Coming In Cold: Notable Pinch-Hitters

Lenny Harris made a nice career out of pinch hitting. (via Seidenstud)

Lenny Harris made a nice career out of pinch hitting. (via Seidenstud)

I recently added to my spreading baseball library, buying pitcher Jim Brosnan’s two well-regarded memoirs. The Long Season and Pennant Race recount Brosnan’s experiences as a pitcher in the 1959 and 1961 seasons respectively, the second coming with the Cincinnati Reds team that won the National League. It was there that I was reacquainted with the case of Jerry Lynch.

Lynch was a part-time outfielder for Cincinnati that year, one who did quite a lot of pinch-hitting. Quite a lot of effective pinch-hitting. Sometimes it seems a dozen pages can’t go buy in Pennant Race without Lynch stepping up and getting a crucial hit, and the numbers (which I’ll share later) back up that impression.

His clutch heroics earned Lynch some chatter as a dark-horse MVP candidate, despite having just 210 plate appearances that year. He would get a lone 10th-place vote in the balloting that teammate Frank Robinson won. He’d also be used by Bill James to demonstrate the absurdity of voting Dennis Eckersley MVP of the American League in 1992 in the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (which was why this was Lynch’s re-introduction to me).

There’s nothing like Bill James to pop a bubble, but just because it’s not an MVP season doesn’t mean it isn’t a great performance. I was curious as to how good Lynch was, how clutch—and how other notable pinch-hitters have stacked up by such measures.

Off the Bench

Through the 2014 season, there have been 99 players with at least 300 pinch-hitting appearances. I ended up looking closely at 12, a few for single years or pinch-heavy stretches, the majority for their entire careers. A few I chose because of their connections to particular teams that seemed to treat pinch-hitting specialists as a favored tactic for some time. A couple notables, such as Dusty Rhodes and Smoky Burgess, I had to exclude because their careers began too early to be covered by the more advanced statistics (at least for now).

My chosen players, with their lifetime pinch-hitting appearances and places on the all-time PH list, are:

Shane’s Pinch Hitter List

Player PH PAs Place
Lenny Harris 883 1st
Dave Hansen 703 4th
Manny Mota 592 6th
Gates Brown 499 10th
Terry Crowley 494 11th
Jerry Lynch 489 13th
Dave Magadan 421 29th
Rusty Staub 418 31st
Lee Mazzilli 415 32nd
Vic Davalillo 390 39th
Danny Heep 353 54th
Merv Rettenmund 305 89th

I left out two of the most prolific pinch-hitters in history, Mark Sweeney and Greg Gross, for reasons of space and reader attention span.

I went light with gathering of standard or traditional statistics, leaning toward more analytic ones. I concentrated on Win Probability Added (WPA) and on RE24, which measures performance above or below Run Expectancy given the base-out state in which the batter comes up. I also tallied up Adjusted Leverage Index (aLI), though with one hole in the numbers. Sometimes a player pinch-hits, then remains in the game and bats again. I was not able to comb out aLI for the pinch-hitting appearance alone in these cases, so pinch-hitting aLI figures will count only single-PA appearances.

There’s an argument to be made that WPA is not a proper measurement of a hitter’s value, since it can be magnified or diminished by game context that isn’t in the player’s control. RE24, with no clutch component, serves better by that argument. In this case, though, I believe WPA is measuring what we want to know. Pinch-hitters are quite often reserved for high-leverage junctures. Their presumed skill is earning them these high-level chances, and I think it fair that they be rewarded for their success—or penalized for their failure.

As implied above, that pinch-hitting statistics don’t include subsequent appearances when a player stays in the game at a position, including designated hitter. In the uncommon event that a team bats around and a pinch-hitter comes up twice in an inning, I do count the second event as a pinch-hitting appearance. This is not standard practice, but in the borderlands between entering a game cold and being in its flow, I thought this event fell more toward the former.

I also found an instance where a player came in as a defensive substitute, batted the following half-inning, and was counted as a pinch-hitter. I removed this as violating the spirit of pinch-hitting. There is an odder event, one of Earl Weaver’s most brilliant stratagems, that I will cover with its particular batter.

Before proceeding to individuals, I’ll note a more general observation. The pinch-hitting penalty, where a player doesn’t bat as well coming off the bench as he does when starting, is pretty well known now. The splits for history’s most frequent pinch-hitters back up the theory, if not perfectly.

Of the 99 players with at least 300 pinch-hitting PAs, just 29 of them produced a better pinch-hitting OPS+ compared to their full careers, with four others hitting the average. Narrow it down to those who pinch-hit 400 or more times, and the ratio shrinks: seven players out of 35 doing better than career, with three others at an even 100 tOPS+. The average tOPS+ for both groups comes within a couple tenths of 91.

