Getty Images

Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2018 — No. 15: More position players pitched than ever before

13 Comments

We’re a few short days away from 2019 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2018. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

On July 22, Brewers’ utilityman Hernan Perez pitched two scoreless innings, and backup catcher Erik Kratz pitched one himself, mopping up in a blowout loss to the Dodgers. In doing so they became the 31st and 32nd position players to pitch in the 2018 season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that set the record for the most position players to take the mound in a season in the Expansion Era, which began in 1961.

If you thought that was an anomaly, you were proven wrong the very next day when, on July 23, four position players — the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo and Victor Caratini and the Rangers’ Ryan Rua and Carlos Tocci — pitched, setting the single game record. By the time October had rolled around a record 48 position players had pitched in 2018.

Matt Davidson of the White Sox pitched on three separate occasions and was so good that Chicago is thinking of making him a full-time hurler. Kratz took the hill three times as well. Pablo Sandoval pitched once and, my god, he actually looked pretty darn good! He induced three grounders from the Dodgers and broke off a pretty nasty curve:

There were some pretty nifty closet knuckleballers pressed into service as well:

The individual performances aside, it’s pretty remarkable that Major League Baseball set the record in 2018. After all, this is the age of  13 and sometimes 14-man pitching staffs. An age when teams shuttle guys back and forth from the minors more often than they ever have before and when, due to the shortened, 10-day disabled list, it’s easier to give guys breaks because of “injuries” than it ever has been. There should never not be a fresh bullpen arm at the ready, right?

You’d think so, but part of the deal is that while teams carry far more relievers than they ever have before, they actually carry far fewer swingmen or mopup men who are capable of throwing multiple innings in a blowout to save other pitchers’ arms. Rather, teams focus on max-effort, high-velocity relievers who go one or two innings tops, thus requiring catchers and utility guys to help do the mopping that actual pitchers used to do.

There’s also the fact that teams are, quite simply, willing to admit when a game is blown. In the past there was some sort of unwritten rule about never admitting defeat, but now teams are quite willing to wave the white flag, trot out the backup catcher and save their real arms — maybe eight or nine of them — for tomorrow, when the game might be more reasonably won. A lot of teams tank their entire seasons now. Think of this as in-game tanking.

I don’t know if that’s a bad thing necessarily — some of these backup catchers throw harder than a lot of pitchers did 30 years ago and it’s always kind of fun to see a position player pitch — but it is yet another way the game has changed due to a focus on specialization and a more granular understanding of when a game ceases to be competitive.