When Josh Hamilton hit four home runs against the Orioles on Tuesday, he became just the 16th man in baseball history to accomplish the feat. More men (21) have thrown perfect games. Hamilton's performance was even more impressive than that, however. When you factor in the fact that Hamilton went 5-for-5 on the night, mixing a double in among his four homers, it could be argued that his was one of the handful of best single-game hitting performances in major league history.
The two most important things a hitter can do, independent of his teammates, is avoid outs and hit for extra bases. Four home runs add up to 16 total bases. Since 1918, just five men have had more than 16 total bases in a game. Hamilton is one of them. Nineteenth-century four-homer men Bobby Lowe and Ed Delahanty can be added to that list, but both fell short of Hamilton at 17 total bases. Only one man has ever hit for more total bases in a single game than Hamilton's 18. That was Shawn Green, who collected 19 for the Dodgers in 2002. Meanwhile, of the 17 men to have produced 16 or more total bases in a single game since 1918, plus Lowe and Delahanty, just eight did so without making an out. Hamilton is one of those eight as well.
That alone puts Hamilton's performance above the four-homer games of Lou Gehrig (4-for-6), Chuck Klein (4-for-5), Pat Seerey (4-for-6, BB), Willie Mays (4-for-5), Bob Horner (4-for-5), Mark Whiten (4-for-5) and Mike Cameron (4-for-5, HBP), all of whom had additional at-bats without collecting hits. It's also pretty easy to put Hamilton's game ahead of those of Lowe, Gil Hodges and Mike Schmidt, all of whom went 5-for-6 with four homers and a single, because Hamilton's extra hit was a double and he didn't make an out. Delahanty didn't make an out, going 5-for-5, but his extra hit was also a single, so Hamilton has him beat as well.
That alone puts Hamilton in the top five. Here's a quick look at his competition:
• Rocky Colavito, Indians, June 10, 1959
Colavito drew a walk in the first inning, which coincidentally also came against the Orioles in Baltimore, then homered in his final four trips. That made him a perfect 4-for-4 with 16 totals bases, but a double is better than a walk.
PHOTOS: MLB's four-homer games
• Carlos Delgado, Blue Jays, Sept. 25, 2003
Delgado, the last man to hit four homers in a game before Hamilton, is also the only man to hit a home run in his only four plate appearances in a game. Facing the Devil Rays at home, Delgado homered in the first, fourth, sixth, and eighth innings and would have been the fourth man due up in the bottom of the ninth had his Blue Jays not taken the lead in the eighth on his game-tying leadoff homer and Mike Bordick's subsequent two-run blast. The argument can be made that Delgado's performance was actually the greatest of all time, as he remains the only man ever to play a full nine-inning game and homer in every one of his plate appearances. I'll take 5-for-5 over 4-for-4, however, even if that 4-for-4 was, technically, the only truly perfect game a hitter has ever had.
• Joe Adcock, Braves, July 31, 1954
Adcock is the only man ever to do exactly what Hamilton did Tuesday night, go 5-for-5 with four homers and a double, doing so against the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. Adcock's day went homer-double-homer-homer-homer. Hamilton went homer-homer-double-homer-homer.
Context could push Adcock ahead of Hamilton, as his outburst came later in the season against the team his Braves were directly below in the standings, whereas Hamilton's came early against a team from another division that is more pretender than contender. The Braves were in third place, nine games out of first place and six games behind the Dodgers coming into Adcock's big game, and the opposing starter was a 28-year-old Don Newcombe, who had been the National League Rookie of the Year in 1949 and would go 47-12 for the Dodgers over the next two seasons.
In 1954, however, Newcombe was just back from military duty, in the middle of arguably his worst season, and only lasted long enough in this game to give up one hit to Adcock. One could also argue that the game is tilted more toward the pitchers in May 2012 than it was in July 1954, and that Tuesday night's Orioles starter, Jake Arrieta, though he did give up six runs in 6 1/3 innings, five of them coming on home runs by Hamilton (twice) and Adrian Beltre (a solo shot immediately following Hamilton's second of the night), was pitching better than Newcombe in the Adcock game.
• Shawn Green, Dodgers, May 23, 2002
Green is the only man to turn in a single-game performance clearly better than Hamilton's. Facing Glendon Rusch and the Brewers on a Thursday afternoon in Milwaukee's Miller Park, Green went 6-for-6 with four home runs, a double, a single, and a major league record 19 total bases. In sequence, Green's game went double-homer-homer-homer-single-homer. (For an in-depth breakdown of Green's hitting mechanics leading up to that game and his six at-bats in the game from the man himself, see his 2011 book The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 MPH.) For my money, Green's was the greatest single-game hitting performance. The next best 6-for-6 performance in major league history saw the author hit three home runs, a double and two singles (16 total bases). Ty Cobb did that on May 5, 1925. The Mets' Edgardo Alfonzo matched it on Aug. 30, 1999. Two men have gone 7-for-7. The Tigers' Cesar Gutierrez had six singles and a double on June 21, 1970. The Pirates' Rennie Stennett had four singles, two doubles and a triple on Sept. 16, 1975. Stennett's performance accumulated just 11 total bases.
Some might argue that Delgado's perfect game was the greatest of all time, but Green's is the only performance that is inarguably superior to what Hamilton did on Tuesday night. That means Hamilton's performance was at worst one of the four greatest in major league history. I'd put it in the top three, ahead of Delgado's, and those who want to split hairs might even find a way to put it ahead of Adcock's as the second-greatest single-game hitting performance of all time.