The Specialists: Small role, big impact
Elsewhere on SI.com today, Albert Chen has a feature on 33-year-old Rays rookie outfielder Rich Thompson, who has gone 3-for-4 in stolen bases since being recalled in early September giving the team a late-inning pinch-running threat. Taking advantage of the month’s expanded rosters, managers of other contenders can similarly define small roles that may give the team a crucial advantage in some situation somewhere down the stretch. On the other hand, several specialists have been proving themselves all season long, at least to the extent that we can discern via small sample sizes. What follows here is a look at a handful who could figure during the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs.
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. But those maneuvers come at a price, since such hurlers can often be neutralized when opposing managers go to their benches for 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 often has merit.
No southpaw specialist has been as tough on lefty hitters as the Braves’ Eric O’Flaherty, who has limited lefties to a .121/.205/.121 line this year; that’s eight singles, six walks and a hit-by-pitch in 73 plate appearances. In his seven-year career, O’Flaherty has held them to a .205/.268/.274 line in 515 PA. That said, not only have righties enjoyed considerably more success against him (.306/.374/.427), they’ve done so in 142 plate appearances, nearly twice as many as he has against lefties, and for his career, O’Flaherty has yielded a .277/.359/.372 line in 738 PA against righties, who have comprised around 59 percent of his workload. Not surprisingly given his presence in the NL East, the top two lefties he has faced in his career in terms of plate appearances are the Phillies’ Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, who are just 5-for-32 with 11 strikeouts combined against O’Flaherty. The Phillies and Braves face off in a three-game series this weekend.
Orioles lefty Brian Matusz was rocked for a 5.42 ERA as a starter, but since returning from a Triple-A refresher course, the former blue chip prospect has pitched out of the bullpen, where he has compiled a 14/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and stranded all 10 inherited baserunners in 10 innings of relief, allowing just five hits and two runs. Including his time as a starter, he has held lefties to a .182/.231/.309 line in 118 PA, while righties have hit a searing .335/.400/.549 in 311 PA. The O’s are where they are — tied for first place in the AL East despite a −14 run differential — thanks in large part to manager Buck Showalter’s deft touch with the bullpen; getting Matusz into positions where he can succeed is one small part of that, though it’s worth noting that AL East lefties such as the Yankees’ Robinson Cano (9-for-27, two homers) and Curtis Granderson (6-for-18, four homers) have feasted upon him.
In San Francisco, career LOOGY Javier Lopez has enjoyed some time in the spotlight, as manager Bruce Bochy has compensated for the loss of Brian Wilson by deploying Lopez in the ninth inning when it’s to his advantage, enabling him to notch seven saves. Lefties have hit .198/.247/.314 in 94 PA against Lopez, and while righties have hit .417/.500/.479, Bochy has limited his exposure to just 56 PA, 37 percent of his workload.
Also worth noting: The Blue Jays are out of the running, but with seven games against the Yankees, four against the Orioles and three against the Rays, they have a golden opportunity to play the spoiler. Rookie lefty Aaron Loup has smothered lefties at a .163/.180/.204 clip in 51 PA, yielding just two doubles and one walk, while fellow lefty Luis Perez has yielded a .194/.296/.290 line in 71 PA.
ROOGY (Right-handed One Out Guy)
Few teams deploy righty specialists in the same manner as lefties, but it’s worth noting that Nationals manager Davey Johnson has used Drew Storen — who lost his job as closer after missing the first half of the season due to surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow — in this manner to at least some extent. Storen has held righties to a .135/.250/.135 line in 60 PA, though lefties have torched him at a .385/.393/.462 clip in 28 PA. Rays righty Kyle Farnsworth, who similarly lost his job due to injury after notching 25 saves last year, has held righties to a .185/.241/.204 line in 60 PA against righties, and has limited the damage by lefties at a .194/.362/.222 clip in 47 PA — that’s nine walks but just one extra-base hit. Dodgers rookie Shawn Tolleson has shown a similar pattern to Storen, smothering righties at a .138/.219/.215 clip in 75 PA while being raked over the coals (.306/.424/.551 in 59 PA) by lefties.
