Pinch-Hitting Specialists:  A History

In the beginning, there was no such thing as a pinch-hitting specialist. Indeed, in the first few decades of major league baseball, the tactic of pinch-hitting was extremely rare. Standard procedure was, barring injury, that the players who started the game, finished the game. To a great extent this applied even to pitchers. As the 19th century turned to the 20th, pitchers were still completing close to 90% of their starts. Pinch hitting was thus something that simply didn’t happen very often, so the notion of deploying a player on the roster to be a pinch-hitting specialist was unheard of.

But in the first decade of the 1900s, pitching staff usage patterns began to change. Despite the fact that it was an extremely low-scoring period‐vastly lower-scoring than the 1890s—complete-game rates declined. Eighty-six percent of major league starts were completed in 1901, but by 1909 that figure had dropped by nearly a quarter down to 65%. Many new opportunities were being created for pinch hitters to be deployed.

Let’s define a pinch-hitting specialist as a player who appears in at least 40 games in a season and at least 80% of his appearances are strictly as a pinch-hitter and not as a pinch-runner or as a defensive player at any position. By that definition, in 1909, the first pinch-hitting specialist in history appeared. Pittsburgh Pirates manager Fred Clarke deployed Ham Hyatt, a 24-year-old left-handed-batting rookie, in 49 games, and over 40 of those appearances were as a pinch hitter. Hyatt performed very well in the novel pattern; he hit for average (.299) with good power (three doubles and four triples in 67 at-bats), amassing an OPS+ of 137.

Year  Player      Team Age  B  G by POS   G AB R  H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO   BA/OBP/SLG  OPS+
1909  Ham Hyatt  PIT N  24  L   OF6,1B2  49 67 9 20  3  4  0   7  3  ?  299/330/463  137

The Pirates, who hadn’t won the National League pennant since 1903, ran away with it in 1909, winning a franchise-record 110 games. Obviously Hyatt’s contribution to that championship effort was minor, but neither was it insignificant. Clarke kept Hyatt on hand for the next several years and continued to use him as a pinch-hitting specialist to some degree. Others took notice.

The 1910s

Though the rate wasn’t as rapid as it had been in the 1900-09 period, complete games continued to decline in the next decade. Sixty-two percent of starts were completed in 1910, and the rate would be that high only once again in the next 10 years, and it was generally in the range of about 55%. Thus with nearly half of games going to the bullpen, and with left-right platooning going on more than ever, more pinch-hitting was occurring than ever before.

Fred Clarke used Hyatt as a strict pinch-hitting specialist in both 1913 and 1914, but he was no longer the only one. In 1912, the Giants’ John McGraw deployed Moose McCormick, a 31-year-old left-handed-hitting journeyman outfielder, in the pinch-hitting specialist mode. (In 1914, McGraw also used 36-year-old veteran Mike Donlin as an extreme pinch-hitting specialist, though he didn’t quite meet our 40-game minimum: 35 games, entirely as a pinch-hitter, without a single inning played in the field.)

Over the decade, five National Leaguers, three American Leaguers and one Federal Leaguer in the two seasons that league operated appeared as 40-plus-game pinch-hitting specialists. Overall this group hit extremely well, including a sensational year by Hyatt in 1913; his 181 OPS+ remains the highest mark by any pinch-hitting specialist to this day.

Year  Player           Team Age  B  G by POS   G AB R  H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO   BA/OBP/SLG  OPS+
1912  Moose McCormick  NY N  31  L   OF6 1B1  42 39 4 13  4  1  0   8  6  9  333/422/487  145
1913  Doc Miller      PHI N  30  L      OF12  69 87 9 30  6  0  0  11  6  6  345/400/414  129
1913  Ham Hyatt       PIT N  28  L   1B5 OF5  63 81 8 27  6  2  4  16  3  8  333/372/605  181
1913  J. Lelivelt  NY,CLE A  27  L       OF6  41 51 2 15  2  1  0  11  2  5  294/321/373  102
1914  Ham Hyatt       PIT N  29  L    1B7 C1  74 79 2 17  3  1  1  15  7 14  215/295/316   85
1915  Ed Lennox       PIT F  29  R       3B3  55 53 1 16  3  1  1   9  7 12  302/383/453  146
1915  Jack Roche      STL N  24  R        C4  46 39 2  8  0  1  0   6  4  8  205/295/256   68
1917  Bill Rumler     STL A  26  R       OF9  78 88 7 23  3  4  1  16  8  9  261/323/420  131
1917  Eddie Murphy    CHI A  25  L       OF9  53 51 9 16  2  1  0  16  5  1  314/386/392  135
      1910-19 Average        28               58 63 5 18  3  1  1  12  5  8  290/346/421  127

Six of the nine were left-handed batters. They were 28 years old on average, largely a group of players with little or no experience as major league regulars.

The 1920s

Scoring boomed in this decade, and beleaguered pitchers completed fewer starts than ever: from 57% in 1920, down to 48% by 1929. Yet the incidence of pinch-hitting specialists was actually slightly down from the previous decade.

But there was one new development. For the first time, former stars were now deployed as pinch-hitting specialists in the final phase of their careers: Gavy Cravath, Amos Strunk and Cy Williams. Cravath’s deployment was interesting in that as a playing manager for the Phillies in 1920, he was the first manager to use himself as a pinch-hitting specialist.

John McGraw was the one manager in the decade who deployed more than one pinch-hitting specialist, using former home run champ Dave Robertson in the role in 1922 and rookie Pat Crawford in 1929.

