You may have seen mention of it. Considering it happened during a game between two of the worst teams in baseball, you’ll be forgiven if you hadn’t.
The Houston Astros visited the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday. The Astros came out strong, getting two runs in each of the first two innings. They wouldn’t score any more. The Diamondbacks would, however. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Houston was leading 4-3. Lefty Tony Sipp was coming off a fairly effective seventh inning and was brought out again to face Arizona’s three best hitters. Well, sort of. Here’s how the eighth inning played out:
Sipp got by Parra, but manager Bo Porter wasn’t comfortable with him facing Paul Goldschmidt. And rightfully so, as Goldschmidt has a 163 wRC+ against lefties this season. But instead of sending his reliever to the dugout, Porter moved Sipp to left field.
Sipp did this first:
Then it hit him:
Sipp was removed for Kyle Farnsworth. The bullpen held the rest of the game, and the Astros won.
It’s a little unfair to call this an “National League move,” since there wasn’t even a double switch. This move would have cost the same amount of pitchers/fielders in the junior circuit. Porter just sent his pitcher to right field for one batter and crossed his fingers, with the hopes of bringing him back. Jerome Williams screwed up the plans (as he’s wont to do), but it still worked out. It had some razzle dazzle, but in the end Porter was just looking to leverage one of his best relievers.
The Astros have two very good lefty relievers in Sipp and Darin Downs. Houston needed its bullpen quite a bit to get through the previous series with Minnesota, and Sipp had the freshest arm by one day. Sipp has been quite excellent this season. San Diego released him on May 1, but the Astros immediately snatched him up. As of now, he’s striking out 38% of the batters he faces, walking 4% and he has a 69 FIP-. Sipp, along with Downs, Chad Qualls, Josh Fields and Matt Albers are anchoring a bullpen that must seem like a godsend to Porter this season. This isn’t to say it’s a good bullpen. It’s not. It ranks second to last in ERA, seventh worst in FIP and seventh worst in WAR. But consider that last year’s Houston bullpen was literally the worst in baseball history. This season, there was no where to go but up. And Porter is trying to use his newfound kind-of-weapon to the fullest.
With some help from Jeff Zimmerman, we found 27 instances (within the Retrosheet era, since 1950) in which a pitcher was placed into a defensive position, then was moved back to pitcher. Those pitchers went to the outfield 13 times, first base seven times, third base six times and second base once. There was the time that Stan Musial pitched for the Cardinals, and another in which Jim Rittwage did a switcheroo in the fifth inning. Other than that, these events all happened in the later innings and in high-leverage situations. For example: Our old friend Davey Johnson once had Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell play musical pitcher in an extra inning game for the would-be champion New York Mets.
These things are fun to look at and fun to think about. But with the exception of the Musial shenanigans and whatever was going on with Rittwage, these are strategic moves. They are made with the hopes of winning games. It’s unorthodox — and Diamondbacks fans might boo — but if it gives the team a chance to win, it might be worth it. Bo Porter should know, he did the same thing in 2012 — though it didn’t turn out as well.
Dexter Fowler is playing above his usual level. A 24-year-old George Springer was the eighth best-hitting outfielder in baseball in May. We’ve documented how Collin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel are playing out of their minds. There’s a very good chance this Astros gravy train is going to slow down.
But Houston is 29-37. At this pace, the team would finish the season with 91 losses — 20 fewer than in 2013. Due to the fact that our playoff odds rely on pre-season projections, we have them at about a 0.5% chance of making the playoffs. But they’re 18-12 in their past 30 games, and 12-8 in their past 20. I doubt there are many dreams of the postseason for the Astros, but winning certainly feels better than losing. That’s especially true when the culture in Houston has involved losing for so long.
The 2011-2013 Astros were mostly about getting through the season. Throw some quadruple-A guys at the wall, see what sticks. Trade everything that isn’t nailed down. But now the Astros are interesting. Young talent works wonders that way. And when a team is interesting — when a team is starting to look more like a baseball team than a garbage fire — why not give it a go? Why not give the young guys a taste of what could be to come, perhaps sooner than most people thought?
Porter could have called in a gassed Downs. He could have tried his luck with Jerome Williams against Montero. He could have done a lot of things that might have worked out. But a good run is a good run. And whether it’s sustainable, when some players (and the manager) have experienced 324 losses in the previous three season, sometimes trying is OK. Good win, slap hands. Who knows, a sniff of a .500 record isn’t totally out of the question. And a .500 record would seem like a World Series sweep in Houston these days.
Print This Post