Pinch Hitting & the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals

Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

The 2012 St. Louis Cardinals turned in one of the worst pinch-hitting statistical lines in all of the majors last season. Should Cardinals fans be worried?

As a general rule, Major League Baseball clubs typically don't get very good production from their pinch hitters. It doesn't matter whether it's a normal everyday player making a pinch-hit appearance late in a close game he was supposed to have off or the 25th man on the roster. As Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin find in the indispensable The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, "A player is significantly less effective as a pinch hitter than he is as as a starter."

A look at the numbers for pinch-hitters and MLB as a whole over the last ten years jibes with their findings.

In 2012, major-league hitters batted for a .255 batting average (BA), .319 on-base percentage (OBP), .405 slugging percentage (SLG), and a .724 on-base plus slugging (OPS). Pinch-hitters batted for a .225 BA, .304 OBP, .344 SLG, and .648 OPS. Pinch-hitters had a BA 30 points lower than league average, an OBP 15 points lower, a SLG 61 points lower, and an OPS 76 points lower. That's quite a drop-off.

On Baseball-Reference, there is a metric called tOPS+. The Baseball-Reference glossary explains it as the OPS+ of a certain split "relative to the player or team's overall OPS." If a player or team has a 100 tOPS+, their production in a certain situation or role was identical to their overall production. If the tOPS+ is above 100, their production was better in a certain situation than it is overall. On the flip side, if the tOPS+ is below 100, their production was worse in a certain situation that it is overall. The further below 100 tOPS+ is, the worse a player or team performed in a given situation. In 2012, the tOPS+ for MLB pinch-hitters was 80.

Poor pinch hitting isn't a phenomenon unique to the 2012 season. Over the past ten MLB seasons, pinch-hitters have hit worse than the league average every year. How much worse? So much worse that 2012 was a good year for pinch-hitters. Last year, big-league pinch-hitters posted the lowest gaps in BA, SLG, and OPS while tying for the lowest gap in OBP. At 80, 2012 pinch-hitters also tied with 2008 pinch-hitters for the highest tOPS+ since 2003.

MLB PINCH-HITTERS vs. MLB AVERAGE (2003-2012)

Year

MLB BA

PH BA

BA Diff

MLB OBP

PH OBP

OBP Diff

MLB SLG

PH SLG

SLG Diff

MLB OPS

PH OPS

OPS Diff

PH tOPS+

2003

.264

.229

-35

.333

.306

-27

.422

.344

-78

.755

.650

-105

73

2004

.266

.229

-37

.335

.311

-24

.428

.359

-69

.763

.670

-93

77

2005

.264

.230

-34

.330

.311

-19

.419

.339

-80

.749

.650

-99

75

2006

.269

.226

-43

.337

.302

-35

.432

.357

-75

.768

.659

-109

72

2007

.268

.226

-42

.336

.309

-27

.423

.351

-72

.758

.661

-97

75

2008

.264

.232

-32

.333

.318

-15

.416

.350

-66

.749

.669

-80

80

2009

.262

.225

-37

.333

.315

-18

.418

.353

-63

.751

.668

-83

79

2010

.257

.219

-38

.325

.295

-30

.403

.343

-70

.728

.638

-90

76

2011

.255

.214

-41

.321

.292

-29

.399

.314

-85

.720

.606

-114

70

2012

.255

.225

-30

.319

.304

-15

.405

.344

-61

.724

.648

-76

80

Despite 2012 being the best season for pinch hitting out of the last ten and the St. Louis Cardinals at or near the top of the National League in most offensive categories, Cardinals pinch-hitters struggled mightily. Over 279 plate appearances, the pinch-hitters used by manager Mike Matheny batted for a .190 BA, .275 OBP, .256 SLG, and .532 OPS. St. Louis pinch-hitters posted a 42 tOPS+ relative to MLB pinch-hitters on the whole. The Redbirds were amongst the worst pinch-hitting clubs in the majors.