Year  Player          Team Age  B  G by POS   G AB  R  H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO   BA/OBP/SLG  OPS+
1920  Gavy Cravath   PHI N  39  R       OF5  46 45  2 13  5  0  1  11  9 12  289/407/467  145
1922  Dave Robertson  NY N  32  L       OF8  42 47  5 13  2  0  1   3  3  7  277/320/383   80
1923  Amos Strunk    CHI A  34  L   OF5 1B2  54 54  7 17  0  0  0   8  8  5  315/403/315   91
1926  Pat McNulty    CLE A  27  L       OF9  48 56  3 14  2  1  0   6  5  9  250/311/321   65
1928  Guy Sturdy     STL A  28  L       1B1  54 45  3 10  1  0  1   8  8  4  222/340/311   70
1929  Cy Williams    PHI N  41  L      OF11  66 65 11 19  2  0  5  21 22  9  292/471/554  146
1929  Pat Crawford    NY N  27  L   1B7 3B1  65 57 13 17  3  0  3  24 11  5  298/412/509  127
      1920-29 Average       33               54 53  6 15  2  0  2  12  9  7  279/389/415  107

Aside from Cravath, all of the pinch-hitting specialists of the 1920s were left-handed batters. The few managers who made use of this role were pretty uniformly angling for the platoon advantage against what were primarily right-handed pitching staffs.

The 1930s

Scoring levels, as we explored here, were quite different between the two leagues in this decade. Nevertheless, complete game rates were quite consistent between the leagues, and they remained rather constant across the decade in the middle-40 percent range.

But despite the fact that more pitchers were removed from games than ever before, teams were deploying pinch-hitting specialists slightly less frequently than in the 1920s, the second straight decade of slight decline in the practice. Moreover, just two cases occurred following 1933. It appeared that the pinch-hitting specialist might be headed toward extinction.

Year  Player          Team Age  B  G by POS   G AB  R  H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO   BA/OBP/SLG  OPS+
1931  Tom Winsett    BOS A  21  L       OF8  64 76  6 15  1  0  1   7  4 21  197/247/250   34
1931  Sam Leslie      NY N  25  L       1B6  53 53 11 16  4  0  3   5  1  2  302/315/547  129
1932  Sam Leslie      NY N  26  L       1B2  77 75  5 22  4  0  1  15  2  5  293/329/387   93
1933  Harry McCurdy  PHI N  33  L        C2  73 54  9 15  1  0  2  12 16  6  278/451/407  134
1936  Sid Gautreaux  BKN N  24  B       C15  75 71  8 19  3  0  0  16  9  7  268/358/310   80
1938  Lee Gamble     CIN N  28  L       OF9  53 75 13 24  3  1  0   5  0  6  320/320/387   96
      1930-39 Average       26               66 67  9 19  3  0  1  10  5  8  275/328/371   91

This isn’t exactly an all-star lineup. Unlike the 1920s, none of the career-closing sluggers of the 1930s were deployed as pinch-hitting specialists. Though it would have been interesting to see a great professional hitter such as Harry Heilmann, Lefty O’Doul, Rogers Hornsby (well, actually he was, but very briefly), or, for that matter, Babe Ruth, deployed as a pure pinch-hitting specialist at the end of his career, for whatever reason it didn’t happen in the 1930s. It was a decade in which platooning greatly declined as well, as it was generally an era in which specialized roles and active in-game management recessed.

But John McGraw went to the end as a fancier of the pinch-hitting specialist, deploying the rookie Sam Leslie that way in 1931, and upon his health-dictated retirement in 1932, handing Leslie off to successor Bill Terry.

The 1940s

The pinch-hitting specialist forged a bit of a comeback. The decade’s decline in complete games was slight: 44% in 1940 to 39% in 1949, and the resurgence of the pinch-hitting specialist was similarly subtle but certain. In the decade’s early years, a couple of aging superstars, Charlie Gehringer and Joe Cronin (managing himself), were deployed this way for the first time in a long while. Cronin indeed had an utterly brilliant season in the role in 1943. And in the latter years of the decade, several younger talents were so disposed.

Year  Player          Team Age  B  G by POS   G AB  R  H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO   BA/OBP/SLG  OPS+
1940  John McCarthy   NY N  30  L       1B6  51 67  6 16  4  0  0   5  2  8  239/261/299   53
1940  Odell Hale     CLE A  31  R       3B3  48 50  3 11  3  1  0   6  5  7  220/291/320   60
1942  C. Gehringer   DET A  39  L       2B3  45 45  6 12  0  0  1   7  7  4  267/365/333   91
1943  Joe Cronin     BOS A  36  R      3B10  59 77  8 24  4  0  5  29 11  4  312/398/558  176
1945  C. Hostetler   DET A  41  L       OF8  42 44  3  7  3  0  0   2  7  8  159/275/227   43
1945  Joe Schultz    STL A  26  L        C4  41 44  1 13  2  0  0   8  3  1  295/340/341   94
1947  Joe Schultz    STL A  28  L            43 38  3  7  0  0  1   1  4  5  184/262/263   45
1948  J. McCarthy     NY N  38  L       1B6  56 57  6 15  0  1  2  12  3  2  263/300/404   88
1948  Hal Peck       CLE A  31  L       OF9  45 63 12 18  3  0  0   8  4  8  286/328/333   78
1948  Joe Schultz    STL A  29  L            43 37  0  7  0  0  0   9  6  3  189/302/189   31
1949  Smoky Burgess  CHI N  22  L        C8  46 56  4 15  0  0  1  12  4  4  268/317/321   74
      1940-49 Average       32               47 53  5 13  2  0  1   9  5  5  251/317/343   82

Perhaps the most interesting were a couple of erstwhile catchers. Joe Schultz (yes, that Joe Schultz, the 1969 Seattle Pilots manager, of pound-that-Budweiser fame), had essentially an entire major league career as a pinch-hitting specialist. (His best year, 1946, when he hit .386 in 57 at-bats, barely misses the conditions to be included here.) And Smoky Burgess was a 22-year-old rookie pinch-hitting specialist, with a long and remarkable career ahead of him.

