Baseball players are assigned positions. Specific positions, I mean, and they’re generally assigned well before a player makes the major leagues. A baseball player’s position is a baseball player’s job, and no baseball player’s position is “professional baseball player.” There are relief pitchers, and starting pitchers, and shortstops, and catchers, and everything. There’s specificity, and corresponding specific training. A player who is trained as a shortstop will, over time — in theory — become a better shortstop than a player who is not trained as a shortstop. That other player will be better at whatever he is, probably. There’s a reason pitchers generally aren’t good hitters, and hitters generally aren’t good pitchers. Those activities aren’t their jobs, so they don’t receive training for them.
But sometimes pitchers hit, and sometimes hitters pitch. There’s a whole league where pitchers have to hit and in so doing end up embarrassing themselves, and sometimes a position player will take the mound should desperation or utter indifference set in. These make for some valuable and interesting reference points, because we can get an idea of how players perform without training. National League position players get lots of hitting training. NL pitchers get limited hitting training. AL pitchers get practically zero hitting training. So the differences between their performances are worth it to observe. And it’s always worth observing position players on the mound. This will be our focus today.
As far as I can tell, during the 2012 regular season, position players made a dozen relief-pitching appearances. They totaled a dozen relief-pitching innings, mostly in blowouts, and occasionally, famously, not in blowouts. Here is a list of the position players who took the mound in 2012:
- Craig Gentry
- Chris Davis
- Drew Butera
- Brian Bogusevic
- Rob Johnson
- Darnell McDonald
- Jeff Mathis (twice)
- Joe Mather
- Mitch Maier
- Dewayne Wise (twice)
Let’s understand that the position players selected to pitch are presumably selected for a reason — there’s a balance between perceived pitching talent and importance to the roster. How these players perform does not tell us how the average position player would perform on the mound; it tells us how the average position player selected to pitch would perform on the mound. There’s a difference in there. But even so, these are position players and not pitchers, so they’re pretty lousy pitchers. Oftentimes, they don’t throw 90 miles per hour. Oftentimes they don’t have command, and oftentimes their secondary pitches are jokes more than they’re weapons.
Now let’s talk about the 2012 position-player pitching performance. Over those 12 innings, they combined to allow nine runs — all earned — for a 6.75 RA and a 6.75 ERA. They allowed 17 hits and two home runs, with seven walks and four strikeouts. Their small-sample BABIP was .341, and generally these are just terrible numbers. Of course. They’re below replacement-level, of course. The combined position-player pitching FIP was 6.35. An FIP above 5.00 or so is an FIP you don’t want to expose to (m)any innings.
Okay, so we could stop there, content with our small-sample data. But now we can add a fun little twist. Acknowledging that we’re dealing with pointlessly small sample sizes, it turns out that, while most major-league pitchers were better at pitching in 2012 than the position players, a very small handful was not. Even after we set a minimum of 20 innings, five pitchers this season posted not only a worse RA than the position players, but also a worse FIP. These are pitchers who were out-performed by players who are not pitchers. Not because those players were good. More because those pitchers were terrible.
The five pitchers, and their respective RAs and FIPs:
- Graham Godfrey, 7.71, 6.48
- Armando Galarraga, 7.50, 7.43
- Jonathan Sanchez, 8.35, 6.60
- Brooks Raley, 8.51, 6.88
- Zach Stewart, 10.09, 7.55
Godfrey, Galarraga, and Raley each barely surpassed the 20-innings threshold. Stewart finished close to 40 innings. Sanchez exceeded 60 innings before he was mercifully shut down. Last November, Sanchez was traded for an outfielder who would post a .906 OPS, albeit with a steroid suspension. Last July, Sanchez was traded for a starting pitcher who subsequently posted a 3.16 ERA in the AL over 14 starts. Sanchez was terrible for a while with Kansas City, then terrible for a not-while with Colorado, and then he landed on the disabled list, where he did more good than he did when he was thought to be healthy.
Sanchez is the worst, because he pitched the most. But in terms of differences in RA and FIP, Stewart is the worst, because the sum of his RA and FIP was 17.64, while the sum of the position player RA and FIP was 13.10. Stewart pitched in 20 games, starting three times, and he generated an outstanding strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.8. He also generated a less outstanding strikeout-to-home-run ratio of 1.4. Over more than 430 innings in the minors, Stewart has allowed 28 home runs. In the majors in 2012, he allowed half as many home runs in about a twelfth as many innings. In his third-to-last appearance, he allowed four dingers to the Cubs. In his penultimate appearance, he allowed two dingers to the Angels. In his final appearance, he allowed two dingers to the Orioles. Zach Stewart allowed as many home runs as Felix Hernandez. He allowed as many home runs as Alex Gordon hit. (He did not allow a home run to Alex Gordon.) (He got a groundout from Alex Gordon!)
Some position players pitched in 2012, and by and large, they were bad at it. Some pitchers pitched in 2012, and a small number of them were worse at it than the position players were. It doesn’t mean that those pitchers are truly worse pitchers than the position players. It means that, at least for a year, their performances were indistinguishable. I’d say that’s bad enough.