Giambi, Hamilton lead specialists who could come up big in small roles this fall
On Tuesday night, Jason Giambi came through in a pinch, delivering a towering walk-off home run that kept the Indians one game ahead of the Rangers in the AL wild-card race. Though no longer the hitter he once was, the 42-year-old slugger remains a legitimate threat off the bench, with game-changing power. This year, he's delivered three homers -- two of them walk-offs -- in 17 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter, and for his career he has 11 pinch-hit dingers, a record six of which have brought instant victory.
Giambi is just one of many players for whom small, defined roles can yield big results. Particularly with this month's expanded rosters, managers of contenders have a few extra players at their disposal who can give their teams crucial advantages in a situation down the stretch. Some of these specialists have been proving themselves all year long, at least to the extent we can determine via small sample sizes (and I warn you, I'll cite plenty of those below). What follows here is a look at the best of each type who could figure during the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs.
Giambi, whose 11 career pinch-homers rank second among active players to the 12 hit by Scott Hairston, is a .237/.362/.445 hitter in 210 plate appearances in that role. In addition to his power, he's as capable of working a walk to generate an all-important baserunner (which would then necessitate a pinch-runner, a second player off the bench) at a crucial time.
Boston's Jonny Gomes has seven career pinch-hit homers, four of them coming in 29 plate appearances in that role this year. Overall this season he has a .300/.517/.950 line as a pinch-hitter, though he's still just a career .165/.307/.368 hitter in 163 such plate appearances. It's worth noting that Sox pinch-hitters have delivered an MLB-best .962 OPS this year, on a .250/.365/.597 line in 85 PA, with lefty Mike Carp (5-for-18 with two homers) Gomes' "platoon"-mate.
With Jason Heyward back in the lineup, the Braves have not one but two excellent pinch-hitters on their bench in Reed Johnson and Evan Gattis, both righties. A renowned lefty-masher (.311/.367/.458 career), Johnson has hit .292/.351/.416 in 234 career pinch-PA. He's tied for fourth in the majors with 11 pinch-hits this year, batting .324/.410/.441 in 40 PA in that role. As for Gattis, he has four homers and six hits in just 13 PA in that role this year, for an eye-popping .600/.692/1.900 line.
Two lefty pinch-hitters worth keeping an eye on if they're not in their teams' starting lineups are Oakland's Seth Smith (.315/.413/.554 with six homers in 201 career pinch-PA) and St. Louis' Matt Adams (.314/.368/.600 with three homers in 41 career pinch- PA). Smith is in maanger Bob Melvin's mix as an outfield corner/DH option, though he's played sparingly amid a second-half slump, while Adams has taken over first base duties with Allen Craig sidelined by a foot sprain that threatens his postseason availability.
Nobody in this category can compete with the Reds' Billy Hamilton, who set a professional baseball record with 155 bases in 192 attempts in High-A and Double-A last year, and followed that up with 75 in 90 attempts at Triple-A this year. Since being called up earlier this month, he stole bases in each of his first 13 attempts before being caught by the Mets on his 14th try on Wednesday. He has scored five times in seven pinch-running appearances, all of which have included a steal. As potent a weapon as he is off the bench, his 6-for-14 showing at the plate has him threatening to play his way into the starting outfield at the expense of either Ryan Ludwick or Chris Heisey.
Hamilton isn't the only speedster who could have an impact off the bench. The Dodgers' Dee Gordon may not be able to hit big-league pitching well enough to merit a regular job, but he has 66 career steals in 85 attempts and is 10-for-12 this year. The Braves have multiple weapons in the form of Jordan Schafer (22-for-28 this year and 73-for-90 career) and Elliot Johnson (21-for-22 this year and 39-for-46 over the last two years), while the Rangers have Craig Gentry (19-for-22 this year and 51-for-61 career) if he's not in the lineup against lefties.
LOOGY (Left-handed One Out Guy)
Managers love their lefty relief specialists, often taking the opportunity to deploy two or even three per game thanks to expanded rosters, both in September and — thanks to fewer starters needed on the roster — October. Those maneuvers can come at a price, since many lefties can be neutralized when opposing managers go to their benches for righty pinch-hitters. For that reason, many LOOGYs actually wind up facing more righties than lefties, and getting roughed up in the process. Still, for one key at-bat late in the game for a hitter who won’t be lifted, the tactic has merit.
