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The Mariners and their super secret weapon

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Lurking on Seattle's 25-man roster is a player who is the best at an important baseball thing. Who is this man? And what can he do?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Here is a table. It compares some offensive stats for two baseball players. One of the players is Mike Trout. (He's pretty good at baseball.) The other belongs to a specific split for someone on the Mariners. You'll notice that these numbers are quite similar...

Player
PA AVG OBP SLG OPS wOBA BB% K%
Player X's super secret mystery split
219 0.310 0.406 0.549 0.955 0.408 14.2 22.4
Mike Trout 2305 0.306 0.397 0.551 0.948 0.405 12.4 22.3

If you feel like it, take a moment to think about who/what that first row might represent before you scroll down and find out. (And maybe let me know down in the comments who you guessed/whether or not you were right.)

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The super secret mystery split in the table above belongs to... Seth Smith! Those are his career numbers as a pinch hitter and hot damn are those some impressive stats.

Since 2007 (the year that Seth Smith broke into the majors with the Colorado Rockies), 88 individuals have pinch hit at least 100 times. Smith ranks 10th on that list with 219 pinch hit plate appearances (waaay behind the leader, Greg Dobbs, who had 400 - wow!). However, among those 88 gentlemen, Smith has definitely been the most productive pinch hitter; he has the highest wOBA, wRC+, OPS, and batting average. He's slugged seven pinch hit home runs, five pinch hit triples, and 13 pinch hit doubles. In those 219 appearances, Smith has accumulated 2.1 fWAR, which represents almost 20% of his career value. Seth Smith is very good at pinch hitting.

It is worth mentioning that a lot of Smith's PH damage was done back between 2008-2010, when he didn't always see regular playing time. (He hasn't been quite as amazing in more recent years.)

The numbers next to the blue squares represent the # and frequency of PH PA per season.

During his first full season in the big leagues (2009), Smith was an absolute monster off the bench. In 47 PA, he walked 10 times and mashed nine extra bases hits, good for a wOBA of 0.575 (for reference, Barry Bonds had a wOBA of .537 in 2001).

However, since 2011, only about 4% of Smith's plate appearances have come as a pinch hitter; this is largely due to the fact that he's proven himself valuable enough to be an ~everyday player. Nonetheless, despite assuming the role less often, Smith has maintained his form as a PH. Despite a rough 2012, Smith's pinch-hitting wOBA over the past four seasons is 0.339. Alternatively, in games where he's started, his wOBA has been 0.341. This represents a PH "drop-off" of less than 0.7%. In baseball, there's a widely accepted notion that most hitters suffer a "pinch-hitting penalty" when they're called on to hit off the bench. This idea makes sense intuitively - it seems like it'd probably be a bit harder to hit when you're cold and haven't necessarily prepared as well as you would've if you'd started - and it's also backed up by the numbers. This pinch-hitting penalty typically knocks off between 5 and 10% of a player's wOBA, which is signficantly larger than the 0.7% exhibited by Seth Smith. As such, he does not appear to experience any real penalty when pinch hitting; this is a very valuable characteristic.

For the Mariners, Smith has only made two pinch-hitting appearances so far. He struck out in one of the games against the Dodgers and he worked a walk (eventually coming around to score) in that bizarro 11-10 victory over the Rangers. At this point, Smith is definitely one of the best bats in the Mariners lineup; therefore, he should probably receive the majority of starts, rendering him inaccessible as a late-inning bat. Nonetheless, having a player who appears to be very comfortable in the role of pinch hitter is a real luxury for McClendon. Smith could be particularly helpful during interleague play in NL stadiums (or during the World Series!) and late in games against nasty right-handed relievers. Hopefully Lloyd figures out a way to maximize Smith's value to this team.

A few other weird/exciting things about the pinch hittin' version of Seth Smith:

  • Smith has hit five triples as a pinch hitter (or a triple in 2.28% of his pinch-hitting appearances). His career triple rate is 0.86%. The league-average triple rate since 2007 is just 0.48%.
  • Smith has pinch hit in the playoffs eight times (back in '07 and '09 with the Rockies). In those appearances, he collected four hits (including a two-out, two-run double to put the Rockies ahead in Game 4 of the 2007 NLCS) and scored twice. Not too shabby.
  • Somewhat surprisingly, Smith has yet to have a walk-off hit as a pinch hitter. That being said, his most impactful pinch hit appearance (in terms of WPA) was still pretty special. This occurred last season during the Padres home opener against the division rival Dodgers. Smith was called to pinch hit in the eight inning; this was his first at-bat with San Diego. The Padres were down 1-0 and Smith stepped in to face-off against Brian Wilson. This seems like a pretty nice way to make friends with your new fans and teammates. Smith's blast had a WPA of +0.332. The Padres went on to win the game 3-1.