How baseball's best pinch hitter delivers off the bench

Tommy La Stella has reached base 16 times in the 30 times he has come to the plate as a pinch hitter. Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK -- It's the top of the eighth inning on a Thursday night in Queens. For the 30th time this season, Chicago Cubs lefty Tommy La Stella strolls to the plate to pinch hit, this time for pitcher Steve Cishek. And for the 16th time this year, La Stella reaches base, with a single off New York Mets right-hander Scott Copeland. It comes as no surprise to anyone in the dugout.

"He's the best I've ever seen at it," 37-year-old veteran Ben Zobrist said emphatically. "I've never seen a better pinch hitter in my time playing baseball."

Entering the weekend, La Stella leads the majors with 12 pinch-hits to go along with a .548 on-base percentage coming off the bench. He can challenge for some all-time marks if he keeps it up. The highest OBP for a pinch hitter with a minimum of 40 at-bats in a season is .542, achieved by Gates Brown of the Detroit Tigers in 1968.

La Stella's at-bats constantly amaze his teammates as there's never a hint of emotion involved in his offensive game -- which he claims is the key. Though he often comes to the plate with the game on the line, his demeanor -- and probably his heartbeat -- don't show it.

"The thing that I found is I put together my best at-bats when I had my simplest thought process," La Stella explains. "Starting in 2015, when I began to be better at it, I was simplifying everything. Simplifying mechanics, the thought process between pitches, simplifying what I do well offensively."

The biggest difference between La Stella and many other hitters when they come off the bench is that he doesn't care if he doesn't swing. It's human nature for a baseball player who may get only one at-bat every other game to want to get his hacks in. Not La Stella. He averages four pitches per plate appearance and has earned five walks off the bench already, tops in the game.

"I've gotten myself into trouble trying to dictate the pace in the batter's box," La Stella said, "Hitting is different. You're almost playing defense on offense. Even though you're swinging the bat, you're responding to what the pitcher does first. Trying to insist, or make something out of nothing, or getting caught up in the emotion of the moment, or taking four at-bats into this one, and trying to atone for other thrown-away at-bats, it never serves the simplicity I'm looking for. First and foremost, I don't want to expand my zone."

The result is a frustrating at-bat for the opposing pitcher against a player who isn't exactly an imposing figure in the batter's box, standing less than 6 feet tall and weighing only 180 pounds.

"He's a gnat," teammate Jon Lester often says. "It's tough to be able to slow everything down as a pinch hitter. ... He's prepared and understands his role. He kind of relishes in it. You don't have pinch hitters have quality at-bats over and over like that. The big thing is he knows his role."

"He's the best I've ever seen at it. I've never seen a better pinch hitter in my time playing baseball."
Ben Zobrist on Tomma La Stella

Zobrist intimated the same. As often as manager Joe Maddon rotates his starting players, La Stella isn't part of that mix. He gets the occasional four at-bats in a day, but it's rare. Antsy for more playing time is no way to sit through the first six to eight innings of a game, waiting for a chance to hit, so instead, La Stella chooses to be the best teammate he can be and invest himself in what's going on. Then, when it's his chance, he pounces.

"I really do embrace the role," La Stella said. "It's a different type of challenge. Playing every day and getting five at-bats a night is way more difficult, but this is a type of challenge that I've never really gotten to experience until now. Condensing and concentrating all my focus for a whole game into about two minutes takes a lot of simplification. It's a process to understand that. ... Being integrated into the game is important. When I step out onto the on deck circle it doesn't feel as foreign, like I've checked out in the dugout the whole time."

His cerebral nature fits the role he's in. He doesn't waste words or time. Meditation has been a part of his game but it's not all-encompassing. He has picked up a lot from his teammates, mostly about getting his body prepared but doesn't stick to a set routine. It's always evolving.

"He's so incredibly intelligent," good friend Ian Happ said. "It's impressive to watch the way he not only reacts to his own role, but the way he reacts to failing in his role. Even when he doesn't perform, he's right back there with the team supporting the next guy up. That's admirable and something everyone watches and is impressed with."

Three years ago, La Stella wasn't sure if he wanted to keep playing baseball, but now he's a mainstay in the Cubs dugout.

"He's one of the centerpieces of our organization," Albert Almora Jr. said with no hint of irony regarding a 25th man on the roster. "Besides being a great baseball player, he's a super person. I'm so lucky. We're close to the same uniform numbers, so I locker next to him a lot on the road. Love talking to him and picking his brain."

His manager simply loves his plate approach. In an age of big swingers, La Stella is a throwback.

"The best quality is he's a really calm human being," Maddon said. "He doesn't overthink it, he doesn't overwork it. I had Danny Johnson [in Tampa Bay]. He would sit in the clubhouse doing crossword puzzles. I would run up to go to the bathroom and there's DJ, sitting at his locker, legs folded doing the crossword puzzle. Then he hits the biggest home run in the history of the Tampa Bay Rays. I like that, when a guy doesn't overstress it. Two different guys, but both really good pinch hitters."

La Stella's process is fairly simple. He'll keep an eye on the pitch count of his own pitcher, understanding when his chance might come. Then he goes inside for tee work and soft tossing. On Thursday, he grabbed the iPad to watch the movement of Copeland's pitches since he had never faced him before. Then came his single in front of friends and family -- he's from nearby New Jersey -- and more applause from his adoring teammates.

"He's the best at coming off and giving you one of the best at-bats of the game," Almora said.

Zobrist added: "He seems like no matter if it's the bottom of the ninth and two outs, he goes in there and stays within himself."

The man dubbed "3 a.m." by his manager because he can "get up in the middle of the night and hit anyone" has perfected a dying art.

"Getting one at-bat, it's kind of important for me to let go of the momentum of the situation or the emotion of that moment because then I try to dictate that pace instead of responding to what I'm getting," La Stella said. "The simplest way for me to have more success than not is not swinging outside the strike zone.

"In those moments, you want to swing the bat because you want the big hit, but it depends on what the pitcher gives you. I've thrown away at-bats trying to make something happen as opposed to letting something happen. It forced me to be the simplest version of myself at the plate. I feel like I'm doing that more often than not."

Before finishing the interview, La Stella had one more thing to say as the good teammate in him comes out again. He gets excited to explain that what he does in his role is nothing compared to what the everyday players in the lineup do.

"It is incredibly difficult to do what these guys do every night," La Stella said. "While there is a ton of outside admiration, I feel like sometimes we can treat the entertainers like a carnival ride. I paid my ticket, now I want to be entertained. It's not that easy performing a physical task over and over. Your body is aching, and don't forget the guys on the other side are trained to do the same exact thing. It's not as easy as these guys make it look, and they're the most talented guys in the game. I hope people don't get so caught up in the failure of it. Failure is part of that growth process. I learned that as well."