Tuesday, July 06, 2004

This Week's Stats Geek

Brian O'Neill has a new column about Lloyd McClendon's persistent and annoying use of Abraham Nunez as a pinch hitter. As with most of O'Neill's columns this season, this one is very good. He shows us some ghastly numbers:

In 2001, rookie Craig Wilson was the best pinch-hitter in the league, going 10 for 34, tying the major-league record for pinch-hit home runs with seven. Wilson batted .294 with a .442 on-base average, a ridiculous .912 slugging average and a 1.354 OPS (on-base average plus slugging average, the best basis for judging hitters).

Nunez was the 47th-best pinch-hitter that year, going .143/.143/.286/.429.

In 2002, Rob Mackowiak was the National League's second-best pinch-hitter at .333/.429/.708/1.137. Nunez was 51st at .116/.204/.116/.320.

Last year, Matt Stairs was the league's 11th-best pinch-hitter, going .229/.317/.457/.774. Nunez had one single in 26 at-bats for a .038/.161/.038/.200 line, making him the 60th-best pinch-hitter in the league. A .200 OPS is the equivalent of a 200 SAT score, which you get for just showing up.

Nunez's numbers as a pinch hitter have been so dreadful they're almost impossible to explain. It isn't much of a mystery why McClendon continues to use him, however: McClendon's obsessed with lefty-righty matchups and Nunez switch-"hits," and as O'Neill points out, McClendon's bench has recently been filled with rookies (Bad!) and unambiguously terrible ballplayers. McClendon would be much better off going with young players - J.J. Davis, Tony Alvarez, Bobby Hill - than sending up Nunez, but it shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with McClendon's managerial style that he doesn't realize that.

But let's return to those numbers for a second - .143/.286/.429? .204/.116/.320? .161/.038/.200? Are you kidding me? The Pirates would have been better off using Garth Brooks and Michael Jordan, to say nothing of the pitchers for whom Nunez pinch hit.

As O'Neill points out, though, Nunez isn't a terrible ballplayer. He's a downright competent utility infielder - he usually provides a good middle-infield glove and he has a reasonable batting eye. Nunez' full-season OPSs for 2001 to 2003 are .662, .631 and .667. That's not really good, of course, unless you consider his defensive ability - he'd be an awful first or second option as a pinch hitter even if he posted OPSs similar to his usual levels, in the .600s. Still, a pinch hitter with a .650 OPS wouldn't be terrible to use in a longer game, and he'd hit much better than the pitchers he replaced.

So why, exactly, has Nunez been such a trainwreck as a pinch hitter? Is he rusty coming off the bench? Probably rustiness explains part of the difference: most hitters are a little worse as pinch hitters than they are when they start. Or is it a sample size issue?

My guess is some of both. If Nunez were given, say, 1000 more pinch hit at bats, his pinch hit OPS would probably rise to a number closer to his usual OPSs - say .500 or .550, about what he's hitting as a pinch hitter this year. That still isn't very good. The real problem here is probably not that Nunez is a spectacularly bad pinch hitter (although he may be), but that he just isn't a very good hitter. Spot-start him at shortstop and he won't embarrass himself with the glove or the bat, but the reason you put up with a .650 OPS is because of his glove.


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