Once a novelty, position players pitching has become a tired act


Pittsburgh Pirates TV play-by-play man Greg Brown didn’t hide his disdain this month after Pirates Manager Derek Shelton, with his bullpen overworked and his team in the midst of a stretch of 14 games in 13 days, called upon second baseman Josh VanMeter to pitch the ninth inning of a blowout loss to the New York Yankees.

“It’s a joke,” Brown said after VanMeter allowed back-to-back home runs to Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton in New York’s 16-0 rout. “This is Major League Baseball? It’s a joke. They gotta quit doing this.”

Jokes generally aren’t as funny the second, third and fourth time you hear them, which is why a position player pitching — a rarity as recently as a decade ago — has become an increasingly tired act. Brown made it clear during the broadcast that his ire wasn’t directed solely at the Pirates, who have accounted for five of the 75 instances of position players pitching this season. Excluding Los Angeles Angels’ two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani’s 17 starts, the league is on pace to blow past last year’s total of 89 pitching appearances by position players and shatter the record of 90 set in 2019.

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Of the 528 pitching appearances by position players from the start of the 2005 season through Friday, 354 (67 percent) have occurred since Opening Day 2018. An increase in reliever usage and a new rule limiting the number of pitchers on the active roster have contributed to the increase. Teams have averaged 17 position player pitching appearances since 2005, with the Chicago Cubs accounting for the most (33) and the Atlanta Braves and Colorado Rockies accounting for the fewest (6).

‘It’s never something you want to do’

The Nationals present a perfect illustration of the leaguewide trend. After no Washington position player pitched in a game from the team’s inaugural season in 2005 through 2014, the Nationals have sent a position player to the mound 13 times since, with outfielder Clint Robinson becoming the first in a 14-6 loss at Arizona on May 12, 2015.

“It’s obviously not a good thing whenever a position player has to pitch because it means you’re losing the game,” said Robinson, who notched a strikeout in a scoreless inning, much to the delight of teammate Max Scherzer.

“It’s never something you want to do,” manager Matt Williams added. “But in games like this, we just can’t stretch our bullpen any further.”

Williams called upon another position player — Tyler Moore — to give his bullpen a break in an 11-4 loss to the Diamondbacks three months later.

Nationals position players Gerardo Parra and Brian Dozier pitched in the same inning in 2019, while utility player Brock Holt made two pitching appearances for Washington during the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season. Nationals position players have been tasked with mop-up duty four times already this year, a single-season team record, with Dee Strange-Gordon and Ehire Adrianza preceding a pair of relief outings by Alcides Escobar. Escobar has as many pitching appearances as starts at shortstop since being reinstated from the injured list in late June.

“It’s all about saving an arm for your bullpen, right?” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said last week. “Honestly, I really don’t like doing it. I really don’t. But sometimes you got to think about the next day or the next two days and try to save that one arm, just in case something happens.”

Martinez, who said his biggest worry about having position players pitch is that they’ll get injured, made two pitching appearances during his 16-year playing career as an outfielder and first baseman. The first came with the Montreal Expos on July 20, 1990, in a 12-6 loss at Houston. Martinez retired Javier Ortiz on a flyball to left and blew two 87 mph fastballs by pinch-hitter Terry Puhl before allowing two runs on two hits and a pair of walks. Infielder Junior Noboa relieved Martinez and recorded the final two outs of the inning.

Afterward, Martinez was the talk of the Astros’ clubhouse.

“Martinez will be ready to go tomorrow,” Astros reliever Larry Andersen said when asked if Montreal’s bullpen had been exposed. “Damn, that kid was pumping. I wish I had his fastball.”

“I was going to throw as hard as I could and see what happens,” Martinez recalled last week. “It wasn’t hard enough, obviously.”

On Aug. 4, 1995, Martinez was called upon to pitch by Chicago White Sox interim manager Joe Nossek in a blowout loss at Cleveland. Nossek was filling in for Terry Bevington, who was serving the final game of a four-game suspension for fighting Milwaukee Brewers manager Phil Garner.

“I just wanted to hurry up, get three outs and come back in the dugout,” said Martinez, who walked two, but didn’t allow a hit in a scoreless eighth inning. “I pitched in high school and was pretty good, if I do say so myself. It’s tough to have fun when you’re down 10 runs, but this was fun.”

Bevington returned from his suspension the next day and defended Nossek’s decision to use Martinez.

“That’s something that happens one inning a year,” he said. “Joe was doing what was best for the team. He was not thinking from a media standpoint — what it’s going to appear like on the talk shows.”

Bevington wasn’t exaggerating about the rarity of position players pitching; Martinez’s outing was one of two by a non-pitcher during the 1995 season.

One of the first instances of a position player pitching in D.C.’s baseball history came in the second game of the Washington Senators’ doubleheader against the New York Highlanders on Aug. 31, 1906. After losing the first game 7-5, Washington dropped the nightcap 20-5, with outfielder Joe Stanley pitching the final three innings of the shortened game. Reporters had a laugh at the Senators’ expense.

“It was one of the most remarkable base ball matinees in the history of the local diamond,” the Washington Evening Star reported. “The opening contest was as stubborn a fight as one often sees; the second was something worse than a bad joke. Nothing less than criminal was the fashion in which those Highland boys pounded three Capitoline twirlers all over the suburbs.”

Umpire Francis “Silk” O’Loughlin “called the farce off” after six innings, the Evening Star reported, and “it was not on account of darkness, as he officially announced despite ample light for at least another inning, but because everybody was calling him and dinners were growing cold.”

The final game of the Senators’ 1913 season, a 10-9 win over Boston on Oct. 4, was even more ridiculous. With his team leading 10-3, Washington’s 43-year-old manager, Clark Griffith, made his only appearance of the year and pitched a scoreless eighth inning. It took three Washington position players to record the final three outs, but not before the Red Sox scored six runs, including two charged to ace Walter Johnson — the only actual pitcher to toe the rubber for the Senators in the ninth.

“From beginning to end this contest was a joke,” The Washington Post’s Stanley T. Milliken wrote, “but it served to amuse the crowd more than any other engagement staged here this year. … It was a nine-inning farce. That is the best way to express it.”

“The performance was probably the most farcical of the National game that was ever staged,” the Boston Globe reported after utility man Germany Schaefer, catcher Eddie Ainsmith and third baseman Joe Gedeon took the mound for Washington.

Several other non-pitchers made appearances for the original Washington Senators over the next 47 years, including Junior Wooten, Bobby Kline and Julio Bécquer. The expansion Senators didn’t have a single position player pitch during their 11 seasons in D.C.; the team the Senators became in 1972, the Texas Rangers, didn’t send a position player to the mound until Aug. 31, 1988.

“At least the fans got excited about something,” then-Rangers manager Bobby Valentine said after shortstop Jeff Kunkel received a standing ovation from the remaining crowd before and after throwing a scoreless ninth inning in a 10-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins.

The Rangers have had 22 additional such outings since then; the next one doesn’t figure to be as exciting — or funny — as the first.

Jesse Dougherty contributed to this report.

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