May 25, 2024

The Vanishing Pinch-Hitter

March 30, 2024 by · Leave a Comment 

Red Lucas

Red Lucas

Let’s start this essay with a FUN FACT: the Spanish term for pinch-hitter is bateador emergente, or emergency batter. Now there’s a phrase I’d like to see catch on in anglophone play-by-play accounts. It enhances the drama of the situation.

I don’t think there are fewer emergencies in contemporary baseball than in ye olden times, but there are definitely fewer emergency batters. Once the National League adopted the designated hitter rule, it killed off the classic situation of a pinch-hitter coming to bat for a pitcher when a team needed offense. Now pinch-hitting is pretty much reserved for the righty-lefty policy of swapping out designated hitters when the opposing team brings in a left-hander in relief of a right-hander or vice versa.

Occasionally, a team will sub a pinch-hitter for a weak-hitting position player, but given the number of pitchers hogging roster spots, there aren’t as many bench players, i.e., potential pinch-hitters, as there used to be. So as the act of pinch-hitting becomes rarer, the players who are renowned for that activity are also becoming rarer.

Consequently, the chances of current or future pinch-hitters earning a place in the record books alongside the great pinch-hitters of yore is pretty slim. The opportunities to achieve just aren’t what they used to be. But just for old time’s sake, let’s take a look at some of the foremost practitioners of the craft.

You don’t have to be a left-hander to be an outstanding pinch-hitter…but it sure helps. Of the 19 players who have amassed 100 or more pinch hits, only two were right-handed, even though right-handed hitters outnumber their left-handed counterparts. Since there are more right-handed pitchers than left-handed, the pinch-hitter will be called to duty against a right-hander more often, so left-handed pinch-hitters are preferable.

Those 19 pinch-hitters with 100 or more pinch-hits and their career pinch-hit totals are:

Lenny Harris 212
Mark Sweeney 175
Manny Mota 150 (right-hander)
Smokey Burgess 145
Greg Gross 143
Dave Hansen 138
John Vander Wal 129
Jose Morales 123 (right-hander)
Orlando Palmeiro 120
Jerry Lynch 116
Red Lucas 114
Steve Braun 113
Terry Crowley 108
Denny Walling 108
Gates Brown 107
Matt Stairs 105
Jim Dwyer 103
Mike Lum 103
Rusty Staub ` 100

Some of these players achieved fame as pinch-hitters; others came to it later in their careers so it is not their primary identity. Consider the case of Ichiro Suzuki. He led the American League in hits seven times and in at-bats eight times. Since he was almost always in the starting lineup, he was not in a position to come off the bench and pinch hit. As his 19-year career (not counting his time in Japanese ball) wound down, however, he spent more time on the bench.

While with the Marlins in 2017, he set the record for most pinch-hit at bats (100) in a season, as well as most games in which he appeared as a pinch-hitter (109). That is not why he’s on the fast track to Cooperstown, but it makes for an intriguing coda to an outstanding career.

Tellingly, the Baseball Reference website specifically lists all of the names save one on the list as pinch-hitters (e.g., Manny Mota is described as a “Left fielder and Pinch Hitter,” and Smokey Burgess is a “Catcher and Pinch Hitter.”) The sole exception is Rusty Staub, who is listed as a “Right fielder and First Baseman.”

Deciding whether or not a player should be characterized, at least partially, as a pinch-hitter, need not be a subjective assessment. Let’s create a statistic called phaverage (pinch-hitting average). This is not a traditional pinch-hitting average in which a hitter’s pinch hits are divided by the number of times he came to bat as a pinch-hitter; rather, it is a measure of how many hits in a player’s career total of hits were pinch hits. For example, Rusty Staub amassed 2,763 hits in his 23 seasons but only 100 were pinch-hits. As with Ichiro, pinch-hitting played a relatively minor part in his long career. 100 for 2,763 yields a phaverage of just .037.

Though it would be wrong to characterize Staub as a pinch-hitter, it must be noted that he achieved a lot in those 100 pinch hits. He is in the record books for most consecutive pinch hits (8) with the Mets in 1983 (he is tied with Dave Philley, who did the deed with the Phillies in 1958). That same year Staub tied the major league record for most RBIs by a pinch-hitter with 25 (Joe Cronin got there first in 1943 with the Red Sox; Jerry Lynch of the Reds tied him in 1961, as did Jose Morales of the Expos in 1976). Given the fewer opportunities for pinch-hitters today, it is hard to envision a present-day pinch-hitter having an opportunity to drive home that many runs.

