The Diamondbacks sent a catcher to the mound in the 16th inning of 3-3 game on Sunday. Unsurprisingly, this did not work out. One of Jeff Mathis’ mid-80s ‘fastballs’ was launched to deep center and the D-backs lost. Position players are pitching these days more than ever before – and they’re entering the game in some surprisingly stressful situations. Is this a good idea? Does it ever work out?
Baseball has a reputation as a clunky, conservative old-boys club that’s resistant to change. But in recent years, with the rise of sabermetrics and instant replay, that idea is getting harder to defend. Nearly all aspects of the game are experiencing a statistically driven revolution – among them: pitching.
For a number of quantifiable reasons, starting pitcher pitch counts have been dwindling and the value of relief pitchers has been skyrocketing. Big data has given teams more confidence in their ability to engineer advantageous matchups between pitcher and hitter.
Historically, relief pitchers were just the ones not good enough to start – that’s not the case anymore. These days, teams are investing big bucks in their bullpen. One curious side-effect of this greater reliance on relief pitching: position players are being called on to pitch with unprecedented frequency.
The three seasons in the 100+ year history of the MLB that saw the most instances of hitters pitching were 2015, 2016, and 2017. 2018 is on pace to crush the record.
Pitching appearances by Position Players by Year:
- 2015: 27
- 2016: 24
- 2017: 34
- 2018: 27 (just through July 8th!)
As most baseball fans know, these players are called on almost exclusively by the losing team in massive blowouts. It makes sense. Why tax the arm of a 96MPH throwing reliever when you can throw in a catcher to eat up the innings and go home with a fresh pen for a game you actually have a chance to win?
Chris Jimenez gets it. He’s the most experienced non-pitcher pitcher in the MLB over the past few seasons. In 2017, he made 6 blow-out game appearances and posted a 7.20 ERA against players who were probably more interested in going home than scoring more runs. This is a real, if bizarre kind of asset for a team who finds themselves being blown out frequently. And in 162 games, blowouts will happen, they’re unavoidable.
"“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.”"