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November 6, 2013

Baseball Therapy

Is There a Pinch-Running Penalty?

by Russell A. Carleton


With the end of the playoffs last week, we’ve reached the end of designated pinch runner season. Quintin Berry had a good run on the Red Sox postseason roster, appearing three times (once in each of Boston’s three postseason series) as a pinch runner and stealing a base each time. Over the past few years, it seems that teams have been more willing to use that strategy in the playoffs. The nice thing about a playoff roster is that with plenty of off-days, having guys on the bench who can cover for tired regulars isn’t as important. A lot of times it frees up a spot for a designated runner, a guy who is really, really fast, but has very little value in any other part of the game.

A good designated runner can add real value to a team (although let’s not overstate exactly how much), and with the 25th man not needing to do as much on a postseason roster, maybe the best use of that roster spot is to have a DR sitting there waiting for an opportunity to pinch run. It might even be worth it to sign such a player mid-season and stash him somewhere in the event that your team makes a postseason run.

There might be a little problem. It’s widely known that when a hitter is asked to pinch hit, his performance is somewhat less than we might expect of him based on his usual stats. The usual explanation here is that a hitter suffers from coming off the bench “cold.” It’s not that he’s reduced to complete impotence, but he loses a few points off his triple-slash line. Some time ago, I looked at the issue from the perspective of a fielder who enters the game to see whether he loses any of his ability to track balls down. I found little evidence that a pinch-fielding penalty exists. What about a pinch-running penalty?

There are some big methodological problems that come with studying pinch running. For one, we’re most interested in what pinch runners do on the bases, but the reason that they’ve been selected to pinch run is usually because they’re pretty good at running the bases. Then, there’s the fact that pinch runners are usually inserted into games in situations where attempting a stolen base makes sense. Half the time, everyone in the ballpark knows that they’re going to break for second at some point during the next at-bat. The defense will be prepared, and that will probably factor into his success rate. We’re going to have to be careful about how we construct our sample.

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
Here’s the easy part. We’re working with all games from 2003-2012. I also used a speed score that I developed a few years ago. The speed scale is based on the normal distribution, so an average runner has a speed score of zero, and a score of one indicates that the runner is a standard deviation above the mean.

If we’re going to look at pinch runners trying to steal bases, we need to know what situations usually call for a pinch runner to try to steal. I selected for all situations in which a pinch runner was on first and he made an attempt on second base. The results shouldn’t come as a shock:

  • The median speed score was 0.85. This isn’t surprising. There are some pinch runners who are inserted not because they are particularly fast, but because the guy they are replacing is glacially slow. Those guys aren’t stolen base threats. The speed demon guys are, and that’s probably why they’re in there.
  • Again, not surprisingly, almost all the attempts (94.6 percent) came in the seventh inning or later. Surprisingly, 30 percent came with two outs!
  • 39.2 percent of attempts came with the batting team behind, 25.0 with the game tied, and 35.8 with the batting team ahead.
  • 81 percent came with the game within two runs (in either direction), and only 0.9 percent came with the batting team down by three runs or more.

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Related Content:  Sabermetrics,  Baserunning,  Pinch Running

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