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OC Register: How position players pitching became baseball’s new market inefficiency

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New York Mets pitcher Jose Reyes released the ball at an ungraceful sidearm angle. The 54-mph tumbler was recorded as a curveball, but it’s tough to say for sure. The baseball hit the batter, Ryan Zimmerman, with so little force that Zimmerman could actually smile and pretend to charge the mound before jogging to first base.

Reyes threw three more pitches Tuesday night, all strikes. It was the first, and hopefully last, pitching appearance in the long career of a 35-year-old infielder. The Mets lost to the Washington Nationals 25-4, and Reyes was stuck with a 54.00 earned-run average.

Excluding the Angels’ two-way star Shohei Ohtani, position players have made a record 46 appearances this season through Tuesday, according to Baseball Reference. Last year produced 36 such appearances, up from 26 in 2016. The reason behind the trend isn’t obvious because, naturally, position players are not very good at pitching. After Reyes’ gem, and excluding the nine starts by Ohtani, position players this year have a cumulative ERA of 6.00.

So why do they keep getting the ball?

“I think it comes about because of the specialization,” Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi said, “and you go through your seven or eight relief pitchers quicker than you used to.”

According to research by the website FiveThirtyEight, teams used approximately 1.5 relief pitchers per game on average until about 1980. By the late 2000s, complete games were nearly extinct and teams were using three relievers per game. Meanwhile, roster limits did not change. Managers were still limited to 25 active players prior to Sept. 1 each year, but the demand for relief pitchers was never higher. Something had to give.

Every team had between seven and nine relief pitchers on its roster as of Wednesday, according to Roster Resource. Each bullpen featured the kind of specialists Zaidi had in mind – a left-hander who only pitches to left-handed hitters, for example.

“You might burn through those guys in eight innings and suddenly you need somebody else for the ninth,” Zaidi said.

Some teams are better at rationing relief innings than others. The Angels are one of eight teams who have not sent a position player to the mound – other than Ohtani, of course. The Dodgers avoided using a position player until last Tuesday in Philadelphia when Kiké Hernandez took the mound in the 16th inning of a tie game.

Hernandez’s teammates swear he could pitch a baseball 93 or 94 mph if he wanted to, but his fastball averaged 77 mph that night. Manager Dave Roberts said he told Hernandez to “just throw strikes” and Hernandez acceded, apparently ot knowing his own control.

Hernandez induced a flyout on his first pitch, walked the next two batters, then surrendered the game-winning home run to Trevor Plouffe. He is now 0-1 with a career ERA of 81.00. Roberts knew the risk – Hernandez had never pitched in a professional game – but he also had a new game to prepare for less than 12 hours later.

When a manager runs out of pitchers or is on the losing end of a lopsided game, does the risk of sending a position player to the mound outweigh the risk of taxing his actual pitching staff further?

“Part of baseball is you have to live to fight the next day,” Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “You really do. When we’re making that decision, that’s really what it’s about.”

Counsell sent two position players to the mound in an 11-2 loss to the Dodgers on July 22 in Milwaukee: Hernan Perez pitched the seventh and eighth innings, and Erik Kratz pitched the ninth. Neither allowed a run.

To the Dodgers hitters who had to face Perez and Kratz that day, it strained the definition of fun.

“It’s completely different from what you’ve been seeing for years,” said Cody Bellinger, who lined out to left field against Perez.

“It’s never really fun facing a position player,” Max Muncy said, “because you never know: are they just going to lob it over the plate? Once they get a strike on you, are they going to suddenly start – because every position player has a good arm – you never know if they’re going to rear back and throw it 90, start breaking off curveballs on you.”

Sidearm curveballs at 54 mph, perhaps.

That game in Milwaukee wasn’t even the most prolific for position players on a mound. Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon used three position players to finish an 18-5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on July 20: Tommy La Stella, Victor Caratini and Ian Happ.

Three position players had not pitched in the same game since 1979. Is there a tipping point in sight?

“I think maybe this is a trend that we’ll see more two-way players,” Zaidi said. “You have obviously the high-end two-way player, like an Ohtani and like the kid (minor leaguer Brendan) McKay with Tampa. There are guys kind of on the bubble of major league rosters around baseball who have really strong two-way abilities.”

The Dodgers tried to create a two-way player of their own. Outfielder Brett Eibner appeared in 17 major league games last year. He then returned to Triple-A and tried his hand as a pitcher, a role he thrived in at the University of Arkansas. Before he could even get into a game, Eibner suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and had Tommy John surgery, ending his season.

Eibner only resurfaced last month in the Texas Rangers’ system – as a pitcher.

“Unfortunately that didn’t work out with Brett,” Zaidi said, “but I would’ve liked to have had him on the bench in the 16th inning in Philly.”

The Dodgers already have one of baseball’s most capable two-way players in their organization. As a pitcher, his career ERA is 3.56. As a batter, his average is .271. He even spent a full season as an outfielder in Japan. However, there are no plans for him to get in a game anytime soon. At 92 years old, special advisor Don Newcombe might not even get to pitch the 17th inning.

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