Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pitchers Who Didn't Pitch

Continuing my recent theme of statistical oddities from the World Series, this one also stems from my days reading the postseason summaries in MacMillan's Baseball Encyclopedia. The composite box scores in those summaries would show only a player's first initial, his last name and any positions played during the series. I would often flip over to the Batter and Pitcher Registries to find out what an unknown guy's first name was and see what else he did during his Major League career.

One day I was looking at the 1960 World Series and noticed a player down at the bottom of the Yankees' batting stats named "E. Grba." No position was given, meaning that he must've pinch-hit or pinch-ran. "Interesting name," I thought to myself. "This guy sure could use a vowel. I wonder what that E stands for?" I flipped over to the Batter Registry and to my surprise...he didn't have an entry! "How can that be?" I wondered. Since pitchers' batting stats weren't listed in the Batter Registry unless they were frequently used as pinch-hitters or batted during a season in which they didn't pitch, I figured there was a possibility I could find this Grba guy in the Pitcher Registry. Sure enough, that's just where he was. That E stood for Eli, and he went 6-4 for the 1960 Yankees. He didn't pitch in the World Series though, so there weren't any postseason stats under his regular season numbers.

It struck me as unusual that there was a small bit of World Series participation that you couldn't find in either registry, only the series summary. As I looked through the summaries some more I found out that Eli Grba was hardly the only pitcher ever used solely in a non-pitching capacity during a Fall Classic. In one case, there was even a pitcher who filled in at first base! All told, there have been eleven pitchers who played in a World Series without stepping onto the mound:

What were they doing? Oh, pinch-hitting and pinch-running mostly. Like all players though, they each have a story, and what kind of writer would I be if I didn't tell you more about them?

1. Hooks Wiltse, 1913 Giants

This guy was the substitute first baseman I mentioned above. In fact, he did it not once, but twice during the 1913 Series. Wiltse was a 34-year-old veteran left-hander who'd played three games at first base during the regular season. When regular Giant first-sacker Fred Merkle had to miss Game 2 with a sprained ankle John McGraw started outfielder Fred Snodgrass in his place. Unfortunately, Snodgrass wasn't at 100% either. After he singled and painfully advanced to third on another single, Snodgrass was lifted for pinch-runner Wiltse, who stayed in as first baseman (and in case you were wondering, no, Hooks' real name wasn't Fred, it was George). Wiltse not only handled the position capably, he was one of the game's defensive stars.

In the bottom of the ninth it was still scoreless, but the Athletics had runners at second and third with nobody out. The next batter hit a chopper that Wiltse fielded perfectly, and his throw just barely beat the runner at home plate. The next batter also hit it to Wiltse, who once again handled it cleanly and got the runner out at home. The final batter grounded out, and the Giants would win the game in the 10th.

Merkle was back in the lineup for Game 3. When Merkle drew a walk in the seventh inning McGraw had enough confidence in his new hero that he pinch-ran with Wiltse and left him in the game at first once again.

2. Babe Ruth, 1915 Red Sox

I don't think this guy needs any introduction, does he? The Bambino became a superstar for his hitting prowess, but the only fielding position he'd ever played up to that point was pitcher. Even at this early stage of his career though, it was clear that this guy could wield the lumber. So great was his hitting (.315/.376/.576, 189 OPS+) that the Red Sox often used him as a pinch-hitter. In Game 1 of the World Series Ruth came to the plate for starter Ernie Shore representing the tying run in the ninth. Instead of letting loose with one of his not-yet-trademark blasts, the Babe grounded to first for the penultimate out. Harry Hooper followed him with a game-ending pop fly.

3. Jean Dubuc, 1918 Red Sox

Dubuc's story is similar to Ruth's; he was a pitcher who was well-known as a decent hitter. He spent five years with the Tigers from 1912 to 1916, and his OPS+ during that time was 81. He was batting .303 in the minors when the Red Sox acquired him. He played in five games for Boston, only two as a pitcher. The similarities to Ruth continue with his World Series appearance. In Game 2 Dubuc pinch-hit for third baseman Fred Thomas with one out in the ninth, only he represented the winning, not the tying run. He struck out, and the game ended with the next batter.