Nine of the 11 1940s pinch-hitting specialists batted left-handed; the heavy reliance on platoon advantage in this role continued. The overall performance of these specialists wasn’t as impressive of those of earlier decades, as indicated by the weighted average OPS+ of 82. Bear in mind, however, that while an OPS+ of 82 is significantly less than league-wide average, it remains vastly better than the offensive performance of the batters for whom these specialists were generally pinch hitting. Weak-hitting middle infielders and catchers often have OPS+ figures in the range of around 60, and pitchers are typically quite a bit below that, often below zero.

The 1950s

Otherwise known as “the blossoming.”

Complete game rates dropped dramatically, more than any decade since the 1900s, from 40% in 1950 to 30% in 1959, a neat, clean one-quarter. Accompanied by a huge resurgence in platooning practices, the opportunity for pinch-hitting specialists was better than ever before, and managers met it like never before.

Twenty-two of the 24 were left-handed batters.

Year  Player          Team Age  B  G by POS  G  AB  R  H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO   BA/OBP/SLG  OPS+
1950  Charlie Keller DET A  33  L       OF6 50  51  7 16  1  3  2  16 13  6  314/453/569  157
1951  Charlie Keller DET A  34  L       OF8 54  62  6 16  2  0  3  21 11 12  258/370/435  117
1953  Johnny Mize     NY A  40  L      1B15 81 104  6 26  3  0  4  27 12 17  250/339/394  100
1953  Pat Mullin     DET A  35  L      OF14 79  97 11 26  1  0  4  17 14 15  268/360/402  106
1953  Tom Hamilton   PHI A  27  L   1B7 OF2 58  56  8 11  2  0  0   5  7 11  196/286/232   39
1953  George Crowe   MIL N  32  L       1B9 47  42  6 12  2  0  2   6  2  7  286/333/476  113
1954  Joe Frazier    STL N  31  L  OF11 1B1 81  88  8 26  5  2  3  18 13 17  295/388/500  129
1954  Peanuts Lowrey STL N  36  R      OF12 74  61  6  7  1  2  0   5  9  9  115/222/197   10
1954  Bill Taylor     NY N  24  L       OF9 55  65  4 12  1  0  2  10  3 15  185/239/292   38
1954  Dale Mitchell  CLE A  32  L   OF6 1B1 53  60  6 17  1  0  1   6  9  1  283/377/350   99
1955  Bill Taylor     NY N  25  L       OF2 65  64  9 17  4  0  4  12  1 16  266/273/516  104
1955  Dale Mitchell  CLE A  33  L   1B8 OF3 61  58  4 15  2  1  0  10  4  3  259/302/328   67
1956  Chuck Tanner   MIL N  26  L       OF8 60  63  6 15  2  0  1   4 10 10  238/342/317   84
1956  D. Mitchell  CLE,BKN  34  L       OF3 57  54  5 11  1  0  0   7  7  5  204/295/222   38
1956  Ron Northey    CHI A  36  L       OF4 53  48  4 17  2  0  3  23  8  1  354/417/583  161
1957  R. Northey CHI-A,PHI  37  L           73  53  1 12  1  0  1  12 17 11  226/408/302   97
1957  Bob Hale       BAL A  23  L       1B5 42  44  2 11  0  0  0   7  2  2  250/265/250   46
1958  Bob Speake      SF N  27  L      OF10 66  71  9 15  3  0  3  10 13 15  211/333/380   91
1959  George Crowe   STL N  38  L      1B14 77 103 14 31  6  0  8  29  5 12  301/330/592  134
1959  Mickey Vernon  MIL N  41  L  1B10 OF4 74  91  8 20  4  0  3  14  7 20  220/283/363   77
1959  Dusty Rhodes    SF N  32  L           54  48  1  9  2  0  0   7  5  9  188/259/229   33
1959  Johnny Powers  CIN N  29  L       OF5 43  43  8 11  2  1  2   4  3 13  256/319/488  109
1959  Harry Bright   PIT N  29  R OF43B32B1 40  48  4 12  1  0  3   8  5 10  250/321/458  106
1959  Bob Hale       BAL A  25  L       1B8 40  54  2 10  3  0  0   7  2  6  185/214/241   26
      1950-59 Average       32              60  64  6 16  2  0  2  12  8 10  245/326/387   90

A long list of interesting stories here. Keller, Mize and Vernon were former stars, going not quietly into the darkness. Crowe was a formidable enough hitter to be a pinch-hitting specialist both before and after his major league regular phase; undoubtedly he would have been a long-time major league star but for Jim Crow.

