If you've been watching the Pirates this year, you probably can't help but notice the contributions from the bench. A deeper bench means lots of things, including being able to spell your starters and give them regular rest to maintain their health, as well as more pinch hitting options, which is key to any managers’ strategy in the National League. The Pirates’ bench has been woeful in recent years, with such luminaries as Travis Ishikawa, Corey Hart, Jose Tabata, Brent Morel, and Brandon Inge pinch hitting for the Pirates in late inning situations. (These guys each made meaningful contributions at some point in their Pirates careers, so I don’t mean to totally rip on them, but it wasn’t like Clint Hurdle was striking fear into the opposing pitchers with his bats off the bench).
In fact, here’s a list of all Pirates players with at least 20 PH appearances from 2012-2015, which is really the period that the Pirates have been in contention recently, with totals for all pinch hitters over this time period:
This is a table full of old Pirates, some of whom are largely forgettable and some of whom made meaningful contributions, although perhaps not as pinch hitters. Overall, these numbers aren’t so great. But check out the table for all pinch hitters with more than one plate appearance thus far this season with their totals (again, totals are for all pinch hitters this year, not just the ones in the table):
Obviously the average is worse, but this is a much smaller sample size. The big difference here are the higher on-base and slugging percentages, which are mostly due to Matt Joyce (and Sean Rodriguez, to a lesser extent). Joyce has been a huge bat off the bench this year for the Pirates and it’s had a decent impact on several games this year. Joyce has hit three home runs as a pinch hitter, giving a big lift to the Pirates in late innings and has contributed 0.7 WAR, which is pretty solid for a player usually coming off the bench and receiving inconsistent playing time. In fact, he’s had the biggest impact among all pinch hitters thus far this season in terms of Runs Created at 7.9, ahead of Victor Martinez by more than a whole run.
This is a small sample and it’s still early in the season, but the Pirates have the deepest bench they’ve had in years in terms of the defensive quality and versatility of players like Sean Rodriguez and David Freese and in terms of the offensive quality of players like Matt Joyce. This is a luxury that Clint Hurdle hasn't had in the past and will hopefully pay dividends as the season wears on and the Pirates remain in the hunt for the playoffs.
Note: All data in this article is from the Baseball Reference Play Index.