Ten years ago last week, Tony Peña, Jr. headed to the mound for the ninth inning of a game between the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals. The Tigers were winning, 19-4, and Peña’s Royals were about to slip into last place as a result. It was getting late on a Monday night, and what had been a sparse crowd to begin with was now more “sparse” than “crowd.” There was nothing to make the final inning of this game seem even remotely appealing. Or at least, nothing except for Peña, a shortstop making his first and only major-league pitching appearance.
Peña faced three batters and sat them all down, touching 90 mph and even striking out Iván Rodríguez. It made the final inning of the game remotely appealing, and then some. It was fun! It was weird, and it was silly, and, perhaps most crucial—it was unusual, a sign of a game gone really and truly off the rails. Peña was one of just three position players who threw so much as one pitch that season.
With that in mind, return to this week. Three position players pitched on Monday, two of them for the same team and none in an extra-inning game with an otherwise empty bullpen. What was an entire year’s worth of position players on the mound a decade ago is now the action of a single night. It’s a movement that’s been building for several seasons now, but this year, it’s reached a new level. In 2017, MLB saw a record number of position players’ pitching appearances, and the league isn’t just on track to break that record this season—they’ve already broken it, scarcely halfway through the year. The record set last year was 32. This year? There have already been 42, and it’s not even August. (Check out this graph from Mike Axisa at CBS Sports for some more context on just how the number went from 2008’s three to 2018’s 42 and counting.)
From a surface-level read of roster construction trends, this increase might seem a tad strange. After all, bullpens are bigger than ever before—running out of relievers nowadays should be practically, if not totally, impossible. But teams aren’t pitching more position players because they’re running out of other options. They’re pitching more position players because this is another option, in a way that it previously wasn’t thought to be. This is no longer a quirk. It’s a strategy.
It isn’t hard to see the line of thought behind this approach. Yes, teams carry more bullpen arms than ever before, but that’s because they’re used more frequently—and, in turn, valued more highly—than ever before. Why burn a reliever (or worse, relievers) in a game that your team has almost no chance of winning? As the game zeroes in on the concept of perfectly optimized bullpen management, there’s no hotter commodity than choice: a manager with enough options in front of him to arrange for the perfect match-up, batter by batter. In theory, those choices are built on using the best pitcher for the situation rather than simply the best pitcher who happens to be available. And sometimes, when the situation is bleak enough, the best pitcher for the situation might not be a pitcher at all—a choice that only functions today to create more choices for a team tomorrow.
Where, though, is the line of bleakness that a situation must cross to merit a position player on the mound? As recently as a decade ago, that line seemed pretty clear. A team had to be losing in the ninth inning by double-digits, or find themselves in an extra-inning game with no other practical choices left. The line was a symbolic last resort, deep in a place of no return. But the perspectives and incentives have shifted here, and a team no longer has to wait for what feels like a point of no return so much as a point of statistically unlikely return. That principle was on full display earlier this week, with two of the three position players who pitched on Monday. Down 7-1 in the eighth inning, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon chose to put backup catcher Victor Caratini on the mound. In the ninth, he swapped him out for Anthony Rizzo. There was something striking about the clear admission of defeat here, throwing in the proverbial towel when down by just six before the ninth inning had even rolled around. And yet—it made perfect sense! After playing five games in the last four days, the bullpen was gassed. The Cubs’ win probability was less than 2%. The most economical option was, by far, to give up as quickly as possible while minimizing any potential further bullpen damage, and so that’s exactly what they did.
• GALLERY: So what’s actually going on in the bullpen other than relievers warming up?
It’s this, maybe, that is the most crucial indicator of the change in position players pitching: that it’s discussed with the terms “logical” and “economical” and “minimizing damage.” The discussion is all well and good. This is a sensible strategy, and managers have clearly found value here. But it’s a markedly different discussion from what it was just a few years ago, when the only focus was how fun this could be. There’s nothing inherently amusing here, in the janky curve of a guy who hasn’t been on a mound since high school or the 70 mph fastball of a backup catcher. But there was something very amusing in how it would all unfold—in a game that had brought such tremendous offense, such a brutally exhausting beating, that there was no choice but for everyone to get weird. That weirdness came from the fact that it was rare, certainly, but also from the fact that it was fundamentally ridiculous. It was losing deliberately, an idea that felt absurd enough to be a little fun.
A position player pitching is no longer rare, and no longer weird. It’s not absurd; it is, in fact, the exact opposite of that. The space still exists for it to be fun—so long as it’s primarily smart.