Dale Mitchell was a good hitter for several years before becoming a pinch-hitting specialist. What’s notable about him in this regard is not just that he was pinch-hitting when called out on strikes to end Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series perfect game in his next-to-last professional at-bat, and not just that the irony of that was that Mitchell had spent his career avoiding the strikeout to an astounding degree, but that by the time that at-bat occurred, Mitchell had been a miserable on-base hitter for two full seasons. Among the pinch hitters Dodgers manager Walt Alston might have called upon to attempt to break up a perfect game at the last extremity—that is, get on base—Mitchell was a questionable choice.

Northey had never been a particular star, but he was an excellent platoon hitter for quite a while before disappearing into minor league oblivion for no apparent reason. He then impressively reappeared in his mid-30s as a pinch-hitting specialist with the White Sox; Northey’s 1956 performance in that role at age 36 was among the very best ever recorded.

The 1960s

Scoring declined, and this had an effect of slowing the decline in the percentage of complete games, which stabilized in the mid-to-high 20s. Still, factoring in expansion, the frequency of deployment of pinch-hitting specialists actually declined a bit from the peak of the 1950s, though it was still higher than any time prior to that.

Every pinch-hitting specialist of the 1960s batted left-handed, with the exception of the line-drive-hitting Bob Johnson in 1969.

Year  Player          Team Age  B  G by POS   G AB  R  H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO   BA/OBP/SLG  OPS+
1960  E. Valo   NY A,WAS A  39  L       OF8  84 69  7 18  3  0  0  16 19  5  261/413/304   99
1960  George Crowe   STL N  39  L       1B5  73 72  5 17  3  0  4  13  5 16  236/278/444   88
1960  Bob Hale       CLE A  26  L       1B5  70 70  2 21  7  0  0  12  3  6  300/312/400   94
1960  Earl Torgeson  CHI A  36  L      1B10  68 57 12 15  2  0  2   9 21  8  263/462/404  138
1960  Sandy Amoros   DET A  30  L      OF10  65 67  7 10  0  0  1   7 12 10  149/275/194   28
1961  E. Valo  MIN A,PHI N  40  L       OF2  83 75  4 13  4  0  1  12 11  9  173/295/267   50
1961  Bob Hale       CLE A  27  L            42 36  0  6  0  0  0   6  1  7  167/200/167    1
1962  Bob Will       CHI N  30  L       OF9  87 92  6 22  3  0  2  15 13 22  239/327/337   76
1963  V. Wertz DET A,MIN A  38  L       1B6  41 49  3  6  0  0  3   7  6  6  122/218/306   44
1965  Smoky Burgess  CHI A  38  L        C5  80 77  2 22  4  0  2  24 11  7  286/371/416  130
1965  Al Luplow      CLE A  26  L       OF6  53 45  3  6  2  0  1   4  3 14  133/188/244   22
1966  Smoky Burgess  CHI A  39  L        C2  79 67  0 21  5  0  0  15 11  8  313/412/388  140
1966  Jerry Lynch    PIT N  35  L       OF4  64 56  5 12  1  0  1   6  4 10  214/267/286   54
1966  Bob Skinner    STL N  34  L            49 45  2  7  1  0  1   5  2 17  156/208/244   25
1966  W. Covington ChN,LAN  34  L       OF3  46 44  1  5  0  1  1   6  7  7  114/264/227   42
1967  Smoky Burgess  CHI A  40  L            77 60  2  8  1  0  2  11 14  8  133/303/250   68
1967  Doug Clemens   PHI N  26  L      OF10  69 73  2 13  5  0  0   4  8 15  178/262/247   82
1967  C. Lau   BAL A,ATL N  34  L            63 53  3 10  2  0  1   8  6 11  189/267/283   59
1967  Manny Jiminez  PIT N  28  L       OF6  50 56  3 14  2  0  2  10  1  4  250/276/393   89
1968  Manny Jiminez  PIT N  29  L       OF5  66 66  7 20  1  1  1  11  6 15  303/403/394  142
1969  Fred Whitfield CIN N  31  L      1B14  74 74  2 11  0  0  1   8 18 27  149/315/189   42
1969  Bob Johnson    OAK A  33  R   3B7 2B2  51 67  5 23  1  0  1   9  3  4  343/375/403  122
      1960-69 Average       33               65 62  4 14  2  0  1  10  8 11  219/312/315   79

No major former stars were represented in this crew, but it’s a long list of really-good-for-a-long-time hitters, many of whom had stood out as platoon hitters: Valo, Torgeson, Wertz, Skinner and Covington.

Jerry Lynch had been an exceptionally good pinch hitter through the late ’50s and early ’60s, but he had never really been a specialist in the role; he was more of a semi-regular who pinch hit a lot. Not until the very end of his career was he really focused as a pinch hitter.

And we meet again our rotund line-drive-machine friend Smoky Burgess, who had come into the majors in the late 1940s as a pinch-hitting specialist and went out in the mid-to-late 1960s in the same role. In the many meantime years, he had been deployed much in the manner of Lynch: a great pinch hitter, but starting quite a lot as well.

The 1970s

With the adoption of the designated hitter rule in the American League in 1973, use of pinch-hitting specialists in that league dramatically declined. A DH is, of course, a full-time pinch-hitting specialist, in some sense. But the crucial distinction is the manner in which the DH rule allows the pinch hitter to remain in the lineup without appearing defensively. With the DH, the often-tricky decision of to pinch hit or not, or exactly when to deploy the weapon of the pinch-hitting specialist, is largely removed from the manager’s set of problems. (This is the primary reason I’ve never preferred the DH; it dumbs down the manager’s challenge.)

