Position players pitching more than a fad

Managers trying unique ways to keep their bullpen fresh

September 12th, 2017

When told that backup catcher Rob Brantly had pitched the ninth inning for the White Sox the other night, Orioles manager Buck Showalter wore a stunned expression.

"A position player pitched in September?" Showalter asked, incredulous that such a thing could occur while bullpens are fortified by late-season roster expansion.

Yes, Showalter was told. In fact, it's happened three times this month. On Labor Day, the newly acquired made his Cubs debut on the mound and not in the outfield. Last Thursday, Brantly mopped things up for the Sox in a loss to the Indians. And on Saturday, Astros third baseman (and former Cal State Fullerton closer) was summoned late in the first game of a doubleheader so manager A.J. Hinch could keep his bullpen fresh for the nightcap.

"A position player pitched in September," Showalter repeated, this time in a dumbfounded declaration and not a quizzical question.

Hey, these days, they're pitching all the time.

Well, OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration. But by historical standards, the rate at which position players are handed the ball -- sparking social-media sirens and generally bringing amusement to even the most lopsided of losses -- is beyond anything we've seen before in the big leagues.

Davis' appearance over the weekend marked the 35th time a position player has pitched in 2017 -- the first year that number has crept into the 30s. Sure, that's only one position player pitching among every 386 relief appearances, but look at the general increase in position-player pitching usage patterns that has developed this decade.

Note: These numbers do not include games pitched by a pitcher who was a pitcher at the time and later became a position player (such as Rick Ankiel), those who were a position player for much of their career and later became a pitcher (Jason Lane), or those who were legit two-way players (Brooks Kieschnick).

Obviously, position players are summoned in blowouts. All of the games in which a position player pitched this season were decided by five runs or more. But the data assures us this is not a one-off aberration sparked by an unusual number of blowouts in a given season.

What we have here is a true trend, and it's somewhat staggering. Eleven years ago, in 2006, we did not see a single position player take the mound. And in 2005, there was only one, and it was under extreme circumstances. On Sept. 20 (yes, it was in September, Buck), the Padres were trailing the Rockies 17-1 after seven innings at Coors Field, and San Diego sent out Sean Burroughs for the bottom of the eighth. He allowed four hits, including a three-run homer to , and Colorado went on to win 20-1.

"I think the way teams are built now, bullpens are more specialized, and guys are getting used a lot more out of the bullpen for certain reasons," Twins backup catcher Chris Gimenez said. "Starters aren't necessarily going eight or nine innings now. It's five innings, then the bullpen comes in and closes down rest of the game. When you do that so many times, you've got to get those guys rest at some point. I think it's just easier to throw the backup catcher or infielder or outfielder or whatever it may be."

Gimenez would know. He is personally responsible for a Major League-high six of the 35 position-player-pitching instances this season (five other guys have made multiple appearances). That's actually the most pitching appearances for any position player in any single season in the past 50 years.

This has made Gimenez a strangely valuable asset to Minnesota manager Paul Molitor in a season that, as it turns out with the complicated Wild Card standings, every inning has proven precious.

"I'm not trying to pump myself up here," Gimenez said. "But in the grand scheme of things, if someone can do something like that -- so that you don't have to stretch your bullpen guy that extra day -- it could be huge for a team. Maybe if you use [the reliever] four days in a row instead of three, he gets hurt and you lose him for the rest of the season."

It ought to go without saying that the game has become increasingly bullpen-oriented, but just to put some numbers to that narrative, this year starters are averaging just 5.56 innings per outing. Last year's mark was a record-low 5.64. Ten years ago, starters averaged 5.79 innings. Twenty years ago, it was 5.99.

So those lost innings have to come from somewhere. If you have neither a rotation loaded with workhorses nor a bullpen featuring several guys with Minor League options, you can run into workload issues pretty easily, especially if your roster carries the fairly standard 13 position players and 12 pitchers.

"Teams are trying not to carry the eight-man bullpens," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "I love [the eight-man 'pen], but Chris [Antonetti] and a lot of GMs are like, 'You don't get the bang for your buck.' So you go with seven men. And if you have a blowout, who cares if you lose by 12 or 13?"

Less provable but certainly possible is the idea that today's managers have a better understanding of leverage and win expectancy within a given moment in a given game.

In other words, you've got to know when to punt.

"Sometimes you have to live to fight another day, and knowing when is tough," Showalter said. "Is getting a guy off the field for one inning that big a deal? Yeah, it is. I mean, every game is four hours now. So they're standing out there and the concentration level, reading body language of players, you know when it's time."

Managers don't give the ball to position players to keep it close, of course, but, actually, 19 of the 35 appearances this season have been scoreless. The more important accomplishment is the gap guys such as Gimenez have filled at a time when pitcher preservation is so important.

"I told [Molitor], 'I need to get in all my appearances that I can before rosters expand in September,'" Gimenez said.

Turns out, not even roster expansion has slowed baseball's position-player-pitching surge.