Hot Stove U: The Perils of Pinch-Hitting

The Setup

Game Two of the American League Division Series between the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees is remembered most for Mark Teixeira’s dramatic walk-off homer in the 11th inning. However, what happened in the top of that inning is more interesting.

After three consecutive singles loaded the bases with no outs, Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire elected to let Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez try to drive in the go-ahead run — despite the fact that they were each among baseball’s worst hitters in 2009. Both failed, as did Brendan Harris, and the inning ended without the Twins putting any runs on the board. They would promptly lose before getting another chance to hit.

Gardenhire’s reluctance to pinch-hit in such a critical situation, especially for Gomez, drew the ire of the Minnesota fans. But based on years of researching historical performance of pinch-hitters, it turns out that they’re not much good either. In fact, pinch-hitting is quite often the wrong idea, and Gardenhire was likely correct to discern that Gomez was his best chance to get the run home in that situation.

The Discussion

In 2009, major league pinch-hitters hit a combined .225/.315/.353, significantly worse than their starting counterparts, who hit .264/.334/.421. That’s not a one-year fluke or a recent development, either. In 1990, guys coming off the bench hit .224/.302/.316. In 1970, they hit .226/.313/.323. Way back in 1954, their performance was a pitiful .220/.315/.323. It’s not just that the average pinch-hitter is worse than a starter, but instead, there is evidence that pinch-hitting is just really difficult. Matt Holliday has a career .552 OPS as a pinch hitter compared to a .933 mark when he starts. Joe Mauer has a .693 OPS off the bench. Even Derek Jeter is hitless in his five attempts.

Baseball consultant Tom Tango, now in the employ of the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays, went through historical pinch-hitting situations in his book (appropriately titled “The Book”) and found that, even after accounting for the average pinch-hitter being of lesser ability and facing tougher pitchers in more important situations, pinch-hitters performed at a level roughly 10 percent lower than expected. That’s huge; a 10 percent penalty turns a .300 hitter into a .270 one. That reduction in performance would turn Evan Longoria into Skip Schumaker.

Pinch-hitters don’t share this fate alone. Designated hitters, who also spend a significant amount of the game spectating, suffer at the plate as well. Studies have found that regular starters relegated to the DH role end up hitting at a level about 5 percent worse. That’s better than pinch-hitters, but it does indicate that not being out in the field hurts players when they step up to the plate. Jim Thome, Frank Thomas and Jason Giambi, for example, all had significantly worse numbers than expected while at DH rather than first base, even after adjusting for the age at which they played both positions.

What makes pinch-hitting so hard? Repetition and routine are common agents to help calm nerves. It’s why you’ll see some ridiculous things in the batter’s box, such as Nomar Garciaparra’s infamous batting glove routine. It’s why coaches in golf stress pre-shot routines, and for every disturbance to mean a complete do-over of that routine. It’s why any athlete anywhere spends countless hours practicing. They are attempting to train their muscle memory and to develop grooves in the brain that focus on the specific task at hand and let them forget about anything else.

Pinch-hitters do not get the benefit of routine. Unlike relievers who first get to warm up in the bullpen, then warm up on the mound, and who dictate the action in the first place, pinch-hitting opportunities tend to spring up with less warning. At best, a player on the bench might get a heads-up in time to go into the cage and take a few hacks, but for the most part, he gets thrust right onto center stage sans warm up. That’s not a recipe for success, and the evidence suggests that even the best hitters in the world struggle to succeed in that situation.

The Conclusion

That’s not to say pinch-hitting is always a bad idea. Pitchers are notoriously terrible hitters — to the point where nearly any capable major league position player will still be more likely to get a hit, even accounting for the pinch-hitting penalty. Had Gardenhire carried even a league-average hitter to come off the bench in the ALDS, that guy would have been a better choice to hit than Gomez, as the gap in talent would have overcome the expected decline in performance from the pinch-hitter. But Gardenhire did not have that guy on his bench, so as frustrating as it may have been for Twins fans, he made the right call.

Pinch-hitting is one of the most difficult things to do well in all of sports. Even good hitters fail routinely when asked to come off the bench and get a big hit late in the game. It isn’t as simple as comparing the batting averages of the two available options and going with the higher number. While inaction is always tougher to watch — and easier to criticize — it is often for the best. Pinch-hitting for the pitcher? Good idea. Pinch-hitting for your starting shortstop? You’d better have a legitimately good hitter available, and it still might not be the right call.

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Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.

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