June 26, 2014
Which Position Players Make the Best Pitchers?
It’s the beginning of the 17th inning and the bullpen is empty except for the bullpen catcher, who’s long since stopped bullpen catching and started to see how many paper cups he can balance on his head. Or, more likely in today’s baseball, it’s the middle of the seventh inning and you’re down by seven runs.
In either scenario, the manager and the pitching coach start looking around for an arm. Not a lot of requirements here. It has to be attached to somebody on the 25-man roster who hasn’t played, and it can’t belong to a pitcher. Today is just not worth using a starter. There’s always tomorrow.
So who’s the first person they look toward? It’s the catcher, right? Well, probably the backup catcher. He’s the guy on the position player side of the clubhouse who knows pitching the best. Not only is an arm already a requirement for him to have landed his job, but a good arm is highly prized. He probably pitched in high school. (Although really, who on the roster didn’t?) And as position players pitching is increasingly a seventh-inning thing rather than a 17th-inning thing, there’s an increasingly good chance that you haven’t worn out one catcher yet.
As position players have come to the mound in numbers that far outpace previous years—enough to give the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index its own category for position players pitching—we’ve seen some memorable moments from catchers. We’ve seen Drew Butera run his fastball up to 95 miles per hour in one appearance and 94.1 mph in the next. And Martin Maldonado pitched a scoreless inning and flashed an impressive slider in his mound debut against the Cardinals.
But do catchers make the best position player pitchers?
If so, it’s still not an easy decision. Burning a catcher isn’t like burning a corner outfielder or even a backup middle infielder. You’d better be pretty sure that the game is almost over and you aren’t going to need the guy. (It will become a little easier in September with three-plus-man catching crews, although the historical data shows no real trend toward catchers pitching more in September.)
They might not even be the best option at all, though.
From the full list of position players who pitched since 1950, we determined their primary career positions, with the exception of players whose primary career positions were pinch-hitter or pinch-runner. For those, we just considered whatever their primary position was in the year they pitched. We also removed everybody who pitched more than five times in a season, because at that point, if you aren’t part of the plan, you’re certainly part of a plan.
What remained were 229 appearances by players who primarily played catcher, one of the infield or outfield positions, or designated hitter, with a wider-than-expected spread among the positions. And just going off the first simple test of ERA, the catchers were worse than the best position to be: the outfielders, and particularly the center fielders.
That the outfield positions were at the top isn’t too much of a surprise, starting with the fact that managers can sometimes have their choice among backup outfielders if they’re committed to using an outfielder because that’s all they really have left. Also, it’s a position that requires some arm and has some very strong athletes.
The fact that right field—the outfield position that typically comes with the most arm—is the worst of them is a little surprising. The results in the infield makes much more sense. The strong-armed position of shortstop is the best of them, with the legendary Granny Hamner relieving dutifully in the 1950s and Danny Worth and Tim Bogar repping in modernity. And first base is the worst, with Larry Biittner and early-career Dave Kingman doing their fair share of the damage.
As with real pitchers, though, the peripherals sometimes tell a much different story. Catchers have some of the best sense of the strike zone—or at least that’s the narrative we’ll go with to explain their walk rate, which is up there with the tiny-sampled DH and third base for the best of any position.
And look at center field in the chart below. What was the best position by ERA is really absolutely atrocious. The 9.6 walks per 9 and 2.2 strikeouts per 9 are both the worst of any position.
Right field isn’t made up of Ichiro Suzukis as we might have hoped, but of Yasiel Puigs, with the highest K/9 but also a wild side. With the wildness of left fielders, center fielders, and right fielders and the high strikeout rates of two of those groups, we might not be able to say conclusively that going to the outfield for your emergency pitcher is the best move, but it’s certainly the most likely to be entertaining.
So which positions have managers chosen more often over time? There has been a steady trend toward the ones who have been—at least in a very, very, very relative sense—getting the job done.
Position-player pitching appearances began to spike in 2007 after only one in 2005 and 2006 combined, so this table compares the 2007-present period to a couple of much longer periods in the past with roughly the same number of data points.
Both the defensively oriented infield positions and the first base/DH positions are on their way down in frequency as a percentage of all position player usage. Instead, during this current seven-year spike that’s become a one-year super-spike, managers are increasingly calling on their catchers and outfielders as emergency pitchers.
Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.