Friday, May 11, 2012

Is Pinch Hitting worth it?

As a baseball writer and a baseball Fan, box scores are a major source of entertainment. And a lot of baseball games and highlights are watched with avid interest. Like many writers who slowly are indoctrinated with the new truths about baseball such as sacrifice bunting stinks and there are no such things as productive outs, these truths call in to question a lot of what is culled over each day. So a thought occurred the other day after watching Brandon Allen pinch hit for the Tampa Bay Rays. He struck out on three pitches. Yes, he hit a walk-off, pinch hit homer a few games before, but isn't that more of a fluke than the norm? To answer that question, six hours were spent compiling pinch hitting statistics yesterday. The trouble with that is the abject fear that there isn't enough talent or smarts sitting in this chair to interpret them correctly. But here are some conclusions about pinch hitting the work seems to indicate.

First, pinch hitting makes sense in the National League. Of course in the senior circuit, they cutely hold on to the notion that pitchers should hit. While watching every pitcher bunt with a man on base or else strikeout may be the cup of tea to some, it is imminently boring on this end of the observation deck. Pitchers this season have the amazingly low OPS of .300 while batting. This follows last season when those same humans batted to an OPS of .357. So yes, in the National League, pinch hitting a pony league player would be an improvement on a pitcher hitting. Last year, National League pinch hitters had an OPS of .603. While that is still in the dungeon range of production, it is certainly better than pitchers.

But what of the American League that has had the DH since 1973? Does pinch hitting seem worth it when there are no pitchers to hit for? The conclusions here are no, it does not seem worth it. For just one example, a pinch hitter is usually sent to the plate to pinch hit for a lefty batter facing a lefty pitcher. Such a lefty to lefty split last season added up to a .656 OPS. Yes, that's not very good. But pinch hitters in the American League last season had an OPS of .618. That is worse, isn't it? Of course, the missing piece of the puzzle here is what happens in subsequent at bats and this writer doesn't have that data, so that is a hole in the logic for sure. But at least in the initial at bat, pinch hitting doesn't work.

By nature, a guy is a bench player or a role player and thus, a pinch hitter, because he's not good enough to play every day. Wouldn't that be a fair statement? And yet managers "play the percentages" and pinch hit for match ups that seem to backfire. A spreadsheet was created that compared pinch hitting in the majors, NL and AL since 1961 and compared those numbers to each of those entities' OPS average. In every one of those seasons, pinch hitting has an OPS below the league average OPS. Some years it came close, but it hasn't for years.

And there might be a reason for that. Teams are keeping more pitchers on their 25-man rosters now. The specialization of relief pitching has made it so managers need plenty of options. Since only four or so bench players are now the norm and a catcher has to be one of them, there are only a pool of three or so bench players to form the pool of pinch hitters. Most of those bench players are filled by versatility these days rather than offensive ability. And pinch hitting has lagged way behind league OPS averages. Hopefully it was done right since Google Docs are new here. But here is a link to the spreadsheet created.

Look at Column K. American League pinch hitting is over a hundred points lower in OPS than that league's average for seven of the last eight seasons. That looks like an epic fail to these eyes. Corrections are certainly welcomed.

Even worse is pinch hitting for designated hitters. Again, the hole here is what happens in subsequent at bats. But at least in the initial pinch hitting experience, is it not amazing that pinch hitters batting for the designated hitter last season had an OPS of .411 last season? The numbers go up and down, but they have been historically bad on average since 2005. For those of you who like charts to show such things, here it is:

2012 may be a record year according to the data collected for the National League. Not counting yesterday's games, National League pinch hitters had a collective OPS of .711. The National League's overall OPS is .702. If this were to continue for the entire season, it would be the first time in the 51 years studied that pinch hitting OPS in a league outperformed that league's OPS. That would be amazing. We'll see where it ends up after the season.

So in conclusion, pinch hitting for pitchers makes sense. Pitchers cannot hit in general and even lowly pinch hitting OPS is far better even though pretty paltry (except for this season). But pinch hitting in the American League makes little sense and pinch hitting for designated hitters makes even less sense. Here is one more chart to show the American League OPS plus or minus for pinch hitters to MLB OPS over the years. Your comments are most welcome.


Stevo-sama said...

The fruit of late-night numbers crunching, excellent post...I think your research validates what many of us assume, especially with the key word "seems"'s true that pinch-hitting is actually better than 'not,' but very much like stealing bases, the additional RUNS achieved suggest the act is futile at best, but again...better than just doing nothing at all. Setting the numbers aside, pinch hitting is a SEXY baseball event, like an anachronistic guest guitar solo in a song just for guest guitar solo's sake!

Left Field said...

Really interesting post and you make some excellent points.

I'm not sure if comparing the OPS of pinch-hitters to the OPS of the league average hitter is the way to go. Is the league average hitter usually the guy who gets pinch hit for? I'm not talking about NL pitchers here, but even in the AL, the guys who get pinch hit for that aren't because of a platoon switch are probably much weaker than average.

But, I could be wrong.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Interesting comments. And yes, the OPS of the guys being pinch hit for in the AL is a real hole in the logic.