For years, it was perhaps the noblest surrender in sports, a rare raising of the white flag that mixed comedy, camaraderie and selflessness.
Now, the sight of a position player climbing the mound to record the final outs of a lopsided major league game is an almost routine occurrence, a phenomenon likely connected to many of the game’s ills.
Durable starting pitchers are a rarity. Bullpens are constantly shuffled yet still over-extended. And with several franchises loathe to put the best possible team on the field, position players are pitching at a rate incomprehensible less than a decade ago.
With nearly one-quarter of the season remaining, position players have pitched 78 times this year, already topping last year’s mark of 65.
And it’s a stunning leap from 2011, when a position player pitched just eight times.
Sure, an 875% increase could be a mere coincidence. But the jump certainly dovetails with the game’s rapid rate of change.
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In 2011, the average major league start lasted 6.02 innings. In 2019, it’s down to 5.07 – meaning bullpens are absorbing almost an extra inning per game.
Similarly, 39 starters pitched at least 200 innings in 2011. In 2018, 13 starters reached the 200-inning mark and just 15 are currently on pace to get there this year.
“I do think it’s the nature of today’s bullpens, and starters not going as deep into games, and bullpen arms not being as fresh as, possibly, in the past,” says Baltimore Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, who must juggle a staff that’s deployed 37 pitchers who have yielded a total of 257 home runs – five shy of the single-season record with 36 games to play.
“Bullpen usage is a lot different than it was 10 years ago.”
Unsurprisingly, the 40-86 Orioles lead the majors in position players pitching – seven occurrences by four players.
Yet the phenomenon is far from limited to the game’s biggest rebuilders.
Every team save for the New York Mets – who trot out five starting pitchers capable of going deep into games – has deployed a position player on the mound. Even the otherwise indomitable Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros have combined for seven appearances.
If it seems like everybody’s doing it, well, they are.
“There’s probably less stigma to it now and when a game gets out of hand, there’s more a thought of, let’s preserve for tomorrow,” says Brewers manager Craig Counsell.
But tomorrow never gets any easier.
The largest single-season leap in position player appearances came between 2017 (36 instances) and 2018 (65). During 2018, the Tampa Bay Rays pioneered use of the “opener,” in which a reliever starts the game and then hands off to a more traditional starter, who avoids facing the top of the lineup at the start of his outing.
Counsell’s Brewers were among the teams to mimic the strategy last season – including in the playoffs – and more than half of major league clubs have used some form of it this year. It can be highly effective – but also tax the bullpen on the back end of the week, particularly if the opener’s outing goes awry.
“Bullpens in general are – I hesitate to say overworked, because that’s our job – but relied on very heavily,” says Washington Nationals closer Sean Doolittle, who landed on the injured list this week after appearing in 54 games.
A predictable outcome
It’s fair to say teams saw this coming. The Los Angeles Angels tried developing a pair of two-way players in infielder Kaleb Cowart and first baseman Jared Walsh; they eventually traded Cowart to Seattle, while Walsh has made four pitching appearances this year. The San Diego Padres attempted a similar gambit with backup catcher Christian Bethancourt in 2018.
But those experiments are challenging when bloated bullpens chew up so many roster spots. Nowadays, the eight- or nine-man bullpen is common, leaving just three or four bench spots for position players.
And still, they end up on the mound, producing no shortage of oddities this season.
Nationals second baseman Brian Dozier gave up a pair of home runs as a pitcher – and also hit a home run off a position player, Milwaukee’s Hernan Perez.
A Dodgers-Marlins game last week ended with two catchers closing the game for their respective teams – Bryan Holaday for the Marlins and Russell Martin, making his second appearance of the year, “saving” the Dodgers’ 15-2 victory.
Padres second baseman Ian Kinsler pitched a scoreless top of the ninth inning of a 10-2 game against Tampa Bay – and then homered in the bottom of the ninth, the first San Diego “pitcher” to hit a ninth-inning home run.
Hey, just because it happens almost every night doesn’t mean the dude willing to take one for the team is any less a folk hero.
“That was totally unexpected,” Orioles outfielder Stevie Wilkerson said of the outpouring of love after he became the first position player to record a save, in a 16-inning win at Anaheim on July 26. “I don’t think, after the first time I was asked to go pitch, anyone would’ve thought I’d get that save opportunity a few weeks after.”
While you were sleeping, Stevie Wilkerson became the 1st position player ever to record a save.
Every pitch was slower than 60 MPH. pic.twitter.com/8lm2VGvz63
Wilkerson made his major league debut last year, has 10 home runs this season and at 27, is a little younger than the typical emergency fireman. But he says it doesn’t hurt his pride that the Orioles have designated him their wear-it man for the late innings – and that it’s almost impossible he’d hurt himself.
“I’ve never been sore from it,” says Wilkerson, who has retired 16 of the 22 batters he’s faced this season and given up one home run. “Throwing up those 55-mph cheeseburgers doesn’t take too much toll on the body.”
Indeed, lack of velocity is the position player’s best friend – both to disrupt hitters’ timing and position themselves to avoid injury.
“I was a little scared because I don’t want to get a line drive right to my face,” Orioles infielder Hanser Alberto said of his seven-batter foray against the New York Yankees. “I can get the hitters off balance. Slower is a little harder for them to hit.”
For the most part. Alberto did yield a home run to Brett Gardner but retired sluggers Gleyber Torres and Gary Sanchez, who had already homered twice in that game.
Throwing in the towel
The Yankees ravaged the Orioles this season, winning 17 of 19 games, including the last 16. A day after completing a four-game sweep of Baltimore last week, the Yankees themselves were blown out 19-5 by the Cleveland Indians.
They started that game with an opener gone bad – Chad Green gave up five runs and recorded just one out – and ended it with first baseman Mike Ford throwing 42 pitches and absorbing the last two innings.
Manager Aaron Boone then caused a stir by suggesting baseball might be better served with a mercy rule.
“I don’t think it’s an awful idea,” says Counsell. “I really don’t. You have to put a number of innings on it to make sure it’s handled right. I wouldn’t make liberal use of it; it has to be pretty specific.
“But when it’s a 19-5 game, I think everybody is in agreement we don’t need the ninth inning.”
That’s not exactly a universal opinion.
“No, I don’t feel like we’re Little Leaguers,” Brewers reliever Jeremy Jeffress says. “Play the game.”
Fighting to the end is certainly noble. Yet with managers well-versed in win expectancy models, pragmatism is easier to embrace.
“The analytics can kind of tell you – from a competitive standpoint, you always think you’re going to come back and win – but in reality, the numbers will tell you,” says Reds manager David Bell. “When it gets to a certain point in the game and you’re up or down by a certain amount, the percentages are so low, you’re not giving up as much as we try to think we are, sometimes.”
So bring on the affable backup catcher, the willing utilityman, hand them the ball and hope for the best.
If nothing else, it’s a temporary distraction from the ugliness that unfolded in the three or four preceding hours.
“I know my pitchers had a bad day,” says the Brewers’ Perez, who has pitched seven times since 2017. “But I try to have fun. And try to forget what happened earlier in the game.”
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