Why position players are pitching at a record pace so far during the 2018 MLB season
There have already been 41 position player pitching appearances in 2018
Once upon a time, position players pitching was a novelty saved for only the biggest blowouts and incredibly deep into extra-inning games. Nowadays it seems to be happening daily.
Monday night, the Cubs dropped a game to the Diamondbacks (ARI 7, CHC 1), and they used not one, but two position players to pitch. Backup catcher Victor Caratini recorded three outs (on five pitches!) and first baseman Anthony Rizzo got one out as well. A star player pitching? Teams usually don't take that risk.
The Caratini/Rizzo game comes three days after the Cubs used three -- three! -- position players (Caratini, Tommy La Stella, Ian Happ) in the final 3 1/3 innings of a blowout loss to the Cardinals. That happened 10 days after the D-Backs used Daniel Descalso and Alex Avila for 4 2/3 innings in a blowout loss at Coors Field.
Prior to the Descalso/Avila game, one team had not used two position players to pitch in a game since the Blue Jays used Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney on the mound in a 19-inning game in 2016. Baseball went almost exactly two years between games with two position players pitching for one team. Now it's happened three times in the last two weeks.
Position player pitching appearances are becoming fairly common and yes, it is happening at a record pace. In fact, there have already been more position player pitching appearances this year than any other season in baseball history. Already 41 times a position player has toed the mound in a big league game this season, and that does not include Shohei Ohtani's nine starts.
At the moment, MLB is on pace for 66 position player pitching appearances in 2018. The previous record was set last year with 32. It's 36 if you count Christian Bethancourt's four pitching appearances when the Padres were trying to convert him into a two-way player. Point is, the previous record was 32, and there have already been 41 position player pitching appearances this season, and it's not even August.
Here's the position player pitching appearance totals by season since 1973, the first year of the DH. Note this does not include former two-way player Brooks Kieschnick nor Rick Ankiel, who started his career as a pitcher before rather remarkably transitioning to the outfield. These are full-time position players only.
The trend is obvious. Position players are pitching more often now than they have basically ever. There were 120 total position player pitching appearances from 1990-2010. There have been 124 since Opening Day 2014, and 2018 isn't over yet.
Why are so many position players pitching nowadays? The answer seems pretty obvious. Starting pitchers are throwing fewer and fewer innings with each passing season, and even in the age of eight-man bullpens, teams do not want to overwork their relievers. They're more willing to concede defeat and save their actual relievers for another day.
Here's where position players pitching starts to become questionable: The Cubs used Caratini and Rizzo in a game they were only trailing by six Monday. A six-run deficit in Wrigley Field is not insurmountable! Was a comeback unlikely? Sure. Impossible? No way. Instead, manager Joe Maddon went to position players to spare his admitted overworked bullpen for another day.
Position players pitching is a fun novelty that is gradually becoming a legitimate strategy. We already have roughly one-third of the league rebuilding and making little effort to win. Now teams are conceding games and using position players on the mound more than ever. Not a great trend for baseball, I don't think.
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