Where have all the pinch-hitters gone?

Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE

A few years ago, I wrote a book about baseball's myths and legends (and look, so cheap!). But that doesn't keep me from giving my heartiest endorsement to Bill Deane's recent book: Baseball Myths: Debating, Debunking, and Disproving Tales from the Diamond. It's published by a small press and hasn't received a great deal of attention, but it certainly belongs on anyone's list of Essential Baseball Books Published in the Last Year. Again, I really can't recommend Baseball Myths highly enough.

I was reminded of Bill's book when he recently dropped a few statistical nuggets from 2012 into SABR's e-mail discussion list. Here's my favorite, because it's related to one of my favorite subjects ...

As usual, the Elias Sports Bureau -- official statistician for Major League Baseball -- rates the "American League Top Pinch Hitters" based on a minimum of 20 at bats. The 2012 leader was the Yankees' Raul Ibañez (8-for-25, .320). But number two on Elias's list was Oakland's Seth Smith (4-for-20, .200), #3 was the Yanks' Andruw Jones (4-for-22, .182), #4 was New York teammate Eric Chavez (4-for-34, .118), and #5 was the Angels' Maicer Izturis (2-for-22, .091). Yikes! Meanwhile, the likes of Tampa Bay's Jeff Keppinger (5-for-9, .556) and Luke Scott (5-for-12, .417), Oakland's Brandon Moss (5-for-10, .500), and Seattle's John Jaso (6-for-18, .333) all had more hits in fewer at bats than the #2-5 "top pinch hitters," but failed to make the cut, essentially because they didn't make enough outs!

Overall, AL substitute batsmen once again were a collective study in failure: the league used pinch-hitters on more than 1,200 occasions with an aggregate batting average of just .207. Over the past five seasons, AL pinch-swingers have hit .219, .208, .206, .216, and .207, respectively. Since pitchers rarely bat in this league, one continues to wonder whom these guys are hitting for which makes this such a brilliant strategy.

You know I've been arguing for a while that seven- and eight-man bullpens are counterproductive, because they limit the manager's late-inning options when his team's batting. Now, you might look at those batting averages as a counter-argument: If the pinch-hitters are going to be terrible, what's the point in having just another terrible one on your bench? Of course, my counter-counter-argument might be, "They're so terrible because they're terrible. If you didn't have so many relief pitchers on the roster, you would have room for a good pinch-hitter."

But hey, maybe not. Maybe pinch-hitting is just so difficult that pinch-hitting for anyone but the pitcher is largely pointless. Maybe most of the good hitters who don't field well enough to regularly field are efficiently shunted to the American League, where they find gainful employment as Designated Hitters (we're looking at you, Billy Butler).

Those pinch-hitting numbers mean something, though. Just gotta figure out what.

A few more of my favorite tidbits from Bill Deane:

  • The Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw again led the majors in pickoffs, nailing 11 baserunners, while allowing just 8 stolen bases in 20 attempts when he was on the mound. But the best at controlling the running game was Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto, who picked off nine runners while permitting only ONE steal in ten tries. Compare those numbers to those of Pittsburgh's A.J. Burnett, who allowed 38 stolen bases in 40 attempts.
  • The Rangers' Josh Hamilton was named American League Player of the Month in both April and May, 2012, repeating the feat of Jose Bautista in 2011. Since the AL award was established in 1974, only once previously had a player won it in each of the first two months of the season: Josh Hamilton in 2008.
  • San Diego pitcher Brad Boxberger is still awaiting his first successful defensive play in the majors. The rookie right-hander appeared in 24 games spanning 27.2 innings, and had just three fielding chances -- but made errors on all three.

Boxberger's pitched 2⅓ this season ... but still he's waiting! No chances yet, but you can bet he'll be sweating his next one.

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