Friday, July 12, 2013

Pinch Runners in Baseball

I enter play-by-play box score data from Baseball-Refernce on a daily basis and have complete information going back to 2009 and a handful of other seasons for check purposes. I have all postseason and All-Star Game plate appearances, the 1950 season, and I'm working on 1960 now. Part of my interest is to observe differences in tendencies and trends, primarily around attitudes toward stealing and base running. It takes me about an hour to enter in a typical slate of 15 games, and when I go back in time, it goes much quicker since there were fewer games. As I was doing a couple of days of 1960 games today, I noticed something that had been sitting in the back of my mind for some time--the tendency of teams to use pinch runners seemed higher, which made me wonder if this has changed over the years.

This chart shows the number of pinch runners per game from 1916-2013 (all data obtained using the Baseball Play Index feature and through July 10th, 2013):

Look where that chart peaks--1960--I NAILED it!. This table shows the top rates:
In a prior post on base stealing, steal attempts began a slow increase around 1950 after a 30-year trend of being de-emphasized and had a 20-year renaissance in the 1970s and 1980s as parks with artificial turf placed a premium on teams with more speed. It's possible that a side effect of this was an increased use of pinch runners, which peaked in the mid-70s and started a rapid decline. No doubt one part of this decline is the increased size of pitching staffs--as recently as 1980, the Dodgers used 13 pitchers the entire year, 10 of whom were on the staff for most of the year and the other 3 either fill-ins or injured. So far this year the Orioles have used 22 pitchers, obviously all not on the roster at the same time, but with the trend going from 9-10 man staffs to 12 and sometimes even 13, there are far fewer opportunities for pinch runners. If the typical bench is 5 players, one is a backup catcher, one is probably some kind of pinch hitting specialist a la Jason Giambi that is pinch-run FOR, leaving only 3 players to choose from. To waste one-third of a bench on a pinch runner seems like an extravagance.

But does pinch running work? The database I created contains almost 70,000 pinch running examples. I tossed out those in which the player stayed in the game, because I wanted to see if a pinch runner does what he's supposed to do, which is score. If I leave in those players who stay in the game defensively, they might have scored later in the game, and I can't correct for that. As such, these 70,000 instances are reduced down to 35,000, enough to draw some conclusions. Here's what it looks like:

Pinch runners score about 25-30% of the time. It would be very interesting to break this down by base and number of outs in the inning, so I won't make grand pronouncements other than to say that in general, pinch runners have been successful at a stable rate over time.

These are the players with the most pinch run appearances:

One team is responsible for a number of entries on this list, the Oakland A's. Matt Alexander started his career with the Cubs and was traded to the A's and joined Herb Washington in the pinch running tandem in baseball history. Blue Moon Odom and Pedro Ramos were pitchers, but Washington was the quintessential pinch runner--he never had a plate appearance in the major leagues, not a single one. It was pretty obvious what he was going to do when he entered the game since he attempted to steal about 50% of the time, but wasn't that good at it. Willie Blomquist is the closest thing to any kind of regular pinch runner in the game today, along with players just off this list like John McDonald and Dewayne Wise.

Unless drastic changes are made with regard to pitching staff sizes, the incidence of pinch running won't increase anytime soon. Absent extreme occurrences in extra-inning games, there probably won't be many teams which use more than one pinch runner in a game. There are still players who are routinely pinch-run for at the end of games, Paul Konerko and Jason Giambi being the best examples, but teams seem to be emphasizing overall speed over the lumberjack hitter. Except for a phenomenal power hitter (and I can't come up with anyone off the top of my head), I'm not sure the truly slow runner has a place in today's game--position player roster spots have become so valuable that the tolerance for liabilities is lower than in the past. Just as the light-hitting middle infielder is essentially extinct, the power hitter that clogs the base paths and requires a pinch runner might be on the way out as well. If you read that stolen base post, steal attempts have been increasing over the past five years or so. Speed IS coming back, just not the pinch runner.

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