Has Position-Player Pitching Reached Its Peak… or Nadir?

Less than three weeks ago, in the context of a July 11 game that featured the longest pitching appearance by a position player since 1988, the earliest mound entry by one since 1979, and the first instance of multiple position players tossing multiple innings in the same game since 1956, I noted that the count of such instances for this season had already reached 29 (not including those of Shohei Ohtani), essentially guaranteeing a smashing of the single-season record of 36 (or 32, depending upon how you feel about Christian Bethancourt, whose conversion to the mound didn’t take), set just last year. In the 21 days since then — four of which were part of the All-Star break — an additional 17 non-pitchers have taken the hill, an average of one per day. On Tuesday night, we saw the worst of them, and perhaps the nadir of the entire genre, when the Mets’ Jose Reyes was battered for six runs by the Nationals while throwing 48 pitches in a single inning of work.

Reyes, who already has little business being on a major-league roster given his ineptitude as a position player (.182/.254/.240, -1.1 WAR entering Wednesday, when of course he homered twice!), entered a game in which the Mets trailed 19-1 in the eighth inning. Working with a fastball that averaged 81.5 mph and topped out at 86.9, and a curve that averaged 63.5, he retired Ryan Zimmerman on a fly ball, and then proceeded to allow the next six batters to reach safely: Juan Soto won a 10-pitch encounter with a double to rightfield, Matt Adams followed with a two-run homer to right-center (21-1), Michael Taylor and Matt Wieters both walked, pinch-hitter Mark Reynolds followed with a three-run homer (24-1), and then Trea Turner singled. Reyes got Anthony Rendon to fly out, but then Wilmer Difo tripled (25-1). Good grief, Charlie Brown.

Reyes then hit Zimmerman with a 54-mph curveball, after which Zimmerman pretended as though he might charge the mount. Finally, Soto flied out to end the debacle.

While a position-player pitching appearance is supposed to be either a break-glass-in-emergency desperation move (generally in extra innings) or a lighthearted farce that draws attention away from an otherwise unpleasant blowout, this was unpleasantness itself. In all, Reyes’s 48 pitches were three more than Jacob deGrom threw in a single inning on June 17 before being pulled out of concern for his health. Regardless of Reyes’s current playing ability or his status as a pariah in the wake of his 2016 domestic violence suspension, manager Mickey Callaway allowing him to toil that long was irresponsible, though it was at worst the second-most irresponsible act of the night following a dead-armed Steven Matz being torched for seven first-inning runs and then later examined for complaints of forearm tightness. Chalk it up as the umpteenth data point illustrating the team’s incompetence and lack of accountability when it comes to protecting its players.

That aside, Reyes became just the fourth position player of the post-1960 expansion era to allow at least six runs in a single pitching experience:

Most Runs Allowed by a Position Player Pitching Since 1961
Player Date Tm Opp Rslt IP H R BB SO
Manny Castillo 6/26/83 SEA TOR L 7-19 2.2 8 7 3 2
Larry Biittner 7/4/77 CHC MON L 3-19 1.1 5 6 1 3
Paul Janish 7/6/09 CIN PHI L 1-22 1.0 4 6 2 1
Jose Reyes 7/31/18 NYM WSN L 4-25 1.0 5 6 2 0

I track this kind of stuff because it’s generally fun; I enjoy the absurdity of seeing a utility infielder or backup catcher throwing 70 mph meatballs as much as the next baseball fan. Even so, it’s clear that the novelty is wearing off with the increased frequency of these appearances. Here’s a graph showing the annual totals since 1998 (the year MLB last expanded), with the appearances of converts Bethancourt, Rick Ankiel, and Jason Lane as well as two-way players Ohtani and Brooks Kieschnick weeded out:

Less than a decade ago, in 2011, there were eight position-player pitching appearances all season long, where we’ve had 15 since this year’s All-Star break — five by the Cubs, who used Victor Caratini, Tommy La Stella, and Ian Happ in an 18-5 loss to the Cardinals on July 20, and then Caratini and Anthony Rizzo three days later in a 7-1 loss to the Diamondbacks. Short stints by the starters figured in both; in the first one, which took place the day before a doubleheader, Jon Lester lasted just three innings, while in the second, Luke Farrell went just 3.1 innings. Like a man thinking several innings ahead, manager Joe Maddon preemptively took umbrage at any umbrage-takers when asked if he’d heard any complaints about his use of position players:

I have not and for those that may have said that, let me just inform you about this: People that want to say that do not understand the interconnectedness of the day… If I used one of our better guys yesterday in a game that was not really going anywhere vs. Steve Carlton reincarnated and then we get into a crucial moment today and then either [Steve] Cishek or [Pedro] Strop or [Carl] Edwards is not available because of that, that’s the wrong thing to do.

“Relax, folks. It’s a baseball game. It is not life or death.

