Pinch hitters typically bat for the pitcher (at least in the National League), but how often have you seen a pitcher regularly bat as a pinch hitter? Well, if you had been alive 70 to 100 years ago, you would have seen it plenty of times.
In fact, the player most commonly believed to be the first true “professional” pinch hitter was a pitcher. That would be one Dode Criss, who played for the St. Louis Browns from 1908 to 1911. Criss was the first player to pinch hit at least 100 times in his career, compiling 35 hits in 147 at bats for a .239 average. Most notably, he batted .341 as a pinch hitter his rookie year, and led the American League in pinch hits all four of his major league years.
Criss was a righty pitcher, lefty hitter who compiled a lackluster pitching record (3-9 with a 4.38 ERA). In fact, manager Jimmy McAleer gave him some playing time in the outfield and first base, and Criss garnered 30 games on the mound, 26 at first and 11 in the outfield. He wound up with 12 batting Win Shares and only 2 pitching Win Shares, but wasn’t a good enough hitter to be a regular. Yet his historic role as the first regular pinch hitter preserves his place in baseball history.
Several other pitchers have also set pinch hitting milestones. Going back in time, the first pinch hitter to record more than one pinch hit in a season was a pitcher — Baltimore’s Kid Gleason in 1894. 1893 was the year that baseball moved the pitching mound back to today’s 60′ 6″, which hurt Gleason’s pitching effectiveness. So he morphed into a pinch hitter, and then became a regular infielder for twelve years with the Giants, Tigers and Phillies.
Gleason also has a unique place in baseball history because he was reportedly the first manager to issue an intentional walk to the opposing team’s best hitter (don’t tell Barry Bonds!). But he’ll unfortunately be most remembered for managing the 1919 Black Sox.
After Criss, the next notable Pitcher as Pinch Hitter (or PAPH) was George “The Bull” Uhle, who was a fine pitcher and hitter in the 1920′s. Uhle won 200 games and batted .282 (albeit in a hitter’s era), and he’s the third all-time PAPH with 44 base hits in 169 at bats. Unlike Criss, Uhle was a pitcher first; he compiled 210 pitching Win Shares and 20 batting Win Shares. Really, Uhle was a classic PAPH who never played a position in the field other than pitcher.
But Uhle was paving the way for the 1930′s and the three of the finest PAPH’s in major league history: Red Ruffing, Wes Ferrell and Red Lucas.
Red Ruffing is a Hall of Famer who won 273 games with a 3.80 ERA, and he was a mainstay of the Yankee rotation throughout the 1930′s. Less well known, however, was the fact that Ruffing was a fine hitter, and the second most prolific PAPH in history with 58 hits in 228 at bats for a .255 average. Altogether, Ruffing racked up 290 pitching Win Shares and 30 batting Win Shares.
Wes Ferrell holds two hitting records for pitchers: most home runs in a season (nine) and career (38). As you can imagine, he was also called on to pinch hit frequently, but the role didn’t seem to agree with him. Ferrell produced only 31 hits in 139 at bats for a .223 average, compared to an overall batting average of .280. Still, Ferrell compiled 208 pitching Win Shares and 25 pitching Win Shares.
But the all-time best PAPH was Red Lucas, the Manny Mota of his day. Lucas was not only the best PAPH ever, he was the best pinch hitter ever, at his time. He set a standard for career pinch hitting, with 114 hits in 437 at bats for a .261 batting average that remained the best career pinch hitting record for more than thirty years.
Like Criss, Lucas threw righty and batted lefty. But unlike Criss, Lucas was a good pitcher who stayed on the mound his entire career. Over 15 years from 1923 to 1938, he compiled a 157-134 record with a 3.72 ERA. But he was most valued for his bat off the bench, as he hit more than 13 pinch hits in a season five years in a row, from 1929 to 1933, and led the league in both pinch at bats and hits three different years. He finished with 172 pitching Win Shares and 23 batting Win Shares.
Sadly, they don’t make hitting pitchers like they used to. To illustrate what I mean, here’s a graph of the average number of batting Win Shares by pitchers per year, grouped by decade. I’m using batting Win Shares, because they are adjusted for the general hitting level of each league, each year.
I have included some notes about this graph at the end of the article, in the “References and Resources” section. Although Win Shares has its faults, it’s still a useful stat in this case (I used to say there were no useless stats, until someone invented Productive Outs), because it effectively tracks the top batting pitchers from each year. In other words, this is a graph of the batting productivity of each decade’s top batting pitchers. And when it comes to batting pitchers, they just don’t make them like they used to.
