The Casper Wells Experiment

Something you might not have heard from the past few days is that Micah Owings became a free agent. Owings opted out of his contract with the Washington Nationals, and the Nats granted him his release. Something you probably did hear from the last few days is that Casper Wells pitched in relief. Wells wasn’t the only recent-days position player on the mound, but Wells didn’t just pitch — Wells looked good. Or, all right, and good for an outfielder. The standards are quite a bit different, because only pitchers are trained to be pitchers.

In the ninth inning of a blowout between the White Sox and the Indians, Wells retired three of four batters. Mike Aviles popped out, Drew Stubbs walked, Asdrubal Cabrera whiffed and Jason Kipnis lined out to the track. Wells was the only White Sox pitcher who didn’t allow a hit, which isn’t to say he didn’t get a little lucky with the Kipnis drive. Still, what got people talking was Wells’ style. He threw hard, and he also mixed in an offspeed pitch with which Cabrera was neatly put away.

Let’s step back. When position players pitch, they usually aren’t chosen arbitrarily. There tends to be a reason, and with Wells, he pitched a few years in college with Towson University between 2003 and 2005. He wasn’t great, but he got experience. Wells is known to have a strong arm, and he nearly pitched for the White Sox in early June. Throw in the fact that Wells is a bench player and the ingredients were present. Wells makes sense as an emergency reliever.

And how about that arm? According to the 2011 Fan Scouting Report, Wells got a 73 rating in Arm Strength, tied with Hunter Pence and Jack Hannahan. In 2012, he came in at 69, tied with Wilin Rosario and Josh Donaldson. As an outfielder, Wells’ arm is a weapon, and now we no longer need to guess what Wells might do from the mound. Now we have actual readings, and information.

Wells apparently threw 13 fastballs. They averaged between 91 mph and 92 mph, and he topped out at 93.4 mph. It’s not unprecedented for a position player to get into the 90s, but it’s unusual, and therefore remarkable. According to Brooks Baseball, Wells averaged 91.7 mph. The average big-league reliever this year has averaged a hair more than 92 mph. If the typical differences between position players and pitchers are that position players throw softer, have worse control and have fewer pitches, Wells negated the first issue. Just by velocity, he fit in with other relievers.

Here’s what a Wells fastball looked like:

WellsPitch2.gif.opt

But Wells didn’t stop there. Here’s an offspeed pitch:

WellsPitch1.gif.opt

Here’s a better offspeed pitch, that managed to go a little bit viral shortly after the moment:

WellsPitch3.gif.opt

WellsPitch4.gif.opt

PITCHf/x makes it look like a changeup or a splitter. This screenshot makes it look a little more like a splitter:

wellssplitmaybe

It wasn’t a slider, unless Wells really messed up. In a garbage-time relief appearance, Casper Wells topped out at 93 mph and threw an interesting slower-speed alternative. He pitched well enough to strike out Asdrubal Cabrera swinging, and Cabrera owns a wRC+ well north of 100. Though anything can happen in one at bat, Wells opened some eyes and he might well pitch again down the road if needed. He enjoyed himself on Friday. Not that you ever want to end up in a situation where you need a position player to pitch, but those situations arise and Wells has proven himself capable.

Here is where we get to get experimental. Imagine a hypothetical player who is both a good hitter and a good pitcher. That player would have no trouble getting a job because bullpens are getting bigger and benches are getting smaller. Teams are prioritizing versatility. Some players are flexible because they can play around the infield or the outfield. Some players might become flexible because they can both hit and pitch. This was the Micah Owings idea, and this had been the Brooks Kieschnick idea. If we accept that teams would take a good two-way player, it follows that teams might accept a decent two-way player. There’s a point at which such a player is good enough to earn a spot.

Now take Casper Wells. Wells is 28, so he’s no longer a prospect. He’s currently a bench player on a bad team, and this past April he went from the Mariners to the Blue Jays to the Athletics to the White Sox. The market has demonstrated that it more or less views Wells as a fringe replacement-level player, good enough to pick up but not so good that he isn’t easily dumped if something else comes along. Wells is in a position where nothing’s going to be handed to him, and he’ll need to work to carve himself a longer career. He’s perfectly fine as an outfield backup, but so are a lot of guys, and many of them are in Triple-A. A lot could be riding on luck.

