Kevin Frandsen, once a prospect whose career was set back by a devastating injury, climbed back to the majors in the summer of 2012 to spend the final nine weeks of the season as an everyday piece of the Phillies lineup.
He hit .338 with a .834 OPS as the third baseman for a team that fell just short of the postseason. But two months later the Phillies acquired seven-time All-Star Michael Young and Frandsen was no longer a starter.
“Either I’m going to feel sorry about myself because we got one of my favorite players of all time in Michael Young or am I going to figure something out here and accomplish it,” Frandsen said last week. “Embracing being that guy off the bench.”
The prospect becoming an everyday player, losing his starting role, and being forced to redefine himself to stay afloat has been a baseball story in every era.
For years, players like Frandsen carved roles in the National League as pinch hitters, mercenaries who would come off the bench late each night and stare down the opposition’s best relief pitchers. It is one of baseball’s most difficult tasks: National League pinch hitters have hit just .220 with a .643 OPS since 2010. Successful pinch hitters are their own breed.
In 2013, Frandsen led the National League in pinch hitting as he responded to losing his everyday job by becoming Charlie Manuel’s nightly option off the bench.
“I knew that I was going to make my mark that way,” Frandsen said. “I knew that Charlie always had a guy. He always had someone on the bench who he trusted. I wanted to be that guy. I had to earn it.”
But pinch hitting — the art of former Phillies like Frandsen, Matt Stairs, and Del Unser — became nearly extinct last summer when the National League adopted the designated hitter. Pinch hitting in the National League decreased last season by 60% as teams averaged just 0.63 pinch hits per game.
» READ MORE: The Phillies will wear a Dick Allen uniform patch
Pitchers did not bat so there was less reason for managers to call on bench players. Now pinch hitting is coming back for likely one last swing. The National League will play this season without a designated hitter before it is expected to implement the DH starting in 2022. Pitchers will hit. And bench players will be called upon once again.
“You just have to accept your role, honestly,” said Stairs, the all-time leader in pinch-hit home runs with 23. “If you’re hitting in the one hole or hitting in the eight hole, you have to accept your role. It makes it a lot easier. Listen, I played with guys who told coaches that they weren’t going to pinch hit. ‘Hey, you’re going to hit for so-and-so.’ ‘No, I’m not. He started, he could finish the game.’ Seriously. I’ve seen them before say, ‘No, I’m not hitting against him. Let him hit against him. Why am I going to take an at-bat against Mariano Rivera when it’s a blowout game. Allow the starter to get in there.’
“For some people, it might not have been an easy mindset. You have to have a different mindset pinch hitting. You really do.”
The return of pinch hitting will add a layer to the roster decisions the Phillies face when they finalize their bench later this month. Joe Girardi will have to consider who his late-inning options will be.
It will likely be a role tackled by Brad Miller, whom the Phillies signed just before camp. Perhaps it could increase the chances of a veteran like Matt Joyce, who has a .705 OPS in 340 pinch-hit chances. Or maybe Girardi feels comfortable with a rookie like C.J. Chatham or Nick Maton coming off the bench.
“I think it’s really important,” Girardi said. “You think about guys who have done it in the past and guys who understand how to stay ready for that role and to be in the moment. A lot of times things change quickly and you have to be able to prepare and understand and stay with the flow of the game in a sense. Usually, veteran guys are a little bit better at that than young guys. It’s an important part of your roster.”
Frandsen ruptured his Achilles tendon in 2008 near the end of spring training. He was 26 years old and expected to play a key role for the Giants that season but would play just 24 games over the next two seasons before being traded.
He moved to the Red Sox, Angels, Padres, and finally the Phillies before remembering what Tim Flannery — his third base coach with the Giants — told him years earlier. Flannery, who carved out an 11-year career bouncing around the infield, told Frandsen he too could be a great utility player.
You can’t just accept the role, Flannery told Frandsen, but you must embrace it. Frandsen was 31 years old in 2013 and had spent more time in the minors than the majors. For Frandsen to continue his career, he would have to embrace that new role. He started just 52 games in 2013 but came off the bench 67 times.
His 14 pinch hits led the National League as he posted a .704 OPS as a pinch hitter while recording two walk-off pinch hits.
“You have to be a hungry player,” Frandsen said. “You have to be someone who’s hungry to be in a position to help the team win. A player who is selfless. I’m not saying we’re not selfish. No, we’re selfish in our ways, because pinch hitters, guys who come off the bench, have our routines and whatnot but at the end of the day, you want the moment and I feel like there’s young guys who are there who embrace that, embrace the moment, embrace the challenge and not just saying, ‘I should be playing everyday.’ If you’re constantly thinking you should be playing all the time, you’re not going to be a good pinch hitter.”
In 2019, NL pinch hitters hit for a .224 batting average and a .707 OPS. It has always been difficult to enter a game cold against a reliever, but that task has become even more challenging as teams stock their bullpens with velocity. There were 251 relievers last season who threw with an average velocity 96 mph or faster.
But the challenge of pinch hitting, Frandsen and Stairs said, made the task more freeing. Frandsen said his teammates understood how hard it was to pinch hit, so he didn’t feel any pressure. Getting a hit, Stairs said, was a bonus.
“What these guys are facing right now consistently in the back of the bullpen, 95-plus, it’s not fun. I’m never going to say you’re defeated before, but there’s almost that ‘Ah man. You have no chance right now.’ There’s that feeling,” Frandsen said. “But then again when you get into competition and you get into that moment and you get locked in, you’re like ‘Bring it on.’ Being a pinch hitter, you have to be fearless.”
Stairs hit 38 homers in 1999 as an everyday player in Oakland, but he’s best known for that pinch-hit homer he slammed with the Phillies in 2008 at Dodger Stadium. Unser finished second in the American League rookie of the year voting in 1968 with Washington and received an MVP vote in 1969, but the Phillies wouldn’t have won their first world title without his pinch hits in October 1980.
“Just try to bring it back down to ‘What am I going to get to hit? What does this guy have?’ Stuff like that,” said Unser, who hit three straight pinch-hit homers in 1979. “That’s the whole thought process of pinch hitting, especially if you ever came off the bench and did anything. ‘What is he willing to get beat with? What pitch?’ When you’re starting to fill up your thoughts with that — to just stay good and aggressive in that situation — then the rest of it is just what you’ve been doing your entire life. There’s no problem getting motivated, it’s just executing.”
Like Frandsen, Stairs and Unser embraced the role of pinch hitting and kept their careers churning. Frandsen retired two seasons after he learned to embrace his new role. He found a second career as a radio broadcaster, working as a color commentator for the Phillies filling in for Larry Andersen.
Once again, Frandsen came off the bench to pinch hit for a pitcher.
“The utility role,” Frandsen said. “Like when I go on MLB Network radio, I’m not with one group or one show all the time. I have the personality to do it. I like to hang out, I like to meet new people, I like to talk. It’s just finding that routine. All of us are like that. You have to have a routine.”