NOTE – This was written just prior to the Thames signing, but it still works to support the addition.
The following is an excerpt from a recent ESPN article by Mathew Carruth titled “The Perils of Pinch-Hitting.”
In 2009, major league pinch-hitters hit a combined .225/.315/.353, significantly worse than their starting counterparts, who hit .264/.334/.421. That’s not a one-year fluke or a recent development, either. In 1990, guys coming off the bench hit .224/.302/.316. In 1970, they hit .226/.313/.323. Way back in 1954, their performance was a pitiful .220/.315/.323. It’s not just that the average pinch-hitter is worse than a starter, but instead, there is evidence that pinch-hitting is just really difficult. Matt Holliday has a career .552 OPS as a pinch hitter compared to a .933 mark when he starts. Joe Mauer has a .693 OPS off the bench. Even Derek Jeter is hitless in his five attempts.
Baseball consultant Tom Tango, now in the employ of the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays, went through historical pinch-hitting situations in his book (appropriately titled “The Book”) and found that, even after accounting for the average pinch-hitter being of lesser ability and facing tougher pitchers in more important situations, pinch-hitters performed at a level roughly 10 percent lower than expected. That’s huge; a 10 percent penalty turns a .300 hitter into a .270 one. That reduction in performance would turn Evan Longoria into Skip Schumaker…
What makes pinch-hitting so hard? Repetition and routine are common agents to help calm nerves. It’s why you’ll see some ridiculous things in the batter’s box, such as Nomar Garciaparra’s infamous batting glove routine. It’s why coaches in golf stress pre-shot routines, and for every disturbance to mean a complete do-over of that routine. It’s why any athlete anywhere spends countless hours practicing. They are attempting to train their muscle memory and to develop grooves in the brain that focus on the specific task at hand and let them forget about anything else.
Pinch-hitters do not get the benefit of routine. Unlike relievers who first get to warm up in the bullpen, then warm up on the mound, and who dictate the action in the first place, pinch-hitting opportunities tend to spring up with less warning. At best, a player on the bench might get a heads-up in time to go into the cage and take a few hacks, but for the most part, he gets thrust right onto center stage sans warm up. That’s not a recipe for success, and the evidence suggests that even the best hitters in the world struggle to succeed in that situation.
Carruth’s article outlines the inherent problems with pinch-hitting as a practice, and makes an effective case for not even “wasting” a roster spot on such a hitter. Many would argue that, for the Yankees, who are in search of a right-handed bench bat, Carruth’s premise can be applied. Why sign Jonny Gomes to be a right-handed bench bat when he is likely to be an ineffective pinch-hitter? It is not his fault, rather, it is a result of the role. This is mainly why many fans wanted the Yankees to sign Reed Johnson, because, even if he struggles as a pinch-hitter (and his opportunities to pinch-hit would be rare), he has defensive value beyond that finite role. The same can be said for Rocco Baldelli.
For the Yankees, however, any right-handed bench bat they sign – not just Baldelli – to a minor-league deal will have significant value beyond that of a pinch-hitter. This is primarily due to Nick Johnson. Though Johnson’s fragile body will be protected by his position as the team’s designated hitter, if he is injured at some point this season, which is a genuine possibility, the fifth outfielder, as a result – whether it is Jonny Gomes, Rocco Baldelli, Marcus Thames, or possibly Gary Sheffield – will receive a lot more playing time (along with Randy Winn). Therefore, the Yankees are not just adding a pinch-hitter by signing a right-handed bench bat, they are injecting much needed depth into the team.
Furthermore, any right-handed bat the Yankees sign could be used, on occasion, to platoon with Brett Gardner. This, then, increases the value of such a player. With this in mind, because of his defensive prowess, Baldelli seems like a better option. Conversely, when you also consider his health concerns in conjunction with Nick Johnson’s – if Johnson is out for an extended period of time, can you trust Baldelli to remain healthy – then Gomes or Thames might seem like better options, despite their defensive limitations. This is the a give-and-take that must be adequately negotiated.
In the end, the Yankees, as I see it, still need a right-handed bench bat, however, they do not need him only as a pinch-hitter, for as Carruth points out, pinch-hitting is not necessarily a successful practice (especially when you consider the talent on the Yankees). The Yankees, instead, need a right-handed bat to spell Brett Gardner and even Curtis Granderson, now and then, and to provide solid offensive depth in the event of an injury to a starter such as Nick Johnson. This, then, is the ultimate value of bringing an extra right-handed bat on board for the 2010 season.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
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