This past season, the Athletics’ Seth Smith passed career milestones for 2000 total PAs and 200 PAs as a pinch-hitter. Among all players meeting both those criteria since 1950, Smith is easily the majors’ most proficient pinch-hitter. Which is ironic, considering that pinch-hitting has declined to record lows, in terms of both frequency of use and the effectiveness of the strategy.

More on the decline of pinch-hitting after the jump.

Here are the majors’ top pinch-hitters on a career basis since 1950, with a minimum 2000 PAs, including at least 200 as a pinch-hitter. Players are ranked based on OPS difference as a pinch-hitter.

Rk Player Split G OPS OPStot Diff ▾ PA PAtot AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG tOPS+
1 Seth Smith as PH 201 .967 .798 .169 201 2300 168 30 53 12 5 6 40 29 45 .315 .413 .554 142
2 Alex Arias as PH 239 .803 .688 .115 239 2010 206 27 66 14 2 1 35 20 34 .320 .380 .422 133
3 Ron Northey as PH 212 .895 .801 .094 212 3566 170 21 48 7 1 9 61 37 19 .282 .401 .494 124
4 Kurt Bevacqua as PH 376 .714 .632 .082 376 2398 318 28 82 20 2 4 79 46 55 .258 .343 .371 126
5 Cliff Johnson as PH 344 .876 .815 .061 344 4603 277 48 69 9 0 20 73 59 60 .249 .378 .498 115
6 Derrick May as PH 202 .772 .717 .055 202 2387 175 14 46 11 0 6 30 22 34 .263 .343 .429 115
7 Pat Kelly as PH 234 .785 .731 .054 234 5013 202 28 53 14 1 6 39 30 64 .262 .355 .431 115
8 Rick Miller as PH 227 .749 .696 .053 227 4440 191 23 54 10 3 0 29 32 35 .283 .382 .366 115
9 Greg Colbrunn as PH 260 .850 .799 .051 260 3017 229 29 71 11 0 9 48 20 51 .310 .375 .476 114
10 Dave Philley as PH 327 .760 .711 .049 327 7004 298 36 92 19 1 2 57 25 49 .309 .361 .399 114
11 Mike Aldrete as PH 302 .777 .733 .044 302 2498 253 36 65 10 2 9 50 42 51 .257 .358 .419 112
12 Jose Pagan as PH 231 .685 .641 .044 231 4032 208 18 56 11 0 4 34 14 43 .269 .306 .380 113
13 Dalton Jones as PH 351 .681 .639 .042 351 2556 309 35 81 11 3 3 52 34 65 .262 .334 .346 114
14 Marlon Anderson as PH 343 .744 .705 .039 343 3508 309 50 84 15 0 9 46 30 63 .272 .336 .408 111
15 Earl Torgeson as PH 264 .842 .803 .039 264 6046 209 36 57 8 1 7 46 53 41 .273 .420 .421 110
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/16/2013.

Looking just at pinch-hitting OPS instead of OPS difference (sorry, OPS+ is not available in P-I’s Split Finder), some more familiar names appear, but Smith again tops the list with room to spare (and probably still would if OPS+ was available).

Rk Player Split G OPS OPStot PA PAtot AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG tOPS+
1 Seth Smith as PH 201 .967 .798 201 2300 168 30 53 12 5 6 40 29 45 .315 .413 .554 142
2 Ron Northey as PH 212 .895 .801 212 3566 170 21 48 7 1 9 61 37 19 .282 .401 .494 124
3 Cliff Johnson as PH 344 .876 .815 344 4603 277 48 69 9 0 20 73 59 60 .249 .378 .498 115
4 Greg Colbrunn as PH 260 .850 .799 260 3017 229 29 71 11 0 9 48 20 51 .310 .375 .476 114
5 Willie McCovey as PH 302 .848 .889 302 9692 259 33 68 9 1 16 84 39 61 .263 .358 .490 91
6 Earl Torgeson as PH 264 .842 .803 264 6046 209 36 57 8 1 7 46 53 41 .273 .420 .421 110
7 Matt Stairs as PH 490 .833 .832 490 6024 416 72 105 20 2 23 87 64 109 .252 .357 .476 100
8 Bob Cerv as PH 238 .827 .820 238 2515 206 32 55 11 0 11 51 26 47 .267 .346 .481 102
9 Merv Rettenmund as PH 305 .824 .786 305 3074 239 39 66 15 0 5 39 59 40 .276 .422 .402 110
10 Harold Baines as PH 222 .814 .820 222 11092 192 29 60 7 3 3 49 26 44 .313 .387 .427 100
11 Smoky Burgess as PH 577 .812 .808 577 5012 489 71 138 27 0 16 144 74 42 .282 .376 .436 102
12 Jason Giambi as PH 210 .807 .919 210 8838 173 22 41 3 0 11 36 31 62 .237 .362 .445 76
13 Alex Arias as PH 239 .803 .688 239 2010 206 27 66 14 2 1 35 20 34 .320 .380 .422 133
14 Orlando Merced as PH 381 .798 .781 381 4532 327 48 87 22 2 11 70 46 73 .266 .352 .446 104
15 Johnny Grubb as PH 272 .793 .779 272 4823 226 38 59 7 2 9 43 38 38 .261 .364 .429 103
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/16/2013.

