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February 6, 2012 5:54 am

The BP Broadside: The Vanishing American League Pinch-Hitter

7

Steven Goldman

The relief locusts have overrun the pinch-hitters' habitat.

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Should dedicated pinch-hitters like Matt Stairs be consigned to the Smoky Burgess Shale?

The latest news from Nats camp is that Matt Stairs appears set to crack the team's Opening Day roster, which comes as welcome news to those who prefer to take their players like they take their bench coaches: old, overweight, and rarely sighted outside of the dugout. Stairs played in 78 games for the Padres last season, coming to the plate just 111 times, predominantly in a pinch-hitting capacity; this made him the most sparingly used of any player to crack that many box scores. In four of those games, he earned his meal money merely by forcing a pitching change, giving way to another pinch-hitter and reclaiming his spot on the bench after being announced. So far this spring, he has characteristically received only 17 at-bats in his 12 games, but—also true to form—he has done quite a bit with his limited opportunities, recording six hits (three for extra bases) and adding two walks, enough to convince the Nats that the dedicated pinch-hitter is still worth carrying.

As Stairs prepares to enter his age-43 season (and his 19th in the majors), it's worth wondering whether we will (or should) see another player like him. The Canadian’s career has been improbable in a number of ways: for one thing, he didn’t play a full season in the majors until reaching the age of 30, the kind of late start that doesn’t often augur great longevity. For most of his career, “well-rounded” has been an accurate descriptor of Stairs' physique, but not his game. However, he began his professional baseball life in the Expos' system as an infielder, of all things, spending time at second, third, and short, something that—to those familiar with his play in later years—might come as a shock on par with the discovery that one's stodgy mom and dad dropped acid at Woodstock.

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Geoff Young recently used a BP Unfiltered post to come clean about his unrequited man crush on David Eckstein, setting off a wonderful comment thread in which readers described the players that they consider "guilty pleasures" - those that may not be stars, but are fun to watch nonetheless. Reading through the comments, I was struck by the many different types of players that can catch a fan's fancy, but one variety seemed to be particularly popular: The Little Guy. Maybe it's the David vs. Goliath matchup of the smaller batter versus the hulking pitcher that appeals to us; maybe we just identify with a more normal-seeming scale of player; in any case, shorter players seem to have some level of curb appeal that can't be explained by their stats.

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Everything you ever wanted to know about the lost art of pinch running, past, present, and future.

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

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