The standard pinch-hitting penalty is given in The Book at 10 percent of wOBA (specifically 34 points down from .334), so this looks like it lines up. Remember, though, that OPS+ works with a bottom of -100 rather than zero. One percentage point of wOBA would seem to correspond to two points of OPS+. I ran a check of wOBA versus OPS+ for batters in 2014, and the ratio came out around 2.1-1, so this is more or less confirmed.

That means the pinch-hitting penalty should bring the tOPS+ down to around 80 rather than around 90. Part of this will be due to some players’ PAs being as designated hitters, which has its own smaller penalty and thus diminishes the amount that pinch-hitting pulls the numbers down. The rest of the mitigated penalty could be due to players getting accustomed to pinch-hitting duty and therefore doing better at it, or to managers noticing who loses less as a pinch-hitter and giving him more chances, or mere random variation.

The mystery is reinforced by looking at the 26 times a player has pinch-hit 80 or more times in a season. Fully 16 of them had tOPS+ splits over 100 that year, with another right at 100. Something is happening there, but the numbers alone do not reveal what. A puzzle for another day.

And so, on to the players. When I give their pinch-hitting performances, I will often put WPA and RE24 together in a slash-stat, much like BA/OBP/SLG. WPA will be in wins, and RE24 in runs. Adjusted Leverage Index (for single-PA appearances, as stated above) is based on 1.00 as the average, with higher leverage resulting in higher numbers.

Lynch in the Clinch

Jerry Lynch’s 1961, as noted already, was really good. Overall he batted .315/.407/.624, but this undersells his performance coming cold off the bench. In 59 pinch-hitting plate appearances, he turned in a line that looks like Ted Williams in 1941: .404/.525/.851. He drew a dozen walks, and more than half of his 19 hits went for extra bases, including four home runs. He drove in 25 runs pinch-hitting, half his total for the season in two-sevenths of the PAs.

For his pinch-hitting, WPA comes in at 1.949 and RE24 adds up to 17.18. Going by the standard 10 runs per win formula, Lynch’s pinches produced a little more than their fair share of WPA for the runs. However, his aLI for those PAs was 1.79. With that multiplier applied, maybe we should have expected an even higher WPA/RE24 ratio than we got.

The 1.79 Leverage Index, by the way, is moderately high but not extraordinary among this group of pinch-hitters. Lynch was not benefitting from an extraordinary set of clutch opportunities; he just hit like a maniac in a good set of opportunities.

The case reverses itself for his non-pinch-hitting work. Those 151 PAs produced 6.72 RE24 runs, and 1.312 WPA wins. With aLI not calculated but certainly far closer to a standard 1.00, he was cranking out better WPA than expected by the RE24 figures.

Not, of course, that he was hitting better. Lynch cranked out about four times more WPA/PA while pinch-hitting than otherwise, and for RE24 the ratio’s more like eight to one. In 59 PAs, Lynch’s hitting produced almost two wins above average—not above replacement, mind you. By WPA, he had the best pinch-hitting season in this study, though two players come fairly close. By RE24, nobody comes even fairly close.

If anybody ever earned himself MVP consideration for pinch-hitting, Jerry Lynch managed the trick. Still, two wins above average in that short span comes out to maybe 2.5 WAR. The standard calculations don’t give him even that much for the whole season, fWAR and bWAR agreeing on 1.9. (A mediocre glove in a corner outfield slot helps explain that.) Even for 2.5 WAR, though, the only things getting Lynch a sniff of the MVP ballot were a gimmick and a pennant.

(I observe in passing that Lynch’s teammate, the author Jim Brosnan, got a smidgen more MVP support on just 1.2 WAR. That appears to demonstrate that publishing a book is a better vote-getting gimmick than running wild as a pinch-hitter. Free advice for all ballplayers out there, though I can’t guarantee it’ll be worth as much as you’re paying for it.)

Now Batting for the Mets …

There are a number of teams that have assigned players high-profile pinch-hitting jobs. Some of them maintain that slot even after the big name goes on to another team, or to whatever there is in life after baseball. I took a look at two of those cases here, the first one being the New York Mets of the 1980s.

Rusty Staub was a popular player wherever he went. One can argue that, to this day, he’s the most beloved player in Montreal Expos history. He gained a similar reputation playing from 1972 to 1975 at Shea Stadium, so when the down-and-out Mets brought him back in 1981, it was as much for PR as for wins and losses.

