September 18, 2020

“The Professional Hitters”

Davey Johnson has some very definitive beliefs on the role of pinch hitters, clutch hitters and specifically, the great Rusty Staub, who passed away recently at the age of 73. The former longtime MLB player and manager has written a book, his second. “Davey Johnson,” penned alongside noted Mets biographer and baseball historian Erik Sherman, chronicles his years in the dugout as both a player and highly successful major league skipper.

“Rusty knew what he liked to hit and if we needed a single or a home run,” Johnson said. “He had a book on every pitcher.”

Going back to Bill James and noted baseball analyst Tom Tango, there is a slew of research available arguing against the existence of “pinch hitter specialists” as well as whether clutch hitting actually exists, and even the most basic statistics supports their thesis. Staub’s career batting average as a pinch hitter was just two percentage points lower than his career average. Even looking at the great so-called “pinch-hitter deluxe” Manny Mota, the difference for him was merely four points as well. In fact, when you examine the 1800 pinch hitters with the most plate appearances, just 23% of them enjoyed pinch-hitting averages higher than their career marks, and that includes a whole lot of sub-100 plate appearance sample sizes and figures barely above zero. Research pieces such as Shane Tourtellotte’s work in The Hardball Times from 2015 reinforces this data. A great many fans (and I count myself as one) want to believe in the existence of pinch hitter specialists, the dependable batter who comes through in the clutch when you need him most, and why wouldn’t you? We want to believe in the hero and the goat, that’s part of the dramatic narrative of sport. Even Tango, through his epic baseball analysis tome “The Book” in addition to numerous works published all over the internet, concedes that while clutch hitting does exist, in most cases, good clutch hitters are simply good hitters.   The great Manny Mota may actually meet the sabermetric folks halfway on this.

“I was lucky,” Mota said to me recently, “I don’t consider myself that kind of hitter. Just tried to do my best to help the team win some games.”  Playing for the Dodgers primarily in a bench role from 1973 to 1979, Mota batted .312 in 652 plate appearances, as well as sporting a .376 OBP. Tango believes that a talented batter is just that, regardless of whether it’s coming in after the seventh inning with the game on the line or hitting in the starting lineup. Davey Johnson concurs.  

“Yeah, I think they’re just good hitters,” Johnson agrees. “When the situation arises and you look for your pitch, it’s about being aggressive.  They can talk about launch angles all they want, but getting a pitch in your zone, you can call it clutch hitting, I call it a guy who knows what he likes to hit. There are guys who take first pitch fastballs right down the middle. I never took a first pitch right down the middle. I may not get that pitch again. But yeah, all this talk about launch angles is a bunch of crap.”

Staub and Mota also share the distinction of being teammates on the inaugural Montreal Expos ballclub in 1969. “I take great pride in being the first player selected in the expansion draft,” Mota recalled. “The Expos fans were so welcoming to me in those early days. I was sad to leave Montreal, but it worked out very well for me in the end.”

Looking through the lens of players like Staub and Mota, I often wondered why hitters of their ilk would be satisfied remaining a role player versus finding substantial time on the field elsewhere. You examine Staub’s numbers during his second tour with the Mets, he nearly matched his career batting average while amassing a .350 OBP mark, driving in over 100 runs in 700 plate appearances.

“Rusty wasn’t ready to become just a pinch hitter when he came back to New York,” said Marty Appel, celebrated baseball author who had collaborated with Staub on a potential memoir, “He felt a little betrayed because he still thinking of himself as an everyday player.  He wasn’t happy that that was how his career evolved.” To be sure, according to Terry Pluto and Jeffrey Neuman’s 1985 “A Baseball Winter,” in 1984, Staub filed for free agency in a last-ditch effort to find an American League home where he could play every day. Coming up on age 41, with no attractive offers forthcoming, Staub decided to remain with the Mets.  

“I think, even at that stage of his career, Rusty would’ve been great as a DH,” said Johnson. “Rusty was a pure hitter. He knew his hot zone – this is what Ted Williams taught me. I always admired hitters who knew the strike zone and the pitches they liked to hit in the strike zone. Rusty was one of those guys.”

As for Mota? Did he ever harbor thoughts of leaving the Dodgers to find additional playing time around the league?

“For me, when the Dodgers decided to let me be a free agent in 1979, I had a choice: go to Japan or be a DH in the American League. But if I go to Japan, I might play one more year, right? If I go DH in the American League, you don’t know; maybe play one year, maybe play two, and then what? Besides that, when teams are looking for a DH, they’re not looking for a singles hitter like me. They’re looking for a power hitter. So the Dodgers made me an offer; to be a hitting instructor. Why take the risk? Luckily, I made the right decision.  I was the first base coach and hitting instructor for 10 years. I made the right decision. But also, I knew at some point, this team would win a World Series.”

So ultimately, these men found themselves in situations that improved their lifestyle. Staub, who fell in love with Manhattan, enjoying a thriving restaurant and comfortable existence, stayed. Mota was able to taste post-season glory, both as a player and a coach.

“The 1977 playoffs, Philadelphia,” Mota explained, “Two outs, ninth inning. We’re losing by two.  Gene Garber was pitching for Philly. Everyone was ready to go home. Vic Davalillo, a great hitter himself, comes to the plate. Bunted for base hit – with one strike! Then I come up as a pinch hitter, too. I worked the count full to 3-2. And I say to myself, ‘I don’t want to strike out, I don’t want to make the last out of the game.’ I just tried to make contact. I hit it to the left field wall. The ball hit off Greg Luzinski’s glove. We tied the game on the next batter and won. The biggest pinch hit of my career.”

