Inside The Fine Art Of Pinch-Hitting

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Pregame Pepper

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The .415 batting average produced by Yermin Mercedes during the opening month was the second-best April average ever, trailing only the .423 mark of Aledmys Diaz in 2016.

Leading Off

Baseball’s chanciest profession

And maybe its loneliest, which Pablo Sandoval (of all people) now shines practicing

By Jeff Kallman

For the decade running 1952-1961, portly William Conrad played Marshal Matt Dillon on radio’s  original Gunsmoke. Each week, he opened each episode by describing his line of work: It’s a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful . . . and a little lonely.

Dillon should have tried being a pinch-hitter. One minute, you’re the man of the hour. The next 20, you may receive advisories to get out of Dodge. Preferably on the stage that left town five minutes ago.

So far as Atlanta Braves fans are concerned this season, whenever manager Brian Snitker needs to change the offensive dynamic mid-to-late game, there’s no stage, bus, or plane waiting to hustle Pablo Sandoval out of town. Five minutes ago or any time.

Sandoval’s the man of the hour for the Braves. So far. He’s made more noise at the plate as a pinch-hitter this year than he’s made entirely since, oh, the 2012 World Series.

You think a man is lucky to have one pinch-hit home run in a season full of stand-in plate appearances? Kung Fu Panda has four of them in 21 such plate appearances. He has five hits overall in those gigs, delivering himself a .294/.429/1.000 slash line (and a 1.429 OPS) in the job.

Sandoval’s pinch mayhem began on Opening Day in the top of the seventh, with Philadelphia Phillies ace Aaron Nola still on the mound, Cristian Pache on second, and the Braves in the hole, 2-0. In the 0-2 hole himself, Sandoval turned on a down-and-in fastball and launched it almost into the second deck.

It proved just a game-tyer; the Phillies won it in 10. But the Panda found a new profession. If a roly-poly third baseman who almost inflated himself out of baseball at all can do it, doesn’t it make you wonder why more people can’t just turn up out of nowhere when the skipper needs to make a switch, check in at the plate, and drop bombs or shoot screaming line drives at will? Or against any defense the other guys want to offer?

Even among outliers, Sandoval’s 2021 performance so far is an outlier. As of Thursday morning, the Show’s pinch swingers showed a .206/.304/.334 slash line and a .638 OPS. Whether it’s young kids trying to make their major league bones, or well-seasoned veterans who know more than a few things about the game and its vicissitudes, hitting in a pinch can get you pinched a lot more often than you deliver the pinch.

“You pitcha the ball, I hitta the ball,” said Manny Mota, the man who broke Smoky Burgess’s record for lifetime pinch-hits. The job should be that simple.

It  may have made Mota a bigger star than he’d ever been previously over a long and distinguished career, but it still took Mota five additional plate appearances to break Burgess in the first place. Lenny Harris has the most pinch-hits of them all with 212 —and he needed 289 more plate appearances than Mota to get them.

That doesn’t stop enough people from persisting in the belief that Harris is thus the greatest pinch-hitter of all time. It’s comparable to people saying (falsely) that Pete Rose’s 4,256 lifetime hits make him the greatest hitter period who ever lived. Those are bigger stretches than Hall of Famer Willie (Stretch) McCovey ever made playing first base.

Among the men who’ve earned the bulk of their baseball keep as pinch-hitters, for every Smoky Burgess (arguably, the godfather of the modern most-time pinch-hitter) who was as sanguine as the day was long about his work, there was a Gates Brown who was anything but.

“Pinch-hitting was great to me,” Burgess once told Thomas Boswell, when he was a robust 58 and claimed he might still be playing if they’d only let him use an aluminum bat. “I can sit right here in my den and look at a plaque they gave me with every one of the 145 hits and whom it was off, where, and when.”

Easy for him to say. “If I had to do it all over again,” Brown told Boswell, for a study of the pinchers he called “Smoky’s Children” (Boswell republished it in How Life Imitates the World Series), “I wouldn’t. Hell, nobody wants to be a pinch hitter. I had to do it to survive.”

In one way, it was Brown’s own fault. His first major league plate appearance was pinch-hitting for Detroit Tigers pitcher Don Mossi in the fifth inning on 19 April 1963. Perhaps Brown would have called it the biggest mistake of his career—he hit one into the right field seats. That’d teach him. Career path marked.

“I was Old Terry Crowley before I was 30,” said the longtime Baltimore Orioles pincher to Boswell. He made almost as big a rookie mistake as Brown: he had a .290 hitting average as a pinch hitter that year, launching a fifteen-year major league career in which the outfielder/first baseman averaged 58 games a year. “Being known as a pinch-hitter adds five years to your age.”

Once in while, it makes or adds to your legend, if you have one. Sometimes it starts one.

Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra didn’t end up making his living as a pinch-hitter, of course. But it took 253 World Series games before the just-past-rookie Berra pinch-hit for New York Yankee catcher Sherman Lollar, against Brooklyn Dodgers righthander Ralph Branca, with one out in the seventh in Game Three of the 1947 Series. Yogi hit one over the clock topping the big scoreboard that bisected the Ebbets Field wall in right-center-field.

The bad news was that the blast didn’t do much good for the Yankees, who lost the game by a run, though they went on to win the Series. (They also lost Game Four on a pinch hit: Cookie Lavagetto’s fabled walk-off two-run double, destroying the no-hit bid Yankee pitcher Bill Bevens took to the last out in the ninth, also in Ebbets Field.)

