Descalso and Avila Hurl Their Way into Weird History

Even in these days of bloated, 13-man pitching staffs, it’s not uncommon for a position player to take the mound. With the season roughly halfway done, there have been 29 outings by position players* thus far — not including two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani, who’s in a class by himself — which means we’re almost certain to see what, at the very least, is an expansion-era record (more on which momentarily). Despite that increasing commonality, Wednesday night brought a rarity that’s worth appreciating — a few of them, in fact — in the Rockies’ 19-2 trouncing of the Diamondbacks (box).

Yes, it was a game at Coors Field, where wackiness reigns thanks to the high altitude, and unfortunately, the circumstances were triggered by an injury. Diamondbacks starter Shelby Miller, making just his fourth major-league start since returning from Tommy John surgery, was lit up for five first-inning runs via two walks and four hits, the most important coming in the form of an Ian Desmond homer.

Though he completed the inning, Miller needed 37 pitches — a bit extreme given his recent injury, but take it up with manager Torey Lovullo — and began feeling elbow tightness by the end of his abbreviated stint. Reliever Jorge De La Rosa, who knows all about the horrors of Coors Field as he spent nine freakin’ years (2008-16) calling it home, came on in relief and allowed four runs in the second inning and three in the third via homers by Charlie Blackmon and Carlos Gonzalez. He got the hook with two outs and the Diamondbacks trailing 12-1. While T.J. Mcfarland got the final out of the third, Lovullo pulled him due to stiffness in his neck, and then Yoshihisa Hirano allowed four straight hits and three runs after retiring Desmond to start the fourth.

At that point, Lovullo effectively said, “To hell with this,” and called upon second baseman Daniel Descalso — who had already pitched four times in his nine-year major-league career, including May 4 of this year against the Astros — to take the hill, with Chris Owings coming off the bench to play second base. It didn’t go well at first, Nolan Arenado greeting Descalso with an RBI single and then Gonzalez following with a three-run homer, bringing the score to 18-1. Fortunately, Descalso settled down and wore it like a champ, lasting 2.2 innings and 36 pitches and retiring eight of the next 11 batters he faced, with the only run in that span arriving via a solo homer by pitcher German Marquez.

Already, there’s a hell of a lot going on that’s worth dissecting, but wait, there’s more! When Descalso was spent, he moved to first base, while Alex Avila, who had caught the first five innings before taking over for Paul Goldschmidt at first, took the hill for his major-league pitching debut. Though Desmond greeted him with a single, he fared better than Descalso, tossing two scoreless frames by retiring the next six hitters. He even struck out at the plate against Bryan Shaw to end the whole debacle.

Now, let us start with the inventory of weirdness…

According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, Descalso’s outing was the longest by a position player since May 14, 1988, when Cardinals utilityman Jose Oquendo (who was on the St. Louis coaching staff during Descalso’s 2010-2014 tenure there) threw the final four innings of a 19-inning marathon loss to the Braves. In the past 50 seasons — since 1969, the start of the division-play era — there have been just eight instances of a position player throwing more than two innings (excluding those by Ohtani and converts such as Rick Ankiel, Brooks Kieschnick, and Jason Lane):

Longest Position-Player Pitching Outings Since 1969
Player Date Tm Opp Rslt IP H R BB SO HR
Jose Oquendo 5/14/88 STL ATL L 5-7 4.0 4 2 6 1 0
Craig Kusick 8/25/79 TOR CAL L 2-24 3.2 3 2 0 0 1
Sal Bando 8/29/79 MIL KCR L 8-18 3.0 3 2 0 0 0
Manny Castillo 6/26/83 SEA TOR L 7-19 2.2 8 7 3 2 3
Daniel Descalso 7/11/18 ARI COL L 2-19 2.2 4 3 1 1 2
Elrod Hendricks 6/26/78 BAL TOR L 10-24 2.1 1 0 1 0 0
Wayne Gross 5/18/83 OAK MIN L 5-16 2.1 2 0 1 0 0
Jim Morrison 6/28/88 ATL SFG L 7-13 2.1 3 0 1 1 0
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Beyond that, Descalso’s entry into the game was the earliest by a position player since August 29, 1979, when Brewers’ third baseman Sal Bando took over after pitchers Reggie Cleveland and Paul Mitchell failed to retire any of the first six Royals to bat in the fourth inning. Bando lasted three innings, and was followed by fellow position players Jim Gantner and Buck Martinez, who each threw an inning apiece, which (I think) also makes the Brewers the last team to use position players for more outs than their actual pitchers.

