A Few Strange Turns When It Comes to Position Players Pitching

Albert Pujols
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals are only second in the NL Central right now, but they’ve been having some fun lately. On back-to-back Sundays, they sent elder statesmen (and likely future Hall of Famers) to the mound to close out lopsided games — first Albert Pujols against the Giants and then Yadier Molina against the Pirates. What’s more, the Cardinals were on top in both of those games by double-digit scores, placing the pair in a rare subset within the annals of position players pitching.

That’s not the only interesting recent development when it comes to those accidental moundsmen. But as it’s been awhile since I last delved into the topic, it’s a good place to start.

So let’s set the wayback machine to May 15, the night that the Cardinals faced the Giants in St. Louis for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcast. With lefty Carlos Rodón on the mound for San Francisco, the 42-year-old Pujols, who returned to the nest this spring after a decade-long run with the Angels and, briefly, the Dodgers, was in the lineup. Though righties are still a problem, he’s ably served as a platoon designated hitter against southpaws; to date he’s hit .227/.329/.439 (125 wRC+). On this night, Pujols and company went to town on Rodón, scoring nine runs over the first four frames, with eight of them charged to the starter, and the veteran slugger collecting a double and an RBI single within that onslaught. The Cardinals kept scoring, adding two runs apiece in the fifth, sixth, and seventh; by the end of the eighth, they led 15–2.

Even with an off-day looming, Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol told his players he didn’t want to use another reliever for the ninth inning. Pujols volunteered to pitch, and in doing so became the second-oldest player to make his mound debut. White Sox player/manager Lena Blackburne — who would become more famous for discovering the Delaware River mud that Major League Baseball uses to take the sheen off baseballs — was 42 years and 225 days old (106 older than Pujols) when he pitched for the first and only time in the majors when he took the mound with his team on the short end of a 17–2 bludgeoning by the Red Sox on June 5, 1929. Additionally, Pujols became the second player with at least 600 homers and one pitching appearance, after Babe Ruth himself. The Bambino had 685 homers to his name when he made his final major league start on October 1, 1933, his first in three years and just his second in 12, and he marked the occasion by adding another. Pujols was sitting on 681 when he made his debut.

As for Pujols’ actual pitching, it was amusingly terrible. Working with a “fastball” that averaged 62.4 mph and maxed out at 69.6 and a slow curve that went as slow as 46.6 mph, he issued a five-pitch walk to Darin Ruf, got Austin Slater to line out on a 103.7 mph shot to center field, then gave up a single to Evan Longoria, who asked to keep the ball.

Pujols got a grounder to shortstop off the bat of Thairo Estrada, but the Cardinals could only execute the front end of what they hoped would be a game-ending double play. Luis González — not the ex-Diamondbacks slugger, but a 26-year-old outfielder who himself had gotten the last four outs on the mound for the Giants (and who we’ll meet again elsewhere within this story) — followed by clubbing a 403-foot three-run homer to right field. Joey Bart made it two homers in a row with a 375-foot solo shot to left. Finally, Pujols got LaMonte Wade Jr. to ground out to third baseman Brendan Donovan on his 22nd and slowest pitch of the night.

Pujols didn’t record a single whiff among his 27 pitches and got just 11 swings and five called strikes. The outing left him with a 36.00 ERA, which would be the highest of any Hall of Famer unless more box scores with Josh Gibson pitching are unearthed. As it is, Gibson officially owns a 21.60 ERA via his four earned runs allowed in 1.2 innings in an outing for the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1935.

One week after Pujols’ outing, he and his teammates teed off on the Pirates at PNC Park. The score was already 11–0 when Pujols pinch-hit for that day’s DH, Nolan Arenado, in the fifth inning and launched a solo homer off Chase De Jong. In the ninth, with the Cardinals up 15–0 and second baseman Josh VanMeter on the mound, Pujols added a three-run homer, the 683rd blast of his career.

The huge margin was a relief for Marmol, who had to pull starter Steven Matz after just four pitches due to shoulder stiffness. Rookie righty Angel Rondón turned in five innings and lefty T.J. McFarland contributed three before Marmol turned to Molina, who had spent the whole game on the bench while Andrew Knizner caught. Since Knizner was on deck to hit when the Cardinals’ five-run inning ended, Pujols even came out to warm up Molina.

The 39-year-old catcher’s stuff was arguably no better than that of Pujols; his fastball averaged 61.2 mph and topped out at 69.2, and he mixed in a slider and a single 42.9 mph eephus pitch (which, no, was not the slowest in the majors this year).

That one was ball three to Yoshi Tsutsugo, the leadoff hitter of the inning. He teed off on the next pitch, hitting a 57-mph middle-middle “fastball” for a 354-foot homer to right field. Rodolfo Castro followed with a double and VanMeter picked up a single before Molina finally got his first out, a 100.7-mph liner to second base. Ke’Bryan Hayes hit an RBI groundout to second, but again the Cardinals couldn’t complete a double play. Jack Suwinski followed with a two-run, 400-foot homer to center before Michael Chavis flied out to end the game.

