Pinch-hitting is difficult. You’re sitting on the bench all game, you may not have taken batting practice that day, you might be facing a relief pitcher throwing hot cheese, it’s just really difficult to come off the bench and do something productive.
There were 574 different players used as pinch-hitters in 2014, with this group of players accumulating 5483 plate appearances and hitting just .213/.291/.322. As a group, pinch-hitters accounted for negative 0.9 WAR. At the bottom of the pinch-hitting group was Greg Dobbs, who hit .107/.138/.107 in 29 plate appearances, good for negative 0.5 WAR.
There were other players who struggled nearly as much as Dobbs. Chris Denorfia was 3 for 32 as a pinch-hitter. Tony Gwynn, Jr. was 2 for 30. Little Nicky Punto was 0 for 14.
Along with the individual strugglers, there were whole teams who cost themselves at least one win because of lousy pinch-hitting. The Washington Nationals finished dead last in pinch-hitting WAR, with a mark of -1.2. Their combined triple-slash line was .118/.244/.234, for a wRC+ of 38. There were a couple teams who hit even worse than the Nationals (the Braves and Astros), but the Nationals had more pinch-hitting appearances, so finished with less WAR.
The Nationals had five players who were particularly bad at pinch-hitting in 2014: Tyler Moore (1 for 14), Greg Dobbs (2 for 15), Nate McLouth (2 for 23), Nate Schierholtz (1 for 14), and Scott Hairston (5 for 38). Combined, these five players hit .106/.199/.163 with 36 strikeouts in 121 plate appearances and accounted for -1.0 WAR. Of course, there was some bad luck involved. The Nationals’ pinch-hitting BABIP was .171. They were the only team in baseball with a pinch-hitting BABIP below .200. All teams in major league baseball had a BABIP of .282 while pinch-hitting, with a high BABIP of .440 for the Chicago White Sox. The Nationals were not only bad at pinch-hitting; they were also unlucky.
On the other side of the coin, there were three teams who received 0.7 WAR from their pinch-hitters: the Orioles, Diamondbacks, and Rockies. The Orioles were kind of amazing in this regard. The Diamondbacks had 249 pinch-hitting plate appearances and the Rockies had 266, but the Orioles earned 0.7 WAR from their pinch-hitters in just 77 at-bats, thanks to a .313/.395/.522 batting line (156 wRC+). Delmon Young (0.6 WAR as a pinch-hitter) was the driving force behind the Orioles’ league-leading pinch-hitter WAR total. Young only had 23 pinch-hitting plate appearances, but hit .500/.565/.800.
As good as Delmon Young was, he wasn’t the top pinch-hitter of 2014. That title belongs to John Mayberry Jr., King of the Pinch Hitters. Mayberry had 32 pinch-hit plate appearances and hit .400/.438/.933. As a pinch-hitter, Mayberry accounted for 0.8 WAR, tops in baseball. For the season, Mayberry had just 0.2 WAR, so he was worth negative WAR in his non pinch-hitting appearances. Let’s look at a table (smalls sample size warning, yada, yada yada):
John Mayberry’s Hitting Prowess, by position
As a first baseman, John Mayberry did not hit well. As a left fielder, John Mayberry was truly awful. As a center fielder, John Mayberry was really bad. As a right fielder, John Mayberry was actually good. As a pinch-hitter, John Mayberry rocked the house. He brought the noise and the funk.
This hasn’t always been the case for John Mayberry the Younger. Before his mighty 2014 season as a pinch-hitter, Mayberry had three straight years with sub-par pinch-hitting production (wOBAs of .280, .285, and .258). Then again, in his first two seasons (very small sample size), Mayberry had wOBAs of .407 and .611. Overall, John Mayberry the Second is a career .304/.355/.545 hitter as a pinch-hitter. This is considerably better than his overall career batting line of .241/.305/.429. See the table below for this information in numerical form:
John Mayberry’s Pinch-Hitting Record by Year
|As a PH||121||112||.304||.355||.545||.355||.388||145|
The problem with pinch-hitting it that it’s just so unreliable. Last year, the aforementioned Greg Dobbs hurt his team more than any other player when he came off the bench to pinch-hit. Early in his career, though, Mr. Dobbs had three very good years coming off the bench from 2006 to 2008, increasing his production each year, with wOBAs of .342, .384, and .387. He was so good at pinch-hitting, he was given around 60 pinch-hit plate appearances per year in 2007 and 2008. He was reliable, consistent, someone you could count on when the chips were down. If you needed a guy to come off the bench and get a hit, dial up Dobbs! He was Mr. Dependable!
Only then he wasn’t. In 2009, Dobbs hit .167/.250/.241, for a wOBA of .230, but still got 60 plate appearances off the bench. The next year, he hit .122/.204/.286 (.213 wOBA), but old reputations die hard and Dobbs was sent up as a pinch-hitter 54 times.
Then, just when you thought it was time to give up on old Greg Dobbs as a pinch-hitter, he hit .370/.400/.519 (.396 wOBA) in 2011. D-TO-THE-O-TO-THE-DOUBLE-B-S! Greg Dobbs, pinch-hitter extraordinaire was back, baby!
Only he wasn’t. He was less-than-stellar in 2012: .268/.289/.366 (.272 wOBA). He was pretty bad in 2013: .208/.298/.250 (.222 wOBA). And he was truly unpleasant in 2014: .107/.138/.107 (.116 wOBA). This table says it all:
THE DOBSTER AS A PINCH HITTER
|As a PH||448||404||.243||.299||.379||.278||.290||73|
Greg Dobbs had some very good years as a pinch-hitter. He also had some very bad years as a pinch-hitter. Just when you thought he had proven to be a good pinch-hitter, he disproved it. You just never know with pinch-hitters.
John Mayberry Jr. was the King of the Pinch Hitters in 2014. Given the history of pinch-hitters, it is unlikely that he will retain that crown.
Bobby Mueller has been a Pittsburgh Pirates fan as far back as the 1979 World Series Championship team ("We R Fam-A-Lee!"). He suffered through the 1980s, then got a reprieve in the early 1990s, only to be crushed by Francisco Cabrera in 1992. After a 20-year stretch of losing seasons, things are looking up for Bobby’s Pirates. His blog can be found at www.baseballonthebrain.com and he tweets at www.twitter.com/bballonthebrain.