Charlie Finley’s Designated Pinch Runners

The memory of Charlie Finley’s pinch runners popped into my head today, and I thought I’d write something about them.  Turns out, though, someone beat me to it.  Here’s a great post from Junk Stats, which really lays out Charlie O’s string of pinch running specialists from 1967 through 1978. [As of late 2017, Junk Stats no longer exists on-line.  Here is a SABR article on career pinch runners.]

I’ve still got my own comments to add, so here goes.

The most famed of Finley’s pinch runners was sprinter Herb Washington, because he wasn’t a baseball player.  He was a world class track star who, according to wikipedia, tied or broke the world’s record in the 50 and 60 yard dashes several times.

Washington only lasted a little over a year as the A’s’ designated pinch runner, because he wasn’t a baseball player.  There’s more to stealing and running the bases than simply being fast.  He got picked off base in the 9th inning of Game 2 of the 1974 World Series by Dodger relief ace Mike Marshall, and that was the beginning of the end of Washington’s baseball career.

How much Finley’s decision to sign Washington in the first place was simply for the publicity and how much was a true baseball decision is a matter for debate.  One thing is certain — Charlie O was really committed to the idea of pinch runners.

One thing that Washington’s career proved, however, is that baseball is better left to the professionals.  All the other pinch runners Finley’s A’s used were real professional ballplayers, even if not major league talents, and they were usually better as pinch runners than Washington was.

Finley’s first full-time pinch runner, Allen “The Panamanian Express” Lewis, had a career .282 minor league batting average.  However, he had no power and didn’t get on base unless he hit safely, so he had no chance of a major league career except for his wheels.

Larry Lintz, the A’s primary pinch runner in 1976 and part of 1977, was actually a player who was highly underrated in his day.  He couldn’t hit for average (MLB career .227) and had no power, but he had a career .336 OBP, which is great for a 2Bman who ran the way he did.

In his only season as a major league semi-regular with the Expos in 1974, Lintz hit a lousy .238 with no power at all, but he still scored 60 runs in only 388 plate appearances because he drew 44 walks and stole 50 bases in 57 attempts.  That kind of player’s value would be recognized today, at least by the money-ball teams.

It’s safe to assume that Herb Washington was probably the fastest player ever to play major league baseball, but Allen Lewis and Larry Lintz were more efficient base stealers by a fairly wide margin, as were most of the A’s other designated pinch runners.

One thing I noticed looking at this article by the same author as the Junk Stats piece above, is that Finley appears to have had at least one significant convert to his church of the designated pinch runner.  Chuck Tanner managed the A’s in 1976, and he obviously took the idea with him to Pittsburgh.

In 1978, the Pirates acquired former Oakland pinch runner Matt Alexander, who filled the same role for the Pirates for the next few seasons.  Tanner also used Alberto Luis exclusively as a pinch runner for a period in 1979.

It’s worth noting that keeping a player on the roster for use solely as a pinch runner doesn’t appear to have hurt the A’s or the Pirates at all.  The A’s won five consecutive division titles and three World Series during this period, and the Pirates won their last World Series in 1979.

That being said, it’s hard to imagine any team today devoting a roster spot to a player used exclusively as a pinch runner.  The 1970’s was an era of ten-man pitching staffs.   [or 13 as of 2017] is the norm today.

Also, it’s hard to imagine why any team would really need to keep a player on their roster whose only value is as a pinch runner.  Professional baseball is full of players who are not major league hitters who can run the bases extremely well and play at least one defensive position better than a sweet-swinging regular.   It’s just too easy to find an inexpensive player who can do double duty as a pinch runner and late-inning defensive replacement.

Two recent Giants come to mind:  Darren Ford and Rajai Davis.  (In fairness to Rajai, he eventually developed into enough of a hitter to play regularly the last few seasons.)  I’m sure you can remember a couple from whatever team you root for.

Explore posts in the same categories: Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland A's, Pittsburg Pirates, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays

2 Comments on “Charlie Finley’s Designated Pinch Runners”

  1. Jacob Says:

    Hey, this is Jacob from JunkStats.

    Thanks for the comments & links. It’s always nice to find other people who share my interest in the oddities and arcana of baseball.

  2. […] Last fall, the KC Royals called up minor-league outfielder Terrance Gore to be their pinch runner in the playoffs. Gore reminded many older observers of A’s pinch runner Herb Washington from the early 70’s: a specialty player who made the roster purely for his speed. […]

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