March 25, 2023

Edmundo Sosa
Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive replacements might be the most overlooked of managerial decisions. We can (and do) spend hours debating the merits of lineup construction, pitching changes, and pinch-hitters, but rarely are defensive replacements a part of those conversations. Every Phillies fan has an opinion as to whether or not Rob Thomson should have pulled Zack Wheeler in the World Series. Padres faithful were left scratching their heads when Bob Melvin didn’t bring Josh Hader in to face Bryce Harper in the deciding game of the NLCS. The phrase “Taylor Walls, Pinch-Hitter” still echoes in many a Rays fan’s head.

But how many of the 24 defensive replacements do you remember from this year’s postseason?

I’m not trying to be obtuse here. I’m well aware of why defensive replacements don’t get much attention; they’re far less likely to make a difference than almost any other managerial decision. Defensive replacements only come in for an inning or two when their team is already in the lead. There’s no guarantee they get to a make a single out, let alone a difficult play that could have significant ramifications for the outcome of the game. Yet that being so, when and how to deploy defensive replacements is still an interesting bit of strategy, and eventually, over a substantial number of games, some defensive replacements are going to make a meaningful difference.

This year’s playoffs gave us a sizeable sample of such substitutions, thanks in large part to the Phillies and their defensive shortcomings. Indeed, Philadelphia set a new record for most player games in an individual postseason in which those players appeared on defense but did not record a single plate appearance. That’s not exactly the same thing as a defensive replacement — I’ll explain why shortly — but it’s pretty darn similar, and it’s a whole lot easier to search for on Stathead.

Postseason Player Games on Defense, No PA

Team Season Total Number of Games
Phillies 2022 16
Rays 2020 15
Royals 1985 14
Braves 1996 14
Red Sox 2004 14

Source: Stathead Baseball

The reason it’s so hard to search for defensive replacements on any statistical database is because there is a subtle yet fundamental difference between a simple defensive substitution and a true defensive replacement. A defensive replacement, I would argue, is a player brought in to be an upgrade over another fielder during a game in which his team holds the lead and in which he won’t be expected to bat. A defensive substitution, meanwhile, is any player who takes over the defensive position of one of his teammates. One term simply describes an exchange of one player for another; the other refers to the specific strategy behind such a swap. That’s an important distinction to make, but it’s almost impossible to spot in a box score. I would argue this distinction is already in use colloquially, but it’s helpful for our purposes to present it outright.

Consider, for instance, when Jackie Bradley Jr. took over for an injured George Springer in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the Wild Card Series. He was coming in as a defensive substitution, but you wouldn’t (or at least I wouldn’t) credit Blue Jays manager John Schneider with making a defensive replacement. Bradley did not come in as an upgrade; he came in out of necessity, and I would argue that the term “defensive replacement” implies some degree of strategy.

For the same reason, I wouldn’t count a player who replaced a pinch-hitter in the field as a defensive replacement, unless the pinch-hitter played the same position as the batter for whom he took over. If the pinch-hitter could not have taken over the defensive position himself, then the defensive replacement is entering the game out of necessity rather than strategy. For example, when Aledmys Díaz pinch-hit for Martín Maldonado in ALDS Game 1, Christian Vázquez took over at catcher the next inning, but he was not a true “defensive replacement,” as there was no chance of Díaz staying in the game to catch.

On the other hand (and by this same principle), I would still consider a player who entered a game as a pinch-runner to be a defensive replacement as long as he met the basic criteria: his team was winning when he entered the game, he was not expected to bat, and he was expected to serve as a defensive upgrade over the teammate he was replacing. Thus, when José Azocar came in to pinch-run for Jurickson Profar in NLDS Games 2 and 3, he was essentially getting a head start on entering as a defensive replacement the following half-inning. The point here is to acknowledge the strategy behind a defensive replacement and to differentiate such a move from any old defensive substitution. I’m not trying to get pedantic, but I think this is a distinction worth making.

With these parameters in mind, here is a full table of every defensive replacement from the 2022 postseason. “Score” refers to the score when the player entered the game, and “Due Up” shows his place in the batting order. Players with an asterisk entered the game as pinch-runners.

