In a pinch: A history of the Boston Red Sox and pinch-hitting
By Rick McNair
Pinch-hitting is a delicate craft that few players have mastered as a career art form. The Boston Red Sox have had some notable success and a record holder.
These are desperate times and today’s journey into the desperate is pinch-hitting (PH) and specifically Red Sox pinch-hitting. Since the divergence of the two leagues in relationship to the designated hitter (DH) the domain of the PH has centered on the National League. With the absences of a pitcher making a fool of himself removed from the lineup equation, there is far less need in the American League.
The Red Sox have had some wonderful examples of pinch-hitting through the years but one year stands out and that was 1943. That year was in the middle of a minor brush war known as World War II. The player-manager for Boston was Joe Cronin who hit .312 for the season in the limited duty of 76 games and just 77 plate appearances.
Cronin – a member in good standing of the Baseball Hall of Fame – had more swings as a PH than as a position player and hit .387 as a PH. Cronin also set two AL records for coming off the bench with five home runs and 25 RBI. Cronin had just three RBI and no home runs in the few other games he played. Cronin’s heroics had little impact as the Red Sox won just 68 games and finished seventh.
The Red Sox career leader in home runs as a PH is no real surprise as Ted Williams had seven in his 20-year career. TSW also chipped in with a .300 average and 33 RBI. The team record (minimum- 30 at-bats) for the highest average in a season is held by left-hand hitting Rick Miller with a .457 (16-35) in 1983. Miller had no home runs and nine RBI for his PH efforts that season.
In 2019, the Red Sox hit .333 (33-100) in a PH role. The top hitters (10+ At-Bats) were Mitch Moreland (.364) and Marco Hernandez (.353). Brock Holt had five hits in eight at-bats (.625). The Red Sox had the highest league average and were second in RBI.
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Was 2019 an anomaly? The last time this century the Red Sox led the AL was in 2010 when the substitute swatters hit .267. But collectively their .232 average this century is tops in the AL. Keeping attached to the century theme the top hit dog (minimum – 30 PA’s) is Chris Young at .357. Close behind is Holt at .354. And for the power, it is Jonny Gomes with six mostly memorable blasts. Looking for a surprise it is David Ortiz at .190.
The history of the PH specialist is a long one that the Hardball Times traces back to 1909. The history is littered with names that resonate even today. From my baseball background Gates Brown and Jerry Lynch are noted as is ancient Dave Philley and the outstanding Manny Mota.
Ed Kranepool has the highest single-season average by hitting .486 in 1974. Philley has the most hits in a season with 24 with the O’s in 1961. The following season a 42-year-old Philly was with the Red Sox and hit just .143 as a PH. The career record for most hits is held by Lenny Harris with 212. Harris played 18 seasons and hit just five home runs among all those hits and holds the title of most PH at-bats with 804.
My favorite from back in the day was a backup catcher who was built like the traditional catcher – blocky and that was left-hand hitting Smoky Burgess. Burgess hit .285 as a PH with 16 home runs and 147 RBI. If it is the long ball then see an old Red Sox player – albeit briefly – Matt Stairs with 23.
The Red Sox for 2020 has several possibilities for just who may have the PH crown for the season. Holt is gone as is Hernandez and Moreland remains. Moreland will be in the sweet spot to defend his title since he’ll be platooned and that breeds opportunity later in the game when a switch may take place – especially with the new rule of three batters faced for pitchers. Moreland could avoid the dreaded lefty specialist and tee off on a righty.