Adrian Nieto’s Unusual Day

White Sox backup catcher Adrian Nieto has done some unusual things in the last few days. To start with, he made the team. That doesn’t sound like much, but as a Rule 5 draft pick, it’s a bit more meaningful than it might be otherwise, and it’s somewhat unusual because he was jumping from A ball to the majors as a catcher. (Sox GM Rick Hahn said he didn’t know of anyone who’d done it in the last 5+ years.)

Secondly, he pinch ran today against the Twins, which is an activity not usually associated with catchers (even young ones). This probably says more about the Sox bench, as he pinch ran for Paul Konerko, who is the worst baserunner by BsR among big league regulars this decade by a hefty margin. Still: a catcher pinch running! How often does this happen?

More frequently than I thought, as it turns out; there were 1530 instances of a catcher pinch running from 1974 to 2013, or roughly 38 times a year. This is about 4% of all pinch running appearances over that time, so it’s not super common, but it’s not unheard of either. (My source for this is the Lahman database, which is why I have the date cutoff. For transparency’s sake, I called a player a catcher if he played catcher in at least half of his appearances in a given year.)

If you connect the dots, though, you’ll realize that Nieto is a catcher made his major league debut as a pinch runner. How often does that happen? As it turns out, just five times previously since 1974 (cross-referencing Retrosheet with Lahman):

  • John Wathan, Royals; May 26, 1976. Wathan entered for pinch hitter Tony Solaita, who had pinch hit for starter Bob Stinson. He came around to score on two hits (though he failed to make it home from third after a flyball to right), but he also grounded into a double play with the bases loaded in the 9th. The Royals lost in extra innings, but he lasted 10 years with them, racking up 5 rWAR.
  • Juan Espino, Yankees; June 25, 1982. Espino pinch ran for starter Butch Wynegar with the Yankees up 11-3 in the 7th and was forced at second immediately. He racked up -0.4 rWAR in 49 games spread across four seasons, all with the Yanks.
  • Doug Davis, Angels, July 8, 1988. This one’s sort of cheating, as Davis entered for third baseman Jack Howell after a hit by pitch and stayed in the game at the hot corner; he scored that time around, then made two outs further up. According to the criteria I threw out earlier, though, he counts, as three of the six games he played in that year were at catcher (four of seven lifetime).
  • Gregg Zaun, Orioles; June 24, 1995. Zaun entered for starter Chris Hoiles with the O’s down 3-2 in the 7th. He moved to second on a groundout, then third on a groundout, then scored the tying run on a Brady Anderson home run. Zaun had a successful career as a journeyman, playing for 9 teams in 16 years and averaging less than 1 rWAR per year.
  • Andy Stewart, Royals; September 6, 1997. Ran for starter Mike McFarlane in the 8th and was immediately wiped out on a double play. Stewart only played 5 games in the bigs lifetime.

So, just by scoring a run, Nieto didn’t necessarily have a more successful debut than this cohort. However, as a Sox fan I’m hoping (perhaps unreasonably) that he has a bit better career than Davis, Stewart, and Espino–and hey, if he’s a good backup for 10 or more years, that’s just gravy.

One of my favorite things about baseball is the number of quirky things like this that happen, and while this one wasn’t unique, it was pretty close. When you have low expectations for a team (like this year’s White Sox), you just hope the history they make isn’t too embarrassing.

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