He settled quickly into a reserve role that, over the following five years, would develop into almost pure pinch-hitting. He’d pinch 316 times for the Mets in those five years (including the strike-shortened ’81 campaign), with a robust 1.84 aLI over those seasons. His 94 pinch-hit appearances in 1983 is the highest single-season number of anyone since 1914 (meaning that, with the much lower prevalence of pinch-hitting before then, it’s probably the highest total ever).

Staub was up-and-down in his second Mets tenure, good in odd years but a negative in even years. His peak production came in 1983, with 0.927 WPA and 7.28 RE24 as a pinch-hitter. These numbers are perhaps deceptive, as he pinch-hit so often that year: his rate stats weren’t even a third of Lynch’s ’61. Still, for all five years, Staub’s PH totals are 1.405/8.06, which was a nice return in combination with his PR. (And I certainly do not mean pinch-running.)

Rusty bridged a gap for the Mets, from sad-sack status to an over-achieving 1984 and a seriously contending 1985. He would not be around for their final step up to the powerhouse of 1986, but that team still felt a need for a bench bat or two. One was a carryover from earlier years, Danny Heep, while the other was another former Met returning to the fold, Lee Mazzilli.

Heep arrived in New York in 1983, traded by Houston for pitcher Mike Scott. The Mets would have cause to rue that deal in 1986, despite it being Heep’s best year, as Scott’s suspect split-finger fastball bedeviled them in an epic NLCS. Heep’s pinch-hitting opportunities early on were limited by Staub’s presence, and his overall opportunities were limited by platoon splits that left him nearly helpless against southpaws. (Staub was likewise left-handed and had a substantial split, but he was just a better hitter. He did better lifetime against lefties than Heep did against righties.)

Heep managed mildly positive PH numbers in Staub’s shadow for 1983, but went negative the next two years. Things came together in ’86, as his 34 PH chances produced a nice 0.727 WPA and 4.79 RE24. He also got 50 starts in the outfield, all against righty pitchers, but that was a decline from the previous year. Even with free-agent bust George Foster sent out of town, the Mets decided they had no room for his limited skill-set, and let him go in free agency after the World Series win. Where he wound up will be revealed soon.

The player Foster’s departure did make room for was Mazzilli, who debuted as a Met in 1976 with high expectations that he never quite achieved. One lone All-Star appearance and a sub-replacement ’81 got him traded to Texas, netting the Mets pitcher Ron Darling. By 1983, Maz found himself a frequent pinch-hitter with the Pirates. In 1986, his 45 pinch-hit PAs for Pittsburgh netted him a ghastly -0.961/-4.26, and they released him in late July.

But the Mets, girding themselves to release Foster, picked him up, stashed him in Triple-A, then promoted him when the hammer fell. In the last two months of a walkover pennant race, he produced an OPS 150 points better than he left behind in Pittsburgh. His 24 PH opportunities were light on hits but heavy with walks, and with the help of one timely game-tying double in mid-August, pushed his WPA/RE24 stats positive at 0.030/1.05. He’d follow with a 3-for-10 postseason, including pinch hits in the final two games of the World Series.

He followed up with good 0.337/4.21 numbers pinch-hitting in ’87, but ’88 was a disaster. His -0.100/-0.07 PH stats glossed over far worse performance when playing the field, and by mid-1989 he went via waivers to his final stop in Toronto. His career as a pinch-hitter came to -0.367/5.07, the divergence indicating that his performance fell as the leverage rose.

Taking up a part of the pinch-hitting slack from Mazzilli’s departure was Dave Magadan, who had a cup of coffee with the ’86 champs. He would not become a heavy pinch-hitter with the Mets, mainly because he was working up to a steady starting role. His PH’ing with them peaked in 1989 and 1990, with a 0.377/2.43 in the former year and an almost identical line the next.

Offensive decline and two season-ending injuries got Magadan set loose into free agency after the 1992 season. The later part of his career would see him compile the bulk of his pinch-hitting PAs, but they fell off in effectiveness from his Mets tenure. From a 0.108/0.92 in New York, he’d sink to a career -0.865/0.33 pinch-hitting. It was an anticlimactic conclusion to the line the Mets began with Rusty Staub.

Now Batting for the Dodgers …

Well-known as Staub was, he couldn’t eclipse someone who almost seemed to have invented the role of full-time pinch-hitter, somebody so well-recognized in the role that audiences were expected to recognize him when he was name-dropped for a joke in 1980’s zany comedy Airplane! He was Manny Mota, and he opened up an era of pinch-hitting specialization for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Mota’s career began in 1962 with San Francisco, and as he never quite ascended to full-time starting status, he always had his share of pinch-hitting chances. He came to L.A. in a 1969 trade that also retrieved Maury Wills for the Dodgers, lost in the expansion draft to Montreal. He kept up his two-thirds time play through 1973, the year he got his lone All-Star nod, but a post-All Star drop in his numbers seemed to presage a sudden end to his playing days.