Deployment of pinch-hitting specialists in the National League continued apace, as the decline in complete games persisted: from 24% of NL games in 1970 to 19% by 1979. A higher proportion than ever before of pinch-hitting specialists were right-handed batters, but a great deal of that is simply the influence of Manny Mota—see below.

Year  Player          Team Age  B  G by POS  G  AB  R  H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO   BA/OBP/SLG  OPS+
1970  Ramon Webster   SD N  27  L  1B15,OF1 95 116 12 30  3  0  2  11 11 12  259/323/336   81
1970  Pete Ward       NY A  30  L      1B13 66  77  5 20  2  2  1  18  9 17  260/333/377  100
1970  Charlie Manuel MIN A  26  L      OF11 59  64  4 12  0  0  1   7  6 17  188/260/234   37
1970  Hawk Taylor     KC A  31  R    C3 1B1 57  55  3  9  3  0  0   6  6 16  164/258/218   33
1970  Len Gabrielson  LA N  30  L   OF2 1B1 43  42  1  8  2  0  0   6  1 15  190/205/238   21
1970  Ed Kranepool    NY N  25  L       1B8 43  47  2  8  0  0  0   3  5  2  170/250/170   15
1970  Rich Rollins   CLE A  32  R       3B5 42  43  6 10  0  0  2   4  3  5  233/283/372   76
1971  Gomer Hodge    CLE A  27  B       IF8 80  83  3 17  3  0  1   9  4 19  205/256/277   46
1971  Angel Bravo   CIN,SD  28  L       OF9 57  63  6 10  2  0  0   6  8 13  159/260/190   34
1971  Al Ferrara   SD, CIN  31  R       OF7 49  50  2  8  1  0  1   7  8 15  160/288/240   54
1973  Jim Stewart    HOU N  34  B   IF9 OF3 61  68  6 13  0  0  0   3  9 12  191/295/191   38
1974  Gates Brown    DET A  35  L      DH13 73  99  7 24  2  0  4  17 10 15  242/312/384   97
1974  Manny Mota      LA N  36  R       OF3 66  57  5 16  2  0  0  16  5  4  281/328/316   85
1974  Phil Gagliano  CIN N  32  R       IF4 46  31  2  2  0  0  0   0 15  7  065/370/065   28
1974  Norm Miller    ATL N  28  L       OF4 42  41  1  7  1  0  1   5  7  9  171/292/268   55
1975  Terry Crowley  CIN N  28  L   1B4 OF4 66  71  8 19  6  0  1  11  7  6  268/333/394  100
1975  Manny Mota      LA N  37  R       OF5 52  49  3 13  1  0  0  10  5  1  265/357/286   84
1975  Leron Lee       LA N  27  L       OF4 48  43  2 11  4  0  0   2  3  9  256/298/349   83
1975  Gates Brown    DET A  36  L           47  35  1  6  2  0  1   3  9  6  171/356/314   88
1976  Glenn Adams     SF N  28  L       OF6 69  74  2 18  4  0  0   3  1 12  243/253/297   54
1976  Chris Arnold    SF N  28  R      IF14 60  69  4 15  0  1  0   5  6 16  217/276/246   48
1976  Manny Mota      LA N  38  R       OF6 50  52  1 15  3  0  0  13  7  5  288/367/346  106
1977  Boog Powell     LA N  35  L       1B4 50  41  0 10  0  0  0   5 12  9  244/415/244   83
1977  Manny Mota      LA N  39  R       OF1 49  38  5 15  1  0  1   4 10  0  395/521/500  176
1979  Mike Easler    PIT N  28  L       OF4 55  54  8 15  1  1  2  11  8 13  278/371/444  118
1979  Manny Mota      LA N  41  R       OF1 47  42  1 15  0  0  0   3  3  4  357/400/357  110
      1970-79 Average       31              57  58  4 13  2  0  1   7  7 10  230/312/300   71

Gates Brown was the lone American Leaguer still deployed as a pinch-hitting specialist past 1973. Brown had, of course, been famed for his pinch-hitting prowess since the mid-1960s, but the Tigers had always given him at least the occasional start in left field (just to keep his swing sharp for pinch hitting, I suspect). Brown would appear to have been a guy for whom the DH rule was expressly designed, but he had a lackluster year when used as a more or less full-time DH in 1973. (It is the case that The Gator was 34 by then, and shall we say, not getting any slimmer.) So in 1974, the Tigers installed Al Kaline as their regular DH, and in 1975 the DH job was given to Willie Horton. Brown was, for the first time in his career, deployed as a true pinch-hitting specialist, batting for the Tigers’ light-hitting middle infielders in crucial late-inning situations.

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.)

Pinch-hitting specialist history was made in two ways in the 1970s. First, in May 1971, Angel Bravo and Al Ferrara were traded for one another, the first and only straight-up mid-season swap of pinch-hitting specialists. Second, the 1975 Dodgers (Mota and Leron Lee), the 1976 Giants (Glenn Adams and Chris Arnold), and the 1977 Dodgers (Mota and Boog Powell) all deployed two 40-plus-game pinch-hitting specialists on the roster simultaneously, the only times that’s ever been done.

The 1980s

The Tony LaRussa-managed 1981 White Sox deployed Bobby Molinaro as a pinch-hitting specialist, the last time any American League team has used one. The tactic became a nearly exclusively National League phenomenon, but with NL complete games dropping to ever-lower levels (from 16% in 1980 to 11% in 1989), National League managers used pinch-hitting specialists at the highest rate ever seen.

