Before the Pirates started their doubleheader with the Reds Saturday, David Freese told MLB.com’s Adam Berry that he predicted Matt Joyce would come up as a pinch-hitter at some point, work a 3-2 count and draw the walk. Joyce, of course, got a chance off the bench in game two, worked the count full and earned a free pass. It was his 21st pinch-hit walk of the year, which set a new Major League record.
21 tends to be a good number for Pittsburgh right fielders.
At this point it may seem a little redundant to gush over his season, but anytime an all-time record is broken, some gushing is in order. Entering play Sunday, Joyce had a 164 wRC+ as a pinch-hitter. The league leader is Mike Trout (169). David Ortiz is 2nd at 163. His .942 OPS off the bench would be the ninth best mark in baseball if he qualified, sitting right between Jose Altuve and Nolan Arenado. He is one RBI away from matching Willie Stargell’s club record 16 runs batted in off the bench in a season. He has a 1.203 OPS with runners in scoring position and two outs. He has homered four times as a pinch hitter. Last year’s Pirates team had two pinch-hit home runs.
And you’ve heard all this before. Heck, I’ve written about about this before. On May 1, in fact, for The Pittsburgh Sports Report. When I asked Clint Hurdle what made him successful off the bench then, the skipper complimented Joyce’s ability to stay ready while “hunting those at-bats.” Hurdle touched on that again after Joyce’s record setting walk.
“It shows mental discipline. It shows physical discipline,” Hurdle said after Saturday’s second game. “…he understands the importance of the job. He understands the value of an at-bat.”
For a guy who only had 122 tries as a pinch-hitter through his first 6+ years in the majors, he has made the most of his 76 tries in 2016. In fact, the Pirates have played more games where he’s pinch-hit than not this year.
But again, you’ve all heard this before, and this gushing may not be worth it because Joyce is probably heading to a new club in 2017. You can’t blame him. He’s earned another shot at a starting job that the Pirates simply cannot offer him here. It isn’t necessarily about money or wanting to leave. It’s about what is best for his future.
If there is one thing the Pirates have done well the last couple years, it’s that if you can’t keep a player, re-create him. Russell Martin becomes Francisco Cervelli. Joel Hanrahan becomes Mark Melancon. A.J. Burnett becomes Edinson Volquez who then becomes A.J. Burnett. So what made Matt Joyce so successful? How do you find another hitter like him? What is the anatomy of the perfect pinch-hitter?
Pinch-hitting can be an enigma, like hitting well with runners in scoring position or a pitcher stranding a lot of runners on base. A player can be one of the best at any of those categories one year, not change anything to the next, and become sub-par. That’s baseball. Joyce was a non-roster invitee this spring. Players like Corey Hart are given millions and cannot deliver in similar roles. It can be a crapshoot, so you’re probably best off looking at characteristics of good hitters to find good pinch-hitters, with an emphasis on batting eye probably being the most important.
Joyce has always had a good walk rate, drawing free passes anywhere from 9.4 to 15.3 percent of the time for years he played in at least 12 games. Those walk figures were boosted by a better than average eye, swinging at pitches outside of the zone about 25 percent of the time from 2012-2015 (the league average this year is just north of 30 percent). Joyce has walked in 20.6 percent of his plate appearances and has offered at only 17 percent of balls outside the zone this year.
That pitch selection is partially why Joyce has been thrown a disproportionate amount of balls. Out of the 355 pitches he’s seen as a pinch-hitter, 180 were strikes (50.7%). Out of the 655,670 pitches thrown this year across all of baseball, 416,755 were strikes (63.6%).
Now a variety of factors probably helped create the imbalance. Joyce’s low swing rate means he didn’t turn as many balls into strikes as other batters. He is a home run threat, so pitchers may stress pitching to the corners more. He gets to face tiring starters more often. But perhaps what is most impressive is that he does not buy into the mindset that pinch-hitters need to be aggressive and force something that may not be there.
One player who preached being aggressive when pinch-hitting back in May was Jason Rogers. Rogers did a very good job off the bench in 2015 for the Brewers, posting an .808 OPS and 124 wRC+ over 58 plate appearances when called upon off the pine. Before the Bucs snagged David Freese mid-spring, it looked like he was going to be the extra corner infielder. Instead he spent most of the year in AAA, where had a very average .263/.338/.371 line. He struggled in his limited time in the majors, going 2 for 21.
The ironic part is that Rogers walked in three of his 14 opportunities off the bench. That does not sound too aggressive. He walked in 15.5 percent of his pinch-hit plate appearances in 2015, so he may bounce back and be a more reliable reserve in 2017. John Jaso may be worth keeping another year because of his good career walk rate and his success in his limited time off the bench. Then again, he probably is not as likely to bounce back in the Pirates’ system than a newcomer.
There are impending free agents worth taking a look at too, but they are all broken goods (like most players who go into free agency looking to be a backup). Carl Crawford is coming off a terrible year, but he was hitting line drives at a 23.9 percent clip while being saddled with a .211 BABIP average. Billy Butler mashed lefties for years, but he’s struggled the last few campaigns and has a terrible glove. Alejandro De Aza walks 10 percent of the time, but he only had a .332 slugging percentage.
Take your pick. Throw a dart at someone. The Pirates got every penny’s worth of Joyce’s $1 MM deal. They’ll probably have to spend more next year to get a worse offensive season.
Then again, trying to replace arguably the best pinch-hitting performance in franchise history is pretty tough. But if they focus on walk and swing rates again, they are looking in the right place.