The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Monday, February 13, 2006

 

Hitting in a Pinch

In a recent L.A. Daily News article, Kevin Modesti strained a metaphor in comparing the Dodger organization's history with that of the (sigh) Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. No matter. What caught my eye was Modesti pointing out that in the entire organization, the current Dodgers have but two links to their World Series glory days of the '70s and '80s: Special Advisor to the Chairman Tommy Lasorda, who managed the team from 1977-1996, and coach Manny Mota, their pinch-hitter extraordinaire for more than a decade.

While nobody could miss Lasorda's bluster, Mota flies much further under the radar, but his role in the team's continuity hasn't escaped my notice. When I went down to the Dodgers' spring-training facility in Vero Beach back in 2003, I was amused to find him still riding his bike onto the field before games, just as he had been doing on my first trip to Vero back in '89. Roll on, Manny.



When he retired in 1980 (he got a token at-bat in '82), Mota held the all-time major league record with 150 pinch-hits. He's since been surpassed by Lenny Harris; here's the leaderboard (updated from Wikipedia):
 1. Lenny Harris     212
2. Manny Mota 150
3. Smoky Burgess 145
4. Greg Gross 143
5. Dave Hansen 139
6. Mark Sweeney 131
7. John Vander Wal 129
8. José Morales 123
9. Jerry Lynch 116
10. Red Lucas 114
11. Steve Braun 113
12. Terry Crowley 108
Denny Walling 108
14. Gates Brown 107
15. Mike Lum 103
16. Jim Dwyer 102
17. Rusty Staub 100
18. Dave Clark 96
19. Larry Biittner 95
Vic Davalillo 95
Gerald Perry 95
22. Jerry Hairston 94
23. Dave Philley 93
Joel Youngblood 93
25. Jay Johnstone 92
Dave Magadan 92
Harris may have taken the top slot, but he can't carry Mota's jock to the end of the bat rack. He's been squeezing out the occasional single at a near-replacement level for the past several years (that's exactly 1.3 WARP3 since '99) and overall has hit a rather weak .260/.312/.330 in 816 PA the role, according to Retrosheet. For comparison, Mota hit .288/.360/.359 in 614 PA (per Retrosheet), and that's without considering the lower-scoring era in which Mota played.

In any event, Harris is virtually the last of a dying breed. At the Hardball Times, Steve Treder recently offered up a history of pinch-hitting specialists, which he defined as players appearing in at least 40 games a year, with at least 80% of their appearances as a PH. Since 2000, just six player-seasons have qualified under that definition, including two by Harris. That's an average of 0.067 per NL team (there hasn't been one in the AL since Bobby Molinaro on the 1981 White Sox, managed by that master fidgeter, Tony La Russa), down from 0.088 in the '90s and a peak of .217 in the '80s.

Treder has compiled a decade-by-decade breakdown of each PH specialist season, along with some commentary, making for an entertaining stroll through the history of this particular species and providing an appreciation for how difficult the job is even for very experienced players. Suffice it to say that in 40 to 100 plate appearances, anybody can hit anything, so you've got a players like Gerald Perry and John Vander Wal who shows up on Treder's Top and Bottom 20 seasons lists just two years apart.

Here's what he had to say about Mota:
Manny Mota was another pinch-hitting legend, deployed by the Dodgers as an extreme pinch-hitting specialist through much of the decade of the 1970s. Unlike the vast majority of these guys, Mota was a right-handed batter, but it didn't make any difference to Mota who was pitching; he was going to hit a line drive anyway. As a Giants fan, I can attest that in the late innings of a tight game against the Dodgers, the presence of Mota looming in the L.A. dugout was frightening indeed. Mota was constitutionally incapable of doing anything other than smacking a solid line drive in any at-bat against any pitcher in any circumstance. Mota turns 68 years old this month, but I suspect if you go to Mota's house tonight at 3 AM, yank him out of bed, jam a bat in his hands and have a fully-warmed up Mariano Rivera in the front yard flinging his nastiest cutter, the groggy, barefoot pajama-clad Mota will stumble out there and drill the first wicked offering for a solid line drive. In the dark. (Smash! There goes the neighbor's living room window.)
As interesting as his research is, Treder's strict definition leaves out many renowned pinch-hitters. Just comparing the names in his article to the leaderboard above, fourth-ranked Greg Gross is nowhere to be found. Jose Morales, who set a single-season record with 25 pinch-hits in 1976, is represented only by his 1983 season with the Dodgers because he spent about half his at-bats in the Bicentennial campaign playing catcher or first base. Also MIA is Red Lucas, who doubled as a pitcher (157-135, 3.72 ERA in his career, which ran from 1923-1938) while racking up 437 PH at-bats (he hit .281/.340/.347 for his career during a high-offense era). No love for Denny Walling, Jim Dwyer, Larry Biitner or Jerry Hairston (Sr.) -- guys who were staples of pinch-hitting in the '70s and '80s, at least in my mind -- to be found.