Dubuc would later become famous for testifying at the Black Sox trial. He was alleged to have been in contact with Bill Burns, one of the men behind the fix. To avoid banishment he left the country in 1921, and when the fervor over the scandal had died down he was able to return to baseball. He later managed in the minors and worked as a scout, with Hank Greenberg his most notable signing.

4. Dinty Gearin, 1923 Giants

Gearin was a diminutive Rhode Island left-hander, standing only 5'4". His minor league career was more noteworthy than his time in the Majors, as he won 142 career games in the bushes. His World Series appearance came in the third inning of Game 1. Pinch-hitter Jack Bentley singled to load the bases, and Gearin was sent in to run for him. Gearin was forced out at second on the next play, but the Giants would score four runs that inning to take the lead in a game they'd later win.

5. Dutch Ruether, 1925 Senators

One of the most obscure members of the "World Series With Three Different Franchises" club, Ruether was yet another famously good-hitting pitcher. In fact, of his seven career World Series appearances three were as a pitcher and four were as a pinch-hitter. His appearance in the 1925 World Series followed in the footsteps of Ruth's and Dubuc's. In the ninth inning of Game 2 he pinch-hit for pitcher Stan Coveleski with one out, only this time the tying and winning runs were both on base. Like Dubuc, he struck out, and the game ended one batter later.

6. Emil Yde, 1927 Pirates

Yde's first three seasons were pretty good. He went 41-19 with a 115 ERA+ during that span. His fourth season, 1927, was where he started to struggle. He appeared in only nine games, going 1-3 with a 9.71 ERA. Still, he was among the eligibles for the World Series, and in Game 4, with his Pirates on the verge of being swept, he pinch-ran after catcher Earl Smith reached on an error in the seventh. He later came around to score on Clyde Barnhart's single, and by the time the inning was over the Pirates had tied it. Unfortunately, the Pirates later lost the game on a wild pitch in the ninth.

7. Ernie White, 1943 Cardinals

In the seventh inning of Game 4 the Cardinals tied it on Yankee third baseman Billy Johnson's error, which allowed pinch-hitter Frank Demaree to reach safely. White was sent in to pinch-run for Demaree, and he was forced out at second to end the inning on the very next batter. The Yankees took the lead right back in the eighth, and they held on to win the game as well as take a 3-1 series lead. White had been a hero for the Cardinals in the previous year's World Series, pitching a shutout against those same Yankees in Game 3.

8. Zeb Eaton, 1945 Tigers

Eaton's two years in the Majors came during World War II, and even for that weak era he was mediocre, posting an ERA+ of 80. His hitting may have been what kept him around, as in 1945 he hit .250 with two homers in 32 plate appearances, good for a 102 OPS+. He played in 26 games that year, pitching in only 17 of them. In Game 1 of the World Series, with his team trailing 7-0, Eaton struck out pinch-hitting for pitcher Al Benton. He wasn't used again in the Series, which Detroit won in seven games.

9. Dan Bankhead, 1947 Dodgers

Everyone knows that the 1947 Dodgers were the team Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with. Fewer people know that that team also brought the first black pitcher into the Majors, Dan Bankhead. Bankhead's contract was purchased by the Dodgers that August, though he wasn't used much in the thick of the pennant race.

He didn't get to play in the World Series until the sixth inning of Game 6. Pinch-hitter Bobby Bragan hit an RBI double that gave the Dodgers a 6-5 lead, and Bankhead went over to second to pinch-run for him. Standing 6'1" and weighing 184 lbs., Bankhead wasn't exactly the picture of grace as a runner. When the next batter singled to right field, Bankhead had trouble putting on the brakes at third and fell down into the dirt. He later scored on Pee Wee Reese's two-run single, and the Dodgers would hold on to force Game 7.

10. Ken Johnson, 1950 Phillies

A little-used pitcher acquired by the Whiz Kids early in the season, Johnson didn't see World Series action until the final inning of the fourth and final game. Down 5-0, Dick Sisler reached on a fielder's choice and Johnson went in to run for him. He came around to score on Gene Woodling's two-out, two-run error, but it was too little too late. The Phillies' offense was unable to get anything else and the Yankees completed the sweep. Johnson's run was Philly's final tally of the season.

