The Rays Used a Catcher To Protect a Late Lead

No one ever wants to play 16 innings. Pretty much no one ever wants to watch 16 innings, but, certainly, no one ever wants to play them. Even Ernie Banks would want those 16 innings spread over two games, instead of just one. At a certain point, baseball breaks down. The rosters get warped and everyone’s tired, and while you could say it becomes more of a psychological battle than a physical one, the baseball at the end of a marathon resembles only slightly the baseball at the start. There’s a reason Rob Manfred has talked about changing the rules in extra innings, and it’s not because he hates baseball. It’s because, when a game goes too long, the players hate baseball. And based on how few people remain in the stadium, many of the fans do, too.

The Rays and Marlins played 16 innings on Tuesday. The Marlins are out of it, and the Rays might as well be, but there’s no giving up, not in the regular season. Definitely not in early July. The game took place in the NL ballpark, and things inevitably got weird. The Rays, of course, don’t have a conventional pitching staff, so they quickly ran low on pitchers. Meanwhile, over the past three years, no one with at least 150 plate appearances has a lower wRC+ than Dan Straily, but the Marlins were forced into using him as a pinch-hitter. A game that goes 10 feels like it’ll end after 11. A game that goes 15 feels like it’ll end after the heat death of the universe. At any moment, a team might score a run. But after it’s been long enough, scoring feels impossible.

At last, in the 16th, things broke the Rays’ way. The game had been tied at four since the fifth. Then the Rays put up a five-spot. The rally featured an RBI single by long reliever Vidal Nuno, and the hit was his second in as many innings. As Nuno batted in the 16th, he’d thrown only 26 pitches. It looked as if Nuno would be fine to close the game out. Then he ran down the line after contact.

Vidal Nuno strained his hamstring. He was replaced. Though the Rays wound up ahead 9-4, they’d need someone to record three outs. They didn’t turn to their bullpen. They turned to their bench.

Realistically, going into the bottom of the 16th, three pitchers were available. But Matt Andriese had just thrown two innings the day before, and he was supposed to throw two innings the day following. Diego Castillo had already thrown two days in a row. That left Jose Alvarado, but Kevin Cash wanted to try as hard as he could to save Alvarado for the next game. He figured that one was going to be desperate. Besides, he had a five-run lead, and he had a backup catcher.

On Tuesday, June 26, Cash played Jose Alvarado at first base. And on Tuesday, July 3, Cash played Jesus Sucre at pitcher. There’s nothing too terribly uncommon about a position player taking the mound. But almost literally all of the time, that happens when the team is losing by quite a lot. The Rays were winning. Sucre was supposed to protect the 16th-inning lead. According to the Rays’ own TV broadcasters, they’d never seen such a maneuver before.

Obviously, there were what you might call extenuating circumstances. The game had gone very long, and Nuno had gotten hurt. It’s not the first time we’ve seen something like this. In 2016, in a 19-inning contest, the Blue Jays handed a tie to Ryan Goins, and then Darwin Barney. In 2014, John Baker wound up the Cubs’ winning pitcher in a 16-inning game against the Rockies. And there was that 17-inning game in 2012 between the Orioles and Red Sox, where Chris Davis got the win and Darnell McDonald got the loss. Extra innings make box scores crazy. But as a quick factoid, I identified 369 position-player pitching appearances since 1950. I deleted the appearances made by actual two-way players, or position-changers. In those games, the teams using the position players won nine times. Sucre’s appearance was very unusual. Especially since Alvarado was good to go.

