Position Players Are Suddenly — and Probably Fleetingly — Decent at Pitching

The moment was certainly worth a chuckle. In the seventh inning of a 10-0 drubbing by the Braves on Wednesday night, Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo took the mound. After retiring Johan Camargo on a grounder to first and then walking Ronald Acuña Jr., the NL leader in wRC+, the lefty-tossing Rizzo faced off against lefty-swinging Freddie Freeman, the reigning MVP — and struck him out.

Neither combatant could keep a straight face as Rizzo fell behind 2-0 via a slow curveball that was about two feet outside, and then a 70-mph fastball that missed the outside corner. Freeman laid off another 70-mph fastball that was in the zone, fouled one off that was a few clicks faster, and then went down swinging at a sweeping 61-mph curve that was low in the zone.

“I couldn’t stop laughing as I was going up to the plate,” Freeman told reporters afterwards. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

“He’ll have that over me forever. But that’s one strikeout I’m OK with. That was fun. It was fun to be a part of.”

Rizzo, who had previously pitched one-third of an inning in 2018, was just one of five position players to pitch in a lopsided game on Wednesday, three of them in the Cubs game, just the second time a team has used three over the past 42 seasons. I’ll get to the specifics, but if it seems like there have been a lot of these outings lately, even amid the ever-increasing totals and rates I’ve chronicled here in recent years, you’re not wrong.

But here’s the thing, and it’s almost certainly just an April thing, as fleeting as Yermín Mercedes‘ .423/.464/.679 batting line: position players have actually been rather effective this year. They’ve been more effective than actual relievers, maybe because the batters in Freeman’s position are too amused to do much damage. If you can’t beat ’em, crack ’em up.

Leaving two-way wonder Shohei Ohtani aside — we’re always leaving him aside in these things because he’s a special case — there have been 19 position player pitching appearances in the 2021 season’s first four weeks, one short of the total for the entire 2014 season (not counting converted outfielder Jason Lane’s three appearances) and more than half of the ’17 and ’20 season totals. Since 2020’s short season would muck up the nice-looking graph of annual totals I made last year

…I’ll use a table for context instead:

Position Players Pitching 2012-21
2012 12 12.0 12.3% 7.0% 1.50 6.75 6.35 0.08%
2013 14 10.3 16.3% 12.2% 0.87 6.10 5.47 0.10%
2014 20 17.3 14.6% 9.8% 1.56 7.27 6.54 0.14%
2015 27 26.0 7.1% 6.3% 3.12 4.85 8.06 0.18%
2016 26 24.7 6.1% 4.4% 2.55 5.11 7.28 0.17%
2017 32 29.0 9.1% 3.5% 3.10 8.69 8.64 0.20%
2018 65 63.0 9.7% 6.9% 3.86 11.71 9.51 0.40%
2019 85 89.3 9.4% 5.8% 3.22 8.76 8.69 0.51%
2020 35 32.3 8.1% 5.0% 3.62 8.63 9.13 0.57%
2021 19 16.0 6.9% 6.9% 0.56 2.81 4.21 0.78%
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
RP% = position player pitching appearances as a percentage of all relief appearances.

As a percentage of all relief appearances, the position player pitching (PPP) rate is up about 38% over last year. It’s nearly four times the rate of 2017, and nearly double the rate of ’18, the year that the phenomenon really took off. Over a full 162-game schedule, this year’s rate projects to 126 PPP appearances, 51 more than in 2019. That’s about five per week.

Particularly as their usage has proliferated, we’ve seen just how bad position players generally are at this, to the point of allowing nearly a run per inning. This year they’re actually pitching comparatively effectively, mainly by avoiding home runs, which on a per-game basis are down 11.5% from last year (perhaps due to the new ball). So far, the Angels’ Anthony Bemboom is the only one to serve up a long ball (to the Astros’ Kyle Tucker, in case you need to know). Because they’ve actually gotten batters out, the rate of PPP appearances as a percentage of batters faced (0.62%) is only up about 16% relative to last year.

The sudden success of the PPPs probably isn’t velocity, unless that means the lack of same. Via a very quick and dirty Baseball Savant study, the average pitch velocity of this year’s PPP appearances — and here I’m lumping all pitches together because classifying these guys’ offerings is rather ambiguous — is 67.5 mph, down more than three clicks from last year and seven clicks from 2018, the earliest year I checked. By that I’d guess, and this is just a guess, that we’ve gradually seen more curves, eephuses and knuckleballs than batting-practice fastballs from these guys, which to these eyes adds to the entertainment. If the phenomenon continues, I swear on a stack of Billy Ripken ****face cards that I’ll apply for a MacArthur Fellowship grant to study the phenomenon more diligently.

