Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Favorite Braves List - Pinch Hitter

(Previous information on this series can be found here. Of importance, this is not a best list, but a favorites list since I started to follow the Braves. That limits options from 1991-to-now.)

Favorite Braves List (so far)
Ace Starter - Greg Maddux
#2 Starter - John Smoltz
#3 Starter - Tim Hudson
#4 Starter - Tom Glavine

Closer - Craig Kimbrel
RH-Reliever - Peter Moylan
Catcher - Brian McCann
First Base - Fred McGriff
Second Base - Marcus Giles
Shortstop - Andrelton Simmons
Third Base - Chipper Jones 
Left Field - Ryan Klesko
Center Field - Andruw Jones
Right Field - Jason Heyward
Backup Catcher - Eddie Perez

Honorable Mention: Dwight Smith was a big part of the 1995 World Championship team off the bench. He always seemed capable of providing a big pinch hit when needed. Though he is more known for his platoon work, Matt Diaz was a guy left-hand relievers hated to see come to the plate in a pinch-hitting role. Of course...Francisco Cabrera...he had a big hit.

Favorite Pinch Hitter
Eric Hinske

You just had a feeling, even when he was at his worst, that something special could happen when the Braves called on Eric Hinske to bat. It's kind of rare for bench bats like Hinske to provide the belief that they can be an x-factor. After all, even the most fearsome bench bat is still a bench bat. He probably isn't good enough to be a starter. But ya know, he doesn't need to be. He has a job and he does it well. In a game of specialization that pays handsomely to left-hand relievers getting one out 80 times a year, having a quality bench bat - especially for an NL team - is a requirement for late inning close games.

Hinske wasn't always a bench guy. We often forget that he came up as a big prospect for the Blue Jays back in 2002 and after a 24 HR year with an .845 OPS, Hinske was the AL Rookie of the Year. He would log an additional three seasons of every day work, including a move across the diamond in 2005, but after that year at first base, he transitioned into a role player. Subsequently, he also rolled through the AL East. The Jays sent him to the Red Sox in '06 and the following year, he would hit just .204, but he was a part of the 2007 World Series Champs. He only appeared in three games in the playoffs that year. In fact, of the four consecutive years he was in the playoffs, it was with the Braves that he was used the most (and also the only year he didn't appear in a World Series).

Keeping with the AL East theme, Hinske headed south to Tampa Bay for the 2008 season. He would reach 20 HR for just the second time in his career with the Rays while serving as a left-hand platoon bat in left and right field, along with the occasional start at DH, 1B, and 3B or basically wherever Joe Maddon could find playing time for him. It was the only time in the final eight years of his career that he reached 400 PA. So, it was a little surprising that he only received two at-bats in the playoffs with both coming in the World Series against the Phillies. His pinch-hit homer in Game 4 was one of just two runs the Rays scored in a 10-2 whipping.

Hinske tried the NL in 2009, signing with the Pirates before being traded to the Yankees for the stretch run. He enjoyed the return to the AL East. Of his eight homers in 2009, all but one came after his June 30 deal to the Yanks. Again, once the postseason started, he had to wait until the World Series to get a trip to the plate. In Game 5, he walked and scored a run against Cliff Lee. When the Yankees won in six, he received his second ring.

After the season, the Braves came calling. Interested in adding some depth at first base and right field (it was Jason Heyward's rookie year after all), a player like Hinske was an ideal pick-up. The Braves had tried the bench bat thing with Greg Norton, who had bombed in 2009. They had higher hopes for Hinske and he rewarded them with his best season of his brief NL career. He received a lot of at-bats, mostly playing for the inept Melky Cabrera in left and the deteriorating Troy Glaus at first. In 320 PA, Hinske hit .256, posted a .793 OPS, and finished fifth on the team with 11 homers. It was the kind of productive season that you hope for when you give a journeyman a one-year deal.

For the fourth consecutive season, Hinske was also in the playoffs. Unlike the previous years, he was used in every game of the NLDS against the Giants. His biggest moment of the series and of his time with the Braves came in Game 3. With the series tied at 1-1 and the series shifting to Turner Field, the Braves entered the 8th down 1-0 after Jonathan Sanchez and Tim Hudson had both pitched well. Alex Gonzalez opened the inning with a sharp single to center. Brooks Conrad, bless his heart, couldn't do anything properly in the series and popped up a bunt attempt. Glaus was announced as the pinch hitter for the left-hand hitting Rick Ankiel. The Giants countered by getting Sanchez out and replacing him with Sergio Romo. That's when Bobby Cox went with Hinske. Romo got ahead of Hinske 1-2, but couldn't put him away. After Hinske evened the count, Romo hung a slider and Hinske didn't miss it, blasting it deep to the right field bleachers. Turner Field exploded in jubilation. Of course, a young Craig Kimbrel couldn't keep the lead...

Hinske would play two more years in Atlanta. He was solid enough in 2011, but looked like he was on his last legs in 2012. He tried to prolong his career in 2013 with the D'Backs, but simply was not able to keep it going. He retired after 2013 and spent a month with the Yankees as a scout. His biggest contribution to the Yankees during that time was convincing Brian McCann to head to the Bronx (Thanks 'Ski! /sarcasm). Life as a scout didn't last long because he joined the Cubs as a first base coach for the 2014 season. He will be moved to assistant hitting coach this season under the new manager, and his former manager, Joe Maddon.

While it's easy to look at that one year and that one homer, Hinske was a guy to root for as well. He had a demeanor that reminded me some of Andres Galarraga. For the most part, he was a happy-go-lucky type, but screw with his team or come at him with a fastball high-and-tight and you'll be sitting on your ass. You end up loving guys like that.

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