Stats that don’t add up: Assume the position when position players feel poised to pitch
By Tom Hoffarth
What position do you take on position players recruited to pitch in MLB games?
If you’re a manager, it’s a no-win, duck-and-cover-your-analytics position.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts found out Tuesday night in Philadelphia that it’s also an inherently unmanageable position when the front office guys dictate what a pitcher’s shelf life shall be in the context of a game. You’ve already burned three relievers in a critical ninth inning. You’ve just woken up starter Rich Hill and sent him sprinting across the outfield toward the bullpen to go warm up as the 16th inning approached. But you still have to feel some sense of a brainfart when you decide that utility man Kike Hernandez is the best option not to just occupy the mound in a tie game, but, without hurting himself, keep the opposing team scoreless.
That was never going to happen. Fifteen pitches later, an 86-mph rising something-ball to Trevor Plouffe is launched toward the Delaware River and ends the contest between two teams that could meet in the playoffs and might want a home-field advantage.
Hill was ready to jump in and likely pitch past curfew, but Roberts felt he had so few choices left that it was best to just end this and move on — to another loss against the Phillies about 12 hours later.
If you’re a fan, the position you find yourself with position players taking the mound is closer to curling up into fetal.
Your team has essentially given up. A game fought for over five hours becomes a farce. They want to reward a final outcome for those who’ve been entertained to this point, but it’s not what you paid for.
Our position on all this? That example above should never have happened, but in the Year of the Position Pitcher, it’s taken this farce to a new low.
We’ve taken the position promoted by a couple of yoga poses – first, what they refer to ironically as “wild thing” (camatkarsana, as it’s known as officially, and perhaps to Charlie Sheen in his “Major League” days), which is supposed to boost feel-good endorphins and counteract depression. But then we slump into the corpse position. You’ve effectively caused us to just surrender.
A not so funny thing: Anyone who uses Wikipedia and wanted to find out how a “position player” is defined, they’re told: “Position players are eligible to pitch, and a manager may have a player do so in the case of a blow during a game … however, this is rare.”
Yeah, not so much.
The uncommon has become all too common, and unnecessary, part of a team’s strategy to save face. It’s not working.
In 2015, 23 position players took the mound 27 times. That was the most since 1960, when they started to make a distinction in the record books between primary pitchers and primary position players.
Last season, that record was broken with 34 games featuring a position player.
That record has already been shattered — 41 players throwing in 35 games this season already, with more than two months left. During an era where teams regularly carry 13, even 14, pitchers on the 25-man staff because that’s what the data demands.
Those sacrificial position players have combined to give up about 40 runs over 40 innings. Where’s the payoffs?
The next position player we see take the mound will be the last we need or want to see, but we don’t anticipate that happening at a time when there are huge discrepancies in .600 teams playing .400 teams, or guys like Roberts painting themselves into a corner that the guy in the other dugout (and once considered to be the Dodgers’ skipper) Gabe Kapler had no trouble figuring out — you employ a starter who can stretch it out.
“It’s fun to watch position players pitch,” wrote Grant Brisbee for SBNation.com earlier this year, “just like it’s fun to watch Kenny Mayne on ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ “
For mercy’s sake, baseball, at this level, has no mercy rule. But there are plenty of other ways to save face.
Plan ahead. Require pitchers to go more than 10 tosses an outing.
The whole idea that some backup second baseman is willing to take one for the team by dart-throwing baseballs and hoping the other batters hit it at someone wearing a glove is the abject failure of babying a 21st Century pitching staff.
The Dodgers were on the complete flip side of this un-excellent equation a couple days earlier in Milwaukee. Under a much different level of intense happenstance, Brewers infielder Hernan Perez was called upon in the seventh inning to tap dance with his team trailing 11-2. Not completely game over, but …
In the process, Perez hit the Dodgers’ Austin Barnes in the back with what was clocked at a 48-mph heave-ho. Barnes should have charged the mound with a malpractice lawsuit in hand, but he instead sighed and went to first base. If that didn’t hit a nerve, it should have with the Dodgers.
One day, Brewers fans are cheering the sight of Josh Hader coming in to pitch. The next, they’re sending memes on their own Twitter accounts about Perez throwing non-fat cheese near an opposing player’s head.
It’s no real achievement that Perez and backup catcher Erik Kratz combined for three scoreless innings to allow the Dodgers to leave town and the fans to shuffle off back to their farms feeling they’d been milked.
Once upon a time, this was a novelty. Now it’s the definition of insanity – doing something over and over again and expecting a fortuitous result.
Once upon a time, one could have labeled it borderline hilarious when Diamondbacks first baseman Mark Grace came in and gave up a home run to then-Dodgers catcher David Ross, his first career dinger. It was 2002. Arizona was down, 18-0, to the visiting Dodgers in the ninth inning with two out. It’s the stuff they oxymoronically write oral history about now.
But what kind of thrill did the Phillies’ Plouffe get from making his first homer of a season an opposite-field shot for a 7-4 game-winner off Hernandez?
“I was trying to elevate the ball,” said Plouffe, the former Crespi High of Encino third baseman said, playing in his ninth season and recording his 106th career homer.
Hey, SABR dude, how far down did the Dodgers’ win expectancy drop once they elevated Hernandez from comic-relief, banana-suit wearing infielder to pitcher of record at that point in the game? Not that he thought he’d be putting himself in the record book next to Babe Ruth, but that’s another freakish outcome to all of this.
As far as bastardizing a game, the Cubs aren’t hiding it either. They’ve used position players to fill up innings in two over the last four games. Some surmise it’s just manager Joe Maddon signaling to the front office that he needs more arms.
Three Cubs position players threw in an 18-5 loss to St. Louis. Two days later, first baseman Anthony Rizzo talked himself into getting asked to get the final out, after backup catcher Victor Caratini got the first two in the ninth, of an eventual 7-1 roll-over loss to the Diamondbacks.
“It was fun,” said Rizzo, who had a two-pitch outing. “You have to have fun with it but at the same time try not to embarrass yourself.”
Too late for that. Now, if you don’t mind, Rizzo has to go to the shower and relieve himself.
To the relief of no one.