Life Is Meaningless and Short, Just Like Position Player Relief Outings

© Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t too long ago that it was a delightful novelty when position players pitched. When Casper Wells came in from the outfield to chuck batting practice fastballs at the plate, it signified that the game had gone into a zone of silliness. Either the game was such a blowout there was nothing to be gained by taking it seriously, or it had gone on so long that both teams had run out of pitchers. In the latter case, that usually happened well after midnight, with all the slap-happy antics exhausted people tend to get up to.

But seeing a position player on the mound is no longer cause for giddiness and mirth. It’s almost commonplace; so much so that MLB had to institute a rule prohibiting position players from pitching in games where the score is closer than seven runs. Like a Foster the People song, the position player pitching got overexposed and lost its luster. What was once a reason to turn a game on is now a signal that you might as well turn it off.

Why are so many position players pitching nowadays? Well, there’s the serious answer, which has to do with bullpen construction and the proliferation of the max-effort relief pitcher. And then there’s the truth, which is that in baseball, unlike curling, it’s considered indecorous to concede a game you’re going to lose. That’s what the position player pitching usually means now: The game is out of reach, so let’s just get it over with, ideally with as little expenditure of time and effort as is practicable.

During the 2022 season, 65 position players (66 if you count Shohei Ohtani) managed to record at least one appearance as a pitcher. These 65 players come from all of the other eight positions. There are a few former two-way college players, some blood relations of major league pitchers, and a few Brett Phillips types, bench players who are down for anything and therefore seem well-suited to performing this inherently goofy task.

Some of them, like Christian Bethancourt and Hanser Alberto, became the designated mop-up guy of last resort because they can actually pitch a little. Their level of effort varies as well — Jackie Bradley Jr. toed the rubber and hit 91 mph. Andrelton Simmons, by contrast, pitched in the high 40s, even though he was clocked at up to 97 off the mound in college. There are eephus pitches, lollipop curves, even the odd knuckleball.

But these part-time pitchers have one unifying quality: They work quickly. All 65 position players came in under the league average of 23.1 seconds between pitches. Fifteen of them came in at less than half that number. Last season, 871 pitchers recorded at least one out in the major leagues; the 58 fastest-working pitchers, by Pace, were position players.

You might be able to guess the fastest-working actual pitcher in the league last year, pictured here in his days as a Seattle Mariner.

© Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Suffice it to say, that is the face of a man who’s fully aware of the finite nature of human existence. A man who wants to spend as few precious moments as possible on a mound, because he can feel death’s hot breath on his neck at all times.

But even Wade Miley, with his 15.5 seconds between pitches, looks like Giovanny Gallegos compared to Wil Myers, the only position player to come in under 10 seconds a pitch.

It makes sense that position players would take less time between pitches than actual pitchers. Even with PitchCom, the process of thinking about and selecting a strike takes a couple of seconds, and then pitchers will set and compose themselves for a moment. The effort of throwing in the 90s also requires an extra few beats of rest compared to a 60-mph lob. A position player, who’s basically screwing around in the waning moments of a blowout, would have none of those concerns. They just have to go up there and throw.

So who among these position players, these human white flags, these ferrymen who guide baseball games through their most pointless moments, is taking the longest between pitches?

The slowest-working position player of 2022 was Ildemaro Vargas of the Nationals, who took an absolutely ponderous 23 seconds between pitches. That’s two and a half times longer than Myers took, and the context of his single outing makes things even worse. Vargas pitched once, the ninth inning of an 8-0 loss to the Phillies. And here’s the really awful bit: It was the second game of a doubleheader on October 1, and it rained all weekend.

The video is hilarious, because there’s nobody in the stands. And why would there be? This was Game 161 of the year for a 107-loss team, at the end of a long day in absolutely atrocious weather. Vargas, to his credit, had some fun, shimmying his hips in his windup and popping eephus pitches. Four of the six pitches he threw came in at 39 mph, which at first I thought was a glitch, like the TV radar gun couldn’t register anything slower. But the Statcast data backs it up — four pitches all came in between 38.6 and 39 mph, which is incredible consistency for a joke pitch.

That’s slow enough that the actual time the ball takes to get to the plate starts to have a measurable impact on pace, though the real reason Vargas’s pace is so slow has everything to do with how the stat is calculated. Next year’s pitch clock rule is meant to reduce the dead time between pitches while the pitcher has the ball in his hand on the mound. Pace, however, isn’t calculated that way — it’s the time between the start of the first pitch in the plate appearance and the end of the last pitch of the plate appearance, divided by the number of pitches in the plate appearance minus one.

It’s an estimate, and over hundreds or thousands of pitches, the bumps iron themselves out. But Vargas only threw six pitches this season. All of them were swung on and hit. Two of them came as part of one-pitch plate appearances. The other four constituted a plate appearance by Brandon Marsh that included three foul balls, which ate up lots of time through no fault of Vargas’. Besides, it’s hard to get on a player’s case for time-wasting when he got through an entire inning on just six pitches.

Next up is Orlando Arcia, who like Vargas had one brief pitching appearance in a blowout against the Phillies late in the year. He threw 10 pitches, with an average pace of 21.3 seconds. On the mound, he was a little more deliberate than Vargas, but he too was the victim of foul ball delays. Arcia allowed two foul balls, both pop-ups near the first base dugout that nearly caused Matt Olson to come to grief. The first dropped near the on-deck circle when Arcia and Olson both pulled up before they could run into each other; the other fell harmlessly as Olson ran headlong into the dugout railing and almost flipped over. The numbers do Arcia a disservice.

The third-slowest position player pitcher, Ryan McKenna of Baltimore, came by his pace numbers honestly.

McKenna pitched twice this year, and because he allowed six baserunners and two runs in the span of 10 batters faced across those outings, I’ll try not to be too hard on him. But McKenna’s 18-second pace was the third-slowest among position players, and there are no extenuating circumstances. He threw 31 pitches and allowed six foul balls; one was a foul tip, with the other five going directly into the screen or out of play. No need to reset the defense, as the Braves did after both of Olson’s near-misses.

I expected there to be a correlation between how many times a position player pitched and how long he took between pitches — the more a position player pitches, the more likely he is to think of himself as a pitcher and take his task seriously. But while a few of the more heavily-used emergency relievers did have higher pace numbers, no such correlation was immediately obvious. Alberto, for instance, was almost bang-average in terms of pace.

McKenna does seem to take his task more seriously. Rather than lobs and eephus pitches, he throws a sidearm… well, Statcast calls it a fastball, but the velocity ranges from 60 mph to almost 84, so who knows? The point is, it moves quite a bit and seemed to fool at least a few of McKenna’s opponents. And in between pitches, McKenna would come set quite deliberately. Too deliberately, I’d argue, while the Orioles are playing out the string in a double-digit loss to the Tigers.

But even though McKenna could stand to pick up the tempo a little, he did have faster pace numbers than all but five full-time pitchers in 2022; only the aforementioned Miley and Ryan Weber were quicker among pitchers who threw more than 10 innings. There aren’t many areas in which position player pitchers outperform the genuine article, but they know the value of working quickly. That’s no small thing.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic,, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

Fun piece!

Nit: McKenna was pitching against the Red Sox, not the tigers.

1 year ago
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I’m guessing his other pitching appearance was against the Tigers, with the caveat that I’m lazy and it doesn’t seem important enough for me to actually verify!