Cliff Pennington Might Have a Career On the Mound

Cliff Pennington is known to possess many things. First, his name, a mix of post-war American automobile repair man and British countryside retreat; second, a yearly salary of no small consequence which allows him a large home and garage outfitted with fine automobiles, if he so chooses; and third, a slightly above replacement-level bat and glove that have afforded him between 200 and 300 plate appearances for each of the past three seasons.

After yesterday’s ALCS Game Four, Pennington is now known to possess a few other things, chief among them a 91 mph fastball and a 79 mph curveball. We know this, of course, because Pennington was the first-ever position player to pitch in the playoffs, the direct result of a 14-2 rout of the Toronto Blue Jays by the Kansas City Royals. It was certainly not the hope of Blue Jays manager John Gibbons to call upon Pennington as a pitcher when laying out his bullpen for the semifinals of baseball’s biggest tournament, but here we are, and the results of the forced experiment were, at the very least, interesting and entertaining for the neutral fan.

Allow us to begin with Pennington’s first pitch:

Surprising? Surprising. 91 with sinking action from a position player will do that, and it caused quite a reaction from a section of Jays players who were paying attention to the game:

Jays_Bench_Guys

However, the second pitch really gave us an idea of just what Pennington had in mind for his .1 inning of work he had been tasked, attempting to drop this little number in:

There is a standard excitement when a position player pitches that is borne out of the grand folly of the situation; the circumstance that precipitates a positional player on the mound reverts baseball to a simple game and not such a serious undertaking. Factor in the reality that this game was in the late stages of deciding who is going to the World Series, and the absurdity climbs to another level. Add onto that the fact that Pennington can throw a 91 mph sinker and a curveball that actually looks and acts like a curveball, and you have the culmination of every positional player pitching in history. This is it. The current apex of the craft.

On his third pitch, Pennington grooved a sinker, and Paolo Orlando dropped a single into right field. Alcides Escobar — as he has been known to do lately — singled to right on the following pitch (a remarkably good sinker on the outside corner that Escobar simply handled well), plating two runs. The outcome isn’t the story here, because the outcome of a position player pitcher is basically known beforehand, and any positive contribution is a bonus. We’re going to talk about the specifics, namely the fact that Pennington seems to possess a repertoire of pitches and the type of movement on them you see with an “actual” pitcher.

We’ll set this up with a tweet from a local Toronto writer:

Pennington could simply have been being flippant with his new battery mate, but PITCHf/x actually logged four different pitches during his appearance yesterday, even if don’t match exactly what he described. PITCHf/x says Pennington threw both four seam and two seam fastballs, but this seems like a simple classification error, as everything he threw had two seam drop and movement. We’ll go ahead and just consider it his fastball. Then there was the curveball, which we’ve seen, and which we’ll see a better version of below. Finally, there was a changeup: he only threw one of them, but it was there, and it actually moved how a changeup is supposed to.

We’re going to take this a step further by bringing in Jeff’s comparison system to look at Pennington’s pitches. Yes, I know we’re going to compare just a couple of Cliff Pennington’s offerings to actual pitchers, but this is an extraordinary moment in history, and that calls for extraordinary methods. Plus, it’ll be really fun.

The system is fairly simple: we take the averages of velocity and movement from the Baseball Prospectus PITCHf/x leaderboards, create z scores centered around Pennington, and see who’s closest for each pitch. If you didn’t read Jeff’s pitch comparison articles (which you should), the closer the comparison score is to zero, the better match it is, and each increment of 1 is a standard deviation away from whichever of Pennington’s pitches we’re comparing.

Fastball

Sinker Comparison
Velocity Horizontal Vertical Comp
Cliff Pennington 90.3 9.71 6.17
Jake Peavy 90.8 9.35 5.97 0.4
Taylor Hill 92.0 9.53 6.00 0.5
Phil Hughes 90.5 9.05 6.10 0.6
Jeremy Hellickson 90.7 8.86 6.17 0.7

Jake Peavy, come on down! The other names on the list aren’t terrible to be compared to either, especially if you are a utility infielder taking the mound for the first (and perhaps only) time. The strong horizontal movement is perhaps what was most surprising about Pennington’s two seamer. This thing actually moves.

Curveball

Curveball Comparison
Velocity Horizontal Vertical Comp
Cliff Pennington 79.2 5.63 -6.23
Colin Rea 78.8 5.82 -6.03 0.2
Miguel Gonzalez 77.8 5.85 -6.29 0.3
Tom Wilhelmsen 78.4 5.07 -6.24 0.4
Lance Lynn 78.5 5.84 -5.65 0.4

Colin Rea started six games for the Padres from August to September before his elbow started acting up, so he’s not exactly a household name. However, he did have a 3.45 FIP in those limited innings! The other names aren’t exactly known for his curveball, which could be said of Pennington as well.

Changeup

Changeup Comparison
Velocity Horizontal Vertical Comp
Cliff Pennington 78.4 8.38 1.52
Brad Boxberger 80.7 8.75 1.25 0.7
Chris Heston 83.0 8.47 1.82 0.9
Roberto Hernandez 83.4 8.25 2.07 1.0
Chase Whitley 82.7 8.46 2.42 1.1

This is by far the most interesting comparison out of all of the pitches. While this is the furthest comp away from any others that Pennington has, it most closely resembles… Brad Boxberger’s changeup. In other words, the one that Boxberger basically makes his living on. This doesn’t at all take into consideration the fact that the Rays’ closer can pump his fastball up into the mid 90s while Pennington can’t, but it’s still a really fun comparison.

None of this is meant to imply that Pennington could have the career of a Peavy, or a Rea, or a Boxberger on the mound. Having a career as a part-time middle infielder is hard enough in the big leagues without trying to transition to the mound. However, for a brief, seven-pitch outing in one of the most important games of the season, Pennington took the mound, and he actually didn’t look that bad. At worst, he looked like a really good position player pitcher. At best, he looked like he might actually have the stuff to get outs if he made that his only goal.

It’s rare enough to see an infielder on the mound. Even rarer to have an infielder who can mix pitches. But seeing both of those conditions met in the fourth game of a League Championship series is something totally off the map; so much so that it might never happen again. Perhaps we’ll never again see the unique circumstances that led to this moment — yet another baseball first. Or maybe, just maybe, this is a precursor to the inevitable blowout World Series game in which some future utility infielder is called from the bullpen to get a few outs, and while he’s at it, have a little fun.





Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

31 Comments
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Phillies113
6 years ago

Hey, this WAS fun! Thanks, Owen!

Cole Nefsky
6 years ago
Reply to  Owen Watson

I suppose it would be overly picky to point this out, but he’s tipping his curve by his posture and slowing down on his change-up. Also, I want to see Kiermaier and the 100mph fastball, really badly.

james
6 years ago
Reply to  Cole Nefsky

never heard that he had that gas, but seeing him throw in the Of makes me believe that he can do it.