Anyway, this is all rather silly, but the question is whether we should be concerned that even in an age of expanded pitching staffs and — for last year and this year — expanded rosters, managers are writing off those garbage-time innings in blowouts and handing them over to backup catchers and utility infielders with greater regularity. Those blowouts are happening more frequently as well, though it depends upon your point of reference. Via Baseball-Reference, 26.4% of this year’s games have been decided by five or more runs, which is the lowest rate since 2015 but still higher than any year in the 2011-15 range; it was above 28% annually from 2017-20, with a high of 30.2% in ’17. At least in the 30-team era, it’s the 2011-15 period that’s the aberration:

All of which is to say that I’m not sure that we can link the increase in PPP appearances to the game’s greater competitive balance problems, and I don’t think that curbing PPP outings, as the original roster rules for 2020 intended to do before pandemic-ball led MLB and the union to waive that provision, would suddenly improve competitive balance.

So, if you want to rail about the increased frequency of position players pitching as evidence of the decline of baseball and civilization itself, I’m sure you can find a street corner or a social media platform for your rants, but I’m not sure that this is the evidence you should cite. Me, I’ve long since chosen to go with the flow and see what turns up, so we’ll get back to the trivia and entertainment factor, wrapping up a few loose threads from above.

In the Rizzo game, the Cubs first baseman yielded to Matt Duffy, who had moved over from third base to first when Rizzo took the mound. Duffy retired Marcell Ozuna on a grounder to end the seventh, and then Eric Sogard pitched the eighth, loading the bases via two singles and a hit-by-by pitch before retiring Camargo on a fly ball. Oddly enough, the only other time since 1979 that three position players pitched in a single game also involved the Cubs. On July 20, 2018 against the Cardinals, Tommy La Stella, Victor Caratini and Ian Happ combined to work 3.1 innings, though that was under manager Joe Maddon, whereas Wednesday was the responsibility of David Ross, who himself pitched two scoreless frames for Maddon in 2015. Ross clearly sees the value in the occasional position player outing. “You try to lighten it a little bit,” he said after Rizzo’s performance. “When you have a night like tonight, you try to just take a mental break, [and] enjoy it. That was a nice moment for Rizz. He told me he wanted Freddie.”

The Cubs trio was the second time this season that a team used multiple position players to pitch in a game; the White Sox called on Mercedes and Danny Mendick for an inning apiece on April 19 against the Red Sox. While there was only one such game in which multiple position players pitching last season, there were eight such games in 2019, and seven in ’18.

As noted, the Rizzo-Freeman game was also one of three games on Wednesday in which a position player took the ball. The Reds’ Alex Blandino threw one-third of an inning in an 8-0 loss to the Dodgers, retiring Justin Turner on a fly ball, while the Diamondbacks’ Asdrúbal Cabrera threw two-thirds of an inning in a 12-3 loss to the Padres, getting Ha-seong Kim 김하성 to line out and then Austin Nola to fly out. You’d only have to go as far back as September 1 of last season to find a day where three position players pitched for different teams (Orlando Arcia, Drew Butera, and Matt Davidson), and before that August 27, 2019 (Mike Brosseau, Ty France, and Russell Martin, with the last two coming in the same game for teams on opposite ends of a 9-0 blowout).

Obviously, the modest effectiveness of this year’s PPPs is unlikely to last, but it’s one of those weird April things that seems worth noting, particularly amid the complaints that too much of this stuff is going on. Besides, we’ve already amassed a collection of particularly memorable moments from these games. Here’s A’s Rule 5 pick Ka’ai Tom, an outfielder and now a Pirate, taking the mound in just his third major league game on April 4 against the Astros, and surrendering a hit before he’d collected his first one:

Then there was everybody’s favorite contact-hitting utilityman, the Twins’ Willians Astudillo, throwing a seven-pitch, 1-2-3 inning on April 16 against the Angels, dropping in some 46-mph eephus pitches along the way:

That same night, Jake Cronenworth finished the 12th inning of a surreal game against the Dodgers that also featured a David Price sacrifice fly and a Joe Musgrove appearance in left field. The Padres lost that one, 11-6, but Cronenworth, who was a two-way player at the University of Michigan, did strike out Mookie Betts:

How about Mercedes getting his turn?

Here’s the Nationals’ Hernán Pérez doubling up within the span of a week and running his career total to nine appearances, two short of Wild Card-era leader Chris Gimenez’s total:

And here’s Javier Báez turning around to bat from the left side against the Mets’ Luis Guillorme — something he’s done twice before against position players — on April 21:

Aw yeah, that’s the good stuff. Lean into it.

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... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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John Northeymember
1 year ago

Love when position players pitch – about the only way we get knuckleballs and eephus pitches nowadays. I miss Pascual Perez and the Niekro’s.