Maddon and the Cubs have their reasons, and every other team does as well when it comes to these moves. But for as commonplace as they’ve become, and as much as some might fret about the hell-in-a-handbasket that portends, one point that should be hammered home is how completely noncompetitive nearly all of these outings are. Looking at the log of this year’s 46 position player appearances, we can divide them into a few groups by their average Leverage Index. As I’ve retrieved the list using Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, I’m using their calculations, which may differ from ours by the width of a gnat’s schnozz.

Last Resort (aLI Above 0.030)
Appearances: 3

All of these were emergency moves in extra innings — the 16th inning each time, coincidentally enough — after their teams had more or less run out of pitchers and sane people had gone to bed. The highest aLI was 2.810, in a July 24 appearance by Dodgers superutilityman Kiké Hernandez against the Phillies; he took the loss when he served up a walk-off homer to Trevor Plouffe. Next was an aLI of 1.488 from July 8, when Diamondbacks backup catcher Jeff Mathis — following Zack Greinke (4.1 IP) and eight true relievers — took the loss against the Padres after allowing a home run to Wil Myers in his lone-inning of work.

Third was an aLI of 0.860 from a July 3 appearance by Rays backup catcher Jesus Sucre against the Marlins, and it was one of the weirdest instances of the season. Starter Ryan Yarbrough — a guy who occasionally gives the Rays five innings, not one of the newfangled opener types — and six other pitchers preceded Sucre, who already had three mound appearances in his career. Called upon to close things out after his teammates scored five runs in the top of the 16th, he retired just one out of four batters before manager Kevin Cash was forced to call upon Jose Alvarado to finish the job in what had become a save situation.

Total Zeroes (aLI of 0.000)
Appearances: 33

These are the most complete lost causes. Virtually all of the position players entered when their teams were down by at least eight runs, and all but three came when the player’s team allowed at least 10 runs; in one of those cases (the Mariners’ Taylor Motter on April 9 against the Royals), it was the position player who allowed the 10th. All but three of the appearances came in the eighth or ninth innings, the exceptions being the Diamondbacks’ Daniel Descalso (fourth-inning) and Alex Avila (seventh inning) from the aforementioned July 11 game, and the aforementioned La Stella appearance, which began in the sixth. The WPA for each of these ersatz pitchers was 0.000. Nothing they did changed anything.

So You’re Saying There’s a Chance (aLI of 0.001 to 0.030)
Appearances: 10

That still leaves 10 outings unaccounted for, and frankly, there’s not a whole lot separating these from the ones above except a brief shred of a flicker of a scintilla of a chance on the ol’ WPA meter. Generally, these games weren’t quite so ridiculously lopsided when the position players entered, with deficits of six to eight runs instead of 10, such as when Rizzo (aLI 0.010) and Caratini (0.030, thanks to an inherited baserunner) pitched in the 7-1 game on July 23, or the Indians’ Brandon Guyer entered in the ninth inning of a 9-3 game against the Twins on June 16. Those guys put up zeroes, but six of the other seven allowed at least two runs to push their games into the realm of the totally unreachable. The WPAs of this group range from 0.001 to -0.002. Steady, folks.

While position-player outings have become increasingly common — they represent 0.29% of all relief appearances this year, up from the previous high of 0.21% last year and about five times what they were in 2010 — virtually all them amount to much ado about nothing from a competitive standpoint. They’re garbage-time innings that would normally go to one of the last men on the pitching staff, and while we can bemoan the transfer of that responsibility, keeping the distribution of those innings pitched strictly to pitchers is a double-edged sword. In the past few years, more teams have taken through churning through the last spot in the bullpen among players with minor league options remaining. Pitch your way into unavailability today with two innings of mop-and-bucket work instead of one and you may be headed for Scranton or Durham tomorrow, but let some utilityman take one of those innings and you’ll both get to stick around. Even in the age of 16-man pitching staffs, including those option-ready guys, this is hardly the game’s most pressing crisis or even its 20th-most pressing.

So who’s sent a position player to the mound the most often this year? Maddon’s Cubs lead the way with six appearances (Chris Gimenez on June 23 against the Reds, the 10th appearance of his MLB career, is the other), followed by his old team, the Rays, with five (Sucre twice, plus Johnny Field, Carlos Gomez and Daniel Robertson), and then the Brewers (Hernan Perez and Erik Kratz twice apiece) and Diamondbacks (Descalso twice, Avila and Mathis once apiece). Twenty-two teams have done it at least once, with the exceptions being the Angels, Braves, Orioles, Pirates, Red Sox, Rockies, Tigers, and Yankees. Some of those teams might think they’re above it — no Angels position player has taken the hill since 1993 (Rene Gonzales and Chili Davis) and no Rockies player since 2002 (Todd Zeile) — but just you wait until the next 17-1 game. Or 9-3.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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5 years ago

Did see Jose Reyes day after 48 pitch outing hit 2 homers. 1st guy ever to give up 2 hr one day and then hit 2 the next day.