It was the end to his starting, but the beginning of the defining phase of his career. In 1974, he’d start one game, but pile up 64 pinch-hit appearances. His PH numbers weren’t that good at -0.332/0.89, but with the Dodgers copping the pennant, they stuck with what was working. 1975 would be worse, but he came into his own the next two seasons. He posted an 0.896/6.75 in ’76 and a 1.110/5.16 in ’77, both times with a Leverage Index well above two.

He was so good in the role that the Dodgers got him a partner. Vic Davalillo had been out of the majors for three years since Charlie Finley dumped him from the A’s in the middle of the ’74 season. The Dodgers front office, looking for a left-handed pinch-hitter to complement Mota, scouted him in the Mexican League and signed him up for the stretch drive.

Davalillo had the experience for the role, with 74 pinch-hit PAs back in 1970 for St. Louis. Along with a little outfield play, he chipped in 14 PH appearances for L.A., though the results were a -0.160/-1.20 disappointment. The investment would really pay off in the League Championship Series against the Phillies.

His Dodgers down 5-3 with two gone in the top of the ninth, Davalillo was sent up as L.A.’s last gasp. With great situational awareness, he drag-bunted against a drawn-back infield for a single. Then up came Manny Mota. His shot deep into left eluded notorious outfield butcher Greg Luzinski, sending him to third and Davalillo home. The Dodgers kept it going for a three-run rally that won the game and set them up to claim the pennant. And it wouldn’t have happened without their pinch-hitting specialists.

Both men stuck around for ’78 and ’79, but were reduced to September call-ups in 1980. Mota got a single PA in 1982, but other than that they had run their course. Davalillo was never a big pinch threat with the Dodgers, amassing an overall -0.358/-1.39. Mota, in the span since his new role began in ’74, was 1.450/8.75, with an overall aLI at a heady 2.15. With his WPA running ahead of the RE24, Mota was getting even better results in the most pivotal of situations.

Lastly, with the benefit of rounding up, Mota batted a career .300 as a pinch-hitter. Of players with 300 or more cracks at pinch-hitting, only Dave Philley has a higher average. We aren’t as impressed today with batting averages, or his similarly second-place 115 pinch-hit RBIs, but they helped cement his fame in his own era.

The Dodgers didn’t try to replicate the Mota/Davalillo pair, or at least didn’t have notable success doing so. They did pick up a noteworthy pinch-hitting figure for the 1987 season, the Mets’ cast-off Danny Heep. He’d pinch-hit 88 times for them over the next two years, but the results were a -1.820/-12.14 wreck. That and similar production when playing the outfield got him his release, though not before he picked up his second World Series ring in three years—including beating his old Mets in the 1988 NLCS.

The next pinch-hitting pair came from the Dodgers’ attempts to fill a different kind of hole. L.A. traded away third baseman Ron Cey after the 1982 season, but stumbled in filling his spot on the diamond. Trades and minor-league promotions alike failed to find them a steady third baseman, and our next two pinch-hitters are one of each.

Lenny Harris was originally a Cincinnati Red, but a mid-season trade in 1989 sent him to Chavez Ravine. He could play all across the diamond (he played every position but catcher in his career), and the Dodgers hoped he would stick at third. In 1990, the experiment seemed to be working. By 1992, it fell apart, and Harris was on his way to becoming baseball’s ultimate journeyman bench man, compiling the most pinch-hit appearances in history.

Again, L.A. hoped it had a better answer. Dave Hansen got his first taste of the bigs with the Dodgers in 1990, and in ’92 they plugged him in at third, hoping he’d succeed where Harris was failing. This attempt took just one year to turn sour, and in each of the following two seasons, Hansen was getting more than half of his plate appearances as a pinch-hitter.

Lenny Harris did not post good pinch-hitting numbers in Los Angeles. Despite how often he was used that way, he seldom posted good PH numbers anywhere. As a Dodger he pinched -1.554/-13.14, against marks of -4.765/-36.24. Teams did not seem to expect great things of him either, as his aLI was a very ordinary 1.27. Strangely, his best pinch-hitting year was his last, with the Marlins in 2005. In 67 attempts, he posted 0.763 WPA and 3.99 RE24.

