Friday, February 8, 2013

Crowning the King of the Pinch Runners

Pinch runners can come in several forms: young speed burners, warm bodies taking the spot of a creaky kneed veteran or weak hitting defensive subs who are faster than the starter at their position.

I'm looking for the specialists.  These guys need someone else to get on base before they can get in the game.  The candidates I'm looking for rarely needed a glove or bat and will have 0.5 or fewer career plate appearances per game. Likewise they will have played less than half of their career games in the field so as to exclude defensive subs.

There have been a few articles that have unearthed some very cool data and analysis on pinch-runners and their history, and I won't attempt to rehash their data.  In 2006 Brandon Isleib looked at pinch runners over the past 50 years at Baseball Prospectus.  Among other cool stuff, his data showed the lumbering Willie McCovey was pinch run for 332 times.  A year later Steve Treder wrote in The Hardball Times examining non-batters, specifically those who had less than 0.9 plate appearances per game. The data included both defensive subs and pinch-runners.  Suffice it to say when looking at the speed burning specialists some interesting stories emerge.

Perhaps Sandy Piez was the first pinch running specialist.  The son of German immigrants the outfielder stole 73 bases in the Virginia League in 1913.  New York Giants manager John McGraw was known for his aggressive style and gave Piez a spot on the roster for the entire 1914 season.  The Hall of Fame skipper deployed Piez almost exclusively as a running specialist.  Piez appeared in 37 games and stole four bases and scored nine runs.  He played the field just five times with two coming in a season ending double header in which he started both contests in the outfield.  Despite his rust, he went 3 for 8 accounting for all his at bats on the season.  Piez never played in the majors again, spending 1915 in the minors before returning to his alma mater, Rutgers, as their baseball coach. 

Several players over the following decades fit the bill in single seasons but later went on to have other seasons with regular playing time.  Pepper Martin is one example.  Martin is a familiar name to baseball fans for having played with the 1930s Gas House Gang era Cardinals.  He broke into the big leagues in 1928, played in 39 games and evidently was on the team solely for his legs as he batted just 16 times and played in the field in just four games.  Martin stole a pair of bases and scored 11 runs and one has to wonder why he didn't get a chance to hit more given that he had hit .300+ the previous three years in the minors.  After one more year in the minors, Martin came back in 1930, played 12 more years winning two World Series and three stolen base crowns.  So while the guy known as the "Wild Horse of Osage" makes for an interesting story, his career use doesn't fit what were looking for here.

Decades later players like Dick Schofield, Jim Rivera, Jackie Hernandez in the 50s and 60s had seasons where they were used primarily as runners.  But later in their they career received "regular" playing time.  Both Jack Reed and  Ross Moschitto were used by the Yankees in the 60's to give Mickey Mantle's legs a rest but they usually stayed in on defense too so they are excluded from the study.

It wasn't until Charlie Finley came upon the major league scene that pinch running specialists became a known commodity.  The eccentric A's owner was always looking for an edge and was certain that elite speed was an underutilized portion of the game.  After a swift Panamanian youngster named Allan Lewis stole 116 bags for the A's single-A team in 1966, he became the first in a string of specialists employed by the A's.  Lewis played, or should I say ran, for the A's for six of the next seven years.  (He spent '71 in the minors after breaking an ankle in spring training).  In this time, "The Panamanian Express" got into 156 games, stealing 44 while getting caught 17 times.  He came to the plate just 31 times with just 10 games in the field.  Lewis won World Series rings with the A's in '72 and '73 scoring runs in both series.  He attempted two postseason steals and was cut down both times by Johnny Bench. 

After the '73 season, A's manager Alvin Dark saw Herb Washington competing in a track meet on TV and decided to give him a try as a "designated runner".  Washington ran track and was a reserve wide receiver on the Michigan State football team but had zero baseball experience.  Washington replaced Lewis on the roster and was asked to run and nothing else.  He got in 92 games in '74 and never batted or took the field.  He stole 29 bases but was caught 16 times. While his speed was undeniable, he lacked baseball instincts and his success rate wasn't special at all.  He was picked off by Dodger pitcher Mike Marshall in the '74 World Series and was retired on both of his attempts in the ALCS.  Washington got into 13 games in '75 before he was released in May ending his brief baseball career.  Topps gave Washington a card in the '75 set, something that eluded Lewis even though he played six seasons.  I believe the Pinch Run. tag on Washington's card is one of a kind.
In late March of '75 the A's purchased 23 year-old outfielder Don Hopkins from the Montreal Expos.  Hopkins struggled to hit in the minors but he stole 59 bases in 66 attempts the year prior.  Although he made the team based on his overwhelming speed he was at least a real baseball player.  He and Washington were actually both on the A's for about a month in early '75 before Oakland decided there wasn't room for both of them.  Hopkins stayed and played in 82 games with 21 steals in 30 attempts.  He went one for six at the plate while playing five games in the outfield.  Hopkins was relegated to the minors for all but three games in '76 and was thrown out in his only steal attempt.

