The Era of Position Players Pitching

Yesterday, toward the end of an absolute thrashing at the hands of the Twins, the Mariners sent Carlos Ruiz to the mound. That’s notable for the fact that Ruiz is a catcher, and not a pitcher, and yet Ruiz pitched, and he even registered a strikeout! He also walked two guys and coughed up a homer. Not supposed to pitch. Did pitch. It happens.

It’s actually been happening kind of a lot. The day before, the tables were turned, and as the Mariners were maiming the Twins, the Twins sent out Chris Gimenez to pitch. A few days before, the Padres used Erick Aybar. The day before that, the Phillies used Andres Blanco. The day before that, the Twins used…Chris Gimenez. A week before that, the Twins used Chris Gimenez. And on, and on. It used to feel special when a non-pitcher would pitch. It’s still more fun in a blowout than the alternative, but some of the shine has come off the apple.

It’s not too hard to figure out why. These appearances were special because they were rare. They’re still not common, but they’ve become more common than they’ve been. Baseball right now finds itself within a number of eras, but among them, this is the era of position players pitching.

I’m not the first person to point this out. In fact, I’ve even written about this subject before. It hasn’t exactly happened in the shadows, since a non-pitcher pitching still gets social media all atwitter. It’s just that now baseball is on another record pace. Here is a plot of year-to-year non-pitcher pitching appearances since 1967. I’ve manually removed guys like Rick Ankiel, Brooks Kieschnick, and Christian Bethancourt, because they don’t belong with the others.

The highest number in the observed time window: 2015’s 27. At 14, 2017 is already more than halfway there, despite not being halfway through the regular season. Of course, there’s an easier and better way to analyze this information. There are more teams now than there used to be. And, there have been some partial seasons. So I’m going to show you a plot of this expressed as a rate basis, with relief appearances as the denominator.

These are all, of course, very, very small numbers. This season would stand as a record high, yet the actual rate is 0.23%. That is, one out of every 428 relief appearances has involved a position player. And yet, a high is a high. The previous high was 0.18%. So, on the one hand, that’s a difference of just 0.05 percentage points. On the other hand, that’s also a difference of 31%. Position-player-pitching appearances are 31% higher than they ever were before.

One of the problems of analyzing anything based on a small number is that fluke events can skew things. We’re talking about 14 non-pitcher pitching appearances in 2017, but Chris Gimenez has made five of them. Five times, the Twins have asked the catcher to pitch, and that’s extraordinary. That’s already a single-season high for a non-pitcher over the last 50 years, and the Twins have another 101 games to play. I might as well note that Gimenez pitched in three games before this season, giving him a career total of eight appearances. That’s also the high for a non-pitcher over the last 50 years. Things are weird, but Gimenez is very weird, and that second part influences the first.

But you can understand why this would be a trend. Why this would be more than a random statistical fluke. Gimenez aside, why might non-pitcher-pitching appearances be going up? Because, as has long been established, starters are throwing fewer innings, and relievers are also not pitching as much as they used to.

Starters have dropped all the way to 5.58 innings per start. Relievers have bounced back a little, at 1.08, up from 2015’s 1.01, but the rate is still far lower than before. Starters don’t go as long. Relievers don’t go as long. To partially compensate for the latter, there might be more relievers now than before, but you also have issues of prioritization and preservation. Position players work almost exclusively in blowout losses. Working in a blowout might leave a pitcher less available the next day, when the leverage should be higher. And, an inning pitched by some utility bench guy is an inning not put on a hard-throwing reliever’s elbow. Position players seldom hurt themselves, because they’re not throwing as hard as their bodies could conceivably let them. And besides, the position players who pitch tend to be mediocre, anyway.

Altogether, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing what we are. And, again, it’s still not a daily occurrence to see a non-pitcher coming in to pitch. This Mariners/Twins series has been an anomaly. Hitters pitching is still fun, from the fan perspective, and it partially salvages what would otherwise be a lost viewing experience. Now there’s one more thing I’d like to share. How effective have position players actually been? A table:

Position Players Pitching
Decade IP RA ERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9
1970s 25.7 9.47 9.47 11.6 2.1 5.6 4.2
1980s 70.7 7.51 7.26 11.3 1.5 6.4 3.3
1990s 52.0 7.27 7.10 10.6 0.9 9.3 3.3
2000s 49.0 9.55 9.37 12.1 1.8 6.4 3.5
2010s 120.3 6.51 5.83 10.7 2.2 4.3 2.7
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

They suck. They suck and, because these are blowout situations, they’ve sucked without the opponents even really trying. Not that hitters just take at-bats off or anything, but you could expect less focus when the game is in hand. Less focus, and also more bench substitutions. They suck — but! Look at the stats for this decade. They’re lousy, in that there are lots more walks than strikeouts, and nearly as many home runs as strikeouts, but we’re dealing with position players combining for a 5.83 ERA. That’s the mark over more than 120 innings since 2010. Since 2010, Zach Stewart has posted a 6.82 ERA. Eddie Butler has posted a 6.12 ERA. Alex White, 6.03. Sean O’Sullivan, 6.02. Those names are the names of actual pitchers. Butler and White were first-round draft picks. Those actual pitchers are surely better pitchers than this group of utility guys, yet the results haven’t so much reflected it. Something to think about.

Position players are still bad at pitching, and they’ll never be good at it. Being good isn’t the point. Just showing up and eating an inning is the point, because there are innings that need to be eaten, and there are relievers that need to be saved and protected. This is a trend, and this is an era, and I’m not sure when it might slow down. Every reliever now seems to throw 96, and there’s no sense in making a guy go out and do that if a result has been decided. And so managers can be expected to turn to their bench. Nobody quite has the stomach to forfeit.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Barney Coolio
6 years ago

Maybe Chris Gimenez belongs in the Brooks Kieschnik category.

I recently met Jesse Orosco. He came into my bar on a very slow day. He came in, just to use the bathroom. He was happy to be recognized in southern California. The all time leader in relief appearances came into relieve himself! Lol.

With starters going fewer and fewer innings, I wonder if fewer teams have room for LOOGYs, Left handed one out guys.