Out of position: More players having to take the mound
Increasing use of short relievers forcing managers to use position players as pitchers
When the Tigers designated shortstop Danny Worth for assignment last week, they might have left themselves a little short-handed.
In the bullpen.
Worth, after all, had demonstrated tangible value in his ability to mop up messy situations with a surprisingly fine-tuned knuckleball. On May 22, he became the first Tigers position player to pitch a full inning in nearly 83 years. Two days later, he did it again, and manager Brad Ausmus was impressed enough with the results that he announced Worth would be throwing bullpen sessions every 10 to 14 days to have his arm ready, in case the need arose.
"To come in and pitch as a position player," Ausmus said, "is a fantasy for a lot of position players."
A fantasy that is coming true with increasing regularity.
Already this season, which is only about 40-percent complete, 10 different position players have been thrust into pitching duty.
To put that in perspective, there have only been nine seasons in the modern era, per Baseball Reference, in which that number reached double digits. And while four of those seasons took place between 1901 and 1918 (Babe Ruth is one notable position player to pitch in '18), what's eye-catching is that another four have taken place just in the past six years.
When you look at it that way, Jason Lane's resurrection with the Astros as an outfielder-turned-pitcher almost fits right in with the current climate.
So what gives? Why are so many teams getting caught in that awkward, oddly entertaining spot in which they need a position player to tame bats rather than swing them?
It's not as if we have reason to believe there is a higher percentage of blowouts now than in the past, since in today's environment, pushing any runs across the plate is a notable feat. And one would think that the vast amounts of money being invested in relief pitching these days would have teams covered for every contingency.
Heck, the Dodgers have about $34 million tied up in their bullpen, yet they've used catcher Drew Butera twice in relief -- and he might have a Lane-like future in the cards, if the 92-mph fastball he put on the black is any indication.
It all comes down to the specialization of the modern bullpen. The multi-inning reliever is an increasingly rare beast in today's game, and the lefty-righy matchup games managers like to play burns through bullpens like never before. In the relatively short span between 1998 and 2012, the number of times a reliever was used for just one or two outs rose by a whopping 31 percent.
"I think it's as simple as starters go less now and you use your bullpen more and you run out of [pitchers] faster," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "I don't like to do it because you don't know what's going to happen if you put a position player out there and he snaps off a curveball, which he's never done. All of a sudden you do it and you hurt your elbow. Or the guy wants to go out there and look at the radar gun to see how hard he's throwing. That can be dangerous."
Dangerous as it might be, Roenicke has already found himself in two instances this year in which a position player was deemed to be his best option. He's used both Martin Maldonado and Lyle Overbay as pitchers.
But Roenicke is correct. These days, short work qualifies as a standard start. Teams are getting, on average, fewer than six innings out of their starters. As you might suspect, the seven seasons with the highest number of innings pitched out of the bullpen have all taken place within the past decade (2013 ranked fourth all-time).
So if there is any situation -- unfortunate as it might be -- in which you can preserve the wear and tear on your bullpen arms, you take it.
"There's a point in time in the game where the score and the inning is going to dictate that you start to look toward tomorrow, and you're just forfeiting that one inning just to get through the day to keep that guy fresh," said Red Sox manager John Farrell, who used Mike Carp in a 14-5 loss earlier this season. "As far as [relief] specialization and there not being as many multi-inning relievers, I'm sure there are a few factors that go into it. But when you're in those lopsided games, it's the best option."
Or at least, the best option in a bad situation.
"I know one thing," Farrell added. "When you put a position player in to pitch, it's not a good thing."
But hey, it happens. In fact, it's happened in 12 specific instances this season. No wonder veteran outfielder Jeff Francoeur has been eager to make six relief appearances for the Triple-A El Pasa Chihuahuas this season: He's not just pitching in for a team in need, he's practically showcasing himself.
So, how have non-pitchers fared in their pitching roles? Per Baseball Reference, there are 26 position players active at some point this season who have pitched at one point or another in their careers. Combined, they have worked 33 1/3 innings to a 5.13 ERA.
"You're supposed to hit the guy because he's not even a pitcher," Ausmus said. "If he gets you out, you look like a fool. It's really a no-win situation for the hitter."
Grant Brisbee of SB Nation has taken a particular fascination in non-pitchers pitching. His research found that all but six teams have used one at least one since 2008. The longest holdouts (with the last non-pitcher used in a pitching situation in parentheses) are the Braves (John Russell, 1989), the Nationals/Expos (Dave Martinez, 1990), the Giants (Greg Litton, 1991), the Angels (Chili Davis, 1993), the A's (Frank Menenchino, 2000) and the Rockies (Todd Zeile, 2002).
Just wait. At some point, it's bound to happen to them, too. And if they want to be prepared, they can always try to land Worth and his knuckler.