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The unwritten rules of using a position player to pitch ... when you’re winning big

It seems obvious, but it looks like we’ve discovered a final frontier.

Minnesota Twins v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Position players pitched in 34 games in 2017, which is the most ever. It broke the previous record of 27 position players pitching, which was set in 2015. The third-most mound appearances by a position player came in 2016. Here, have a graph:

It’s a trend, and it’s not going away any time soon. With Ryan LaMarre pitching for the Twins on Monday night, eight position players have pitched so far in the 2018 season. We’re still in April. Is this the year we get 50 position players appearing on the mound? Will the Giants and Angels finally hop on the fun train?

The reason for the spike is simple: Pitchers are getting hurt more often, and using a position player for an inning helps keep the real pitchers from overextending themselves.

... the position-player pitcher is here to prevent injury and fatigue, not create it, and it’s a trend that’s going strong and makes too much sense to go away. While baseball is cyclical and this could go the way of the stolen base, there’s very little risk to go with the measurable reward of keeping your bullpen fresh.

It’s fun to watch position players pitch, just like it’s fun to watch Kenny Mayne on Dancing With the Stars, but the real benefit comes with pitchers not having to throw unnecessary innings. Almost every team agrees this is a worthwhile goal, and considering the alternative is a dumb mercy rule, it’s a trend that we should all support. When there’s a blowout, use your position players to pitch.

As long as you’re losing.

You can’t do it if you’re up by 15 runs.

Even if you really want to keep your bullpen fresh.

That’s just not how things are done.

It’s not written down, per se, but it’s against ...

Well, it’s against the ...

Ah, yes, the unwritten rules. For some reason, I assumed that position players pitched in blowouts for both sides. More often for the losing team, certainly — if the winning team is pitching well enough to not get blown out, their starting pitcher is probably giving them some innings — but I figured that every so often, a team up by 20 would use a position player to avoid wasting a fresh arm.

This doesn’t happen, though. Position players have pitched in wins, but they’re the kind of accidental wins that require close attention. John Baker got a writeup that included Vines (RIP), Chris Davis was lauded for one of the nastier changeups of the year, and Brent Mayne got an entire danged feature 15 years later. Wilson Valdez pitched, and Jeff Sullivan wrote about it glowingly. Andrew Romine pitched last year for a third of an inning in a close game so that he could complete a play-every-position stunt.

But a player pitching in a blowout for the winning team? Hasn’t happened in a while. If you want to get technical, it hasn’t happened for 98 years.

It’s hard to sift through the list of position players pitching in a win because it’s a genre that Baseball-Reference isn’t built for. That means that Brooks Kieschnick, Rick Ankiel, and, yes, Shohei Ohtani show up in the Play Index results. Erv Dusak wasn’t a position player pitching in an 18-2 blowout, for example; he was a reliever who had recently converted to pitching, and he happened to appear in a blowout.

The last time a position player entered as a reliever when his team was well ahead — at least, as far as I can tell, no refunds — was October 3, 1920. With the St. Louis Browns leading the Chicago White Sox, 16-7, the Browns sent George Sisler in to pitch. The Hall of Famer, who hit .340 for his career, was apparently keen on giving the crowd at Sportsman’s Park a laugh on the last day of the season, and I would guess the White Sox were fine with it. Sisler had just set the all-time record for hits in a season (257), which would stand for another 84 years, and he was one of the biggest stars in the game.

That’s what it takes for a position player to pitch in a blowout that his team was winning. Apologies if I’m being obtuse, but I wasn’t aware of this unwritten rule. And when an unwritten rule flutters by my nose, I want to catch it in a net, pin it, and study it under a microscope.

Again, the reason behind the trend of position players pitching is to keep bullpens fresh. Not to keep bullpens fresh when you’re losing, necessarily. That shouldn’t be a part of the equation. The goal should be to waste a utility player’s bullets instead of an actual, valuable member of a bullpen, regardless of who’s winning or losing. Keep players healthy and happy, that’s my motto. Or it would be if anyone would hire me as a manager.

Instead, there are two things going on. The first is the aforementioned context, in which a team winning 20-3 is probably a team that got six or seven innings out of its starting pitcher. And every team usually has a mop-up guy who can get the last two or three innings of a game when needed. There really aren’t a lot of reasons to use a position player in that situation, not when everyone can perform their assigned role just fine.

The second reason why this doesn’t happen, though? Feelings. The feelings of grown men wearing pajamas and slapping each other on the butt.

Let’s put together a plausible scenario, one that might not be far from something that’s happened over the last 100 years. Team A is winning big. They may or may not have played extra innings the night before, but their bullpen is gassed. Their starting pitcher is doing well enough, but he’s creeping up on 100 pitches, and it’s only the fifth inning.

Option A
Reliever 1 (pitched three out of last four games) for an inning

Reliever 2 (pitched three out of last four games and in each of the last two games) for an inning

Reliever 3 (long reliever who pitched three innings in a blowout loss two days ago) for two innings.

Option B
Reliever 3 (long reliever who pitched three innings in a blowout loss two days ago) for two innings.

Position player (lol) for an inning

Same position player or another one (lololol) for an inning

If the 15-run lead becomes a 10-run lead, well, go back to Option A. There are no demerits for having to use that pitcher you were going to use without the unwritten rules. But if Option B works, well, you charge into the next game — maybe it’s a day game after a night game — with Reliever 1 and Reliever 2 fresh as daisies. It helps the team win. It helps the relievers stay healthy.

It’s better. It’s better in every single way for just about everyone.

Except, if a manager puts in a position player when he’s up 15-3, I’m assuming baseballs will get thrown at butts and grown men might meet in the middle of the diamond to push each other and yell a lot. It’s almost like there needs to be a backchannel for this sort of stuff.

MIKE SCIOSCIA: You came here to see if I’d kick if you put a position player to pitch. Well, there’s your answer.

NED YOST: I have a doubleheader tomorrow, and my bullpen is gassed.

SCIOSCIA: You haven’t bought any license to make me look bad when I’m getting blown out, and today I ain’t sellin’ any. So take your flunky and dangle.

DALE SVEUM: Wait, I didn’t do anything.

I used to get excited about position players pitching. It makes sense, considering that the year I started writing about baseball for a living, just eight position players pitched. But now I’m getting excited by the idea of a manager saying, “Screw it. My bullpen is tired. I’m pitching Shane Halter because he’s probably not going to give up 17 runs. If you don’t like it, don’t suck so much the next time we play.”

You know Joe Maddon has at least thought about it. It just makes sense, people. Stop worrying about feelings.

Unless they’re my feelings, which are very important. And those feelings are telling me that position players pitching are at the crossroads of fun and functional. There should be more of them in blowouts, and it really doesn’t matter who’s winning.