CHICAGO – About the fourth inning, Tommy La Stella will start moving, getting loose, taking swings. He often watches video of the pitcher he might face.
The 29-year-old New Jersey native has been invaluable coming off the bench for Cubs manager Joe Maddon this season. La Stella is leading the major leagues in pinch hits with 12 in 32 pinch-hit at-bats through Sunday.
He’s hitting .375 in pinch-hit situations with five walks, two doubles, seven RBIs and a .459 on-base percentage.
“I love it,” La Stella said. “It’s a different type of challenge, one that I’ve really enjoyed working on trying to improve on over the last few years. This team is so talented. All of our guys that play need to play. They need to be out there. These are the best players in the game. I’m happy to be here and contribute in any capacity.”
As a team, the Cubs are third in baseball with 25 pinch hits, behind the Dodgers (31) and Giants (27). Not surprisingly, the top 14 teams in pinch hits are all in the National League, where pinch hitters are more likely to hit for the pitcher.
La Stella’s teammates have certainly taken notice of his success in the role.
“It’s unbelievable,” Albert Almora Jr. said. “The numbers speak for themselves. What goes on behind the scenes is really special. The way he prepares throughout the game. I’ve learned from him since I came up. Just routine-wise and what he has to do to lock himself in.”
La Stella has found success by keeping his approach as simple as possible.
“I just want to focus on what I do well, simplify that as best I can and repeat it as many times as I can without getting too caught up in the result,” La Stella said.
Outfielder Jason Heyward said other players can learn from La Stella’s everyday approach.
“It starts with when he gets here early in the day and prepares, video, all that stuff, he has his routine,” Heyward said. “Just trust your process every day. It’s kind of the same thing when you talk about playing every day: Trust your process. As far as pinch hitting, you get fewer chances. You kind of get the day to yourself instead of having to get ready for the start.”
La Stella saw a career-high 360 plate appearances as a rookie with the Braves in 2014. He came to the Cubs in a November 2014 trade with the Braves for Arodys Vizcaino.
La Stella’s Cubs career-high 169 plate appearances came in 2016, when he hit .270. Last season he hit a career-best .288 in 151 plate appearances. Overall this season, including his occasional starts, he’s hitting .329 with 12 RBIs.
“This balancing act when we have this many guys that are deserving of playing more consistently, it’s hard,” Maddon said.
La Stella earned the nickname “3 a.m.” from Cubs manager Joe Maddon in spring training 2016, when Maddon told the media that La Stella could wake up at 3 a.m. and hit anyone.
In a way, that’s what La Stella does as a pinch hitter. But the work that goes into those pinch hits – whether at 3 a.m. or mid-afternoon of a day game – isn’t seen on the TV broadcast.
“You come off the bench and you get one at-bat, but that one at-bat will either haunt you or praise you for a little bit, because you don’t know if you’re going to get another one the next day,” Almora said. “He does such a good job of just creating a good at-bat. That’s all you can really ask for.”
Bruce Miles contributed to this report.