But as much as pinch-hit walk-off home runs are the soup of Hollywood executives, they are the rarest of meats in the MLB reality. In fact, pinch hitting is most often a choice between lesser evils — a choice between a bad wOBA or a terrible wOBA.
A closer look at the last five seasons of pinch hitting reveals success has not between distributed evenly, and the effectiveness of of some pinch-hitting efforts may be a product of systematic choices rather just tough breaks.
Any discussion on pinch hitting has to begin with Tango, MGL’s, and Dolphin’s studies in The Book, which found a 21-point drop in wOBA when pinch-hitting. Ideally, a manager is not going to pinch hit when the batting player’s PH-penalized wOBA does not exceed the previous player’s expected wOBA. And in 2013, lefties are hitting about .285 wOBA against LHP and righties are batting about .303 wOBA on their fellow northpaws.
So have teams been making the right call?
Calculated using 2012 wOBA weights. Data accurate through 2013-9-23.
Yes, we expect Colorado to finish out top on this exercise. They are an NL team — and thus have greater opportunity to stabilize towards true talent levels as well as a greater incentive to keep better bench hitting talent — playing in the league’s most hitter friendly park. But the Cincinnati Reds? Yes, they play in a hitter’s park, but certainly not a Mini-Coors Field. Credit Dusty Baker for being crazy, but credit him also with an apparent knack for using his bench talent.
This season, Jack Hannahan (45 PA, .352 wOBA) and Xavier Paul (35 PA, .403 wOBA) have led the Reds in pinch hitting duty, and have thus far performed well above their career norms. Is it random variation, sure? But it’s not 100% random variation and Dusty Baker and the front office are a steady component of the five years selected above. They deserve some portion of the kudos.
Notice, too, how the Rays not only rank highly in the MLB and the AL, but they also have far more PH appearances than the next closest AL franchise. The Rays, entering play on Tuesday, had 781 PA for pinch hitters; the Yankees (the next-closest franchise) had 541 PA. I imagine much of this is due to their franchise’s inability to acquire the sorts of high-cost hitters that can hit both hands well. And as a component of that, they have also been one of the league’s most prolific platooners, using not only righty-lefty platoons, but also GB-FB platoons.
Scroll now to the bottom of the above-embedded Tableau. Here you will find the Fightin’ Showalters. They have not done well these last five seasons. This year, Orioles pinch hitters have a combined .227 wOBA. Henry Urrutia (12 PA, .222 wOBA), Chris Dickerson (11 PA, .322 wOBA) and Nate McLouth (10 PA, .282 wOBA) lead the team in pinch hit appearances, and they have a combined 4 singles, 3 doubles and 4 walks in 33 PA. It’s not terribly productive, but not hopeless. And the base of hitting talent is not too much worse than the players Baker got terrific hitting from this season.
NOTE: Showalter did not manager a full season of the Orioles until 2011.
Urrita and Dickerson are of course utility players, guys with hardly a platoon role much less regular playing time. McLouth is a starter and a lefty who can hit righties with reasonable acumen, so outside of his pinch-hitting appearances, one has to wonder if Showalter uses pinch hitting more as an effort to rest starters in blowouts than to glean platoon advantages. Obviously we’d expect more talented lineups (and the Orioles certainly have some talented hitters) would need less pinch-hitting, but that does not necessarily explain the Yankees ranking second in AL pinch-hitting usage.
Either way, we can say with some certainty pinch hitting has gone awry in Baltimore. Even as late-game replacements, Showalter is not likely happy with a .227 wOBA over a five year span.
It’s hard to say poor results from pinch hitters means a manager should pinch hit less. Because we know players perform better with regular action, perhaps extra pinch hitting allows Joe Maddon to get more out of his bench and platoon players on days they are starting. Conversely, though, Baker is among the least pinch-hitter prone managers in the NL, though his pinch hitters still get far more chances than any bench players in the AL.
There remains that underlying selection bias. For instance: James Loney has a .296 wOBA against fellow lefties, but that .296 wOBA does not include any appearances against, say, Chris Sale (who has held lefties to a .237 wOBA in his career) — even though Sale played against the Rays twice this season. (Though, in the case of Loney, he was used indiscriminately full time as a Dodger, so his career number may be nearer his true talent level.) In other words, the league’s .285 wOBA for lefties on lefties has occurred in situations when a manager felt it prudent or at least acceptable to have the lefty face that lefty.
In other words, the league’s true talent lefty-on-lefty ability is likely a sub-.285 wOBA. Likewise, the righties getting pinched have been worse-than-great hitters to begin with, and likely have some form of platoon (R-L or GB-FB) disadvantage.
Pinch hitting might have benefits beyond the specific game, and if a manager has some reason to suspect a player is a sub-.280 wOBA against a certain pitcher or pitcher type, then pinch hitting results a better offensive experience. Also, if it forces an opposing manger to burn a reliever before they want to (say, bring out a ROOGY to face a No. 7 hitter in a high-leverage situation instead of a right-handed-heavy 2-3-4), then pinch hitting again can have deeper, later and hopefully positive consequences.
So where does that leave us? Well, for those teams hitting under .270, there is still space to rationalize the effectiveness and usefulness of those pinch hitting results. But as a whole, teams getting significantly worse production than the left-on-lefty split are not reaping the full benefits of pinch hitting — that would include at least the Orioles, Blue Jays and Rangers.
On the other side, the Rockies, Reds, Tigers and Red Sox have excelled in their hitting relief opportunities, with steady above average production from the PH-happy Rays.
As much as we may love to criticize a manager during a pinch-hitting opportunity or occasion, the true usefulness of a pinch hitter is often more gray than we might expect. And in fact, judging by the above numbers, most teams are probably getting adequate production from their pinch hitters.
Except Baltimore. You failed, Baltimore. Sorry.
Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.