Defensive Replacements in the 2022 Postseason

Game Team Score Defensive Replacement Inning Due Up
NLWC Game 1 Cardinals 2-0 Paul DeJong replaces Tommy Edman playing SS, Edman replaces Brendan Donovan playing 2B 8 6th
NLWC Game 1 Cardinals 2-0 Ben DeLuzio replaces Dylan Carlson in CF, Carlson replaces Lars Nootbar in RF, Nootbar replaces Juan Yepez in LF 8 8th
NLWC Game 2 Phillies 2-0 Edmundo Sosa replaces Alec Bohm playing 3B 9* 8th
NLDS Game 2 Padres 5-3 José Azocar replaces Jurickson Profar in LF 8* 6th
NLDS Game 3 Padres 2-1 José Azocar replaces Jurickson Profar in LF 9* 1st
NLDS Game 1 Phillies 7-3 Brandon Marsh replaces Matt Vierling in CF, Vierling replaces Kyle Schwarber in LF 8 8th
NLDS Game 3 Phillies 6-1 Matt Vierling replaces Kyle Schwarber in LF 8* 4th
NLDS Game 3 Phillies 7-1 Dalton Guthrie replaces Nick Castellanos in RF 8* 8th
NLDS Game 3 Phillies 9-1 Edmundo Sosa replaces Alec Bohm playing 3B 8 9th
NLDS Game 4 Phillies 7-3 Matt Vierling replaces Kyle Schwarber in LF 8 9th
ALDS Game 3 Astros 1-0 Mauricio Dubon replaces Chas McCormick in CF, McCormick replaces Yordan Alvarez in LF 18 6th
ALCS Game 3 Astros 5-0 Mauricio Dubon replaces Chas McCormick in CF 9 6th
NLCS Game 1 Phillies 2-0 Matt Vierling replaces Kyle Schwarber in LF 8 9th
NLCS Game 2 Padres 8-5 Will Myers replaces Brandon Drury at 1B 9 1st
NLCS Game 3 Phillies 4-2 Matt Vierling replaces Kyle Schwarber in LF 8 8th
NLCS Game 3 Phillies 4-2 Edmundo Sosa replaces Alec Bohm playing 3B 9 1st
NLCS Game 4 Phillies 10-6 Edmundo Sosa replaces Alec Bohm playing 3B 8 9th
NLCS Game 4 Phillies 10-6 Matt Vierling replaces Kyle Schwarber in LF 9 9th
NLCS Game 5 Phillies 4-3 Edmundo Sosa replaces Alec Bohm playing 3B 9 8th
WS Game 1 Phillies 6-5 Edmundo Sosa replaces Alec Bohm playing 3B 9 7th
WS Game 2 Astros 5-1 Mauricio Dubon replaces Chas McCormick in CF, McCormick replaces Aledmys Diaz in LF 9 1st
WS Game 3 Phillies 7-0 Edmundo Sosa replaces Alec Bohm playing 3B 9 9th
WS Game 3 Phillies 7-0 Matt Vierling replaces Nick Castellanos in RF 9 8th
WS Game 4 Astros 5-0 Mauricio Dubon replaces Chas McCormick in CF, McCormick replaces Aledmys Diaz in LF 8 8th

*Entered previous half-inning as a pinch runner

As you can see, the Phillies leave everyone else in the dust, with 15 of the 24 defensive replacements from this year’s playoffs. No individual player was replaced more than Bohm, who was taken out for Sosa in eight of Philadelphia’s 11 postseason victories (only one of which was not a defensive replacement situation). Sosa, for his part, was involved in four of the nine outs recorded by defensive replacements this postseason and appeared in a grand total of eight different games without a plate appearance. Only one player, Clay Bellinger of the 2000 Yankees, has played more defensive games in a single postseason without coming to bat in any of those contests:

Postseason Player Games on Defense, No PA

Player Team Season Total Number of Games
Clay Bellinger Yankees 2000 10
Lynn Jones Royals 1985 8
Joe McEwing Mets 2000 8
Alex Ochoa Angels 2002 8
Joaquin Arias Giants 2012 8
Jake Marisnick Astros 2019 8
Guillermo Heredia Braves 2021 8
Edmundo Sosa Phillies 2022 8

Source: Stathead Baseball

Unsurprisingly, Sosa also ended up being the most impactful of all players used as defensive replacements, both by the good ol’ eye test and more advanced measures. By Win Probability Added, he was involved in the two most consequential outs of all those recorded by defensive replacement fielders. WPA is not a defensive statistic, but we can still use it to see the change in win expectancy from before and after each out was recorded:

Outs Recorded by Defensive Replacements

Game Fielder Positions Team Change in WP
NLWC Game 2 Edmundo Sosa 3B Phillies 0.089
NLDS Game 2 José Azocar LF Padres 0.043
NLDS Game 3 Edmundo Sosa 3B Phillies 0.000
NLDS Game 3 Edmundo Sosa 3B Phillies 0.000
ALDS Game 3 Mauricio Dubon CF Astros 0.040
NLCS Game 4 Matt Vierling LF Phillies 0.009
WS Game 1 Edmundo Sosa 3B Phillies 0.235
WS Game 3 Matt Vierling RF Phillies 0.000
WS Game 4 Chas McCormick LF Astros 0.004

