Mains: The golden age of … pinch-hitting?

From SABR member Rob Mains at Baseball Prospectus on February 1, 2018:

In my last article, I discussed how hitting by major-league pitchers is at an all-time low. That, I noted, was unsurprising, giving the ubiquity of the designated hitter and the corresponding reduction in opportunities for developing pitchers to ever swing a bat. What was surprising, I noted, was the way that managers have reacted to this change: Plate appearances by pitchers are also at an all-time low.

The simple explanation is that starting pitchers are being pulled from games earlier than ever before. The average start lasted fewer than 5.5 innings for the first time in history in 2017. But that doesn’t hold water, since those starters are replaced in the lineup by relief pitchers who also can’t hit. Baseball, of course, isn’t basketball. Teams don’t have the option of taking the bat away from their worst hitters the way bricklayers on basketball teams pass the ball to their teammates who can shoot.

So if pitchers are batting less frequently—and we’re talking a lot less frequently, with pitcher plate appearances down, on average, by over 100 per team since the beginning of divisional play in 1969—those appearances have to be going to someone else, right? Yes, of course, they do. Some of them are gobbled up by double-switches. When a pitcher who’s scheduled to lead off the next inning gets pulled along with the no. 8-hitting shortstop, putting the new pitcher in eight-hole and the new shortstop in the pitcher’s spot postpones the pitcher’s plate appearance.

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Originally published: February 1, 2018. Last Updated: February 1, 2018.