If you’re wondering about players with 200 pinch-hit PAs in fewer than 2000 career PAs, only Ryan Spilborghs (.837) and George Crowe (.810) would crack the list above. Wallace Johnson has the highest proportion of career PAs as a pinch-hitter (min. 200 pinch-hit PAs)  at 53.9%, with a .692 OPS in 339 pinch-hit appearances among only 629 career PAs.

And, for players used most frequently as pinch-hitters, some more different names.

Rk Player Split G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS tOPS+
1 Lenny Harris as PH 883 883 804 84 212 36 4 5 90 63 91 .264 .317 .337 .654 96
2 Mark Sweeney as PH 799 799 679 84 175 38 0 15 102 99 175 .258 .353 .380 .733 100
3 Greg Gross as PH 733 733 595 53 143 15 5 0 64 117 48 .240 .362 .282 .644 78
4 Dave Hansen as PH 703 703 593 62 139 22 3 15 81 104 153 .234 .348 .358 .705 94
5 John Vander Wal as PH 624 624 533 70 126 33 4 17 95 87 153 .236 .342 .409 .751 90
6 Manny Mota as PH 592 592 497 69 149 16 3 4 115 61 47 .300 .373 .368 .741 100
7 Smoky Burgess as PH 577 577 489 71 138 27 0 16 144 74 42 .282 .376 .436 .812 102
8 Orlando Palmeiro as PH 525 525 456 69 120 24 2 3 49 50 65 .263 .337 .344 .682 94
9 Jim Dwyer as PH 501 501 419 54 101 17 2 10 74 67 78 .241 .339 .363 .702 87
10 Gates Brown as PH 499 499 422 66 106 14 5 16 73 70 59 .251 .357 .422 .779 109
11 Terry Crowley as PH 494 494 423 47 109 19 1 5 69 63 51 .258 .350 .343 .693 93
12 Matt Stairs as PH 490 490 416 72 105 20 2 23 87 64 109 .252 .357 .476 .833 100
13 Greg Norton as PH 489 489 413 47 96 21 2 13 73 72 122 .232 .348 .387 .735 95
14 Jerry Lynch as PH 487 487 430 55 114 13 3 18 90 51 90 .265 .344 .435 .779 98
15 Jose Morales as PH 486 486 446 45 123 24 3 12 93 31 86 .276 .324 .424 .747 101
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/16/2013.

That Lenny Harris would top this last list is very telling. This is a player with a career .667 OPS who only twice passed 100 OPS+ (at 102 and 103) in 15 seasons of 100+ PA. And, it’s not like he had a particular knack for the job, as he wasn’t able to match even that very modest OPS performance as a pinch-hitter. Yet, major-league managers thought he was the team’s best available option for almost 900 PA. How sad.

So, how did pinch-hitting decline to the point where the likes of Lenny Harris would be the majors’ all-time leader in pinch-hit appearances? The answer probably isn’t a surprise. The ever-increasing use of relief pitchers has led to bloated pitching staffs and shorter benches. Benches so short, in fact, that there’s not room anymore for a pinch-hitting specialist (much less a left-hand hitting and right-hand hitting pinch-hit specialist, as was common 30 or 40 years ago). Certainly not after the roles of reserve catcher, reserve infielder and reserve outfielder have been filled (what a marvelous luxury today to have a player fill one of those roles and also be an effective pinch-hitter).

A picture tells a thousand words, so let’s go right to the charts.

Pinch-Hit Appearances per Game 1950-2013
So, the leagues were pretty much in lock step until the AL numbers predictably fell off the table when the DH was introduced. Then, both leagues stayed fairly stable until the AL began a steady decline in the early 1990s.

So, you might think the decline of the pinch-hitter is just an AL thing? Let me add another line to the chart and we’ll see if you still think so.

Pinch-Hit and Starting Pitcher Appearances per Game 1950-2013

The only thing falling faster than AL pinch-hit appearances are NL starting pitchers lasting deep into games. Given that context, NL pinch-hit appearances should have risen substantially. Except they couldn’t because the bodies on the bench aren’t there. Thus, the ever-increasing use of the double-switch as a more bench-effective substitute for pinch-hitting for the pitcher.

So, less pinch-hitting. But, what about the effectiveness of pinch-hitting as a strategy? Sorry, more bad news.

Pinch-Hitting OPS+ 1950-2013
Since peaking at close to league average performance in the mid-1980s, pinch-hitting OPS+ performance has declined to the point where the guy coming up to bat (unless it’s the pitcher) couldn’t be any worse (and is probably quite a bit better) than any available pinch-hitter, particularly in the AL. And, the NL performance isn’t a lot better, especially considering it’s measured against a league average that includes pitchers’ batting. So, no real surprise that managers are using fewer pinch hitters.

But, why are pinch-hitters performing so poorly? Aside from the fact that few pinch-hitters specialize in that role, there’s this.

Pinch-Hitting with Platoon Advantage 1950-2013
Sorry there are no league totals in P-I’s event finder, but you get the idea. With huge pitching staffs and tiny benches, the defense has the upper hand in pinch-hitting matchups (an advantage only slightly diminished by today’s practice of having rigidly defined pitching roles in the 8th and 9th innings).

One more indicator of the lack of pinch-hitting options available to today’s managers.

Pinch-Hitting for a Pinch-Hitter 1950-2013

Yup, the old cat-and-mouse game of sending up the “sacrificial” pinch-hitter with the expectation that that will result in the other manager going to his bullpen. Has never really happened as much as you might think – at its peak, maybe 5 or 6 times a season per team. But, it’s all but disappeared from the AL today, at less than once a season per team.

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