We’ve Reached Peak Position Players Pitching

On Monday, Rays’ infielder Michael Brosseau took the mound. On Sunday, it was Brewers infielder Hernán Pérez, and before him, Diamondbacks catcher Alex Avila on Saturday, and Reds infielder Jose Peraza on Friday. On Thursday, which now seems so long ago — seriously, do you remember what you had for dinner that night? — it was Yankees first baseman Mike Ford. If you think that home run and strikeout rates have gotten out of hand, consider the tally of position players pitching.

While teams are producing homers at a per-game rate 12% higher than the previous record (set in 2017), and while per-game strikeout rates are on the rise for the 14th straight season (up about 3% relative to last year), the single-season record for position player outings (65, set just last year, and no, that count doesn’t include Shohei Ohtani) fell earlier this month. Already, position players have taken the hill a total of 78 times this season; prorated to a full schedule, that’s 101 outings, a 55% increase on last year. And if things were to continue at the blistering pace we’ve seen since the All-Star break — 33 appearances in 39 days — the number would soar higher than the drive the Indians’ Carlos Santana hit off Ford:

Whew. Traditionally, a position player pitching appearance has been a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency desperation move (generally in extra innings) or a lighthearted farce that draws attention away from an otherwise unpleasant blowout. Through some combination of higher-scoring games, higher per-game totals of relievers, concerns about reliever workloads, and the reduced stigma of this particular maneuver, the rate of such appearances has accelerated. Like the barrage of homers and strikeouts, whether or not the higher frequency takes the fun out of it is rather subjective. To these eyes, the novelty is in the absurdity, like imagining a dog penning this article, and the bordering-on-routine nature of this year’s appearances has dimmed some of the luster. Even so, it’s an interesting enough subject to dwell upon for a few minutes.

For starters, here’s the progression for the past decade:

I’ve excluded Ohtani (10 starts last year), outfielder-turned pitcher Jason Lane (three appearances in 2014, seven years after his last major league stint), and catcher/utilityman-turned-pitcher Christian Bethancourt (four appearances in 2017, when he was primarily pitching) from those totals and all others for the rest of this piece. The tactic has particularly gained traction over the past half-decade, though some of that owes to greater reliever usage in general. In 2013, position player outings accounted for 0.1% of all reliever appearances. The rate ranged from 0.14% to 0.18% from 2014-16, hit 0.2% in ’17, then doubled to 0.4% in ’18, and is up to 0.64% this year — one for every 157 relief appearances.

This season, every team except for the Mets has gotten in on the act, with the Orioles (seven times, from four different players), Diamondbacks (six times, from three players — all of them catchers), and Astros (five times, four of them by the since-traded Tyler White) leading the way. Baltimore’s count is the highest for a single season thus far, though the Orioles would currently share that distinction if you include the aforementioned Bethancourt appearances in the 2017 Padres’ total; as he made just one appearance in the field (but five as a pinch-hitter), I’m waving him off, but reasonable minds can disagree. The Cubs have the highest total of such appearances since the start of 2010 (19), followed by the Twins (16), Rangers and Astros (15 apiece), White Sox (14), and the Mariners and Padres (13 apiece, the latter sans Bethancourt’s 2017).

Where last year’s occurrences of position players pitching were uneven across the months, this year’s distribution had been more uniform, up until August:

Position Players Pitching by Month, 2018 vs. 2019
Month 2018 2019
March/April 8 14
May 4 15
June 10 15
July 24 17
August 15 17*
Sept/Oct 4 N/A
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* = through August 19

Again, it’s worth remembering that this month’s total is incomplete. So far, there have only been four days (August 1, 4, 5, and 14) without a single position player pitching, and at the very least, the monthly record set last July appears to be in jeopardy. The streak of five straight days with a position player pitching is a record, surpassing long-forgotten four-day streaks from [squints at notes] July 22-25 and August 10-13. A look back at last September’s total should remind us that expanded rosters can turn these outings back into rarities; there were also four in September 2017, none in ’16, and three in ’15, including Ichiro Suzuki’s inning on October 4, the final day of the season and about as glorious an occurrence as we’ve had in this realm.

As you’d expect from this mounting total, we’ve seen more position players pitch multiple times than ever, further testifying to this tactic’s acceptance. Eighteen players have done it at least twice, surpassing last year’s total of 13, the six from 2017, and the four apiece annually from ’14 to ’16 (again, the aforementioned exclusions apply here). White, the Angels’ Jared Walsh — a legitimate attempt to convert a position player to a two-way player, as he also has 11 games at first base — and the Orioles’ Stevie Wilkerson all have four appearances apiece, giving them a shot at Chris Gimenez’s 2017 single-season record of six. Perez, the Dodgers’ Russell Martin, and the Mariners’ Tom Murphy each have three. With three outings last year and one in 2017, Perez shares the active lead (seven, totaling 7.1 innings) with Andrew Romine, who alas has spent the entire season with the Phillies’ Triple-A Lehigh Valley affiliate; while he’s gotten one outing under his belt there, the big league club’s bullpen apparently isn’t decimated enough to call him up.