Baseball Card Database

Also replacing Washington in 1975 was Matt Alexander a blazing fast player who had spent parts of the previous two years with the Cubs.  Alexander was at one point a highly touted prospect with Chicago but never took hold of a position.  Sold to the A's, he played in 214 games over the '75 - '77 seasons stealing 63 bases and getting caught 31 times.  Alexander got to bat occasionally going 12 for 82 for Oakland.  The A's released him in '78 and he was out of baseball and training as a barber late in the '78 season.  The Pirates who were guided by former A's skipper Chuck Tanner signed him and gave him a chance.  He played in 103 games over the next four seasons in Pittsburgh, with 30 steals and was nabbed only 7 times.  He took the field 22 times and curiously knocked 12 hits in 27 at bats.  Alexander had 0.52 plate appearances per game in his career which is a bit over the limit, but for the sake of this study I'm calling him a specialist.

Larry Lintz was another rabbit employed by the A's in '76 and '77 but he had 585 at bats in previous action, mainly with the Expos.  Although he batted just 31 times with the A's and was 44 for 59 on the bases, his prior record as a "real" player eliminates him as a career pinch runner.

The last runner in the A's stable was Darrell Woodard, a second baseman by trade who was called up for the last two months in '78.  He got into 33 games, 15 of them in the field and went 0-9 at the plate. Despite stealing 90 bases in 97 tries the year earlier in the minors, he stole just three bases in seven attempts against major leaguers.  Oakland also used reserve outfielder Miguel Dilone often as a pinch runner in '78 but the days of an exclusively pinch runners were fading away.

The 80s came and went with Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, and Vince Coleman stealing prodigious bases but no specialists emerged.  Then Rodney McCray came up to the White Sox in 1990 and made the team out of spring training despite having never played above A-ball.  He got into 32 games all as a sub and stole four bases without being caught and was hitless in six at bats.  He spent most of '91 in the minors where he became known for running through a fence in a highlight reel catch.  McCray played 17 more games for the Sox in '91 and 18 for the Mets in '92.  In all he played in 67 games in his career with zero starts and was nine for ten in steal attempts. 

No one else quite fit the mold until Mariners rookie Luis Ugueto in 2002.  A rule-V pick out of the Marlins organization, Seattle used the infielder mainly as a pinch runner to keep him involved.  He played 62 games, 44 as a pinch runner.  He stole eight bases, was caught four times, and batted .217 in 25 plate appearances.  He played 12 more games the next year and spent the rest of career in the minors, twice suspended for steroid use. 

These guys may not have been as effective as intended but we need to crown a king.  So here are the players who best met the requirements. Let's look at the stats:

Sandy Piez            37 G, 0.21 PA/G, 4 SB, SB% unknown
Allan Lewis          156 G, 0.20 PA/G, 44 SB, SB% 72.1
Herb Washington  105 G, 0 PA/G, 41 SB, SB% 64.6
Don Hopkins         85 G, 0.09 PA/G, 21 SB, SB% 67.7
Matt Alexander    374 G, 0.52 PA/G, 103 SB, SB% 71.0
Rodney McCray    67 G, 0.22 PA/G, 9 SB, SB% 90.0
Luis Ugueto          74 G, 0.42 PA/G, 10 SB, SB% 71.4

Piez may have been the first but he didn't steal enough bases.  When it comes down to it, neither did the two latest entrants, so McCray and Ugueto are out.  That leaves a quartet of A's to choose from..
It's a tough choice.  Washington is the closest thing to a "pure" pinch runner because he never did anything but run.  He didn't do it well and has the lowest success rate and is out of the running..
Hopkins played the least and wasn't much better than Washington when it came to getting away with thievery.
Alexander came to bat more often and by far had the most non-running action.  He does have more than twice as many steals as anyone else on the list but should I let him squeak by with his 0.52 PA/G?
Lewis' rate of success is a hair better than Alexander's, not to mention Lewis scored all on his own with a surprise home run in 1970.  But that's besides the point.
Lewis was the first in the string of A's, was a part of two of their championship teams, and had the best steal rate so I'm pronouncing him King of the Pinch Runners.

Lewis with the Kansas City A's

Finley's experiment lasted over a decade and came and went without much success.  With 12 man pitching staffs there is no room for a team to carry many reserves on offense, let alone a pinch running specialist. 
Allan Lewis' SABR bio


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