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April 10, 2007

Who Will Rid Me of This Pestilent McCovey?

Pinch Running in the Last 50 Years

by Brandon Isleib

Frequent pinch-runners generally don't wind up among the game's most famous players. Let's face it, they wind up with less acclaim than career pinch-hitters or LOOGYs. The decently trivia-minded baseball fan of recent days knows about John Vander Wal and Lenny Harris, and probably remember Manny Mota and the original Jerry Hairston. Old-timers (not me) can remember Smoky Burgess and Jerry Lynch with fondness. With pinch running, though, the only immediate memory most of us may have is of the 1970s A's, thus giving Charlie Finley more notoriety than the actual players used this way. If you're not keeping up with pinch running, you're not going to be able to find it easily among usual statistics (there's not much to measure), other than when pinch-runners go in for the DH, since they get listed as a DH regardless of whether they bat or not. (I suppose this makes them a DR, though probably not this DR or even DDR.)

With the help of Mat Kovach and Retrosheet, pinch running statistics in the last 50 years have now been compiled, along with leaderboards for seasons, lifetime, and most times removed, along with team and manager statistics. (E-mail me if you want this.) In compiling all this information, a few things jump out from the statistics, and so here are the highlights of pinch running statistics.

Motorin': The Best of the Best

Plenty of ink has been dedicated to the '70s A's and Charlie Finley's wild ideas about pinch running, and it seems that the legends of Herb Washington or Matt Alexander have colored (or supplanted, even) any other information on pinch-runners. In my cursory look at the team statistics, the 1970s A's were one of the few teams, if not the only team, who used their pinch-runners to steal. As we'll see from the leader boards in both pinch running and pinch removing (my shorthand here for games in which a player is removed for a pinch-runner), the driving force behind most decisions to pinch run is apparently getting the tortoises off the basepaths more than it is about putting a hare on them. This would explain several things, particularly why there aren't many pinch-running specialists--it doesn't really take a whole lot to score from second on a single, or from first on a well-hit double; it just takes more than being 37 with bad knees, and/or Cecil Fielder at any age.

For this reason, catchers get a few more pinch-running opportunities than you'd think. It's not that they're good runners; it's just that they're better than the catcher they're replacing. This effect came out in fullest force this past year with Rob Bowen caddying for Mike Piazza; I have no information on Bowen's speed, but a catcher pinch running 21 times probably raises a few eyebrows if you assume that pinch-runners are all about angling for an extra run by putting speed the bases. It's actually more about angling for a non-out than anything else, and on its face, that's not a bad strategy late in the game. Earl Weaver didn't pinch run much in the first half of his managerial career, but he changed tactics around the time the O's got Ken Singleton, removing him frequently for a pinch-runner the late '70s.

Conveniently, in precisely 50 years of continuous box scores, there have been 25 players with 100 or more pinch-running appearances. They are:

Matt Alexander     271
Otis Nixon         198
Miguel Dilone      176
Al Weis            164
Sandy Alomar Sr.   155
Larry Lintz        140
Allan Lewis        139
Larry Milbourne    136
Gerald Williams    127
Dick Schofield Sr. 119
Cesar Geronimo     118
Bill Almon         110
John Moses         110
Charles Gipson     109
Gary Thurman       109
Tom Goodwin        107
Ted Martinez       106
Jerry Terrell      106
Mike Jorgensen     105
Blue Moon Odom     105
Herb Washington    105
Sammy Esposito     104
Rafael Belliard    101
Tom Lawless        101
Willie Wilson      100

For Schofield Senior, we also have 1954 box scores which would put his total up to 156; we have about three more seasons missing for PR data, so he may have cleared 200.

Several of these guys are the '70s A's designated pinch-runners--Alexander, Dilone for a few seasons, Lintz, Lewis, and Washington. A lot of the rest pinch ran about 8-12 times per season, with one season that spikes their totals. What surprised me was that players like Williams, Gipson, and Goodwin showed up, given the increasing roster inflexibility over the past decade. Also interesting is Blue Moon Odom; he's the only pitcher since 1957 to lead the majors in PR, doing it 28 times in 1972. (As a special note, the next three pitchers behind Odom are all in the top 50, and were all on the Twins during the 1960s: Mudcat Grant, Jim Kaat, and Pedro Ramos. I don't know why this is, but it's interesting.)

