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I Love Baseball and Pinch Hitters Too. How About You?

Some people think baseball is a boring game. I do not. I find baseball pure theatre, a nail-biting drama that intensifies from first pitch to final out. So, what's the most exciting part of the game?

As much as I like a monstrous home run, I enjoy an inside-the-park homerun even more. Once the batted ball gets by an outfielder and ricochets off a wall, rolling into no man's land, you know there's potential for it happening. It's a rare home run.

I think an outfielder climbing a wall and robbing a home run is more exciting than a home run. A grand slam is usually a one-swing game-changer, and when it's a walk-off, it can be one of the most exciting moments of baseball. And, how about a triple play? Even rarer than an inside the park home run.

No-hitters certainly have their place, but when it comes to pitching I'd rather see strikeouts, lots of strikeouts, and called third strikes are sobering. I enjoy pickoffs too. Picking off a pinch-runner who just came in the game, priceless. Picking off an overzealous runner at second in a setup play is great, but catching a guy leaning off third, even better. Hidden ball pickoffs are great, though I've never seen one live.

Any play at the plate is exciting, but a right fielder throwing someone out at third says to opposing team "Not on my watch". The best arms in baseball traditionally occupy right field.

Some of the most exciting plays occur when the game is on the line. Game-winning hits in extra innings, a closer striking out a batter with the bases loaded to end a game, a diving catch to end an inning with runners in scoring position, a squeeze play that works, a triple play, are all reasons I watch baseball. A ball thrown high and tight can lead to a brawl, which is a lot of fun to watch as long as no one gets hurt.

But one part of the game that really gets my attention is pinch-hitting. Here you've got a cold player coming off the bench and into a game, that in some cases is on the line, to face a premier closer who can bring it. It's a daunting task. A lot like being a relief pitcher, but with a bat. A home run as a pinch hitter is such an adrenalin shot. Over the history of baseball, many pinch hitters have ended games with clutch game-winning hits and home runs. 

The American League went to the DH on opening day, April 6, 1973, when Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees became the league's first-ever designated hitter. Some fans were for it, after all, one of the most boring at-bats is/was when a weak-hitting pitcher came to the plate. Back in the 60s I saw a lot of pitchers come to the plate and just stand there and not swing, hoping to strike out on three pitches. If they walked, the team trainer immediately brought out a warm-up jacket for the pitcher to wear and on a ground ball the pitcher would jog to second base, avoiding any contact with a fielder or the ball. Some pitchers can hit. On July 3, 1966, Atlanta Braves pitcher Tony Cloninger hit two grand slams, becoming the first major leaguer to hit two grand slams in a game, while setting the record for most RBI by a pitcher with nine. And he's not the only pitcher to hit a grand slam…

After the DH began there were very few pitchers swinging bats in the American League, which meant fewer easy outs and less pinch-hitting. In the National League, where there is currently no DH, managers continue to strategize when to pull a pitcher in order to maximize their pinch-hitting opportunities. They sometimes avoid pinch-hitting altogether by doing the double switch, which is typically used when making a pitching substitution, simultaneously placing the incoming pitcher in a more favorable spot in the batting order than was occupied by the outgoing pitcher.

In the American League where there's a  DH, pinch hitters were used a third as much in 2019. The American League pinch hit 1,158 times, while the National League did it 3,775 times. Pinch hitters in the A.L. accounted for 254 hits, 46 home runs, and 212 RBI. In the N.L. pinch hitters hit safely 843 times, blasted 144 home runs, and drove in 542 runs. (And you can't give them a second chance)

Another important stat is PHlev (Pinch Hit Leverage Index), which is "the importance of the context in which the pinch hitter was used". Anything above one means a higher than average pressure situation. The N.L. frequently uses pinch hitters when a pitcher is pulled and also in critical times, attempting to set up a better righty-lefty matchup. The average N.L. PHlev in 2019 was 1.213. Over in the A.L., where pitchers don't hit except in interleague games, pinch hitters are used less frequently but in more critical spots. The average A.L. PHlev in 2019 was 1.59. Pinch hitters in the A.L. batted .219 whereas pinch hitters in the N.L. batted .223, which is better than pitchers who predictably finish well under .200, but below the league average of .252.

The DH will be utilized in the N.L. during this year's shortened season, but will not be in 2021. Beginning in 2022, the DH will be instituted permanently. There are many pros and cons to having a DH. First the Pros: There's more hitting and fewer automatic outs. Poor fielders with good bats can still make a roster.  Older players who can still hit can extend their careers. And, pitchers will not have to hit and risk injury or fatigue running the bases. The Cons: Less managerial strategy, though that's disputable as most starting pitchers in the N.L. hit for themselves up to the sixth inning. Pitchers will be able to throw at hitters without the fear of being hit themselves. And on average, statistically, there's a third less pinch-hitting. 

In 2019 the best pinch-hitting team statistically in the A.L. was the Boston Red Sox who batted .333 (33 for 100, 1.58 PHlev) and the best in the N.L. was the Pittsburgh Pirates who batted .322 (79 for 249, 1.34 PHlev). In the A.L. the Red Sox and the Oakland A's were tied with 5 pinch-hit home runs each, and the A's led with 25 RBI. In the N.L. the Los Angeles Dodgers had 13 pinch-hit home runs and the Pirates led with 50 RBI. 