Molina — who to be fair was pitching in the rain — needed just 20 pitches in his outing but got just three called strikes. He matched Pujols’ 36.00 ERA, but via the advanced numbers, he owns the advantages in FIP (29.11 to 32.11) and xERA (10.48 to 12.333), figures that voters for the 2028 Hall of Fame ballot will surely want to weigh. He also had the edge as far as his manager was concerned: “Yadi had better command of the fastball,” said a playful Marmol afterward.

Molina became the sixth-oldest position player to make his mound debut:

Oldest Position Players to Make First Pitching Appearance
Player Age Date Tm Opp IP H R BB SO HR
Lena Blackburne 42-225 6/5/1929 CHW BOS 0.1 1 0 0 0 0
Albert Pujols 42-119 5/15/2022 STL SFG 1.0 3 4 1 0 2
Ichiro Suzuki 41-347 10/4/2015 MIA PHI 1.0 2 1 0 0 0
Rick Dempsey 41-292 7/2/1991 MIL BOS 1.0 3 1 0 0 0
Dave Concepcion 39-352 6/3/1988 CIN LAD 1.1 2 0 0 1 0
Yadier Molina 39-313 5/22/2022 STL PIT 1.0 4 4 0 0 2
Jamey Carroll 39-168 8/5/2013 MIN KCR 1.0 0 0 0 0 0
Wade Boggs 39-065 8/19/1997 NYY ANA 1.0 0 0 1 1 0
Gary Gaetti 39-032 9/20/1997 STL PIT 0.1 1 0 0 0 0
John McDonald 38-334 8/24/2013 PHI ARI 0.1 2 0 0 1 0
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

That’s a fun group, with no fewer than three members of the 3,000 hit club. Who can forget Boggs’ knuckleball, or Ichiro’s long-awaited outing? This is the good stuff, folks.

As I noted above, the pair of Cardinals joined a short list. While using a position player to pitch when you’re behind by a large margin or deep into extra innings has become an increasingly common and accepted practice in recent years, in the Wild Card era just eight position players have taken the hill in nine-inning games that their teams won (six others have done so in extra innings, five in the 16th or later):

Wild Card-Era Position Players Who Pitched in 9-Inning Wins
Player Date Tm Opp Rslt IP H R BB SO HR
Shane Halter 10/1/00 DET MIN W 12-11 0.0 0 0 1 0 0
Andrew Romine 9/30/17 DET MIN W 3-2 0.1 0 0 0 0 0
Russell Martin 3/30/19 LAD ARI W 18-5 1.0 0 0 0 0 0
Russell Martin 8/13/19 LAD MIA W 15-1 1.0 1 0 0 0 0
Russell Martin 8/27/19 LAD SDP W 9-0 1.0 1 0 0 1 0
Albert Pujols 5/15/22 STL SFG W 15-6 1.0 3 4 1 0 2
Hanser Alberto 5/17/22 LAD ARI W 12-3 1.0 2 1 0 0 0
Yadier Molina 5/22/22 STL PIT W 18-4 1.0 4 4 0 0 2
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Note that this list does not include any two-way players such as Brooks Kieschnick or Shohei Ohtani, nor does it include position players who took up pitching; outfielder-turned-pitcher Brett Eibner and experimental lefty Jared Walsh each had one such appearance in a nine-inning win that I omitted from the results. I did include Halter and Romine, both of whom both faced a single batter as part of nine-positions-in-one-game stunts.

That leaves two Dodgers and the aforementioned two Cardinals. Martin made three such appearances (and four total) for the Dodgers in the final year of his career and didn’t allow a single run or walk a batter in any of them. Alberto, a utility infielder, snuck in an inning in the lopsided nightcap of a doubleheader last Tuesday against the Diamondbacks, the third pitching appearance of his major league career.

While using a position player to pitch while way ahead might be seen as rubbing it in, Giants manager Gabe Kapler found the humor in it. Via MLB.com’s John Denton:

“I thought it was just great theater,” Kapler said. “Obviously, their fans loved it, and I’m sure their dugout was hanging on every pitch. We all had a lot of fun with it. It was the right time to kind of let go of the negative outcomes of the game and get involved in the fun of it. … You get to create a memory for people and I’m sure Albert is never going to forget that. Our hitters are never going to forget it. They got to face Albert Pujols on the mound.”

Kapler’s team is at least above .500 (now 22–18 while amid a five-game losing streak), but the Pirates (now 16–24) are another story. I haven’t found manager Derek Shelton’s comments about Molina’s performance; instead he was more concerned about the quality of starter Bryse Wilson‘s poor command and his team’s execution. Via The Athletic’s Rob Biertempfel, Tsutsugo and Chavis weren’t thrilled at the circumstances but took the moment in stride. Said Tsutsugo, “It was not a great game situation, but it was great to go against a superstar like [Molina]. It’s very memorable.”