This list shows a fundamental problem with a pinch-running specialist--if you're ridiculously fast and play good defense and/or can use that speed to hit a little, you become a starter. After 76 pinch-runner appearances for the Indians over two years, Otis Nixon morphed into at least a platoon role, because he had other skills. Willie Wilson pinch ran 42 times in 1978 and then was a starter because he was good enough. Rickey Henderson rarely pinch ran because he was starting. It takes a special type of player to have enough speed to be used in the role, but not enough other skills to start--Thurman and Belliard are perfect examples here. Speedy versatile backups are the best pinch-runners, because then you don't have to use another player to replace them in the field (or you can just pinch run for the DH, which we'll see is all that's really keeping pinch running alive today, at least in the AL). You can keep your Barry Bonds watch this year; I'm hoping that somebody signs Damian Jackson and gives him PRs 96-100 to put him on the leaderboard.

Stuck in a Moment and You Can't Get Out of It: The Worst of the Worst

While we're on the subject of lifetime totals, let's contrast the list above with the top 25 pinch removals lifetime. There are at least 62 players with 100 or more removals):

Willie McCovey       332
Harmon Killebrew     271
Greg Luzinski        260
Frank Howard         259
Harold Baines        234
Ken Singleton        228
Rico Carty           211
Willie Horton        207
Smoky Burgess        206
Tony Perez           206
Edgar Martinez       199
Jeff Burroughs       198
Joe Adcock           195
Rusty Staub          183
Willie Stargell      180
Stan Musial          174
Cecil Fielder        168
Mickey Mantle        165
Bob Watson           159
Deron Johnson        157
Jason Giambi         155
Bill Buckner         154
Boog Powell          148
Richie Zisk          147
Wes Covington        145

Mike Piazza will surpass Covington with two pinch removals this year. It's obvious that certain people get removed more often than a certain person runs for someone. McCovey, Killebrew, Howard, and Luzinski make up more than two percent of all pinch removals in the past 50 years, and closer to four percent if you look at the years in which they played. The solution is apparently easier and more abundant than the problem. Perhaps even more glaring is how much better overall the removed players are than the pinch-runners; six Hall of Famers and several other cleanup hitters are on this list. These players played deep into their careers despite their speed because they wailed the tar out of the ball. Over 10 percent of all pinch removals are in the top 25 list, and that fact alone seems to say a lot about how pinch running is used. Pinch running is usually based on need more than manager tendencies. (There are a few exceptions that we'll cover soon--may the proverbial horses be held).

Born to Run: The Single-Season Records

There are 45 instances of a player getting 30+ PR gigs in a single season, and 47 with 30+ removals. The top PR seasons are:

Player              PR         Year
Herb Washington     92         1974
Don Hopkins         74         1975
Matt Alexander      67         1977
Larry Lintz         64         1976
Matt Alexander      51         1975
Larry Milbourne     47         1974
Matt Alexander      45         1976
Miguel Dilone       47         1978
Luis Ugueto         44         2002
Jerry Terrell       42         1974
Sandy Alomar        42         1977
Willie Wilson       42         1978
Joe Cannon          42         1980
Jack Reed           40         1962
Jerry Martin        40         1976
Ross Moschitto      39         1966
Al Weis             39         1966
Mike Jorgensen      39         1978
Otis Nixon          39         1985
Ryan Christenson    38         2000
Damian Jackson      38         2003
Jackie Hernandez    37         1966
Otis Nixon          37         1986
Dee Fondy           36         1958
Matt Alexander      36         1979
Carroll Hardy       35         1960
Allan Lewis         35         1973
Rodney Scott        35         1975
Gary Thurman        35         1993

And the removals:

