Cut through all the history and pageantry and romanticism of professional baseball and you get, at its core, an entertainment product. Yes, it’s a product meant to make money, but it’s also supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be, you know, entertaining.
Despite what the old-man-yells-at-cloud crowd says about baseball’s imminent doom, the sport itself is fundamentally fun and interesting. This is especially true when the game is played at such a high quality. That, ultimately, is why the league adopted the universal designated hitter rule. Every single time a pitcher not named Shohei Ohtani stepped up to the plate, the game ceased to be remotely competitive. In 2021, pitchers had a combined on base percentage of .150 and only 100 extra base hits across over 4800 plate appearances.
The opposite, however, has traditionally been an absolute hoot: position players pitching, every occurrence of which the Cut4 Twitter account celebrates to its one million followers.
You know it. You❤️it. Folks, we have our very first— Cut4 (@Cut4) April 10, 2022
( (> PLAYER
<) )> PITCHING
of the 2022 season! pic.twitter.com/a46J4HAOfP
Why doesn’t the disdain for pitchers hitting extend to hitters pitching? Aren’t they the same thing—two groups of players woefully outmatched in a totally different role?
It’s true that position players are not good at pitching. They are very bad. But remember: baseball is entertainment, and the difference comes down to entertainment. Hitters don’t pitch unless the game is a blowout, at which point the competitive aspect of baseball takes a back seat to having fun. This contrasts with the lack of a DH rule, which regularly forced noncompetitive plate appearances in close games and blowouts alike. If pitchers were used as position players in blowouts, that would change the fun calculus dramatically.
Position players have traditionally enjoyed getting the chance to pitch. And when they do, they often have a blast. It was fascinating to watch a Hall of Fame player like Ichiro finally get the chance to step to the mound like he did in 2015, when in his age-41 season he threw a fastball up to 87.9 MPH along with a changeup and a curveball.
Or, maybe you smiled at Brett Phillips and his infectious glee at being able to pitch in a game last year. Phillips sprinted in from the outfield bullpen, played around with a variety of windups, and uncorked a 94 MPH fastball on his first pitch. He then balked, allowed a run, and loaded the bases, but he was having a blast and so was everyone else.
Maybe you remembered Jeff Franceour throwing two innings for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2015. Maxing out at 88.6 MPH, Statcast has Franceour recorded as throwing a fastball, changeup, slider, and even a few curveballs. The year before in Triple-A, he had thrown 7.1 innings, so it wasn’t completely out of nowhere. Still: that was not Francoeur’s job and yet he was clearly putting in the effort.
But over the past few years, something has been different. Yes, there have been position players pitching in blowouts, just like there always are. There’s just one teeny problem: position players have stopped trying on the mound. Perhaps you saw Frank Schwindel’s pitch last week, which is Exhibit A in this trend. Schwindel tossed a 35.1 MPH, um, fastball/curveball thing that Kyle Higashioka hit for a home run.
This 35.1 MPH Frank Schwindel pitch is the slowest (known/measured) MLB pitch to ever get hit for a home run! pic.twitter.com/oSO3sLnUyo— Codify (@CodifyBaseball) June 12, 2022
To be fair, that is an extremely hilarious 10 second video on Twitter. It is pure comedy, with Schwindel’s nonchalant gaze at the hard-hit ball pushing it over the edge.
However, Schwindel is part of a worrying trend for people who enjoy fun. Teams and position players have given up on even the semblance of competitiveness—after all, if it’s a blowout, who cares if the guy just soaking up innings bothers to care? The end result is the same. The data bears this out across the league. Over the past decade, the average position player pitch velocity has gone down by over 20 miles per hour, from nearly 84 MPH in 2012 to 61.4 MPH this year.
Every time a position player comes up to pitch, you know that the manager of their team has either waved the white flag or is so confident in the lead that the rest of the game simply does not matter. This is not ideal, but blowouts happen! Every game isn’t gonna be close. What saves us from all rolling our eyes and turning off the game is watching position players do their best on the mound. It’s fun, especially if they’re having fun.
But if position players aren’t trying? The whole thing falls apart. It ceases to become fun and starts to become a farce real quick. And if this is just gonna be what happens now when a position player enters the game to pitch, well, it might be time to consider rule changes that prevent that from happening. This makes me sad. At the end of the day, though, baseball is entertainment, and what position players are doing on the mound now is not that.