The Tampa Bay Rays led the league in WAA (wins above average) at Baseball Reference from two positions in 2020: second base and “pinch hitters.”
Second base shouldn’t be all that surprising as Brandon Lowe went off in 2020 with a .269/.362/.554 line and 150 wRC+ leading the Rays to a 152 wRC+ from 2nd base significantly ahead of the second place New York Yankees (129 wRC+); however, “pinch hitters” isn’t as clear.
The main reason for this likely comes from there being no one hitter that you can pinpoint for the Rays success. The Rays pinch hit 66 times coming from 16 players, with Ji-Man Choi leading the way with 10 plate appearances.
Part of this will come from volume as the Rays 66 plate appearances ranked third in the majors and well ahead of the 38 plate appearances for the average team. When Rays hitters pinch hit, they put up a .259/.364/.333 line and 101 wRC+.
It’s an interesting line as the Rays didn’t hit for power. The .074 ISO isn’t good but that .364 OBP is very good. The 101 wRC+ also is a good line, as that ranked tied for seventh in the majors, but not a reason why the Rays would rank at the top of the list especially with the two teams who are ahead of them in plate appearances also are ahead of them in wRC+ with the San Francisco Giants (72 PA, 148 wRC+) and Cincinnati Reds (68 PA, 119 wRC+).
One reason could be due to leverage, as the Rays led the league with 15 RBIs by pinch hitters as one of only three teams to reach double digits; however, we should examine the details behind this compilation.
When you sort at FanGraphs instead of B-Ref, you get the actual production by a player when they played a specific position, where as Baseball Reference averages out offensive production while prorating for the amount of playing time they received at that position. So in this example Brandon Lowe put up a 164 wRC+ while playing 2B and 76 wRC+ as a pinch hitter however Baseball Reference would just put him at 150 wRC+ regardless of position. If you are looking to smooth out the variance I think doing it this way makes some sense, but specifically at designated hitter and pinch hitter it does disregard the designated hitter/pinch hitter penalty.
Using the overall production of batters as a group, the Rays sent batters to the plate that averaged .239/.336/.431 and put up a 113 wRC+. This is a very good group of hitters and the fact they put up a 101 wRC+ is a reasonable expectation if you apply the generally accepted 10 wRC+ pinch hit penalty.
Of note: The batters the Rays pinch hit for put up a combined .219/.309/.412 and put up a 99 wRC+. So they were able to did observe some gains by results by placing much better hitters at the plate but not a huge difference.
This isn’t the only story though as there were two very specific reasons the Rays would pinch hit for a hitter. The Rays were very aggressive in pinch hitting for their catcher and they would pinch hit to regain the platoon advantage when required.
The catchers struggled at the plate in 2020. This shouldn’t be a surprise as they hit .176/.265/.330 and put up a 68 wRC+. More surprising might be that they were only the seventh worst hitting team at catcher including ahead of three playoff teams. This was a big gain as 21 times the Rays replaced a hitter averaging 64 wRC+ with a hitter almost 50 wRC+ better.
The other time the Rays would chose to pinch hit involved their platoons. The Rays lineup is very fluid and very rarely stays the same for a whole game. When they weren’t pinch hitting for catchers only 2 of the 45 plate appearances a player was replaced by a hitter who hit with the same hand.
In these 45 plate appearances the Rays switched a hitter who hit 115 wRC+ for a hitter who put up a 113 wRC+. So on paper they would chose to make a slight drop in production but most of these hitters were replaced due to gaining a platoon advantage.
The Rays offense mostly stays intact going into the 2021 season, where the only loss who received more than 100 plate appearances that isn’t scheduled to return is Hunter Renfroe. The Rays have brought in switch hitting backstop Francisco Mejia to replace Michael Perez, and may be adding more switch hitters from the farm in the near future.
While the need to pinch hit may decrease with time, this strong performance pitch hitting is likely something we shall continue to see from the Rays.