Wells could really stand to add to his value. A way to do that is to become more versatile. Wells’ employer would like for Wells to be more valuable. Wells just pitched for the first time in the better part of a decade, and he didn’t embarrass himself. Some of his pitches were major-league quality. You can see where this is going.

If there’s going to be a baseball future of two-way players, Wells seems to be an ideal candidate. He’s not quite good enough to play regularly, but he has a good arm and something of a pitching background. He probably knows he needs to earn a long career, and he’s seen his stock fall. If Wells were to work on his pitching, he could double as a reserve outfielder and a reserve reliever, and he could be better than just an emergency stopgap. He’d provide unusual flexibility, and while pitching carries with it certain injury risks, Wells isn’t sufficiently high-profile for that to be a deterrent. If Wells were to get hurt pitching, his team would manage, and it would just be a little bit less flexible.

Chris Davis looked good in that one relief appearance, but Davis is too valuable now to use as a pitcher. You can’t let him risk hurting his elbow or his shoulder. With Wells, you can experiment, and you’re starting from a foundation of a useful fourth outfielder who can throw in the 90s with a splitter or changeup or something he already used once to whiff a good player. No one knows quite how Wells might develop as a part-time pitcher, but it wouldn’t make him worse. What he did Friday, he did after effectively zero prep.

Given a few bullpens, Wells could work on his consistency and stamina. He could work on his approach against righties, since that might be a thing at present:

“There was one I tried throwing kind of hard and came up and in a little on Drew Stubbs. And I was like, ‘That’s the last thing I want to do is hit someone,'” Wells said. “It’s nice that I had lefties, so I don’t have to worry about yanking one.”

At first, it can be a little daunting to face same-handed hitters, because you’re worried about drilling them. They hang over the plate. That goes away with repetition, and it’s been a while since Wells repeated a pitching motion against live batters. This is one of those fundamentals that Wells could probably overcome pretty easily. Experienced pitchers improve slowly, by a little. Inexperienced pitchers improve quickly, by a lot, at first.

This is quite a bit to make of one inning of emergency relief in a blowout. But this is only in part about Casper Wells; really, there ought to be more two-way players in the game, and Wells himself is a seemingly perfect candidate. He’d be starting from two decent foundations, the flexibility would help his team, and the flexibility could also help extend his career, which now might be hanging by a thread. Teams value having more options, and players value having more job security. Though there’s no guarantee Wells could succeed, it seems like an experiment worth trying, because the results could be both exciting and helpful.

At some point, we’re probably going to see Wells pitch again. Odds are that’ll happen late in a game that’s well out of hand. But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Wells could be made into a manager’s pet. What team wouldn’t want a 26-man active roster?




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


45 Responses to “The Casper Wells Experiment”

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  1. Froglegs Jackson says:

    The problem with this idea is that Casper Wells isn’t good enough to pitch in non emergency situations. He had a 5.61 ERA at Townson St, with poor K and BB rates, especially when you consider the fact he faced low level competition.

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  2. DD says:

    A problem is that if Wells is used more frequently than once or twice a year (in a mop-up situation due to a blowout), there will be legitimate scouting done on him to prepare hitters, and his effectiveness will go downhill quickly. This will likely offset and improvement he makes on his own mechanics and repertoire.

    I thought about this 2 years ago when Wilson Valdez won an 18 inning game with the Phillies, getting out some talented Reds, including Joey Votto, with nothing but 90-91 mph fastballs with good armside run.

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    • brendan says:

      maybe you’re right. but doesn’t seem like a big risk, for him or his team, to try pitching.

      look at what sean doolitle has done for the A’s

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    • Balthazar says:

      If he can throw that offspeed pitch with regularity, It won’t matter if they do scout him. That was a major league plus offering. I’m guessing that it was a true forkball, which is held in a split grip like a splitter, but thrown at the low end of the change-up velocity range. The movement shown is exactly that of a forkball, which starts high and then just plummets down through, and usually out, of the strike zone. It went out of fashion, but several guys are throwing it now and just calling it ‘their change-up.’ Roy Halladay for one.

      Low 90s and fish-gaffer pitch? I’m thinking Caspar’s been going to the wrong station on the field for the last ten years. I’d love to see him try it. He didn’t get much of a fair shake in Seattle, but seems a decent joe.

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  3. Jason says:

    Wouldn’t such an experiment, if it were ever done, be a much more natural fit in the national league?

