The 2022 Giants Rewrote the Rules of Pinch-Hitting

Gabe Kapler
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most common arguments against the designated hitter coming to the National League was that it would cause a decline in pinch-hitting, therefore removing an element of strategy from the game. It was inevitable, after all, that pinch-hitting opportunities would dry up without pitchers to sub out. Lo and behold, offensive substitutions in the NL decreased by more than 60% from 2021 to ’22, with teams sending just 1,647 pinch-hitters to the plate this past season, compared to 4,438 the year before.

Thankfully, for those of us who missed the glorious art of pinch-hitting, there was still a way to get our fix: the San Francisco Giants. They used 258 pinch-hitters in 2022 — 95 more than the team with the next-highest total, the Athletics. It’s also a whopping 222 more than the team with the fewest pinch-hit plate appearances, the Rockies. It’s so many pinch-hitters, in fact, that the Giants wouldn’t have looked out of place in the pitcher-hitting era. They used more bats off the bench in 2022 than one NL team, the Cardinals, used in 2021. In the first full year of the universal DH, the Giants were still pinch-hitting at a pre-DH rate.

So if the 2022 Giants were pinch-hitting as much as a team without the DH, how did they compare to teams with the DH? Since 2002 (when pinch-hitting data is first available on FanGraphs), no American League team has ever used quite so many replacement batters in a single season. The 2015 Rays are the only AL team to have used more than 200, and keep in mind, they still played ten of their games in NL ballparks. In other words, they played ten games without access to the DH. If you don’t count those contests, the Rays used only 189 pinch-hitters in 2015. That’s 67 fewer than the 2022 Giants — and that’s the closest any team has come in the past two decades:

AL Teams with Most Pinch-Hitting PA in a Single Season (since 2002)
Team # of Pinch-Hitting PA # of Pinch-Hitting PA (DH Games)
2015 Rays 217 189
2014 Blue Jays 197 180
2013 Rays 189 166
2014 Athletics 186 168
2010 Rays 173 151
2016 Mariners 168 152
2014 Rays 167 147
2013 Athletics 163 141
2022 Athletics 163 163
2003 Devil Rays 162 145

Giants manager Gabe Kapler found all these additional opportunities for pinch-hitting by completely disregarding the traditional “rules” that every other manager continued to follow. For instance, conventional wisdom dictates that offensive substitutions should be reserved for the later innings. The Giants, however, threw that so-called wisdom out the window, leading the sport in pinch-hitting appearances in every individual inning from the fifth to the ninth. Where they really stood out, however, was in innings five and six, using 26 bench bats in the fifth alone. That accounted for 23% of all fifth-inning pinch-hitters across the sport:

Graph Showing Number of Pinch-Hitters by Team in the 5th Inning

In the sixth, Kapler sent 39 substitutions to the plate, accounting for 13% of all sixth-inning pinch-hitters:

Graphs Showing Number of Pinch-Hitters by Team in the 6th Inning

Overall, that adds up to 65 pinch-hitters for San Francisco in frames five and six. Since 2002, no team with access to the designated hitter has even come close to that number. The 2015 Rays have the next-highest total — 43 pinch-hitters in the fifth and sixth — but ten of those were in interleague games at NL stadiums:

Teams with Most Pinch-Hitters in 5th and 6th Innings
Team # of Pinch-Hitters # of Pinch-Hitters (DH Games Only)
2022 Giants 65 65
2015 Rays 43 33
2022 Twins 31 31
2019 Rays 29 20
2006 Blue Jays 28 23
2009 Rays 28 22
2014 Blue Jays 26 22
2022 Brewers 25 25
2010 Rays 24 22
2014 Athletics 24 21
2021 Athletics 24 21
2022 Rangers 24 24

Another unwritten rule the Giants stomped all over is one pronouncing that pinch-hitters should only be used in high-leverage spots. Kapler said pooh-pooh to that idea; his team racked up 195 pinch-hitting plate appearances in low and medium-leverage situations. That was far more than any other team this season:

Pinch-Hitters in Low and Medium-Leverage Spots by Team in 2022

It was also a great deal more than any team with the DH in recent memory. The closest any other team has come was the 2014 Blue Jays, who used 156 pinch-hitters in such spots (although 14 of those were in non-DH games):

