The Best and Worst of Position Players Pitching in 2015

The 2015 season represented something of a banner year for position players pitching. That viewpoint assumes, of course, that you, as a baseball fan and reader of this website, consider position players pitching to be a good thing. For me, there’s also the sense, when a left fielder or second baseman — or any position player — takes the mound, that the game has reverted to a time and place when baseball was actually just a game. For some, that state might be viewed as an affront to those players who are seriously trying to win a spot in the big leagues. For others, it’s a time when the sport can shed its heavy cloak of seriousness and indulge in a rare bit of goofy self-deprecation. While I tend to align with the latter viewpoint, I respect and understand the former.

What can’t be argued is the increase in position players pitching over the past couple of years. With Cliff Pennington taking the mound in Game 4 of the ALCS last season, baseball logged its very first instance of a position player pitching in the playoffs, and it actually looked pretty good. In terms of raw appearances, 2015 was something of an apex for the non-pitcher pitching phenomenon. Jeff noted in June that 2015 was projected to equal 2014’s single-season record for the number of non-pitcher appearances on the mound; at the end of the season, 2015 had actually smashed the record (20 in 2014 vs. 27 in 2015).

What we’re after today, however, is how those non-pitcher pitching appearances actually went: what were the highlights? The lowlights? Who seems like he actually might be able to pitch? It behooves us, with the appearance of a new and fabulously interesting trend in major league baseball, to undertake a thorough review of said trend’s 2015 installment, with all the grace and seriousness we might give to potentially far more important subjects. What follows below is an attempt to do just that.

To begin with, let’s look at the overall stat line for the year in non-pitchers pitching compared to all of the “real” starters and relievers in 2015:

Lg. Avg. Pitching (SP & RP) vs. Non-Pitcher Pitching, 2015
League Average Pitching 20.4% 7.7% 0.9% 1.29 3.96 3.96
Non-Pitcher Pitching 6.3% 7.1% 5.5% 1.62 4.85 8.86
SOURCE: FanGraphs

Ok, so the non-pitchers didn’t really strike anyone out. But they also walked batters at a below-average clip, proving they’re more of the pitch-to-contact flavor of pitcher. This is a very small sample size (just 26 innings), of course, but they also showed a real propensity toward beaning hitters: a staggering 5.5% of the hitters they faced got hit by pitches. These are often men who are realizing long-lost boyhood dreams, so we might expect them to be a little cavalier when it comes to maintaining a baseline level of safety. Finally, while their WHIP was through the roof, I’m frankly astounded that the non-pitchers had an ERA under 5.00. Something tells me that this might regress toward a figure in the double digits if given the chance in a larger sample.

Things get really fun when we look at the batted-ball data compared to league average, however:

Lg. Avg. Batted-Ball (SP & RP) vs. Non-Pitcher Pitching, 2015
LD% GB% FB% HR/FB% Hard-Hit% BABIP
League Average Pitching 20.9% 45.3% 33.8% 11.4% 28.6% .296
Non-Pitcher Pitching 19.6% 34.3% 46.1% 19.1% 43.1% .255
SOURCE: FanGraphs

This is the ultimate small-sample-size craziness. Line-drive rate, ground ball, and fly-ball rates? Sure, fine, totally believable. A .255 BABIP? This is the equivalent of playing a recreational league softball game with peak Ozzie Smith playing every single position in the field; it doesn’t matter how hard anyone is hitting the ball, he’s out there ranging 150 feet in the gap to snag a fly. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised, however: BABIP and hard-hit rate don’t correlate well, and given the fly-ball tendencies against these non-pitchers, a depressed BABIP is at least within the realm of belief.

Now that we know how our non-pitchers performed on an overall level, let’s take a look at some individual examples. There’s a lot of ground to cover here, so I’ve done my best to separate some of the best highlights (ahem, and lowlights) into tidy, sometimes themed categories.

The Not-Cy Young AwardBrendan Ryan, 8/25/15 (2.0 IP, 2 H, O BB, 0 ER)

By all accounts, Brendan Ryan should’ve been shelled. And, in a way, Ryan was shelled; he was simply the kind of shelled that doesn’t show up in box scores, the kind in which multiple screaming line drives are hit directly at men wearing oversized leather baseball-catching gloves. He was the only position player-turned-pitcher to record a multiple-inning outing and not concede a run last season, though a cursory investigation of some video highlights reveals that may have been due more to luck than skill. As evidence, here’s a hard line drive off the bat of Chris Carter:

And another off the bat of Carlos Gomez:

