Ludwick's Pride in Stavi's Pinch-Hitting Role

Nick Stavinoha is walking in the same shoes Ryan Ludwick wore three years ago and is looking good doing it.

Exactly three years ago today, on May 6, 2007, a journeyman outfielder who had put together a strong first month at Triple-A Memphis made his first appearance with the St. Louis Cardinals. His name is Ryan Ludwick.

 

Then approaching his 29th birthday, Ludwick knew he was running out of career chances. One way to remain in the major leagues was to demonstrate his proficiency as a pinch-hitter.

 

Four years later, Ludwick is an established major league starting right-fielder on a championship-caliber club. A long-time aspiring big leaguer, 28-year-old Nick Stavinoha, has assumed Ludwick's old role as a right-handed power bat off Tony La Russa's bench.

 

When Ludwick signed a minor league deal with the Cardinals prior to the 2007 season, his 1999 second-round draft pick promise had long expired.  He couldn't hold a job in the majors with Texas or Cleveland, underwent hip surgery, had been struck by an errant bullet while on a team bus and endured numerous other disabled list stints. He had spent the entire 2006 season in Triple-A where he performed well. Yet he did not receive the call to join Detroit, even in September when rosters expanded.

 

"When I arrived here, I didn't have a choice but to get comfortable with pinch-hitting," Ludwick recalled. "I had to prove I could do it to stick in the majors."

 

Part of Ludwick's resolve had to do with the reality of his career situation and part of it was due to an increased level of maturity.

 

"When I was with Cleveland (from 2003-05), I would have been upset when asked to pinch hit because I was not starting," he said. "By the time I got here, I took a lot of pride in it, and made sure I never gave an at-bat away."

 

Ludwick ended up with 11 pinch hits his first season with St. Louis, tied for 11th-most in the National League. Three of them were home runs, tying him for the most pinch-hit home runs by any Cardinal in a single season during the La Russa era.

 

That strong debut helped solidify his standing as a major leaguer and in fact, he would never return to Triple-A again. By 2008, Ludwick was a National League All-Star and earned a Silver Slugger Award.

 

Whether pinch-hitting in the past or playing every day now, the right-handed hitter made it clear he did not and does not try to hit home runs, no matter the situation. Initially, all he was looking for was a hit.

 

"When I first came up, the book on me was to get ahead with a fastball away, so I worked on an easy stroke, going away with the pitch to get a base hit to right-center. I wasn't trying to hit home runs," Ludwick explained.

 

Fast forward to 2010 where Stavinoha is now the Cardinals' late-game hitting specialist, with two memorable pinch hit home runs already this season. Both put the Cardinals in the lead, with the most recent occurring in Game 1 of the Philadelphia series on Monday night.

 

It also happened to be Stavinoha's 28th birthday, reminding everyone that it has been a long road traveled to the major leagues.

 

After having been taken in the seventh round of the 2005 draft, Stavinoha had immediate success and was identified as a top prospect in the Cardinals system. By 2006, his first full professional season, he had been named our Scout.com Cardinals Minor League Player of the Year after a standout summer with Double-A Springfield.

 

The right-handed hitter first reached Memphis to start the 2007 season, the same time fellow Texas resident Ludwick joined the Pacific Coast League club. In the first half of 2008, Stavinoha had performed well enough to be named the team's lone PCL All-Star and on June 22, made his major league debut.

 

One week later, he was back in Memphis. Over the next season and a half, Stavinoha would regularly shuttle back and forth between the two stops, with most of the time spent in Triple-A. 

 

He was recalled to St. Louis two more times in 2008 and twice again in 2009, but could never stick beyond a few weeks at a time. Stavinoha would likely have received his third call up of the 2009 season and sixth in two years had he not suffered a season-ending injury, a broken hand sustained when he was hit by a pitch last August 28.

 

In 2010, in at least his sixth serious attempt to capture and keep a major league spot, Stavinoha made the Cardinals out of spring training by hitting so well they almost had to keep him. In an unusual arrangement, the club rostered six outfielders out of camp, in part due to Stavinoha's hitting proficiency. He had gone 3-for-6 has a spring pinch-hitter and batted .339 overall in Florida.

 

Like any player, Stavinoha would love to start, but not only accepts and understands his role as the club's primary pinch-hitter, he embraces it. This season, he is 5-for-13, .385, in his specialized assignment and has driven in three runs. Taking the two home runs into account, his slugging percentage is .a robust .846 for a 1.221 OPS.

 

Stavinoha says he treats every pinch-hit at-bat the same, since most of the situations in which he is called upon are similar.

 

"I come up when there are runners on base that need to be moved over or brought in," Stavinoha observed. "Pinch hitting, the ball looks smaller, is moving faster and is harder."

 

Like Ludwick, Stavinoha does not try for the long ball despite his early success hitting them. In addition to the two this season, Stavinoha collected his first career major league pinch-hit home run last July 17th.

 

Over the 14-plus years La Russa has been managing in St. Louis, only two other pinch-hitters have more home runs than Stavinoha's three. Not surprisingly, one of them is Ludwick with four. The team leader during that time is since-traded Chris Duncan with six.

 

"If I tried to hit a home run, I would be in trouble fast," Stavinoha explained. "If the second or third pitch turns out to be the one to hit, I have to make sure I don't miss it."

 

Just to drill home the point, the pinch-hitting specialist repeated himself in emphasis.

 

"I am not looking for a home run ever," he exclaimed. "Ever!"

 

Perhaps not, but Stavinoha's results speak for themselves.

 

 

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog.

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