Among lefty relievers, none has been more effective this year than the Braves' Luis Avilan, who has held opposing lefties to a .137/.214/.157 line in 112 PA while also faring well against righties (.208/.299/.275 in 138 PA). Nearly as effective against lefties but falling off a bit against righties is the Dodgers' Paco Rodriguez (.125/.215/.167 in 109 PA vs. same-siders, .198/.283/.321 in 93 PA against righties). Fellow Dodger J.P. Howell (.168/.231/.234 in 118 PA versus lefties, .224/.315/.299 in 124 PA versus righties) has shown a similar pattern.
Other potentially playoff-bound lefties who have held lefthanded hitters to an OPS below .530 in at least 80 plate appearance this year include the Rays' Alex Torres (.171/.241/.224 in 84 PA), the Tigers' Drew Smyly (.192/.228/.250 in 127 PA), the Pirates' Tony Watson (.208/.231/.257 in 106 PA) and Justin Wilson (.205/.272/.241 in 93 PA), the A's Sean Doolittle (.193/.239/.289 in 90 PA), and the grandaddy of them all, the Cardinals' 38-year-old Randy Choate (.179/.271/.226 in 98 PA this year, .198/.277/.278 in 853 career PA).
ROOGY (Right-handed One Out Guy)
As far as righty-on-righty violence goes, contending or playoff-bound closers such as the Braves' Craig Kimbrel, the Royals' Greg Holland, the Rangers' Joe Nathan, the Red Sox' Koji Uehara, the Dodgers' Kenley Jansen and the Pirates' Jason Grilli all held opponents to an OPS of .501 or lower this year, but none of them count as specialists.
In fact, few teams deploy righty specialists in the same manner as lefties, but it's worth noting that Indians manager Terry Francona tied for second in the majors this year with 23 single-batter deployments of righty relievers, with the Rays' Joe Maddon (22), the Cardinals' Mike Matheny and the Reds' Dusty Baker (21 apiece) using such pitchers with similar frequency -- presumably when they have the platoon advantage, though as great as the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index is, I couldn't confirm that.
Among relevant non-closers who could be deployed in such a manner, Kansas City's Luke Hochevar (.142/.198/.265 in 121 PA), Oakland's Sonny Gray (.202/.236/.273 in 106 PA) and Ryan Cook (.202/.236/.273 in 159 PA), Cincinnati's Alfredo Simon (.210/.267/.284 in 194 PA) and Cleveland's Joe Smith (.241/.296/.293 in 126 PA) have been the most effective this year. Alas, we'll have to pour one out for the Tigers' venerable righty specialist Octavio Dotel, who helped St. Louis and Detroit, respectively, to the World Series in that role in the past two years; he hasn't pitched in the majors since April due to elbow troubles, and was shut down for the year in late August.
The Braves' aforementioned Elliot Johnson may not be much with the bat (.203/.241/.274 in 257 PA this year), but in addition to being an excellent pinch-running candidate, he's a particularly useful gloveman with experience at second, short, third and both outfield corners. Via Defensive Runs Saved, he's been 14 runs above average this year, mostly at second base, which could be helpful if manager Fredi Gonzalez wants to pull the infamously leaden-gloved Dan Uggla (-17 DRS this year, −61 career) late in games.
Nick Punto could prove himself similarly valuable for the Dodgers. Ten runs above average at second, short and third base this year and 40 above for his career, he's likely to be called upon by manager Don Mattingly to spot for shortstop Hanley Ramirez late in games due to the latter's fragility.
Should the Rangers pull out a wild-card spot, one other player to keep an eye upon is Gentry, who's 10 runs above average in the outfield this year and 35 above for his career. If Nelson Cruz comes back from his Biogenesis suspension and winds up replacing David Murphy in leftfield (since Alex Rios is now a fixture in right), he could be pulled late in favor of Gentry -- at least if manager Ron Washington has any recollection of a 2011 World Series victory flying over Cruz's head.
This one is admittedly very farfetched, but it's worth noting in case of a blowout or an extra-inning marathon. If that happens, Dodgers utilityman Skip Schumaker could prove valuable. He has three career relief appearances, including two scoreless innings this year (never mind the fact that he allowed six of 12 batters to reach base).
Cardinals backup catcher Rob Johnson, who may not make the postseason roster since he's been supplanted by Tony Cruz as Yadier Molina's caddy, has two scoreless appearances to his credit including a strikeout of the only batter he faced this year. Murphy and the Royals' Jamey Carroll (one inning apiece), the Tigers' Don Kelly and the Rays' Sam Fuld (one-third of an inning each) all have scoreless appearances in 2013 as well. That said, nobody can top the depth of the Indians, who received a scoreless inning Ryan Raburn this year and have Nick Swisher, who threw one for the Yankees in 2009, in tow as well. This article has been updated to correct the date of Swisher's pitching appearance.