11. Eli Grba, 1960 Yankees

49 of the 50 eligible players had made an appearance by the time Game 6 of the 1960 World Series rolled around. In the second inning Yankee catcher Elston Howard was hit by a pitch and had to be taken out. That 50th man, Eli Grba, pinch-ran for Howard, and his journey ended at second base three batters later. It would turn out to be his last game with the Yankees. The Los Angeles Angels took Grba with the first pick of the 1960 Expansion Draft that December.

Why is 1960 the last time we've seen this happen? My guess is that so many more pitchers are used per game these days that the manager can't afford to waste them as pinch-runners, pinch-hitters or first basemen. If by some chance he does, it's more likely that that pitcher will be used on the mound at some point in the series.

One interesting thing I noticed is that seven of these eleven pitchers were left-handed. In fact, six of the first seven were southpaws, with Dubuc the exception (Johnson is the only lefty of the last four). Is there a reason for this, or is it just a coincidence? Perhaps left-handed pitchers were less valuable because more batters were right-handed in those days? Thanks to Baseball Reference's Handedness Reports we can find out. Let's look at the batting handedness percentages during the years in which these pitchers became pinchers. "B" stands for switch-hitters and "U" stands for those whose batting hand was unknown.

Hmmm. The 1910's seasons had fewer left-handed batters than all the other years here except 1943. Still, 1923 had a higher percentage of left-handers than did 1960, so I'm not sure if there's any real difference worth noting. Perhaps then, it was because the teams they were facing in the World Series had more players of a specific batting hand? Let's look at the position players who batted in the World Series for their opponents. The fifth column (OHPB%) represents the number of players with the opposite batting hand plus switch-hitters. A higher number makes it more likely that some sort of platoon effect was a factor.

Hmmm again. Fewer than half these teams had an OHPB% above 50. It seems unlikely that the platoon advantage was on most of these managers' minds.

A case-by-case basis may be the best way to come to a conclusion. Let's look at the stats of these guys during those seasons:

Well, now we're getting somewhere. Not that it comes as much surprise, but most of these guys were marginal or little-used pitchers who weren't likely to be called upon in a big moment like the World Series. Eight of these guys pitched in fewer than 20 games. Only Ruth, Ruether and Grba pitched more, and Grba only barely. Grba pitched primarily in relief, so 24 games indicates that he wasn't exactly a key guy on their staff. Ruth had an impressive season, but the Red Sox' pitching was so good that year that he simply wasn't needed in the World Series. I don't think the platoon was a big factor, as the Red Sox started left-hander Dutch Leonard in that Series, who wasn't especially better.

That leaves us with Ruether. He had the second-highest OHPB% of anyone on this list. Was the platoon actually a factor in this case? Looking at the circumstances, I think it was. The Senators had two good left-handers on their staff in Ruether and Tom Zachary. Ruether, as we know, didn't pitch at all, and Zachary was used in relief in only one game. In that same Series the Senators gave two starts to right-hander Alex Ferguson, who'd gone 5-1 with a 131 ERA+ in seven games after being acquired from the Yankees (though his overall season record was 9-5 with a pathetic 69 ERA+). It appears that Washington decided not to gamble by throwing a lefty against the Pirates' mostly right-handed lineup, and that Ferguson's success in a small sample made him a worthwhile risk.

It does seem surprising at first that Hooks Wiltse never pitched against the Athletics' lefty-heavy lineup, but bear in mind that it was a year before George Stallings' Miracle Braves won the World Series using platooning to their advantage. It was a different game back then, and handedness wasn't as much a factor in managerial decisions as it is today. Besides, being left-handed didn't help Rube Marquard any in that Series.

I think it's safe to say that most of these guys were lucky to be on the playoff roster, and it's a coincidence that so many of them were lefties. If you think that high percentage of southpaws is astounding, you might be even more amazed by this fact: eight of these eleven played for the losing side. Dubuc and Eaton are doubly in the minority, being both right-handed and on the winning team. Now there's an obscure fact you can impress your friends with.

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