The game is a blowout. It is the last inning or two and the manager wants to save his weary bullpen from overuse, so he asks the backup catcher, or a utility infielder, maybe even a semi-regular who pitched a bit in college, to go warm up in the bullpen. After getting over the awkwardness of being on the mound for the first time in ages, the position player fires a pitch - maybe he gets it into the mid-80s, maybe he even touches 90 on the gun. The crowd goes wild. The position player pitching provides a fitting comic relief to a laugher of a game.
If it seems that this scene has played out more frequently this year, you are not imagining things. So far, this year is on pace to be the most active season in recent memory for position players getting a chance on the mound. Royals backup catcher Drew Butera made his sixth career pitching appearance, in a blowout last week against the Red Sox. The Diamondbacks went so far as to put a position player on the mound in the fourth inning, already down by 13 runs. Old friends Erik Kratz and Kendrys Morales have taken the mound, as has Pablo Sandoval, Mark Reynolds, Brandon Guyer, and Alex Avila.
Already 25 position players have taken the mound this year, more than all of last year, and two players have already made two appearances this season. These neophytes to the mound have pitched 25 innings with an ERA of 8.28. Yes, all position players this year have combined to out-pitch Royals professional relievers Blaine Boyer, Brandon Maurer, and Justin Grimm.
The position player on the mound has been trending in recent years. Butera has pitched five times in the last five years. So has utility infielder Daniel Descalso, who was brought into the fourth inning of a game for the Diamondbacks. Backup catcher Chris Gimenez has pitched a total of ten innings over the last five seasons. How have they done? Well, not great. Not that it matters much, but position players are generally pretty terrible. They don’t strike anyone out, and throw strikes at a much lower rate than the league average of 63.7%.
Position players pitching, 2014-2018
This year, position players are on a pace to pitch about 44 innings, much more than any of the past four seasons. And the recent trend of having position players has taken a big jump than what we saw just ten years ago. You can see some of the names that have taken the mound over the years here.
Position players pitching over the years
There are a few reasons why the number has jumped up so much in recent time. First of all, there are just more blowouts now than there used to be. I defined “blowout” as a game that ended with a difference of eight runs or more between the two teams. In 1988 there were 146 such games. Last year there were 253.
However this year there have been 128 so far, which would be on pace for around 230 or so for the year, a drop off from last year. Yet there have been more position players than ever on the mound. Why?
It seems more and more teams are wise to the idea of saving their pen by using a bench player on the mound. Thirty years ago, there was more of a stigma to throwing a position player out there. It was seen as a mockery of the game, a white flag when you should never give up, and when slugger Jose Canseco injured his elbow trying to pitch, teams also grew scared of the injury risk.
But the erosion of the “unwritten rules of the game” in favor of more common-sense solutions has led to teams saving their overworked bullpens in favor of letting the utility infielder throw some curveballs. In fact, some teams have sought two-way players who can both pitch and back up a position on the field, like the Padres tried with catcher Cristian Betancourt. Teams are relying on more and more relief innings from their bullpen, and with only 25 spots on a roster, having a backup player who can pitch in a pinch can save a valuable roster spot.
So you may want to get used to seeing guys like Drew Butera take the hill in blowouts. Perhaps the two-way success of Shohei Ohtani will cause more teams to seek players versatile enough to handle the bat and the pitcher’s mound.