2008 Season Recap: Micah Hoffpauir/Daryle Ward
Like the man once said, a good pinch hitter is hard to find. (I'm not sure who "the man" was, but rarely has somebody ever been so right.)
Pinch hitting is weird. I realize how ridiculous it seems to write that, but baseball is big, and random, and in isolation the biggest turd can look like solid gold and the greatest player can look like Vance Law. I'm rambling now, but I would bet that there have been more than a few players throughout the course of baseball history who had the talent, ability, and mentality to be Hall of Famers, but never got the chance because they started their careers 11 for 90, got demoted, and wound up teaching gym somewhere in Iowa.
So, if 90 at bats are too small of a sample size to determine whether or not a player "belongs," then what's fair? 150 at bats? 250? For a pinch hitter, 150-250 at bats over the course of the season might be all the chances he gets, and if he goes cold for two months then you can bet that his final line will look worse than Lindsey Lohan after an all night coke binge*.
Here, I'll give you some examples of good pinch hitters gone bad. Lenny Harris. A Dusty Disciple, Lenny came to Chicago in 2003 with a pinch-hitting pedigree. In 2002, Harris batted .305 in 197 at bats for Milwaukee, with 8 doubles, 2 triples, 3 homers, and a .766 OPS. Then, he came to Chicago, only to realize after getting half way there that he'd left his bat back home, but it was too late to go and get it. In 131 at bats for Chicago in '03, Harris batted an anemic .183, with just 3 doubles, 1 homer, and an OPS of .484. The Cubs then cut the cord, and he signed on with the soon-to-be World Champion Fish - who he batted .286 for, prompting them to renew his contract, and when he retired in 2005, he left a .314 hitter in 70 at bats that year.
All of that brings us to the actual subjects of this article. Micah "The Hoff" Hoffpauir, and Daryle "Badonkadonk" Ward. Both men can play first base, and when necessity calls, they are also allegedly capable of chugging across the thinly cut outfield grass in order to catch flyballs. In other words, they are defensively shizzzz-itty. Therefore, their value to the Cubs comes from their batting skills.
In 2007, Ward carried a mean club. In 110 at bats, the man batted .327 with an OPS of .963. He hit 13 doubles, 3 homers, and drove in 19 RBI. Then, in 2008, he ... well, he didn't. His batting average plummeted to .216 in 102 at bats. His OPS dropped to .721. He hit 7 doubles, but 4 homers, and drove in 17 RBI.
Actually, Ward's numbers this past season are odd in that way. In 8 fewer at bats, he hit 1 more homer and drove in only 2 fewer RBI, but he was a total failure as a pinch hitter. But are 102 at bats enough to really tell the story? How will he do next season if he gets 102 at bats elsewhere?
It's conceivable that Ward will succeed for another city in 2009, in fact I think it's likely. But his decreased ability to reach base was a problem in 2008, and for that reason the Cubs turned to Micah Hoffpauir.
Talk about your success stories. A year ago, The Hoff probably spent his winters working a second job while hoping to save up enough money to buy an awfully nice ring for Sarah May, his finacee with a heart of gold (who was also a hooker). Then, Hoffpauir puts up Epic Numbers at Iowa, and at the age of 28 gets the call to the show for the first time ever.
In 72 at bats - 29 fewer than Ward - Hoff got 3 more hits than Ward, he hit 1 more double, and he scored 6 more runs. In fact, Hoffpauir did so well in his limited stint at the Major League Level - .342 AVG, 2 HR, 8 RBI, .934 OPS - that fans actually began to clamor for the Cubs to find a way to deal Derrek Lee so his clear offensive superior (that's Hoffpauir, in case you're confused) could have a crack at first base for the Cubs.
Believe it or not, if it's conceivable that Ward could have a great 2009, then it's also conceivable - if not more likely - that Hoffpauir could wake up to reality and realize that he's a life-long journeyman first baseman who needed multiple tries to figure out AAA pitching.
That said, The Hoff was a welcome surprise in 2008, he's certainly earned the chance to be the Cubs pinch hit specialist for next season, but if I was a betting man, I'd lay odds against him making the team out of Spring Training.
Like I said. A good pinch hitter is hard to find, and part of the problem is that in any given year, a great pinch hitter could put up terrible numbers, and a terrible player could pinch hit his ass off. I'm not asserting that this was the case with Ward and Hoffpauir in 2008, but let's be honest - it's possible. Just keep that in mind before you feverishly fantasize about your next Derrek Lee trade.