As everyone knows, Tommy La Stella’s nickname is “3 a.m” because that hour after Taco Bell closes and before McDonald’s breakfast opens up is the perfect time to work on your swing at the park, which La Stella undoubtedly does daily.
But did you also know that La Stella is a pretty good pinch hitter?
Indeed, 3 a.m. – who got his nickname after he and all four of his brothers were born at 3 a.m. in the morning – has been with the Cubs for a few years now and has done WONDERS as a pinch hitter, and it’s not going unnoticed by his manager.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Joe Maddon told NBC. “He knows how to do it. He doesn’t try to force anything. He’s not trying to appease me or anybody else with his preparation. He just prepares, which I love.”
Maddon went on to add that La Stella is a very valuable commodity in today’s game, particularly in the National League, because of those pinch-hitting abilities. We’ll dig into the numbers in a second, but it’s at least worth pointing out how confident I (and I think we all) feel when La Stella gets a crack at hitting late in ball games. His ability to handle velocity, penchant for making contact, and his left-handed bat are so perfect for the current fireballing/strikeout era. Basically, he’s just a guy you trust at the plate in high-leverage moments despite coming off the bench, and those types don’t grow on trees.
For now, you can check out more complimentary words on 3 a.m. – who’s so called because of the tattoo of a clock he added above his left elbow a few years ago – from his manager and teammates at NBC Sports Chicago, but I wanted to use this opportunity to dig into the numbers a bit, because I suspect he’s truly special when it comes to pinch hitting.
La Stella got his first pinch-hit opportunity with the Cubs back in 2014, but he only had five chances that season, so let’s start this data party in 2015, cool?
That season, La Stella got 16 chances to pinch hit and he slashed .429/.467/.571 during that stretch, which is good for a ridiculous 189 wRC+ (for those who are unfamiliar, Mike Trout led the Majors with a 181 wRC+ last season). Obviously, it’s not a huge sample, but those are some big numbers to put up in the spots that matter most.
One season later, La Stella got 37 pinch-hit opportunities, and although his overall value dropped considerably (56 wRC+), he still managed to walk at a 16.2% clip. Despite the statistical bump in the road during 2016, 3.a.m – who got his nickname because Jesse Rogers texts him feedback at exactly that time every night – bounced back in a big way last season.
Over 44 pinch hit opportunities, La Stella slashed .290/.488/.419 (154 wRC+) while walking (22.7%) twice as much as he struck out (11.4%). That kind of production in a pinch (especially the low strikeout totals) is almost indescribably valuable, when you consider that he’s probably getting most of his opportunities 1) late in a ball game, 2) for the pitcher, and 3) likely with runners on base.
Naturally, his production hasn’t slowed down here in 2018, where La Stella is batting .364/.417/.545 with identical 8.4% walk and strikeout rates over his first 12 chances. Honestly, it’s just nuts. Rarely does a guy swing it this well – in general – let alone coming into a game cold off the bench. The league-wide pinch hitter numbers this year? .206/.320/.282, 78 wRC+. Like I said: nuts.
It’s fair to wonder what he would’ve done as a starter with a full-share of chances, but that opportunity simply hasn’t been there with the Cubs, and they’d be hard-pressed to let him go, given how well he’s done in this capacity.
So let’s talk about his rankings in MLB history …
Tommy La Stella owns a career 117 wRC+ entering the game as a pinch-hitter, which ranks 21st ALL-TIME among players with at least 100 plate appearances. Even more impressive, his 1.20 BB/K ratio ranks third all-time, behind only Craig Counsell (1.52 BB/K) and Brady Clark (1.23 BB/K). And if that weren’t enough, La Stella’s 29.9% line-drive rate as a pinch hitter ranks 4th best all-time. Frankly, it’s really hard to oversell just how good he’s been as a guest appearance.
A couple years ago, the Cubs nearly lost 3 a.m. – who got his nickname when Joe Maddon quipped that he could wake up at 3 a.m. and hit line drives all over the field (ah ha!) – to retirement, but I’m glad he stuck around, and I hope he doesn’t go anywhere anytime soon. Having a specialized weapon like La Stella is a luxury, but it’s not one I want to see the Cubs give up any time soon.