As for those flying the Dodger blue flag, while Reggie Smith injury-addled 1981 season and Boog Powell's odd 1977 finale make Treder's cut along with Mota, a couple of other Dodger favorites, Vic Davalillo and Jay Johnstone, missed it. Davalillo was Mota's even-more-ancient partner in crime. A diminutive (5'7" 155 lbs) Venzuelan outfielder who reached the majors at age 25 in 1963, Davalillo was a light-hitting regular for a decade. A late-season pickup for the 1973 champions-to-be Oakland A's, he went 5-for-8 with a double and a triple in their ALCS win. Released in May '74, Davalillo spent three years in the Mexican League before the Dodgers purchased him in August '77, shortly after his 41st birthday. He hit .312/.312/.354 in 48 at-bats the rest of the way, and played a crucial role in the postseason. In Game Three of the LCS against the Phillies, the Dodgers were down 5-3 with two outs in the top of the ninth when pinch-hitter Davalillo beat out a daring drag bunt. Pinch-hitter Mota followed him with a drive that was misplayed by leftfielder Greg Luzinksi ("The worst outfielder I ever saw, bar none." -- Bill James, NBJHA) into a double, with Davaillo scoring on an accompanying error. In all, the rally produced three runs, and the Dodgers finished the series off the next day. Davalillo went on to another fine season in 1978, hitting .312 /.333/.390 in 77 at-bats, including 47 as a pinch-hitter, but the returns diminished from there. He got just 27 at-bats the next year, and six the following, retiring at age 43.

Johnstone was a handy outfielder who'd passed through six different teams over 14 years by the time he reached the Dodgers in 1980. In addition to emerging as Lasorda's comic foil, he hit .307/.372/.406 that year as a fourth outfielder. He was lousy in the latter role the next year, but still hit .289/.341/.600 in 38 pinch-hit at-bats. In the World Series, he drove in a run with a pinch-hit in a Game One loss, then entered the pantheon of Dodger heroes with a two-run pinch-homer in Game Four that trimmed a 6-3 Yankee lead to 6-5. They tied the score later in the inning, then took the lead for good in the next, and knotted the series at 2-2. When the Dodgers won the Series, Johnstone's homer was cited by teammates as the turning point (for more on Johnstone, see here).

