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More position players are pitching than ever before, and there’s a simple explanation why

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Nobody told the Giants or Angels, but it’s hip to use a position player to pitch.

Jose Canseco

On July 30, the Houston Astros were losing, 13-0, to the Detroit Tigers, and first baseman Tyler White threw an inning. There was nothing particularly remarkable about it. Just a bench player saving his bullpen.

On July 31, Rays catcher Jesus Sucre threw an inning against the Astros. Again, there was nothing remarkable about this. Just a utility player saving his bullpen. Though, I suppose it’s notable that the Astros were involved in two consecutive games with a position player pitching.

On Aug. 1, Daniel Descalso threw an inning for the Arizona Diamondbacks. There was nothing particularly remarkable about it. It was his second career pitching appearance for the infielder, and he’s still tied with Honus Wagner and others for the best ERA in major league history.

Except, wait a second. Three straight days? Was this the first time three position players had pitched before in three consecutive days?

So I looked. Five seconds later, I found an instance of three position players pitching on two consecutive days, with one day featuring two in separate games. That was July 26 and July 27 of this year.

That’s six position players on the mound within a week. Eight since the start of July. Fifteen since the start of June, and 24 since the start of the 2017 seasons. That’s not even including experimental hybrid, Christian Bethancourt. While Chris Gimenez is a repeat performer (six times this year alone), that still means 18 different position players have pitched this season.

Is this a trend? Can I write a trend-piece? I wanna find a trend.

To the stat cave!

Oh, man, you’d better believe it’s a trend.

While it looks like the trend is down from last year, note that the season isn’t over. There were 26 position players who pitched last year and 24 so far this year. The record for as far back as Baseball-Reference’s Play Index search went was 27 in 2015*. It would appear that the position-player-pitching records are destined to fall, just like so many home run records. And maybe those two aren’t unrelated.

* Or not. I got confused when I got to the early ‘40s because there was a generation of half-pitcher, half-hitters from the Island of Dr. Kieschnick. Hybrids like Max Macon, Chubby Dean, Rene Monteagudo, and Johnny O’Brien seemed like they were midway through a permanent conversion one way or the other ... but still stuck in the other world. Even Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx was experimenting in this arena. So I quit counting. Your mileage may vary.

While we’re here, it’s time to update the master list of the last time position players pitched for each franchise. A lot has changed since we last did this in 2014.

The last position player to pitch for every team (as of 8/9/17)

Team Date Player
Team Date Player
Giants 7/4/1991 Greg Litton
Angels 6/17/1993 Chili Davis
Rockies 9/14/2002 Todd Zeile
Dodgers 5/17/2014 Drew Butera
Nationals 8/5/2015 Tyler Moore
Yankees 8/25/2015 Brendan Ryan
Braves 8/28/2015 Jonny Gomes
Marlins 10/4/2015 Ichiro Suzuki
Cardinals 5/20/2016 Ruben Tejada
A's 6/3/2016 Tyler Ladendorf
White Sox 6/8/2016 J.B. Shuck
Pirates 6/21/2016 Erik Kratz
Blue Jays 7/1/2016 Darwin Barney
Red Sox 7/2/2016 Ryan LaMarre
Royals 7/26/2016 Drew Butera
Orioles 8/20/2016 Ryan Flaherty
Reds 8/22/2016 Tyler Holt
Indians 4/13/2017 Michael Martinez
Mets 4/30/2017 Kevin Plawecki
Phillies 6/7/2017 Andres Blanco
Padres 6/8/2017 Erick Aybar
Mariners 6/13/2017 Carlos Ruiz
Twins 6/22/2017 Chris Gimenez
Cubs 7/6/2017 Jon Jay
Rangers 7/26/2017 Brett Nicholas
Tigers 7/26/2017 Andrew Romine
Brewers 7/27/2017 Hernan Perez
Astros 7/30/2017 Tyler White
Rays 7/31/2017 Jesus Sucre
Diamondbacks 8/1/2017 Daniel Descalso

As we can see, the Giants and Angels hate fun. The best factlet that I found while doing this is that 11 days before Chili Davis pitched for the Angels, utility infielder Rene Gonzales pitched for them. That’s two position players pitching within two weeks, and then poof. Nothing. No joy for Angels fans in their blowouts. Just the pain of a blowout and pure drudgery.

The other big surprise for me is that the Rockies are going on a 15-year streak without using a position player on the mound. That’s some admirable restraint for a team pitching a mile above sea level, though maybe that’s because a 10-run deficit doesn’t make the Rockies feel as hopeless as it makes other teams.

If there’s an answer as to why position players pitching are in vogue, I don’t think it’s too complicated. In 2016, 36.7 percent of all innings thrown came from a reliever. In 1976, 27.5 percent of baseball’s innings came from the bullpen. In 1956, it was 28 percent. And not only have the innings increase, but so has the importance. Bullpens back 40 and 50 years ago were contingency plans, something you kept in a glass case for when something went wrong.

Now they’re weapons. They’re a part of a team’s blueprint. And the earlier a team starts getting blown out, the more a manager will be forced to contemplate using one of their best pitchers in a useless effort that will do nothing but suck the pitches out of his arm.

Or he could use Chris Gimenez.

Texas Rangers Photo Day Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Yeah, hey, Chris.

It makes sense, and the desire to keep a bullpen fresh is obvious when you compare the position-player pitchers used today to some of the position players from years past. We know one of the most famous examples of a star pitching:

I’ve read a lot of people suggest this inning was the reason that Jose Canseco needed Tommy John surgery a month later, and it’s definitely a juicy twist to the story, one that definitely fits with the person of a dude who hit a home run with his head and has figured out the mysteries of life. Alas, it’s too good to be true. From Kevin Kennedy’s book, Twice Around the Bases:

The report from Dr. Jobe took some of the heat off.

He explained that this was a progressive injury, a tear that was becoming greater over time and probably had begun the year before. Jose’s full-fan performance in the bullpen might have enhanced it, and then the throw from the outfield finally blew out the elbow.

It didn’t help, no. But the elbow was gummy for a while, and regular baseball activities were going to get Canseco.

After Canseco, though, the stars stopped pitching. For obvious reasons. But in the past, there was Ted Williams, Stan Musial (for a one-batter publicity stunt), Rocky Colavito, and Sal Bando. You will probably never see that again.

Probably because 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. I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers stayed in the 20s.

As for the Giants, who hate fun? There’s hope.

That would be Carlos Moncrief, an outfielder who touched 97 in a blowout for the Sacramento River Cats this year. All that needs to happen is for the Giants to find themselves in a blowout, which, gee, stranger things have happened.

Until then, stay vigilant, folks. There are a couple of stragglers who haven’t used a position player to pitch this millennium, and the rest of the league is leaving them way behind. The position-player pitcher is a more common creature these days, but I’m not tired of it yet. Apparently, neither are managers.