Almost every August, when the Cubs have been an apparent postseason team, the front office manages to acquire a burner on the cheap to deploy when rosters expand in September (and possibly include on a playoff roster in October, as well).
In 2015, you might recall, that man was Quintin Berry (acquired August 25th). In 2017, it was Leonys Martin (August 31st). And in 2018, it was the fastest man alive: Terrance Gore (August 15th). By getting these guys in the door before September 1st, the Cubs ensured that they could be included on a postseason roster; which is key, because they’re typically automatic steals when strategically deployed, and that has a lot of value in October.
During those same four seasons, the Cubs have also had another, I’d say elite, one-skill player on the roster: Tommy “the pinch-hitter” La Stella.
2015: 16 pinch-hit PAs, 189 wRC+
2016: 37 PAs, 57 wRC+
2017: 44 PAs, 154 wRC+
2018: 91 PAs, 127 wRC+
As a pinch hitter for the Chicago Cubs, Tommy La Stella has stepped to the plate 188 times over the years, and in all those chances he’s walked (14.4%) more than he’s struck out (13.8%), and he’s hit like a borderline All-Star: .288/.408/.399 (125 wRC+). And I say borderline All-Star only in reference to full-time players. Because as a pinch-hitter, those aren’t All-Star numbers, those are dang Hall of Fame numbers. Pinch-hitting is exceptionally hard – you’re usually coming off the bench cold *and* facing shutdown, late-inning relievers, often selected specifically, to neutralize any advantage you might otherwise have – and La Stella has done extraordinarily well in those instances.
Obviously, carrying a guy with one skill (speed or pinch-hitting) on the expanded September rosters is no big deal, but the value proposition changes a bit when rosters are limited to 25 again in October. How much value does a guy like Terrance Gore really have if all he can ever be counted on and/or used for is stealing a base late in the game – after all, he could be unsuccessful, the opportunity might not present itself, or it might just not work (he could steal second and third and still be stranded).
And when you consider what you’re giving up to include him on the roster – another, more credible pinch-hitter or defender – the question becomes all the more difficult. At the same time, if you found yourself down a run in the bottom of the ninth of an elimination game and someone gets themselves on first, you’re going to regret not having the ability to flash a sign and immediately get someone into scoring position.
Fortunately, the Cubs’ roster provides a really interesting thought experiment directly to this effect.
Perhaps this is easier answer than I am giving it credit for, but article I’d love to see somewhere (cough, @BleacherNation, cough): given Tommy La Stella and Terrance Gore are ostensibly one-skill players, what is more valuable: the elite pinch hitter or the elite pinch runner?
— Cubs Prospects (@cubprospects) October 26, 2018
Consider, for a moment, you had 24 spots on the World Series roster all filled up, and the last spot came down to an elite pinch-runner (Terrance Gore) and an elite pinch-hitter (Tommy La Stella), who do you choose? With all due respect, both guys are effectively one-skill players in this particular context, so choosing one means you’re giving up something else.
Even beginning to answer this question has proven difficult to me, because while it sure feels like the pinch-hitter makes the most sense in general – after all, Tommy La Stella could also play the field – it sure feels like a risk-reward balance, doesn’t it?
I think I can convince myself that I’m more likely to use the pinch-hitter in general, and perhaps more often, but the leverage of any one deployment won’t ever match that of the guy who can deliver an automatic steal or two in a playoff game.
Moreover, I’d argue that the base-stealer is going to be successful at a much higher clip than the pinch hitter – even relative to what they’re trying to accomplish. In other words, I don’t expect La Stella’s batting average to match Gore’s successful steal rate (that would be ridiculous), but I do think it’s fair to say Gore’s margin above other quality base stealers is probably going to be larger than La Stella’s over other pinch-hitters. Throw in the fact that it’s not like you need a bench guy to periodically make starts to rest the regulars when you’re talking about the postseason, and a pinch-runner could make even more sense.
So in a one-game playoff – or the postseason in general – I could be convinced to take Gore. The impact of his deployment and the tendency for the timing to be extremely high leverage tips the scales for me.
… But what about during a full season? Does that totally change things? After all, there is currently no presumption whatsoever that Tommy La Stella is going to be non-tendered, and there is similarly not a current presumption that Terrance Gore will definitely remain on the 40-man roster all offseason. Their spots are not directly in competition with each other this offseason, mind you, but I’m just wondering what it looks like if you are forced to consider that they are.
Let’s consider just 2018 for a moment. This past season, La Stella took 91 pinch hit plate appearances and slashed .312/.404/.416 (127 wRC+), but that’s not all he did. He also took another 101 plate appearances as starter, and that has value. Now, La Stella’s production was … yeah, not good as a starter, but that’s somewhat besides the point. That point is this: La Stella overall is a reasonably good backup if there were a rash of injuries on the roster. Gore has not shown himself to be at that level.
But what would a full season of Gore doing what he does so well look like? And how much value would that have? If you wanted to keep him on the roster as the everyday pinch-runner, could he ever match the effectiveness of an everyday pinch-hitter like La Stella? This is sort of an impossible question to answer with only numbers (especially because Gore has basically never been given this opportunity), but I can say that there is one stat (Win Probability Added) that suggests Gore might be the more valuable guy to keep around (but there’s a catch).
Terrance Gore WPA
Tommy La Stella WPA
Over the last five seasons, Gore has added more to his team’s win probability more than La Stella has … and that’s DESPITE the fact that he’s swiped a grand total of just 27 bags (again, we’re back to the idea that the impact of those stolen bases, because they tend to come in the very biggest moments, is so high). So it would seem, if some team had the guts to dedicate a whole roster spot to a base-stealer, he would be able to improve on that already better win probability even more.
But I just don’t think I can go there. I’m just not sure the total value of everything La Stella provides – from a nightly elite pinch-hitter to pure roster depth at multiple positions and the ability to step in as a starter when needed – is entirely measurable. The whole is greater than the sum of his parts, especially when you consider having him for a full season, or something like that.
It’s just much more difficult to justify carrying on your four-man bench a guy who pretty much can *only* pinch-run.
… but it would be pretty exciting to try it, wouldn’t it?
So I guess, here’s where I land if it were a zero-sum decision: In the postseason, I take Gore. In the the regular season, I take La Stella.
But even with that said, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like keep a guy like Gore around and actually try to deploy him *every time* a late-inning, base-stealing opportunity pops up. Even if he helps get you a win you wouldn’t otherwise get just 5-10% of the time, that feels like it could be huge over the course of an entire season.
[Brett: I pretty much agree with everything you’ve laid out, Michael, and for the reasons you’ve laid out. The nice thing is that, on a postseason roster, since you’re carrying fewer pitchers, you basically would never have to make this particular choice. But even if you were so forced, here’s another consideration: in the postseason, you’ve got more guys on your bench in general, which means if you switch someone out to put Gore in there as a pinch-runner, you *also* want to have another guy available to take Gore’s spot if the game continues from there. In the postseason, that’s much more doable than in the regular season, where you might have just two other non-catchers on the bench!]