Said Chavis, “I wish it was a real pitcher. It’s just awkward. He was having fun on the mound. I’m glad he got to enjoy it. He’s earned that. You have to pay your respect and everything, so good for him. That’s about it.”

Despite this veritable flood of position players finishing games while holding big leads, the overall usage of these emergency hurlers is down a bit relative to recent years:

Position Players Pitching 2013-22
Year G IP BB% SO% HR/9 ERA FIP RPG% BF%
2013 14 10.3 16.3% 12.2% 0.87 6.10 5.47 0.10% 0.08%
2014 20 17.3 14.6% 9.8% 1.56 7.27 6.54 0.14% 0.13%
2015 27 26.0 7.1% 6.3% 3.12 4.85 8.06 0.18% 0.20%
2016 26 24.7 6.1% 4.4% 2.55 5.11 7.28 0.17% 0.17%
2017 32 29.0 9.1% 3.5% 3.10 8.69 8.64 0.20% 0.20%
2018 65 63.0 9.7% 6.9% 3.86 11.71 9.51 0.40% 0.43%
2019 85 89.3 9.4% 5.8% 3.22 8.76 8.69 0.51% 0.55%
2020 35 32.3 8.1% 5.0% 3.62 8.63 9.13 0.57% 0.54%
2021 89 79.0 6.9% 5.4% 2.96 8.09 7.94 0.53% 0.50%
2022 18 19.7 10.7% 0.0% 5.49 16.93 12.87 0.41% 0.55%
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
RPG% = position player pitching appearances as a percentage of all relief appearances. BF% = position player pitching appearances as a percentage of all batters faced.

Last year saw a record 89 position player pitching appearances, though in terms of percentages of all relief appearances and of batters faced, the rates were a bit lower than the previous two seasons. This year’s percentage of such appearances about back to where it was in 2018, though it’s a bit high (by an eyelash) when it comes to a percentage of batters faced. These rates are probably being artificially suppressed by the relaxation of roster rules in the wake of the lockout-shortened spring training, anyway. Teams were allowed to carry 28 players through May 1, and some had as many as 16 pitchers at times, lessening the need for position players to fill in; just seven position players took the hill in that span. Since rosters were trimmed to 26, with a limit of 14 pitchers, another 11 have done so. As of May 30, teams will only be allowed to carry 13 pitchers, finally putting into effect a rule that was supposed to be in place to start the 2020 season. Thus I suspect we will continue to see this year’s rates climb.

Unlike last year, when in the early going position players were unusually effective, with a 2.81 ERA and 4.21 FIP through their first 16 innings, this year they’ve been even worse than usual. In fact, they’ve collectively failed to strike out any of the 112 hitters they’ve faced, that while allowing more than five homers per nine innings. Six of their 12 homers allowed came in the two Cardinals games, two apiece by Pujols and Molina plus two by VanMeter; according to The Athletic’s Jayson Stark, Sunday’s game was the first in which multiple position players gave up multiple homers.

As for González, he has now made three appearances, the most of any position player this year, and he made a bit of history himself. After his 1.1-inning scoreless appearance against the Cardinals, he added a two-inning scoreless stint in a 10–1 loss against the Padres on Sunday, then pitched again on Monday against the Mets, allowing the final three runs in a 13–3 loss. That made him the first position player (not convert or experimenter) to pitch in back-to-back games since at least the start of the expansion era in 1961. It gets murky before then, and I’m discarding former Phillies shortstop Granny Hammer’s return to the majors with the Kansas City A’s in 1962 as a knuckleballer, his first major league action since ’59 and the end of an experiment that traced back ’56. He threw just three games, was hit hard, and retired.

After the Mets’ game, Kapler lauded González, whose pitches have ranged in speed from a 39.6 mph “slider” to a mid-80s fastball. “That stuff is really effective and incredibly valuable,” said the manager. “It means a great deal to a team’s bullpen. We’re lucky that we have somebody who can do that for us.”

And no, his 39.6 mph pitch isn’t the slowest in the majors this year. That honor belongs to a 34.3 mph eephus from the Nationals’ Dee Strange-Gordon to the Braves’ Matt Olson on April 12. Summoned into a 13–4 game, Strange-Gordon ended up walking Olson in that plate appearance, and three batters later, he hit Travis d’Arnaud with a 52-mph pitch that produced one of the season’s funniest clips. Here’s the eephus and the HBP:

As d’Arnaud’s reaction should remind us, it’s good not to take this stuff too seriously.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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EonADS
4 months ago

Really enjoyed seeing both of them pitch. It’s nice in all the numbers, greed of the owners, and terrible umpiring to just remember that baseball is truly fun.

…on the other hand, as someone with no emotional attachment to any of the teams or players involved, I would have laughed so hard if Pujols or Yadi were bad enough at pitching to actually let their opponent back into the game. The schadenfreude alone would have be great.

proiste
4 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

If the Cardinals’ habit of pitching position players with large leads becomes popular, I think we’ll see that soon enough. It will be amazing when it happens