On May 22, Danny Worth got the final three outs of the Tigers' 9-2 loss to the Rangers. In doing so, he took his part in one of the most bizarre trends of the year: Barely a quarter of the way through the 2014 season, Worth was already the 10th different position player to pitch in a game.
Usually, we here at YCPB love watching position players pitch because it's inherently unpredictable. Yet, already we've had nine teams use a position player to throw a mop-up inning; Milwaukee has used both Martin Maldonado and Lyle Overbay while the Dodgers had Drew Butera pitch twice. Worth also made a second appearance on May 24. (Others: Dean Anna of the Yankees, Mike Carp of the Red Sox, Steve Tolleson of the Blue Jays, Leury Garcia of the White Sox, Mitch Moreland of the Rangers and Daniel Descalso of the Cardinals.) It doesn’t end in the majors, either: Jeff Francoeur has made five relief pitching appearances for the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas, leading to speculation that the outfielder may be attempting to convert to the mound full-time.
So the question, does this just seem like an unusually high number, or is it really an aberration? We asked Sean Forman of Baseball-Reference to help us out and discovered that not only is there an increased number of non-pitchers pitching, but that the absolute number is shockingly high.
Ten position players have pitched. Even though this number has been trending upwards in recent years, that’s already more position players pitching than in 10 of fourteen seasons since 2000. In 2009, 2012, 2013, and now 2014, 10 or more position players pitched; prior to 2000, you have to go back to 1989 to find the last occurrence, and after that you have to go back nearly a century to 1918 -- when Babe Ruth was a member of the Red Sox, and the St. Louis Cardinals led the majors in homers with 27. Again, we’re only a quarter of the way through this season.
An increase in position players pitching might have been expected back at the height of the "Steroid Era," when run totals were higher. However, only five position players pitched in 2002 and 2003 combined. In 2001, the year Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs, only seven position players pitched. The real upward trend doesn’t start until 2009, with virtually no hints that such a thing would be coming.
So, why the increase? There is no definite answer, but it may have something to do with the specialization of pitchers. Teams are carrying more pitchers, but their roles are becoming more and more regimented. Not only is the one-inning closer a huge part of the game, but set-up man, seventh-inning guy, LOOGY, ROOGY, Second Lefty, and other specialists who rarely throw more than an inning also exist. Most teams don’t carry more than one long man -- if that -- out of the bullpen, either. When starters don’t stay long in the game, either due to poor performance or innings caps and/or pitch counts, and the long man isn’t available, teams may be forced to use position players.
Will this trend continue? If 2014 continues at the pace it’s established, roughly 40 position players will pitch, which will blow 2013's Live Ball Era record of 13 out of the water. Who knows -- one day, a pitching appearance from a position player might be more appropriate for our friends at @canpredictball. We think the Babe might approve.