(I have a fond memory of “The Bando Game,” or at least its existence. As a nine-year-old who used to pore over the morning box scores until my elbows were blackened with newsprint, I was quizzed by my father, who asked if I’d noticed anything unusual about who pitched for the Brewers that day.)

Since neither Gantner nor Martinez threw more than an inning, one has to go back to July 31, 1956 to find a case where a team used multiple position players for two innings or longer. On that day, the Pirates used twin brothers Johnny O’Brien and Eddie O’Brien, both infielders who dabbled on the mound, for two innings apiece in a 7-0 loss to the Cardinals. Johnny was making his fourth of eight pitching appearances that year and 25 in his career, while it was the first of Eddie’s five major league appearances.

(Eddie O’Brien later gained greater infamy as the nitpicking bullpen coach of the 1969 Seattle Pilots, immortalized by Jim Bouton in Ball Four. Bouton nicknamed him “Mr. Small Stuff” and called him, “a gold-plated pain in the ass” for complaining about such minutiae as players not wearing hats, players wearing sunglasses, the eating of sunflower seeds in the bullpen, and the dwindling inventory of baseballs.)

Via Elias, when Descalso served up the homer to Marquez (a 447-footer, long but not as long as teammate Jon Gray’s 467-footer last year), it was the first time a pitcher homered off a position player since June 23, 1986, when Giants pitcher Mike LaCoss went yard off the Padres’ Dane Iorg.

With five pitching appearances now under his belt, Descalso trails only Chris Gimenez (10) and Drew Butera (six) among active position players by that measure. Gimenez was just outrighted to Triple-A Iowa by the Cubs, while Butera is currently the Royals’ backup backstop. Christian Bethancourt, whom the Padres tried to convert from catcher in 2016-2017, also has six pitching appearances. He made four with the Padres last year and 34 with their Triple-A El Paso affiliate but was knocked around in both (14.73 ERA for San Diego, 8.21 for El Paso) to the point that they abandoned the experiment. This year, he’s back to catching for the Brewers’ Triple-A Colorado Springs affiliate.

As for the league-wide record of position players pitching, last year, there were a total of 36 such appearances — or 32, if you don’t count those by Bethancourt, who in addition to his four outings made five pinch-hit appearances and a cameo at second base (sometimes more than one role in a game). According to Jeff Sullivan, who for last year’s deep dive already took the trouble to weed out position-player-to-pitcher converts such as Ankiel, Kieschnick, and Lane, the previous high in a season, at least since 1967, was 27 in 2016, which at the very least appears to be an expansion-era (post-1960) record. The more you know…

* The original count in the Play Index and this article was 30, but one, that of the Reds’ Zack Weiss, who was making his MLB debut on April 12 and did not retire a hitter, was erroneously included.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Some other fun facts (copied from my comment on another post):

Dbacks “pitchers” ended up throwing three scoreless innings out of 8 IP in that game, all of which were by position players: Daniel Descalso (1) and Alex Avila (2).

Alex Avila now has more pitching fWAR (greater than 0 but less than 1) than hitting fWAR (-0.1).

Before that game, the Dbacks bullpen led the MLB in ERA (2.49). After 14 ER in 7 IP, they now have a 2.82 ERA, which is 4th in the MLB.

The Dbacks are the first time since 1979 to have a position player pitching by the 4th inning.