The all-time pinch hits leader is “Pinch Hitter [notice that this status is listed first in Baseball Reference], Third Baseman and Outfielder” Lenny Harris with 212, mostly with the Dodgers. Harris is also at the top of the list in the category of most at bats as a pinch-hitter (804). But he had a total of 1,055 hits in 18 seasons; so his phaverage (212 for 1,055) is .201. Though he sits atop the aforementioned list, his phaverage is only sixth best of the group. So who are the five pinch-hitters with higher phaverages?

The hitter immediately ahead of Harris is an unlikely presence. Red Lucas, dubbed the Nashville Narcissus by a Cincinnati sportswriter, was a durable starting pitcher who led the National League in complete games three times (1929, 1931, and 1932) and finished what he started more than two thirds of the time (204 CGs out of 302 starts).

During his 15-season career he fashioned a 157-135 record, mostly with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, neither of which was a world-beater during his years of service. Lucas had a .281 lifetime batting average (404 for 1,439), which surely kept him in games when other pitchers would have yielded to pinch-hitters. And when needed he could pinch-hit for his fellow pitchers or weak-hitting position players.

Pitchers dabbling in pinch-hitting is not unheard of, but it has never been common. Good-hitting starting pitchers, however, were available for duty on days when they did not pitch – in other words, most days. Red Ruffing (521 hits lifetime), Rick Ferrell (329 hits lifetime), and Warren Spahn (363 hits lifetime) were occasionally called on to pinch-hit, but none was as adept at it as Lucas. Of his 404 lifetime hits, 114 were pinch-hits, which gives him a phaverage of .282.

Just ahead of Lucas is Terry Crowley, who played 15 years, mostly with the Orioles. Never a regular, Crowley peaked at 283 plate appearances in 1972 and had a lifetime batting average of just .250. Yet 108 of his 379 lifetime hits were in a pinch. That translates to a phaverage of .285. Had he not been so good at pinch-hitting, he would never have had such a long career.

As Hall-of-Fame manager Earl Weaver once put it, “Terry Crowley could sit on his fuckin’ ass for eight innings and enjoy watchin’ the baseball game just like any other fan, and has the ability to get up there and break one open in the fuckin’ ninth.” An eloquent job description if I’ve ever heard one.

Crowley achieved his record despite the fact that he spent eight seasons in the American League during the DH era. This was not the case with Dave Hansen, who spent almost all of his 15-year career in the NL, mostly with the Dodgers. Like Crowley, he was never a regular, though his versatility in the field added to his value to the team. Only twice did he get more than 200 plate appearances (379 in 1992 and 211 in 1995, both with the Dodgers).

He set the Dodger record for most pinch-hits in a season with 18 in 1993. Even more impressive, he holds the record for most pinch-hit home runs in a season with 7 in 2000 (Craig Wilson of the Pirates matched him the following season). Hansen has a phaverage of .296 (138 of his 466 hits were as a pinch-hitter).

FUN FACTS: Hansen played for the Hanshin Tigers in 1998. It was the first time he had more than 400 plate appearances and 100 hits since his minor league days. Speaking of Japanese ball, seven is also the record for most pinch-hit homers in a season in Japan. The record was set by Yasunori Ohshima of the Chunichi Dragons in 1986.

Two more pinch hits and Hansen would have achieved a .300 phaverage. That would have put him in elite company, as only two pinch-hitters occupy that rarified status. One was Jose Morales, who played 12 years with the A’s, Expos, Twins, Orioles, and Dodgers. His 123 pinch-hits of 375 career hits works out to a phaverage of .328. As mentioned above, in 1976 he had 25 pinch hits for the Expos, tying a single-season record at the time.

Considered a liability in the field, Morales had but 161 appearances as a fielder though he appeared in 733 games. He led the National League in pinch hits four times. For American League teams, he was largely a designated hitter. He was also a contact hitter (only 182 strikeouts in 1,428 plate appearances), which is an advantage for anyone aspiring to be a pinch-hitter.

