My friend Gia is a Giants fan. Like many Giants fans, and many of the rest of us as well, she was delighted by this play on the last day of July:
She messaged, “How many starting pitchers get used as pinch-hitters?!” I replied, “That’s a great question.”
What makes it a great question is that pitchers pinch-hitting is at the confluence of two opposing trends in baseball. First, pitchers are becoming worse and worse hitters. Here’s a chart showing pitcher OPS+ (that’s OPS adjusted for park and era, 100=average) in the divisional play era for National League pitchers (since American League pitchers pretty much stopped batting in 1973). I added a trendline in case it isn’t blindingly obvious which way things are going:
The other trend is that there are more pitchers, and fewer position players, on major-league rosters. The Giants, who brought on Bumgarner to pinch-hit for Matt Cain in the fifth inning on the 31st, are carrying 13 pitchers and 12 position players. Assuming one of the 12 is a backup catcher who needs to always be available in case of injury, that leaves just three non-pitchers available for pinch-hitting, pinch-running, or defensive substitution. The paucity of position players creates an opening for pitchers as pinch-hitters.
These two trends are at loggerheads. On one hand, teams may run out of pinch-hitters when a pitcher who’s literally never batted as a professional is due to hit. On the other hand, pitchers, never good as hitters, are worse than they’ve ever been. Which trend wins?
To answer, I looked at the number of times pitchers pinch-hit in the National League during the divisional era. Since the National League has gone from 12 to 14 to 16 to 15 teams since 1969, I calculated pitcher pinch-hitting per team. I didn’t bother correcting for strike-shortened years, nor project full-year totals for 2016, because all I want is a general answer to the question: Are pitchers pinch-hitting more frequently?
This graph suggests that (1) yes, pitchers are being called on to pinch-hit more frequently, and (2) the data are pretty noisy.
Let’s address the second issue first. Those peaks aren’t tied to pitchers pinch-hitting as much as they are tied to pitcher pinch-hitting. As in, one or two pitchers. That spike in 1986? Dan Schatzeder, who played for the Expos and Phillies, batted 14 times as a pinch-hitter (and delivered, hitting .417/.500/.583) that year, and the Pirates’ Rick Rhoden appeared seven times (and didn’t deliver, hitting .143/.143/.143). The 2007-2010 high point is Peak Micah Owings, as the Arizona hurler pinch-hit 47 times (hitting .250/.298/.454) over the four seasons. (I imagine most of you remember Micah Owings, but if you don’t, he hit a home run in 4.4 percent of his at bats, more frequently than Stan Musial, Dave Winfield, and Carl Yastrzemski, to name three.) As an aside, here’s a list of pitchers since 1969 to appear in six or more games as a pinch-hitter in a season:
· 18 times: Micah Owings 2008 (.294/.333/.529)
· 16 times: Ken Brett 1974 (.200/.250/.333), Owings 2009 (.250/.250/.563)
· 14 times: Dan Schatzeder 1986 (.417/.500/.583)
· 13 times: Jason Marquis 2006 (.300/.364/.600)
· 10 times: Dontrelle Willis 2004 (.375/.444/.625)
· 9 times: Marquis 2005 (.333/.333/.333) Braden Looper 2008 (.200/.200/.200)
· 8 times: Carlos Zambrano 2008 (.143/.143/.143)
· 7 times: Rick Rhoden 1986, Zambrano 2009 (.143/.143/.143), Owings 2010 (.143/.143/.143), Travis Wood 2014 (.167/.167/.333),
· 6 times: Don Robinson 1989 (.000/.000/.000), Adam Eaton 2003 (.400/.400/.600), Willis 2005 (.167/.167/.167), Owings 2007 (.250/.500/.250), Adam Wainwright 2009 (.000/.000/.000)
So instead of looking at total pitcher pinch-hitting appearances per team, I decided to focus on the number of pitchers to appear as pinch-hitters. That way, outliers like Owings and Zambrano and Willis don’t overstate the propensity of managers to go to a pitcher as a pinch-hitter. Put another way, pitchers appearing as pinch-hitters, rather than total pitcher plate appearances as pinch-hitters, better reflects a willingness to give pinch-hitting opportunities to pitchers as a whole, rather than one or two pitchers who can capably handle a bat. Here’s a graph of National League pitchers as pinch-hitters per team during the divisional era.
That’s more unequivocal. It shows that even though pitchers, in aggregate, are becoming worse hitters, they are being called on to pinch-hit more frequently. Scarcity outweighs competence, it seems.