What was the thought process? As strange as the situation was, I think this is actually fairly simple to understand. Sucre is a catcher, so he has a strong arm. As he prepared to face his first batter, the leverage index was just 0.19. All Sucre had to do was get three outs before allowing five runs. Sucre had actually pitched three times before. The first time, he wound up with a scoreless inning. The second time, he allowed three runs in an inning. The third time, he allowed three runs in an inning. That’s not comfortable, but that’s also not five. Remember those 369 position-player pitching appearances since 1950? They’ve totaled 385 innings. The group’s runs per nine comes out to 7.75. Not good. Not good! But not so bad. It’s hard to allow five runs in an inning, when you have an arm good enough to be a big-league catcher. So was the idea. And Sucre seemed into it, given his smiles, and his wink at a teammate:

Sucre’s first batter was Lewis Brinson. In a hurry, Brinson found himself behind in the count 0-and-2. And then Brinson stayed on a low-away fastball:

According to Baseball Savant, the hit probability was 47%. The leverage index increased from 0.19 to 0.43. Up came Derek Dietrich, and almost before a replay of Brinson’s hit was over, Dietrich had one of his own:

The hit probability was 39%. The leverage index increased from 0.43 to 0.92. It was at this point the Marlins’ TV broadcasters started murmuring about the laughable possibility of a comeback. Dietrich’s single just barely eluded a glove, but a hit is a hit, and that brought up Starlin Castro. The first pitch was a reminder of how difficult it can be to get obliterated:

That’s 71 miles per hour, just hanging there, middle-middle, and Castro — who is a fine major-league hitter, all things considered — fouled it off. There might be no more hittable pitch thrown in a baseball game this year. Hitting the ball is hard, even when the pitcher makes a mistake. Even when the pitcher isn’t a pitcher at all. I’m sure Castro was upset with himself. But, well, he found his own way on base shortly thereafter:

The hit probability was 26%. With just the slightest difference, it might’ve turned into a double play. But Castro singled, and the bases were loaded with nobody out. The leverage index increased from 0.92 to 2.08. The combined probability of all those balls in play becoming hits works out to just under 5%. So it goes. Jose Alvarado got up and started throwing, because, all of a sudden, it didn’t make sense to use a position player anymore. To buy time, the Rays’ catcher had a mound meeting with the Rays’ other catcher:

When that had gone on long enough, out came the Rays’ pitching coach, to buy even more time:

And when that had gone on long enough, out came the Rays’ manager, to sub in Alvarado:

He was denied. He was denied the opportunity to make a substitution, because the catcher and pitching coach had already been out there, and they didn’t try to make a substitution themselves. Sucre would have to face another batter before Cash could do anything. Sucre chose a good time to get his first whiff:

…and his first out:

The loudest contact Sucre allowed also turned into the only out he recorded. It was a run-scoring sac fly, but that didn’t matter; only the fifth run of the inning would matter. And for whatever it’s worth, the hit probability there was 39%. Sucre didn’t allow a single ball in play that had even a 50% chance of going for a knock. You might argue that Sucre did just fine. Got unlucky. But Cash didn’t want to push his luck any further, so in came Alvarado. Sucre departed just as smiley as he’d entered:

Alvarado successfully recorded the last two outs, although not before somehow finding a way to walk Straily. The Rays beat the Marlins, 9-6, in 16 innings. Jesus Sucre did not get credit for a hold. It wasn’t a save situation.

I don’t know how the Marlins felt about what the Rays did. It could be the main reason why we don’t see this more often, in lopsided wins — even if it seems safe enough to bring in a position player to pitch, it might not sit very well with the opponent. You can see how it might be considered insulting. Given that this particular game was in the 16th, and given that the Rays’ long reliever had just gotten hurt, the Marlins could probably understand. At least as much as you can ever understand anything as late as the 16th inning. Jesus Sucre still might not believe he got a chance to do what he did. After a sufficient number of innings, it all just feels like a weird dream.

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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4 years ago

I was at that 2016 Jays game. I remember Goins skating by the skin of his teeth, but apart from giving up the game winning HR, Darwin Barney got a K and an infield pop up I think. Once his HR/FB rate settles down he’ll be ok.

4 years ago
Reply to  PoliteNate

Yup, Barney was definitely a better pitcher than Goins, but got unlucky there with the HR.