2012 NATIONAL LEAGUE PH STATS BY TEAM (2012)

Rank

Team

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

tOPS+

sOPS+

1

WSH

244

.288

.367

.420

.786

112

143

2

CIN

201

.269

.337

.429

.765

111

136

3

NYM

279

.240

.330

.412

.742

111

128

4

LAD

242

.280

.376

.360

.736

115

128

5

COL

263

.240

.331

.402

.733

92

126

6

MIA

232

.246

.339

.392

.731

113

125

7

SD

278

.248

.325

.382

.707

102

118

8

HOU

231

.242

.323

.381

.794

110

117

9

CHC

273

.244

.300

.368

.668

97

106

10

MIL

315

.223

.290

.337

.627

66

93

11

SF

218

.218

.284

.342

.626

73

93

12

ARI

226

.233

.280

.314

.594

60

83

13

PHI

268

.206

.270

.290

.560

58

73

14

STL

279

.190

.275

.256

.532

42

65

15

PIT

268

.176

.284

.229

.513

51

60

16

ATL

250

.158

.237

.239

.475

36

47

Should fans be worried about the Cardinals' poor pinch-hitting performance last season? Not really.

You may be thinking that the Nationals and Reds had the two best records and two best pinch-hitting lines in the NL. While true, just behind the Nats and Reds in pinch hitting are the Mets, Dodgers, Rockies, and Marlins. The Giants are in the middle of the pack and the Braves had the worst pinch-hitting line in the NL. Doing well while pinch hitting certainly doesn't hurt a team's winning percentage, but it isn't necessary to win 94 games (as both San Francisco and Atlanta did last season) or to make the playoffs. Three of the NL's five postseason qualifiers posted below-average pinch-hitting lines.

By its very nature, pinch-hitting stats are extremely volatile. Most players receive a scant number of pinch-hitting opportunities in a given season. The leader in pinch-hitting PAs for Reds was Xavier Paul at 40. For the Nationals, it was Chad Tracy at 53. Shane Robinson led the Cards with 56 pinch-hitting PAs. These represent tiny spans of performance and thus are subject to wild fluctuation. Individual pinch hitting shares this characteristic with team pinch hitting. The team with the most pinch-hitting PAs last season was Milwaukee with 315. No other club had more than 279 pinch-hitting PAs. These PA totals represent less than half of an individual player season's worth of production. Individual and team pinch-hitting performances fluctuate greatly while the overall MLB numbers remain consistently poor.

To give us a few anecdotal examples, let's look at some of the better pinch-hitting performances from the 2012 postseason qualifiers.

  • In 2012, Washington's Tracy hit .261/.340/.391 for a pinch-hitting OPS of .731 and an sOPS+ of 125. In 2010, Tracy hit .042/.179/.042 as a pinch-hitter, which equaled an OPS of .221 and sOPS+ of -27.
  • In 2012, the Reds' Xavier Paul hit .333/.385/.556 while pinch hitting. His .940 pinch-hitting OPS equaled a 188 sOPS+ on the year. The year prior, Paul pinch-hit for a line of .093/.114/.140, which equaled a .253 OPS and sOPS+ of -16 as a pinch-hitter.
  • In 2011, Skip Schumaker made 15 PAs as a pinch-hitter and batted for a line of .429/.467/.500. HIs .967 pinch-hitting OPS was good for an sOPS+ of 219. Last year, Schumaker made 31 pinch-hitting PAs and hit .192/.323/.269, which equaled a .592 OPS and 84 sOPS+.
  • For the Cardinals in 2011, Ryan Theriot pinch-hit in 15 PAs for a slash line of .250/.357/.583. His .940 OPS equaled a 208 sOPS+ as a pinch-hitter. In 2012, Theriot made 18 PAs for San Francisco as a pinch-hitter and batted .278/.278/.389, for a .667 OPS and 104 sOPS+.
The nature of pinch hitting means that chance has as much an influence on outcomes as skill--whether it be in one pinch-hitting PA or a season's worth. This is why Chad Tracy in 2010 and Xavier Paul in 2011 posted a pinch-hitting OPS lower than their respective pinch-hitting batting averages in 2012. This is also why Ryan Theriot can post a Pujolsian OPS while pinch-hitting for the Cardinals in 2011 and a Schumackiavellian OPS while pinch-hitting for the Giants in 2012. Chance can also explain Schumaker's 375-point swing in pinch-hitting OPS from 2011 to 2012.

Becasue of pinch hitting's intrinsically volatile fans shouldn't worry about the Cardinals' poor pinch-hitting stats from 2012. There's as much a chance the Cards will lead the league in pinch-hitting in 2013 as there is that they'll repeat their poor 2012 performance.
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