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The term derives from baseball. A pinch hitter is a player who replaces another player during the game, comparable to the substitute players in football/soccer.

In gift exchanges, each participant is due a fanwork from another participant. If a participant is not able to finish their assignment and submit a completed fanwork, the moderators will call for pinch-hitters to ensure that every participant receives something. Some mods call for pinch-hitters to volunteer at the beginning of a challenge so that they have a group to send pinch-hit requests to at the time-crunch end of the challenge, when most dropouts occur.

Pinch-hitters are generally not required to be, or forbidden from being, participants in the challenge.

In some challenges, such as Yuletide, participants who drop out may be denied participation in future challenges.

There is a livejournal community, fic_pinch_hit, where mods who need an emergency pinch-hitter can post a request. It was founded by fanofall on Nov. 2nd, 2007, and is an extremely low-traffic community.