With his weak hitting—a lifetime OPS+ of 80—it’s a wonder Harris was given 883 chances to pinch-hit, never fewer than 46 times a year in the last 13 seasons of his career. The enabling factor may have been his usability at several defensive positions, making him a viable substitute in various places and making double-switches a greater possibility. It makes him the opposite of the standard pinch-hitting candidate, a strong batter whose glove you want to hide, but it worked.

Dave Hansen’s career in pinch-hitting was not very much better than Harris’s, totaling a -1.151/-10.24 with a rather moderate 1.48 aLI. It had much greater highs, though, and didn’t wait nearly as long to reach them. In 1993, right after flunking his test at third, he posted a 1.384/9.39 with 1.97 leverage, all lifetime peaks. This may possibly have saved his career from a premature end.

Seven years later, back with the Dodgers after time as a Cub and a Hanshin Tiger, he would pinch for 1.297/4.50. He’s the only man in this piece with two pinch-hitting seasons at that level, yet he was weak enough in other years that his career comes out negative. And his pinch-hitting was a hug part of his career: just over one-third of all his plate appearances were as a pinch-hitter. Very few can boast a higher ratio—the edited-for-space Mark Sweeney among them.

The Dodgers did eventually have ambiguous success in finding a third baseman. They promoted Adrian Beltre to the bigs in 1998. Sadly for them, he had the weakest seven-year period of his whole career there before departing via free agency. He’s also played much too regularly to be worth examining as a pinch-hitter, so let’s press forward.

The Tandem

He came up with the Baltimore Orioles in time to participate in their three straight pennant campaigns from 1969 to ’71. After 1973, with his playing time in Baltimore diminishing, he migrated over to the Cincinnati Reds. While not breaking into that historic starting lineup, he stuck in a supporting role and was part of the team in 1975, a club still regarded by some as the best that ever played. He didn’t stay to repeat in ’76, though, being traded away to an NL West competitor.

As the sub-head probably gave away, there are two men who fit all those particulars: Merv Rettenmund and Terry Crowley. A little sadly for the parallel narrative, their most interesting times as pinch-hitters may have come once they were separated. Perhaps that’s only natural, as they would no longer be snatching pinch-hitting opportunities from each other. (Though with Merv hitting righty and Terry lefty, they were more complementary than competing.)

Both players had fairly high leverage for their pinch-hitting work. Rettenmund’s was the lower at 1.73, a little below the Lynch Line, while Crowley was clearly above at 1.91. In seven of his 15 seasons, Terry Crowley’s PH plate appearances averaged an aLI higher than 2, with an eighth season hitting the mark exactly. The majority of those were in his second stint in Baltimore, which I’ll get back to soon.

Rettenmund had the better career PH numbers, with a 1.189 WPA and 15.94 RE24 as compared to Crowley’s -0.233/1.05. A big piece of this comes from Merv’s rookie year in 1968, and some good luck. In just nine PH chances, he piled up 0.688 WPA and 2.75 RE24 on three walks and three extra-base hits. His most productive PH year was 1976 with the San Diego Padres, when he cranked out 0.794 WPA wins and 4.95 RE24 runs.

Rettenmund played regularly enough for the Orioles that his chances to pinch-hit were limited: he never had as many as 20 in his six Baltimore years. By 1977 with San Diego, he did manage to rack up an impressive 85 pinch-hit PAs, though to a middling 0.040/1.43 result.

Crowley, for his part, was playing less but pinch-hitting more when with Rettenmund on the Orioles. His PH frequency likewise jumped after the move to Cincinnati, though his results there were quite negative: -1.202/-9.59 for the two years. He would do rather better after Earl Weaver picked him off the scrap heap in mid-’76 and brought him back to Baltimore.

Weaver always had a use for players with specific strengths, and would work around the weaknesses. Crowley’s huge platoon splits were the strength and weakness, which helps explain why he pinch-hit so frequently. Weaver employed him as a specialist against righty pitchers, as DH and pinch-hitting—and for a stretch of 1980, as a bizarre amalgam of both.

Weaver’s stratagem exploited a hole in the designated hitter rules of the time. He would put an inactive pitcher (someone who absolutely wasn’t going to play, who might not even be in the same city!) in the DH spot on his lineup card, then sub in a real DH once he came up in the batting order. This protected Weaver in case the opposing pitcher got knocked out extra-early: he’d get the platoon matchup he wanted without the risk of burning one of his hitters to achieve it.

(This is no longer legal. The rules were changed to require a designated hitter to bat at least once before exiting the game, with the usual injury exception, much as a relief pitcher must face one batter or record one out.)