There’s no Matt Stairs analogue on any of the contending teams; of the active players on contenders, none has more homers than Eric Hinske’s eight, while Stairs, the journeyman who turned the 2008 NLCS in Philadelphia’s favor with a game-winning pinch-hit homer off the Dodgers’ Jonathan Broxton, amassed 23. Atlanta’s Eric Hinkse may have a physique similar to that of the pudgy Stairs, but he’s just a .221/.321/.364 hitter in 285 career pinch-hit appearances, and is just 8-for-53 this year.
On the other hand, fellow Braves outfielder Reed Johnson is a card-carrying lefty-masher (.312/.367/.463 in 1,389 career PA) who has enjoyed exceptional success in the pinch this year (.421/.450/.526 in 40 PA). His career mark in 188 pinch-hit PA is .282/.333/.406, but don’t expect him to stick around and work the count, as he has a 43/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in such situations.
The Nationals may have the game’s best pinch-hitting corps. As a team, their pinch-hitters have hit a remarkable .300/.386/.450 in a league where .235/.312/.356 is average. Their best options off the bench are lefties Chad Tracy (.306/.395/.472 in 43 PA) and Roger Bernadina (.276/.400/.345 in 36 PA), switch-hitter Steve Lombardozzi (.333/.417/.429 in 21 PA) and righty Tyler Moore (.231/.286/.538, with a team-high two pinch-homers in 28 PA). Tracy, a career .260/.353/.466 hitter with six homers in 170 pinch-PA, has served as a mentor to his younger teammates when it comes to adapting to the role.
One other player worth mentioning in this regard — though notable mainly for his absence from the roster — is the Dodgers’ Tony Gwynn Jr. Outrighted off the 40-man roster shortly after the trading deadline, he hasn’t played a big league game since August 5, but is a career .305/.372/.405 pinch-hitter in 147 PA, compared to a virtually unplayable .238/.306/.310 under other circumstances; as you might figure, he’s a strong defender, more than 40 runs above average in his career according to both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. The banged-up Dodgers need every edge they can get, and Gwynn offers more tactical advantages than the slow and defensively incompetent Bobby Abreu (.222/.364/.222 in 33 pinch-hit PA this year).
Brett Gardner played in only nine games before being knocked out of action by an elbow injury that ultimately required surgery to remove a bone spur. His absence had a domino effect on the Yankee bench, causing the overexposure of Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones, and ultimately the acquisition of Ichiro Suzuki. The Yanks will get Gardner back before the end of the season, but only as a pinch-runner and possibly as a defensive replacement. Gardner has stolen bases at an 83 percent clip over the course of his career. He led the AL with 49 steals last year, on top of 47 in 2010, and in both seasons ranked in the top five in Baseball Prospectus’ Base Running Runs, which tracks the value of each player’s worth on the basepaths in terms of advancement on hits and outs as well as stolen bases; only Juan Pierre and Michael Bourn bested his 16.4 BRR during that span.
Missing in action is Reds prospect Billy Hamilton, who stole an astounding 155 bases in 192 attempts (an 80.7 percent success rate) split between High-A and Double-A. Despite the tactical advantage his blazing speed offers, the Reds elected not to recall him in September.
Pressed into service by injuries to Gardner in New York and Alejandro De Aza in Chicago, 34-year old journeyman Dewayne Wise has enjoyed a modest breakout season, hitting .286/.314/.489 with eight homers in 194 PA for the Yankees (before the acquisition of Ichiro) and White Sox despite a terrible 41/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Wise is so well-known for his glovework — including his perfect game-saving catch during Mark Buehrle’s gem back in 2009 — that umpire Mike DiMuro gave him the benefit of the doubt for this non-catch in a June 26 game (robot umps now, please). The major defensive metrics place him at anywhere from five to 19 runs above average in the field during a 10-year career in which he’s amassed the equivalent of just over 255 full games in the field. He’s also a threat on the basepaths, with 17 steals in 19 attempts this year, and a career success rate of 83.9 percent.