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  4. Marty says:

    I’m still waiting for Charlie Manuel to use Joe Savery as a pinch hitter.

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  5. Jeff says:

    This really doesn’t seem all that far-fetched; I think it is easy to forget just what kind of athletes these players are. My different (but related) pet peeve is the reaction to pitchers being used in the field. I remember in a long extra innings game a few years ago Roy Oswalt ended up playing LF for an inning or two. I remember a soft, easy pop-up was hit right to him and one of the announcers (can’t remember which) said “Oh no!” (or something to that effect) and seemed legitimately surprised that Oswalt could walk three steps, wait, and catch a baseball. Roy Oswalt was almost certainly the best defensive player in his conference in at least high school, and many of these pitchers played positions in D1 collegiate competition. I think we are much to quick to assume that these skill sets are completely mutually exclusive.

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    • _David_ says:

      Also, it’s not like pitchers don’t play defense.

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    • jruby says:

      Was very likely Chris Wheeler who said that. He’s pessimistic and has somewhat “old-school” notions at times

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    • Balthazar says:

      Why aren’t they used? Reps and rips. It takes repititions to keep things like angles on flyballs and reads off the bat in trim. Even more of an issue with infield play. It’s not that pitchers ‘can’t’ do it, but that their probability of making an error or taking a bad route is significantly higher because they’ll be rusty even if they were ever any good. And I still have in my mind the image of Carlos Hernandez sliding head first into second base and tearing his labrum, effectively ending his career when he was one of the better pitching prospects in the game. Now, that’s on base-running, but there is still the very real problem of a wall collision, leg injury especially a hamstring, &etc. Most managers wouldn’t want to risk loosing a pitcher, who is really there to pitch, for the sake of a few mediocre defensive innings, especially when they have guys on the bench (or should) who are there specifically to play those defensive innings decently.

      If a manager is having to use his pitchers in the field, he’s been given the wrong assets to deploy, and knows it.

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  6. bobabaloo says:

    i seem to remmember a royals shortstop coming in and throwing 96-97 a couple years back..can anyone confirm or deny this? just curious

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    • Wobatus says:

      Yeah. Yuni Betancourt is actually an awesome pitcher but he prefers to suck at hitting. He hates fans.

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    • BrianB says:

      Tony Pena Jr is a former Royals SS that is now pitching in AAA. He has been for a few years now. All glove SS that couldn’t make it as a hitter, but had a great arm.

      Actually reminds me of a poor man’s Andrelton Simmons, who was considered as a pitcher by several teams.

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      • Alex says:

        The Braves actually drafted Simmons with the intent of having him pitch (he was announced as a P at the time). Luckily he was able to convince them to give him a chance in the field before they forced the move on him.

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      • Wobatus says:

        Apologies for a snarky response when there was actual information to convey.

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      • AA says:

        Didn’t Pena even make the bigs?

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    • d_i says:

      I’m guessing you’re thinking of Tony Pena Jr who has since converted to a full time pitcher in the minors.

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  7. BrianB says:

    Tim Hudson. All-American CF and P at Auburn. Granted, he was the classic aluminum bat hitter, hitting 20 HR despite weighing about 155, but he was still a great hitter and defender in CF. I was at Omaha in 1997 and saw him make one of the best catches I’ve ever seen running full speed in the CF wall. His numbers as a hitter in the big leagues haven’t been that great, but he has gone deep a few times.

    He immediately comes to mind as a potential two-way guy.

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    • Dave S (the original) says:

      As a kid, I wondered why the Phillies didn’t let Rick Wise play in the field. He was one of the best hitters on the team!

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    • Rallyk says:

      I thought about Tim earlier in the year, when he was out-hitting Reed Johnson. A Heyward/Hudson platoon in RF makes a scary amount of sense.

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    • Alex says:

      Fun fact, Tim Hudson hit more HR in a single season at Auburn than Bo Jackson ever did. He also had just 1 fewer than Frank Thomas had during his best season. The aluminum bats of the mid-90’s were pretty crazy.

