The Thoughts Behind The Pinch Hit

Late on Sunday evening in Chicago, David Bote did something incredibly amazing, I don’t mean that glorious bat flip you see above. He sent Wrigley Field into a frenzy by launching a pinch-hit, walk-off grand slam with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning for a 4-3 victory over the Nationals. To me this is even more amazing if you add that only six pinch hitters dating back to 1925 had hit an “ultimate grand slam,” a walk-off shot with the bases loaded and his club down by three runs. And Bote’s was only the third on record to come when his team was down to its final out.

The fact that it is David Bote who hit the winning runs is in itself amazing set of circumstances. Firstly it wouldn’t surprise me if you didn’t know who David Bote was, as I suspect that most Cubs fans didn’t know who he was before the start of this season due to him not being a top prospect.  He was picked in the 18th Round (554th Pick) by the Cubs in 2012 and by the end of the 2017 season he had only amassed 36 PA in AAA. So it wasn’t a quick road for him up to the majors but the draft pick number probably suggested that might happen.

So that brings us to 2018 and after a good season in AA in 2017 with slash line of .272/.353/.438 Bote starts the season in AAA. And boy does he take his chance slashing .268/.342/.494 with his power numbers really standing him out, he was averaging a home run once every 20 AB. With his defensive capabilities across the infield he became the go to utility player for the Cubs when one of there top players got injured.

And so he performed MLB-AAA yoyo like many players do when they are on the fringes of the main roster. On the 26th July he was called up for 5th time this year as cover for the injured Kris Bryant, in his previous 4 times up in the majors he had played a combined 20 games he had hit .310/.415/.452 so he earnt himself the starting spot with a rest every 3 or 4 games. So that gets us to 13th August, he is in the 25 man roster but having a rest day today as the Cubs have moved Javier Baez to 3rd and Ben Zobrist in at 2nd.

The game that ensues was a great pitching duel between Max Scherzer and Cole Hamels both going 7 innings with a combined total of 20 strikeouts and the offenses managing to get only 1 run of 4 hits and 2 walks.  Carl Edwards Jr. replaced Cole Hamels for the top of the 8th and pitched a clean inning, meaning the score was 1-0 to Washington and with Carl being due up first in the bottom of the innings this when we expect a pinch hitter to replace the pitcher. But who should expect someone to come in and who should come in, let’s go through the numbers of using a Pinch Hitter in the MLB.

It probably doesn’t surprise you but the National League sees 3 times the number of pinch hit at bats than the American League, 4.7% compared to 1.6% (based on numbers from 2002 to 2018). What probably will surprise you is that those values have steady roughly the same for that entire period. With all the other major changes that is going on in MLB it very much surprised me that there was no overall change to the this approach.

So, with no change in the amount of pinch hitting lets see if people are getting better at pinch hitting. I compared the wOBA for pinch hits to the overall wOBA (pitchers removed) for each division and as you can see in the graph below the expected performance of pinch hitter is between 10% and 20% worse than their normal performance. Also from the graph you can see that there is no clear trend either up or down on this performance.

Now there is some data that suggests that the people who are available to pinch hit are on average below average players so this data would be affected by that but the pieces only suggest an overall decreases of 3-5%. Therefore the above data is significant enough to expect a drop in performance when a player is pinch hitting compared to their average.

So, based off what we have seen we would expect the same number of pinch hits and the same drop in output now as we did 15 years ago.  In modern baseball it is very strange for something to be so static over this time period. Therefore, as a manager if I am going to get someone to come in as a pinch hitter I would want them to be better than who they are replacing even if they dropped 10% below their average.  This is why most changes to remove a pitcher makes sense but changing an hitter can be a much closer call than you think.

As in all baseball stats there are players who buck the overall trend, this is usually down to small sample size and is therefore in the realms probable. And when it comes to pinch hitting of those players is a Chicago Cub player who goes by the name Tommy La Stella. As of the end of game on 13th August against the Nationals La Stella has pinch hit for 170 of his 901 career MLB at bats, that is 18.9% of his at bats. That percentage is the 2nd highest for current players who have at least 800 MLB at bats, only behind Greg Garcia (20.8%, 169 from 812).

La Stella’s career slash line is .267/.348/.366 with a .317 wOBA and his pinch hit line is .286/.392/.355 with wOBA of .339. His wOBA improvement of 7% comes from a increased AVG, a much improved OBP and a slight drop in SLG.  This all makes him a good candidate to replace Carl Edwards Jr. to start the bottom of the 8th but lets look at the rest of the hitters on the Cubs bench.

The other 3 hitters on the bench were the afore mentioned David Bote, outfielder Ian Happ and backup catcher Victor Caratini.  The Cubs manager isn’t going to pinch hit his backup catch in case Willson Contreras picks up a knock in the remaining or extra innings. So that leads Bote, Happ and La Stella. Bote is a on fire Rookie and Happ is having a better season than La Stella, Happs OBP and SLG are better, but Maddon goes with La Stella. To me this is a marginal decision right now I could make a case for either player but I think he goes with La Stella as he has another infielder in Bote if someone picks up an injury.

La Stella goes up to the plate and hits a line drive on his third pitch into left field and gets himself a single. The game swung 10% to the Cubs based off that single, from 31% win chance to 41%. The Cubs had no. 9 Addison Russell up next before the top of their order was due up. But Russell had a pop out, Anthony Rizzo a flyout and Baez had what he thought was a single overturned on review and the inning was over with the Cubs chance of winning now at 24%.  The Nationals added 2 more in the top of the 9th leaving the Cubs requiring 4 to win the game and having a 4.4% chance of winning.

Now we have to talk a little about the Nationals to understand why Ryan Madson came out to close for them in the 9th. The Nationals have been without their main closer since the 7th July when Sean Doolittle picked up a toe injury from which he has yet to recover, he was at 22 saves from 23 chances with an ERA of 1.45 when he went on the DL. Luckily for the Nats they had traded for Kelvin Herrera before this happened and he was the natural replacement for Doolittle having picked up 14 saves from 16 chances with the Royals. Then unluckily for the Nats he hurt his shoulder on Aug 7th and went on the DL.

This left the Nationals without a designated closer and with a 3 run lead they went for Ryan Madson. Madison had an ERA of 4.43 going into that game which was a stark contrast to his 1.83 of 2017. They had Matt Grace, Shawn Kelley and Justin Miller on the bench all of which have a better ERA that Madson this season and none of whom played the previous night. But the 37 year old was given the responsibility to close the game out.

He started off well with a groundout but Jason Heyward got a single as Wilmer Difo struggled with a soft chopped bouncer. The next at bat he hit Albert Almora Jr. but gets a pop out to be one out away from the victory and the save. Up comes Contreras, who fights through an at bat until he is hit to load the bases.  So the bases are loaded of a chopped single and two hit by pitches, and up next should be the pitcher Justin Wilson.

Here is were Joe Maddon and his team make their money, he has Bote, Happ and Caratini to pinch hit.  They choose Bote and pinch run Happ for Contreras to give the tying run more speed. Bote faced 5 fastballs he fouled the first ball off, left an outside fastball, took a called strike, left a ball in the dirt and for the 5th he made contact and sent the ball at 110mph for a distance of 442ft and a walk-off grand slam.

These random set of circumstances lead to Bote getting his shirt ripped of his back on home plate.

Who knows what heights David Bote will reach in his career but he is going to have do something really special to top this for me.

Random Research FactManny Machado has 3880 PA across 883 games but has never pinch hit, this is the most PA by a player without a pinch hit since 2002.


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