He did, however, get one swinging strike on what was deemed by PITCHf/x to be a 79 mph “changeup,” which was in fact Ryan’s fastball. In general, PITCHf/x has a problem with classifying position players pitching, as it judged 49.1% of the 441 pitches thrown by these men to be changeups. We can confidently assume most of those were “fastballs.” Here’s Ryan’s one swinging strike, in all its glory:

The Not-Randy Johnson Award: Adam Rosales, 7/28/15 (92.5 mph)

Adam Rosales is baseball’s antihero. In 2014, he was DFA’ed by the A’s and claimed by the Rangers, DFA’ed by the Rangers and claimed by the A’s, then DFA’ed by the A’s and claimed by the Rangers all in the span of two weeks. If that doesn’t make you root for the guy, here’s another reason to: he pitched twice this past season, throwing three different pitches and topping out at 92.5 mph. That doesn’t mean he was effective — far, far from it — but it was at least interesting because Rosales was trying to pitch, a la Cliff Pennington. Assuming the last frame in a (then) 19-5 blowout loss in late August, Rosales looked like he had a ground out off the bat of Jacoby Ellsbury before the leadoff man was ruled safe due to catcher’s interference. After running the count full to Brett Gardner, well:

Rosales seems to have an issue with fly balls, as over 70% of the balls in play against him were in the air; that’s an issue when your hard-hit rate against is 57%. He had given up a home run in his June appearance in Toronto, but he was also forced to face Donaldson-Valencia-Encarnacion during that outing, so blaming him for that is tantamount to chastising a kid for totalling your car when you hand him the keys to your Ferrari.

What we’re interested in is this fireball, a 3-2 fastball that Alex Rodriguez took for ball four:

Did I mention that Leonys Martin robbed Garrett Jones of a home run on the very next pitch? No? Ok, moving right along then…

The “All Positional” Bullpen: Chicago White Sox, 9/15/15

During the 2015 season there was no team that embraced the role of the position player pitcher more than the Chicago White Sox, and there was no day in which Chicago executed its strategy to fuller effect than a mid-September matchup against the Oakland A’s. Down 17-6 and headed into the final two innings, they went with what can only be described as the “1-2 punch” that is Leury Garcia and Alexei Ramirez, with each player giving up only one hit apiece during their innings of work. Garcia was up first, showing nasty run on his fastball to get Jason Pridie swinging:

He also seemed to unintentionally punish Mark Canha for being on base five times during the course of the game, painfully — though happily — allowing the right-hander to reach base for the sixth time:

Alexei Ramirez was also “impressive,” running his fastball into the low 90s, yielding just a first-pitch double, and also hitting a batter. By that point everyone was having fun, however, including the guy he hit, Jake Smolinski:

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 3.11.50 PM

Honorable Mention, “All Positional” Bullpen: Cleveland Indians, 6/17/15

Down 10-0 to the Chicago Cubs and headed into the ninth inning, the Indians turned to Ryan Raburn, who put two men on and got two outs before being removed under mysterious circumstances (possibly injury related) for… David Murphy! Murphy has, of course, pitched in games during previous seasons (a fact which doesn’t necessarily mean he is any more qualified for the job than any other position player), and, after an error by Francisco Lindor (this game was weird), two singles, and a hit by pitch, came up against Kris Bryant with the bases loaded. If you aren’t sure what happened based upon the structure of the previous sentence, watch this:

Bryant could’ve just rolled one over to the left side. Mercifully went down swinging. Said: you know what, guys, I think we’re done here. Instead, he hit a 452-foot home run to straight-away center off a 78 mph letter-high fastball. This is an encapsulation of everything about position players pitching: one minute, everyone’s laughing and having fun. The next, the reality of major league baseball becomes obvious again.

The “Maybe I Could Be a Woeful Starter” Award: Adam LaRoche, 7/31/15

LaRoche actually pitched in two minor league games and has a win to his credit, something only a few position players who’ve taken the mound in a recent major league game can claim. And, despite his lack of stuff, he almost looked like a pitcher in a late July game against the Yankees: he got a pop out and ground out to open the ninth inning, then came up against our old friend Brendan Ryan, who at that point had no idea he too would soon take the mound. Take a look at the sequencing LaRoche employed in the final at-bat of the inning:

In-out, hard-soft, painting 84 on the outside corner and then setting up a high strikeout with an inside 50 mph curveball? Please. Ryan didn’t stand a chance, and the 85 mph upstairs fastball to finish him off must’ve felt like 98. From these three batters, there’s nothing to say LaRoche couldn’t be Mark Buehrle if he worked at it a little bit.

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

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Cory Settoon
8 years ago

Wonderful stuff Owen!

Non-Pitcher Pitching 1.62 WHIP 4.85 ERA

Alfredo Simon Pitching 1.44 WHIP 5.05 ERA