Six of the 27 pinch-hitting specialists of the 1980s were right-handed batters, a higher proportion than most previous decades.

Year  Player          Team Age  B  G by POS   G  AB  R  H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO  BA/OBP/SLG  OPS+
1980  Biff Pocoroba  ATL N  26  B       C10  70  83  7 22  4  0  2   8 11 11 265/347/386  103
1980  Tom Hutton     MON N  34  L  1B7OF4P1  62  55  2 12  2  0  0   5  4 10 218/267/255   47
1980  M. Sanguillen  PIT N  36  R       1B5  47  48  2 12  3  0  0   2  3  1 250/294/312   69
1980  Charlie Spikes ATL N  29  R       OF7  41  36  6 10  1  0  0   2  3 18 278/350/306   83
1981  Mike Cubbage    NY N  30  L      3B12  67  80  9 17  2  2  1   4  9 15 212/289/325   76
1981  Bobby Molinaro CHI A  31  L   DH4 OF2  47  42  7 11  1  1  1   9  8  1 262/377/405  128
1981  Reggie Smith    LA N  36  B       1B2  41  35  5  7  1  0  1   8  7  8 200/318/314   84
1982  Jorge Orta      LA N  31  L      OF17  86 115 13 25  5  0  2   8 12 13 217/295/313   72
1982  B.Molinaro CHI N,PHI  32  L       OF4  84  80  6 17  1  0  1  14  9  6 212/292/262   55
1982  W. Stargell    PIT N  42  L       1B8  74  73  6 17  4  0  3  17 10 24 233/318/411  101
1982  Ken Smith      ATL N  24  L   1B6 OF3  48  41  6 12  1  0  0   3  6 13 293/383/317   95
1982  G. Barranca    CIN N  25  L       2B6  46  51 11 13  1  3  0   2  2  9 255/283/392   86
1983  Rusty Staub     NY N  39  L   1B5 OF5 104 115  5 34  6  0  3  28 14 10 296/371/426  122
1983  Terry Crowley  MON N  36  L       1B4  50  44  2  8  0  0  0   3  9  4 182/327/182   46
1983  Jose Morales    LA N  38  R       1B4  47  53  4 15  3  0  3   8  1 11 283/296/509  121
1984  Rusty Staub     NY N  40  L       1B3  78  72  2 19  4  0  1  18  4  9 264/291/361   84
1984  Champ Summers   SD N  38  L       1B8  47  54  5 10  3  0  1  12  4 15 185/254/296   55
1985  Rusty Staub     NY N  41  L       OF1  54  45  2 12  3  0  1   8 10  4 267/400/400  127
1985  Razor Shines   MON N  28  B    1B5 P1  47  50  0  6  0  0  0   3  4  9 120/185/120  -10
1987  W. Johnson     MON N  30  B       1B9  75  85  7 21  5  0  1  14  7  6 247/298/341   67
1987  Davey Lopes    HOU N  42  R       OF5  47  43  4 10  2  0  1   6 13  8 233/411/349  108
1987  Gary Matthews  CHI N  36  R       OF2  44  42  3 11  3  0  0   8  4 11 262/326/333   73
1988  W. Johnson     MON N  31  B  1B13 2B1  86  94  7 29  5  1  0   3 12 15 309/387/383  118
1988  Jerry Mumphrey CHI N  35  B       OF4  63  66  3  9  2  0  0   9  7 16 136/219/167   11
1988  Harry Spilman SF,HOU  33  L       1B7  47  45  4  7  1  1  1   3  4  9 156/224/289   50
1988  S. Henderson   HOU N  35  R   OF8 1B1  42  46  4 10  2  0  0   5  7 14 217/321/261   73
1989  Jeff Wetherby  ATL N  25  L       OF9  52  48  5 10  2  1  1   7  4  6 208/264/354   74
      1980-89 Average       33               59  61  5 14  2  0  1   8  7 10 235/314/331   80

Certain managers seemed to have a particular preference for the role. Tommy Lasorda of the Dodgers, even with the amazing Manny Mota finally retired, used Reggie Smith (1981, in over 40 games despite the strike-shortened season), Jorge Orta (1982), and Jose Morales (1983) as pinch-hitting specialists. And the Expos’ Buck Rodgers deployed Razor Shines (despite the fact that Shines performed miserably) and then Wallace Johnson (who did pretty well) in the role.

The best pinch-hitting specialist of this era was clearly Rusty Staub, who capped off his long career with a sequence of very strong performances for the Mets.

The 1990s

Complete-game rates continued to plummet in the National League, from 10% in 1990 to just 5% by 1999. Yet the deployment of pinch-hitting specialists declined dramatically, to a frequency not seen since the 1940s. The explanation is clearly found in the makeup of rosters: across the decade, bullpens grew in size, at the expense of bats on the bench. As we explored in depth previously, the 1990s saw unprecedented use of LOOGYs, closers and other short-stint relief pitching patterns, strategies which soak up roster space, inhibiting the capacity of teams to keep pure pinch-hitters on hand.