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  8. d_i says:

    “Davis is too valuable now to use as a pitcher”. I don’t really get this argument. I mean I do in Davis’ case, but what if there were theoretically a player of his hitting capabilities that could also pitch with say Kuroda esque abilities. Assuming he could maintain both skills, wouldn’t you maximize his utility by both having him in the lineup everyday and having a spot in the rotation? Clearly health/endurance would be the concern but I’m just speaking in theoretics here. If a player existed that was well above replacement level both with the bat and on the mound and derived his value from each equally, shouldn’t the team utilize both skills instead of forcing specialization for fear of losing the bat due to arm injury? I would love to see a non-replacement level player take this kind of role.

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    • Dave S (the original) says:

      Well… no. Because, by definition, once a player is above replacement level (at one or the other), he is de facto too valuable to use at the other position due to injury risk.

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      • Cliff says:

        That doesn’t make any sense, Dave.

        What about Babe Ruth, though? He was a great pitcher and hitter, why not send him out to the mound every fifth game? Was it just injury concern? I can understand that, but is there any evidence of that increasing injury risk?

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        • Visitor says:

          A. He was a good but really not great pitcher. He had one year of being great (And that 1916 season is a sight to behold statistically.), but otherwise really wasn’t. Was he a much better pitcher than anyone being considered for a dual role would be? Yes. But was he really great? No.

          B. By pretty much any measure, his pitching got worse three consecutive seasons before moving to the Yankees, at the same time that he was playing in the field more often. Either he was simply becoming a less effective pitcher, the need to prepare as both a position player and a pitcher made him less effective, or some combination of the two.

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        • Visitor says:

          That was meant to at least partially explain why the Yankees weren’t putting him on the mound. I don’t think I was very clear on that, sorry.

          It would be interesting if someone could do some research to find whether there is actually increased injury risk, but I don’t know how they would ever be able to do so.

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        • Spit Ball says:

          @Visitor- Babe Ruth was really a really good pitcher at the least. Like you said 1916 was his best year but 1917 was pretty darn good as well. Those were his age 21 and age 22 years. His age 20 year old season was pretty good as well. Well above what most 20 year olds give you and worthy of a number 2 starter statistically. During his age 23 and 24 seasons in 1918 1919 he really did not even want to pitch. It became increasingly difficult to get him on the mound as he just wanted to play first or left and hit. If he had not have the bat he had, he may have gone on to be a hall of fame pitcher as he had a pretty good start.

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        • AA says:

          It would have been foolish to keep Ruth pitching. When he pitched full time, they only played him in the OF part time in order to rest him up for the 3-4 man rotations of the day. Also, they didn’t have any of the more advanced surgical techniques in case he killed his arm.

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  9. No mention of Skip Schumaker, whose pitching WAR (0.0 fWAR, 0.1 rWAR) is better than his positional WAR (-0.9 for both)?

    While he doesn’t have the sexy mid-90s FB like Wells (88.3 MPH average for 2013), he does feature the occasional knuckleball.

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  10. Matt says:

    He hits like a pitcher, might as well make the change now. Let’s face facts he’s been on what 4 different teams this year? Converting to a pitcher might save his career. If I were him it’s something I would seriously consider.

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  11. Dave says:

    Obviously it was a small sample size but in 57 PA’s in 2010, Dan Haren hit .364/.375/.527/.902. He didn’t have offensive numbers like that in other seasons but he wasn’t terrible by pitching standards. They even brought him in as a pinch hitter twice, and he was 1-1 with a walk. I remember tracking his batting stats throughout the year, and being really disappointed that he got traded to the Angels, effectively ending his season as a batter.

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  12. deacondrake says:

    Very disappointed the Nats didn’t give Owings a shot with Bernadina, Moore, and Zach Duke all providing negative value… Poor management there.

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  13. Mike says:

    I always wondered why we never saw Carlos Zambrano play in the field a little bi, particularly with the Cubs. He was one of the best hitting pitchers in the game at the time, and he was a switch-hitter too.

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  14. MarinersHaveHurtMe says:

    I always thought Rick Ankiel would make an appearance in this role. He was the the High School Pitcher of the Year and Minor League Player of the year as a pitcher; hell, he struck out 194 with a 3.1 WAR in the 2000 season until he mentally bombed in the NLDS.

    Must be nice: “I can’t pitch, so I’ll play OF and have a relatively productive offensive career that totals 76 dingers and a 3.4 career WAR.”

    I would suspect the PTSD would kick in something fierce if the Mets told him to get his arm stretched out, but I’d love to see it nonetheless because, um, I have no empathy for other humans.

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