Most Valuable Pinch-Hit Appearances in 2013, American League

In this edition of WPA analysis/storytelling, I wanted to focus on pinch hitters. I defined a pinch-hit appearance as one where the batter came in as a pinch hitter, received only one plate appearance, and did not play in the field. That is, I wanted to focus on players who were clearly supposed to get a big hit in a big spot and do nothing else!

5. James Loney vs. Tommy Hunter, September 24th

With the O’s and the Rays fighting for a postseason berth, the 4-4 tie going into the bottom of the 9th inning must have worried both managers. Tommy Hunter was on the mound, having worked the 8th and trying to send the game to the 10th. But he couldn’t quite do it.

Sean Rodriguez was due up first in the inning, but Joe Maddon elected to pinch-hit with James Loney. Hunter had suffered all year against lefties (.369 wOBA allowed) and this time was no different. With an 0-1 count, Loney smashed the game-winning home run over the right field wall, notching 0.370 WPA in the process.

4. Jeff Keppinger vs. Cody Allen, July 31st

With the score knotted at 3-3 in the top of the 9th inning, Indians starter Cory Kluber was still working. He got Adam Dunn to fly out and struck out Paul Konerko, but Conor Gillaspie singled, ending Kluber’s night. Cody Allen replaced him and gave up a single to Dayan Viciedo (who was replaced by Jordan Danks as a pinch runner) and a walk to Gordon Beckham. Catcher Josh Phegley was due up but Robin Ventura pinch-hit with Jeff Keppinger instead.

Allen tried to get Keppinger to chase two fastballs off the plate, but Keppinger wouldn’t bite, working the count to 2-0. Allen tried a fastball high but to no avail, sending the count to 3-0. Allen threw another high fastball at 95 MPH and got the call to make it 3-1. Then he pumped one down the middle for called strike two. With the count now full, Allen tried another fastball, this time low and on the outside corner, but Keppinger got his bat on it, singling to center field and bringing around Danks and Gillaspie.

The White Sox had the lead, but closer Addison Reed couldn’t hold it, instead coughing up two runs in the bottom half to tie the game again. Chris Perez did his part, clearing the way for Carlos Santana to win it in the bottom of the 10th with a walkoff shot. Still, Keppinger’s pinch-hit appearance gave his team a big boost, as represented by his 0.397 WPA.

3. Vernon Wells vs. Jake McGee, June 22nd

The Yankees were behind 5-3 in the bottom of the 7th, facing Joel Peralta, who’d just replaced starter Alex Torres. Robinson Cano walked to start the inning, Travis Hafner flew out, Lyle Overbay doubled, and Zoilo Almonte, playing in just his fourth major-league game, walked to load the bases with one out.

At this point Joe Maddon lost faith in Peralta, bringing in lefty Jake McGee to face Jayson Nix. Nix struck out, but David Adams walked to force in a run, making it a 5-4 ballgame with the bases still loaded. Chris Stewart was up, but Joe Girardi pinch-hit for him with Vernon Wells. It was a ballsy move at the time because Wells, after starting the season on fire (148 wRC+ in April), was in a seriously extended 9-87 slump at the time.

He took a 96 MPH fastball for strike one,  fouled off a 97 MPH fastball for strike two, and fouled off a 98 MPH fastball to stay alive. McGee threw another 98 MPH fastball high for ball one, then made a great pitch: a 97 MPH fastball on the outer corner that could’ve easily been strike three.

That is, it could’ve been, if Wells hadn’t punched the ball into right field and over the fence for a bases-clearing double. The hit put the Yankees up 7-5, a lead they’d keep for the rest of the game. The play brought some controversy; Adams, who was on first, scored even though the ball bounced on the field and over the fence. That’s usually called a ground-rule double and the runner on first would be held at third, but the umpires determined that a fan interfered with the play, so they allowed Adams to score.

Wells was replaced by Austin Romine in the top of the 8th, having contributed 0.479 WPA to the game.

2. Hank Conger vs. Jim Henderson, August 31st

When you’re behind 5-4 in the top of the 9th and your pitcher’s spot is due up, pinch hitting isn’t exactly a bold and daring move. So with two outs and Josh Hamilton on second representing the tying run, Mike Scioscia was pretty much required by law to pinch hit for Dane de la Rosa. And so he did, bringing in Hank Conger to face Jim Henderson.

The first pitch was a 99 MPH fastball way inside for ball one. The second pitch was a fastball low that Conger swung through for strike one. The third pitch was a fastball high and inside, just barely on the corner but called ball two. Pitch four was obviously a mistake in location; pretty much dead center and elevated just a bit. Conger crushed it down the right field line for a two-run, go-ahead homer. Ernesto Frieri replaced him on the mound and preserved the win for the Angels.

Conger is actually a decent-hitting catcher, so maybe Scioscia knew what he was doing. Regardless, Conger made him look good, contributing 0.711 WPA to the Angels’ victory.

1. Jason Giambi vs. Addison Reed, September 24th

Addison Reed, the White Sox closer, took the mound in the bottom of the ninth inning with his team ahead 4-3. This game meant nothing to the White Sox, who were already eliminated from postseason play, but the Indians were fighting for a wild card berth and Reed had a chance to play spoiler. He struck out Yan Gomes to start the inning but gave up a single to Michael Brantley. Mike Aviles came up next and struck out. Up next came Jason Giambi, elder statesman but still a dangerous hitter, to pinch hit. The Indians had a 13% chance to win the game.

The first pitch was a slider almost in the dirt that Giambi whiffed on for strike one. The second pitch was a heater that missed low and inside for ball one; Brantley stole second on pitch. The third pitch was a well-placed slider, juuuuust barely in the strike zone at the lower-inside corner. It was an excellent pitch, but Giambi got a hold of it for a two-run homer, giving the Indians a dramatic 5-4 win, keeping their postseason hopes alive, and notching 0.8654 WPA — best in the major leagues this year!

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