Will we see more position players pitching in 2019?
Last season saw a record amount of position players on the mound all across the big leagues. Even MLB Media’s Cut4 got to enjoy a laugh on Twitter throughout the season as the once anomaly became routine.
Will the 2019 season be the year that makes it a trend or one that establishes 2018 as a fluke?
In the past, whenever the position player entered the mound, it would be because all hell has broke loose in a game and it better to burn a right fielder’s arm throwing meatballs to get out of an inning or two at the end.
Somehow it became more prevalent regardless of a team’s place in the standings. And it would always be the utility guy who would get the call.
Charlie Culberson finally got to play for his hometown Atlanta Braves after being traded from the Los Angels Dodgers in return for Matt Kemp. He has made a name for himself as a viable fielder who can play all over the infield and outfield but who would have thought that he would be on the mound for the first time since his high school days at Rome, GA., 11 years ago.
“Being a utility guy, that’s part of the job,” said Culberson, who also mentioned that his pitching appearance was both fun and nerve racking. “I always pictured myself getting an inning.”
The year of the position player pitcher occurred around the same era of the bullpen. Relievers have seen their value shoot off the charts in recent years. Since the Kansas City Royals made it to the World Series in 2014-15 off the strength of their dominant bullpen and the Cleveland Indians postseason MVP in 2016 was a reliever that was used in various points of the game, building a stacked bullpen became paramount to success.
Another overlying trend has been the extra care teams have made towards their pitchers. These days the workhorses are now the work unicorns. Five innings is considered a job well done these days for starting pitchers. Which means relievers are seeing more time on the mound over the course of the season.
“Teams have figured out how to use a bullpen,“ Culberson said.
So in that case, whenever a game looks out of hand, one can now expect the manager to call on the backup infielder to go out and try to throw bad pitches into bad contact and get three outs rather than tax another reliever that day.
The question is will it continue into 2019? He seems to think so.
“I think if it’s gonna be more of a thing then they might get position players to work on it a little bit more,” Culberson said. “That way is it’s not as much of a joke to throw a position player out there lobbing balls across the plate. For me, I wanted to go out there and at least try, so I’m not gonna go out there and try to embarrass myself. I’m gonna go out there and try to somewhat do my best and make it not seem so bad because I’m a position player.”
Prior to 2018, possibly the most famous pitching appearance by a position player was Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Mark Grace, channeling his inner Mike Fetters and giving up David Ross’ first career home run.
Cincinnati Reds third baseman Brandon Dixon surprised everyone including himself when he entered the mound for the first time and somehow struck out Cleveland Indians All-Star third baseman Jose Ramirez in a way that had him spinning around and losing his grip of the bat.
“That game I wasn’t playing,” Dixon said, “and [Reds bench coach Pat Kelly] asked if I had any pitching experience. I was like, ‘Maybe in high school, but that’s about it.’ And he was just like, ‘Alright, just go out there and don’t get hurt, don’t try to throw hard and just try to get some outs.’ Pretty much just saved the bullpen for the rest of the series and give guys a break.
“I was just throwing soft,” he said, “as soft as I could up there and hoping to get strikes and I got three in a row. I was pretty shocked. I definitely didn’t go into that thinking I was going to strike him out.”
Could you imagine the look on Andy Lopez’s face in reaction of you telling him that one year after coaching the University of Arizona to a national championship in 2012, he would have three future MLB pitchers in his roster?
It would’ve seem like a cruel joke because like Dixon, fellow Wildcats Johnny Field and Scott Kingery all made an appearance on the mound as MLB rookies despite never pitching in college.
“I never thought I would get a chance to do that,” Kingery said. “I tried to have as much fun as possible because in that situation, I don’t think you’re trying to get strikeouts or anything.”
On August 16, Kingery and center fielder Roman Quinn came in to mop up the final three innings of a 15-4 mess at the hands of the Mets. It was like throwing slow pitch softball to beer league sluggers. But his two earned run performance was better than Quinn, who threw 70-80 mph fastballs and gave up seven runs.
“For guys who never pitched, it was kind of like throwing BP speeds,” Kingery said. “Hitters can really kind of tee off on it. So I was trying to throw under the hitter’s speed. To be honest it kind of came out slower than I thought it was going to be. I wasn’t trying to throw it that slow.”
Kingery has been on the other side of that unusual matchup and while it may seem like a gimme, it ends up being as stressful as a free throw shot.
“It’s tough because you know it’s not going to be anything you can’t hit,” Kingery said, “and you get super excited when you see it coming slow and you try to do too much and you end up popping it up or grounding out.”
It’s safe to say that 2019 will be the season that sees more progress towards two-way players, openers and position players on the mound.