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What Makes a Good Pinch-Hitter?

There seems to be quite a bit of disagreement in FanGraphs-land over what skills make for a good pinch-hitter. Some will argue that power is more important while others might say that on-base skills are more important. And while I know that it’s fashionable for the author to make a stance at the start of his article, I’m not going comply. I’m just going to unsexily dive face-first into Retrosheet.

How can we solve this problem? How do we know what skills are best for pinch-hitters? Well, we can examine the base-out states that pinch-hitters confront and then derive from those base-out states specific pinch-hitter linear weights. We will then compare pinch-hitter linear weights to league-average linear weights to see which skills retain value. Simple.

We’re also going to split the data by league, since pinch-hitting tendencies in the National League are likely going to be different than American League tendencies. I’m going to use the last five years of data, because whim. The table below, then, includes league-average linear weights followed by NL and AL pinch-hitter linear weights (aside: the run values of linear weights are from 1999-2002, per Tango’s work. This won’t make a real difference in the results, however, since we’re examining relative value of different base-out states and not overall run-value of different events).

Relative Linear Weights, 2009-2013

Linear Weight HR 3B 2B 1B NIBB Out K
League Average 1.41 1.06 0.76 0.47 0.33 -0.300 -0.310
AL Pinch-Hitting 1.45 1.07 0.77 0.49 0.32 -0.305 -0.325
NL Pinch-Hitting 1.42 1.05 0.75 0.48 0.31 -0.290 -0.310

In the National League we can see that the value of home runs have increased slightly while walks have seen a corresponding decrease. This is because pinch-hitters often come to the plate when there are more outs than average. This sensibly decreases the value of walks and increases the importance of hurrying up and sending everyone around the bases already. This note comes with a caveat, however — the differences in linear weights are pretty small. It seems that managers in the National League are often forced to use the pinch-hitter to replace the pitcher, and therefore pinch-hitters are used in a lot of sub-optimal places.

The American league does not condone making everyone hit, however, and the impact upon pinch-hitting situations is pretty clear. The run value of home runs increases by .04 in pinch-hitting situations in the American League compared to the paltry .01 National League increase. In fact the run values of nearly all events increases — managers in the American League simply have more flexibility on when to use pinch-hitters and so they are able to deploy their pinch-hitters in base/out situations that are strategically favorable.

What does this all mean? Like everything, this simultaneously means quite a bit and not much at all. Home run value increases while walk value decreases during average pinch-hitter situations, but the change isn’t huge. If you’re a general manager looking for a bench bat and there’s a home-run guy available with a 90 wRC+ and a plate-discipline guy with a 95 wRC+, take the plate-discipline guy. What if they both have a 90 wRC+? Then take the home-run guy. The pinch-hitter linear weights here are more of a tie-breaker than a game-changer. Power is more important than walks when it comes to being a pinch-hitter, but being a good hitter is more important than power.

Roster construction is never that simple, though. Ideally a team will have both power and plate-discipline guys available on the bench and then the manager will be able to leverage both of their abilities based upon the base/out state (and also the score/inning situation, which is outside the scope of this article). Managers tend to be kind of strategic dunces, though, so I’m not sure if I see this happening. If I were in charge of anything I would supply my manager with a chart of base/out states that list the team’s best pinch-hitters in each situation. I’m not in charge, though, and even if I were I would probably be ignored.

I am in charge of this article, however, which means that I can bring it to a close. I’ll note that another valid way to do this study would be to create WPA-based weights rather than run-expectancy weights. There’s a lot more noise in WPA, but it could still create some interesting conclusions. I reckon the conclusion would be pretty much the same though — what makes a good pinch-hitter? Well, a good hitter makes for a good pinch-hitter. And a little power doesn’t hurt.