We’ve become quite accustomed to position players pitching. In 2018, more than 40 appeared on the mound at least once, breaking the Expansion Era (since 1961) record. Then in 2019, that record was broken again, with more than 50 position players pitching.
You know the drill -- Cut4 does the tweet and a player enters in what is typically a low-leverage situation. (Rule changes announced in February ensure that position players who aren’t designated as two-way players can only appear in extra innings or blowouts.)
But even with these limitations, amazing things can happen. With that in mind, here are 11 of the best pitching performances by position players, listed in reverse chronological order.
For the purposes of this list, we’ll consider outings since 1961, the time span the Elias Sports Bureau uses for research notes on position players pitching -- due to cloudiness about positions prior to that. We’ll also exclude two-way players and other special cases, such as Shohei Ohtani, Rick Ankiel, Brooks Kieschnick and Christian Bethancourt, among others.
Russell Martin (LAD): Aug. 27, 2019 -- 1 IP, 1 K
Martin had never pitched at the Major League level before the 2019 season, when he did so four times, tied for the second most by any position player in the Expansion Era. This appearance was his last, and it had a lot in common with the first three -- it was scoreless. He’s one of just two position players with four scoreless outings in a season in the Expansion Era. But this scoreless outing was particularly notable because it preserved a shutout.
Martin entered the game in the bottom of the ninth with the Dodgers up, 9-0. He allowed a first-pitch, leadoff double to Ty France, but then went strikeout, groundout and foul pop fly to end the game. Martin became the only position player to pitch in a shutout win for his team in the Expansion Era.
Stevie Wilkerson (BAL): July 25, 2019 -- Save, 1 IP, 0 R
This was a marathon game, lasting six hours and 19 minutes. By the time the O’s got to the bottom of the 16th in Anaheim, they’d used nine pitchers. Enter Wilkerson, the team’s starting center fielder. It was the third time in July that he had found himself on the mound -- he turned in a scoreless inning in a July 12 loss and two innings, while allowing one run, in a July 20 loss.
But this outing was different immediately, because he entered with a two-run lead. Wilkerson got Brian Goodwin to fly out for the first out, induced a Kole Calhoun groundout for the second out and then got Albert Pujols to fly out to center to end the game, becoming the first position player to earn a save since the stat became official in 1969.
Pablo Sandoval (SF): May 6, 2019 -- 1 IP, 0 R
Sandoval made his pitching debut for the Giants in 2018, turning in a scoreless inning against the Dodgers in a nine-run Giants loss. “Let Pablo Pitch” became a rally cry, so much so that his 2019 bobblehead featured the slugger pitching, not hitting. But his pitching appearance five days before that bobblehead day would end up more historic.
Sandoval started at third and stole third on the basepaths in the second, after reaching on an error. It was his first stolen base since 2012, already putting the day in notable territory for the Panda. Then in the sixth, he went yard off Reds starter Anthony DeSclafani. But it got really interesting in the eighth, when Sandoval came in to pitch. The Giants trailed 12-4, but he ensured the gap didn’t widen, getting a fly ball and then a double play to erase a hit batsman. He became the second player in the Modern Era (since 1900) with a homer, a stolen base and a scoreless pitching outing in the same game, according to Elias.
The only other player to do it? Christy Mathewson -- also for the Giants against the Reds, on May 23, 1905 -- who threw nine shutout innings to go along with his homer and stolen base.
Charlie Culberson (ATL): Aug. 17, 2018 -- 1 IP, 1 R, nine 90+ mph pitches
Culberson has the distinction of throwing the fastest pitch by a position player in at least the last five seasons -- at 93.7 mph to Charlie Blackmon. Blackmon hit it for a double and came around to score on a DJ LeMahieu single, but there’s no question that Culberson brought the heat, given his normal role is anywhere but the mound.
In total, Culberson threw nine pitches at 90 mph or faster, including the 93.7 mph pitch and a 93.6 mph pitch to Chris Iannetta, which induced a groundout. Those are the two fastest pitches by position players in the last five years.
J.D. Davis (HOU): Sept. 9, 2017 -- 2/3 IP, 0 R, 2 K, 21 pitches 90+ mph
In a span of less than two weeks in 2017, Davis pitched twice, turning in scoreless outings both times. His Sept. 9 performance against the A’s was notable because he threw 24 pitches -- and 21 of them were at least 90 mph. Those 21 pitches are the most 90-plus mph pitches thrown by any position player in an outing in the last five seasons.
Davis topped out at 93.4 mph, throwing three pitches at that velocity, all to Chad Pinder. Pinder made Davis work hard in the outing, gutting out a 10-pitch at-bat that eventually led to a walk -- scoring Matt Chapman, a run that was charged to Astros reliever Reymin Guduan. In fact, Davis’ line is a bit misleading, as two of the runners he inherited scored -- but none were charged to him.
Adam LaRoche (CWS): July 31, 2015 -- 1 IP, 0 R, 1 K
LaRoche debuted in 2004, and based on his words after the game, he’d been looking forward to the moment for a while.
"I have begged every manager I have ever played for to let me go out there and pitch," he said after the game. "I've had three or four situations, and they have all been extra-inning games when we're running low and three or four times where if we didn't score, I was going out the next half-inning. Sure enough, every time we scored to go ahead. I've been close and never got to do it. That has been on my bucket list for a long time."
