The 2001 Seattle Mariners were an interesting team for all sorts of reasons. All-time wins record? Check. Eight players on the AL All-Star team? Check. Bafflingly good defense? Also check. A suspected Super Baseball Elf in frosty-tipped Bret Boone? Check. A confirmed Super Baseball Elf in Ichiro Suzuki? Check.
So, yes, interesting team. But they are so interesting that they’ve been a little over-scrutinized. The checklist above is common knowledge, their achievements repeated so often that by this point they’re sort of … boring? This is one of the best-known baseball teams in recent history, and it’s entirely possible that there’s nothing left to say about them.
Just kidding. This is baseball, after all, the playground of folks interested in utterly pointless esoterica. And today’s pointless esoterica revolves around the performance of a few lesser-known members of that 2001 team. Say hello to, uh, Stan Javier and Ed Sprague. These are definitely real baseball players who definitely existed, sure.
What did Javier, a walk-happy, no-power 37-year-old outfielder in the last season of his long MLB career, and Ed Sprague, a hit-by-pitch maven who somehow once made an All-Star Team*, have in common? Pinch hitting. Along with super-utilityman Mark McLemore and backup catcher Tom Lampkin, they were two of the Mariners’ top four pinch hitters.
*Sprague is actually quite interesting for all sorts of reasons, including his use of both PEDs and a corked bat**, but my favorite thing about him is that he signed as a free agent with the San Diego Padres three times in a ten-month span. That’s some impressive work.
**He had a career slugging percentage of .419, so, uh, good job on the cheating, Ed.
Given that quartet of names, you would not expect that edition of the Mariners to be particularly good at pinch hitting. In fact, you wouldn’t expect baseball teams in general to be good at pinch hitting, since pinch hitters tend to be bench players, who tend to be worse at hitting than starters for obvious reasons, and they also have to go against high-leverage relievers in critical situations. That’s not a recipe for success.
Anyway, the 2001 Seattle Mariners pinch-hit 118 times over the course of the season. And over those 118 plate appearances, they hit … .320/.402/.560 with 15 extra-base hits and 25 runs batted in. This is ludicrous. For reference, over the course of Mike Trout’s career (at time of writing, obviously), he’s hit .305/.418/.583. That’s a little better than our 2001 pinch-hitters, but it’s not exactly in a different stratosphere.
In other words, pinch hitting turned the 2001 Mariners’ bench players into something approximating Mike Trout? This is not a normal thing to have happen. In fact, in the whole history of the American League, there have only been a handful of teams (I limited this to 50+ pinch-hitting appearances, because hey, whatever, round numbers) to ever do better while pinch-hitting:
- 2019 Boston Red Sox: .330/.430/.590
- 2000 Texas Rangers: .340/.433/.573
- 2009 Minnesota Twins: .303/.446/.530
Then it’s the ‘01 Mariners. What do these teams have in common bar pinch hitting? Nothing, as far as I can tell. The Red Sox didn’t make the playoffs. The ‘00 Rangers were terrible. Pinch-hitting performance happens on such small sample sizes that stuff just sort of happens without rhyme or reason. Sometimes you get very lucky, most of the time you don’t.
Mostly I think it’s funny that a team like the 2001 Mariners, with almost literally everything already going for them, also got historically lucky with their pinch-hitting. Sure, why not?