Suddenly, Position Players Are Sealing More Blowouts

© Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

To these eyes and those of others, the novelty of position players pitching in blowouts has worn off, but even so, the phenomenon has taken on a new twist. Whereas it has become almost routine for a team that’s getting pasted to call upon a reserve position player to close things out rather than waste a real pitcher, this season we’ve seen an unprecedented number of position players finishing games for the teams that are doing the pasting. In fact, earlier this week we saw a team do so on back-to-back nights, when Dodgers infielder Hanser Alberto nailed down 10-1 and 12-6 victories over the Brewers on Tuesday and Wednesday. Talk about adding insult to injury.

The 29-year-old Alberto is a light-hitting utilityman who during a seven-year career with four teams has played every position but catcher and center field. This year, he’s hitting .246/.258/.373 with two homers in 128 PA for the majors’ most dominant team, becoming something of a fan favorite for his role in keeping the Dodgers loose with his dugout dancing, towel-waving, and general good vibes-spreading.

Alberto came to the Dodgers with a smidgen of mound work on his resumé. He made his first pitching appearance with the Orioles on April 7, 2019, allowing two runs in the ninth inning of a game they lost to the Yankees 15-3; Austin Romine took him deep. He pitched again on April 20 of last year with the Royals; with the Rays ahead 14-7, he relieved a struggling Greg Holland and got the final out.

The Dodgers, who signed Alberto as a free agent on March 23, have now called upon him to pitch six times, but not when they were getting blown out. Not only have they lost just 37 times, but they’ve lost by five runs just five times — and haven’t lost a single game by a wider margin. Manager Dave Roberts was actually prevented from using utilityman Zach McKinstry to pitch against the Mets during the ninth inning of their June 4 game because of a rule that was adopted in 2020 but not implemented until this year due to the pandemic health and safety protocols. The rule prevents teams from using position players to pitch except in extra innings or with a margin of six or more runs.

“It’s a rule that obviously is in place for 2022. They were talking about it in 2020,” a chastened Roberts told reporters afterwards. “The goalposts have been moving a lot. It’s an oversight on my part… They got it right, the umpires.”

Anyway, the Dodgers led the Diamondbacks by 10 runs when Roberts first called upon Alberto on May 17, and the margin was at least 10 in each of his next three appearances as well. It was a wee nine runs when Alberto Hanswered the call on Tuesday (sorry); the manager had pulled Tony Gonsolin after five innings with a 7-1 lead that expanded to 10-1 as Evan Phillips, David Price, and Chris Martin each pitched. Having used three other relievers the night before, Roberts was down to closer Craig Kimbrel and lefty Caleb Ferguson as his unused options; instead he chose Alberto, who’s actually kind of good at this, in that he hadn’t allowed a run in any of his last three appearances. For the first time, he set down the side — Rowdy Tellez, Andrew McCutchen, and Keston Hiura — in order, and on just seven pitches.

On Wednesday night, the Dodgers again trampled the Brewers, taking a 12-4 lead behind the pitching of Andrew Heaney, Brusdar Graterol and Ferguson. Again Roberts called Alberto’s number, but this time with two outs he hit Hiura and then served up a two-run homer to Hunter Renfroe. Afterwards, Alberto and catcher Austin Barnes ribbed each other about their approach to Renfroe:

The homer ended Alberto’s scoreless inning streak at four, and up in the broadcast booth, Orel Hershiser probably breathed a sigh of relief. With his second appearance in as many days, Alberto joined the Giants’ Luis González as the only position players to pitch in a team’s back-to-back games. While ESPN Stats and Info also credited the Angels’ Willie Smith with doing so in 1964, Smith is more accurately classified as a pitcher who was in the process of turning into an outfielder; he made 26 mound appearances in 1963-64 but just three after that in a nine-season career that included over 600 games at other positions.

With his sixth appearance, Alberto tied Chris Gimenez (2017) and Sandy León (2021) for the Wild Card era single-season lead in appearances by a position player, not including converted position players or two-way players such as Shohei Ohtani and Brooks Kieschnick.

The use of position players to close out lopsided wins was just taking hold when I last broached the topic three months ago. On May 15, the Cardinals used 42-year-old Albert Pujols to close out a 15-6 win over the Giants, and a week later, they used 39-year-old Yadier Molina to nail down an 18-4 win over the Pirates. Pujols was the second-oldest position player ever to make his pitching debut, and also the first such player to pitch in that context — a nine-inning game in which his team led — since Russell Martin did so on August 23, 2019.

The Dodgers pioneered this sort of thing with Martin in 2019, using him three times to finish blowouts (and once to mop up in defeat) in 2019, the final season of his stellar 14-year career. Before him, you could count on two fingers the number of times Wild Card-era position players pitched in wins, both in the service of players making one-batter cameos while playing all nine positions in one game. Since the Cardinals’ ancient duo (and Alberto’s first appearance of the season), well, you’d have just enough fingers to count the appearances unless you’re Antonio Alfonseca:

Wild Card-Era Position Players Who Pitched in 9-Inning Wins
Player Date Team Opp Result IP H R BB SO HR
Shane Halter 10/1/00 DET MIN W 12-11 0.0 0 0 1 0 0
Andrew Romine 9/30/17 DET MIN W 3-2 0.1 0 0 0 0 0
Russell Martin 3/30/19 LAD ARI W 18-5 1.0 0 0 0 0 0
Russell Martin 8/13/19 LAD MIA W 15-1 1.0 1 0 0 0 0
Russell Martin 8/27/19 LAD SDP W 9-0 1.0 1 0 0 1 0
Albert Pujols 5/15/22 STL SFG W 15-6 1.0 3 4 1 0 2
Hanser Alberto 5/17/22 LAD ARI W 12-3 1.0 2 1 0 0 0
Yadier Molina 5/22/22 STL PIT W 18-4 1.0 4 4 0 0 2
Hanser Alberto 5/26/22 LAD ARI W 14-1 1.0 1 0 0 0 0
Donovan Walton 6/3/22 SFG MIA W 15-6 1.0 3 3 1 0 1
Mike Brosseau 7/1/22 MIL PIT W 19-2 1.0 0 0 0 0 0
Harold Castro 7/5/22 DET CLE W 11-4 1.0 2 1 0 0 0
Luis González 7/12/22 SFG ARI W 13-0 1.0 2 0 0 0 0
Hanser Alberto 7/28/22 LAD COL W 13-0 1.0 2 0 0 0 0
Hanser Alberto 8/13/22 LAD KCR W 13-3 1.0 1 0 1 0 0
Hanser Alberto 8/23/22 LAD MIL W 10-1 1.0 0 0 0 0 0
Christian Bethancourt 8/23/22 TBR LAA W 11-1 1.0 2 0 0 1 0
Hanser Alberto 8/24/22 LAD MIL W 12-6 1.0 1 2 0 0 1
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Per my usual custom, I have excluded two-way players, and position players who later took up pitching; outfielder-turned-pitcher Brett Eibner and experimental lefty Jared Walsh each had one such appearance in a nine-inning win that I omitted from the results. But where in the past I have excluded Bethancourt’s 2017 appearances from my overall counts of position players pitching — that year, he actually did convert, making 34 appearances for Triple-A El Paso and four for San Diego — he’s now back in the majors as a backup catcher and has pitched twice, once in defeat for the A’s and once in victory for the Rays, that on the same night as Alberto’s spotless inning.

The grey bar through the middle of the table isn’t dividing where I left off in my accounting from what’s come after, it’s denoting the point at which Major League Baseball finally put into effect the rule limiting each team’s 26-man active roster to 13 pitchers. Originally planned for 2020 but delayed first by the pandemic and its associated health and safety protocols and then by a bit of extra flexibility due to this year’s lockout-shortened spring training, the rule was finally implemented on June 20. Relative to the first leg of the season when it wasn’t in place, the use of position players pitching in wins has nearly doubled, from about once every 200 games to once every 108 games:

Frequency of Position Players Pitching in 9-Inning Wins
Period PPPW Total Games Pct
4/7/22–6/19/22 5 999 0.50%
6/20/22–8/24/22 8 869 0.92%
3/20/19–6/19/22 8 6755 0.12%
6/20/22–8/24/22 8 869 0.93%

Yet even that comparison undersells the difference. In the lower part of the table, where I’ve ignored Halter and Romine, I started counting games at the beginning of 2019. By that measure such usage has gone from once for every 844 games to once for every 109 games — in other words, it’s become nearly eight times more common, and as you can see, it’s no longer just a tactic used by the Dodgers and Cardinals.

As for the general trend of using position players to pitch, it’s on the rise as well, particularly since June 20. We’ve had 93 such appearances this season overall, breaking the record of 89 set just last year; the record fell on Tuesday, when a flood of six happened on the same night, including one by each side in the Dodgers-Brewers game (Victor Caratini for Milwaukee) and the Rays-Angels game (Phil Gosselin for Anaheim); that broke the record of position players pitching for five teams, which happened in the ancient era of July 5. A total of 42 appearances happened in the 999 games through June 19, one for every 23.8 games (or 47.6 team games, since here we have to count the winning and losing sides), and 51 have happened in the 869 games since then, one for every 17 games (34.1 team games). As a percentage of total relief appearances, the rates are 0.62% through June 19 — already higher than any other season — and 0.92% since, which, woof. The total rate of 0.76% is well above last year’s mark of 0.53% as well as the high of 0.57% set in the shortened 2020 season:

Where I was vocal about not liking the limitations on score margin when the roster rules were first put into effect in 2020, I now think it’s worth considering whether that margin needs to be tweaked upwards in order to stem the tide; maybe a 10-run rule would do so. As it is, the shine has worn off these appearances, and as teams approach 1% of all relief outings coming from backup catchers, infielders and outfielders, this really isn’t great a great look for baseball.

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

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1 year ago

Honestly, MLB should consider a mercy rule. If a team is down by say…..8 or more runs following the 7th inning, they should be allowed to offer to forfeit the remaining innings. The winning team has to accept the forfeit, but if they do, the game ends follow 7 and both teams get to rest their bullpens.

1 year ago
Reply to  v2micca

I considered this too, but its a little bit of a disservice to a fan who bought a ticket to that game who isn’t getting to watch a full 9 innings. I guess they could handle it like rainouts.

1 year ago
Reply to  v2micca

No one wants to pay to see a baseball game and then have it randomly end 2 innings early

Smiling Politelymember
1 year ago

I agree this is bad for the fan and I don’t like it; arguably, it’s an incentive for a team to put better talent on the field or risk losing ticket sales (but I’m not sure that incentive works for crappy owners anyway)

1 year ago
Reply to  v2micca

Mercy rules are for little leagues and beer leagues. Teams do come back from 8 or more runs down late in games. Part of the beauty of baseball is that it can happen.

1 year ago
Reply to  keithk

May 20, 2010: Braves score seven runs in the ninth inning to defeat the Reds 10-9 on a walk-off grand slam hit by Brooks Conrad. The Braves had initially fallen behind by a score of 8-0. One of the worst Reds losses ever (albeit in a season they still won over 90 games and made the playoffs).