Or does it? Maybe the pitchers who are being called upon to pinch-hit are, in fact, decent-enough hitters. Maybe the guys who’ve never swung a bat in professional baseball stay on the bench, and the guys who were position players in college when not pitching take their hacks. Or something like that. Here’s the same graph as the last one, but with pitcher pinch-hitter OPS overlaid (the yellow line):
The important observation here is that in most years, pitchers are terrible pinch-hitters. The average OPS on this chart is .362. Weighted by plate appearances, it’s scarcely better, .410. A .410 OPS…well, the last time a player with more than 300 plate appearances had an OPS of .410 was over a century ago. The takeaway: Pitchers are, in general, lousy pinch-hitters.
Until this year. To date, National League pitcher pinch-hitters are hitting .296/.321/.407. The resulting .729 OPS is in line with the league average to date of .731. But looking at the chart above, that looks a lot like an outlier that’s probably unsustainable. (The biggest outlier—the 1.000 OPS in 1990—was driven by Don Robinson, .400/.400/1.000 in five plate appearances, and Fernando Valenzuela, 1.000/1.000/1.500 in two plate appearances.)
And the American League? I’ve excluded the Junior Circuit because the DH rule has greatly reduced, if not eliminated, the need for pitchers to pinch-hit. Since 1973, the first year of the DH, there have been 13 seasons in which no American League pitchers have pinch-hit. There have been only 62 pitcher pinch-hitters in the American League after 1973, an average of less than one and a half per year. There’s been just one pitcher pinch-hitter so far this year. (R.A. Dickey struck out in the 10th inning of Toronto’s 13-inning 5-4 loss to the Giants on May 11.) The recent high-water mark for AL pitchers pinch-hitting was 2014, when CJ Wilson’s walk on June 14 salvaged a .000/.167/.000 line for AL pitchers in seven plate appearances.
Maybe managers are getting smarter about which pitchers they use? National League pitchers pinch-hitting per team is positively correlated with pitcher pinch-hitter OPS. But there are two enormous caveats: First, the correlation, 0.27, is very low. Second, some of the samples are tiny, including 14 years in which there were fewer than 10 pitcher pinch-hitting plate appearances in total. So it doesn’t appear that teams are becoming more judicious in selecting pitchers to grab a bat.
Overall, here’s what we can say about pitchers pinch-hitting: In the tug of war between pitchers increasingly unable to hit and teams increasingly needing pitchers as pinch-hitters, the latter’s been winning. We’re seeing pitchers pinch-hit at unprecedented rates in the divisional era. But in terms of outcomes, the former—pitchers can’t hit—has taken precedence. Pitchers are pinch-hitting more, but they’re producing more like pitchers than anything else.
Thank you for reading
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Many of us who read this site watch a lot of baseball. We see lots of video clips, read a lot of stats. Some of us played in little league, maybe high school, legion ball, etc... who knows maybe more.
Pitchers aren't paid to hit. Even the best like Bumgarner, don't have a penny of their salary due to that ability. It's just a nice antidote. Oh, look Grienke can field good. There's just something about it. Something when that pitcher who goes up there to take their hacks, to get their chance at the lottery. Hey, maybe if that lug-head with the horrible swing can get a major league hit... that maybe I could to.
Or maybe it's when you see a hitter like Ryan Howard hitting .170, or others hovering just below the Mendoza line. I remember scouring the stats of my local newspaper and being amazed as a kid when guys like Rhoden, Rick Reuchel, Don Robinson, etc - all would be crushing the ball waaay better than Belliard the slick fielding shortstop.
It's the joy of Bartolo Colon. When it's his turn in the rotation, you pay attention when he gets to the plate. It's entertainment, it's joy, it's guys who either look wildly entertaining, or look so good you can appriciate the work and time they've put into it.
It's baseball. It's fun.
Ban the DH.
Less filling. Tastes great.
It would be interesting to determine how impactful this constraint is.
Also was Brooks Kieschnick much of a factor?
Kieschnick, as you'd expect, is an exception. He pinch hit 24 times in 2003 (.381/.458/.667), when he was mostly a pitcher (also played seven games at OF/DH) and 47 times in 2004 (.250/.298/.364), when pitched exclusively. He doesn't get picked up as a pitcher pinch hitter, though (by B-Ref), because in both years he pinch hit more often than he pitched, so he doesn't show up on when you check the "typically a pitcher" box on the Play Index.
You should be able to figure out by the 6th inning whether you need him to soak up innings in a blowout or come in as a PH.