning homers
Want to possibly stump your friends at the water cooler? Ask them who is the only man to bash over 20 home runs in extra innings: Willie Mays, with 22.
Want to definitely stump your friends? Ask them who is in second place with 18 extra-inning shots. It’s Jack Clark. Wait—what? Yeah, Jack Clark, he of 340 career home run, almost as many as Chili Davis! Though only 85th in overall career homers (well behind the likes of Gary Gaetti), Clark had the uncanny knack for bopping them out in overtime.
There’s no explanation for this. Most were on the road, so it wasn’t some strange home field advantage. Only one was a pinch hit shot. Clark just hit after regulation ended. In his career, he batted .324/.478/.676 in 232 extra innings. In other words, a man who otherwise homered slightly better than once every 25 plate appearances did it once in 12.9 in extra innings. Weird, but cool.
But possibly not as cool as the greatest factoid about extra-inning home run hitting. That one comes courtesy of Mr. Mark McGwire. He hit a home run in the top of the 16th inning in back-to-back games. It happened July 3-4, 1988. In the rest of his career, he never went deep later than the 12th frame. Not only he is the only person to homer in consecutive games in the 16th inning, but none of the other 401 leaders ever hit two 16th-inning homers in their CAREER, let alone 24 hours apart.
Before moving on, since a few out there in reader-land might be curious, here’s the list of all-time leading extra-inning home run hitters and when they hit their latest shots:
Name X-In Latest Willie Mays 22 16b Jack Clark 18 14b Babe Ruth 16 16t Frank Robinson 16 13b Hank Aaron 14 14t Mickey Mantle 14 11b Jimmie Foxx 14 17t Ted Williams 13 13t Jim Thome 12 15b Mark McGwire 12 16t Rafael Palmerio 12 15b Willie Stargell 12 13b
Jim Thome, again on the leaderboard.
Oh—one last trivia question answer about extra-inning homers: most career home runs with none in extra innings? Jeff Burroughs, with 240. Everyone else over 200 has at least one.
Lou Gehrig’s long-held and never-challenged record for most career grand slams likely isn’t long for this world. He blasted 23, and no one approached it…until now. Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriquez are each sitting at 21. The next-highest active player is Carlos Lee at 15, followed by Carlos Delgado (13), and…Matt Stairs? Yeah, Matt Stairs hit 12, more than Barry Bonds or Willie Mays.
A-Rod’s the better bet to pass Gehrig. He’s hit at least one a year every year since 1999, except for 2004. This year he belted three more. He’s also bashed three walk-off slams, which has got to be the record. (Speaking of walk-offs, despite a rather high career total of nine walk-off home runs, A-Rod’s first one came late, his 275th career long ball.)
One of the great grand slam hitters ever: Alex Rodriguez.
Matt Stairs is the all-time champ, with 23. Alex Rodriguez is the only member of the 500 home run club with none. (Lou Gehrig also had none, which makes sense given that he was always in the starting lineup.)
Stairs, after his record-setting 22nd pinch hit homer. He’s hit pinch-hit homers for eight franchises.
This is also a good place to note Roy Sievers‘ ability to score well in many of these different categories. He’s a largely forgotten 1950s slugger no longer listed in the top 100 homer hitters, but he had the knack to hit cool home runs.
Sievers hit 10 pinch-hit homers, one of only 13 in the top 402 with double-digit pinch-hit shots. He also hit nine walk-off home runs, just missing the leaderboard there. His 10 grand slams are rather impressive for someone with 318 overall career homers. (It’s more than Willie Mays, Jim Thome, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, and Sammy Sosa.) He hit more extra-inning homers (eight) and had more multi-home run games (27) than one would expect from someone with 318 homers. He was just a fun home run hitter.
Lead off homers
No surprise here: Rickey Henderson dominates the list, with 81 such shots. Only he and Brady Anderson had at least a fifth of their homers lead off a game, but Anderson barely had a fifth while Henderson had well over a fourth of them in the first plate appearance of the game for his team. In 2009, Alfonso Soriano passed Craig Biggio for second place, 54 to 53.
Some of the fun here is noticing some unlikely names with a lead-off home run. My favorite is Harmon Killebrew, which he got on July 28, 1960. Others with one include Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, and Mike Schmidt. Adam Dunn has two.
Multi-home run games
The king of this category? Gus Zernial.
Well, officially it’s Babe Ruth, as he the most with 72 (followed by Barry Bonds with 71). Zernial, however, found room for 32 multi-home run games despite blasted only 237 homers in his career. That’s more multi-homer games than Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield, Carl Yastrzemski, or Jeff Bagwell. It’s 11 more than Cal Ripken had. In all, 27.4 percent of Zernial’s homers came in multi-homer games, the best percentage ever. Apparently, he was streaky.
Putting it together: figuring the coolest and dullest home run hitters ever
OK, those are the types of fun home runs. How do you put them together to try to rank these guys?
It’s a bad idea to weigh them evenly. Do that and see all the leadoff hitters leap to the top. All the pinch-hit homers, and walk-offs and grand slams can’t match Ricky Henderson’s massive leadoff total. How to do it then? First, let’s begin by acknowledging the obvious: there is nothing scientific about this. Which types of homers sound more interesting? How do they compare?
Ask me 10 times and I’ll give you 10 slightly different answers, but some basics apply. Leadoffs are downgraded because of their massive quantities held by a few. Walk-offs and inside-the-park home runs are the best. The others just fill in along the way. Ultimately, the aggressively non-scientific, personally chosen formula for determining homer coolness is:
Two times walk-offs, plus
Two times insiders, plus
1.5 times grand slams, plus
1.2 times pinch hitters, plus
Extra inning homers (not adjusted), plus
Games featuring multi-homers, plus
0.2 times leadoff homers.
