Seth Smith and the (almost) lost art of pinch-hitting

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.


Comments

Seth Smith and the (almost) lost art of pinch-hitting — 24 Comments

  1. Looks like Dave Hansen holds the lifetime and seasonal records for sacrificial PH appearances. He was PH for as a PH 63 times career-wise. In 2003 he was PH for 13 times as a PH and there were no inning-ending outs-on-base.

    • Good find, Richard.

      I’m guessing Hansen in 2003 also has the single season record for highest percentage of league total with 18.5% of the NL’s 70 PH appearances without a PA.

      • Hansen’s percentage was 13/71 = 18.31%. It’s not a record. Lenny Harris had 19.23% in 2005 and Dale Coogan had 20.00% in 1950. Prior to 1943 there were several seasons in which there were fewer than 6 player-games with 0 PH PA so obviously there had to be at least 1 player with at least 20.00% in each of those years. The results are for the NL only.

        • Richard,

          Nice work again on Lenny Harris. The 1950 data are described in B-R as “mostly complete”, with data before then only spotty (apparently substitutes are not always shown with positions in the older boxscores; or they may be shown with a position signifying only that they appeared in the game in the field, but without precluding the possibility of having entered the game as a pinch-hitter).

          Actually Richard, it was only 70 PH for PH appearances in the NL in 2003. The 71st that you noted was by Henry Blanco on Aug 20 who pinch-hit for Javy Lopez in the middle of Lopez’s 8th inning AB, and completed a strikeout that was charged to Lopez. Blanco remained in the game to catch the 9th inning, so appears as PH-C in the box score without a PA.

          • Thanks for the correction for the NL in 2003 but how did you pick that up about Blanco? Did you check each 2003 PH appearance individually?

          • I had clicked “Played exactly as marked or not” for the PH position and with PA=0 and found 70 occurrences for the NL in 2003. I used the “exactly” option as any pinch-hitter who was pinch-hit for could not have remained in the game and so would only appear in the boxscore as having been a pinch-hitter. This method will be 99% accurate, but can still be foiled by an aborted PA with an inning-ending caught stealing or pickoff (or an oddball appearance like Blanco’s, had Blanco not remained in the game).

            When you said 71 games, I figured you had clicked “Played any of those marked” and picked up an extra game where the player stayed in the game after pinch-hitting (and, so, could not have been pinch-hit for). Looking at the position column in the list of games, it was easy to spot the one where the player stayed in the game.

  2. Doug,
    Some very nice analysis here.
    A few comments:
    1) To your second graph, the drop off in the NL 4+ PA games line does not seem out of proportion to the increase in the NL pinch hit PA per team game line. Bear in mind that these two metrics are graphed on different scales, and even in the early ‘70s team games with four pitcher PAs were somewhat rare (20%). The decrease to 5% in recent years represents only a marginal increase in the opportunity for pinch hitter PAs.
    2) To your third graph, pinch hitter production has never been great. And to my eyes, it seems that any recent trends are subtle, at best. I suspect that if the MLB OPS+ numbers were graphed as 5-year rolling averages, the trend line would mostly reside between 75 and 85 OPS+.
    3) Interesting that since 1990, there has been a steady decline in pinch hitter platoon advantage (your fourth graph), but this trend is not obviously coupled to a decrease in pinch hitter OPS+ (your third graph).

    • Thanks Brendan,

      To your first point, perhaps 4+ PAs by a starting pitcher was not the right metric to illustrate the point, but I do think the decline in length of pitcher starts has tended to increase NL pinch-hitting, as seen from the early ’70s to the mid ’80s, and which has only been tempered since by the necessity of resorting to the double-switch instead of pinch-hitting.

      Re: point 2 and 3, it’s difficult to see on the OPS+ chart but, if you look closely at the MLB (green) line, you’ll see it was between 80 and 90 in all but two years from 1973 to 1986, and below 80 in all but two years since 1987. I think that’s a meaningful drop that does correlate well with the platoon advantage chart which rose rapidly when OPS+ was in its higher range, and started its drop from peak levels about 1990, just after OPS+ dropped into its current lower range.