In Game 1 of the World Series, Sosa cleanly fielded a ground ball and threw to first for the final out. It wasn’t a tough play — a 73-mph grounder to third with a .060 xBA — but it was an especially high-leverage situation. The Phillies were up by only one run in the bottom of the 10th, and the Astros had two runners in scoring position. A misplay would have tied the game and given Houston the chance to win. It was exactly the kind of situation in which you want your surest hand on the ball. But in such a tight ballgame, no one could have blamed Thomson for sticking with his better hitter either. In hindsight, the manager clearly made the right choice:

Meanwhile, back in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series, Sosa made what was almost certainly the best play by a defensive replacement this postseason. It didn’t have quite as big an impact on his team’s win probability as his assist in the World Series, but it was a play Bohm would not have made so easily. With the Phillies up by two and runners on the corners, Tommy Edman stepped up to bat representing the winning run. He popped up a 2–2 pitch from Zach Eflin into foul territory on the third base side; Sosa, who had been shifted over toward second, took a long run toward the Phillies’ dugout to make the game-ending catch. He reached the ball with a moment to spare, and it’s conceivable that the slower Bohm would not have gotten there in time.

In all likelihood, the 24 defensive replacements didn’t help their teams win any postseason ballgames. Sosa came the closest, but even so, Bohm probably would have made all the same plays. None of the other defensive replacements had anything harder to work with. So what about the alternative? Did any defensive replacements cost their teams a victory?

Only one team that used a defensive replacement went on to lose the game: the Cardinals in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series. Heading into the eighth inning, St. Louis held a 2–0 lead over Philadelphia. Oliver Marmol was counting on Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley to shut the door, and he brought in some defensive replacements to help them do so. Paul DeJong took over at shortstop, Edman moved to second base, and Brendan Donovan (ironically enough, a Gold Glover this season) went back to the dugout. In the outfield, Ben DeLuzio entered to play center, Dylan Carlson moved to right, Lars Nootbaar moved to left, and Juan Yepez left the game. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, all those defensive reinforcements proved futile, as the Phillies rallied in the ninth to take a 6–2 lead. They scored two runs on a single that skirted past a diving Edman at second and another run on a single to left that Nootbar was unable to throw home in time. Neither Edman or Nootbar were necessarily at fault on those plays, but even those two strong defenders were unable to keep the Phillies at bay. The defensive replacements made no difference on defense — and then they had to bat.

In the bottom of the ninth, DeJong and DeLuzio were called to the plate. There’s a reason those two were only brought in as late-inning defensive replacements; neither one is a guy you want at the plate with the game on the line. Marmol had top prospect Nolan Gorman to pinch-hit for DeLuzio, but DeJong, who hit .157 during the regular season, had to bat for himself. He flew out, costing his team one of their precious remaining outs. Had Donovan remained in the game, the Cardinals might just have mounted a comeback. If nothing else, at least they would have had a better shot. Thus, the most meaningful defensive replacement of the postseason cost his team with his bat, not his glove.

Or perhaps the most meaningful defensive replacement of the postseason was the one that didn’t happen at all. In Game 5 of the World Series, Chas McCormick made the play of the playoffs. With one out in the bottom of the ninth and the Astros up 3–2, J.T. Realmuto hit a long fly to deep center field. McCormick lept into the wall to make the catch, robbing Realmuto of an extra-base hit. Two batters later, the game was over, and Houston held a 3–2 series lead.

McCormick is a strong defender, but on several occasions this October he moved to left field in the late innings, with Mauricio Dubón coming in to play center. That’s precisely what happened in both Game 2 and Game 4, Houston’s first two wins of the World Series. This time around, however, Dusty Baker chose to stick with McCormick in center. It’s hard to say why exactly he made that call, but suffice to say, the move paid off. While it’s possible Dubón could have made the catch too, you also can’t really presume anyone would make a catch like that.

If the Astros had gone with their typical defensive replacement that inning — subbing out Yordan Alvarez for McCormick and McCormick for Dubón — perhaps Realmuto gets a double or even a triple there. Perhaps Bryce Harper drives him in on the next pitch. Perhaps the Phillies win Game 5 in extra innings. Perhaps they take the Astros to Game 7 and win the whole dang thing. Yeah, I know, that’s a lot of speculation. None of that is for certain. But if one thing is for sure, it’s that McCormick saved the game with that catch. When it mattered most in the World Series, the best defensive replacement was no replacement at all.

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