In any event, the pure pinch-hitting specialist is clearly a vanishing breed; as Treder points out, the roster spot seems to have been usurped by an even more questionable specialist, the LOOGY (left-handed one-out guy). Treder is skeptical that either role is a great use of a roster space, and while I'd agree, it does seem that having a very good one who can also play a bit of defense here and there, as many of the names I've dredged up could, is considerably more useful. Towards that end, here are a couple of quick lists based on data I dredged up from ESPN's Sortable Stats, the best and worst pinch-performers of the last six years, with a minimum of 40 At-Bats + Walks (no HPB or sacrifice data available):
BEST           TEAM   Year   AB   H   HR  RBI  BB    AVG   OBP   SLG    OPS
Craig Wilson Pit 2001 34 10 7 11 7 .294 .442 .912 1.354
Wes Helms Mil 2005 41 16 2 6 6 .390 .469 .634 1.104
Dave Hansen LA 2000 55 15 7 14 10 .273 .385 .673 1.057
David Dellucci Ari 2001 56 18 5 16 9 .321 .415 .607 1.023
Greg Norton Col 2003 71 23 4 17 6 .324 .385 .606 .990
Tony Clark Ari 2005 44 14 3 15 4 .318 .375 .614 .989
Julio Franco Atl 2004 43 15 2 16 6 .349 .429 .558 .987
Danny Bautista Ari 2001 40 14 1 7 3 .350 .409 .525 .934
Hal Morris Det 2000 40 13 2 7 5 .325 .404 .525 .929
Jason Lane Hou 2004 36 12 2 6 4 .333 .400 .528 .928
Mark Sweeney Col 2004 65 16 5 23 12 .246 .366 .554 .920
Marlon Anderson StL 2004 51 17 3 10 3 .333 .370 .549 .919
Alex Cintron Ari 2005 46 14 3 12 3 .304 .347 .565 .912
Keith Lockhart Atl 2001 46 15 1 6 8 .326 .426 .478 .904
O. Palmeiro Hou 2005 52 15 1 8 6 .288 .361 .519 .880
Erubiel Durazo Ari 2001 45 11 5 13 1 .244 .255 .622 .878
Mark Sweeney SD 2005 62 18 2 12 13 .290 .408 .468 .876
Orlando Merced Hou 2001 58 15 4 17 6 .259 .323 .552 .875
Olmedo Saenz LA 2004 48 15 3 13 4 .313 .345 .521 .866
Bobby Bonilla Atl 2000 39 12 0 10 6 .308 .404 .462 .866
Carlos Baerga Ari 2003 55 19 1 10 8 .345 .429 .436 .865
John Valentin NYM 2002 50 15 1 13 10 .300 .419 .440 .859
Ricky Ledee LAD 2005 35 11 1 9 6 .314 .419 .429 .847
Greg Norton Col 2001 63 17 3 11 5 .270 .319 .524 .843
A. Galarraga SF 2003 40 12 2 6 4 .300 .364 .475 .839
Julio Franco Atl 2005 45 14 1 12 5 .311 .392 .444 .837
Robin Ventura LA 2004 48 13 3 14 8 .271 .368 .458 .827
Miguel Cairo StL 2002 59 19 0 10 4 .322 .364 .458 .821
Tony Fernandez Mil 2001 43 15 0 7 5 .349 .420 .395 .815
Jacob Cruz Cin 2005 76 20 3 11 11 .263 .352 .461 .813

WORST TEAM Year AB H HR RBI BB AVG OBP SLG OPS
Abraham Nunez Pit 2002 43 5 0 4 4 .116 .204 .116 .320
Jose Vizcaino Hou 2001 45 7 0 0 4 .156 .224 .156 .380
Darren Bragg Atl 2002 42 6 0 1 3 .143 .200 .190 .390
Tomas Perez Phi 2005 43 6 0 6 6 .140 .260 .140 .400
John Mabry StL 2001 41 7 0 5 3 .171 .239 .195 .434
Wilton Guerrero Cin 2002 56 11 0 3 4 .196 .250 .196 .446
Jose Macias ChC 2005 54 10 0 5 2 .185 .207 .241 .448
Troy O'Leary ChC 2003 39 5 1 7 5 .128 .222 .231 .453
Jose Macias ChC 2004 47 10 0 6 2 .213 .260 .213 .473
Kevin Sefcik Phi 2000 43 6 0 2 9 .140 .288 .186 .475
Brant Brown ChC 2000 44 8 0 2 3 .182 .234 .250 .484
Lenny Harris ChC 2003 40 8 0 2 5 .200 .289 .200 .489
Dave Hansen SD 2003 55 9 0 3 10 .164 .292 .200 .492
Julio Franco Atl 2002 39 7 0 2 6 .179 .289 .205 .494
Matt Mieske Hou 2000 53 8 2 7 4 .151 .207 .302 .509
Dave Hansen LA 2002 53 9 1 4 7 .170 .267 .245 .512
Todd Zeile NYM 2004 39 6 1 2 4 .154 .233 .282 .515
Matt Franco Atl 2003 78 15 2 10 5 .192 .238 .282 .520
Dave Hansen Sea 2004 51 8 1 6 11 .157 .306 .216 .522
Q. McCracken Ari 2003 54 12 0 3 3 .222 .263 .259 .522
Another former Dodger, Dave Hansen, at one point looked like a solid bet to eclipse Mota and move into second place. But with two dubiously chart-making seasons in 2003 and 2004, plus an anemic 2-for-31 last year, Hansen appears to have run out of gas. Unless he somehow finds a job this spring, he will have finished with just 19 hits in his final 137 pinch-ABs (.139). For his career, he's still hit .234/.351/.358 in 593 at-bats in the role, and as his presence on the first list attests, was one of the best in his "prime." It's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it.

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