Crowley would “pinch-hit” 17 times in September and early October of 1980 for these fake DH’s, entering the game in the first or second inning. While official records count these as PH events, I decided to exclude them from my counts. Crowley was obviously expecting to start playing the first time the DH position came up, the same way a regularly assigned DH would. The “spirit” of pinch-hitting is absent.

Even without those appearances, Crowley’s career revived as part of Weaver’s tool chest. His WPA and RE24, both as a pinch-hitter and overall, were all positive for his first six years back in Baltimore, going negative only in his last season of 1983. His Leverage Index was at 2 or above for the first five of those. His peak was a 1.143/4.03 performance on 51 pinch-hit PAs in 1979, doing his bit to win Earl his fourth pennant. Over his career he wasn’t Merv Rettenmund’s equal, but Crowley did have the best PH year between them.

It was not as good, however, as the best year of my last subject.

Swinging Gates

Gates Brown had a classic type of profile for a pinch-hitter: good but not great bat, with dubious defensive skills. His glove made him a bad choice to start regularly, and his hitting wasn’t dominant enough to overcome those defensive concerns. After one year as an outfield regular in 1964, the Detroit Tigers slid him into a part-time role, giving him about 30 to 50 pinch-hitting PAs a year with impressive regularity.

Helping push him toward his part-time role were his left-handed batting and his bulk. He must have appeared the exact kind of hitter who’d get eaten alive by southpaws, and over 90 percent of his career batting came against right-handers. This may have been a mistake: his career platoon split was just 26 points of OPS, much thinner than average for a lefty. A small sample might affect that, as he was given so few chances against left-handers, but he might have gained from a manager willing to let him bust the stereotype.

Still, he worked well in the role he was given. Gates compiled 2.997 WPA and 16.68 RE24 as a pinch-hitter, with an aLI at a strong 1.81. This comprises roughly a quarter of his career offensive values above average, in roughly a fifth of the total plate appearances. He’s one of the few whose pinch-hitting splits outpaced his overall batting, and decisively, with a career tOPS+ of 109. That is almost the best figure among those I examined: Merv Rettenmund edged him by one point.

Brown established his pinch-hitting bona fides with good performances in 1965 and ’66, but his batting line crashed to .187/.286/.286 in 1967, taking his pinch numbers negative. With four good outfielders ahead of him in Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley and Jim Northrup, Brown faced having his place on the team squeezed out. He needed a big bounce-back 1968—and did he ever get it.

In the Year of the Pitcher, Gates roared to a .370/.442/.685 line. In his 49 pinch-hitting chances, that rose to .439/.531/.854, a close match to Jerry Lynch’s 1961. Brown didn’t pile up RBIs the way Lynch had, but the more advanced stats took care of him. His pinch-hitting RE24 came in at 7.78 runs, but WPA was the real jackpot at 1.694. Plate appearance for plate appearance, Gates Brown piled up Win Percentage Added even faster than Lynch in ’61.

Like Lynch, Brown’s pinch-hitting breakout came with a pennant, though it was more of a runaway for the Tigers than the Reds. Brown didn’t get any MVP attention for his efforts, partly because he played so little outside of pinch-hitting (104 total PAs versus Lynch’s 210), partly because the RBIs weren’t falling for him as they did for Lynch. Brown did get to savor the ultimate reward, as his Tigers outlasted Bob Gibson and the Cardinals to win the World Series.

It was never quite as good again for Gates. His batting numbers crashed anew in 1969, improved in ’70 and especially ’71, then nosedived again in ’72 just as his improvements had been getting him more playing time. The designated hitter rule, seemingly tailor-made for him, got him regular play in 1973. He didn’t quite click in the role, though, and his pinch-hitting ended up in a -0.533 WPA sinkhole. Two years later, he would go the way of all aging bats.

But he would always have 1968, and the knowledge that when his team needed something big off the bench, he would hear the call.

Wrapping Up

Even prominent pinch-hitters have trouble producing a great deal of value in their roles. Of the 12 players I looked at, only five managed a positive WPA as pinch-hitters for the time I surveyed. (Lynch I covered for just one season; Staub, Mota, and Davalillo for the parts of their careers where they were PH’ing in a high proportion of their games.) Three of the remaining seven had both negative WPAs and RE24s.

This isn’t as bad as it looks. By nature, pinch-hitters almost always replace poor batters, often pitchers, or players facing a platoon mismatch. We would expect below-average production from them, so a pinch-hitter can himself have below-average results that are still better than what the team would otherwise have received in those situations.