  3. I’m a bit wary of the claim that Seth Smith would still top the pinch-hitting effectiveness list with room to spare if OPS+ were available; my inclination is to think that his years in Colorado trump his 70-point OPS advantage to a significant degree.

    Smith is, though, still a pretty good hitter overall, and I remember never being able to figure out why the Rockies seemed to value him so lightly. He’s not a superstar by any means, but he’s decent with the bat, and they used to leave him on the bench in favor of the Dexter Fowlers and Eric Young Jr.s of the world. This never made sense to me. And then they traded him for nobody and nothing. I just don’t get it.

    • I suppose one could estimate the OPS+ as a pinch-hitter by multiplying the player’s career OPS+ by TOPS+ as a pinch-hitter.

      Thus:
      – Smith: 109 x 1.42 = 154.8
      – Northey: 124 x 1.24 = 153.8
      – Johnson: 125 x 1.15 = 143.8
      – Colbrunn: 106 x 1.14 = 120.8
      – McCovey: 147 x .91 = 133.8

  4. We’d have to know what OBP and SLG an average offensive player would produce in every pinch-hit AB by these players, in that specific park and era, to know for sure. Then we could generate a lgSLG and lgOBP number for each player in their PH career to judge their individual pinch-hit SLG and OBP against.

    But, for example, just using Seth Smith’s career lgSLG and lgOBP numbers and plugging in his PH OBP and SLG of .413 and .554, I get a 152.6 OPS+ for him, which would probably be a decent estimate as well.

  5. Doug, on a tangent re: searching PH splits — When I try to replicate your first split table with the career minimum at 2,000 PAs, I’m not getting Alex Arias, which is a clearly faulty result; Arias had 2,010 PAs, with no sign of any unknown splits (as expected for a career spanning 1992-2002).

    When I lower the threshold for career PAs, Arias does appear, shown with 1,897 PAs. The difference is 113 PAs, which happens to be his rookie total, when he batted only as a SS.

    Checking my results further, I found slight discrepancies in some other players’ career PA totals on the same search: e.g., Derrick May shows 2,324 PAs instead of 2,387, and Rick Miller shows 4,398 instead of 4,440. In both cases, the difference equals their rookie total.

    Have you noticed any such faulty results from the Split Finder?

    P.S. You said the split tables are since 1950, but I think if that were so, Ron Northey would not qualify, having only 161 known PH PAs since 1950.

    • JA: I ran the PI and got the same results as Doug, except that Torgeson was listed above Anderson. Northey’s totals go back to 1946. The years 1946 to 1950 have incomplete results. His 1942 to 1944 PH stats can be retrieved from his batting game logs for those years.

      • Richard, I do get Doug’s results when I choose “Find Career Totals” for the PH split, with 2,000 career PAs and 200 as a PH. But if I choose “Find Totals Spanning Seasons” for 1950-2013, my results omit Arias, and have those other PA discrepancies that I mentioned.

    • John, I said since 1950 because that is the earliest that PI claims that the event data are “mostly complete”.

      Northey gets picked up because, when running a career Split, P-I does not provide the option of limiting the data by season – you get everything P-I has.

      The table is generated based on selecting the PH within Defensive Positions split with “Set minimums by season totals …” checked off and PA >= 2000 specified as a career filter, and then specifying PA >= 200 under “Select additional criteria …”.

  6. John: I am on a mobile device now so navigation is difficult. Briefly perhaps when running spanning seasons the PI ignores seasons without a PH appearance.

  7. JA: This is to confirm my statement of post 22. I ran the PI for careers and for spanning seasons. I checked Carlos Baerga’s stats. The career PI run shows 308 PH appearances and 5895 total PA. The spanning seasons run shows 308 PH appearances but with 4710 total PA. The difference in PA is 1185. I then checked his career splits on BR.There were two seasons, 1992 and 1994, in which he had no PH appearances. His total PA in those two seasons was 1185. So doing a spanning seasons PI run counts only the years in which had had at least one PH appearance.

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