Cardinals, Dodgers Achieve Backwards Baseball by Jeff Sullivan August 8, 2013 It is a certain treat to be able to watch baseball players not know what they’re doing. It’s not something you hope for all of the time, because then you’re just watching the Astros, but on occasion, it’s a little spice that can go a long way. A little bit of absurdity to season what might otherwise be a relatively unwatchable game. So often, we marvel at how these players are extraordinary at what they do. We watch them because we can’t be them. We appreciate, then, the moments at which they’re most like us. The most popular and highly-anticipated example is the case of the position player taking the mound. Position players are trained to be position players and not pitchers, but sometimes they have to pitch, either because it’s a blowout or because extra innings won’t end. They’ve all, of course, pitched in the past, but they aren’t trained major leaguers, so they’re basically us + talent. Another, less-discussed example is the case of the relief pitcher batting. Relief pitchers are trained to be pitchers and not batters, but sometimes they bat, either because it’s a blowout or the situation is desperate. They’ve all, of course, batted in the past, but they aren’t trained major leaguers, so they’re basically us + talent. It’s fun to watch position players pitch. It’s fun to watch relief pitchers bat. Wednesday night in St. Louis, in a game between the Dodgers and the Cardinals, fans witnessed them both. And they witnessed them both happen at the same time. The game wasn’t in extras — the game was a blowout. The Dodgers led 9-4 in the top of the ninth, then they started piling on runs. Six of eight hitters reached against Keith Butler, and the score was 13-4 when the Cardinals went to the bullpen. Or when the Cardinals went to the dugout, whatever. With two on and two out, backup catcher Rob Johnson took to the mound. The next batter due up was reliever Paco Rodriguez, and where ordinarily Rodriguez would be pinch-hit for, Don Mattingly didn’t see the sense in bothering, not with a nine-run difference. And so the showdown was allowed to proceed. Plenty of times, relievers have faced backup catchers. But it’s usually the other way around. Johnson threw four pitches. These are those: Rodriguez never so much as thought about swinging. Chance for personal glory aside, there was more to lose than there was to gain, and in fairness, Johnson did get a fastball up to 90 miles per hour. What Rodriguez did pull off was a smooth-looking bat flip to himself after strike three. The idea, probably, was to demonstrate that he had actually held a baseball bat in his hands before. He knew at least one thing he could do with it. That was it. Johnson’s entire relief appearance was an at-bat against a relief pitcher. Rodriguez didn’t even pitch in the bottom of the ninth, getting replaced by Carlos Marmol. Rodriguez didn’t have to feel bad, because he isn’t supposed to bat. Johnson probably didn’t get to feel good, because he pitched to a reliever. Maybe the guy who feels worst is Keith Butler, because Mike Matheny didn’t trust him to pitch to a reliever in a nine-run game. He was replaced not by another major-league pitcher, but by the guy who caught him in his previous appearance. As it happens, this wasn’t Johnson’s first big-league relief outing. On May 18, 2012, he threw a 1-2-3 eighth against the Blue Jays, getting two pop-ups and an Eric Thames strikeout. Johnson has now pitched to four batters, retiring all of them and striking out half of them. Wednesday night, he threw a little harder. Something a few people noticed about Johnson: he was a quick worker. He didn’t dilly-dally on the mound, soaking up the experience; he got the ball and he threw the ball, not unlike, say, a catcher. His pace was measured at 12.3 seconds. In his outing last year, his pace was measured at 12.6 seconds. The major-league average is much much higher. But this isn’t unique to Johnson, because position players as a group tend to set a rapid-fire tempo. Since 2008, position players have averaged a pace of 15.7 seconds, and that includes a few high-leverage appearances where the players slowed down. Jamey Carroll pitched with an 11.5-second pace. Joe Inglett pitched with a 10.3-second pace. Kevin Cash pitched with a nine-second pace. Part of this, probably, is because position players aren’t out there looking to deceive. The rest of this, probably, is because the game is out of hand so why be a jerk? Obviously, it’s rare for a position player to pitch to a reliever. It’s rare, but it’s not unprecedented. Following is a table of all such instances since 2000, compiled tediously, with what I can best describe as an excited frown: Position Player Year Reliever Result Inning Rob Johnson 2013 Paco Rodriguez Strikeout 9 Chris Davis 2012 Darnell McDonald DP 17 Darnell McDonald 2012 Chris Davis Groundout 17 Skip Schumaker 2011 Blake Hawksworth Strikeout 9 Wilson Valdez 2011 Carlos Fisher Pop out 19 Joe Mather 2010 Raul Valdes Groundout 19 Felipe Lopez 2010 Raul Valdes Single 18 Ross Gload 2009 Dale Thayer Groundout 9 Robin Ventura 2004 Derrick Turnbow Fly out 9 Mark Loretta 2001 Chris Nichting Strikeout 8 Desi Relaford 2001 Jose Nunez Strikeout 9 Keith Osik 2000 Jose Rodriguez Strikeout 9 Frank Menechino 2000 Bobby Chouinard Single 8 Derek Bell 2000 Todd Erdos Line out 8 Instantly, you’ll think to apply some asterisks. Chris Davis and Darnell McDonald, certainly, were relief pitchers, but they aren’t relief pitchers, or even pitchers at all. That was just a…weird afternoon. Three other examples took place in the later extra innings, when the situations came out of desperation. Look extra close at the middle of this table. On April 17, 2010, the Mets beat the Cardinals 2-1 in 20 frames. All three runs were scored in the 19th and 20th. For the Mets, Raul Valdes threw two innings of scoreless relief. In the 18th, he batted against infielder Felipe Lopez. In the 19th, he batted against infielder Joe Mather. In the same game in 2010, the same reliever faced two different position players pitching. Both times, Valdes put the ball in play. Before Johnson and Rodriguez, the last time a normal position player pitched to a normal reliever was August 23, 2011, when Skip Schumaker struck out Blake Hawksworth. Hawksworth took all five pitches, and then in the bottom of the ninth, Schumaker faced Hawksworth the ordinary way and singled. The last time a normal reliever swung at a position player’s pitch when the game wasn’t in extras and desperate was May 22, 2009, when Dale Thayer knocked a 2-and-0 tapper back to Ross Gload. That game happened to be Thayer’s big-league debut. Rob Johnson, most of the time, is a catcher. Paco Rodriguez, most of the time, is a reliever. Ordinarily, you wouldn’t think anything would be written about an at-bat between the two. But sometimes things aren’t ordinary.