The vast majority of these appearances have come in blowouts; by my count, 45 of the 78 have occurred in games decided by at least 10 runs, sometimes with the, uh, “help” of the position player in question. Teams are loosening their definitions of what constitutes a blowout, however, and it’s no longer that uncommon for a position player to pitch the eighth or ninth inning while his team is down five or six runs, as Brosseau and Avila did during this current run. A look at the average leverage index (aLI) is telling. Via the Baseball-Reference Play Index, 55 of this year’s appearances have come with an aLI of .000 — too small to show up. For another 21, the aLI has ranged from .002 to .04, barely noticeable.

For the other two, which came in extra-inning games, the aLI was well above 1.0. On July 25, in a six-hour and 19-minute game between the Orioles and Angels in Anaheim, the visiting O’s scored two runs in the top of the 16h inning. Having already burned through nine pitchers, rookie manager Brandon Hyde called upon Wilkerson, a 26-year-old rookie outfielder/infielder who had already pitched twice this season — but didn’t pitch in college and threw just one inning in high school — to protect the lead (aLI: 1.29). Despite not topping 56 mph with any of his 12 offerings (all classified as fastballs by Pitch Info), he retired Brian Goodwin, Kole Calhoun, and Albert Pujols in order, thus becoming the first position player to record a save since the stat became official in 1969 (the Play Index offers many examples of players who converted to or from pitching, or simply spotted at one point, and received retroactive credit for saving games, including Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, George Sisler, and Red Sox-era Babe Ruth).

The other high-leverage appearance belongs to Phillies outfielder Roman Quinn, who came in for the top of the 14th inning of a tied game (aLI: 2.832) against the White Sox on August 2. He put two runners on in the 14th, but pitcher Vince Velazquez, who was playing left field, threw out Jose Abreu (whom he had walked) at the plate. Quinn retired the first two batters of the 15th, but then allowed a single and a walk, and Abreu got his revenge by driving home Leury García with what proved to be the winning run. It was the eighth time in the past decade that a position player took the loss, all in extra-inning games; Garcia himself had done so for the White Sox on April 16, 2014, and both the Diamondbacks’ Jeff Mathis and the Dodgers’ Enrique Hernandez took the L last year.

A handful of other appearances stick out for one reason or another. On March 30, in a game that saw the Dodgers beat the Diamondbacks 18-5, Arizona catcher John Ryan Murphy became just the third position player to allow seven runs in a game since 1961; he did so by pitching both the seventh and eighth innings. Two other position players have allowed six runs apiece in a list that’s more than doubled in size over the past two seasons:

Most Runs Allowed by a Position Player Pitching Since 1961
Player Date Tm Opp Rslt IP H R BB SO
Manny Castillo 6/26/83 Mariners Blue Jays L 7-19 2.2 8 7 3 2
Larry Biittner 7/4/77 Cubs Expos L 3-19 1.1 5 6 1 3
Paul Janish 7/6/09 Reds Phillies L 1-22 1.0 4 6 2 1
José Reyes 7/31/18 Mets Nationals L 4-25 1.0 5 6 2 0
John Ryan Murphy 3/30/19 D’backs Dodgers L 5-18 2.0 8 7 3 0
Tyler White 6/26/19 Astros Pirates L 2-14 0.2 4 6 4 0
Roman Quinn 8/16/18 (1) Phillies Mets L 4-24 1.2 6 7 2 0
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

In the same game in which Murphy was pounded, Martin — who by his own recollection hadn’t pitched in “probably close to 20 years” — threw a 1-2-3 ninth on just 10 pitches to finish the game, thereby becoming the first position player to close out a win since Sept. 23, 1963, when Senators outfielder Willie Smith (who would later convert to the mound) did so.

Martin has since made two more appearances, both scoreless. He pitched the eighth with the Dodgers on the short end of an 8-2 game against the Diamondbacks on June 26, and closed out a 15-1 lead against the Marlins on August 13, that while lefty reliever Adam Kolarek played first base because the Dodgers were — wait for it — out of position players.

That game — just the third of the season for both teams — was one of six in which two position players pitched. The Angels (Walsh) and Mariners (Murphy) each used a player on June 2, and Martin’s appearance against the Marlins was countered by Bryan Holaday for the Fish. Meanwhile, the Astros used both White and Max Stassi on June 26 against the Pirates, the Pirates used José Osuna and Jacob Stallings against the Cardinals on July 24, and the Nationals used Gerardo Parra and Brian Dozieragainst the Diamondbacks on August 3.

