PITTSBURGH – Over the last two months, we’ve been focused on creating an all-time Pirates lineup.
We’ve ranked position players in Pittsburgh history. By participating in Twitter polls, fans put Manny Sanguillen behind the plate, Willie Stargell at first base, Bill Mazeroski at second, Pie Traynor at third, Honus Wagner at shortstop and Barry Bonds, Andrew McCutchen and Roberto Clemente in the outfield.
We’ll get to the pitching staff and more in the future, but this week, let’s think about the underappreciated batters off the bench. Former Pirates manager Clint Hurdle often called pinch-hitting the hardest job in baseball, and he would know from having played that role during his playing career. Hurdle also learned from one of the best, the Mets’ Rusty Staub.
Being a bench player is difficult for many reasons, but the primary issue is simply sporadic playing time. Most players are creatures of habit, so not playing every day -- and not knowing when you might get into a game -- is enough of a challenge. And pinch-hitters are often called upon in big situations, high-pressure spots -- sometimes against opponents’ best relievers -- that would test anybody.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some Pirates bench players this hypothetical all-time team might call upon in certain situations. Note: We’re mostly going to exclude hitters who were everyday players for a significant portion of their Pirates career, focusing more on those who excelled in true reserve roles.
If they need a hit: Jose Pagan, Manny Mota
Pagan only once totaled more than 300 plate appearances in a season for the Pirates from 1965-72. Mota averaged 117 games but only 345 plate appearances per season from 1964-68. But Pagan ranks second in Pirates history with 49 pinch-hits, and Mota ranks fourth with 41. Mota went on to own the career record for pinch-hits for more than 20 years.
Pagan posted a .299 average as a pinch-hitter for the Pirates, while Mota recorded a .281 average in the same spots. They also rank third and fourth in pinch-hit RBIs for the Bucs -- Mota with 34 and Pagan with 29. Pagan’s most famous moment with Pittsburgh came as a starter in Game 7 of the 1971 World Series, however, as he hit the eighth-inning double off Mike Cuellar that gave the Pirates a 2-0 lead.
Stargell is the Pirates’ all-time leader in pinch-hit RBIs, with 62. Checking in at second ...
If they need an RBI: Smoky Burgess
This is one place we’ll make an exception for someone who spent his Pirates career as a regular position player. Burgess was an All-Star catcher from 1959-61 and again in ‘64, one of the most productive backstops in Pirates history. He was also a heck of a pinch-hitter, the role he settled into after joining the White Sox at the end of his career.
As a pinch-hitter for the Pirates, Burgess went 34-for-95 with nine doubles, three homers and 37 RBIs. When he retired in 1967, he held the Major League record for pinch-hits with 145.
If they need a homer: Craig Wilson
Wilson played plenty during his time with the Pirates. He accumulated 644 plate appearances over 155 games in 2004 alone. But he was an all-or-nothing bet for the early to mid-2000s Bucs coming off the bench, slugging a dozen homers while striking out 39 times in 112 appearances as a pinch-hitter.
Wilson hit just .224 with a .321 on-base percentage as a pinch-hitter for the Pirates, but 12 of his 22 pinch-hits were homers -- giving him a .602 slugging percentage in those spots. José Osuna has emerged as a similar threat for the current Pirates, going deep seven times in 107 pinch-hit plate appearances despite batting just .202 with a .217 OBP.
If they need a baserunner: Matt Joyce
The Pirates signed Joyce to be their fourth outfielder in 2016, playing infrequently behind Starling Marte, McCutchen and Gregory Polanco. Joyce started 48 games that season and posted an .857 OPS with eight homers in 190 plate appearances, most of them against right-handed pitchers, and the sweet-swinging veteran couldn’t have played the reserve role much better.
Joyce was an on-base machine off the bench, setting an obscure single-season Major League record by walking 21 times in 81 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter. He also popped four pinch-hit homers and a double among his 13 hits off the bench.
If they need a stolen base: Matt Alexander
You’ll be hard-pressed to find many careers like Alexander’s these days: 374 career games over nine years, 195 plate appearances, 111 runs, 103 stolen bases.
“Matt the Scat,” manager Chuck Tanner’s pinch-runner of choice, was with the Pirates from 1978-81 and won a World Series ring in ‘79. In 103 games for the Bucs, he went to the plate only 27 times, yet he scored 36 runs with 30 steals.