(Dave actually found a clip of the Manny Mota’s NLCS game referenced in the article @ 1:54. ) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EoHlsdNDWOY

But not everyone agrees that the approach of a starting player and a pinch hitter is the same.

“It is different,” said Mota. “You have to prepare better, you have to work harder. When you have four at-bats, you might fail the first two.  You have to put everything into that at-bat. Sometimes, you may only pinch hit once a week. My situation was to pinch hit in tough situations – I used to love to pinch hit under pressure, because I take my game to a higher level.”

“I think experience plays into it,” Johnson adds, “If you’re a veteran player, it’s a lot easier because you’ve probably faced the pitcher so you know what his pitches look like. I always looked at it like the pitcher was in a jam – not me. He’s got a chance to lose the ballgame and he has to make good pitches – if he makes good pitches, he’s gonna get me out.  But if he makes a pitch I like, I’m gonna hit it, and hit it hard.”

The role of a pinch-hitter seems tailor-made for veteran players, but sometimes you’ll find rookies accepting it as a means of staying in front of the manager.

“It’s not an ideal spot for a young player,” said former Mets outfielder Mark Carreon, a career .306 pinch-hitter in 195 plate appearances with 10 home runs, versus a .277 overall career average. “More designed for someone on the backend of their career, but it was the only opportunity for me at that time. I spoke to Davey about the approach. It was always ‘Be aggressive.’ I knew what my strengths were and I picked a zone, inner zone, down and in and I looked for that pitch. I had success in that role and I became a top right-handed pinch-hitter for a time. Of course, the league got familiar with what they thought were my weaknesses so I had to be a little more selective, but I still hit with that inner-zone mentality – inner third of the plate and tried to be as aggressive as I could.

Tourtellotte’s pinch-hitting research found that “Of the 99 players with at least 300 pinch-hitting PAs, just 29 of them produced a better pinch-hitting OPS+ compared to their full careers, with four others hitting the average. Narrow it down to those who pinch-hit 400 or more times, and the ratio shrinks: seven players out of 35 doing better than career, with three others at an even 100 tOPS+. The average tOPS+ for both groups comes within a couple tenths of 91.”

So we’re all in agreement that pinch-hitting specialists are just good hitters with personal circumstances – a veteran making the best of a situation specific to him like Staub or Mota or perhaps a rookie seeking his foothold on the roster. But, like most things in life, outliers exist.

Consider the curious case of Kurt Bevacqua. 70’s baseball card fanatics remember him fondly for his 1975 Gum Bubble Crown, but Bevacqua, whose home runs in the 1984 World Series garnered him good-natured notice from David Letterman at the time, batted 22 points higher as a pinch hitter throughout his 15-year career than his overall career mark, amassing 79 RBIs in only 376 plate appearances. Many baseball analysts seek deeper-meaning statistics, so there’s also his 126 tOPS+, which is the highest of any pinch hitter with at least 300 plate appearances; a Pinch Hitting Leverage Index above 2 (where plus one is considered a pressure situation,) as well as a pinch-hitting .wOBA that was 11% higher in that role than his overall mark.

 “The best pinch-hitting situation for me was to come to the plate with the game on the line,” Bevacqua says, “You have watched the starting pitcher all night or you are going to be facing a top reliever who you’re familiar with because you have watched them throughout the years or read the reports in the dugout. Pinch-hitting is definitely a learned approach that when you grasp the mental side of things you can be successful. Remember, a pitcher with the game on the line will always throw you the pitch that they are most comfortable throwing. You learn what that pitch is and you are in the driver’s seat.”

“Funny story,” said Carreon, “I was going through some struggles when I first got to the big leagues with the Mets, so I went into the video room to review some tape. Davey was walking by, poked his head in the door, looked at the TV and said to me, shaking his head, “You’re not gonna find it in there.” Then he pointed to his baseball cap.  “You have all the tools, Mark. Just be aggressive.”

Johnson laughs at that recollection. “He just needed to know he could do it. You have to have a plan, regardless of what the pitcher does. He has to throw the ball over 17 inches of plate. Everyone should be a zone hitter – they should know what zone they hit best in and look for the ball in that area.  If you can do that, you’re gonna be successful. It’s not that difficult to understand.”

When you ask Mota about clutch hitting, he smiles and laughs loudly. “Do you remember Pedro Guerrero? He was the best clutch hitter I ever saw in a Dodgers uniform. He was the guy you could count on in the late part of the game.” The numbers back this up. Guerrero’s small-sample pinch hitting average? .347 with a .429 OBP vs .300 career overall as well as a .318 career hitter in high leverage situations.

Ultimately, there appears to be a “know your role” element to be successful coming off the bench.

“In 1977, I returned from playing two years in Japan. I turned down couple hundred thousand dollars to stay there.  Spoke to Philadelphia’s general manager at the time Paul Owens and told him, ‘Pope, I’m comin’ back and I wanna play for the Phillies. I think you have a chance to win. Sign me for $100k. No guarantees, just let me come try out.’ He said, ‘$50,000 contract to come try out.’ I said ‘Ok, but if I make the team, you give me the $100,000.’ We were playing Pittsburgh toward the end of March, we’re down 2-0. The manager at the time Danny Ozark said, “Go in and pinch hit.’ Goose is on the mound. I was having a great spring, hitting like .380 with a bunch of ribbies. So, I hit a home run. I came back into the dugout and Ozark said, ‘You made the team.’ I thought I deserved to be the starting second baseman. Ozark chose Ted Sizemore. I wanted to start, but Danny saw me as a pinch-hitter.  I couldn’t let my frustration affect my spot on the roster. That happens more than you think.”

Davey Johnson knew the role. In 87 career plate appearances, he hit .342 with five pinch-hit home runs, two of them grand slams.