That brings us to the all-time phaverage leader…drum roll, please…and the winner is Mark Sweeney! Of his 465 lifetime hits, 175 came as a pinch-hitter, giving him a phaverage of .377. Sweeney had a 14-year career (1995-2008), plying his trade with the Cardinals, Padres, Reds, Brewers, Rockies, Giants and Dodgers. His highest number of plate appearances was 291 with the Giants in 2006. In six seasons he failed to reach triple digits in PAs. His lifetime slash line was .254/.347/.387. I think it’s safe to assume his talent for pinch-hitting is what kept him in the game for so long. Five of his 42 lifetime home runs were in a pinch in 2004 with Colorado.

The ability to come off the bench and go deep is rare and most of the time the manager will be happy with anything other than an out. There are occasions, however, when a long-ball hitter is called upon in the late innings of a game expressly to tie or end a contest with one swing. One such hitter was Willie McCovey, who hit three pinch-hit grand slams. McCovey was a bona fide HOF caliber slugger but his bad knees often relegated him to the bench, making him available for pinch-hitting duties. His grand-slam record has been tied by Ben Broussard, Rich Reese, and Ron Northey, decent players all but hardly sluggers of renown.

Willie McCovey and Ichiro notwithstanding, pinch-hitting records are dominated by players who are not candidates for the Hall of Fame. If they were HOF candidates, they would be in the lineup every day and hence unavailable for pinch-hitting.

Of course, it is possible to make a successful transition from starter to role player. Consider the case of Ed Kranepool, who played 18 seasons for the Mets. After a premature debut at age 17, he developed into a good but not great first baseman. After he was demoted to part-time duty, his skills as a pinch-hitter came to the fore. In fact, he set the record for best pinch-hitting average in a season when he hit .486 (17 for 35) in 1974. It was the beginning of a remarkable five-year stretch during which he hit .396 as a pinch-hitter.

While pinch-hitters will never go extinct, existing pinch-hitting records will likely remain on the books. Of course, handicapping which records will never be broken is always good fodder for seamhead conversation, but in the case of pinch-hitting, an entire category of records is now almost unassailable.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone matching or surpassing Ichiro’s record of 100 pinch-hit at bats or John Vander Wal’s record of 28 pinch hits in a season (1996), much less surpassing either of them. The opportunities to challenge these records are no longer there. For example, in 1972, the last year when neither league had a DH, the average number of pinch-hitting appearances per team was 178. In 2023, with the DH rule in effect in both leagues, that number nosedived to 108.

As the need for pinch-hitters declines, the pinch-hitting lifestyle is also endangered. One of the perks of being a proficient pinch hitter is not having to be overly concerned with physical fitness. If you have good hand-eye coordination but lack speed, pinch-hitting just might be your dream job. The prototype was Smokey Burgess (5’8”, 185 lbs.), who looked like a beer league veteran at a fantasy camp. Though once described as “a walking laundry bag,” he held the record for most lifetime pinch hits (145 from 1949 through 1967) and most in a season (20 with the White Sox in 1966).

After Burgess retired, the big BMI tradition of left-handed pinch hitters was carried on by Gates Brown of Detroit (1963-1975), who weighed in at 220 pounds spread over a 5’11” frame, He remains the American League lifetime leader in pinch hit at bats (414) and hits (107). He was particularly valuable in 1968, hitting .450 as a pinch-hitter during the Tigers’ championship season.

In more recent years (1988-2005), Lenny Harris (5’10”, originally 195 lbs. but up to 220 lbs. towards the end of his career), carried on the tradition. Matt Stairs, who played for eight teams from 1992 to 2011, is the all-time pinch-hit home run leader with 23. His best year was 2009 when he hit five for the Phillies. Stairs, who stood 5’9”, started out at 175 pounds but ballooned to 215 before he retired. His nickname was Wonder Hamster, a reference to a Weird Al Yankovic song:

Oh, Harvey, Harvey
Harvey the wonder hamster
He doesn’t bite and he doesn’t squeal
He just runs around on his hamster wheel

Frankly, I don’t see the relevance of the song. Since Stairs packed on 40 pounds during his career, he probably didn’t spend much time running around on a hamster wheel…or on the warning track, or on a treadmill, or on anything else.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is a cause-and-effect relationship between being overweight and having an aptitude for pinch-hitting. But could we posit that body positivity indicates a positive attitude in other areas, such as swinging a baseball bat on short notice? Will fasting glucose numbers one day be used to predict pinch-hitting aptitude?

Now there’s a research experiment just waiting to happen. In fact, I’ll bet there’s a bundle of federal grant money just waiting to be earmarked for such a purpose.

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