Still, the numbers do show that even a good season for a pinch-hitter will not lift his team very far. Two wins above average was what Jerry Lynch managed in 1961, and it’s hard to imagine a player producing much more by pinch-hitting than that. Should he maintain such a batting tear, he’d find himself starting more games, whatever his defensive liability, meaning fewer chances to come off the bench. The system is self-limiting that way.

But the right player in the right circumstance can still produce meaningful value as a pinch-hitter. Even one win can be the difference between October baseball and October golf. (Not for Lynch: his Reds won by four.)

And the creeping roster takeover by relief pitchers hasn’t so much choked off pinch-hitting as concentrated it in the few bench hitters remaining. Half of the 26 instances of a player pinch-hitting 80 or more times in a year have happened from 2001 onward, almost once a year. (2014 was a miss, with the high at 76.) The chances for a player to have a significant effect just with his pinch-hitting may never have been higher.

If it’s the right player, having the right kind of year.

References and Resources

A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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Jim G.
7 years ago

Nice to see some of those names again. I was surprised to see Lee Mazzilli on the list. Always thought of him more as a starter. Two names that jumped to mind that I would expect to see: Jose Morales (the elder) and Del Unser.

Paul G.
7 years ago
Reply to  Jim G.

Mazzilli was only a starter for 5 seasons (1977-1981), then was a semi-regular for through 1984, and finished his career in 1989. Whether he was supposed to be a starter those semi-regular years but was hurt, ineffective, or both I’m not sure.

7 years ago
Reply to  Jim G.

“By 1983, Maz found himself a frequent pinch-hitter with the Pirates.”

I just happen to know this was by default. The Bucs brought Maz in that year to be the CF but they somehow failed to notice that Maz had no arm (or had lost the ability to throw during the winter).

The Astros noticed. After getting in one game in St. Louis to open the season, the Pirates went to the Dome and the Astros went nuts on the bases on any ball hit to CF. I covered the team as a beat writer that year and I remember Tanner in his office, demonstrating how they were trying to get Maz to get more ooomph under the ball when he threw, to no avail.

So they were kind of stuck with Maz. They later acquired the misnamed Marvel Wynne to play CF and gave Maz some starts at 1B, but the Bucs already had a collapsing player there in Jason Thompson, who was plunging from a 147OPS+, 31HR season to 115/18 (and 18 led the team).

It was a mess of a team (Dave Parker put up a 97OPS+ with 12HRs) that managed to stay in the pennant race until the last week anyway, behind good seasons from Madlock and Pena, plus a pretty solid rotation that included a couple of rookies (Lee Tunnell and Jose Deleon) and a couple of veterans (Candelaria, Larry McWilliams) having really good years.

They were hanging around in the race, two games back, until, coincidentally, they went to New York to play the Mets in a Monday afternoon game. The Pirates had the lead and Kent Tekulve on to close it.

Here’s the box score; note the bottom of the ninth:

You’ll see Rusty Staub pinch hit and reached on “E3” but that doesn’t begin to describe the disaster that took place. Staub, who by that time was slower than most dead people, hit a hard grounder to Thompson, who dribble the ball once, then managed to throw it so high that even Tekulve covering first couldn’t quite get more than the tip of his glove on it. The ball rolled into the dugout. Staub, meanwhile, was maybe halfway down the line. He and the Mets (who were terrible that year) made the most of that gift, tied the game in the ninth and won it in the 10th.

The Pirates didn’t lose any ground, but they didn’t close to a game out of first place either. They won four of the next five, but LOST a game in the standings to the Phillies, who they were chasing, and when the Pirates lost five of the next six they were finished.

7 years ago
Reply to  bucdaddy

In Pittsburgh, Maz refers to HOFer Bill Mazeroski, not some washed up Met.

87 Cards
7 years ago

A few years ago, I was pinned down at home for a couple of days with a sick child; making a long-story short I researched the early 1980s Mets seasons. I made some notes about Rusty Staub, his reference in this article prompts me to share the following notes:

**Staub pinch-hit for 14 of the 15 Met pitchers in 1983 (Brett Gaff made 4 late Sept. appearances; pinch hit for twice–by catchers Junior Ortiz and Ron Hodges). Tom Seaver was lifted for Staub six times getting only one hit–a two-run homer off the Reds’ Charlie Puleo at Shea Stadium.

**All three of Staub HRs that year were as a pinch-hitter.

** The ’83 Mets were managed for the first 46 games by George Bamberger and the final 116 games by Frank Howard. They put Rusty to work hitting for middle infielders José Oquendo and Brian Giles.

*****Staub PHed for Giles 14 times that season resulting in two two-run doubles, a 2-run single and one intentional base-on-balls. Staub also walked PHing for Giles in 1982.

