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Baseball Strategy:Pinch Hitting

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Rules and Exceptions

Rule 1:

Pinch hitting is a vital managerial maneuver that requires some skill, some knowledge, and some luck.

A manager may choose to pinch-hit either for a pitcher or for a position player later in the game. With a pitcher, the choice is obvious: a pinch-hitter comes in for a pitcher when he is done pitching for the night. After that, the pinch hitter may come out of the game or he may stay in and a double-switch will take place. Late in a game, perhaps a close one, when a team is behind by a run or two, a manager may bring in a pinch hitter for a position player. Again, this choice might be clearer if it is a weak hitter he is pinch-hitting for. But it also depends on what he wants the pinch-hitter to do. Sometimes, a pinch-hitter might come to the plate looking to single, steal second, then score on a base hit. Other times, the pinch-hitter might be chosen for his prodigious power. Either way, the pinch hitter is a tremendously valuable role on the team. When they come up in the late innings, the goal is to give the offense a little juice, and perhaps to work the pitcher to a disadvantage.

Let's make a hypothetical example of Kirk Gibson and Tom Glavine.

Ok. It's the bottom of the 9th inning, and Glavine is trying to close out a complete-game performance while clinging to a lead of one or two runs. Gibson, who Glavine hasn't seen all night, comes up to bat as the pinch hitter. Let's say that Gibson is completely healthy. If this were a starting hitter's turn at bat, it would be at least the third time he's seen Glavine. Because of this, he's probably seen his full arsenal of pitches. Glavine couldn't just throw him his fastball and changeup, his two best pitches, because the hitter has seen those too many times. He would need to mix in his secondary and even tertiary pitches.

However, with Gibson, Glavine has the freedom to throw whatever he wants: Gibson hasn't been looking at his fastball and change the whole night, so Glavine could just use those pitches against him. This is more of a closer's mentality, who needs only one or two good pitches because he won't see a hitter more than once.

This puts Gibson at a disadvantage, since he is facing exclusively Glavine's best pitches for the first time. Since he has pitched into the ninth, we know that they still have some bite on them. Gibson is at a further disadvantage in that this is the first time all game that he's seen the field. He doesn't feel as warmed up, as loose as Glavine, who has already thrown 120 pitches. However, there are some things going in Gibson's favor: he is a good hitter who hasn't been playing the tiring game of baseball on a hot night for 8+ innings. He may be a fastball/changeup hitter: if that is the case and Glavine knows this, Glavine will have to make the decision of whether to go with his strengths vs the hitter's strengths or go for his weaker pitches.

There is one more thing on Gibson's side: magic. Although the supernatural doesn't have a place in a strategical essay, it definitely has a presence on a baseball field where the stuff discussed here actually takes place. Late in an important game with a one-run lead and a great pitcher on the mound and a pinch hitter up to bat, magic may or may not have a role. It is often on the side of the pinch hitter.

Now, no pinch hitter will get that clutch hit every time, but it helps if they are happy and confident in that role. Bench players often are unhappy with their place and would prefer to be starting. Of course, baseball players want to play baseball, but bench players are there for a reason. Sometimes, it's to spell the regulars when they need a rest. Other times it's to provide spectacular defense coming off the bench. Other times, it's for the offensive spark. Often, a player on the bench who makes an appearance as a pinch hitter has a hole in his swing or a negative offensive attribute. With a major hole in the swing or a big uppercut, a player will be exposed if he starts on a regular basis, and soon other pitchers will begin exploiting his weaknesses. But off the bench or starting in small doses, a player with an uppercut could use that attribute to stop swinging and missing three times a game and to start smashing balls into bullpens in key places once a game.

So who wins this matchup? It's anyone's guess. Just looking at batting averages alone, Glavine would win the battle at least 6.5 times out of 10.


Rule 2:


Pinch Hit Leaderboard

Notable Pinch Hits

Kirk Gibson's pinch-hit home run in the 1990 world series game 1 was a breathtaking thing. Although Gibson was so hobbled by injuries he could hardly walk, he went to the batting cage late in the game, convinced that he had 'one good swing left in him.' Sure enough, off of closer Dennis Eckersley, he crushed a game-winning home run. While some fans might have thought the Dodger manager to be crazy when his at bat began, they were no doubt hailing him for his expert choices after it. If Gibson had struck out, they would have cursed his name for days.

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