Player             Removals    Year
Tony Oliva          48         1975
Billy Williams      44         1975
Jeff Burroughs      44         1978
Al Ferrara          43         1970
Mike Hargrove       43         1978
Ken Singleton       42         1978
Stan Musial         41         1962
Stan Musial         41         1963
Greg Luzinski       40         1976
Willie McCovey      38         1973
Willie Horton       38         1977
Orlando Cepeda      37         1973
Billy Williams      37         1976
Frank Howard        36         1966
Willie McCovey      36         1977
Mike Piazza         36         2006
Ted Williams        35         1959
Joe Adcock          35         1962
Norm Siebern        35         1966
Harmon Killebrew    35         1972
Lee May             35         1974
Willie McCovey      35         1974
Edgar Martinez      35         2003

Again, there's a big contrast here. The most-used pinch-runners in a season don't necessarily match the 100+ list; Don Hopkins's 74 didn't even get him into the top 100 because he didn't play long enough. Steroidist Luis Ugueto is on here as the foremost representative of the "we need speed, so we'll Rule 5 a guy for it" group (Glen Barker and several '80s Blue Jays go in that class of players); several more are on here as their only ticket to "fame" (Joe Cannon, Jack Reed, and Ross Moschitto).

The removed players, on the other hand, are almost all on the lifetime list. The biggest exceptions--Ferrara, Hargrove, and May--are the product of pinch-crazy managers. Of the removed, it's a fairly even split as to whether or not the players had a specific pinch-runner to remedy their sloth. The most prominent of the "caddies" for the list above are the following: Carlos Lopez replacing Ken Singleton 28 times in 1978, Jerry Martin serving as Greg Luzinski's basepaths alter ego 29 times in 1976, and some Rangers--Sandy Alomar Sr. for Willie Horton 26 times in 1977, and the record holder, Mike Jorgensen, running for Mike Hargrove an astounding 36 times in 1978. This sort of use has declined; Ryan Christenson served as Ben Grieve's legs 27 times in 2000, and Rob Bowen pinch ran 18 times for Mike Piazza last year, but they're the exceptions. Again, it's not that blazing speed is a necessary requirement; it's that any decent hit can score the runner you put out there. If they can stay in for defense at the position at which you put them (and most caddies of non-DHs have played the same position as the removed player), so much the better.

Taking One Out for the Team: Managerial Tendencies

Just as we've already seen that the need for speed is based on the speed of the slowest guy on the team, so too teams tend to have lots of pinch running only when aging sluggers are around, regardless of manager. The league difference has played into the need, as the NL has sharply dropped off its use of pinch running ever since the DH era--only five NL teams have led the majors in PR since the introduction of the DH to the AL, and two of them belong to Bruce Bochy. The AL has kept the practice of pinch running up in large part because the oldest and slowest players tend to become the DHs, and because there's nothing much for an AL bench to do but run. (If you're speedy and can get on base at all, I would assume that you're probably pinch hitting in the NL.)

The Giants never really kept managers around that long in the '70s, but McCovey "laps" the field in the removal category. Tony La Russa employed tons of pinch running with the White Sox while Greg Luzinski was on the team, and some with the A's, but he's used a pinch runner only 234 times with the Cardinals, or fewer times than Greg Luzinski was removed lifetime, and 21 of La Russa's Cardinals total were utilizing Rule 5er Miguel Mejia in 1996. Sparky Anderson rarely used pinch runners until running the early '90s Tigers, whose roster cried out for a pinch-runner type more than almost any other team in recent history; he and La Russa are perfect examples of a need-based pinch-running philosophy that has predominated strategies of the past half century. Even though Joe Torre has used tons of pinch-runners and is currently one of the only managers to employ them on a regular basis, his philosophy seems to be need-based as well--he just seems to land teams with these needs. I didn't look at the figures very much for Torre's usage, but the Mets had Ed Kranepool (who was removed 121 times in his career), the Braves had Bob Horner, the Cardinals had Pedro Guerrero (also removed 121 times), and the Yankees have had about as many old sluggers through the years as Sparky's early-'90s Tigers did.

