Wednesday, April 1, 2020

BYCTOM 100*: Lenny Harris

The Major Leagues will not be generating any new baseball for some time, which makes this an appropriate time to dip into Important Baseball Lore.  The most indispensable baseball writing this offseason for me as been Joe Posnanski's Baseball 100, where he rates his top 100 baseball players of all time and writes essays about each one, and I thought I should shamefully rip that off.  So here's the BYCTOM 100*, a series of essays not on the top 100 baseball players of all time, but of lesser heralded players that have floated through the ether of baseball, the players that David Roth refers to as Guys, the foundation of baseball itself that the giants of the sport can homer off of, do handshakes with, and occasionally get humiliated by because baseball is a weird and cruel game.  The asterisk is of course because there is no way I will do 100 of these, let's face it I'll be shocked if I do five.  If you have a suggestion for someone to be covered in BYCTOM 100*, please send it to me, and I'll consider it.


Lenny Harris's Baseball Reference page lists his position as Pinch Hitter.  He is also a third baseman and outfielder, but those served as minor distractions on his path to becoming baseball's Pinch Hit King.  Over eighteen seasons in the major leagues, Harris amassed 212 pinch hits, blasting by former record holder Manny Mota's 149.  The only person in the same galaxy as Harris pinch-hitting wise is Mark Sweeney, who got 175.  No current player comes close; the only active players to even breach 50 are Matt Joyce, Matt Adams, and Daniel Descalso, whose last season in Chicago was so riven with hitting ineptitude that appeared to be trying to get the ball out of the infield by way of strongly-worded letters.  Harris stands along as a giant of the bench, the Sultan of Sit, and after a few hours of poking around the internet I'm convinced that he has achieved one of the strangest and least-replicable baseball careers possible.

The most remarkable thing about Lenny Harris's time as the Dean of Left-Handed Bench Bats is that his hitting statistics are just south of mediocre.  He's a career .269/.318/.349 hitter.  Most of his best hitting years came as a young, everyday infielder for the Dodgers; in his ideal form as a pinch hitter he hit an anemic .264/.317/.337.  He did not walk a ton and, for a stocky lefty off the bench, he offered almost no power, never managing more than five home runs in a season.  Baseball Reference credits him with just 1.7 WAR for his entire eighteen-year career. Sweeney was a much better hitter, and rowdy Baseball Uncle Matt Stairs leads the majors with 23 pinch hit dingers.  Harris only leads in the category of hits and plate appearances as managers kept summoning Harris to pinch hit ineffectively over and over again.

The mystery for me is how Lenny Harris managed to stick around for eighteen years as a bench bat barely able to breach the .700 OPS threshold.  Because Harris played most of his career in the 1990s and early 2000s, my natural inclination was to ignore even the basic slash metrics and take a look at the triple crown stats that ruled the game then.  He did not sock many homers or pile up RBIs even for the relatively few plate appearances he got over a season nor did he swipe many bases.  Harris did hit the magical .300 batting average threshold several times; it is possible that his .300 seasons were spaced perfectly for him to scuffle around 2.70 or even plummet to .235, but then pull off a .300 season at the opportune time for a grizzled Moneyball villain front office person made entirely of used mouth tobacco to get on the phone and start screaming profanities at someone to sign him before mailing Bill James a manila envelope filled with violently torn up spreadsheets.

But I believe there is some sort of ineffable, spiritual purity to Harris's reputation as the preeminent pinch hitter in baseball history that transcends his underwhelming numbers.  First of all, anyone who makes a living as a pinch hitter will not be exploding with OPSes because if they did, they wouldn't be pinch hitting.  But more importantly, Harris embraced pinch hitting and made it into an arcane art-- not every player can deal mentally with sitting in a disgusting dugout day after day eventually summoned for one at bat, but Harris mastered it, learned the Way of the Bench, and honed an approach to allow him to pinch hit dozens of times a season.  This approach helped sustain Harris's career because, once you become the Pinch Hit Guy, baseball's organizational inertia means that any time a team needed a left-handed bench bat, there is no way their imagination would extend past The Guy Who Pinch Hits.

Harris had a great part of a season off the bench for the National League Champion Mets in 2000, but I first became aware of him when he signed with the Cubs in 2003.  He had come off one of his best seasons the year before with the Brewers, but was miserable with the Cubs and let go when they acquired Randall Simon as part of the lopsided trade that also brought Kenny Lofton and Aramis Ramirez to the North Side.  Simon is best known for an incident earlier that season when he was up in Milwaukee and decided to playfully bop one of the racing sausages in the head with a bat; this knocked the sausage down, scuffed up the person inside the costume, and caused an outcry in Milwaukee because it turns out that hitting a racing sausage in the head with a bat looks a lot like hitting someone in the head with a bat.  The police got involved.  Simon was still on the Pirates then, but then he got to the Cubs and had to go up to Milwaukee again and face a seething, hostile crowd desperate to avenge his unthinkable attack on an anthropomorphic bratwurst, but Simon cannily defused the situation by buying brats for an entire section and sending the person inside the costume on a free trip to Curacao.

Harris ended up joining the Marlins and facing the Cubs in the ill-fated NLCS.  It would have been poetic if it was Harris who managed to hit that foul ball into the low left field stands over the bullpen or even managed a hit or walk to prolong the Cubs' agonizing death inning, but Lenny Harris's Revenge Series unfolded with l'esprit de l'escalie.  He managed three plate appearances early in the series, two outs and a walk; he made the last out in a 12-3 loss.  But I don't think Harris cares about any of that at all because a week later he became a World Champion.

In 1998, Lenny Harris made a pitching appearance with his Reds down 16-3 to the San Francisco giants in the ninth inning and struck out Brent Mayne looking.

The thing that I've found most compelling about Harris's career is that he sustained it for such a long time on a razor's edge.  After a few years in the majors, he never again worked his way into a full-time starter but never collapsed enough to be sent to the minors.  No matter what he did at the plate, when the balls were finding gaps in the infield or he was rolling over to the second baseman, some team always wanted Lenny Harris. And Harris did all of this in the strangest way possible, as a low-power contact hitter playing almost his entire career at a time when the game was teeming with available neck vein guys who were capable of anonymously blasting baseballs into low Earth orbit. 

I would be surprised to see another player like Harris again.  The idea of a player with Harris's skill set hanging around the major leagues for the better part of two decades seems remote at a time when teams have become obsessed with jettisoning veterans for cheaper young players; though Harris never signed a big contract, it seems that veterans like Harris are less welcome in the game than ever, especially in a baseball environment tending towards the three true outcomes instead of doing whatever he can to put the ball in play (Harris almost never struck out).

Lenny Harris was not the most productive or effective pinch hitter in baseball history.  He was instead the most pinch hitter, the man called upon more than anyone in the history of the game in the pinch, a person who sustained himself in baseball for long enough to turn pinch hitting into his own arcane art, and that is more impressive.

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