August 26, 2013
The Significance of Position Players Pitching in Extras
Frank Menechino was the first position player I ever saw pitch. It was 2004, and I was understandably excited by this event. I set off for the internet to research the history of the position player pitching, hoping to find every game in which this had happened. After a few hours, I realized with disappointment that it wasn’t as rare as I’d hoped it would be (it’s no hidden ball trick).
That was a big year for position player pitchers. Ten games featured everyday hitters taking the mound, with Dave McCarty making three appearances.* It wasn't always this way: 2003 and 2005 had just one each—Wiki Gonzalez and Sean Burroughs—and there were none in 2006. Twitter would’ve been so bored.
*I explicitly excluded dual talent Brooks Kieschnick from all database queries.
I’m hesitant to declare any pattern here. There’s potentially one if I take a subset: position players pitching in extra innings. Saturday’s marathon makes this the sixth straight year that this happened. Before 2008, there were only three such occurrences. Here’s the list:
Position players pitch frequently in blowout games. Extra-inning appearances, however, suggest that the manager has exhausted his bullpen. He sends a position player into the high-leverage spot and the history books gain another entry.
With only one qualifying game per year, I will be extra cautious in designating this streak as a “trend." But let’s call it a trend, because there is some reasoning behind it. While the number of extra-inning games each year is random, bullpen usage isn’t. Lately, managers have used more relievers, and the number of innings they pitch have steadily decreased. This chart will demonstrate:
In 1974, relievers pitched 1.74 innings per appearance. That fell to 1.49 in 1988 and 1.11 in 2004. Last year’s 1.015 was the all-time low (appearances were an all-time high, 14522). The main culprits here are the proliferation of LOOGYs and reduction in Mike Marshalls. Relievers in 2013 log 1.06 innings per appearance—still less than the usage in 2008 (this says nothing about the quality of the innings).
Though there may be other effects in play, the rapid reliever swapping coincides well with the yearly streak. Many extra-inning games become marathons, but only so many of them run out of pitchers.
And when position players are introduced, they spell the end. Except for Jose Oquendo’s miraculous four-inning outing in 1988, no game has lasted more than two innings once the position player took the ball. As much as we root for him to blow a fastball by opposing hitters, we’ll know that we'll probably be sleeping soon.