Based on the roster decisions going on right now, I wonder if Joe Torre will have enough flexibility to remove Jason Giambi from the bases when needed. Despite bigger pitching staffs, Giambi's managers have always found a way to get him out of the game, and with 12 pitchers and two first basemen, it's going to be next to impossible to leave room for a Giambi-specific runner; excluding catchers and first basemen, the only two backups are Miguel Cairo and Melky Cabrera. These Yankees are a little bit faster, with Abreu replacing Sheffield, but this team is still old enough and slow enough that many double plays could be in the offing. I wouldn't be surprised if Giambi staying on the bases will produce more double plays than a 12th pitcher would induce them.

Anyway…there are few managers in the past 50 years who have clearly loved the pinch-runner. Like Torre, some managers found a need on a bunch of their teams, but have no clear pattern: the Twins with Bill Rigney and Frank Quilici replacing Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva like it was going out of style, or Art Howe always being given slow guys in Oakland, although this doesn't explain all his PRs in Houston and New York. Some, however, seem to preach it as a way of life. In chronological order:

Eddie Stanky: He only lasted about three years with the White Sox, but he left his mark on the pinch-running game. Until the '70s A's, no team used a PR more than about 80 times a season…except for Stanky. In 1966 he used them 144 times, and 127 more times in 1967, marks far above what anyone has done recently. Without Charlie Finley, these figures would easily be first and second for team usage, with only one other team ever getting to 100. Stanky often used a "hit-and-run," where Smoky Burgess would pinch hit, and someone else (Al Weis, Tom McCraw, Sandy Alomar, or even starting pitcher Joel Horlen) would run for Burgess. This is actually somewhat obvious from the stats: in 1966, despite 32 hits and walks, Burgess didn't score once. Still, Burgess doesn't explain just how much Stanky seemed to love pinch-runners; I'm assuming he thought it would jump-start a putrid offense to do so, and he may have been right. In 1967 he got 33 runs out of his 127 pinch-runners while getting only 37 from his shortstops, and 42 apiece from second basemen and catchers, which seems to have helped take an awful-hitting team almost to the AL pennant. In the pitching-dominated Sixties, compensating for low batting averages with speed probably wasn't a bad idea. In any event, nobody who wasn't associated with the A's was as in love with pinch running as Stanky.

Dick Williams: Speaking of A's managers…Williams didn't always pinch run a lot, but he usually entrusted it to one person, and he found reasons for one on just about every team he managed. Jose Tartabull fulfilled this role for the Red Sox in '67, a bevy of A's did this for him, Morris Nettles pinch ran 23 times for the '74 Angels, Jose Morales and either Jerry White or Pepe Frias formed a "hit-and-run" platoon in Montreal, and Bobby Brown did some running for Williams in San Diego. Maybe Williams thought that pinch running was a good idea after his experiences in Oakland; he very rarely removed any one person more than 20 times (except for when he was in Oakland--it's always the exception on this topic). But whenever pinch running needed to be done, he always had someone.

Preston Gomez: The "other team" I mentioned in the Stanky comment is Gomez's 1974 Astros, on which he employed Larry Milbourne 47 times. That would have set the pinch-running record had it not been for Herb Washington, but Washington, Milbourne, and Jerry Terrell all would have broken the record that year. Gomez also employed Wilbur Howard and Bob Gallagher 21 times each. To put that into perspective, only a handful of teams have put three different players in as PRs over 10 percent of the season (17 games): the Weis/Horlen/McCraw trio of the '67 White Sox; the '77 A's with Matt Alexander, Larry Lintz, and Sheldon Mallory; the '78 A's with Miguel Dilone, Darrell Woodard, and Dwayne Murphy (and removing the immortal Dave Revering a whopping 34 times); and the '89 Royals, who somehow managed to use four runners--Rey Palacios, Gary Thurman, Bill Pecota, and Brad Wellman. But this was far from the only time Gomez used pinch-runners; not only did the expansion Padres lead the majors in PR usage in '69 and '70, but Jose Arcia was the individual leader back-to-back in those years (doing a bunch of that running for the aforementioned Al Ferrara). Arcia and Otis Nixon are the only two players to take consecutive pinch-running crowns. (Incidentally, Donell Nixon led the majors in PR in 1988, making Otis and Donell the best pinch-running brothers, though Marshall, Mike, and Dave Edwards all performed often in the role.)