But two of the most famous pinch-hits in baseball history won World Series games:

* Game One, 1954 World Series. Dusty Rhodes pinch hit for one Hall of Famer (Monte Irvin) against another (Bob Lemon) with two on and one out in the bottom of the tenth. (Rhodes had 15 pinch-hits in 49 regular-season pinch appearances.) He hit Lemon’s first pitch into the right field seats to start the New York Giants’ equally stupefying sweep of the 111 game-winning Cleveland Indians.

* Game One, 1988 World Series. With no legs left to stand on, literally, thanks to injuries, Kirk Gibson became the unlikely pinch-hitter for Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Alejandro Pena, with two outs and Mike Davis on base after a walk in the bottom of the ninth. Just the sight of Gibson walking stiff-legged out of the dugout at all brought Dodger Stadium to a frenzied boil. He fought the Oakland Athletics’ Hall of Fame relief pitcher Dennis Eckersley to a full count---Davis stole second on ball three---then called time, returned to the box, and hit a hanging slider about four rows into the right field bleachers to win it.

Many are called. Few enough are chosen.

Have a look at the-pinch hitters with 300+ lifetime pinch plate appearances according to my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances. By that metric, Lenny Harris may have the most pinch-hits of all time but he’s dead. last. Old Smoky is still in the top 5; the Gates of Wrath remains top 10; and, a pair of old, longtime New York Mets favorites (Rusty Staub, Ed Kranepool) are top 15. But Numero Uno’s liable to cause you to require reattachment surgery post haste after your jaw hits the floor:

Cliff Johnson?!?

The guy who’s remembered best, if at all, for the incident that made him an ex-Yankee when he’d barely established himself as a Yankee? The guy whose mutual clubhouse needling with Hall of Famer Goose Gossage turned into a shoving match that left Gossage with a torn thumb ligament and a 12-week stay on the old disabled list? The guy Bill Madden and Moss Klein (in Damned Yankees) described as “a bruiser who didn’t know his own strength . . . who often, like Lenny in [John Steinbeck’s] Of Mice and Men, hurt people without meaning to?”

Not Mota? Not Mark Sweeney, who passed Mota by 75 pinch-hits before his 2008 retirement but still fell short of Harris?

Harris, Sweeney, Burgess, John Vander Wal, and Dave Hansen are the pinch-hitting total bases champs. But RBA still says Old Smoky provided more proverbial bang for the proverbial buck. Notice, too, that long-time Phillies pincher Greg Gross is the Eddie Yost of the pinchers—the Walking Man—but RBA puts him sixth from the bottom.

And if you believe the intentional walk equals a fear factor, Burgess remains the pincher most likely to turn enemy pitchers to jelly with his 21, followed by Gross (19) and the dead heat (17) of Cincinnati Reds legend Jerry Lynch and Montreal Expo/Minnesota Twin/Baltimore Oriole/Los Angeles Dodger Jose Morales.

For Sandoval’s entire life as a pinch-hitter before it became his full-time line of work in Atlanta this year, his RBA is .601. At 34, he has time but lots of work to do. For one thing, he has 44 career pinch-hits at this writing. For another, the single-season pinch-hit home run record (seven) is shared by Hansen and Craig Wilson. For a third, Vander Wal still holds the single-season hit record (28) among the pinchers.

Kung Fu Panda should only wish the Braves keep setting up men on base for his coming pinch assignments, too. The single-season pinch-RBI record (25) is shared by Lynch, Staub, and Hall of Famer Joe Cronin, the last of whom didn’t earn most of his major league keep hitting in a pinch. Not to mention that, however low Harris sits on the RBA chart, he still has those 212 pinch-hits to be proud of. The Panda has a mere 168 hits to go to catch him.

Cliff Johnson?!?

Johnson actually held the lifetime record for pinch-homers (20) until Matt Stairs passed him (23). His career should have been more, but the Houston Astros with whom he first arrived tried foolishly to convert him from first base. his best and most natural position, to catching. It was something along the lines of trying to make a guitarist out of John Coltrane.

Johnson was really a designated-hitter type who was wasted for the most part in his Astros years. And he deserves to be remembered for far, far more than just the Gossage incident. He deserves to be remembered as one of Smoky’s Children, who went well above and beyond Pops.

Until Sandoval or someone else passes him, Hammerin’ Heathcliff deserves to be remembered what RBA calls him. The Crown Prince of Pinch.

Jeff Kallman is an IBWAA Life Member who writes Throneberry Fields Forever. He has written for the Society for American Baseball Research, for whom he is now one of the editors of their Games Project, plus The Hardball Times, Sports-Central, and other publications. He has lived in Las Vegas since 2007 and, alas, has been a Met fan since the day they were born. A few portions of this essay were published previously.

Preview YouTube video WS2012 Gm1: Sandoval swats three homers vs. Tigers

Preview YouTube video 1941 10 08 World Series Game 4 Yankees at Dodgers Radio Broadcast

Preview YouTube video 1954 09 29 World Series Game 1 Cleveland Indians vs Giants (Al Helfer and Jimmy Dudley)

Preview YouTube video WS1988 Gm1: Scully's call of Gibson memorable at-bat

Timeless Trivia

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