Last year in just 381 at bats, Eric Hinske hit for a .247/.333/.465 line with 20 homers. The average was a little low, but the OBP was decent enough, and the power was excellent, giving Hinske a homer every 19.05 at bats. The only Pirates to top Hinske’s .798 OPS last year were Xavier Nady, Jason Bay, Ryan Doumit, Nate McLouth, and Adam LaRoche.
With Bay and Nady now gone, that leaves Hinske ranked fourth when looking at the 2008 numbers for the Pirates. This raises the question: should Hinske start?
First, let’s take a look at his history. Before the 2008 season, Hinske spent six years in the majors between the Blue Jays and Red Sox. He hit for a .258/.335/.430 line between 2002 and 2005 as a starter for Toronto. He hit for a .244/.338/.451 line between 2006 and 2007 as a bench player for Toronto and Boston. He played the same role with Tampa Bay last year.
In those same time spans he failed to show the 2008 power display, with 31.24 AB/HR as a starter with Toronto, and 24.37 AB/HR as a bench player with Toronto and Boston. For comparison’s sake, those ratios over a 381 at bat season (what he saw in Tampa Bay last year) amount to 12 homers in his starting years, and 15 homers in his bench years.
Despite the fact that Hinske’s 2008 power numbers haven’t been seen before, one thing in the above stats really stands out. As a starter, Hinske had a .430 slugging percentage. As a bench player in 06/07 he had a .451 slugging percentage. He also improved his AB/HR ratio from 31.24 as a starter, to 24.37 as a bench player. Those trends held up in 2008, as he posted a .465 slugging percentage, and a 19.05 AB/HR ratio.
It would appear that Hinske is better served as a bench player, with the numbers showing an increase in production with a limited role. The reason for this is clear in his splits against lefties and righties.
Hinske vs LHP: .219/.293/.365, 37.06 AB/HR (10 HR in a 381 AB season)
Hinske vs RHP: .264/.347/.458, 25.86 AB/HR (15 HR in a 381 AB season)
Like a lot of left handed batters, Hinske struggles against left handed pitchers. However, his numbers against right handers are pretty solid, with decent power, and an .805 slugging percentage.
We also have to consider the deal Hinske was brought in on: one year. Having Hinske start over any of the younger Pirates would do nothing for the future of the team, as it would only delay the progress of guys like Steve Pearce or Nyjer Morgan.
Those last two players are interesting topics in themselves. Pearce has more of what the Pirates need: power potential. In his career in the minors, Pearce has an .878 OPS, with 21.72 AB/HR. He has yet to show that in the majors, with a .725 OPS and 44.25 AB/HR in 177 at bats. On the other hand, Morgan has shown some success at the major league level, with a .296/.351/.397 line in 267 career at bats. The problem is that Morgan only has one homer in those at bats, and that’s about the extent of his power potential.
The Pirates need power. Eric Hinske is better as a bench player. Steve Pearce has not shown he can hit major league pitching. Nyjer Morgan has shown he can hit major league pitching, but has no power. Fortunately, there exists a perfect situation for the 2009 Pirates, and it is centered around Hinske.
Hinske is best against right handers, and struggles against left handers. In his minor league career, Steve Pearce has the following splits against lefties and righties:
Pearce vs LHP: .284/.366/.541, 19.81 AB/HR
Pearce vs RHP: .292/.359/.509, 22.46 AB/HR
Pearce has shown he can hit both lefties and righties in the minors, but his numbers against left handers is slightly better, with a .907 OPS vs an .868 OPS against right handers, and a 19.81 AB/HR vs a 22.46 AB/HR against right handers (over a 550 AB season, it amounts to 3-4 more homers).
In his limited time in the majors, Pearce has mainly struggled against right handers, but doesn’t have a problem with left handers. In 135 at bats against right handers, Pearce has a .237/.295/.348 line, with 67.5 AB/HR. In 42 at bats against left handers, Pearce has a .357/.372/.619 line, with 21 AB/HR.
Here lies the perfect platoon. Hinske does well against right handers, but struggles against left handers. Pearce has shown limited success against major league left handers, but has struggled so far against right handers. A platoon of Hinske and Pearce would not only exploit the strengths of both players, but would allow Pearce to adjust to major league pitching by facing left handed pitchers, who he is better against.
Pearce has shown in the minors that he can also hit right handers, so the hope would be that he could do the same in the majors. Having him adjust to major league pitching by exclusively facing left handers puts him in a more comfortable situation, making it easier for him to come up to speed in the majors for the time when he needs to face right handers.
I do realize that 42 at bats against left handers is a small sample size, but the alternative is making Nyjer Morgan a full time starter based on less than half a season of at-bats.
So I wouldn’t start Hinske, but I’d use his play against right handers to platoon him with Steve Pearce, with the goal of easing Pearce in to the major league pool, rather than just throwing him in the deep end and hoping he swims. I think together, in 600 at bats, Hinske and Pearce could combine to hit .280/.334/.486 (.820 OPS) with 25 homers. Together they could make a really good right fielder.