#17 - Chris Hoiles, C (1989-1998)
This might serve as a spoiler to the portion of our top 40 list that has yet to be unveiled, but Chris Hoiles is the best catcher in Baltimore Orioles history. In my mind, there is no question about this. Though his career was cut short by injury, it's impossible to deny the talent he brought to the field.
Drafted by the Tigers in 1986, Hoiles came to the Orioles in 1988 in a trade that sent outfielder Fred Lynn to Detroit. The Orioles had a guy named Mickey Tettleton catching for them at the time, so Hoiles was sent to the AAA Rochester Red Wings.
Hoiles spent the 1990 season shuttling between Rochester and Baltimore, getting into 23 games with the Orioles and 74 games with the Red Wings. He never really had the chance to get his feet under him in the big leagues, though he did have a very memorable first career home run. On June 27, 1990, the Orioles and Indians were in a tie game in the 10th inning in Baltimore. With one out and a runner at second, the Indians opted to intentionally walk Joe Orsulak. It set up the double play and brought a rookie to the plate, but Hoiles made them pay with a walk-off three-run homer. Nice! It wasn't the last dramatic homer that Hoiles would ever hit. More on that later.
When he wasn't with the Orioles in 1990, Hoiles was straight up demolishing pitchers in AAA. In 74 games he hit .348/.447/.656 with 18 home runs. And in the next season, 1991, Hoiles got a chance to play regularly in the majors. The Orioles traded Mickey Tettleton to the Tigers for pitcher Jeff Robinson. It turned out to be a terrible trade for the Orioles, but it worked out OK for Hoiles.
1991 was an unremarkable year for Hoiles at the plate, and his .243/.304/.384 batting average surely had the O's faithful longing for Mickey Tettleton, who was in the midst of three straight 30+ HR seasons for the Tigers. But in 1992, Hoiles turned it on. He hit 20 home runs and had an OPS+ of 147.
The best season of Chris Hoiles' career came in 1993. He played in 126 games and hit 29 home runs. He has the outstanding hitting line of .310/.416/.585 and his OPS+ of 162 (meaning he was 62% better than the average major-league hitter) is both the tenth-best single season OPS+ in Orioles history, and the 10th best mark for a catcher in history.
The dark mark on Hoiles' career was, of course, his continuing injuries. He had a bad back and a degenerative hip condition, causing him to miss many games nearly every season. When he was on the field, he was good, but he just couldn't stay on the field. From 1992-1998 Hoiles hit .267/.337/.485 with 139 HR, 103 2B, and 400 BB, but he did so playing between 96-127 games each year. If Hoiles could have stayed on the field for even 130 games every season, we might be talking about him as the greatest power hitter in Orioles history.
I mentioned dramatic home runs before. Many of you have probably heard of the most dramatic home run he ever hit. Let me set the stage, then you can watch it in all its glory. The date was May 17, 1996. The Mariners were visiting Camden Yards and the game was a complete slugfest. The Orioles jumped out to an early lead, but the bullpen fell apart, giving up 11 runs in four innings. The Mariners scored five runs in the eighth inning and two runs in the ninth and took a 13-10 lead into the bottom of the ninth. Norm Charlton came in for the Mariners to get the save, but it didn't work out. Hoiles came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. Charlton got him to a 3-2 count. One more strike and Mariners would win. Instead, this is what happened:
That, friends, is what we call an ultimate grand slam. But it wasn't the only time Hoiles came through in the clutch. He hit 15 of his career home runs in the 9th or 10th innings, and six of those gave the Orioles the tying or go-ahead run. Another memorable one came on June 23, 1991. The Royals took a four-run lead into the ninth inning against the O's. Hoiles hit a granny to tie the game and the Orioles went on to win in ten innings. He also has the distinction of being just one of 13 players in baseball history to have hit two grand slams in one game (also on the list are Orioles Jim Gentile and Frank Robinson).
After a 1998 season in which Hoiles hit well when he was on the field but struggled to play 97 games, the Orioles went into spring training 1999 with the idea that he might be able to play first base or DH. Catching was pretty much out of the question. The O's had traded for his replacement, Charles Johnson, during the offseason. And on April 2, 1999, three days before Opening Day, the Orioles made the very tough decision to release Chris Hoiles. The Orioles made a last minute trade to acquire Jeff Conine and no longer had a place for Hoiles on the team. A favorite of both the fans and the team, it was a sad but necessary decision. The Orioles offered Hoiles a job in the organization that very day, and manager Ray Miller said, "In all my years in baseball, this was singularly the toughest thing I've had to do."
It has been many years since Hoiles played for the Orioles, but he remains a fan favorite. Both he and his wife are on Twitter (@c23hoiles and @danahoiles) and can be found around Baltimore sometimes during the season. He was elected into the Orioles Hall of Fame in in 2006 and is one of my all-time favorite Orioles.