Year  Player          Team Age  B  G by POS   G  AB  R  H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO  BA/OBP/SLG  OPS+
1990  Bill Bathe      SF N  29  R        C8  52  48  3 11  0  1  3  12  7 12 229/321/458  116
1990  W. Johnson     MON N  33  B       1B7  47  49  6  8  1  0  1   5  7  6 163/281/245   49
1991  Eric Bullock   MON N  30  L   OF9 1B3  73  72  6 16  4  0  1   6  9 13 222/305/319   77
1992  Jeff Grotewold PHI N  26  L  C2OF21B1  72  65  7 13  2  0  3   5  9 16 200/307/369   91
1993  Gerald Perry   STL N  32  L  1B15 OF1  96  98 21 33  5  0  4  16 18 23 337/440/510  157
1993  F. Cabrera     ATL N  26  R   1B12 C2  70  83  8 20  3  0  4  11  8 21 241/308/422   92
1994  Dave Hansen     LA N  25  L       3B7  40  44  3 15  3  0  0   5  5  5 341/408/409  121
1995  J. Vander Wal  COL N  29  L 1B10 OF10 105 101 15 35  8  1  5  21 16 23 347/432/594  142
1995  Gerald Perry   STL N  34  L      1B11  65  79  4 13  4  0  0   5  6 12 165/224/215   17
1996  Andre Dawson   FLA N  41  R       OF6  42  58  6 16  2  0  2  14  2 13 276/311/414   93
1997  J. Vander Wal  COL N  31  L   OF9 1B5  76  92  7 16  2  0  1  11 10 33 174/225/228   18
1997  S. Livingstone STL N  31  L   3B2 OF1  42  41  3  7  1  0  0   3  1 10 171/182/195   -1
      1990-99 Average       31               65  69  7 17  3  0  2  10  8 16 245/324/378   86

Two specialists on this list produced seasons among the most impressive of all time: Gerald Perry in 1993 and John Vander Wal in 1995 were both brilliant in the role. However, both turned in dreadful performances just a couple of years later, indicating just how difficult the pinch-hitting specialist job is.

The 2000s

Through the first half of this decade, the complete game has continued to edge ever closer to near-full extinction, yet the deployment of pinch-hitting specialists has also declined further. Teams continue to opt for extreme relief pitching specialists over extreme offensive specialists.

Year  Player          Team Age  B  G by POS   G  AB  R  H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO  BA/OBP/SLG  OPS+
2000  Mark Sweeney   MIL N  30  L   OF3 1B2  71  73  9 16  6  0  1   6 12 18 219/337/342   76
2001  D.T. Cromer    CIN N  30  L       1B8  50  57  7 16  3  0  5  12  3 19 281/302/596  125
2002  Tim Raines     FLA N  42  B      OF14  98  89  9 17  3  0  1   7 22 19 191/351/258   66
2004  Carlos Baerga  ARI N  35  B       1B6  79  85  6 20  2  0  2  11  6 12 235/309/329   64
2004  Lenny Harris   FLA N  39  L  OF14 3B3  79  95  7 20  5  0  1  17  3  8 211/232/295   38
2005  Lenny Harris   FLA N  40  L CI3DH2OF2  83  70  5 22  4  0  1  13  7 11 314/385/414  116
      2000-05 Average       36               77  78  7 19  4  0  2  11  9 15 237/314/356   76

Jack McKeon of the Florida Marlins has been the only manager in this decade to use more than one pinch-hitting specialist, deploying the veteran Lenny Harris in the mode in both 2004 and 2005. Harris performed terribly in ’04, and excellently in ’05, again illustrating the elusive nature of dependable and predictable performance in this very narrow usage pattern.

What’s to Come?

As we see below, the usage of pinch-hitting specialists is on the wane:

Decade   NL PHS/Team  AL PHS/Team
1900-09     .013         .000
1910-19     .063         .038
1920-29     .050         .038
1930-39     .063         .013
1940-49     .038         .100
1950-59     .163         .144
1960-69     .112         .120
1970-79     .158         .056
1980-89     .217         .007
1990-99     .088         .000
2000-05     .067         .000

The Designated Hitter pretty thoroughly killed the role in the American League, and from a height of deployment in the 1980s, usage of it in the National League is lower than it’s been in half a century.

The wisdom of deploying a player in this manner has always been questionable. Pinch hitting is an extremely challenging assignment under the best of conditions, and virtually never getting a chance to get more than one at-bat in any game all season long can hardly be seen as the best of conditions. It would seem wise, even if a player is really limited defensively, to give him at least an occasional start, a chance to get three of four at-bats in a single game at least once a week, to keep his timing sharp. The generally modest performance of pinch-hitting specialists over the decades, and the wild fluctuations in performance among even the best of them, are strong indicators of the difficulty of doing well in the role. I would argue that, as a rule of thumb, each player on the bench should be able to potentially contribute in more than one way, and limiting a player to even the chance to contribute in only one way — and the most challenging way at that — doesn’t seem the wisest use of a precious roster spot.

That said, I remain skeptical that the roles that have largely replaced pinch-hitting specialists—LOOGYs and other very short-stint relief pitchers—represent a much better contribution of value. If a roster spot should ideally contribute in more than one way, short-relief specialists are by definition incapable of meeting even that requirement, offering zero offensive capacity, nor any even as a defensive innings-eater. In short, I suspect the replacement of pinch-hitting specialists with short-relief specialists swaps one generally suboptimized roster spot for another.

The type of player who can predictably excel in the pinch-hitting specialist usage pattern—the graybearded Rusty Staub, Manny Mota, or Smoky Burgess—has always been extremely rare. Absent such a precious jewel, it’s doubtful that many of the decisions to deploy players as pinch-hitting specialists have been particularly wise.

