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Coming Through in a Pinch ?

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The Diamondbacks need to up their game in pinch hitting roles

Christian Walker hits home run against Dodgers. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Diamondbacks pinch hitters went hitless in 2020. They were 0-22, with three Walks and one HBP. Due to having the DH in the NL last year there was much less need to utilize pinch hitters. But the 26 PH plate appearances were tied with the Pirates for the fewest in the NL. (The Pirates pinch hitters did manage 4 hits though).

Tim Locastro had the most PH PA, with 5, followed by Stephen Vogt, Illdemaro Vargas and Kevin Cron with three each. Nobody else had more than 2 PH PA. 2020 PH Report Link

The less frequent utilization of pinch hitters under Torey Lovullo has been a trend throughout his tenure with Arizona. In fact, from 2017-2020 the team’s 792 PH PA ranks fewest in the league. 2017-2020 report link . The team’s 73 wRC+ in PH appearances over that time span ranks 9th of 15. Not surprisingly, the Dodgers with their superior depth rank at the top of that table in both volume and rate of production.

The best season for D-Backs pinch hitters in the Hazen/Lovullo era was 2019. That year the team hit 12 pinch hit homeruns, (including three PH sirens from Adam Jones, who went 5 for 11, with 2 walks) The table below gives you the team breakout by year, the avg per year and then that’s compared to league average per team. NOTE: I took the D-Backs out from the league from league totals so you can compare them to the average of the other 14 teams.

There is also a separate breakout at the bottom of the table for HIGH LEVERAGE. On average 20-25% of pinch hit at bats come in High Leverage situations as defined by Fangraphs. * That compares to roughly 10% of all league wide PA coming in Hi Levg situations. In other words, Pinch Hit at bats are more than twice as likely to come in a High Leverage situation than all other at bats.

That’s obvious to anyone who watches the game of course. But I emphasize it because although we are dealing with small sample sizes, and pinch hitting is hard and overall numbers are depressed from league averages, pinch hit at bats have an outsized effect on close game outcomes relative to their sample size. Therefore it’s still an important area to look at and seek incremental improvement for the team.

(*Note, FG has a tighter definition of Hi Levg than Baseball Reference, so they show lower number of high levg PA than BR)

Of course on a league wide macro basis batters hit worse when pinch hitting. It’s known as the Pinch Hitting Penalty. You can read more about that here . But the short version is batters are going to give up 20+ points of wOBA on average. It’s also important that managers gain the platoon advantage when pinch hitting to offset some of that PH Penalty. That advantage is biggest when a right-handed batter replaces a left handed batter facing a left handed pitcher. The potential value of this is slightly increased with the 3 Batter Minimum rule.

It’s difficult to project the exact composition of the bench at this point. The only veteran bench player on the 40 man roster with a sizable amount of PH PA in his career is left handed Stephen Vogt, and his track record as a pinch hitter is below average: 117 PA, .173/.291/.316, .607 OPS, 2 HR, 11 RBI. It’s notable that when you look at his career split you see he’s not hit well as a DH or even when playing first base. His best work at the plate has come when he’s also behind it.

Beyond that, righty Tim Locastro has 30 career PH PA, and has 2 hits, 4 walks and 3 HBP in those chances.

There are a couple of young left handed batters likely to be coming off the bench such as Pavin Smith, and Daulton Varsho, and either of them could potentially develop into a good pinch hitter. But the team probably needs a good right handed bat off the bench with some power. They potentially had a guy that could fill that role in Kevin Cron, but he didn’t have the plate discipline or ability to lay off breaking pitches out of the zone to make it work. (4 for 24, w/ 2 HR, but 10 K’s). And in case anyone feels the need to bring it up Yasmany Tomas was 3 for 34, with 16 K’s as a Pinch Hitter. Wyatt Mathisen is right handed, on the 40 man roster, and has some pop, but he has zero track record.

Hey, what’s Adam Jones doing in 2021? Oh, his contract in Japan is a 2-year deal. Scratch that.

Ok, well I’m going to turn it over to you, the reader to help figure out how to bolster the bench. Here is what we need:

1.) An affordable right-handed bench bat. (i.e. ideally will cost less than $2M)

2.) Has some pop

3.) Is either a free agent, or is available in a reasonable trade

Here is a link to a Split Report, Right-Handed Batters as pinch hitter since 2018-2020, minimum 25 PA. You can use that as a starting point, or any other method to help find a guy they might be able to pursue.

Two last links just for fun. Here is a link to all time Dbacks Pinch Hitters, ranked by OPS, minimum 30 PA

And here is a right handed pinch hit at bat worth remembering

Happy Hunting !