*****Oquendo was replaced by Big Orange 12 times with the following outcomes: Solo HR, RBI single, two walks, one reached-on-error and a grounded-into-double play. In 1984, Staub PHed for Oquendo six times only failed to reach base once: two walks, a 2-RBI single, and a single. José helped Staub in 1984; he pinch-ran for him four times.

** Staub went 9-18 in his 8 games as a starter. He started one game in 1984, played another 4 innings at first-base in another appearance that year. In his final season of 1985, he played RF and LF in an 18-inning game vs. the Pirates ; the rest of of his 44 games were as a PH. Rusty put up .264 BA and .267 in his age 40 and 41 seasons. He was raking to the end.

Paul G.
7 years ago

About batting average, we do know now that it is a semi-dubious statistic for offensive value, but I think it means more for a pinch hitter. High average pinch hitters can be leveraged to be used in situations where a hit is much more valuable than a walk, such as a runner on second with two outs in a tie game. High on-base pinch hitters are ideal for when you need base runners or the bases are loaded. High power guys are great when you need an extra base hit.

Of course, with the slimmed down benches these days having even one pinch hitter good at something is a bit of a luxury.

Paul G.
7 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

To add one more thought, the on-base guy is preferable against a high-walk, high-strikeout pitcher like Nolan Ryan while the average guy is more useful against a low-walk pitcher. Pinch hitters are generally easy to leverage for maximum value assuming you have pinch hitters who are good at something, at least until the other manager changes pitchers in response. With shorter benches it becomes rather difficult as burning through two and perhaps three bench players in a pinch hit situation empties out the bench.

87 Cards
7 years ago

Addition to Rusty Staub: The link below shows his final appearance in the field. Look at the grace as he chases down a nine-iron fly ball from Rick Rhoden (appearing as a pinch-hitter for Doug Frobel) in the top of the 18th inning on April 25, 1985.

7 years ago
Reply to  87 Cards

There’s kind of a lost tactic, pitchers who could hit being used as pinch hitters. Drysdale made 25 appearances as a PH, went 5 for 23. Don Robinson made 26, but though he was a career .231 hitter he was a bad pinch hitter, 3 for 24 with a homer and two RBIs. Bob Gibson had a .385 OBP in 14 PH appearances. George Brett’s brother was 4 for 27 with a walk. Carlos Zambrano went 3 for 29 with 14 strikeouts. Rhoden, a career .238 hitter, went 1 for 13 …

OK, I’m getting an idea why it’s a lost strategy.

Paul G.
7 years ago
Reply to  bucdaddy

Red Ruffing was pretty good at it.

7 years ago

“Quite a lot of effective pinch-hitting. Sometimes it seems a dozen pages can’t go buy in Pennant Race without Lynch stepping up and getting a crucial hit”

A typo with a subliminal message?

7 years ago

When I think of Mets pinch hitters, I am reminded of Matt Franco who would be used as a pinch hitter by Bobby Valentine on occasion.

Hank G.
7 years ago

Too bad some of these guys didn’t get the chance to be designated hitters (along with great hitters who were reputedly defensive disasters such as Ernie Lombardi and Babe Herman).

Grandpa Boog
7 years ago

I still remember StL Cardinal Roger Freed’s walk-off grand slam off Sambito of the Astros in 1977 or 1978 or 1979. My grandson and I had the radio turned way down low for volume so that we would not awaken Grandma. We jumped up and down together and shouted in muted silence, and Grandma slept through it all.

7 years ago

“I left out two of the most prolific pinch-hitters in history, Mark Sweeney and Greg Gross, for reasons of space and reader attention span.”

That was disappointing, to put it mildly. I actually clicked through to read the article in the hopes of reading about Gross. Meh.

7 years ago

Any thought to do a separate or overlapping list with PH’ers from the playoffs? I can still remember Bernie Carbo coming up with some tremendous shots during that great World Series vs the Reds.

Shane Tourtellotte
7 years ago
Reply to  rustydude

Alas, probably not. It wouldn’t be much use in a sabermetric sense, with such tiny sample sizes, and I probably don’t have a deep enough base of knowledge to do the stories that do exist justice. Carbo, of course, is an excellent example along those lines, though Hal Smith probably nailed down the pinch-hit Championships Added title with one swing back in 1960.

I’ll stop here, before I talk myself into doing this after all.

7 years ago

Thad Bosley?

7 years ago

Floyd Caves (Babe) Herman was a better outfielder than his reputation. The sportswriters of his day delighted in exaggerating his misplays for comic effect.