It’s true that today’s top hitting pitchers are better than those of the 1980′s, but pitchers really haven’t been hitting like they used to for half a century. In other words, Brooks Kieschnick is not only a rarity, he’s a throwback.
Coming out of the University of Texas in 1993, Kieschnick was a first-round choice of the Chicago Cubs, nine picks behind Alex Rodriquez and a full round ahead of Scott Rolen. Although he was a fine college pitcher, the Cubs most valued him for his potentially powerful bat. Kieschnick developed well at first and Baseball America ranked him the number one Cubs’ prospect during his first three professional years.
Unfortunately, Kieschnick never produced on the major league level and the Cubs let him go. It looked like he would remain a AAA lifer until the Cubs’ cross-town rivals decided to try him on the mound. For some reason, even the White Sox eventually let him go, and the Brewers picked him up as a minor league free agent a couple of years ago. Give Kieschnick and manager Ned Yost credit for trying something that hasn’t been done since the days of Red Lucas — putting a PAPH on the roster and making it work.
Last year, Kieschnick compiled a 5.26 ERA in 53 innings, and batted .300 with a .614 slugging average. A righty pitcher and lefty batter, he looked more like Dode Criss than Red Lucas. As a pinch hitter, he was 8 for 21 with two home runs, and he also played a few games as the DH and in left field. Overall, he compiled 1.6 pitching Win Shares and 1.9 batting Win Shares.
It’s a different story this year, as Kieschnick has compiled a 3.82 ERA and already has 2.3 pitching Win Shares, along with 1.6 batting Win Shares.
Unfortunately, Kieschnick hasn’t actually been hitting that well this year. Last year, Brooks was dynamite, with seven home runs in only 70 at bats and a .969 OPS. He was truly Ferrell-esque. This year is another story, however. Kieschnick has only hit one home run in 50 at bats, and his OPS is a pedestrian .784.
What’s more, our THT stats indicate that he’s been pretty lucky with the bat this year. He hasn’t been putting any loft on the ball — his Groundball/Flyball ratio is 2.1 — and his line drive rate is only .056. However, his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) is an extraordinarily high .400. Typically BABIP is a batter’s line drive rate plus .110, or .167 in this case. Kieschnick has seen a lot of ground balls go his way.
Still, pinch hitting is a tough job and he is pinch hitting pretty well; he is batting .263 in the role and he’s tied for fifth in the majors in total pinch hits (10 for 38).
Just how valuable is it to have a pitcher who can also pinch hit? In a word, very. If a pitcher can act as an effective pinch hitter, it frees up a roster spot for the manager to include another player; it’s like having a 26-man roster. Overall, that could potentially add a win or two over a full season.
There’s a statistical way to look at this phenomenon. Here at the Hardball Times, we track a stat called :WSAANL:. To calculate WSAA, we first compute the average number of Win Shares that a player would be expected to produce in his playing time, depending on whether he is a batter or pitcher. Pitchers are expected to produce less with the bat, so the standard of comparison is different. And because Kieschnick is a pitcher, he overwhelms his batting standard.
Kieschnick has four Win Shares, but he is only expected to have one at this point, given his playing time. Unfortunately, Kieschnick was just placed on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis, so he may be stuck at three WSAA above average for a while. But that still makes him the fourth most valuable player on the Brewers — which is the direct result of the unique role he plays.
So here’s to Brooks Kieschnick, Pitcher as Pinch Hitter. Let’s hope he’s not the last of his kind.
References & Resources
The historic pinch hitting records were from Paul Votano’s fine survey of pinch hitting, “Stand and Deliver.” My thanks also go to Steve Treder for his usual superlative help. You can see Kieschnick’s complete statistical record at Brewerfan.net. And Alan Schwartz has a nice interview with the man at the ESPN site.
Here are some notes about the Win Shares graph. First, I only selected pitchers who never played in the field each year. That leaves out Wes Ferrell’s 1933, for instance, when he played thirteen games in the outfield. More famously, it omits all but the first four of Babe Ruth’s pitching years.
Second, I made a few adjustments to the numbers. In particular, I doubled the batting Win Shares from 1973 on, because American League pitchers stopped batting then. I also standardized them for the number of teams and games played each season.
Third, Win Shares is a misleading stat for this sort of analysis, because it doesn’t credit pitchers with negative batting Win Shares. Sort of like an iceberg, you only see batting Win Shares above the waterline, but you don’t see all the negative ones below. This year, for example, National League pitchers have nine positive batting Win Shares, but 97 negative batting Win Shares. So batting Win Shares do not provide a comprehensive view of pitchers as batters. But it does measure the relative performance of each year’s best hitting pitchers.