Remember when position players taking the mound was a rarity? Now it might feel like there’s a backup catcher, utility player … or even an All-Star first baseman pitching every night. Here are some of the most important numbers to know as the year of the position-player pitcher rolls on:
So far, 43 different position players have accounted for 54 pitching appearances this season. That’s the most position players to appear as pitchers in the expansion era, which is since 1961.
If this is the year of the position pitcher, July 23 could be the official day of celebration. On that day alone, four position players pitched: Carlos Tocci and Ryan Rua for the Texas Rangers, and Anthony Rizzo and Víctor Caratini for the Chicago Cubs. That’s the most position players to pitch on the same day in the expansion era, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The increasingly common sight of some utility guy throwing a perfect inning? It’s fun, but it’s also kind of a fraud.
To buy his relievers extra rest, manager Joe Maddon is giving hitters time on the mound in losing causes — even All-Star Anthony Rizzo.
Teams finishing up blowouts by using their hitters on the mound might be analytics’ latest dubious gift to the game.
And not all of these appearances are coming in blowouts. In fact, Enrique Hernandez came in to pitch to start the bottom of the 16th inning of a tie game on July 24 in Philadelphia. He got a lineout from the first batter, but then walked the next two and gave up a walk-off three-run homer to Trevor Plouffe, which earned him the honor of becoming the only position-player pitcher to give up a walk-off home run in the expansion era.
As you probably can already guess, using a position player to pitch is rarely good news for the team resorting to it:
— Teams using a position player to pitch this season are 1-45 in those games. The lone win came when the Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Miami Marlins on July 3. Jesus Sucre faced four batters, allowing three straight singles before inducing a fly ball and coming out. He started the bottom of the 16th inning with the Rays up 9-4.
— In the divisional era (since 1969), there have been only two instances of a position player pitching in a non-extra-inning game that his team won. Both were Detroit Tigers pitchers in the final series of the season to complete a stunt in which they played all 9 positions. Both resulted in a one-run win over the Twins.
Sept. 30, 2017: Andrew Romine in a 3-2 Tigers win over the Twins
Oct. 1, 2000: Shane Halter in a 12-11 Tigers win over the Twins
— The Cubs and Brewers have each had position players make six pitching appearances, the most of any teams this season. The Cubs have used five different position players to pitch, while the Brewers have used two different position players.
— Overall, 24 teams have used a position player to pitch at least once. The teams yet to do so are the Atlanta Braves, Boston Red Sox, Colorado Rockies, Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates.
— The Angels’ case is particularly interesting. Mike Scioscia is the longest-tenured manager with his current team, having been at the helm of the Angels since 2000. In that span (and again, excluding Shohei Ohtani), he had never used a position player to pitch until Francisco Arcia pitched on Aug. 11. The last Angels position player to pitch before that was Chili Davis on June 17, 1993. Every other team had done it at least once in that span.
— The sample size is of course small, but the position players to pitch this season have a 9.59 ERA and 1.82 WHIP with a .306 opponents’ batting average and 1.051 opponents’ OPS.
Slow coming in (pitch velocity) …
— 19.4 percent of pitches thrown by position players this season have been slower than 70 mph. When traditional pitchers throw, hitters see pitches slower than 70 mph just 0.1 percent of the time.
— Position players have thrown a total of 34 pitches of at least 90 mph (4.0 percent) and nine of those were thrown by J.D. Davis in a single outing. Traditional pitchers throw 90 mph on 52.1 percent of their pitches.
— Overall, the position players to pitch this season have an average velocity of 76.8 mph. The MLB-wide average velocity is 88.6 mph.
Slow going out (exit velocity) …
— Despite the slow velocity of their pitches, hitters aren’t teeing off on position players to the tune of a significant increase in exit velocity. The average exit velocity of the 175 balls in play against position players pitching that Statcast has tracked has been 90.0 mph. League average exit velocity is 87.8 mph (Statcast).
— Hardest-hit: 111.7 mph by Tyler Austin (home run) off Ryan LaMarre.
— Slowest-hit: 48.2 mph by Bryan Holaday (groundout) off Mark Reynolds.
So why is this happening?
One possibility is that it’s a reaction to last season. Last year, there were 113 games decided by 10-plus runs, tied with 1996 for the most such games in a single season in the modern era (since 1900). That could’ve spurred managers to be more proactive when large deficits occur to save their bullpens. We’re on pace for 83 games decided by 10-plus runs this season.