Top Twenty OPS+ Pinch-Hitting Specialist Seasons
Year  Player          Team Age  B  G by POS   G  AB  R  H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO  BA/OBP/SLG  OPS+
1913  Ham Hyatt      PIT N  28  L   1B5 OF5  63  81  8 27  6  2  4  16  3  8 333/372/605  181
1943  Joe Cronin     BOS A  36  R      3B10  59  77  8 24  4  0  5  29 11  4 312/398/558  176
1977  Manny Mota      LA N  39  R       OF1  49  38  5 15  1  0  1   4 10  0 395/521/500  176
1956  Ron Northey    CHI A  36  L       OF4  53  48  4 17  2  0  3  23  8  1 354/417/583  161
1993  Gerald Perry   STL N  32  L  1B15 OF1  96  98 21 33  5  0  4  16 18 23 337/440/510  157
1950  Charlie Keller DET A  33  L       OF6  50  51  7 16  1  3  2  16 13  6 314/453/569  157
1929  Cy Williams    PHI N  41  L      OF11  66  65 11 19  2  0  5  21 22  9 292/471/554  146
1915  Ed Lennox      PIT F  29  R       3B3  55  53  1 16  3  1  1   9  7 12 302/383/453  146
1912  M. McCormick    NY N  31  L   OF6 1B1  42  39  4 13  4  1  0   8  6  9 333/422/487  145
1920  Gavy Cravath   PHI N  39  R       OF5  46  45  2 13  5  0  1  11  9 12 289/407/467  145
1995  J. Vander Wal  COL N  29  L 1B10 OF10 105 101 15 35  8  1  5  21 16 23 347/432/594  142
1968  Manny Jiminez  PIT N  29  L       OF5  66  66  7 20  1  1  1  11  6 15 303/403/394  142
1966  Smoky Burgess  CHI A  39  L        C2  79  67  0 21  5  0  0  15 11  8 313/412/388  140
1960  Earl Torgeson  CHI A  36  L      1B10  68  57 12 15  2  0  2   9 21  8 263/462/404  138
1909  Ham Hyatt      PIT N  24  L   OF6 1B2  49  67  9 20  3  4  0   7  3  ? 299/329/463  137
1917  Eddie Murphy   CHI A  25  L       OF9  53  51  9 16  2  1  0  16  5  1 314/386/392  135
1959  George Crowe   STL N  38  L      1B14  77 103 14 31  6  0  8  29  5 12 301/330/592  134
1933  Harry McCurdy  PHI N  33  L        C2  73  54  9 15  1  0  2  12 16  6 278/451/407  134
1917  Bill Rumler    STL A  26  R       OF9  78  88  7 23  3  4  1  16  8  9 261/323/420  131
1965  Smoky Burgess  CHI A  38  L        C5  80  77  2 22  4  0  2  24 11  7 286/371/416  130

Bottom Twenty OPS+ Pinch-Hitting Specialist Seasons
Year  Player          Team Age  B  G by POS   G  AB  R  H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO  BA/OBP/SLG  OPS+
1985  Razor Shines   MON N  28  B    1B5 P1  47  50  0  6  0  0  0   3  4  9 120/185/120  -10
1997  S. Livingstone STL N  31  L   3B2 OF1  42  41  3  7  1  0  0   3  1 10 171/182/195   -1
1961  Bob Hale       CLE A  27  L            42  36  0  6  0  0  0   6  1  7 167/200/167    1
1954  Peanuts Lowrey STL N  36  R      OF12  74  61  6  7  1  2  0   5  9  9 115/222/197   10
1988  Jerry Mumphrey CHI N  35  B       OF4  63  66  3  9  2  0  0   9  7 16 136/219/167   11
1970  Ed Kranepool    NY N  25  L       1B8  43  47  2  8  0  0  0   3  5  2 170/250/170   15
1995  Gerald Perry   STL N  34  L      1B11  65  79  4 13  4  0  0   5  6 12 165/224/215   17
1997  J. Vander Wal  COL N  31  L   OF9 1B5  76  92  7 16  2  0  1  11 10 33 174/225/228   18
1970  Len Gabrielson  LA N  30  L   OF2 1B1  43  42  1  8  2  0  0   6  1 15 190/205/238   21
1965  Al Luplow      CLE A  26  L       OF6  53  45  3  6  2  0  1   4  3 14 133/188/244   22
1966  Bob Skinner    STL N  34  L            49  45  2  7  1  0  1   5  2 17 156/208/244   25
1959  Bob Hale       BAL A  25  L       1B8  40  54  2 10  3  0  0   7  2  6 185/214/241   26
1960  Sandy Amoros   DET A  30  L      OF10  65  67  7 10  0  0  1   7 12 10 149/275/194   28
1974  Phil Gagliano  CIN N  32  R 2B21B13B1  46  31  2  2  0  0  0   0 15  7 065/370/065   28
1948  Joe Schultz    STL A  29  L            43  37  0  7  0  0  0   9  6  3 189/302/189   31
1970  Hawk Taylor     KC A  31  R    C3 1B1  57  55  3  9  3  0  0   6  6 16 164/258/218   33
1959  Dusty Rhodes    SF N  32  L            54  48  1  9  2  0  0   7  5  9 188/259/229   33
1931  Tom Winsett    BOS A  21  L       OF8  64  76  6 15  1  0  1   7  4 21 197/247/250   34
1971  Angel Bravo   CIN,SD  28  L       OF9  57  63  6 10  2  0  0   6  8 13 159/260/190   34
1970  Charlie Manuel MIN A  26  L      OF11  59  64  4 12  0  0  1   7  6 17 188/260/234   37
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