LaRoche started the game at DH, notching four hits. Then, with the White Sox down, 13-5, to the Yankees in the top of the ninth, he finally got his chance. He got Stephen Drew, John Ryan Murphy and Brendan Ryan in order for a perfect ninth, capped off by a strikeout of Ryan. But before he notched that K, LaRoche tried a “LaLob” against Ryan. The pitch was a tribute to his father, Dave, who pitched in the Majors for 14 years with a signature slow pitch. Adam’s LaLob came in at 50.7 mph and didn’t quite get the job done, but he threw the next one at 85.9 mph for the strikeout.
Chris Davis (BAL): May 6, 2012 -- Win, 2 IP, 0 R, 2 K
Davis didn’t just get the win in this game -- he pitched well, allowing just two hits in two innings of work and striking out Red Sox players Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Adrián González. Davis started at designated hitter in the game and was 0-for-7 at the point when he took over on the mound for Jim Johnson in the 16th. He got another at-bat, as a pitcher in the top of the 17th and grounded out, making it 0-for-8. But then he turned in his second scoreless inning of work to seal the win for the Orioles.
"I'm like, sweet," he said after the game of being asked to pitch. "I get to try something different today because hitting ain't working."
Davis is one of five position players to get a pitching win in the Expansion Era, along with John Baker (2014), Wilson Valdez (2011), Brent Mayne (2000) and Rocky Colavito (1968). Davis is the only one to record multiple strikeouts while doing so.
This game was doubly notable on the position player pitching front because Red Sox outfielder Darnell McDonald got the loss after giving up the go-ahead three-run homer to Adam Jones in the 17th. It’s the only game in the Expansion Era where position players got both decisions.
Wilson Valdez (PHI): May 25, 2011 -- Win, 1 IP, 0 R
Speaking of those four other wins by position players, Valdez’s was particularly impressive because of the batters he had to face and the closeness of the game. The infielder began his night at second base for the Phillies, getting three hits -- the most by any player on the Phillies that night.
By the time the game reached the 19th inning, it was a feat in and of itself that no position player had pitched yet. The Phillies were anchored by seven three-run innings by Roy Halladay, which ended up putting Philly in a good position to withstand a long game. The Reds got six innings out of starter Travis Wood, but they ended up turning to reliever Carlos Fisher for 5 2/3 innings, the longest outing of his career.
In the 19th, the Phillies finally ran out of pitchers, and it was Valdez’s turn. It was no small task, either, as the next three batters due up were Joey Votto, Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce. Valdez got Votto to fly out, hit Rolen with a pitch, got a flyout from Bruce as well and then got Fisher to pop up to end the inning. The Phillies won it in the bottom of the 19th on a Raúl Ibañez sac fly, and Valdez got the W.
"I didn't volunteer," Valdez said the following year. "It was so many years since I pitched. They told me, 'Go pitch.' They had run out of pitchers. They had nobody else."
José Oquendo (STL): May 14, 1988 -- Loss, 4 IP, 2 R
Oquendo got the loss in this one, but it’s still a performance worth noting. He threw four innings, the most by any position player in a game in the Expansion Era. Why was he out there for so long? Because his outing began in the 16th inning. Oquendo had entered the game in the top of the ninth at first base in a 5-5 tie. The game remained tied so long that the Cards ran out of pitchers, so Oquendo moved to the mound. The four innings earned Oquendo the nickname "The Secret Weapon," for obvious reasons.
Though he allowed the game-winning runs, the game became a part of Cardinals lore. And it could’ve ended quite differently, as the Cards left the bases loaded to end the bottom of the 18th.
Rocky Colavito (NYY): Aug. 25, 1968 (Game 1) -- Win, 2 2/3 IP, 0 R
As noted above, Colavito became the first position player to earn a win in the Expansion Era. And he did it with a particularly strong performance against the Tigers, setting a record for the longest scoreless outing by a position player in that span.
At 35 years old, Colavito was no spring chicken -- in fact, 1968 would wind up being the final season of his career. He’d pitched once before on Aug. 13, 1958, also against the Tigers and also without allowing a run. In the fourth inning, the first batter Colavito faced this time around was Al Kaline, who grounded out. He’d allow a double to Kaline in the sixth, but did not allow a run. The Yankees won, 6-5.
Matty Alou (SF): Aug. 26, 1965 (Game 1) -- 2 IP, 0 R, 3 K
This was the only pitching appearance of Alou’s career, and it got off to quite the start. Alou took over in the bottom of the seventh for the Giants in Pittsburgh, trailing 8-0. The first batter he had to face? None other than future Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, who was in his fourth season in the Majors. That was no problem for Alou, who struck out Stargell looking.
After allowing two singles and a foul pop fly, Alou struck out Gene Alley to end the inning. He came back out for the eighth and ended up facing Stargell again, with two outs and runners on first and third. Lo and behold, Alou got Stargell again, notching his third strikeout to finish up a scoreless outing.
Alou’s three strikeouts are the most by any position player in a scoreless outing in the Expansion Era. And that doesn’t even factor in the fact that two of the strikeouts were against Stargell.
Sarah Langs is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @SlangsOnSports.