The pinch hitter is one of the most difficult roles to play in baseball. Oftentimes the game is on the line, it’s a critical situation where they need to drive in a run or get on base, or it’s just trying to get a quality at-bat in the pitcher’s spot. The true kicker though is that they only have one chance to make a difference. The Rockies have had a number of notable pinch hitters in the past like Jason Giambi, John Vander Wal, and Pat Valaika. In an overall underwhelming season offensively, how have the Rockies fared with their pinch-hitting opportunities?
A deceiving stat line
On the surface level, the Rockies appear to be above league average when it comes to pinch-hitting. They rank in the top 10 for a number of the typical counting stats. As a team thus far, they have gathered 23 hits, with eight going for extra bases including three home runs, driven in 10 runs, and have a .226 batting average. However, while at a glance it may look promising, the stat line is deceiving.
Expanding it more, the Rockies have a batting line of .226/.267/.387 as pinch hitters. Their on-base percentage is the second-worst in the National League due to the fact that they are also last in the National League when it comes to drawing walks. In 101 plate appearances, the Rockies have drawn a total of five walks in a pinch-hitting scenario. On the flip side, they have struck out 31 times.
Things get even worse when you dial in on the situations where the Rockies are pinch-hitting. The team ranks just below league average on the Pinch Hitting Leverage Index with a 1.29 phLI. This means that most of their pinch-hitting situations occur with a slightly higher than average pressure. For instance, with two outs and runners in scoring position, the Rockies have a dismal batting average of .100 in that scenario. The higher the leverage of the situation, the more likely it is a Rockies pinch hitter is doomed to fail. There is much more that we could dive into, but I suggest you head over to FanGraphs to check out the splits leaderboard to adjust filters even more for pinch hitters.
Two eras of pinch-hitting
So far this season you split the pinch-hitting into two categories: Pre-Brendan Rodgers and Post-Brendan Rodgers. Prior to May 20th, the date Rodgers was activated from the injured list, the Rockies batted .224/.260/.328 with 15 hits, including Garrett Hampson’s clutch pinch-hit homer against the Giants in April. The trio of Yonathan Daza, the player formerly known as Josh Fuentes, and Alan Trejo led the team with three hits apiece while Sam Hilliard struggled mightily leading to his demotion to Triple-A.
Once Rodgers was activated, the only thing that improved was the slugging percentage. This was because Rodgers hit his first big league homers while pinch-hitting. Since his activation, the Rockies have a .231/.286/.538 batting line in a smaller sample size. Rodgers has gone 2-3 in his pinch-hitting chances, but that won’t be sustainable as he is expected to take on more of a starting role, and nobody else has stood out in the role.
The pinch-hitter dilemma
The Rockies’ problem with pinch-hitting lies in the fact that the makeup of their roster is inconsistent. The position players on the roster all thrive when given the opportunities to play every day or on a more consistent basis. A critique that fans have for Bud Black is the lineup construction and how the position players are utilized. For example, Hilliard was thrust into a pinch-hitting role and those struggles perpetuated into the rare opportunities he had to start.
Perhaps the greatest dilemma is that of Matt Adams, who is currently on the injured list. Adams was brought onto the team with the thought that he would be a lefty power bat off the bench, like Jason Giambi. The only problem is that Adams has just one hit as a pinch hitter and just one extra-base hit on the year. With only two players combining for three pinch-hit home runs, the Rockies aren’t much of a power threat off the bench late in the game or in critical situations. What’s a team on the verge of a rebuild supposed to do with limited options?
How to improve?
The Rockies were on the right track with signing someone like Matt Adams. Having a veteran power bat off the bench to deploy late in the game for a pinch-hit home run is a smart roster decision. Injuries are limiting Adams, while the other rotating positional players are inexperienced enough that coming in cold isn’t something they have gotten used to yet.
The Rockies could look outward for more options to fill a veteran pinch-hit role on the bench such as Edwin Encarnación who would be an intriguing option for the club or start grooming players in the minors for those types of situations. Ultimately, it may come back to the ongoing struggles the team is having at the plate overall. The approach and preparation are still lacking, and until the Rockies rediscover how to hit, things won’t improve.
As I mentioned before, pinch-hitting is one of the hardest things to do in baseball, and while the Rockies are staying above league average on paper, there are many glaring holes once you start digging further. It’s a difficult dilemma, and something Bud Black and the Rockies front office will need to address to build their roster depth and versatility.
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Nick Groke catches up with interim GM Bill Schmidt and what his plans are with the Rockies currently. As it turns out, it is mostly a wait-and-see approach, something Rockies fans have unfortunately come to expect year after year. Schmidt is trying to stay positive as he believes the team isn’t far off from being competitive, however, his greatest challenge lies in the fact that the Rockies will most certainly be sellers at the end of July and Schmidt will have to oversee the possible dealings of Trevor Story and Jon Gray and some potential other pieces. He did have this to say about the team, “They don’t want to suck, they’ve got pride. It goes back to my point of just learning to get through it. And with that, I think, does come some confidence.”
One of the fun(?) things about sports is playing the “what if?” game. In this article from the folks at Rox Pile, they reflect back on the fact that the Rockies drafted Kumar Rocker in 2018 in the late rounds, but failed to sign him as he decided to go play at Vanderbilt. The decision paid off as Rocker is expected to be a top first-round pick in this year’s draft, leaving Rockies fans to ponder a world where Rocker was a Rockie, a match made in heaven.
On the farm
It was a rough night for Albuquerque as they were stung by Salt Lake 11-4. Salt Lake had Albuquerque starter Brandon Gold’s number as he allowed seven runs on nine hits in 2 2⁄3 innings of work, five of those runs coming in the bottom of the first. The Isotopes would battle back to make it 8-4, but Chris Rusin allowed three runs in the bottom of the eighth to put the game out of hand. Taylor Motter and Brian Serven had multi-hits nights for Albuquerque, and all but two starters in the lineup had a hit.
It was also a rough night for Hartford as they managed a mere three hits in the 8-1 loss to Reading. Matt Dennis started for Hartford and was tagged for six runs on eight hits in four innings of work. Dennis continues to struggle in 2021 with an 0-5 record and a 10.80 ERA. Hartford’s lone run came in the fourth inning off of the bat of Taylor Snyder, his ninth of the season.
It was not a rough night for Spokane as they conquered Vancouver 5-2 behind a strong performance by starting pitcher Nick Bush. In six innings of work, Bush scattered three hits with five strikeouts and one walk. The one through four hitters drove the offense for Spokane as they accounted for all six of the team’s hits. Willie MacIver continued his strong season with another home run, his seventh of the year, with Isaac Collins and Aaron Schunk both having multi-hit nights.
A five-run eighth inning was enough for Fresno to crack Modesto in a 7-3 victory. Ezequiel Tovar continued his strong season with a four-hit night, capped off by a three-run homer in the eighth. Bladimir Restituyo had three hits on the night and Bryant Quijada had a pair of hits to aid the Fresno offense. On the pitching side of things, the team used four pitchers with each arm tossing about two innings. The pitch by committee approach paid off, as they managed to tally 11 strikeouts.
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