Teams with Most Pinch-Hitters in Low and Medium-Leverage Spots
Team # of Pinch-Hitters # of Pinch-Hitters (DH Games Only)
2022 Giants 195 195
2014 Blue Jays 156 142
2015 Rays 153 129
2013 Rays 140 121
2014 Athletics 135 119
2010 Rays 131 113
2016 Mariners 126 114
2012 Yankees 119 106
2022 Athletics 119 119
2013 Athletics 118 99
2021 Athletics 114 98
2022 Diamondbacks 114 114

Suffice it to say, the Giants employed a lot of pinch-hitters in 2022. In return, the team got an impressive amount of production off the bench: its pinch-hitters combined for five home runs, 10 doubles, and an incredible 40 walks. All in all, it was good for a 121 wRC+. For comparison, the league-average pinch-hitter had just an 89 wRC+. And the Giants’ pinch-hitters weren’t just good compared to other bats off the bench. In fact, you could make a pretty convincing argument they were one of the most productive “hitters” on the whole team:

Giants Top Performers in 2022
Player PA wRC+ WAR
Joc Pederson 433 144 2.1
Austin Slater 325 124 2.1
Pinch-Hitters 258 121 1.6
Evan Longoria 298 115 1.3
Thairo Estrada 541 107 2.7
Darin Ruf 314 104 0.1
Wilmer Flores 602 103 1.4
Mike Yastrzemski 558 99 2.2
Brandon Belt 298 96 0.0
Luis Gonzalez 350 95 0.3
LaMonte Wade Jr. 251 93 0.2
Joey Bart 291 90 0.6
Brandon Crawford 458 87 2.0

It’s no coincidence, either, that the Giants got both quantity and quality from their pinch-hitters. The reason Kapler used so many substitutions was that he was actively working to set his players up for success in as many plate appearances as possible. When he decided that one of the guys on his bench was a better matchup for the pitcher than the batter currently in the lineup, he made a switch. He didn’t worry about saving that bench bat for a later inning or a higher-leverage spot. For example, when an opposing starter came out of the game in the fifth or sixth inning, Kapler wasn’t afraid to sub in a pinch-hitter who matched up well against the new arm on the mound. Of the 65 pinch-hitters Kapler used in the fifth/sixth, 61 entered to face opposite-handed pitching. That’s 94%.

Platoon advantages were just the tip of the iceberg. The Giants have shown a remarkable ability to identify the right spots for their players to thrive, which Robert Orr examined for Baseball Prospectus ahead of the season. As he explained, the 2021 Giants found favorable matchups for their hitters “based on the paths of their players’ swings and opposing pitchers’ pitch shapes.” By doing so, they made use of “every possible in-game advantage.” You can bet they were doing more of the same in 2022.

Conventional wisdom is conventional wisdom for a reason. Baseball does not allow for endless substitutions, so in theory, it makes sense to save the few you have for the most meaningful spots. Most managers won’t use a pinch-hitter with the bases empty in the sixth inning, because that gives them one less option with the bases loaded in the ninth. Similarly, most managers don’t want to use up all their pinch-hitters early on, lest an injury occurs and they have no position players remaining on the bench. The thing is — and what the Giants seemed to be betting on — that those meaningful, high-leverage spots don’t always come around, and emergencies are few and far between. Kapler was willing to risk the occasional late-inning hardship for smaller but much more frequent advantages in the early going. The Giants were probably left high and dry a couple times, with no one left to pinch-hit in a big spot. But the advantages of using pinch-hitters in almost every game ultimately outweighed the drawbacks. There’s a reason the Giants got 1.6 WAR out of their pinch-hitters, more than any other team.

As an extreme (and perhaps silly) example of why Kapler’s approach worked, imagine if Aaron Boone never started Aaron Judge, but instead saved him on the bench so he could insert him into games in high-leverage situations. Every so often, it might have worked out well for the Yankees; Judge can do more damage if he’s guaranteed a plate appearance with runners in scoring position. In the long run, however, he can do a lot more for his team by starting every game. The production he can supply in 700 everyday plate appearances far outweighs what he could accomplish in a smaller number of high-leverage opportunities. In the same vein, Kapler got more out of his pinch-hitters by using them with regularity than he would have by using them sparingly.

In 2022, the Giants let go of traditional notions about pinch-hitting. They dared to switch things up at times when others teams would not, and they took advantage of more ideal matchups as a result. Not a whole lot went right for San Francisco this past season, but at least when it came to pinch-hitting they were well ahead of the curve.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors as well as an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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1 year ago

I miss the National League.