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February 02, 2007

Ned Yost, Ace Pinch-Hitter

Allow me to blow your mind:

Ned Yost once pinch-hit for Mickey Rivers… against Detroit closer Willie Hernandez… in the ninth inning… with Texas losing by one run.

I was wandering around Baseball-Reference.com and came upon Ned Yost. His entry at Baseball Reference initially reveals his managerial record, but longtime Ranger fans know him better as the woefully slight return in the Jim Sundberg trade. To be sure, Sundberg was past his prime at 32 and had batted a disastrous .201/.272/.254 in 1983. However, Yost was no improvement: already 28 himself, inferior to Sundberg defensively and holding a line of .233/.264/.372 in 368 career plate appearances. Only decent power (for a catcher, in that era) merited a positive review.

How unpopular was this trade? Pretend Texas signs Michael Young to an extension. In 2010, Young is 33, clearly fading but still capable. Then, pretend Texas trades Young for Andres Blanco. Mortifying, isn’t it? That’s what Texas did 23 years ago.

Yost didn’t engineer the trade himself but had to endure much of the fans’ disgust during a hopeless 1984 campaign in which the Rangers failed to achieve 70 wins for the second time in three years. During the opening series against Cleveland, he singled and walked in his first game, then homered in his second. So far, so good. For the rest of April, he batted .121 with two walks. By the end of May, he’d lost his regular job to Donnie Scott, a 23-year-old recalled from the minors. Yost batted .182/.201/.273 for the season and ended up playing fewer games at catcher than Scott.

Yost played in 80 games but only 78 at catcher, which brings up the improbable pinch-hit. In two games, he appeared exclusively as a pinch hitter. The concept of Yost pinch-hitting doesn’t completely shock the conscience. Perhaps manager Doug Rader let Yost bat during a blowout in an attempt to boost his confidence or just to get him off the bench. Yost had appeared in only two games during the first three weeks of July.

Curious, I opened the box score of his first PH attempt on July 21, 1984, skipped to the bottom of the page, and then heard the late Jack Buck’s voice in my head: “I don’t believe what I just saw!

Top of the 9th, Rangers batting, behind 6-7, Willie Hernandez facing 9-1-2:
Out -- W Tolleson -- Flyball: CF
Ned Yost pinch hits for Mickey Rivers batting 1st

What? WHAT? Rader yanked the leadoff hitter with a .285 average for a backup catcher hitting .164? With the game on the line? True, the outcome of this game meant little. Texas had the worst record in the AL while the fabled ’84 Tigers were on their way to winning about 259 games and the World Series. Still, I’ve no doubt that Rader would not have made such a move frivolously. Possible explanations include:

  • A wolverine ate Mickey Rivers as he stood in the on-deck circle.

    The Rangers were in Michigan, after all. But in fact, Rivers played the next day. No wolverine.

  • Rivers was injured after the eighth inning and couldn’t bat.

    I have no direct evidence that Rivers was healthy at that exact moment in time. However, he was not pulled for a defensive replacement the previous inning, and again, he did start and play all of the next day’s game. Injury is an unlikely explanation.

  • Rader was playing all-or-nothing, and Yost was more likely to homer.

    Superficially, this is at least plausible. Yost averaged one homer per 40 plate appearances during his career, Rivers one per 99. But with Pete O’Brien (.313/.370/.472 at the time) on deck and Buddy Bell (.305/.380/.445) in the hole, which batter makes the most sense in this situation?

    OBP HR%
    Player A .197 2.5%
    Player B .310 1.0%

  • Rivers had an unfavorable history with Willie Hernandez, and/or Yost had hit well against him.

    Nope. Rivers had never faced Hernandez (and never would) Yost had only one appearance, two weeks prior. He struck out with the bases loaded and Texas down by three in the bottom of the 8th. Go figure.

  • Rader was playing a favorable lefty/righty split.

    We have a winner. The lefty Hernandez devoured lefties but was rather ordinary against righties. Rivers was a lefty, and despite hitting .314 against lefties in 1981, he’d been demoted to platoon status ever since. He had only 63 plate appearances against lefties from 1982-1984 and batted a pitcher-esque .121/.138/.159. Yost was right-handed and also had a pronounced platoon split, albeit mostly a function of utter helplessness against righties (.242/.259/.388 against lefties, .184/.218/.275 against righties).

    Yost, despite that split, was not a better hitter against lefties than Rivers over the course of his career. It raises the interesting question of which situation you’d rather have:

    Hernandez (L) vs Lefties -- .211/.263/.295
    Rivers (L) vs Lefties -- .285/.320/.374 (but only .121/.138/.159 during last three years)

    Hernandez (L) vs Righties -- .260/.329/.406
    Yost (R) vs Lefties -- .242/.259/.388

I’d conclude that pinch-hitting for Rivers is defensible, even preferable. But is replacing Rivers with Yost defensible? Did Texas have a bench player that evening both right-handed and superior to Yost? A review of potential pinch-hitters from the 1984 roster:

  • Righty Billy Sample pinch-hit for lefty catcher Marv Foley against Hernandez to lead off the 8th. Righty Gary Ward then pinch-hit for lefty DH Tommy Dunbar. Donnie Scott replaced Ward and caught the rest of the game. All of these moves make sense.
  • Jeff Kunkel didn’t make his MLB debut until two days later. He may have occupied the roster that night, but the situation wasn’t suitable for his first big-league at-bat.
  • Alan Bannister was enjoying an absurdly successful season (see #9 on this list) but didn’t play between June 26th and July 30th. He may have been hurt.
  • Dave Hostetler likewise did not appear between June 29th and September 5th. I believe he was in AAA.
  • Jim Anderson didn’t play between July 16th and September 4th. He also may have been in the minors or hurt.
  • Bill Stein hit lefties at a rate of .294/.336/.421 during his 14-year career. Like so many Rangers, he seems to have disappeared during the game in question. After starting at second base the night before, he didn’t play again until September 3rd.
  • Mike Richardt and Kevin Buckley weren’t Rangers at the time.

Assuming 10 pitchers on a 24-man roster (the limit at the time), the Texas bench may have consisted of Ward, Sample, Foley, Yost, and Kunkel. With Ward, Sample and Foley unavailable and Kunkel waiting for a more appropriate opportunity, Doug Rader had to choose between Rivers and Yost.

Yost flied out to center. O’Brien struck out to end the game. Still, Rader chose correctly.

Posted by Lucas at February 2, 2007 06:56 PM