Then divide that sum by total homers.
Some out there would weigh these factors differently. Heck, everyone out there might weigh them differently. But it’s all a personal factoring, with no right/wrong answers. But, since I’m the one foolhardy enough to check 402 homer logs.
There is a slight era bias favoring Hornsby and Cy Williams and their inside-the-park homers, but there aren’t many of them anyway, so who cares? There’s also a bias towards pinch-hit specialists, but that’s really just Matt Stairs and Cliff Johnson. Again, no big deal.
In terms of raw numbers, the best ever is Babe Ruth with 157.2, then Jimmie Foxx at 138.1, and Barry Bonds at 133.3. Ruth benefits from his walk-offs, his multi-home run games, and, last but not least, his 10 inside-the-park homers. Then again, take out insiders, and Ruth is still the king as Foxx had eight of them.
The fun begins when you switch to divide their cool home run score by their career home runs. With that approach, the top two are Rogers Hornsby and Cy Williams. There’s the inside-the-park home run era bias. Move past them, and here are the next-best 15:
Name HR Score % Charlie Keller 189 52.3 27.67% Jeff Heath 194 52.0 26.80% Gus Zernial 237 63.5 26.79% Matt Stairs 265 70.6 26.64% Jim Gentile 179 46.8 26.15% Cliff Johnson 196 50.7 25.87% Jimmie Foxx 534 138.1 25.86% Roy Sievers 318 82.0 25.79% Robin Ventura 294 75.2 25.58% Dick Allen 351 89.4 25.47% Tony Lazzeri 178 44.2 24.83% Don Mincher 200 49.5 24.75% Babe Herman 181 44.1 24.36% Joe Rudi 179 43.6 24.36% Richie Hebner 203 49.4 24.33%
Well, the two pinch-hitting specialists show up, as do some previously mentioned guys, but there are some fun parts.
Charlie Keller? There is no single category he excels at, but he’s at his best in the heavier weighted categories and only gets shut out in leadoff homers. In only 189 homes, Keller hit seven inside-the-park homers. I’m sure era helps him a little, but he played at the same time in the same parks as Joe DiMaggio, and DiMaggio had only three, despite a longer career.
Keller also blasted seven slams and three walk-offs. Three doesn’t sound big, but it’s like a 500-home run guy hitting eight walk-offs—not among the best ever, but in the next cut. Keller had the talent to hit that many, but a bad back ruined a would-be Cooperstown career.
Most of the guys here are from the lower half the top 402 homer hitters. That makes sense; it’s a bit harder to maintain a higher pace over a longer haul. That makes Jimmie Foxx’s ranking rather impressive. He’s tied for most career walk-offs, is on the leader list for extra-inning homers, had eight inside-the-park shots, hit 17 slams (still among the best ever), had 55 multi-home run games, and even hit a trio of pinch-hit shots.
The next-highest ranking member of the 400 home run club is Stan Musial, who is helped by nine inside-the-park shots. He is in 32nd place (or 30th place, if you lop off Hornsby and Cy Williams). Ruth is a tad behind him. The best post-integration 400-home run club member is Willie McCovey. The former Giant first baseman once was the all-time pinch-hit home run king (16), and for a long time he was second on the grand slam list (18).
Going back to the leaders listed above, Robin Ventura‘s placement makes sense, given his renown for hitting grand slams. He’s tied for fifth with 18 slams despite 294 home runs. The rest of the top 10 had over 440 homers. That said, Joe Rudi actually had a higher overall percentage of homers become slams: 12 of 179 versus 18 in 294. Ventura is still more impressive, but Rudi’s slams should be noted.
Dick Allen scores so well because (unlike everyone listed above him) he had at least one homer of every type: 32 multi-homer games, 10 walk-offs, 10 extra-inning homers, eight slams, seven inside-the-park ones (including two in one game off Bert Blyleven), one leadoff, and one pinch-hit blast.
Well, what about the opposite end, then? Who are the 15 most boring homer hitters?
Name HR Score % Jason Thompson 208 18.6 8.94% Ken Singleton 246 22.2 9.02% Rich Aurilla 186 17.3 9.30% Derek Jeter 234 22.3 9.53% Rondell White 198 20.0 10.10% Andy Van Slyke 164 16.7 10.18% Cal Ripken Jr. 431 45.0 10.44% Deron Johnson 245 25.8 10.53% Chet Lemon 215 22.7 10.56% Rico Carty 204 21.9 10.74% Steve Garvey 272 30.5 11.21% B. J. Sufhoff 188 21.2 11.28% Garrett Andeson 287 32.4 11.29% Eric Karros 284 33.2 11.69% Paul O'Neill 281 32.9 11.71%
Jason Thompson never hit a walk-off, lead-off, or insider. He only tallied two extra-inning ones, three pinch hitters, and four slams. He amassed seven multi-home run games. He avoided all the interesting things pretty well.
Again, this list mostly comes from guys under 300 home runs, which makes Cal Ripken really stick out. The next most boring 300 home run member is Ivan Rodriguez in 16th place. In the 400 home run club, the next dullest is Jose Canseco in the 23rd-worst slot. The most boring 500 home run man is Frank Thomas.
Derek Jeter would come in last place, but he is saved by his 24 leadoff homers. But he only has one slam, one extra-inning blast, two insiders (which puts him two ahead of most guys on the list’s bottom), and one walk-off. Actually, he only has one regular season walk-off, but he famously hit one in the 2001 World Series’ Game Four.
References & Resources
As noted, Baseball-Reference.com was the source of this info. Its Home Runs Logs come from work put together by SABR.
I used Baseball Reference’s Play Index for multi-homer games, but since that only goes back to 1920, for the very few guys in this article with pre-1920 playing time I looked at the dates of their homers in the Home Run Log.