How does pinch-hitting equate to winning? The 2019 A.L. Champion Houston Astros' pinch hitters batted just .174 (11 for 63, 3 HR,11 RBI, 1.51 PHlev), while the 2019 World Series Champion Washington Nationals batted .261 (58 for 222, 5 HR, 32 RBI, 1.12 PHlev). The weakest PH team by average in the N.L. was the Cincinnati Reds .179 ( 49 for 272, 9 HR, 30 RBI, 1.34 PHlev), and the weakest in the A.L. was the Kansas City Royals .125 (6 for 48, 3 HR7 RBI, 1.37 PHlev), both teams in line with what pitchers produce.

In the history of baseball, there have always been top ten lists of pinch hitters. According to here are the top ten pinch hitters all time and a brief description of their accomplishments: 

10) Harold Baines: In 276 plate appearances as a pinch hitter he had a batting average of .316, an OBP of .380, and a .480 slugging percentage.

9) David Hansen: From 1991-2000, Hansen hit .281/.388/.433 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 13 home runs and 60 RBI in 423 pinch-hit appearances. In 2000, he set a single-season record with seven pinch homers, tied the next year by Craig Wilson. Hansen is fourth all-time in pinch-hit appearances and sixth in hits.

8) Merv Rettenmund: As a pinch-hitter, his greatest weapon was his eye at the plate, which allowed him to post a .422 on-base percentage in those situations, first all-time among players with at least 200 chances. In 1977, he drew 16 pinch walks, with a .463 OBP.

7) Willie McCovey: The Hall of Famer smacked 16 of his 521 career home runs off the bench, including a record-tying three grand slams, while his slugging percentage (.490) and OPS (.848) are both the second-highest among players with that many pinch-hit chances. (They named a "Cove" after him)

6) Matt Stairs: The stocky Canadian slugger walloped a record 23 of his 265 career home runs as a pinch-hitter, including 15 between the ages of 38-42. That doesn’t count his go-ahead two-run blast into the right-field bleachers at Dodger Stadium that lifted the Phillies to victory in Game 4 of the 2008 National League Championship Series.

5) Jerry Lynch: He put together several fine seasons as a pinch-hitter, but his 1961 campaign for the Reds may be one of the best ever, as he helped lead the Reds to an improbable National League Championship. In 59 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter, he batted .404/.525/.851 with 12 walks, four doubles, a triple, five home runs, and a record 25 RBI.

4) Manny Mota: The record holder for career pinch hits for more than 20 years, Mota still ranks third all-time in that category. His .300 average as a pinch-hitter survives as the best in history for players with at least 350 chances, including a .327 mark during the '70s.

3) Smoky Burgess: His 146 pinch-hit RBI are 31 more than any other player, including six seasons of 10 or more. In 1965, he drove in 24 runs in the pinch, just one off the single-season record. The six-time All-Star catcher held the record for pinch hits with 145 when he retired in 1967.

2) Cliff Johnson: No player who has pinch-hit 300 times can come close to Johnson’s .876 OPS, compiled from 1972-86. His 20 pinch-hit bombs stood as the record for 24 years after his retirement.

1) Lenny Harris: He collected 84 more plate appearances and 37 more hits in that role than any other player, carving out an 18-year career despite never getting more than 333 plate appearances in a season from 1993-2005. On Oct. 7, 2001, he broke Manny Mota’s all-time record with his 151st pinch-hit.

It's not only the DH rule that has turned pinch-hitting into a lost art. With the increasing size of pitching staffs (12-13) due to the use of middle relievers and closers, there isn't much roster space for pinch-hitting specialists like there was 30-40 years ago. Additional roster spots are now dedicated to back-up fielders, and hopefully, these back-ups can serve double duty by pinch-hitting too. 

According to Baseball Reference, in 2019 starting pitchers averaged 5.2 innings pitched per game started and the team that had the highest IP/GS was the World Series Champion Washington Nationals (5.8). For a pitcher to record a quality start he must pitch at least six innings and allow three earned runs or less, which when allowing 3 earned runs equates to a 4.50 ERA (nothing to brag about). For reference, in 1972, the IP/GS was 6.7, with six teams' starters averaging over 7 innings per start. A.L. Cy Young Award winner Gaylord Perry was 24-16 in 40 starts, throwing  342.2 innings, with 29 complete games, and a 1.92 ERA. The N.L. Cy Young winner, Steve Carlton, was 27-10 in 41 starts, throwing 346.1 innings, with 30 complete games, and a 1.97 ERA. In 2019 the top 18 starting pitchers in Cy Young voting combined for 14 complete games. How times have changed; how roster spots for pinch-hitting specialists have diminished.

It's always difficult to make rule changes in a game with as much statistical history as baseball. A lot of fans of National League baseball are critical of the DH rule, believing they're the only league still playing baseball as it was originally intended. In other sports, we've seen that rule changes are initially met with fierce objections, but players and fans adapt quickly and become accepting. 

The DH Rule has always been part of a heated discussion pitting tradition versus change. Where do you stand? 

Are pinch-hitting specialists soon to become obsolete?

Will you miss pitchers hitting? 

And, what's your favorite part of the game? 

Let's hear it!