Parra failed to retire any of the five batters he faced that night, walking four, allowing just one hit (a single by Avila) and throwing just eight strikes from among his 25 pitches before being relieved by Dozier, who allowed all three runners he inherited to score. Leaving aside a couple outings by two-way Brewers’ outfielder/pitcher Brooks Kieschnick in 2004, Parra became the first position player to fail to retire a batter since the Tigers’ Shane Halter on October 1, 2000, though to be fair, Halter’s appearance came as part of his playing all nine positions in a single game. You have to dial back to August 16, 1980 to find a position player — the Blue Jays’ Bob Bailor, who failed to retire any of the three Royals he faced — so far over his head that he couldn’t get anybody out before getting the hook.

On July 1, the Cubs’ Daniel Descalso pitched the seventh inning in a game in which his team trailed 13-5. After he gave up two runs in his inning of work, manager Joe Maddon sent an actual-ass pitcher back to the hill in the form of Craig Kimbrel, who was making just his second appearance for the Cubs; he came in and gave up three more runs. Attentive students of the genre will note that Descalso went into the history books last July 11 by not only making the earliest entry to a game by a position player since 1979 (the fourth inning) but by making the longest such appearances (2.2 innings) since 1988. He’s now pitched six times for three teams (the Cardinals are the other), with 6.2 innings under his belt.

Besides Descalso and Murphy, two other players have entered in the seventh, and both threw two innings, namely Osuna and the Indians’ Mike Freeman, who faced off against the Orioles on June 29. Two other players also pitched two innings, Wilkerson on July 20 against the Red Sox, and Ford on August 15 against the Indians. Five other players have gotten either four or five outs: Walsh, Quinn, Kyle Farmer, Wilkerson and Chris Owings.

As for stuff, Osuna and Walsh both topped 90 mph with their fastballs, according to Pitch Info, as did the Pirates’ JB Shuck, a longtime replacement level outfielder who made his first major league appearance on April 2, and has since made 11 appearances for the team’s Triple-A Indianapolis affiliate in hopes of becoming a bona fide two-way player; he has 19 strikeouts (but 12 walks) in 14 innings, with a 4.50 ERA and 6.47 FIP. The Dodgers’ Jedd Gyorko (his lone appearance this year came when he was still with the Cardinals) owns the highest swinging strike rate — 50% of his four pitches in his one-third of an inning on April 26 — though he did face just one batter.

Does the increased frequency of position player appearances mean an uptick in quality? Umm, no, not if the decade-long ERA and FIP trends are any indication:

To be fair, this year’s crop’s work (8.44 ERA, 8.36 FIP, and “only” 3.0 HR/9) has been better than last year’s (11.71 ERA, 9.51 FIP, 3.9 HR/9), but they’re about on par with 2017 (8.69 ERA, 8.64 FIP, 3.1 HR/9) except when it comes to strikeout rate; this year’s 6.94% edges last year’s 6.9% and is double 2017’s 3.5%, but the sample sizes from that year and those previous are significantly smaller. I think it’s fair to say that the volume and the development of quasi-specialists hasn’t done a whole lot to improve the quality here.

With regards to the individual outings, we’ve established that rarely is anything at stake when a position player pitches, but from a roster management standpoint, these outings do serve a purpose. In a blowout, why burn an actual, useful pitcher who may be needed tomorrow, and perhaps the next day as well? Particularly given the way teams churn through multiple relievers with options for that last bullpen spot, having a position player finish a lopsided game could spare that 12th or 13th pitcher his third tour of duty in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Regardless of where one stands on the matter, the tactic of putting position players on mop-and-bucket detail has likely reached its peak (or nadir). Next year’s slate of rule changes, which will include a three-batter minimum for each pitcher who doesn’t finish a half-inning, also prevents teams from calling upon a position player to pitch when the margin is less than eight runs in either direction (and could quash legitimate experiments like the Angels are trying with Walsh); I don’t have an exact count of how many appearances that would affect due to the Play Index’s limitations, but going by the aforementioned leverage index breakdowns, it might cut out about a quarter of what we’ve seen. All of which is to say that if this is your jam, enjoy it while you can, and if it ain’t, fret not, because some amount of order will soon be restored.

We hoped you liked reading We’ve Reached Peak Position Players Pitching by Jay Jaffe!

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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.

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sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

I can’t wait for a team to forfeit a game because the pitcher blows out their arm in extras, and is unable to call a position player to take his place. If the goal is to get teams to stop grinding their bullpens into dust, I am afraid MLB will be disappointed.

sandwiches4ever
Member
Member
sandwiches4ever

Extra innings are exempted from the rule.