Since 1957, the NL has had only five teams pinch run 80 times or more in a season. Other than the '58 Reds and the '62 Mets, they were Gomez teams. Gomez's managerial career was fleeting in both senses of the term.

Billy Hunter: Hunter only managed for a year and a half, but his caddying use is still unique. As mentioned, Sandy Alomar ran 26 times for Willie Horton in 1977, and Mike Jorgensen ran for Mike Hargrove 36 times the following year. There are only five known seasons where someone caddied for the same player 26 times in a season, and Hunter is responsible for two of them. His team totals were high, though not as high as those of Stanky or Gomez. Hunter's choices of removed players weren't unorthodox, but his choosing the same person every time to do the job gives him a mark in the pinch-running world.

Whitey Herzog: Herzog is without a doubt one of the most famous advocates for speed in the game from recent years; his lineups stole bases aggressively. For every Wilson or Coleman, though, there was a Clark or Aikens, and Herzog found plenty of places for pinch running. Harmon Killebrew was the Royals' DH in 1975, and Rodney Scott was the DR. Pinch-hitter Dane Iorg was removed 20 times for the 1982 St. Louis champs, with various runners subbing for him (Tito Landrum apparently the most frequently). This seems to be more of Herzog's fascination with speed than anything, but it spilled over into a fairly frequent use of pinch running, even if it wasn't earth-shatteringly frequent.

Bobby Cox: Cox is the only manager to use PRs frequently in the NL anymore (with an honorable mention going to Bruce Bochy). On approximately seven teams every two years, a team will be in the seasonal top five for pinch running and/or employ a specialist (17 games or more as PR). Of Cox's 25 teams, 16 have fallen into this category, eclipsing Joe Torre's 13 (third place is a tie with nine). With the exception of Jeff Burroughs in 1978 and Bobby Bonilla in 2000, Cox has rarely removed any one player in particular; he just seems to find a spot on the bench for a pinch-runner: Barry Bonnell, Jerry Royster, the Rule 5 picks of the Blue Jays in the '80s, and a Saberhagen-esque odd-numbered year appearance of a specialist ever since 1993. Think of him as the Harold Baines of pinch running; rarely dominant, but consistently in the mix. It seems that Cox figures pinch running into a broader philosophy of how to get runs and the value of speed, and this seems confirmed by his choice of coaches. Jimy Williams was a frequent user of the tactic when he succeeded Cox in Toronto, and did it a fair bit in Boston as well, while Pat Corrales was no PR slouch himself, particularly with respect to Otis Nixon's early exploits. Perhaps they all share views on baserunning. That's a hard thing to know specifically, but the stats seem to support that conclusion.

The State of the Runner

Pinch running declined in the NL after the DH, and 12-man pitching staffs have further limited the pinch-runner. Teams averaged from 35-45 PRs per year until the mid-'70s, when the norm was 50 per year. Since the 1981 strike, teams initially hovered around 40 per year, declined to 35 per by 1992, and have stabilized at a 50-year low of roughly 30 per year since 1999. The continued aging of Bonds and Piazza will help sustain the business of pinch running; Jason Ellison and Rob Bowen were the leaders in PR last year off the backs (legs?) of Bonds and Piazza, and Piazza's move to the AL may increase his removals. Still, twelve-man pitching staffs make it very hard to find room for pinch-runners before roster expansion in September. But as long as balls are hit to the gap with a runner on first, there will be some need for pinch-runners.

---

Brandon Isleib is a Boston and Philadelphia native attending the University of Alabama School of Law. He is working on his fifth album and would love to write a book on pinch running. E-mail him if you are interested in the Pinch Runners Encyclopedia (it's free) or with any comments.

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